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FFG Review of the Year: 2020

January 2nd, 2021

Written by: Rik

Well now, what can we say about 2020? In all likelihood, the last 9 months or so will, at best, have not been quite as good as you might have hoped, and at worst will have been a real shitstorm. Whatever your circumstances, we do wish you all the best for the year ahead.

But we are about old games here, and those games, and this site, serve as an occasional escape from whatever might be going on in the world, so let’s confine our look back at 2020 to the collection of ramblings we’ve managed to post here over the last 12 months.

The reduction in options for social and other activities certainly seems to have led to a modest increase in the amount of #content on FFG this year. Back in January, though, it was business as usual, with a gap in our Need for Speed coverage being filled at long last. I wish I could say it was worth the wait, but sadly ProStreet lived up to its reputation as one of the crappier NFS titles.

Proper Retro Gaming(tm)

Then we went further back into the past for some DOS-based platforming action in the form of Jazz Jackrabbit. 90s platformers became something of a recurring theme throughout the year, as Stoo added reviews of Jill of the Jungle and Commander Keen in Keen Dreams later on in the year.

At the newer end of the spectrum, for once my private resolutions to cover certain games within a certain time period were actually kept, with Alpha Protocol and Alan Wake both being added to the site this year. And the latter (a spooky game) was even added on 31 October (a spooky date), like there was some kind of plan behind it all (it was of course a complete accident, unlikely to ever be repeated).

But there was still a healthy mix of the old and new, and with the Netflix documentary The Last Dance sending many of us in lockdown into a 90s NBA reverie, I went back to the big basketball titles of that decade: NBA Jam and NBA Live 95. Delving into the memory banks for old games previously owned threw up some titles of dubious quality: whyever did I buy Quarantine II: Road Warrior or Iron Assault?

Both Live 95 and Jam TE still stand up pretty well.

We continued to revisit such sentiments with semi-regular trips to the Vault of Regret, one of a number of recurring series that now supplements the review content. I had hoped to make a bit more progress with another, Soundtracks, in 2020, but somehow momentum was lost in the middle of the year.

We also built upon a discussion Jo and I did last year by turning that into a semi-regular attempt to play and discuss modern indie adventures (with spoilers). The games chosen thus far have all been quite short, undemanding titles that take little effort to play and enjoy, and it was a good opportunity to stay in touch with some aspects of modern gaming (as well as with each other).

Alan Wake: an enjoyable yarn, if not quite what I expected.

Who knows what the next year will bring? On here, likely more of the same, with a mixture of stuff from the 90s and 00s for review, no doubt. Personally, I’d like to catch up with some FPS games of a certain vintage, but there’s currently an imagined roadblock that either needs to be tackled or ignored before I make any progress on that score.

And, inexplicable as it may seem, 2021 is the 20th anniversary of the site, so no doubt we should try and plan something special to mark the occasion. Here’s hoping by that point we’re all able to celebrate an upturn in our fortunes. Thanks, as always, for reading, and Happy New Year to you.

Review: Sensible Soccer 2006

December 29th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

I hope you managed to have a good Christmas, under whatever strange and/or difficult circumstances were imposed on you this year.

Sneaking in with one last review for the year, we take a look at the mid-00s attempt to revive a much-loved football franchise: Sensible Soccer 2006.

(Yes, it seems the pull of rightly-forgotten footy titles was once again much too strong. But I’ll take the opportunity to remind those of you who enjoy reading about such things that all our football coverage can be accessed in a ranked table format, The FFG Football League.)

Discussion: Dear Esther (spoilers!)

December 22nd, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello! We are back, just as Christmas this year is cancelled, for those of us in the UK. (Probably for the best though, I guess).

Today we have another discussion of a modern indie adventure game, with significant spoilers. It’s part of an ongoing series that we’ve chosen to unimaginatively, and belatedly, call: Discussion: [indie game] (spoilers!)

Hopefully that admittedly quite clumsy title does at least tell you what’s involved, or enough for you to know that it’s best not to read ahead without playing the game under discussion first, unless you have absolutely no intention of ever doing so.

Today’s game is Dear Esther, which started life as a mod for Half-Life 2 in 2008, but was later completely redeveloped as a stand alone title and released commercially in 2012. (We played the Landmark Edition, which moved everything to the Unity engine from Source, and comes with optional commentary from the developers). It’s considered by many to be the original ‘walking simulator’ and as we’ve covered a few of those in this series, it seemed an obvious one to cover at some point.

Like many of these games, to say too much even at this stage risks potentially spoiling things, but Dear Esther is set on an island in the Hebrides, and the game involves exploring that island while listening to the words of an unnamed man, our narrator. Each passage of audio begins with the game’s title, and it might at first be assumed that the narrator is reading letters that are addressed to his wife. However, as we shall see, many things in this game soon become a matter of interpretation.

Here’s a short trailer:

Hmm…what do you make of that, then? Well to find out, you could always play the game.

Otherwise, as always, here’s our ***final spoiler warning*** for the discussion ahead.

Discussion: Dear Esther (spoilers!) continued »

Review: Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers

December 15th, 2020

Written by: Stoo

Hi everyone. Today we’re adding to our list of Sierra adventure reviews, with a look at Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers.

This will most likely be my last post before Christmas. I imagine that, due to covid restrictions, some of you won’t be able to celebrate in the way you had hoped for. Still, I hope that you’re all able to relax for a while. Put on a bad movie, eat too much, drink a beer or two. Play some classic games, of course. You’ve earned a little happiness.

Vault of Regret: Mass Effect 2

December 13th, 2020

Written by: Rik

The Vault of Regret is a very large place, which houses dusty old game CDs and boxes, untouched digital libraries, and the metaphysical concepts of remorse and embarrassment. Here we write about all the games we should have played but haven’t, or that we have played but didn’t enjoy, among other things.

“Have you played Mass Effect 2 yet?”

These are the words of my friend PG. I hear them every time I play anything that is a) not Mass Effect 2 and b) something that is quite old and bad. Something like this, for example. As I studiously plod around repetitive levels making notes about how things are not that good, really, I think to myself: maybe you should be playing Mass Effect 2 instead.

Mass Effect 2 is a game that came out in early 2010. A couple of years after that, another friend of mine bought it for me as a gift on Steam. “It uses something called anti-aliasing: you might not know what that is,” he said, in mocking reference to my being very behind the times with these things. We both had a bit of a laugh: I’m not sure even I realised it would be quite so long before I actually got around to playing it. Since that conversation, he has changed careers, got married, and had a baby. We’re in touch, sometimes.

At that point, I still hadn’t played the first one. I got to it eventually, and a good time was had both in the playing and the resultant spoiler-tastic discussion.

This is from ME1. (Funnily enough, I don’t have any screenshots from the second game).

The desire to push onto the second game was certainly there at that stage, but for some reason it fizzled out. And the realisation that the discussion was more than seven years ago now prompts tedious internal debates (with myself) about whether the original needs to be revisited first, leading further and further away from Mass Effect 2 until a cul-de-sac marked Knights of the Old Republic is reached. (Because blundering into the middle of a series is of course completely unprecedented in these parts).

When we lived together, PG wasn’t really into games, unless it was a bit of computer football. But suddenly there he was, a veteran of the ME series, recommending it to me. Except it wasn’t sudden, of course, because several years had passed, and our occasional back and forth on the topic has spanned the best part of a decade.

Time spent playing oldies, no matter how crap they might ultimately turn out to be, is something I enjoy, and of itself the source of little regret. And if the desire to catch up with more recent classics is really that strong, the solution is within easy grasp.

Still, it’s hard not to feel vague pangs of shame and disappointment when you realise you’ve found time to play Iron Assault, but not Mass Effect 2. (Or 3).

However, thanks to some twisted internal logic, I do consider Mass Effect to be a Christmas game. Perhaps there’s no time like the present.

Review: Iron Assault

November 22nd, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hello there.

Looking at the last few review posts, I’ve obviously given up on trying to find another way to say “I hope you’re doing ok” – so, I hope you’re doing ok.

Today we make a rare visit to the Simulation section of the site for some big robot action, in Iron Assault.

Review: Kathy Rain

November 14th, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Hope you’re all doing ok.

Today we welcome back Jo to solo reviewing duties after a break of, ooh, let’s just say, quite a few years.

It’s kind of fitting that the game in question is a point and click adventure set in the the 90s: Kathy Rain.

Inside The Big Cardboard Box: The White Label

November 7th, 2020

Written by: Rik

In a recent(ish) Vault of Regret post, I wrote about the time when I had a bulk clear-out of old games, shifting most of them as a job lot inside a massive cardboard box. Despite spending more time than is healthy on trying to find details of that eBay listing and what exactly was in that box, the full truth will never be uncovered.

However, I think I do still have a relatively good grasp of which old games I used to own but don’t. The games retained following that cull, particularly from the DOS era, are a fairly small sample of my previous collection, so by default anything that I remember owning that isn’t in that pile could have been in the box, and definitely was given away or sold at one point.

So I think The Big Cardboard Box will now have to be a metaphor for all of those games. And even though it’s unlikely to be of great interest to you, our vast readership, I’m going to start tagging all those games for my own interests as we cover them, as well as (possibly?) going back through old reviews to see what else might be included.

In the meantime, in an ongoing series of articles, I’m going to take a look inside that metaphorical big box and at the smaller game boxes within (that were almost certainly discarded in reality for reasons of space). It’s an opportunity to look back at the now almost-defunct world of games packaging: the cardboard boxes, the compilations, and the budget re-releases.

And it’s a budget label that we’ll start with here. The White Label was Virgin Interactive Entertainment’s budget range, and was fairly prominent in the UK in the mid-90s. My recollection is that it was one of the first budget lines to really focus on ‘prestige’ CD titles, many of which were exclusive to PC.

Many of their releases, particularly early on, were games that they had published themselves at full price: I remember Westwood’s Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos and The Legend of Kyrandia: Hand of Fate were among the very first releases, and later the likes of The 7th Guest, which was once considered a cutting-edge product, also secured a re-release at the £10-15 price range.

But for me The White Label was best remembered for re-issuing older LucasArts games, from the Star Wars titles to their range of point and click adventures. I definitely had The White Label release of Rebel Assault – as with The 7th Guest, the fact this once highly-prized (and priced) CD-ROM rarity suddenly became more affordable, in line with the equipment required to play it, earned the release some attention. I had the sequel, too, although not in the double pack that followed (Rebel Assault was also bundled with X-Wing at one point, too).

Those double packs, which came to be presented in red packaging, were later additions to the range. I recall Monkey Island 1/2, Sam and Max/Day of the Tentacle, and Full Throttle/The Dig combinations all being part of the family collection, although I think most of them belonged to my sister. In fact, I think one of us still has the discs, if not the boxes and manuals, although it’s hard to tell whether they were White Label or not, and whether single purchases or double packs, as the contents of The White Label boxes usually gave no indication of the budget branding and in most cases looked to be identical to the originals. (I say ‘usually’ – looking again at the available pictures of this range, it looks as if in general the material for the single game releases carried no branding, but the jewel cases for double-packs, if not the discs themselves, were at least different.)

What’s more, despite a name that implied no-frills presentation, The White Label was one of those unusual budget labels that actually had quite appealing box art which was vaguely classy and didn’t advertise to all and sundry that you had bought it at a reduced price with ‘value’ branding. The initial design featured a perhaps-slightly-naff pair of eyes at the top of the front cover, but that was soon replaced with a cleaner approach: a virtually plain white box and the original cover art appearing inside a postage stamp, with The White Label branding as a postmark. (I must admit that I didn’t quite register the envelope/postage aesthetic at the time, only that it was a lot more visually pleasing than the aforementioned ‘cheapo’ presentation employed by other brands).

That didn’t quite last into the era of DVD boxes: there were some further White Label releases in the early 00s, including Interplay titles such as Baldur’s Gate and Messiah, but by that point Virgin Interactive was itself not long for this world, and it had become just another budget brand.

The White Label name was dragged further into bargain bin territory when it was acquired by GSP (Global Software Publishing), prolific peddlers of cheap nonsense in the 00s. Ok, so there were still some good games (various entries in the Total War and Football Manager series, for example) among the dross but a basic disc-only, electronic manual approach did little to distinguish it from the likes of Xplosiv or $old Out (to which we will likely return later).

Anyway, to return to the matter at hand, I think I’ve actually kept a lot of the discs from my 90s White Label purchases, and in addition to the games mentioned above, the physical jewel cases for Dark Forces and Screamer 2 that are still knocking around somewhere were once housed in The White Label packaging. This probably speaks to a level of quality control for games in this range during the 90s, and the only ones I got rid of seem to have been the two Rebel Assault titles, which I can only put down to the general period of shaming that 90s FMV-based games were subjected to once the gaming world moved on.

Despite The Big Cardboard Box appearing in the Vault of Regret, as I mentioned then, I don’t really have any regrets about getting rid of my big box games: I didn’t really have any other option at the time, and I’ve no desire in general to start filling my house with them at significant personal expense. But I must admit to being drawn in again slightly by these stylish White Label boxes, and the associated 90s memories of being able to afford quality CD games with a couple of weeks’ pocket money.

(NB: All scans sourced from MobyGames).

Review: Alan Wake

October 31st, 2020

Written by: Rik

Hi there.

Hope you’re doing ok.

Today we establish that the answer to the question, “How far in advance would you have to start playing a vaguely spooky game in order to produce a review of that game to coincide with Halloween?” is “about six months”.

(Alternatively, the timing could be considered more of a happy accident, with a small amount of additional effort once meeting that date seemed possible.)

Anyway, today we have a review of Alan Wake for you.

Review: Jill of the Jungle

October 22nd, 2020

Written by: Stoo

Hello everyone, hope you are well.

Today I have another review for you! I’m sure it will be the highlight of your day. Or maybe just something mildly interesting to read during a tea break. Or maybe you’ll think I’m talking nonsense. Anyway, here’s our review of Jill of the Jungle.