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The Princess is in another castle!

March 22nd, 2017

Written by: Stoo

So I’ve switched over to NES Gaming mode for a while. As promised earlier, here are some opinions on the games included on the Nes Classic Mini. Or half of them, at least, the rest to follow later.

I’m keeping it fairly brief because 1: I haven’t forgotten this is meant to be a PC gaming site, 2: the internet doesn’t need me spilling 2000 words on a game as universally well known as Super Mario Brothers and 3: I’ve not actually played them all.

For comparative purposes I’ve put the year of release in Japan next to each game. Many NES games were reelased several months later in the US, and then took another year or two to reach Europe. Which may explain why some kids here were happier to stick to gaming on their Amiga 500s.

Donkey Kong – 1983
Mario’s first outing. A very typical early game – each level consists of one screen, on a black background. There are just four levels that repeat with increasing difficulty. Honestly I doubt I’ll ever play it for more than 10 minutes at a time. Still, correctly timing your jumps over those barrels is still quite satisfying. Also, if you’re at all interested in the history of gaming you really should play it at least once.

Donkey King Junior
It’s Mario’s one appearance as villain, with the younger Kong out to rescue his father. You climb vines, avoid enemies or defeat them by knocking fruit down at them. A cute little game I guess but again, it’s really the later and more expansive titles that give the Classic any sort of long term appearl.

Mario Brothers -1983
First game with Mario’s name on it, but before he went Super. Jump into the floor under baddies to incapacitate them, then run over and boot them. Don’t try jumping on their heads before they’re stunned. The wife and I played this for about 5 minutes then decided we were bored. Anyway you’ll encounter it as a minigame (with better graphics and music) if you play Super Mario Brothers 3 multiplayer.

This is sounding a bit unenthusiastic so far, isn’t it? That’s mostly because I’ve mentioned three very early games in a row. Don’t fear, there are positive opinions on the way!

Super Mario Brothers – 1985
You may have heard of this? It properly launched Mario’s career as gaming icon. It also featured side-scrolling levels, a major technical advancement over the ones built of single screen portions. SMB wasn’t the first scroller, but it certainly helped establish the feature as a standard in platform games.

The sequels were bigger and better, but this was a big improvement over non-super mario. I consider it one of the earliest platformers that I still find genuinely enjoyable today. It’s definitely worth revisiting for a few tries. Go kick some koopas, jump for that flag, listen to the classic theme. Here it is being sung by some wrestler dressed as Mario.

You’re welcome. I don’t know if the Super Mario Super Show ever made it to these shores, but I recall watching it daily in America around 1989.

Super Mario Brothers 2 – 1988 (US)
The original Japanese sequel to SMB was a very similar game with fiendishly hard levels, and apparently Nintendo thought it wouldn’t sell well to clumsy, decadent westerners. So instead they took some totally unrelated game (Doki Doki panic) and slapped Mario and friends on it.

That’s why we ended up with a slightly odd entry in the series. There’s no block-bashing, and if you jump on an enemies head you just ride along on top of them. To defeat them you must either pelt them with vegetables, or throw them at each other. Although in later games Mario could grab onto enemies after stomping them, the specific throwing and turnip-picking mechanics used here never returned. Also cast of enemies has only shown up in a handful of later games.

On the other hand it still looks good and there are four playable characters each with their own strengths, something Nintendo really should have revisited sooner. My wife’s a fan and, honestly I’d take this over hard-mode SMB1.

Super Mario Brothers 3 – 1988
Politely stepping around SMB2’s vegetable throwing, this is a logical evolution of the original Super Mario, bigger and improved in every way. Levels are cleverly designed and grouped into different worlds, each with an appealing visual theme. Map screens give you some choice of what level to tackle next. A bunch of new powerups are included, most importantly the racoon tail granting you the power of flight, and with it greater ability to explore the levels. Minigames provide a quick diversion in between the main levels.

If you want a criticism for balance then, well, Mario’s movement is annoyingly slippery. Which makes levels of narrow platforms and big pits rather daunting. Still, this was one of the greatest triumphs of the NES, and possibly the peak of 8-bit platform games. (well possibly until kirby showed up late to the party, see below)

Gradius – 1986
Side scrolling shoot ‘em up. I was more a fan of R-Type, which I used to play on an Atari ST (Rik may approve). I’m really dreadful at these in general.

Balloon Fight – 1985
Apparently rips off Joust. Except my childhood memories are of this one, so it gets my loyalty. You control a little guy floating from balloons, tackling enemies that are similarly equipped. you must hit them from above to pop their balloons, at which point they either fall into water, or onto land. In the latter case you have to stomp them before they re-inflate their balloons.

This is another of the one-screen early games – I’ve been a bit dismissive about some of them, but I do have a certain wistful appreciation for Balloon Fight. Maybe it’s simple nostalgia. Or maybe because its mechanics are something a little different. Unless you played Joust.

Galaga – 1985
A direct descendent of Space Invaders, the main development being more complex patterns of movement for the aliens.

As much as we like to be seen here as grizzled veterans of gaming, this sort of thing is too old to be of real interest to me. It’s a conversion of an arcade game that came out four years earlier, when I was an infant. Still good to have in the collection, just for the historical value.

Dr Mario – 1990
Segmented, multi-coloured pills fall into a space containing several germs. If you create lines of the same colour pill section, they disappear. If a germ of that colour is part of the line, it disappears too.

I assume Nintendo wanted a first-party Tetris. Dr Mario is more fiddly but since Actual Tetris isn’t here, this one goes some way towards filling the action-puzzle space.

Kid Icarus – 1986
I remember Icarus showing up in the Captain N cartoon which starred a bunch of second-tier Nintendo mascots, since Mario and Link had their own shows. Not played his game though!

Tecmo Bowl – 1989
Can’t comment on this. I know virtually nothing about American Football, beyond what my brother in law has patiently tried to explain to me. Very large men run at each other, make a big pile and throw a ball a bit, one big chap runs with it until another very large man stops him. Then the referee blows a whistle? Then it starts again.

I’m not meaning to pick on American sports here. Sport in general baffles me.

Final Fantasy – 1987
To date I’ve played two of this series, VI and VII. Oh, and Chrono Trigger, that’s at least from Square too. Not a wide sampling but enough to at least give me an appreciation for the Japanese way of doing RPGs. More focus on characters and narrative than customising and developing your hero’s attributes. A more linear path instead through the game instead leaving you to roam and explore. Better hair.

One day I’d like to play more of the series, unfortunately barring long-term unemployment I have no idea when i’ll find time. Still now at least I can go see where it all started; I’m curious to see how much had changed by the 16 bit days.

Excite Bike – 1984
Side scroller where you attempt various jumps on a dirtbike. Getting it right is not just about building up speed, but also orienting yourself correctly for landing. Unfortunately this is probably another example of 10-mins and done.

Double Dragon II: The Revenge 1989
Two denim wearing martial artists tackle gang crime by dealing out some street justice, by single handedly beating every last hoodlum into unconsciousness. It’s a scenario very much with its roots in the 80s, and one that drove the majority of Beat Em Ups that weren’t Golden Axe. Back then we were routinely marching down trash-strewn streets, karate-kicking ruffians in the junk then piledriving them into the pavement. Should I feel uncomfortable with this sort of treatment of people driven into a life of crime by economic inequality, and lack of opportunity?

(I probably won’t)

Anyway, this inevitably feels a bit primitive next to the 16-bit greats of the genre. For a point of interest though, the controls are a little different: A strikes left, B right and it’s a punch or kick depending on whether or not you’re facing that way.

Kirby’s Adventure – 1993
I hadn’t realised this game came out so late; it was the last triumph of an antiquated console at a time when 16 machines ruled. Hell, the Playstation was less than 3 years after this.

I’m not greatly familiar with it, beyond short sections played as part of Nes Remix, but I hope to make time for it in the near future. The artwork is a brave effort to be as close to the SNES as those old 8-bit chips could manage. The gameplay benefits from a number of clever features – Kirby can inflate himself to float, and can suck in enemies and copy their powers. From what I’ve seen so far, it appears charming and inventive.

The Need for Speed: The Movie

March 17th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Ever since Wing Commander, I’ve maintained a passing interest in game-to film-adaptations, especially if I’ve actually played (and enjoyed) the game or series in question. Some years ago, with the day to myself, I went to see the film version of Max Payne on my own, and though the film wasn’t a total turkey, the feeling persisted that I could have made much better use of the time (plus although going to the cinema alone felt perfectly normal, the solo pre-film beer and burger in a nearby Wetherspoons, without the comfort of smartphone doodling, was a little depressing – there’s only so much mileage in pretending to send and receive text messages). Anyway, the days of going to quite such lengths to take in a bad film are long gone, but I was interested enough in The Need for Speed to catch up with it when it popped up on Netflix.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead!

The first Need for Speed game did have a lot of video clips, but they were, in the main, 90s Top Gear slow-motion car-wank type stuff, with a couple of brief handcuffing scenes if you got stopped by the cops. When Black Box took over responsibility for the franchise, though, particularly from 2005’s Most Wanted onwards, there was a more concerted attempt at providing a story, with real actors participating in fairly ludicrous cut scenes that maintained a certain B-movie charm if you didn’t take them too seriously. So there was potential in a film adaptation, especially as everyone seems to enjoy those Fast and Furious movies.

tnfsm1

Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul is Tobey Marshall, mechanic by day, street racer by night. Struggling for money, he gets suckered into working for pantomime villain Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), an arrangement that leads to death, disaster and Tobey’s incarceration. When he gets out, he wants revenge, the only way he knows how – by racing cars!

Actually, there’s more to it than that – and not in a good way, because The Need for Speed is a lot more complicated, and lengthy, than it needs to be. A lot of details, and some characters, appear superfluous: Michael Keaton is in it for a bit, although he seems to be acting in a different film, contributing what appears to be a deliberately confusing opening monologue, before popping up at various points to offer largely unnecessary commentary. Dakota Johnson, as Tobey’s ex, is another who has virtually nothing to do except stand around for a bit and look sad. Inevitably, Tobey also has a ‘crew’, whose forced banter and minimal chemistry call to mind the awkward throwing together of characters from the various Fast and Furious movies (I wasn’t a big fan of the more recent entries in the series).

In fact, the whole opening bit could have been cut down by about half an hour. You sort of know what’s going to happen: indeed, there’s a naive younger brother type who may as well be wearing a T-shirt with I am going to die quite soon (but perhaps not as soon as you’d like) written on it. If the intention is to try and provide a bit more depth and some insight into the various characters and their motivations, it doesn’t work. I don’t mind clichés in a genre movie, but this is all very laboured, and the main setup could have been laid out more quickly without very much being lost in the process.

tnfsm6

When they do finally get going, it’s actually quite good fun for a while. The strongest bit involves our protagonists driving across the US in a bid to actually get to the start line for the big race finale. Here, there’s a chance for Paul and Imogen Poots, whose character Julia is – for slightly inexplicable reasons – along for the ride, to develop a bit of a relationship, while his crew assist them in negotiating the series of chases and challenges that they meet along the way. There are some great set pieces here, and at this point TNFS sort of calls to mind older cross-country racing flicks like Smokey and the Bandit (to which there is a passing reference) although – and it could just be my age, or a testament to the effectiveness of the stunt work – I did start to worry about the safety of other innocent road users in a way that I didn’t with most other racing films.

I like Aaron Paul but he’s not got much to work with here, and too often his intensity manifests itself in a variety of constipated expressions. And before l looked her up on Wikipedia, Imogen Poots almost became the latest British actress to incorrectly suffer my accusations of employing a fake British accent. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the use of a British accent in these Hollywood movies and TV shows that just really grates with me. (Having said that, Dominic Cooper is also British, and it might have added to his general nefariousness if he’d kept his accent too.) The film also changes its mind about whether Juila does or does not know about cars at various points – in one breath she’s going on about horsepower and mudflaps (not literally) and in another she’s being all squealy about handbags (literally) and not knowing what’s going on.

tnfsm10

The film is fairly faithful to the games, if you’re familiar with them. There are a few sequences that switch to a dashboard view; the opening night race could be from Carbon, and later sections recall Hot Pursuit and The Run. In fact, it’s very similar at times to The Run, which had movie aspirations of its own. Series tropes like cars pulling up to the start line like they’re some kind of caged animal are also referenced. As good as the on-screen racing is, though, the overriding feeling is that you do sort of want to play the games afterwards: perhaps that’s the point.

Anyway, The Need for Speed is too long, and a little bit all over the place, but it’s intermittently entertaining and, as I mentioned, I certainly enjoyed it more than the more recent instalments of Fast and Furious. It also counts as one of the better films-based-on-a-game that I’ve seen – although, as we all know by know, that isn’t saying much.

now you’re playing with power

March 7th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Here’s a first for you on this humble site, a hardware review. We’re looking at the Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System, released by Nintendo last November. If you were already interested in it, you’ve probably read many opinions already. Completely failing to seize a rare chance for topical commentary, we’re a few months behind all the other reviewers.

The delay was mostly down to difficulty getting my hands on one, since the Classic has been near-permanently out of stock at all the retailers. Apparently Nintendo woefully underestimated the demand it would generate. The only option has been to turn third party sellers on Amazon and Ebay, who are charging over twice the recommended retail price of £50. No way in hell I’m giving money to those scalpers.

Fortunately my wife had alerts set up on Stock Informer – last week it sent an alarm blaring across our home letting us know Amazon had some classics. With catlike reflexes she pounced and purchased one. Good thing too because 15 minutes later it was out of stock again.

First up a quick reminder of what we’re looking at. The Classic Mini is a little console that comes with thirty NES games installed. It’s shaped just the original NES, but smaller, actually not far off the size a cartrdige. The controller is an exact replica of that square-cornered original. The old reset button now operates the menu screen. There’s a save-state function that basically means you can save your game anywhere, so its useful to those of us who are actually shit at these old games.

Only one controller is included, and official ones are also still hard to find at the £10 they’re meant to sell for. The cable for the controller is weirdly short at about 75cm, which is inadequate for living room couch gaming. Fortunately you can get both extension leads and controllers from 3rd parties, easily enough. A power supply isn’t included, Nintendo will sell you one but most powered usb hubs or phone chargers should do; it only wants one amp.

You get three options for graphics – starting with “pixel perfect” which is a direct replica of the output of an original NES, in 4:3 ratio. Then there’s a widescreen option if you prefer a a stretched picture to black bars either side. Finally “crt mode” replicates the scanlines and blurriness of running on an old-school TV. Some folks might find that adds to the nostalgia, but I’ve gotten used to the way old console games look on my PC monitor, when using emulators, so I stuck with Pixel Perfect.

The selection of games includes most of the big-name first party releases that you’d think of. You’re expecting all three super Marios, both Zeldas, and Metroid, right? They’re all present and correct. Plus some older and more obscure titles. We also get some big third party hits like Megaman 2, Final Fantasy and Ninja Gaiden.

The range covers the whole of the NES’ lifespan, and provides an interesting reminder of how games evolved within those 8-bit days. In particular, it’s a study in the development of platform games. Originals from 83, 84 (in Japan) like Donkey King are all about repetitive actions, on samey-looking single-screen levels on black backrounds. As much of a fan as old games as I am, I have to admit some of those earliest games are too primitive to hold my interest for long. Mario’s first “super” outing then was notable for backdrops and levels that scroll, albeit left-to-right only. So you’re moving through a world rather than jumping around a bare room.

By the late 80s we have games like megaman 2 and mario 3. The artwork was bolder and more colourful, with many different level themes.. They were more expansive, more complex, with stacks of different powerups. Mario 3 in particular has something like 90 unique levels, spread across nine worlds, not to mention all those minigames. As a last chapter there’s Kirby’s Big Adventure from 1993, a brave final effort with clever level design, inventive character abilities, and graphics that must have pushed the Nes’ aged chips to their limits.

The bad news: those 30 games are all you’re getting, as officially speaking there’s no way to add more. No online store, no slot for memory cards. I’ve heard about hacks that involve adding ROM files via the power lead, but I’ve no idea how fiddly the process is, or if you risk bricking the Classic. I don’t plan on trying it.

We might wistfully consider all the NES games this will never (officially) play – after all there were five other Megaman games released on NES. We’ve got the first two castlevanias here but not number three, and there’s no Ninja Turtles or Duck tales. Still, I think this will entertained for a while. I’m looking forward to giving the original Metroid a proper effort. Also Zelda 2, even if I recall it being pretty tough.

Last time I wrote about the classic, I considered its merits compared to all the other ways you can play Nes games nowadays. I should revisit my thoughts, now I actually have one sat on my desk.

As some technically-inclined retro-gamers will wearily explain, you can make a far more capable retro-gaming device using a Raspberry Pi. That’s the tiny and versatile linux PC that sells for £10 to £30, depending on the specific model. If you install an emulation package on it, such as RetroPie, you can run games for just about every old console and home computer you could think of. Megadrive, NES and Atari ST games all coming out of a unified front-end on one little box. Sounds marvellous.

To do that though you’ve got to install software onto the Pi. Then sort out a bunch of configuration details, to get screen resolution right and set up contollers etc. Then deal with something that inevitably went wrong – last time I tried it took an hour just to coax sound out of it. If you’re really unluck you’ll be dropping down to the command line. Then you have to find and copy your own roms over.

Okay okay, I’m labouring the point here, and Linux fans are probably rolling their eyes. Setting up Retropie is not rocket science. In fact I plan on doing so myself sometime. It is, however, more tinkering than some people want or have time for. The appeal of the Classic is, I can plug it into a TV, switch on, and immediately enjoy some Super Mario with a minimum of fuss. That’s going to appeal to the average nostalgic thirtysomething, with demands on their time and little interest in building computers, more than the Pi.

If you don’t want to build a Pi, and don’t feel the need for your retro-machine to be a tiny box, you could also just run emulators on a laptop connected to a TV. With the Classic Mini though I have an official Nintendo device, and I like that feeling of authenticity. It also means I’m playing legal copies of all these games, and after so many years of freeloading roms that seems appropriate. Not everyone may care about such things of course.

If authenticity is the key factor, some people would prefer to get an actual NES. Certainly can’t get any closer to the 80s than that. Getting together a collection of games even close to what’s on the Classic Mini is going to set you back a hell of a lot more than £50, though. Also, that means no save states, something I’ve grown very attached to.

With the NES Mini, Nintendo are offering us a charming and convenient way to revisit their classics, for a reasonable price (assuming you can find one at RRP). I was ambivalent before, but am now glad I have one. I switch it on for a few hours play on my saturday afternoon, a Nintendo logo pops up and happy chiptunes come out, then I enjoy a session of some classic games. It brings some rays of 8-bit sunshine into our day.

My reasons for favouring it might not be totally rational but if you want unbiased facts, that’s what wikipedia is for. One day I’ll have a Pi set up and will write about it here. I’d also love to own some original 8 and 16 bit consoles, if we ever have room. For now, though, the Classic is a great way to replay some old favourites like Zelda, and I’ve also discovered a few games I missed the first time around. So I’d recommended it to anyone who feels nostalgic about the NES.

Mind you, it’s still hard to find. At the time of writing Stockinformer hasn’t reported any opportunities since 2nd March. Not being able to get a new toy is rather a first world problem, I suppose, but still the situation is frustrating. Hopefully in time Nintendo will make a serious effort to address the supply problems.

Tune in next time when I discuss some of the individual games themselves. Don’t worry, we are still primarily a PC gaming site.

The Rebels have proven surprisingly clever

March 2nd, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Bucking the usual trend for this site, here’s coverage of the second game in a series, arriving after the first, and in reasonably quick succession. It’s Star Wars: Rebel Assault II – The Hidden Empire.

rebel2title

he’s played a wide range of classic PC games… and is terrible at most of them

February 16th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Due to my 2016 ban on aquiring games, I hadn’t been keeping up much on gog.com. Turns out, during my absence, they did add a some oldies of interest. Which is heartening to see; it’s great that they stock all those indie titles but for us their primary contribution to gaming will always be keeping the classics alive.

Tanks outside a small colony.

First up is Imperium Galactica 2, the space-based 4x strategy game featuring realtime battles. I wrote about it many years ago and had mostly positive opinions, apart from complaining about how hard it is. I recall doing fine on easy mode, but on medium I always ended up overwhelmed by massive enemy fleets. I’m not sure if the game is really that unforgiving or if I was just playing incompetently. I guess I needed more industry to churn out more ships. Or more research centres to more quickly gain advanced tech, resulting in more powerful ships. Quantity, or quality? Or maybe both.

I do think it was probably a mistake to give one particular race (the KraHen) massive boosts to warship production, then make them immune to spying and unable to interact with anyone via diplomacy. In other words they have a big military advantage, while other means of slowing them down are unavailable. That seems a bit imbalanced to me. Apparently their one weakness is sucking at research but that never seemed to stop them steamrolling me.

Still I wish I had time to give it another try. I recall the colony-management, which was basically simcity in space, is quite engaging. Here you manage the usual 4x stuff like factories and research labs, but also you have to place utilities like housing, police stations, even parks. Plus you have a 3D view of each colony, and could zoom in for a look up close. Somehow these factors made your colonies feel a bit more important and real, opposed to a bunch of numbers and static images.

Then the battles were like something out of a RTS (a genre then in its heyday). Okay, a very simplistic one. Still, these features meant that, while I wouldn’t go as far as calling this game superior to (say) Master of Orion 2, it stood out from the 4x crowd.

Castle Brunwald – a sprawling, tough-as-nails, pain in the arse.

There’s also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s an early member of the Lucasarts family, and I recall it being rather more unforgiving than their later adventures. For one thing, you can die (and probably will, repeatedly). There’s also the issue of the game letting you permanently leave an area containing some item that will get you past a later puzzle or problem. This doesn’t, I think, result in an unwinnable state, as there’s always an alternative route out of a location. That route may, however, involve more of those difficult and annoying fist-fights. Resulting in much angry button-mashing. You can of course go back to an old save, but the item may be well hidden, or you may not even know exactly what it is you need.

Okay, I admit I’m paraphrasing Rik’s review here. I don’t think I ever got past the castle (I tried telling the butler I was selling fine leather jackets). Indy’s second point-and-click outing, Fate of Atlantis, is definitely a lot less frustrating. The fighting is still there, but entirely optional, and you can’t permanently lose access to useful items.

Oh dear, now I’ve complained about another game being difficult. From now on: only writing about walking simulators.

The rookie wasn’t that sharp after all

February 6th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Now that all of the CSI games have been half-heartedly evaluated (you’re welcome), we can turn our attention to more genuine retro content. So here’s a look back at the 90s Star Wars shooter that everyone with a CD drive owned, Rebel Assault.

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what secrets lie within this ancient archive?

January 27th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

I’ve been sorting through old computer hardware lately and forcing myself to jettison some of it. I’ve always liked having boxes of spare parts, so I cling onto DVD drives, hard disks, and a Radeon 5770 that’s prone to overheating. I have to ask myself though, what do I see myself doing with four IDE cables? Am I going to build  a PC out of pre-2006 technology? Also I have three USB wifi dongles, so I should really chuck out the two from the previous decade. Epecially when I always connect my desktop to the router via ethernet anyway.

One item I came across was this:

zip

 

You may recall the zip disk: a form of removable magnetic disk, with its own dedicated drive. This particular example was bought in 2001 and could could store 100MB, about 70 times as much as a floppy disk. (re)Writable CDs already existed by this point, and had even greater capacity but I found the zip disks more convenient to use. With no need for faffing around with CD-burner software, you copied stuff via drag and drop, as easily as you would to a floppy. Also a zip disk was easier to fit in a pocket, having about the same dimensions as a floppy disk (albeit, about twice as thick).

I ended up buying a zip drive because they were fitted to many library PCs at my University. At that point we didn’t yet have internet connections in our college rooms, so, a zip disk proved the easiest way of moving large quantities of downloaded data to my own PC. Where by “data” I mean “abandonware games”. I still have them stashed on my current PC, many still unplayed, 16 years later.

Zips with greater storage did exist: there was a 250Mb version and in 2002 Iomega even announced a 750Mb disk. However, within a few years the format was killed off by the USB flash memory stick. I’m not sure if capacity was a deciding factor at first; I vaguely recall that around 2003-2004 the standard was 128-256MB for USB sticks.

However, zips did have one clear disadvantage. I mentioned them being convenient, but that only applied if the computer you wanted to use had a zip drive installed in the first place. If not then the disk was quite obviously useless. Zip drives were moderately popular, but never so much that you could assume one was going to be available when, say, visiting a friend or travelling on business. Whereas a stick could of course plug straight into a USB socket and would work with any vaguely modern PC. Plus USB sticks were cheaper than a zip drive + disk.

(I wonder how mad the university IT department was about all that cash spent on quickly-obselete drives)

My zip clung on a while for backup purposes – I’m kind of curious to know what’s on it. It must be some snapshot of important data I had around 2004. Possibly working files for an early version of this site?  I still have the drive, built into my old computer (so, yeah, I already have a pre-2006 PC…). which is currently hanging around the server room at work. Amazingly no-one’s told me to get rid of the damn thing yet.

2016: not a penny for Gaben or the gog.com guys

January 19th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

When I was 13 years old I had maybe 10 proper games for the family PC, and played them all thoroughly. Now, between my disc, steam and gog.com libraries, and I have over a hundred games I have yet to play.

Rows of them scowl at me from shelves, real or virtual, demanding answers as to why I’ve not given them more attention. Several old RPGs such as Ultima 7 demand their turn, asking exactly how long I’m going to take to complete Might and Magic 6 (been at it 18 months so far). Medieval Total War reminds me that commanding armies of knights and spearmen should be my kind of thing. Old Sierra adventures entice me back to the 90s. I behold so many games either untouched, or barely touched, and am constantly in a state of shame.

The key reason they remain unplayed is time. My existence is not what it was as a carefree 20something, and the demands of real life are significant. (They’re worth it though. Observe the ring on my finger).

I’ve also found that, even when I sit down to try something new, I end up staring at my library, paralysed with indecision. I’ve noticed a similar problem with Netflix – so many options, so little ability to commit. I guess it’s some fear that, if I don’t enjoy the game or fail to make progress, it will mean evenings wasted. So that can lead to replaying games with which I’m already familiar, which is a safe and comfortable option. So that’s how I ended up revisiting the Captal Wastelands of Fallout 3 last year. This doesn’t help the Unplayed list get shorter, of course. Also, looking at this in terms of my knowledge and experience as a gamer, my lack of boldness is denying myself the chance of discovering something new I might enjoy (and review here, if it’s suitable).

So last year I promised myself I would not buy any new games. The Unplayed list had expanded too far, it weighed on me too heavily. I vowed it would grow no further.

This required some willpower. In particular, I have been strongly wanting to get Fallout 4 and Dishonored 2. Also I’m always tempted by the pixelly VGA charms of oldies on gog.com. Even beardy RPGs and complicated strategy titles that I know I’ll never get far with. I had to harden my heart towards steam and gog sales, to delete the constant mails remding me of wonderful deals, to tell myself no Stoo, you do not have time to try Colonisation or Populous.

Still, I held firm. No purchases were made. Unfortunately this didn’t greatly help me reduce the unplayed list. In fact you’ll notice I’ve not added a review in about a year. However at least the list isn’t any longer! And it may go down this year – expect something Star Trek related and something early from Blizzard.

The ban has now been lifted, but, I’m still trying to keep purchases to a minimum. I guess last year had some lasting impact on my habits. If I get one recent game it’ll most likely be Dishonored 2, since the original was both excellent, and a better sequel to the Thief series than the 2014 Thief itself. As for buying oldies, well, I’m keeping at least a “no damn RPGs” rule seeing as I have about four other Might and Magics to play.

2016: Winning so hard

January 15th, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi everyone.

2016 was generally considered to be a pretty bad year for all sorts of reasons, and as we’re probably all back to work, it seems a bit late for a retrospective. It’s days since, for example, Spotify sent me an end of year email to confirm that I basically use their premium service to listen to music that I already own but have lost the physical copy and/or mp3 of. And those carefree Boxing Day hours discovering the gentle delights of Inkle’s 80 Days (ported to the PC and very kindly gifted to us by Cape Guy Games) seem like months not days ago.

But on the other hand, it was our 15th year, and as we get older fellas like us probably need to keep a running record of what’s happened somewhere. (My own personal how-old-am-I-again-o-meter has swung from “ooh no worries, late 20s/early 30s” to “nearly f*****g 40 oh jesus” in the last couple of years, although the latter is no more true than the former, and wouldn’t really warrant any panic or swearing even if it were).

Dreamfall: A bit talky, but we kind of liked it.

Dreamfall: A bit talky, but we kind of liked it.

We started with our first and last discussion of the year, taking a look at Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Stoo then brought us a write-up of the 00s FPS Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior while I disappeared down a cul-de-sac of old football and racing games: Championship Manager 2006, Striker, Superkarts etc.

Juiced 2: Somehow not as good as the first one, with extra stupidity thrown in for good measure.

Juiced 2: Somehow not as good as the first one, with extra stupidity thrown in for good measure.

In the early part of the year we also decided to mark the site anniversary with a few pieces that were slightly different from our standard format reviews and discussions. I decided to go back through some of my older reviews and pick out some of the games that were important in terms of my history with the site, and with gaming in general, and then waffled on about them in slightly self-indulgent manner. To be honest, I had no idea whether anything worthwhile would result, but I did want to avoid simply reworking some old content.

When I Played: It all started with Wing Commander III.

When I Played: It all started with Wing Commander III.

Anyway, it all seemed to turn out ok (and I had a few messages from people who said nice things, which was, er, nice). Along similar lines, Stoo took some time to talk about his own gaming history, with Tales of a Former Flight Sim Fan.

Stoo on flight sims: “I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm”

Stoo on flight sims: “I was never a great pilot, for all my enthusiasm”

Having clearly made the decision not to go back and rehash old reviews, we both then proceeded to rehash some old reviews. Speedball 2, Toonstruck and Diablo all received updated writeups, and I made another attempt to look at Sensible Soccer without being quite so much of a twat about it.

Football Glory: yet another sub-par 90s football game added to the FFG collection.

Football Glory: yet another sub-par 90s football game added to the FFG collection.

Journeying into the mid-late 00s brought middling results, most likely because of my choice of game: Stranglehold and Prey were a little disappointing, but I possibly enjoyed Space Siege more than most. Then after a fallow period I disappeared down a CSI-shaped rabbit hole and finished off our coverage of the series, including the oft-mentioned Nintendo DS release, CSI: Deadly Intent: The Hidden Cases.

RACE: Plenty of fun to be had, for a sim, beyond crashing driving the wrong way around the track.

RACE: Plenty of fun to be had, for a sim, beyond crashing and/or driving the wrong way around the track.

Things will continue in 2017, and who knows, maybe we’ll be back here again in 12 months with another smattering of new content to look back on. Thanks, as always, for reading, and all the best for the year ahead.

Out of darkness, out of mind, cast down into the Halls of the Blind

January 9th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Looking back over Blizzard’s history, I wouldn’t refer to much of their output as particularly innovative. That’s not to say they’re not great developers, highly original thinking just isn’t their particular strength. The modus operandi has been to take an established genre, polish and tune it, and release a high quality game. Much more steady evolution than revolution.

Take Warcraft, which was basically Dune 2 with tanks swapped for orcs. Okay it was a bit clunky, but so was Dune 2. A couple of years later, around the time of Command and Conquer, Warcraft 2 was well received. By 1998 we were awash in realtime strategy games and Blizzard’s third effort in the genre, Starcraft, didn’t do a lot different beyond having three different armies. Yet thanks to all the care Blizzard put into assembling its various elements – frantic combat, base building, art direction – it went on to be one of the most successful games of its type. In particular, it had a huge multiplayer scene.

Or there’s World of Warcraft – which owed a lot to previous MMOs like Everquest. Its massive success wasn’t due to being something new, more like taking an existing formula and adjusting it, in this case I think particularly reducing level grinding and being more accessible to casual players.

Nowadays outside of sequels, Blizzard’s releases have all been their own spin on popular online gaming. Hearthstone is a card game, something like Magic Online. Heroes of the Storm represents Blizzard realising the kids are playing MOBAs like League of Legends. Overwatch is a Team-Fortress-esque shooter with scifi-cartoon aesthetics.

Diablo though, I think was an instance where they did try something new, the one game that forged its own (demon-strewn) path. Not to claim it was the first ever real-time isometric-view RPG. Yet there wasn’t much like it at the time, especially not on the PC. It took old-fashioned dungeon crawling, and added fast-paced action, current graphics and a slick, mouse-driven interface. Quests were simple, character stats kept to a few key essentials. Your goal was simple to carve your way through horders of monsters, furiously clicking your mouse to swing a sword or hurl fireballs. As they fell they dropped loot, which you endlessly sorted through, keeping upgrades to your current weapons and armour, and flogging the rest. It was a dark, gothic treadmill of chopping goatmen in half and looking for a sword with a few more damage points.

It was also, of course, massively successful. Ifirst mentioned it here on this site way back in about 2002, when it was just a few years old, but last year I felt a need to re-evaluate. To appreciate its place in gaming history we need to consider not only its own sequels but also other cRPGs that the series inspired. (even if, arguably, its sequel was the really influential one).

This year Diablo celebrates its 20th Anniversary. To mark the occasion and drum up some player nostalgia, Blizzard have released a tribute in the form of a limited-time event within Diablo 3, titled the Darkening of Tristram. It’s a recreation of the original game, featuring the entire 16-floor dungeon. It uses Diablo3 assets for levels and D3 monsters stand in for their original counterparts, but there are graphical filters put over the top to give us that late-90s low-resolution feel. Apparently the animation is even choppier, to match the original. Players and monsters can only move in 8 directions, and player walking speed is reduced to that steady trudge of the original.

The Darkening of Tristram is only around for January, but if I have time to play I’ll return here with my thoughts. I do hope they’ve brought back that wonderfully haunting acoustic guitar theme.