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A little beige box

December 29th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Since the release of the NES classic edition, we’ve seen numerous retro-consoles, all following the same basic idea. A tiny device, dedicated to and shaped just like a classic console or computer of yesteryear, preloaded with a selection of games. So far the SNES, Megadrive/Genesis, C64 and Playstation have all gotten the retro treatment, also the Neo Geo (I never understood what that was, so subtract 50 points from my geek score).

I suppose it was inevitable, then, that someone would try and get the PC onto the bandwagon. Behold the PC Classic:

You might think we should be all fired up about this. It’s a neat little box that you can plug into the TV, and it outputs classic PC games packed full of adlib music and pixelly graphics. Surely it can provide hours of nostalgic fun playing Doom and Commander Keen. It’s even the right shade of beige.

In fact last year we posted a couple of articles few articles speculating about the games we would put a hypothetical MS-Dos box, were it ever to exist. Now that concept is going to become a reality (if the Kickstarter works out) so I guess I should have my wallet on standby?

Yet I’m actually not feeling particularly enthused.

Let’s quickly recap the appeal of retro consoles: They’re novel little tributes to gaming machines of yesteryear. They make classic games from those systems instantly accessible, with none of the fuss of setting up emulators or hunting dodgy websites for illegal ROMs. They are literally plug and play devices, an instant blast of nostalgia for people with limited time.

Many MS DOS games, however, are already easy to play in a way that’s totally above board. You simply buy them from Gog.com, where they usually retail for $10 or less. They come bundled up with dosbox, and running them on windows 10 is (usually) no more trouble than playing a modern PC game.

That just leaves the charm of having a recreation of a classic device, and I’m not sure that’s enough for me. I’m not so attached to 90s beige that I want it adorning a separate emulation box, yet another gadget plugged into the TV. If I did want a “classic PC” I’d forsake the ease-of-use criteria, and instead hunt ebay for an actual 386, for the sake of preserving original hardware. (not that I have room in the house for such folly).

This doesn’t mean I’m about to disown our previous articles. For one thing, at the time I floated the idea of using a Raspberry Pi to build a Mini PC. I’ll stand by that because the Pi is a wonderfully versatile device that can be put to many different uses; it’s not a rather unnecessary piece of single-purpose hardware.

Also, our interest in idea of a PC Classic was mostly about the games we would put on it, so the hardware implementation is rather secondary. Probably the best way to do it would be to forget hardware entirely, and simply release a bundle on gog.com. Call it “best of the PC 1990-1995” or something similar, stick a handy front-end on it, price it attractively. That’s all that’s required.

That said, let’s try and look at this from a more positive angle. I’ve noticed it has an sd card slot, allowing users to add more games. That’s a welcome sight when other retro consoles are often stuck with whatever comes preloaded (unless you hack them). Now if you could boot this thing to a DOS prompt, and basically just use it as if it’s an actual PC, that would also add to the feeling of authenticity.

Also, even I don’t see a use for it myself, it could still be a gateway to classic games like Doom for more casual users. So I will at least keep an eye on further developments; I’ll report back when we know what games are included.

Hey, we could try and blag a free unit if we sign up on the website as an “infuencer”. We’re very influential.

Review: The Blackwell Deception

December 20th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Tonight we continue our look at the Blackwell series, with a review of the fourth game: The Blackwell Deception.

There’s a possibility of one or two more bits and pieces before 2018 is over. But these things often take longer than we might like.

Wishing you all the very best for Christmas and the festive season.

Review: OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast

December 9th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hello there.

My friend and colleague has been bringing us coverage of some proper oldies recently – do check out his reviews of Space Quest III and Monuments of Mars.

For today though we have something more recent, although from a series that began in the 1980s: it’s OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast.

Review: Monuments of Mars

December 6th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Hello everyone.

Our reviews here cover quite a few of the games from Apogee\3D Realms, from their platform games of the early 90s like Bio Menace and Commander Keen 4, to their forays into First Person shooters such as Rise of the Triad. I’d like to fill in the gaps eventually, the most conspicuous absences being Duke Nukem 3D and the rest of the Keen Series. For today though we’re looking at one of their more obscure platform games: Monuments of Mars.

New: Best of the Blog

December 2nd, 2018

Written by: Rik

A quick note about a couple of small changes to the site structure: we’ve put together a Best of the Blog page with links to some of our longer-form pieces and series over the years. As it says on the page itself, we wanted to find a way to highlight these and put them on a par with the reviews, which are all easily accessible from the menu.

We’ve also consolidated the handful of non-review articles which predated the introduction of the blog, previously filed under ‘General Articles’, into this page. Although we did want to preserve these old pieces, there seemed little point in having a separate, rather sparsely populated, section that was never going to be added to.

Hopefully this serves our intended purpose and adds something to the site. Any thoughts or feedback, do let us know.

Review: Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon

November 20th, 2018

Written by: Stoo

Hi all. It’s been a shamefully long time since I last wrote a review here, but today I have a new one for you! We’re returning to the realms of the Sierra adventures, looking at Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon.

Moments in Gaming: Ximelez and Castolo

November 11th, 2018

Written by: Rik

The Master League, Pro Evolution Soccer‘s career mode, was a source of many lost hours during the early-mid 00s. Taking control of the team of your choice (which, depending on your loyalties and the licensing issues of that year’s edition, may be a real club with authentic kits or an approximation with a borderline ludicrous name and an oversized flag on otherwise detail-free shirts), evenings and weekends would be spent ploughing through multiple seasons in search of glory, taking control of action on the pitch and transfer activities off it.

Regardless of the eccentricities of your team’s name, kits and squads were accurate and recognisable enough (and possible to edit, if you had the time and inclination), and with many players buying football games on the basis of taking control of their favoured side and current squad, the Master League sensibly added this option in Pro Evolution Soccer 4.

Before then, however, whichever side you chose, the real-life squad would be nowhere to be seen, replaced by a motley band of low quality misfits, a United Nations of crap players, generated by Konami specifically for use in the Master League. The names remained largely unchanged for several years, going back to ISS Pro Evolution 2 on the Playstation: there was, however, a bizarre widespread renaming process that took place between PES 2 and PES 3, the effects of which were to take a set of generic names that sounded vaguely realistic and alter their spelling in a way that made them just sound weird (right-winger Espinas became known as Espimas, while defensive midfielder Cellini was reincarnated as Celnili, and so on…I know misspelled names are a tradition in football games with licensing issues, but surely not if you’ve made those names up in the first place).

Replaying PES 3 now is a reminder not only of why critics and FIFA fans decried it as a largely joyless experience, but also of how the pleasure gleaned from earning those admittedly rare moments of joy kept so many of us glued to the series for so long. Early games and seasons are a slog, for the simple reason that these starting players are uniformly terrible and able, at most, to do one thing quite well. At the highest difficulty levels, eking out results requires the strictest of discipline: creating chances is reliant on methodical passing to retain possession, while free kicks and corners must not be wasted. At the other end, opponents are clinical and make the most of any defensive sloppiness. It truly puts you in the position of a lower league team, trying to make the most of what you have.

In a way, starting with the default squad is a harsh but effective tutorial, in terms of sharpening the skills required for success in the game, although it could be argued that it’s almost too effective, in that you spend so long learning to cope with poor players that when you finally buy the likes of Shevchenko, Rivaldo et al, it kind of seems like cheating.

Still, I wouldn’t go as far as some who seem to have formed a bond with these dreadful players across several versions of PES over the years, or even make outlandish claims that some of them aren’t even all that bad. Yes, in those early games, there are moments where you might be grateful for central defender Valeny’s pace, the reasonable wingplay of Ximelez and the aforementioned Espimas, or the occasional good free-kick from attacking midfielder Minanda, but frankly, I could never wait to get rid of them. Brazilian striker Castolo, in particular, flatters to deceive: capering about the pitch at a reasonable rate in his white boots, his performances sadly hampered by low shooting accuracy, which means he can’t hit a barn door with a banjo.

Personally, I instead save my affection for the initial crop of cheap and free transfer signings that you rely on for initial success (current crush: tricksy attacking midfielder Marco Ferreira, currently on fire for Leeds…I mean, Yorkshire, in Master League Northern Division 1). Sorry, Ximelez, Castolo et al: thanks for the memories, but you’re on the release list, and if no-one wants you, I’ll be stopping contract negotiations before they start.

Vault of Regret: Sensible Soccer

November 2nd, 2018

Written by: Rik

I’m not particularly proud of the fact that Sensible Soccer and I have never got on. Even our first, rather negative, mention of the series in the form of a now ancient review of Sensible World Of Soccer (which comes close to being filed under “20-something delights in mildly controversial opinion” or “that thing you like isn’t very good, actually”) came after approximately 12 years of trying and failing to see what everyone else loved about it. I owned the original Sensible Soccer on Atari ST and on PC, and would periodically give it a go in the hope that I’d catch on, before adding SWOS to my collection and, inevitably, hating that too.

There’s little point rehashing my criticisms here, especially as I recently revisited the series. My intention was to approach the games with a more positive and grown up attitude, finding the positives and keeping the snide remarks at bay – which I think I did – but I still couldn’t paper over the bare fact that I still didn’t really like it. Perhaps aided by a concurrent playthrough of the vastly inferior facsimile Football Glory, I found the original Sensi to be basically ok, but replaying SWOS told me that, while my sentiments in 2005 may have been crudely expressed, they remained largely representative of how I felt about the game.

And that is a source of regret, although so is my attitude during the early years of FFG: too keen to stamp on others’ nostalgia and delight in calling something dated and rubbish (although, let’s be honest, the latter can still be rather good fun under the right circumstances). Sensible Soccer and Speedball 2 were two of my most prominent targets, with your correspondent at the time clearly of the opinion that they owed their stellar reputation to a particular generation of games writers’ nostalgia for Amiga multiplayer during their university years.

Ha! That’ll never happen to me, man. I’ll never get to my mid-to-late 30s and be banging on about the games I played when I was younger. I’m better than that: I review games on merit. How does it stand up today, yeah? Is Sensi better than FIFA and Pro Evo? Is it? Is it really? “More realistic”, is it? With those silly little players and their big heads waddling around the pitch and punting the ball hither and thither? Better than the latest footy games with proper graphics and commentary and all that? Pipe down, grandpa.

That’s why we had so few sports games on FFG during the early years. At that point, I still played the latest ones, and the instruction to buy the latest update of whichever series is generally considered the best, seemed like fairly obvious advice: you’ll always have the time and the inclination to keep up, so this should be your default choice forever. The new ones keep getting better and better and make your old ‘classics’ look like shit, never mind the ones that weren’t even considered good at the time.

At some point, I must have realised how misguided all of this was and began (to some readers’ evident dismay) populating the sports section more regularly. Although not everyone may feel the same, I came to see the depth and breadth of old football releases, compared to the annual two-horse race we have now, a rather fascinating phenomenon and usually find something interesting to say about each of them. I also recognised that my own particular modern football series of choice had not, in fact, remained the best option forever and ever, but instead fallen upon critical hard times, and decided to make some time to write about what I considered its glory days.

But it wasn’t until recently that I finally understood that the wheel had turned full-circle: an innocent hankering for a bit of Pro Evolution Soccer 3, and the relative simplicity of getting it going on my laptop (not completely without hiccups, but never are the seemingly modest desires for an oldie stirred more vigorously than when it doesn’t seem to work for no particular reason) soon led to a Master League season, and to semi-regular evening and weekend matches. And, most significantly, to thoughts like “they don’t make ’em like this anymore”, “I miss the simplicity of the controls” and “modern games are too complicated, this just feels right.”

All of which are comments I would happily have mocked had they been made (and they have been made) about Sensible Soccer. It turns out, though, it’s actually fine, natural and normal to have nostalgic feelings for an old football game and not want to dive into the latest FIFA, without necessarily deriding the latter as too complicated.

What’s more, that feeling of getting back into an old footy game that you loved, playing a few matches and being unable to resist firing up a season or multiple seasons and diving full-length into it again, even if it involves repeating some of the same beats – recalling your old tactics, buying and selling some of the same players – is a great thing. It’s distinct and separate from tinkering with some of the mid-table stuff from the past, interesting as that can be, because while you might play, say, The F.A. Premier League STARS for a period sufficient to see how it all works and whether you can get good at it, you already know all of that going back to a Pro Evo (or even Puma World Football) and yet still feel compelled to play for hours, days and weeks.

I also now have more of an understanding of the section of Championship Manager fans who dismiss the latest versions of the series (now called Football Manager) to be far too complex and time-consuming, instead rallying around an older version (generally the 01-02 edition appears to be considered the pinnacle). This sizeable hardcore replay the game over and over again, sometimes signing the same great players, sometimes setting themselves contrived challenges, discussing results and sharing stories via Twitter. My own experience of replaying an old version was unsatisfactory, in that I felt that my alternative version of history had already been written – perhaps my mistake was trying to do exactly the same thing with the same club and players, and when I had less success than before it sort of damaged my old memories.

The Pro Evolution Soccer 3 Master League is a different story though. Can it really be 15 years old? [Yes – a reader]. And so in acknowledging an unapologetic nostalgia for old-school Pro Evo, a series he first played at university, this 37 year-old man comes to realise he is not, as it turns out, any different from, or better than, those Amiga-owning Sensi lovers after all.

Review: The Blackwell Convergence

October 28th, 2018

Written by: Rik

Hello there!

Recently we’ve been taking a look back at Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell series. Today we’re covering the third game, The Blackwell Convergence.

Vault of Regret: The F.A. Premier League STARS

October 18th, 2018

Written by: Rik

We mentioned last time the consequences of reckless spending in the budget section of 90s gaming shops: namely, that you end up buying Zone Raiders. Like all bad habits, this one of mine has occasionally been subject to periods of abstinence and, of course, massive overcorrection: I’ll just buy one really good game, like normal people would.

Even though I’ve bought a lot of poor to middling football games over the years, they’ve never been much of a source of regret. In the 90s, the market leaders on PC – be they Sensi, Actua or FIFA – were never so far ahead of the rest that it was a simple matter of making the right choice. Usually, the critical consensus was split, and the also-rans often had enough original ideas to satisfy my curiosity. I genuinely enjoy – as any regular readers may have noticed – playing old football games regardless of their quality, and there was always the chance that an unheralded gem might be discovered (a small chance, as it turned out, although we wouldn’t have discovered Puma World Football ’98 otherwise).

Back in 1999, EA’s FIFA games were enjoying a good patch. World Cup ’98 and FIFA ’99 were both well received and, on PC at least, recognised as the best computer footy money could buy. With no international tournament to flog and keen to maintain what was at that point a six month release schedule of new football titles, EA announced a new series, based on a new licensing partnership with the English top division: The F.A. Premier League STARS.

The appeal of this game to a non-football fan would appear mysterious at best, and, more likely, reinforce the popular consensus that people who like football and their money are too easily parted. It was another footy game from EA, kind of like FIFA, with Premier League teams (also included in FIFA) but with better graphics and licenses. It doesn’t sound like much now, but in truth it was quite a big deal at the time, to go beyond authentic team and player names and correctly coloured kits to the full on licensed league experience, with accurate grounds and chants, kits with sponsors logos, the full Sky Sports commentary team (but remember, Puma had Martin Tyler first) and sundry other details that all make the difference. If people were willing to pay for a World Cup tie-in, then surely they’d do the same for a Premier League season? Ok, it’d still basically be FIFA, but would look a bit better: I was ok with that.

Unusually, I had been blessed at the time by the happy combination of a new fab-whizzo PC and a bit of spare money (the latter possibly a reward for a set of A-Level results that were frankly below what was expected). So I was for once in the position to break my usual habits and venture out to buy STARS upon release, without waiting for the reviews.

As it turns out, I probably should have waited for them, as the game was a hollow disappointment, a step back if anything from the most recent FIFA titles. Without the consolation of a low, low price, the guilt at having squandered 30 quid on this thing was quite considerable, and I veered between an overriding sense of panicked anger and calmly trying to tinker with various settings, give it some time, and somehow convince myself that it was OK actually. I mean, it was OK, but nothing more than that: the PC Zone verdict, when it arrived, confirmed as much (Steve Hill: “a curiously stunted affair…a mutant hybrid of FIFA and Actua”).

To its credit, STARS did really feel like a Premier League season, and those little touches of presentation like official sponsors on shirts, authentic grounds and chants, and even the distinctive Premier League font for the player numbers, do make a difference to the seasoned footy fan. Even playing it again now (which I did, a quest that began with a desire for a quick reminder and a few screenshots, and led to the realisation that I only had the 2001 update in my current collection and the frankly barmy idea that playing and using screens from this version would somehow be unacceptable, before ending rather predictably with an eBay purchase and the dusting off of my wheezing old XP machine), it does transport you back to watching Premier League football on Sky Sports in 1999, and if you manage to get over the slightly blurry visuals and grit your teeth through the clunkier parts of sub-FIFA action, there’s a modicum of entertainment to be had.

(As an aside: I did wonder if an emulated version of the PlayStation version of STARS would suffice, but I keep forgetting – and I don’t mean to be a PC snob – just how grainy and low res PSX graphics were. That’s perfectly ok of course, but in this case, it means that those extra presentation touches, on the visual side at least – the kits, the numbers etc – are almost completely lost, making the existence of this version of the game largely pointless).

At the time, though, the purchase really felt like an extravagance, and little things started to get to me: for example, the choice of bangin’ chart dance for the licensed menu music (ATB’s 9pm (Till I Come), a track I once considered a crime against decency and taste, now rendered slightly less offensive by a mellowing of attitudes and opinions as well as the warm glow of nostalgia) hammered home a wider frustration that guitar music was out, post-Britpop, and in the hearts and minds of football fans and the mainstream audience for the game, this kind of nonsense was now considered brand appropriate.

The STARS series lasted precisely one more year, with reviews focusing on the lack of progress since the previous iteration and generally questioning the point of it all, and EA’s contention that the lightweight levelling and transfer system (the STARS of the title: earn them by playing well, spend them on upgrading players or the transfer market) somehow also made it distinctive enough for an annual update, was looking more than a little thin. The good bits – basically making grounds and kits more accurate – were quietly folded into FIFAs 2001 and beyond.

As for me, the following year I bought a PlayStation purely to play ISS Pro Evolution, in many ways the polar opposite of STARS: crap graphics, amateurish commentary and presentation, but light years ahead of the likes of FIFA in almost every other respect. For a number of years after that, I abandoned my dabbling habits in favour of making sure I was there on release day for the new Pro Evo. And I was never disappointed.