[ Content | Sidebar ]

A marvellous box of MS-DOS wonders

April 26th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Given all my talk of the NES mini in the past month or two, I thought I’d drag myself back to our usual subject matter by considering what a PC-gaming equivalent might look like. A little emulation device containing about thirty classic titles.

The approach I’m thinking wouldn’t involve new hardware, but would rather be a bundle of software for Raspberry Pi. You’d have an archive of games packaged with dosbox and a convenient installer that puts the whole lot on an sd card, ready to boot up on the Pi.

You can already do this by installing Retroarch (or dosbox standalone) then deciding on and finding some games for yourself, but this would be a lot more convenient. A package of great games chosen for the user, ready to go after a few clicks. I might call it a curated selection but “curated” is a buzzword that I find oddly irritating.

The time period I’m thinking is the first-half of the 90s. We’re looking at the height of MS-DOS gaming before windows 95 took over. The late 90s – the days of Half Life and Starcraft – can be a topic of discussion for another day.

You might well ask if this is just an excuse to list my top thirty games. Some personal bias will creep into this, inevitably. Still I’d like to think I can reasonably consider games that were classics even if I never played them much myself.

Also, it’s only going to be twenty or so. I’m hoping Rik can chip in with suggestions, particularly from genres I don’t know much about, but also any other worthy titles I may have missed.

 

Goblins and Axes

Let’s tie on our imitation dwarf beards to start with cRPGs. There are a few long-running and successful series from which we could take candidates. From the Ultima line, the seventh seems to be a favourite with its large, detailed and open world. (I played for about 30 minutes and wish I had time for more).

Another stalwart of the genre was Wizardry, taking a different approach with turn based combat and a first-person view. We’ll have the seventh (okay I am including a personal favourite here), where it broke through into VGA.

A Phoot in the Forest. Bash it!

For a more action-oriented third example I’ll return to the land of lord British for Ultima Underworld, known for its revolutionary first person 3D engine.

On My Six

Flight sims were one of the few genres where PC always did better than consoles. For some fairly hardcore realism in a modern setting, let’s have Falcon 3.0. I’m also taking Gunship 2000, to represent both helicopters, and Microprose’s balance of authenticity and accessibility.

For the second world war, those days of propellers and machineguns, we could have Dynamix’ Aces of the Pacific.

Launch all Tie Fighter Squadrons
Sometimes we were flying in space instead. X-Wing was an important title, from the days when the PC was first establishing itself as a powerful gaming platform. However I’m taking TIE Fighter instead as it was rather better polished and balanced.

We must take Wing Commander a onboard. I’m thinking either the first title or the third depending on whether we want to see the VGA origin of the series, or enjoy some of the most lavish FMV cutscenes of the 90s. Rik can advise.

Knee Deep in the Dead
It’s essential to include the early days of the first person Shooter. iD dominated in these days so let’s have a few of their milestones. Wolfenstein 3D was for many of us the first game of this sort that we experienced. Doom was of course enormously influential, one of the single most important PC games of the decade. It provided smooth, intense run and gun action, us from flat mazes to sort of-3D, aand introduced multiplayer.

I love the way these things deflate like a mouldy raspberry when you kill them.

Then there’s… Quake. Its brown. I never loved it. Yet it brought about the next generation of shooters, and was clearly loved by many. See, I can be objective!

Looking to other developers, we could also take Duke Nukem 3D. It starred one of the PC’s most iconic heroes of the day, goofy humour, and some first efforts at “real world” level design.

Goodbye Galaxy
For more old-school action gaming, like platform games, I’d prefer to stick to PC-native titles rather than ports from other systems. That does limit our options a little, though. I suggest Commander Keen 4, the finest of the Keen series with a varied set of levels and some real visual charm beyond its 16 colours. A slightly more advanced counterpart would be Jazz Jackrabbit.

What are your orders?
There are a bunch of different flavours of Strategy to consider. We’ll have Civillisation as the granddaddy of 4x empire building. UFO, with its mix of global management and squad-level combat, is still inspiring remakes today.

These were the early days of realtime strategy, so we probably want Dune 2. Clunky as it seems now, it did launch a genre. We must also include Command and Conquer, with its much improved interface and extensive FMV.

Use Rubber Chicken with a pulley in the middle
Now an indie hipster niche, graphical adventures were once a proud part of mainstream gaming. Two big companies were responsible for the majority of the most popular adventures. We’ll look first at Sierra, who churned out an awful lot of Quests. I feel King’s Quest should be represented, since it pioneered the entire genre, but the really old ones are annoying to play so I’ll stay in VGA times and pick KQ6.

Since we’re fans of officer Sonny Bonds with his sensible haircut and dedication to serving the public, we’re also taking Police Quest 3.

Getting ready to leave good ol' Lytton PD. Prepare for a godawful driving section (best turn the music off, too).

Then we turn to the Lucasarts stable. There are so many great games here it’s hard to pick a couple of the best. I’d say The Secret of Monkey Island with its whimsical humour and clever puzzles is essential, though. It established Lucasarts more forgiving approach to adventuring, as compared to Sierra’s constant threat of failure and death for screwing up.

Then for a slightly later example I want Day of the Tentacle, with its antics across one house in three different time periods, plus three of adventuring’s greatest heroes. Hoagie has been kind of a mascot for this site since the early days

That’s twenty-two games so I will stop for now. Feel free to put in your own suggestions in the comments, or tell me why I’ve made lousy choices.

I hate you, Blue Wizzrobes

April 11th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Owning the NES Classic Mini means my first priority is to play legend of Zelda. Again. I’ve just finished the sixth dungeon, which I recalled being tough, but I thought that was thanks to Darknuts.

These armoured knights are unaffected by sword strikes from head on, and also totally immune to the boomerang’s stunning effect. So you have to carefully manoeuvred yourself into a place to strike without them barging into you. Their movement is totally random, which in a sense is a good thing, as I’ve no idea how you’d hit them if they all just converged on you. It also means though that you can never predict if they will suddenly turn towards you, forcing evasive action. Which is difficult if several are nearby. The best tactic, if you risk being overwhelmed, is to drop bombs and then focus on dodging.

As it happens though the darknuts are in the previous dungeon. Six is made challenging by something worse, the goddamn wizzrobes.

The red ones are manageable by themselves – they teleport somewhere, fire one magic blast towards you if they have line of sight, then teleport again. It’s pretty easy to avoid their attacks and position yourself to strike back.

The blue ones are the bastards though. Instead of teleporting they drift erratically around the screen. If you pass in front of them they fire their magic repeatedly, whilst remaining in motion. They can also pass through solid blocks. If they barge into you, they inflict as much damage just by contact as they do with their magic. Finally, they’re twice as tough as the reds.

 

Argh! Image from zeldadungeon.net

Well at least there are only two blues here. Image from zeldadungeon.net

The good news, the big shield will at least block wizzrobe magic. The bad news, they’re often paired up with Like-Likes, which upon contact eat your shield. Want it back? You have to leave the dungeon and go buy one from a shopkeeper again.

So several rooms in dungeon six are a hellish frenzy of weaving around trying to land a hit, whilst dodging shots from several directions at once, hoping you don’t touch any blues, then also running in a panic from Like-Likes.

Oh wait there are bubbles as well, which don’t hurt you but stop you swinging your sword for about 5 seconds. Probably causing you to miss a narrow window to strike a wizzrobe.

As a final screw-you, dungeon six contains the magic rod which lets you shoot the same blasts as the wizzrobes. But they’re immune. The boomerang

If you die then you have infinite lives with which to try again, but you respawn with just three hearts. It’s not even worth trying to wade into the dungeon in such a fragile state, so you have to either chug a potion or go grind easy enemies for hearts before you try again.

Make sure you have the blue ring before you come here, or you’re taking three hearts damage each time a wizzrobe hits you. Which is pretty disastrous. Also, if you’ve done all the previous dungeons, plus found all the overworld heart containers, you should be able to get the magic sword which means you can take down the blue wizzrobes in two hits.

After all this struggle, the boss fight of this dungeon is weirdly anticlimatic. Wait for it to open its eye, fire one arrow and it drops dead. *sad trombone*

Anyway as Zelda veterans will confirm, I’m just being a wimp as I’m not even playing the Second Quest. This hard mode is accessible after beating the regular game or entering a cheat code. Dungeon layouts are changed with more hidden passages and movable blocks to hunt for, enemies are tougher, and items and dungeon entrances are moved to new locations. That sounds like some truly challenging dungeon crawling. I really should try it next.

(well, no, I should get back to PC games).

England are rapidly heading for success

April 2nd, 2017

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Tonight we’re back to the early 90s for some long-forgotten football action, with International Soccer Challenge.

isctitle

Eastmost Penninsula is the Secret

March 30th, 2017

Written by: Stoo

Here’s part two of my roundup of games on the Nes Classic mini. Again my opinions range from somewhat well informed, to mostly ignorant. If you’d like more extensive reviews, I suggest you go visit our friends over at Just Games Retro.

Metroid – 1986
Platform game, notable for its structure. Instead of a set of discrete levels, the game is spread across a number of connected caverns. You have quite a bit of freedom to explore your surroundings, but, some areas are inaccessible until you gain a particular powerup. For example the famous morph ball lets you enter narrow channels, and bombs let you destroy some floor blocks.

These games tend to involve a lot of roaming, careful searching, and backtracking when you realise the item you just picked up will get you past an obstacle you ran into an hour ago. Castlevania would later take up this format, giving rise to a subgenre we call Metroidvania.

This is the one I’ve been playing the most lately on my Classic Mini. It’s quite tough; partially because it lacks features we came to expect in later metroids, but also just because gamers were made of sterner stuff back then. While you have infinite lives, when you die you respawn at the start of a zone with a tiny amount of health. There are no recharge stations so you have to grind easy enemies for health boosts. Also there’s no map, so it’s really easy to get lost in all those samey-looking vertical shafts.

Finally you can’t actually shoot any enemy below waist height, until you get a late-game upgrade. Which is a little ridiculous. So your only option is to try and drop bombs in the enemy’s path.

That’s me complaining about old games being difficult, but, I think Metroid is still quite compelling. There’s a real sense of being on a dangerous desecent into a mysterious underworld. The game gets off to a energetic start – the music in the starting zone is upbeat, and you quickly grab the first powerup. As you delve deeper though, you notice none of the creatures you encounter are remotely humanoid. The shafts seem to drop forever deeper beneath the surface of Zebes. The soundtrack switches to themes that are more haunting, or menacing. The eerie caverns are an utterly alien domain, and you’re an intruder here.

Also on a technical note, the game was impressive at the time for having two-way scrolling, switching between horizontal and vertical as you move from one chamber to another.

Bubble Bobble – 1986
Adorable little dinosaurs trap monsters in bubbles. Another “each level is one screen” arcade game, where you do the same basic task over and over, but it’s very appealing and the two-player co-op mode helps. I may have been humming along to the tune.

Castlevania – 1986
Before the series went Metroidvania. A straight up, linear platform game that takes its themes from classic horror movies. You must fight your way through a castle full of assorted monsters and undead creatures, on the way to a showdown with Dracula himself. You have an upgradeable whip for your main weapon, and interchangeable secondaries like axes and holy water. This one is still fun, albeit challenging as health recharges are few and far between.

Castlevania 2 – 1987
I’ve not really played this, but as I understand it, Castlevania 2 is sort of a Metroidvania. Not exactly the format we know today but it is more nonlinear, with town section you can visit in between levels to buy supplies and talk to NPCs.

Legend of Zelda – 1986
Top-down action-adventure, maybe kind of an RPG depending on how you look at it. Features an expansive wilderness, around which are scattered several dungeons containing more dangerous threats but also useful artifacts. The ultimate goal is to seek the sacred triforce, and rescue the princess Zelda from the villain Ganon. Spawned Nintendo’s second most famous franchise, with incarnations on every console. The latest one, Breath of the wild, is currently the only real reason to buy the new Switch.

It’s all a bit minimalist compared to sequels, for sure. There’s little story here, you’re just a guy on a quest. There are no towns, in fact few NPCs of any sort. It’s completely over-run with monsters, and the only signs of human life are a few shopkeepers and hermits skulking in caves. There’s also no real in-game map, although to be fair it originally came with one on paper. Also the inability to swing your sword diagonally is often really annoying.

That said, this remains possibly my famous NES game, and it’s another one I’ve actually put several hours into these past few weeks. The land of hyrule still promises adventure, letting you freely roam its lakes, forests and mountains. I don’t even mind the lack of people; the feeling of isolation has its own appeal. You’re making your way into a land that civilisation has mostly ceded to monsters, and only a few adventurers and travellers dare venture here. Meanwhile dungeons are mysterious, forboding, full of perils and treasure, leftover ruins of whoever used to live here.

Also, the wide arsenal of secondary weapons was a winning design move. You have the sword for your main attacks, but adjust your secondary according to circumstances. Bombs on their timer let you place one then concentrate on dodging enemies. Boomerang stuns (and can go diagonally!). The bow costs money for each shot (I guess that took less memory than having an arrow stash) but is often your best bet for dealing damage at a distance.

Zelda 2 – 1987
The black sheep of the family. This first sequel uses a map screen, jumping to side-scrolling action sections when you enter a town or palace, or encounter random wandering monsters. It’s also the most overt in use of RPG systems – you gain experience points for killing enemies, and level up every time you gather sufficient points. Meanwhile the secondary weapons were replaced with a set of magic spells.

Tougher than the first game. If you lose all your lives you can continue, but are thrown right back to the starting map location. Combat requires a higher degree of alertness and dexterity than the top-down zeldas, since you can strike and block low and high, but so can some enemies. Needless to say, I am bad at this.

Also, it turns out Hyrule is a lot larger than we first thought – it’s suggested that the region we explored in the first game is just one patch of the wider kingdom. So there are indeed towns and people elsewhere (even if monsters still fill every field and forest), useful for hearing clues, learning spells, recharging health and meeting this guy:

There are probably reasons the series never went back to this format. Zelda 3 on the SNES was based on the original, and every subsequent sequel either did the same or starting with Ocarina of Time used 3rd-person 3D. Still, this one is still worth an attempt, an epic quest for a brave adventurer.

Fun fact: chronologically, Zelda 1 and 2 are actually the last two games in the series, set centuries after Ocarina and Skyward Sword.

StarTropics – 1990 (US)
It’s like Legend of Zelda, except set on tropical islands somewhere here on earth, and you’re a kid with a yo-yo. Also you can jump.

Movement takes place in discrete steps around a grid, which I have mixed feelings about. Some actions feel easier, like co-coordinating jumps across water (where falling in means instant death), or dodging boss projectiles. On the other hand, avoiding those goddamn bat things is frustrating. What doesn’t help is, several years after Zelda, you still can’t attack diagonally.

Grumbles aside, I’ve cleared the first couple of dungeons and am intrigued enough to continue. The setting is a bit different from fantasy, at least.

Ice Climber – 1985
Break ceilings above you, climb. An early title that I think serious Nintendo fans look back on fondly, but is largely forgotten otherwise.

Pac-Man – 1984
Well, the historical importance of Pac-Man is undeniable. He was immensely successful, and one of gaming’s first real mascots. That said, I don’t think we particularly associate him with Nintendo? The original arcade game was released in 1980, so pre-dated the NES by a few years, and was later ported (or copied) to just about every system in existence.

I don’t have a lot to say about it myself – it’s probably clear by now that I don’t spend much time on the oldest games. It seems to have been around 85, 86 that gaming developed the complexity and features that grant more lasting appeal. That’s speaking in terms of my personal tastes of course. If you can get enjoyment out of the ancients, more power to you!

Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream – 1987
Originally featuring Mike Tyson as the final fight, but not anymore, I guess he fell out of favour. Another on the “not played” pile, although one I’d like to try sometime. The only boxing game I ever did play was EA Fight Night, against Rik. Where the two of us clubbed ineffectually at each other for 10 minutes while the commentator sounded so thrilled, I assumed he was watching a different game entirely. This one doesn’t have 2-player sadly.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins – 1986
Action platformer, destroy lots of spooky monsters. Really tough. You can take two hits, on the first you guys’s impressive looking but flimsy armour shatters and he runs around in his pants.

Super C 1990
Only played this for about 10 minutes. I’m a bit more familiar with the SNES sequel. In this sort of fast and frantic platform shooter, I tend to die quickly and give up. That said, I can see the simultaneous two-player mode having potential.

Ninja Gaiden 1988
Again I’ve only seen the first couple of levels of this one. Sorry, I’m not really interested in old games. I’m a fake geek guy.

Mega Man 2 1989
Platform shooters starring an amiable little blue android. You fight your way to eight robot masters, each of whom has a level themed around themselves. So Metal Man is in a world of gears and pulleys , Air Man is up in the clouds. Upon beating them you take their weapon. Once all are down, you assault the stronghold of their creator, Dr Wily. The robot master stages can be done in any order, but since each is vulnerable to a certain weapon, there’s an optimum path through the game.

This one is still greatly enjoyable. The artwork is colorful and cartoony, the levels memorable and the music incredibly catchy. Now, this is just one of a series that went all the way up to six(!), but it’s generally regarded as the most popular.

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. Typical of an 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 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. Super Mario is one 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 very similar to the original, with fiendishly hard levels. 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 turnip-throwing mechanics used here never returned. Also the ast 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
The next sequel ignores SMB2’s vegetables. SMB3 is a direct follower and logical evolution ofof 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 it compares to the 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 this one, 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 Julia 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 now, 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.

rebelassaulttitle