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Mini consoles, and old debates

April 16th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

In the past couple of years Nintendo have successfully released miniaturised versions of both the NES and SNES. They’re little emulation boxes that come pre-loaded with games, shaped to resemble the original console. Aimed at the casual Nostalgic 30\40 something, you just plug them into your TV and start playing, with a minimum of fuss. Perfect for when you only have 30 minutes gaming time in your average evening.

The idea is catching on and a few other mini-machines have either been released or are on the way.

We recently saw a C64 mini, and at the risk of losing all my retro-gaming cred I wish I had more to say about it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually played on a real C64. From what I’ve heard the problems with this device are:

1: the keyboard doesn’t actually do anything
2: its missing some of the most popular games
3: the joystick sucks. Personally I think gamepads were more usable than those 80s joysticks anyway, but apparently this one is extra bad.

Also though, it was inevitable that Sega would want a piece of this market. So they have recently announced a miniature Megadrive\Genesis. Games onboard are unknown, but it’s due out this year.

Myself, I always saw Sega consoles as a step lesser than their competitors from Nintendo. The Megadrive wasn’t bad by any means, but it did have a more limited colour palette. Also, more subjectively, it didn’t have quite the same appeal. The SNES was colourful and earnest a bit dorky, yet utterly charming. The Megadrive was all black plastic and trying too hard to be cool.

I might feel that way because of Sonic the Hedgehog, which always struck me as a bit over-rated. The game presented raw speed as its key advantage over the competition, but that just meant half of each map shot past in a blur leaving me thinking “do I need to go back there?” Once you slowed down to walking pace, it was all a bit average.

Also I didn’t care for attempts to make a mascot with “attitude”. Nintendo’s unfashionable middle-aged plumber is sincerely likeable, while Sonic’s smirking face was too transparent an attempt to appeal to kids. As if he was meant to be one of us, charging off having fun and thumbing his nose at authority instead of doing his math homework.

That said I don’t actively dislike those games, they’re just not a match for Super Mario World. Meanwhile there are several Megadrive games that might tempt me to shell out. Shining Force, which I wrote about over on Just Games Retro, was a great tactical RPG. Castlevania: Bloodlines is my favourite instalment from the vampire-killing series’ 8 and 16 bit days, with some memorably atmospheric levels and a spear-wielding hero to complement the usual Whip Guy.

Then there’s Golden Axe, the classic scrolling beat ’em up. Rather than the usual setting of denim clad karate men fighting criminal gangs amongst urban neon and grime, this one went for Conan the Barbarian style fantasy. Top memories from Golden Axe include those huge hammer guys, and riding fire-breathing dragons. Also wasting your fully charged special magic attack on a single wimpy enemy, just before a boss fight starts.

One reason not to get the Megadrive mini will be, you can already get a bunch of the games on Steam (since they no longer make their own hardware, Sega are logically much more willing than Nintendo to release their retro games on other formats). That’s another easy and legal way to play, although with my setup not quite so conducive to playing from the living room sofa.

Anyway this isn’t as high personal priority for me as the Nintendo minis, but, I do in general applaud the push to make oldies more accessible to modern casual gamers. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues, and what else may be announced in the future. How about a tiny Atari ST? (cheers from back of room. Boos from Amiga owners).

moments in gaming: 200mph

April 1st, 2018

Written by: Rik

Last time, Stoo talked about how Doom is synonymous with the PC consolidating its position as a proper gaming machine. Today, we move a bit further forward into the mid-90s, and a point in time when console games on PC started to become a reality, and the phrase “anything console X can do, the PC can do better!” seemed less like empty my-format-is-best posturing.

The death of the 3DO led to some of its best games arriving on the PC, including Road Rash, FIFA and, best of all, The Need for Speed. TNFS was the racing game I’d always been waiting for, to the extent that I’d asked my parents to consider getting me a 3DO: a racer with real cars, real roads, civilian traffic, and police chases. It was the game Test Drive 2 and Car and Driver could have been if they hadn’t been held back by the technological limitations of their era.

PC gamers were soon furnished with a demo, which allowed you to take the Dodge Viper out on a drive along a single section of coastal road. Even on a 486, which could only handle the visuals in 320×200, it looked great, and repeated plays only served to heighten anticipation for the full game. Aside from trying to drive properly, there seemed to be significant scope for messing around: hitting traffic, pulling handbrake turns, and – best of all – getting up a significant amount of speed and crashing into a roadside barrier, prompting an unrealistic, but spectacular, crash sequence.

Those initial experiences with the demo could almost have been a gaming moment of their own, and the coastal roads did boast some lovely scenery (for the time) including one memorable section where hot air balloons appeared on the horizon, which could have been another contender (banishing memories of Test Drive 2’s windmill-based scenery packs).

However, fun as messing around with the Viper was, it was only natural that the fastest cars would be held back for the full game. The received wisdom of the school playground was that the Lambourghini Diablo had overtaken the Ferrari F40 (which featured in a number of games in the late 80s and early 90s, including Crazy Cars 2, Turbo Outrun and Test Drive 2) as the “fastest and best car ever” and someone had read in their Dad’s car magazine that it could do over 200mph.

The Need for Speed gave you the opportunity to drive a Diablo, and a stretch of road long enough to achieve that top speed. The first section of the city race was pretty much a long straight with little to stop your progress, other than a few pesky slow-moving civilians. While hitting the 200mph mark and beyond was pretty simple, there was also enough of a sense of speed and danger that meant it didn’t feel cheap, either.

In that moment, the promise of so many racing games – that you, a nerdy kid with a computer, could have the keys to any of the world’s top sports cars – had finally been delivered.

The Great Skate 8

March 30th, 2018

Written by: Rik

For reasons unknown, my mind recently warped back to the 16-bit era and a game called Skate Tribe. It was developed in STOS, a version of BASIC geared towards making games for the Atari ST. STOS was one of those packages that was both too complicated for the unrealistic and lazy end of the target market to fathom and also simple enough that any games produced with it were automatically considered inferior.

Other than Skate Tribe, I can’t recall any other notable STOS titles, and I never used it myself, although I’m sure I would have fallen into the unrealistic/lazy category – Klik and Play was more my level. (I’d better also point out that there was a version for the Amiga called AMOS and it was much better in every way, I’m sure).

I probably wouldn’t have heard of Skate Tribe either had it not been given away on a magazine cover disk, and one-time ST Format readers are more likely to recall it than most. Essentially an object dodging game, you guide your pony-tailed dude through 9 increasingly hazardous levels, starting with a fairly straightforward opening in which you slalom through various roadside objects. Later challenges can be slightly more nuanced, involving the fire button to effect a jump and avoid holes in the road, oncoming vehicles etc.

The context always seemed a little ambiguous, as aliens turn up at various points, and there’s a level in which you have to avoid a giant snake thing while balancing on the back of some kind of flying craft. Which is weird. (Although looking back now at the cover disk pages of ST Format #7, some more detail is given – apparently your character is called Apache Joe (…) and there is a reference to supplies to your home town of Wood Green (London N15?) being cut off).

I never managed to finish it, although it’s not a long game, and I’m not sure if it’s even all that good: the collision detection is particularly ropey, and once the game decides you’ve finished a level you often find your skater riding roughshod over oncoming obstacles with no ill effects.

Still, I must have spent enough time with it for it to leave an impression on me after all these years. Some of the credit must go to the soundtrack – there are some cracking tunes in there, particularly if you’re a fan of slightly melancholic and wistful loops (it kind of reminds me of the Outrun soundtrack and also the music from the CPC version of Robocop that got used in an advert for Ariston washing machines).

Here are a few short clips of my favourites:

Title music

Level 1

Level 4

(Thanks to stformat.com for the ST Format scan).

FFG Mobile

March 26th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Exciting news! We have a mobile version of the site, thanks to WPTouch.

Owing to a combination of the plugin’s limitations and our own, the mobile site doesn’t have the same functionality as the desktop one. Our intention is that it serves as a more accessible way to browse reviews and view the latest site updates on a phone.

The main thing that’s missing is the search function. There’s a technical reason for this, something to do with WPTouch conflicting with another plugin we use. However, you can browse the reviews using the menu as normal, and the latest blog updates will be on the main page, so hopefully you won’t miss out on too much.

We’re also aware that, as a free mobile plugin, quite a few sites also use WPTouch, including our friends over at Just Games Retro. We looked at a few options, but this one seemed to fit best considering our (limited) technical knowledge.

On the plus side, it was a relative doddle to sort out, and all the possible limitations that caused us to put this whole thing off for so long were actually pretty easily resolved (the main one did need some background tinkering from my friend and colleague).

Hopefully you’ll consider it an improvement: a generally streamlined and cut-down version of the sprawling and cheerfully eccentric main site (which is always available as an option, should you need it).

Believe it or not we did do some reasonably thorough checking on the test site, but there are bound to be things we missed. Any issues, feedback or other comments, do let us know!

moments in gaming: Phobos Anomaly

March 20th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Doom is important to we PC fans, because it’s one of the greatest games from a time when the PC was finally asserting itself as a potent gaming machine. With increasing processor power, and developers settling on VGA and soundblaster as industry standards, we no longer needed to be so jealous of other formats. For years we had been stuck with bleeping beige boxes and their 16-colour graphics, the sort of thing Amiga fans pointed and laughed at. Some of our games were sub-par ports, others brave shareware efforts that didn’t seriously challenge Mario or Sonic, still others nerd stuff like flight sims (that I enjoyed but did not impress the average 12 year old).

By about 1993 though, we had bigger and better things. VGA graphics and soundblaster sound had become standard. We had Day of the Tentacle, X-wing, and Magic Carpet. Perhaps most significantly, we had the rise of the first person shooter. The Amiga, once so superior to the beige MS-BOXES, couldn’t keep up. The SNES was still better for platform games and beat-’em ups, but when they tried to port Doom to it, the result was markedly inferior. Monsters can’t fight each other (because they only have animations facing the player). Floors and ceilings aren’t texture mapped. Enemies don’t react to sound.

I try not to go all “PC Master Race” on our readers here. But it’s natural for kids to feel competitive about their gaming system be it one they chose, or one that circumstances give them. Also I like to look back on the start of what I consider a bit of a golden age in PC gaming.

My own introduction to Doom was on our family 386, which honestly was a little short of the recommended specs. The frame rate was adequate but not silky-smooth. It was good enough, just about, to get an appreciation for what a leap forward this game was. Simply being able to freely move around a textured 3D environment of indoor and outdoor spaces was novel. Filling those spaces with raging demons turned it into the most intense, exciting action game of its time. There was nothing quite like circle strafing a horde of imps, pumping shotgun shells into them as they hissed and spat fire.

My most prominent memory is of the last level of Knee Deep in the Dead, the free shareware chapter of Doom. The preceding maps have practical names like Nuclear Plant and Toxin Refinery, but this one is labelled “Phobos Anomaly”, which is a bit unsettling because it’s so vague. The scientists out here clearly didn’t know what it was (before the rampaging demons slaughtered them all). Lack of information means the imagination fills in the gaps. Given the whole plot (thin as it was) to Doom is about teleportation experiments causing demons to spill forth into our universe, clearly whatever’s going in here is not good news.

The music, titled “Sign of Evil” is a bit different too. Much of the Doom soundtrack is a midi tribute to slayer and Pantera but this is slow, eerie, and melancholy. It conjures thoughts of a bleak, inhospitable eternity. It laments our world, reduced to an empty ruin after being devastated by ancient and inhuman evil. Humanity is gone now, and only only endless sadness remains.

Or, that’s what will happen if your heroic space marine doesn’t triumph, anyway. The level is fairly short and linear, and you soon emerge on a large star-shaped chamber. Clearly you’re not in an abandoned space-military base anymore. It feels more like some sort of space for arcane rituals. Two tomb like stone structures stand within. You’re immediately assaulted by semi-invisible spectures, but they’re just a distraction. The tombs open and a Hell Knight emerges from each, with an elephantine roar.

Thank you, doom.wikia.com.

The Knights aren’t the game’s mightiest foes, but they are the largest and strongest you’ve yet encountered, far more fearsome than a regular imp. What’s more, you don’t have two of the full game’s most powerful weapons, the plasma gun and the mighty BFG. So a frantic battle begins, weaving between their green fire and firing off rockets in return.

When they finally keel over dead the chamber opens up into a larger open space, and an exit is revealed. Does it lead to safety, to sanctuary, to an escape from the legions of hell itself? When you jump in though, you find yourself in total darkness, under attack from enemies that surround you. After a few seconds panicked firing in random directions, text pops up to inform you that you can’t go home just yet. You’re now on Deimos (the other moon of Mars) and the battle goes on. Time to start the next chapter…

moments in gaming: The Barrens

March 7th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

I first signed up for World of Warcraft in the early months of 2006. The Burning Crusade expansion had just been released and I narrowly missed the pre-expansion days, what we now call Vanilla. However, back then the early levelling process was pretty much unchanged from Vanilla. So I think i’m well versed in what was like to be a new player “back in the old days”.

My character was a troll hunter, mostly down to trolls being my favourite unit in Warcraft 3. They’re the blue guys with big tusks and questionable Jamaican accents.

I spent my first days in Durotar, an arid land of canyons and big scorpions. I was doing usual mmo-newbie stuff. Running in circles a lot, doing very basic quests. Slaying harpies, getting a knackered old bow as a reward. Using my leatherworking crafting skill to make “basic sensible trousers”, which I found very exciting despite it being the most humble of gear. There was already a sense that I was barely scratching the surface of all the content this game had to offer.

With Durotar complete, the logical next zone was some place referred to as “the Barrens”. I dutifully set out down the path, on foot of course because I was a long way off having any sort of mount. I remember crossing the river and heading up a gentle slope of dry grass, between parched, rounded hills. Several minutes later I made it onto the plains that made up the heart of the region.

In the hazy distance I could see hints of greenery suggesting a water source. More hills lay in other directions. Roads stretched off into he distance. To west stood the town known as just the Crossroads, the local base of operations for the Horde. Packs of giraffe and zebra-like creatures roamed in search of grazing. I had to stop for a minute to take it all in. The Barrens seemed truly vast, a sprawling expanse of parched wilderness.

The music in this region carried bits of the core warcraft theme but in a languid, quiet way. It spoke of a land of heat and dust. It almost seemed to say, don’t go rushing anywhere here. Make yourself at home, you will be here a long time. There are many adventures ahead, and they will all come in due time. For now, report to the Crossroads for your first tasks.

As it happens, I was indeed here for a couple of week’s worth of gaming. There was a lot to do and many quests to follow. There were harpy-infested parts in the northwestern corner. The lush oases in the centre, around which hostile centaurs prowled. The famous quest to find Mankrik’s wife. More Quillboars in the south. A dwarvern expedition to deal with. Then a whole detour to the neutral goblin town of Ratchet. When I wasn’t questing I was probably hunting about a zillion animals for leather.

Incidentally I was also playing along an online friend who, many years later, would become my wife. Her elegant level 20 elven mage was, compared to my inept and gangly level 11 hunter, some kind of superhero. She could make monsters disappear with a quick flash of flame while I desperately plinked away with my bow. I would routinely end up with half a dozen velociraptors trying to murder me, and run to her flailing my arms wildly and yelling for help.

I don’t have a pic from my first days, but here’s me in the Barrens with a mishmash of Burning Crusade gear and, er, a pumpkin mask?

Over that time my ueless hero become slightly less useless. I upgraded my armour to “+1 moderate trousers of agility”. Traded the knackered bow for a sligthtly rusty musket. Got the hang of ordering my pet scorpion around. Died many, many times to centaurs. Had my first try at PVP, which of course meant being flattened into the dust outside the crossroads by some Alliance Paladin. All part of the process of levelling.

The barrens isn’t actually all that large by open-world gaming standards. Yet the whole game seemed bigger back then. A world of many different and exotic lands, each full of danger but also rewards for an intrepid hero. There were the shadowy forests of Ashenvale, the endless dunes of Tanaris, the icy hills of Winterspring. Each could take days to fully experience. The Jungles of U’Goro seemed impossibly remote, far from teh safety of civilization.

Then there was an entire other continent.. Getting on a zeppelin and crossing the ocean, to join my friend to quest in the Forsaken homelands, felt like an actual trip to the other side of the world. A whole new land of which I knew practically nothing, except that Dwarves and Humans hailed from its depths somewhere.

Sure there was a flying taxi service (riding wyverns because: magic fantasy taxi) but back then you had to find each destination on foot, before you could take a flight there. So you had to spend days questing and traveling the slow way, building up your personal network of flight paths. Also, there were only one or two destinations in each zone, so you still had to go on foot (or on your horse if higher level) to get to quests or other places of interest within a zone, facing any dangers that lay along your route.

Nowadays you can just hop on your dragon and zip around anywhere in minutes. Or jump in portal to reach another continent altogether. That’s more convenient. It’s probably more fitting to a modern warcraft, and to 30somethings with only half an hour to play tonight.

Yet something has been lost, I feel. Azeroth is shrunken and contained. You can’t feel truly immersed in a fantasy world when shooting through the skies above, untouched and unimpeded by the world beneath you. You need to walk through the towns on foot, to encounter the people who call it home, to see the ruins and the monsters for yourself. You need the inconvenience of getting waylaid by kobolds, or having to take a winding path, because that’s as much a part of the world as the things you actually want to do today on your quest list.

Some of my other fondest memories were simply of trekking through lands for the sake of exploring. There was a lengthy route horde players would take, just to join up flight paths between distant locations. You had to run through the jungles of Stranglethorn, hostile dwarvern territory in the Wetlands, and the ashy wastes of the burning steps.  Modern Warcraft would never hold with such a chore; all flight paths are available from the start. Yet the chore felt like a lengthy adventure, full of peril, and introduced me to several new areas.

I fear modern warcraft breaks its illusions. You see the boundaries of the world, you move so quickly you shoot over them. You see each zone broken down into its actual components – a small patch of land with some geographical theme, with vending services in the middle and monsters aimlessly milling around.

To be fair some of the modern conveniences only apply at max level; you don’t get them all starting from scratch. Still, the leveling process is a lot faste, and the world doesn’t feel as dangerous.  The game is more generous with gear drops to enhance your power. You get mounts earlier and more easily, to accelerate your pace. Low level monsters drop dead in seconds, making questing rather easy. So you’re not going to spend days taking in the experience of being an adventurer in the Barrens; you blast through it in an evening and are ready to go quest somewhere else.

Well, I’m getting a bit off track here. There are risks I’ll start rambling about the days you had to go spend an hour looking for trainer when you wanted to use a new kind of weapon. I’m not genuinely complaining here, since it’s not 2006 anymore and Warcraft had to change with the times. I am just being wistful. If blizzard do finally implement those “Warcraft Classic” servers, that will satisfy those of us who want to take an entire evening to do two quests and make some trousers.

moments in gaming: fus roh dah

February 19th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

I always feel bad about displacing proper content with blog stuff, but also once I have something drafted I want it out the door so as not to gnaw at my mind. So please, valued visitor, before reading this: scroll down and read Rik’s review of Wacky Wheels. Or click this link.

Man, it makes me miss playing Apogee games. I don’t realistically think they ever caused SNES owners to envy we PC gamers. But they made a great effort to compensate for our lack of quality arcade and action games.

Okay, for my piece we’re jumping forward about 17 years. Most of the time I’ll intend to stick to games a decade or more older, but more recent stuff will show up occasionally.

I dare not look up how many hours I sunk into Skyrim. It didn’t replace its ancestor Morrowind in my heart, but I’m not sure anything ever could. Certainly Skryim is one of my top few RPGs of all time. I played through the quests for every last faction, explored at least 90% of the dungeons, and thoroughly completed all the expansions too.

I could write about evenings spent roaming the forests and tundras roaming the forests looking for adventure. Or choosing sides in the imperial vs rebels conflict, which basically was a fantasy version of Romans vs Vikings. Then there were the dragon fights. Each one was more epic, more a feat of fantasy heroism, than I would ever expect for an unscripted random encounter.

Actually though I want to talk about something just ‘cos it made me laugh. One of the new mechanics Skyrim introduced was the shouts, where the hero unleashes magical forces by voicing words from some ancient Dragon language. You may be aware of the “Unrelenting Force” shout, consisting of the words “Fus Roh Dah!”. It showed up in the game’s trailer and worked its way into popular culture, webcomics and youtube videos.

All shouts actually come in stages – you get a weak version with the first syllable, then improve it as you learn the other two parts. Some of these you pick up from side-quests or just exploring, but Unrelenting Force shout is gained as you progress though the main quest, the core story of the game. I always tend to leave the main quest till last in these games, though. This meant for about 70% of my run through, I only had “fus roh”. This just staggers enemies a bit, maybe knocks them on their ass or makes them drop their sword. Thus stopping them from attacking for a few seconds. It’s useful, for sure, but hardly impressive. In fact I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Then when I finally got the full-power shout, I idly tried it on a bear. And promptly blasted it off the side of a mountain. In shock I ran to the edge, to see its rapidly diminishing form tumbling towards the water far below.

Not a great pic, I reacted as fast as I could.

 

In all my time gaming, setting aside multiplayer (which, with the addition of human interaction, is an entirely different situation), I have never laughed so hard in my life.

It’s always great when a game grants new some power and encourages you to have fun with it. For the next few days no monster or bandit atop a cliff was safe. Spriggans and Trolls were knocked around like leaves in the wind. When tackling one of the final thieves guilds quests, I noticed the Big Bad was stood atop a statue a good 20 metres tall. So I didn’t even bother drawing swords. I just stealthily crept around behind him then yelled him to his death. A cheap move, for sure. I always thought a good sandbox lets you do these shortcuts if you think of them; let players decide for themselves how much they care about fighting honourably.

I kind of feel bad for the bear, though.

You live too close to the edge!

February 18th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

We have DOS-based kart racing for you tonight, with Wacky Wheels from Apogee.

moments in gaming: WHIRRR

February 7th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Today marks the start of an occasional series where I look back on particular gaming experiences that have made a strong impression on me, over the years.

Mostly I’ll write about positive memories, but they don’t have to be exclusively so. They could be moments of appreciating real excellence in game design, or frustration at terrible design. They may be triumphs against legions of foes, or rage quitting against super-tough bosses. I could write about taking a walk in Skyrim just to quietly enjoy the view. Or a time when everything went hilariously, disastrously wrong in a battle in UFO Enemy Unknown.

We’ll start with Homeworld. Relic’s seminal realtime strategy game was first brought to my attention when I came across a preview in PC Zone. I recall screenshots showed chunky, primary-coloured starships, all rendered in 3D. The article promised full three-dimensional control of entire fleets. I thought to myself, this was all rather impressive. A whole new level for the genre, a quantum leap from Starcraft and Red Alert.

My first taste of actually playing Homeworld occurred when I tried the demo, sometime around the summer of ’99. It consisted of the first few tutorial levels. So you’re shown the mothership, you’re told to build a few little fighter craft, you send them to blow up some drone targets and then some enemy fighters.

It made a good impression from the start; the movement of ships was fluid and convincing, the controls slick and intuitive. Then I was given control of a Frigate, a mid-sized gunship. I told it to go deal with those fighters still buzzing around. It slowly picked up speed and yawed to one side, and then with a WHIRRRR its four turrets all turned to track the enemies.

Somehow, that WHIRRR was the moment I was totally sold on that game. Just one modest frigate against a few buzzing interceptors, yet that minor battle is still etched into my memory all these years on. It was the attention to detail, the fact that not only was this game going to give me lots of warships to command, but the big ones had independent weapon systems. The feature gave the ship a sense of mass – the turrets existed because it was too ponderous to spin on the spot like a fighter. Also there was an mechanical urgency to the sound, a signifies that the ship was armed ready for battle, cannons prepare to spit shells into the void.

It was part of made Homeworld feel like commanding one side in a battle from one of my favourite space operas. The frigates and destroyers handled just like a Star Destroyer from Star Wars, or the warships in Babylon 5.

I purchased the game later that year. I learned that bigger ships provided even more WHIRRR, especially the monstrous heavy cruisers with oversized laser turrets that atomize a frigate in seconds. To this day it remains one of my all time favourite RTS, and I’ll most likely write about it here again.

And the bowlers have declared duck-hunting season

February 4th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there everyone.

Welcome to A Force for Good, where phrases like, “we’ll cover it one day” could mean a wait of several days, weeks, months or years for a planned review to materialise.

Anyway, tonight’s game is Cricket 96.