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The FFG Football League

May 31st, 2019

Written by: Rik

Some dull site trivia for you: the early incarnations of FFG didn’t have a dedicated sport section. Although we’d resolved to make sure we found space for a review of Puma World Football, it was buried rather incongruously among either the action or simulation titles. This was down to me more than anything else, and I distinctly remember my colleague asking if there were any other old football games worth adding. Not really, I replied, most of them haven’t aged that well and aren’t worth revisiting.

Ha! Well clearly I changed my tune on that at some point, or the second bit of it at least, given that we now have a reasonable selection of reviews spanning the 90s and 00s. And, given that football is a never-ending competition to find out not only who is the best but also to rank all of those others who are not the best, it seems appropriate to do the same with these games. So today we unveil the FFG Football League: our attempt to put all the football games we’ve reviewed into some kind of order.

Isn’t this just a thinly-disguised listicle, I hear you ask? Well, no, actually, and I’ll thank you not to be so bloody rude. Instead of working from the bottom up, spreading the list across multiple posts in order to dangle the carrot of the best games for as long as possible in an attempt to build to some kind of climax, we’re presenting a league table, starting at number 1. Just as with real football, it’s immediately obvious who will be at the top, followed by one or two surprises a bit lower down, and then a large mass of entries of roughly similar quality scrapping it out for the honour of being slightly less bad than those around them – and a meaningless final position.

So here’s how it works: football is a game of stats, and the table doesn’t lie, Gary, so rankings will in the first instance be determined by the score awarded in the original review. After that, games that achieved the same score will be ranked according to the subjective whims of FFG’s chief sports reporter, responsible for coverage of all of these games, albeit in a random and haphazard fashion, over the years. Extracts from, and links to, these dusty screeds will of course be provided.

All of the games covered thus far will be included, and this of course means two divisions, Geoff. This will also be updated as we increase our coverage, so the table is subject to change, including the possibility of relegation for those few lurking at the bottom. [Ooh – exciting! – FFG reader].

And finally, controversy and endlessly futile debate are all part of the fun of the beautiful game, Clive, so in the event that you’re one of this site’s seven readers who actually likes football, feel free to make use of our own version of a phone-in line by leaving a comment below.

The FFG Football League continued »

a Pi baked ready for you

May 22nd, 2019

Written by: Stoo

There’s a lot of interest right now in mini retro consoles. Pre-loaded with classic games, these handy devices sate our appetite for nostalgia with zero technical skills or configuration required. The latest one I’ve stumbled across, repeatedly appearing in my Facebook feed (thanks to some arcane algorithm) is the Pixel Gamer, which boasts over “9000 games” for 30+ systems.

So rather than an official recreation of a specific console (like the NES mini), we’re obviously into the realm of legally dubious 3rd party emulation boxes. I imagine there are stacks of devices like this coming out of China, but the people behind this one appear to be based in the Netherlands.

Looking at the Game List, we have all the big name consoles and handhelds from the 8 and 16 bit eras. Also the N64, Playstation and MAME. Home computers are represented with the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Amiga. No Spectrum, which slightly surprises me as I thought it was known in Europe? No MS DOS either, boo.

Regular price tag is 225 euros, which seems rather steep. Yeah it has a billion games. How many of them are you going to find time to play? However it’s currently on sale for a more reasonable 125, and for all I know this is one of those situations where the full price is never actually applied.

Anyway from the layout of the USB ports I immediately guessed what hardware this is based on, and digging into the website confirmed my suspicions: it’s a Raspberry Pi. That’s the tiny linux computer, conceived as an educational tool and beloved by hobbyists due to its size, low price tag and myriad potential uses.

So you might ask, why not just get a Pi and set it up for retro gaming yourself? A regular Pi costs just £35. Furthermore you don’t need to get deep into the inner workings of linux, or install multiple software packages. You can get Retropi which combines a graphical front end with numerous emulators all in one package.

We might counter, you still have to go trawling dodgy websites to find the roms. Also even with Retropi, I imagine a bit of tinkering is still inevitable. (the one time I tried, admittedly several years back, I couldn’t get any audio output). Some folks simply don’t want to get involved with that, and prefer a totally plug-and-play option.

So basically, do you want to triple the cost to have someone set up a Pi for you? I’m not tempted myself; I have mini Nintendos for authenticity and convenience, since those are the systems of most interest to me (apart from PC gaming of course). Also I have Pi for a technical project, ready to turn into a living room dosbox device. Still I guess if you want access to a wealth of old games at the touch of a button, this could be a justifiable purchase.

Erm, except just to reiterate the “legally dubious” bit. Aren’t Nintendo fairly keen about protecting their intellectual properties these days? So if this appeals maybe grab one before the lawyers get to it.

Review: Grand Theft Auto IIII

May 12th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Hello and welcome.

Some years have passed since we last covered Grand Theft Auto on this site. Today we have a write-up of the third instalment in the series – hope you like it.

Review: FIFA 2000

April 23rd, 2019

Written by: Rik

Hello there.

We’re going back to the 90s for some football action today, with a review of FIFA 2000.

Need for Speed: A brief history

April 13th, 2019

Written by: Rik

After publishing yet another Need for Speed review (2011’s The Run, the 12th NFS game we’ve covered), my friend and colleague had a suggestion: some kind of series overview might be useful.

Given that the NFS brand has lent itself to a few different types of racing game over the years, with useful identifiers like numbers abandoned fairly early on in favour of more opaque naming practices like reusing the exact same titles, it seems like a worthwhile exercise.

So here’s a brief rundown. The timespan is of NFS titles already covered on FFG, and only games that could be one day eligible for review, i.e. released on PC, will be featured. In other words, we will briefly look at any missing entries thus far, but won’t go beyond The Run for now. (Oh, and while we’re at it, 2010’s now-defunct online-only Need for Speed: World has also been skipped).

Links to write-ups will be provided along the way, so you can rejoice both in some dusty old opinions and our habit of covering games from a series in a rather haphazard order.

The Need for Speed

Released: 1995
Review date: April 2004
Review score: 5
What we said: “On more tricky courses the cars’ handling seems too woolly and unresponsive, and twisty sections of track are difficult to navigate without that invisible wall coming into play. However, despite this, NFS still entertains. The thrill of the road race remains: there is a great sense of speed, facilitated by some very straight sections of road that really let you put your foot down.”

The Need for Speed was originally a 3DO exclusive, but like many of the better games on that system, once it died a death, ports to the PC or PlayStation soon followed. TNFS was what fans of the Test Drive series wanted next: fast cars on real roads with some properly good 3D graphics. (It also provided what developers thought CD-ROM owners of the time wanted: lots of unnecessary video clips of cars driving in slow motion while some widdly guitar music plays over the top.)

The game was great to look at, with some stunning scenery, while the chases contained an element of cat-and-mouse that was never really a feature of later instalments: alerted to a police presence by the bleeps of your radar detector, you could try and slow down to avoid any trouble. And if a pursuit was initiated, it would come to an end as soon as the cop car got past you, which added some extra tension.

On the other hand, the stodgy handling and solid invisible walls surrounding the tarmac ultimately undermined the feeling of open road freedom that it was striving for. And indeed, only 3 of the 6 available courses actually are on roads with civilian traffic – the others are closed circuits.

A special edition, featuring additional tracks and Windows 95 support, followed in 1996.
Need for Speed: A brief history continued »

Blizzard rejuvenate their orcs and demons

March 18th, 2019

Written by: Stoo

A few pieces of belated Blizzard-related news came to my attention recently. Let’s start with the item that everyone else has known for months: they are working on a new, comprehensively updated release of Warcraft 3.

For the hoooorde! Pic plundered from blizzard.

This has me quite excited, ready to lead armies of orcs and trolls once again. WC3 features some excellent story driven campaigns, set in a richly detailed fantasy world. If you’re a World of Warcraft fan but never played the realtime strategy games that preceeded it, this basically establishes the state of Azeroth as we saw it when WoW first launched. So we see the tragedy of Arthas, the noble paladin who’s desire for vengeance drove him irrevocably into darkness. Then there’s Thrall, the idealistic young orc leader thrall trying to find a better life for his people away from demonic corruption. You’ll also see the awakening of the night elves, after centuries of seclusion.

The main characters all appear in games has “hero” units that grow more powerful as they gain experience. This adds a slightly RPG-style aspect. Armies are relatively small compared to some other RTS games; if I remember right it’s rare to have more than 25-30 units total in a map. So it’s more about the Hero and their personal warband than a huge legion. That doesn’t mean battles are necessarily simple though, as there’s a lot of micromanaging of some units with special powers, an area where skilled players can gain an edge. Druids turn into animals, necromancers raise skeletons, priests cast healing spells and so on.

There’s quite a variety of missions, so it’s not all just about building a base, smashing enemy base and repeating. You may have to rescue beleaguered allies, or fight off repeated waves of enemies for a certain amount of time. Sometime you get “task force” type missions with more of a focus on keeping limited number of units standing.

That’s the hasty summary, anyway. It’s one of my favourite RTS games, and strongly recommended. Looking to this remake, titled “Reforged”, the screenshots all look quite promising. Units are now made of more than about seven polygons, but they’ve kept the bold, and stylised aesthetics we associate with Warcraft. It wouldn’t feel right without cute little pine trees (all about to be razed in the pursuit of resources) and bright blue slate roofs on the alliance buildings.

Other improvements include re balancing of units, and modern multiplayer features. I completely don’t care about the latter feature, but then I am more solitary than a lot of gamers. A few years back I did actually try WC3 multiplayer, battling alongside a friend, against random internet people. We lost… a lot.

One grumble: I noticed a line on the blizzard website about “internet connection required to play.” I’m hoping for some sort of offline option after installation\checking in with blizzard servers, because I’m old fashioned like that. I don’t see why any game’s single player content should require an internet connection.

The Reforged edition is due sometime in 2019 – a bit vague, but the game is already nearly 17 years old, so we can wait a bit longer.

Now onto news that’s only a couple of weeks old: Diablo 1 has been released on gog.com. This is the classic action-RPG’s first ever appearance on digital distribution. I’m a little surprised that Blizz don’t want to handle it themselves on their battle.net service; but I’m happy to see gog get the job.

If you’re more familiar with the latter two entries, and their frantic action against hordes of enemies, you’ll probably find this one rather different in style. You’re still hacking down plenty of goatmen with your sword, but it’s all a bit more a slow and cautious affair. Well okay, partially because your guy can’t actually run.

Also though, Diablo has an ominous, doom-laden atmosphere to it that was kind of lost in the sequels. The entire game is based around exploring one enormous set of crypts and catacombs, under a church. There’s a real sense of descending into somewhere dark and terrible, deep beneath the surface, wherein unspeakable horrors dwell. A place where stygian labyrinths eventually lead to hell itself, a realm of pure terror and malevolence.

In later games you go to hell again, sure, and they’re more epic in scope with wold-spanning adventures. Yet you’re never quite so wary of descending into the shadows. There’s not that feeling of creeping horror permeating every element.

I suppose those things are subjective. A more concrete difference is in developing your hero as they gain levels. Action-rpgs have come to mean endlessly fussing over character builds, pouring over forum threads looking for a killer combination of skills and bonuses. None of that applies here. Everyone has access to the same set of spells, which are either bought in town or randomly found in the dungeons. The warrior sucks at them anyway.

I imagine some gamers will find such a basic system off-putting; but perhaps its kind of a relief to not have such total focus on finding ideal synergies of skills. Another familiar rpg mechanic is still present though – endless hunt for ever better loot (+2 sword of extra chopping etc).

The gog release gives you a couple of choices – you can if you wish have the original, untouched version of the game. That means SVGA graphics and connecting to the ye olde version of Battle.net for multiplayer (amazing that Bizzard have kept their servers going all these years). Or there’s an enhanced edition with bug fixes and high-res graphics, although you only get multiplayer via LAN or P2P.

I’m not sure which I’d prefer – the original is murky as hell; in fact when I last played I found myself squinting at the screen trying to pick out monsters from the background. Yet in some ways that actually suits the environments in which the game is set, with various vicious creatures shambling at you out of an oppressive gloom. It’s good to be given a choice, anyway.

Blizzard have stated there are more re-releases on the horizon. Going back to Warcraft, the first two RTS games are due to appear on gog at some point . Presumably these will also have their graphics sharpened up for modern monitors. Just in my opinion, the first game would benefit from its rather clunky controls being upgraded to match those used in Warcraft 2.

That would leave Diablo 2 as the only major game, pre about 2003, for which there has been no mention of an update or re-release. (yeah I hear you, nerd at the back shouting “what about Lost Vikings”). Given all the other remakes, though, seems inevitable it’ll happen sooner or later. For now you can buy the game on battle.net, and multiplayer servers are of course still online.

This means that all the Warcraft, Diablo and starcraft games can now be purchased, one way or another. So here at this humble site, we salute blizzard for their commitment to supporting and updating their classic games.

Review: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream

March 16th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

For today’s review we have a dark point and click adventure with some literary roots: I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.

Vault of Regret: Retro Collections

March 10th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Over Christmas I decided to take a punt on the PlayStation Classic. This isn’t a review of that, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. Here’s what I did when it arrived: I unboxed it and plugged it in, played each of the games I vaguely remembered for about 10-15 minutes each (confirming along the way that, yes, the introduction to Resident Evil does still make me laugh but unfortunately I also still die about 10 minutes later) before stopping and putting everything away again. It was no fault of the system itself – although I know it’s had some stinky reviews – because it’s a process I’ve been through many times before.

Getting a load of games at once has always been a bit of a personal weak spot, going right back to the old compilation packs on the Amstrad CPC. Memorable collections include Durell’s The Big 4 (Turbo Esprit, Saboteur, Critical Mass and Combat Lynx); The Hit Squad’s They Sold A Million (Beach Head, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, Jet Set Willy and Sabre Wulf); The In Crowd (a collection of 8 games including Crazy Cars, Combat School, Barbarian and Target Renegade) and The Magnificent Seven (also – bizarrely – a collection of 8 games, including Wizball, Head Over Heels and Arkanoid) from Ocean.

I don’t readily recall it being as much of a fashion in the 16-bit era, although my Atari ST did come bundled with what was known as the ‘Power Pack’ – a collection of 20 games, many of them arcade ports including the likes of After Burner, Outrun and Double Dragon (which all looked great in stills but generally failed to live up to the mark when you played them). And since then I’ve rarely been able to resist a collection, compilation or bundle – from the old 3 for £10 deals on boxed budget games, through to the set-your-own-price digital bundles of the modern era.

The so-called “retro collection” is a slightly different beast, particularly if it affords you the opportunity to experience games from systems that you didn’t own back in the day. The temptation to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, you probably do have time to catch up on 30 or so Megadrive games, or even finally get past the first couple of levels of Sonic the Hedgehog, at least, proves difficult to resist.

For those of us who did secretly (or not so secretly) covet a console in the 16-bit era, there came a point when it seemed that it was probably just not meant to be, and over time we learned to love the systems we had, becoming influenced by the types of games that those systems did well and falling out of touch with the ones it didn’t. I’m never going to play Sonic or Mario now, and if I did, I’d probably be rubbish at them. And why were there so many platform games anyway?

Worse still is viewing a collection as an opportunity to revisit titles that you actually did play but didn’t like at the time. One particular pack that I bought for the PSP, EA Replay, featured the likes of Wing Commander (if I didn’t like the PC original with full use of mouse and keyboard, an emulated version of the SNES version with limited controls would be sure to impress) and Desert Strike (technically impressive on my Atari Lynx in the 90s but also, I found, rather repetitive, fiddly and annoying). That’s some solid holiday entertainment right there…or, on second thoughts, maybe I will lie outside in the sun with a book.

And if console games are a bit too hard for us slow-witted computer dunces, then we’re destined to have no chance with collections based on arcade games that revolve around getting some more money out of the player. I guess that could be counterbalanced by those emulated collections allowing you to press a button to insert a coin rather than demanding actual money, but then you wonder what exactly about the experience rings true in that case.

As a kid in the 80s, it would have been great to have infinite coins, but it would have been even better to actually be good at the game. Now, many years later, you could get better, if only you had the time to practice. But you probably wouldn’t, and you definitely don’t.

Excitement about acquiring something and getting it up and running often trumps the reality of playing it in any meaningful way, and honest retro gamers will be familiar with this feeling. My own memories take me back to the shadiest days of abandonware and emulation, where the prospect of getting some free entertainment drove a desire to stockpile downloads and ROMs, much to the consternation of my family as dial-up both cost money and tied up the phone line.

What started as a desire to play International Superstar Soccer without actually owning a SNES soon became a drive to collect anything which might be vaguely of interest. When it came to trying to play them, the performance of the emulator on my machine and imprecise mapping of controls from the SNES joypad to the MS Sidewinder didn’t exactly replicate the experience as I’d wanted, although I wonder now if it’d really have been any different if I’d had the actual console.

Without that spark of interest that drives acquisition of old games, of course, we wouldn’t be here at all. There will always be games we buy but don’t enjoy. And perhaps I will soon fire up the PS Classic and play Resident Evil from start to finish. But in future perhaps it’s worth exercising more caution regarding repackaged collections of emulated 16-bit platform and fighting games. (No, Rik, you won’t play them on holiday, go swimming instead).

Review: Need for Speed: The Run

March 9th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Sorry for the radio silence over the last few weeks: I’ve had a few pieces lying around in a nearly-finished state for a while, but other things have been getting in the way.

So, what’s more boring than someone making excuses for not updating their website? How about 2500 words or so on a Need for Speed game that most people agree is Quite Bad?

Hey, but is it though? Is it really? Find out in our review of Need for Speed: The Run.

Moments in Gaming: The Laa Laa Goal

February 7th, 2019

Written by: Rik

Let’s journey back to a weekend evening, sometime in 1998 (or possibly 1999), when a handful of cool dudes are doing what all 17 year-olds should be doing on a Friday or Saturday night: huddling around a beige PC playing computer games.

Unusually, virtual football is on the menu, with a shared love of Ubisoft’s largely-unheralded Puma World Football ’98 somehow overcoming general antipathy towards sport and cultivating an enthusiasm for multiplayer sessions such as this, which have become a regular occurrence.

Tonight, a round-robin with four human players in the room is a special occasion, accorded extra prestige by the acquisition of MS Sidewinder joypads that can be daisy-chained together, finally putting the expensive beige box on a par, of sorts, with those new-fangled games consoles by extending to both players the right to identical controllers.

To round off the general nerdiness of the event, the tournament has been subject to considerable advance planning, with details of custom team names and players requested and submitted in advance in order for the host and organiser to input them into the game’s editor. And so, rather than the line-ups of top European clubs facing off against each other, the participating teams have ludicrous names, with squads largely made up of comic book heroes, 80s and 90s celebrities and heavy metal band members.

And so, during a match between *ahem* Pedro’s Deathitubbies and Spurs Reserves (some teams were named more imaginatively than others), a careless ball forward from Spurs defender Magneto is chested down in the centre circle by the Deathitubbies’ Laa Laa and punted aimlessly towards the stands. Mid-flight, it somehow curves in the air without losing much speed and ends up swirling towards the goal and into the net beyond the despairing dive of the ‘keeper.

It was a fluke, unrepeatable and inexplicable. We did have a theory that the game’s AI goalkeepers – though alive to, and capable of repelling, the most thunderous of shots at close range – were susceptible to slower, more loopy efforts, which were most easily effected by manipulating a player’s shooting ability downwards in the aforementioned editor. But the huge curl on the ball while airborne was a complete mystery. In the moment, there was laughter – and presumably some rage on the part of the player on the receiving end – and a replay was saved for posterity.

Over time, the finer details of the match, the tournament, the players involved and, as acknowledged above, even a rough date of the events in question have all faded away. Without the video, would this moment be a memorable one? Perhaps – as a semi-apocryphal tale that became more ludicrous with each retelling, maybe, or just a dim and dusty vision of something quite funny that happened once. Or it may well have been forgotten altogether.

The goal does live on though. In raking through our murky history for tales of our early adventures with video, it became apparent to me how odd it is for this clip even to exist, through a historical transfer of save and replay files from PC to PC and one day making a decision for some reason to fashion a silent clip from still images of a game, in a pre-YouTube age, to be watched by virtually no-one.

Strangest of all is to realise that this blurry 9-second video replays events that took place in real life a long time ago. It’s the gaming equivalent of an old photograph, bringing nostalgic memories rushing back while simultaneously reminding you just how much time – 20 years (!) – has passed.

Not quite as unbelievable (to use an appropriate phrase) as the goal itself, but close.