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Let’s Go 8 Bit

July 23rd, 2017

Written by: Rik

As the second series has just come to an end, I thought it might be worth sharing a few brief thoughts about Dara O’Briain’s Go 8 Bit. I haven’t watched a games-based TV programme since the early 90s heyday of GamesMaster and Games World, and though there have been a few since then, they haven’t quite had the mainstream heft of Go 8 Bit. When the show was first announced, I was excited about seeing it, and hoped it would be a success.

However, the prospect of a new TV show based around their favoured hobby seemed to arouse a wave of pre-emptive cynicism and negativity amongst gamers, with the common consensus being that television was itself outdated, and that such an endeavour was pointless when there was so much great gaming content on YouTube. And this was in the comments section of Eurogamer, the site to which Go 8 Bit’s co-presenter Ellie Gibson contributed for many years (which you might hope would earn you a little goodwill from readers).

As Ellie put it herself: “Some of the people in the production office – I was in the office when the story went up – some of the people in the production office who haven’t worked in game journalism were quite shocked. Not offended, but kind of mystified. Like, why is there all this hate? Why have people decided they don’t like it when they haven’t even seen a trailer? And I was like, welcome to video games!”

Go 8 Bit isn’t really aimed at the self-important hardcore, though, it’s a mainstream TV show for, er, people who like to watch mainstream TV shows. It takes an accessible, “games are for everyone” angle, of which I’m entirely in favour, although I must admit this position was sorely tested when they let Vernon Kay on the show (of course, his favourite game was Call of Duty – how dreadful!)

The format is a mixture of panel show and watching celebs play games. Line up regulars are the host Dara, team captains Steve McNeill and Sam Pamphilon (who originated the format) and the aforementioned Ms Gibson, who introduces each round. The two teams each welcome a celebrity guest and they face off against each other over four rounds of gaming action: a classic game, a favourite of each celebrity guest, an indie title, then a double points finale featuring some kind of novelty prop, costume or oversized controller. There are jokes, chat and gaming, and though there is a competitive moment or two, the importance of the final result isn’t taken much more seriously than it would be on any other comedy panel show.

Some challenges are more interesting to watch than others, and if one player happens to be particularly terrible at the game in question, it can get rather one-sided. Some of the celebrity guests have let themselves down on occasion, prompting the inevitable claims that some are bandwagon hopping fake gamers who have pretended to like games in order to get on a TV show. But, you know, people who like games can be bad at games. Particularly if they’re playing a particular one for the first time in years in front of a studio audience. (Also: just because the show is called Go 8 Bit, it doesn’t mean all the games have to be on 8-bit systems. It’s just the name if the show, right? They know what 8-bit is, it’s not a mistake you’ve spotted. Eight Out of Ten Cats doesn’t have any cats in it.)

It’s not perfect – as with many of these shows, not all of the pre-written autocue jokes land, and I’m not entirely sure about Ellie’s introductory monologues, either. I loved her writing on Eurogamer and wonder if she could be better served by joining in with the main action a bit more. Equally, the captains seem like they might have a bit more to offer, and they mainly have to act as a foil for their celebrity team-mates. (To an extent these criticisms are addressed by the companion DLC show, introduced at the beginning of the second series, which allows the three of them a bit more space to do their thing).

Still, I found myself looking forward to watching Go 8 Bit each week. It’s probably aimed at someone like me – I’ve heard of most of the games they play, except the indie ones (although one or two of those featured have piqued my interest), and might not be for everyone. But for the old timers who still watch television, I’d recommend checking it out, if you haven’t already.

Great feet for a big lad

July 16th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

We’re at the newer end of what’s permissible on this site today, with a review of the retro-flavoured indie football game from 2011, New Star Soccer 5.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 5

July 15th, 2017

Written by: Rik

2000: the year in which Silverchair said they’d make it up to us. Did they ever get around to it? I’m not sure. Whatever am I talking about? Never mind, we’re into part 5 of our history of PC Zone magazine, so let’s get on with that.

Part 5: 2000-2001 – Reality Check

At some point in this period, Zone seemed to lose its cheeky sixth-form humour. It wasn’t entirely down to the departure of Charlie Brooker, but his moving on did seem to leave the team short of something that the old Zone always had. One of Brooker’s last pieces was a final-page comment about being crap at Quake III that included the line: “you’d be surprised how easy it is to fool a desperate male virgin in a dark room, using cunning determination, a high voice and a very convincing wig.” It was an appropriate note on which to depart.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 5 continued »

remakes of the 90s

July 13th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

These days remakes, updates and remasterings of old games are commonplace. A couple of particular interest to at FFG towers right now are Full Throttle, released a few months ago and Starcraft, due out in August.

This isn’t totally new, however. By the start of the 90s, developers and publishers were starting to see the attraction of renovating and re-releasing their older games. Here’s a selection of remakes all released before 2000.

Sierra Adventures

In the early 90s, Sierra went about remaking the first game in each of their five core “Quest” series of adventures. That would be King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory and, er, Larry Quest? Okay that one didn’t follow the naming convention.

Don't expect instant excitement - the day begins with details like a shower, changing into uniform and a briefing.

The state each game started at, and then moved to, varied a bit. For example King’s Quest was their first adventure, and so its remake came first also, and is a step more primitive than later ones. For the most part though, graphics were upgraded from the chunky pixels and the 16 colours of EGA to higher resolution 256-colour VGA. Also, the old keyboard controls and text parsers were put aside for a fully mouse-driven interface.

I think the originals did a lot with that primitive SCI engine, creating fascinating and detailed worlds for us to explore. Still, the updated versions are a bit more accessible nowadays. Another bonus is proper soundcard sound, even if just jangly adlib music, rather than tortured PC speaker bleeps.

We have a particular fondness for Police Quest starring Sonny Bonds, our favourite gaming cop. Half the challenge us is making sure you adhere to proper procedure for arresting perps or checking your car for faults, yet weirdly that becomes half the charm. The other one I’d recommend is the RPG-hybrid Quest for Glory…which I could have sworn we reviewed here! Must have gotten lost in the move to WordPress. [Edit: It is lost no more! – Rik]

Anyway you can find the lot on GOG.

 

Dune 2000
I don’t know if Dune 2 was literally the first ever realtime strategy game. It is however generally regarded as establishing a template for the genre that later games would follow. You build a base, send out trucks to gather some sort of resource, churn out lots of little tanks, go destroy your enemy’s base.

In 1998 Westwood updated it using the technology behind its successors, Command and Conquer and Red Alert. This brought sharper graphics, although I’m actually unsure if looks any more attractive as a result. Every map is still a brown desert, and you’ve lost that nostalgic 320×200 MS-DOS charm.

4102-dune-2000-windows-screenshot-inside-the-harkonnen-base

On the other hand, Dune 2000 does have an improved interface that lets you give orders to multiple units at once. When there are Ordos raiders banging on your front door you don’t really want to be clicking a tank, giving orders, clicking another, giving orders, and so on.

Also this was the heyday of FMV cutscenes, featuring live actors, and this was a feature Westwood had wholly embraced with Command and Conquer. For Dune 2000, our moderately-famous “hey, it’s that guy!” guest star was John Rhys Davis. Write in the comments with your favourite role that he’s played! (I vote Gimli from Lord of the Rings).

Sadly neither original nor update can be bought anywhere currently.

 

F-117A Stealth Fighter 2.0
This may be blurring the lines between sequel and remake. I wanted to include F-117A because it’s actually the third iteration of the original idea. Also it’s of interest to my inner airplane nerd.

In the 80s the USAF was widely believed to be working on a fighter jet that could evade enemy radar. Being a top secret project virtually nothing was known about it, so aviation enthusiasts came up with their own speculation. The designation F-19 was a sensible guess, based on the fact that fighter numbers are sequential, and the F-18 and F-20 already existed. A model kit company, Testor, came up with a design that took a few cues from the SR-71 but was entirely guesswork.

Hypothetical stealth fghter

Hypothetical stealth fghter

 

Testors’ concept looked slick, deadly and advanced. It seemed to perfectly match the the idea of an undetectable jet, slipping through the night sky with to rain destruction on the unsuspecting soviets. It would form the basis for the F-19’s appearance in toys, cartoons and computer games.

So we start with Project Stealth Fighter, released by Microprose was for Commodore 64 and Spectrum. This was the first ever flight sim to feature a stealth aircraft.

In 1988 the game was retitled F-19 Stealth Fighter, and updated for 16-bit systems – Atari ST, Amiga and of course the MS DOS PC. I think Rik played this one.

However around the end of the decade, the US government confirmed the existence of their stealth fighter, and started to release information about it . Designated F-117, it didn’t look anything like the previous speculation.  Rather than being sleek and aerodynamic it was weirdly angular, its facets and hard edges designed to deflect away radar waves.

Actual stealth fighter

Actual stealth fighter

 

Still as bizarre and alien as the thing was, it was what the USAF was actually flying, and Microprose were in the business of authentic flight sims. So this was a good time to update their game. They also took the opportunity to upgrade to VGA, the major generational shift in PC gaming at the time. Thus resulted the game I played myself.

If you’re interested in playing these games, F-19 is on steam, and F117A on GOG.

 

Super Mario All-Stars

Released for the Super Nintendo in 1993, this bundle of games included updated versions of the first three super mario games, originally seen on the NES. The graphics were upgraded to 16-bit standards, with fancy features like backgrounds and parallax scrolling. This put them on a par with the SNES-native Super Mario World. They were also given savegame features, particularly valuable for the sprawling Super Mario 3.

 

marioallstars

It also included an update of the Japanese Super Mario 2, under the name Lost Levels. This was very similar to the first SMB, but a lot harder. It was a totally different game to the one we knew as SMB2 in the west, which was some non-mario game reworked to include moustachioed plumbers and big mushrooms.

All-Stars isn’t available for Virtual Console on any Nintendo console (the NES originals are though), and it’s been omitted from the lineup on the forthcoming SNES Classic. So if you want a legit way of playing this, your only option will be to find the disc release for Wii.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 4

July 1st, 2017

Written by: Rik

Part 4 of our history of PC Zone, and we’re into 1998: past the peak of the 90s, but still, to my mind, a vaguely optimistic time. Okay, so Britpop was dead and Be Here Now was rubbish, but we still lived in hope that England might win the World Cup and The Phantom Menace might be quite good. This was also the time when I bought PC Zone most regularly: around the time of the redesign, the cover price was slashed by a whole £2 to £2.99, which was possibly a factor (whatever horrifying and potentially unethical changes to working conditions enabled this switch were of no concern to me).

Part 4: 1998-99 – Sick Notes

zone 67 cover

While Zone’s look had evolved over the years, 1998 seemed like the first time it had undergone such a thorough redesign, with the iconic corner logo being replaced by a fairly generic-looking A-Team style stencil effort. For the first time since the very early years, there was a Meet The Team feature, in which the various writers were asked the same question (usually related to a cover game or feature) as well as declaring which games were on their hard drive. What’s On Your Hard Drive? was also another new regular feature, in which the inhabitants of a particular town or city were quizzed about their current gaming habits.

Even though the accompanying pictures often indicated that the feature had involved little more than hanging around the local branch of GAME or Electronics Boutique, I took it as a sign that games were becoming less of a niche hobby and more of a thing that the person in the street might indulge in. Like it or not, the popularity of the PlayStation probably had something to do with it, and perhaps in acknowledgement of this, Zone briefly ran a feature, PlayStation Zone (later Console Zone) which covered the latest developments in the world of the small grey box, including coverage of the PSX emulator Bleem! (eventually shut down by Sony). For a short while, the What’s On Your Hard Drive feature was also accompanied by a feature about the state of games in the same town/city, usually involving an interview of some kind with the managers of local gaming stores.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 4 continued »

Nintendo’s next nostalgia box

June 27th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

After the success of the Nes Classic Edition, Nintendo are giving the Super Nintendo the same treatment. The SNES classic edition will look like a miniature version of the much loved 16 bit console, and come loaded with 21 games.

That’s less than the NES Classic’s 30, but a lot of those were rather basic arcade games from 1984, the sort of thing I played for about 10 minutes. Most of what we have here is more substantial:

– Contra III: The Alien Wars
– Donkey Kong Country
– EarthBound
– Final Fantasy III
– F-ZERO
– Kirby Super Star
– Kirby’s Dream Course
– The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
– Mega Man X
– Secret of Mana
– Star Fox
– Star Fox 2
– Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
– Super Castlevania IV
– Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
– Super Mario Kart
– Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
– Super Mario World
– Super Metroid
– Super Punch-Out!!
– Yoshi’s Island

I’m particularly glad to see Yoshi’s Island included. It came late in the 16 bit era, and so was a bit overlooked, but it’s a wonderfully charming and inventive platformer.

I guess this also means I’ll make *another* start on Final Fantasy 3, after giving up on the GBA, android and steam versions. I don’t know why I keep trying, I did actually finish the SNES original years ago. I think I’m trying to make it up to Square for playing a pirated ROM.

The surprise entry here is Star Fox 2, which was never previously released. Apparently instead of the linear levels of the original, you can freely move around a map screen and pick your battles. This isn’t a series I have much personal attachment to (the PC had X-wing by this point), but still, it’s great that Nintendo are finally making it available.

Biggest disappointment meanwhile is probably the lack of Chrono Trigger, one of the SNES greatest RPGs. Not a dealbreaker but Magus, Chrono and Frog will be missed.

The NES Classic was unfortunately difficult to find, with Nintendo totally failing to make enough of them to meet demand. Some gamers were pushed to go to scalpers on ebay, who charged twice or more the retail price. Then Nintendo went and cancelled production. It looks like this one will also only be manufactured for a few months, from september to the end of 2017. Nintendo are promising to make more units than they did with the NES classic, but I’m still preparing to watch amazon like a hawk

The RRP is higher this time at $80, although it also includes two controllers, so you’ll be ready to lose to your wife at Mario Kart, out of the box. Or maybe that’s just me.

Oh and one final thing. You might recall the original SNES had two different appearances. North America getting one version and us Europeans the other, along with Japan. I’m happy to say Nintendo will be repeating this for the classic. I always thought our version looked a bit better with that smooth, slightly curved upper surface and coloured buttons.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 3

June 21st, 2017

Written by: Rik

We’re onto part 3 of our history of PC Zone (part 1, part 2) and it’s getting to the point in the 90s where one of those nostalgic TV documentaries about Cool Britannia (which I would try – but fail – to resist watching) might focus its attention: Britpop, Euro ’96, Tony Blair and the Spice Girls. So, what was going on in the world of British PC games coverage (the subject of precisely zero nostalgic TV documentaries) around this time?

Part 3: 1996-98 – Cruelty Zoo

Zone Part 3 Cover

The Quake issue (Zone 43, October 1996) was John Davison’s last, with deputy Jeremy Wells taking over. Wells continued in roughly the same vein as Davison (and maintained the tradition of long-haired 90s Zone editors), although his love for football and, in particular, Championship Manager was a distinguishing feature of his tenure. Towards the end of his time as editor, Wells paid tribute to the addictive qualities of the series in a feature called The Cult of Championship Manager, which featured a variety of men old enough to know better telling tales of how the game got them into trouble (“When I finally went downstairs, Janet’s parents had left and she was throwing stuff around the kitchen…It was over. And I lost the final.”)

This era was probably Zone’s phase of peak blokeishness, with letters to the editor either praising or criticising this aspect of the magazine. In truth, as we mentioned earlier, it was largely adverts for games, rather than reviews or other content, that were the main source of controversy. This was the era of Jo Guest’s notorious ad for Battlecruiser 3000AD, which was toned down (a bit) in some publications by the addition of some pants for Ms Guest. Zone published the pant-less version, earning it praise from one correspondent (“Who would dare to put the ad for Battlecruiser 3000AD on their back cover without drawing stupid knickers on the poor girl?”)

Some months later, another advert – this time an S&M themed one promoting Destruction Derby 2 – went down less well with a reader, and Charlie Brooker (for some reason in charge of responding to letters that month) found himself agreeing, describing marketing types as “a bunch of gutless, soulless, hollow-eyed blockheads who assume that every gamesplayer in the country is a drooling, Pavlovian sexual inadequate…If I could have my way, I’d like to strand the lot of them together on a remote desert island. Ideally it would be completely devoid of all foliage or animal life, so they would eventually all be forced to hunt, kill, and then eat each other in order to survive”.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 3 continued »

Into the Wonderful

June 12th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

If you’re a gamer of a certain age, you may fondly remember saturday afternoons playing Gods, the platform game from Bitmap brothers, on your Amiga, Atari ST or 386 PC.

I am of that certain age but never made much progress. Apparently the game is pretty damn difficult, with four sprawling levels and a dose of puzzle solving. I do at least remember the intro theme. With its breakbeats and sampled speech, it was one of those tracks that sounded a bit like something you might actually hear on the radio, albeit rendered in that fuzzy soundblaster-pro sort of way. Probably sounded a bit better on Amiga.

Anyway, Riot Robot have gotten together with Mike Montgomery, one of the founders of original developers Bitmap Brothers, to bring us a remastered version:

The graphics are now 3D-based, but also a bit generic. There was something very distinctive about the artwork in Bitmap Brothers games, that has been lost in the transition. On the other hand at least we get smooth animation, something that tends to be neglected in these remasterings of old 2D games (see: Monkey Island).

According go the promotional blurb you also get the original game, apparently with a smoother framerate. This might be one of those remakes that doesn’t add much, but some fans might want just to have a legit copy that runs with a minimum of fuss.

It should be coming soon to Steam. Also to iOS and android where, as usual for platform games, I expect the touchscreen controls will be godawful.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 2

June 8th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Welcome to part 2 of our history of PC Zone (part 1 here, if you missed it). This time, we’re into the mid-90s, and what many consider the era of peak Zone. This is around the time that I started reading, too (my first issue was Zone 24, March 1995, with Dark Forces on the cover). Right, let’s get on with it, shall we?

Part 2: 1994-96 – The Editor’s Ten Inches

Zone 20 Cover

John Davison took over as editor in 1994, with his first issue being Zone 20 (November 1994). By this point, familiar names such as Jeremy Wells, Charlie Brooker and Warren Chrismas were also appearing in the mag. (Some years ago I became aware that Warren Chrismas was studying a course at the university where I work. Upon hearing his name I exclaimed out loud (to a gathering of extremely bemused colleagues), “Is that the Warren Chrismas who used to write for PC Zone in the 90s?” thus outing myself as an Extremely Cool Dude. Needless to say, they didn’t know who he or what PC Zone was, despite my lengthy explanation name-dropping Brooker (by this time writing for the Guardian) and detailing Warren’s stint as a technical advice columnist in the late 90s).

Looking back at Zone’s earliest issues, you can see that the transition from a fairly conventional PC games mag to the PC Zone many came to know and love began in the era of Davison, which heralded a slightly more laddish, confrontational tone, particularly in the letters section. Po-faced complaints about Mr Cursor were a fairly regular occurrence, with one correspondent (Wordprocessor, Zone 25) deriding him as a “Timmy Mallet [sic] wannabe”.

“It is obliquely gratifying to learn,” continued Mr Graham Stokes of Wiltshire, that if all else fails it is still possible to eke out a living as a writer on a subject about which you know nothing.” In response, Davison appeared exasperated by the number of people who just didn’t ‘get’ Mr Cursor but still got cross enough about it to write in.

PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 2 continued »

The PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 1

June 3rd, 2017

Written by: Rik

Earlier in the year, we had a request from our reader Nick, who asked if we might consider a feature on old PC magazines. Although there were quite a few around at various points in the 90s, there’s really only one that we could ever really write about. PC Zone magazine may not be familiar to our non-UK readers, which is a shame – as Stewart Lee might say – because we’re now going to publish several thousand words which will go into the history of PC Zone in some detail.

When publication eventually ceased in 2010, there were plenty of tributes from the gaming world, and the story even got a mention on the BBC website, but a quick search for “PC Zone history” bears very little fruit, with this site’s own perfunctory ramblings from more than 10 years ago disturbingly prominent among the results.

I suppose that piece does serve as a reasonable overview up to a certain point, albeit one that couches its praise in terms of slagging off all other magazines (especially PC Gamer). But I was surprised there wasn’t anything more significant out there. Perhaps it’s appropriate, given the irreverent and slightly too-cool-for-school attitude that characterised Zone, that no-one has undertaken such detailed and slightly nerdy work. And there’s always the danger that raking through years and years of old issues in such a way may not actually make for very interesting reading, instead descending into extremely dreary analysis punctuated by supposedly amusing quotes that, robbed of all context, actually mean very little on their own.

PC Zone Logo 93

But that’s the risk we’re going to take! I should perhaps at this point mention the fact that this is going to be an incomplete and extremely subjective history of the magazine (as suggested by my chosen title), with particular emphasis on the periods when I was a regular reader. There were times when I didn’t read Zone at all for a while – the longest spanning several years – and I’m not sure there’s much mileage in trying to catch up with those years in retrospect, even if I could. We’ll get to that, though.

Even though I obviously didn’t feel strongly enough to maintain my Zone subscription throughout its life, and despite the fact that print is fighting a losing battle, I still love to buy magazines. I buy three or four every time I go on holiday, and I’ve kept pretty much every one I ever bought, certainly in the last 15 years or so. Unfortunately, as far as this piece is concerned, that doesn’t include PC Zone, and most of the old issues I did hold onto are in my sister’s loft. (And I’ve come to regret turning down a friend’s offer to take a complete collection of 90s Zones off his hands some years ago).

The complacent modern assumption is that some enterprising soul with plenty of spare time has inevitably uploaded the whole lot to the internet, which sadly proved not to be the case. Having said that, I am grateful to those who have made scans available, particularly to the proprietor of Pix’s Origin Adventures, whose comprehensive collection of late-90s scans meant that I didn’t have to ask Jo to go scrabbling around in her loft. Together with the physical copies I do still have, there was a fair amount of source material to go on, and more than enough for our purposes here.

Hopefully, if you share my fondness for looking back at things like this, there’ll be plenty of interest regardless of whether you were a fan of Zone or not: apart from the magazine itself, we’ll inevitably also be covering other stuff along the way, be it long-forgotten games, impractical hardware innovations, or daft advertising campaigns.

So, let’s begin, as is traditional, at the beginning…

The PC Zone: an incomplete and subjective history, part 1 continued »