Most Agreeable Moments – Viva Piñata and the nature of nurture

There was something wonderfully magical about Viva Piñata. It was easy for tending to one’s garden to border on obsession, as building a sustainable ecosystem through both the comfort of nurture and the ruthlessness of nature, had me running home from work at lunchtime to briefly play god from the comfort of a beautifully manicured garden.  From the second my first Whirlm crawled into my garden, who I proceeded to affectionately and maturely name Bellend, Rare’s world was the place I’d go home to at the end of the day.  It was my secret garden, complete with trampoline.

And from the humble beginnings of your first Whirlm the garden will grow and so too will the ecosystem of the creatures that inhabit it.  All manner of delightful looking creatures will stumble across your garden, sniffing around the edges, wanting to call it their home.  And it will become your life’s purpose to accomodate them, to find a way to coax a couple of heart-meltingly adorable Galagoogoos onto your land, and then to get them randy enough to have a good old root in their lavish hutch.  And by Jove you’ll have the best damn pedigree Piñata in all the land!

But before all this, you have to learn both the wonders and vicissitudes of life, that it can be beautiful at the same time as it can be cruel.  As your ambitions as a gardener grow, and the beautiful family of four Whirlms you’ve tended to aren’t enough anymore, you’ll become ruthless in your pursuit of garden biodiversity.  First it’ll be a Sparrowmint.  And then another.  But at some point you’ll want more than just the Bellend family and a couple of Sparrowmints hopping around on your perfectly mowed lawn.  You want a Fudgehog and you want it bad.  And that’s the precise moment your mind shifts from ‘maternal’ to mega-lo-mania.

Just moments after you’ve seen the once lone Bellend raise a family of his own, with a wife and couple of kids roaming about the garden, you’re forced to the watch the family be torn apart.  It all moves in slow motion as the Fudgehog that has been scoping the garden for days, watching the Bellend family from the outskirts of your prefab paradise, swoops in and attacks the unsuspecting littlest Whirlms.  And a bloodbath ensues – or rather a lollybath – as the Fudgehog tears into paper exteriors to get to the deliciously sweet insides.  But at tragic as it was watching the garden intruder tuck into little Bellend Junior and his sister Bellendette, that was the moment was when I realised that Viva Piñata was literally making me call the shots on nature, and decide which species would live and which would die and which I would sacrifice for the betterment of the garden.  And so while you farm your flock of adorable and fluffy Goobaa it’s impossible to not feel guilty that you’re doing it knowing full well they’re head for the slaughter at the hands of a nearby carnivore.

For me Viva Piñata took hold of my innate desire to play god, while tapping into that little obsessive corner of my brain to keep me throughly occupied with the more micro curating of an aesthetically pleasing but functional garden.  A beautiful flower here, a lovely water-fern there, a gate to ease racial tensions everywhere.  But while the game masquerades as a nice little sim-like game with cute-as-a-button characters and myriad of items both decorative and function to fill your garden with, it is actually a game that rather covertly teaches you about the fragility of biodiversity. And the  worst part is that every step of the ecosystem’s food chain lives or dies by your choices.

No one said playing god would be easy.

SparrowMint - Viva

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Most Agreeable Moments – DOOM

I could write about Doom all day. And believe me I’ve tried.  And tried again.  For me it sits right next to Wipeout as one of the games that made me sit up and pay attention to games as more than just a thing that I did when the sun went down or the ball was hit over the neighbour’s fence.  It the sort of thing that set young tongues wagging at school, sharing our stories of ultra-violent debauchery, putting into carefully crafted prose our tales of triumph against the dreaded Cyberdemon and his Barons of Hell.  There are plenty of things that define one’s childhood, and for me, Doom absolutely sits right up there next to the rather more pedestrian fandom I held for the likes of Alan Border and Ayrton Senna.

And nothing has changed.  Doom is still great more than 20 years later simply because it had so many of those “AHAH!” moments that are hard to shake even though things have moved on.  It was nothing short of one of the most important games in my 30-odd years playing video games.  Because it seemed at every turn something was there that changed expectations about the medium.  And when there wasn’t a thing that made you go “mmmm”, the blood-soaked action was just so fast and frenzied that there was simply no time to notice.  Doom was a deserved cultural zeitgeist, and I feel ever so slightly for kids of today that don’t get the experience first hand the impact it had on the industry, and at a more personal level the sheer glee it brought to kids of my generation.

But I’m not sure there was any one single moment in the 90’s, apart from perhaps seeing Mortal Kombat arcade machine in the flesh for the first time, that brought such unadulterated joy to scores of mollycoddled kids than hefting up the heaviest of heavy chainsaws and revving it up for the first time.  Never before, and only a handful of times since, has obtaining a melee weapon in a first person shooter been so defining.  But it was the face of the aptly named “Doom Guy” – who may or may not be named Flynn Taggart if you consider the Doom novels canon – that gave it such gravitas. His sinister but determined grin was that of a man whose odds of survival had not only been shortened, but a man who would take some semblance of glee from the chopping and maiming that was to come, who was up for the challenge.  It was Doom’s equivalent of laughing in the face of death, and as a player on the other side of the screen, it was almost like a shot of adrenaline right into the heart.

The first thing I ever heard about Doom was that there was a chainsaw in it, that you could pick it up, and that you could use it as a weapon.  I have vivid memories of my much older brother and uncles describing in gory detail the act of cutting up an imp with the chainsaw, all the while almost taking great delight in the fact that I wasn’t allowed to play it.  “You should see the blood!” they’d say before mocking me with “but you’re not allowed to”.  And I wasn’t.  So for what seemed like a millennia I fantasised about that moment, the moment I would finally get to see the fabled chainsaw in action, the moment I’d finally play the game that all the grown-ups at family gatherings were cunningly hiding from the kids’ table.  But rest assured, when I finally did get my hands on that Chainsaw, my grin wasn’t too far off of what I was seeing on screen.  It’s a shame the wind didn’t change and preserve that moment in time.

DOOM Chainsaw

 

Do you remember smiling gleefully as the words YOU’VE GOT THE CHAINSAW NOW FIND SOME MEAT appeared on screen?  Or do you have another favourite video game moment?  Join the conversation in the comments below, or on Twitter using #MostAgreeableMoments.

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From The Armchair: Affordable Fun

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

Well, what a wonderful week I’ve had. I downloaded Affordable Space Adventures for the Wii U on Saturday, and it has proved to be an instant hit in the Merriweather household, with even the normally video-game-reticent Ms. D singing its praises.

The game is one of those rare beasts – a Wii U title that actually uses the Wii U gamepad’s capabilities. Apart from the launch games ZombiU and NintendoLand, I can’t think of a single game that has properly taken advantage of the Wii U’s unique control scheme and its opportunities for asymmetrical multiplayer, but Affordable Space Adventures does just that to great effect. The gamepad screen acts as the engineering console, an essential display that lets you divert power to various functions of the ship. This is the key to getting past enemies and obstacles – and at some points you need to switch the engine off completely to avoid detection. Steering the ship, on the other hand, is taken care of by the left stick, and the right stick is devoted to scanning. The game even requires you to pitch the gamepad to alter the angle of your ship – if it used the camera and had amiibo support as well, it would pretty much tick off all the gamepad’s functions.

The engineer takes care of the dials on the gamepad screen, while the pilot steers the ship (on the right).

The engineer takes care of the dials on the gamepad screen, while the pilot steers the ship (on the right).

But the really brilliant thing about this game is the cooperative multiplayer, in which one player does steering (using a Wii remote and nunchuk), another does the scanning, and the third acts as engineer (if you’re playing with just two people, the engineer does the scanning too). Not since Trine 2 have I had so much fun romping through a game in coop – having to work as a team adds immensely to the game’s appeal, and leads to some brilliant eureka moments as a puzzle clicks into place (along with some utterly hilarious fails).

“What are you doing? I wasn’t ready yet!”

“TURNTHEENGINEOFF! TURNTHEENGINEOFF!”

“Give me thrust! Give me thrust! Nooooooooo!”

All in all, I can’t recommend this game highly enough. If you have a Wii U, get it now. And if you don’t have a Wii U, why the hell not? Seriously, there are so many unmissable games on it and it’s only, what, 200 quid? Come on.

And speaking of affordable fun, I also downloaded Box Boy! for the 3DS at the weekend for a shade under a fiver. It’s a Game Boy-style minimalist puzzle platformer that does a wonderful job of creating a genuinely charming character from very few parts. Just a box with legs, in fact. It’s also highly addictive, and I’ve been playing it whenever I have a few minutes to spare. In fact, the short levels are perfectly suited for quick bursts of play between bus stops. The game itself isn’t particularly long, or even amazingly challenging, but I’ve loved every minute of it, and like Affordable Space Adventures, it comes highly recommended.

Toodle pip for now!

Box Boy - I love the Game Boy-style minimalist graphics.

Box Boy – I love the Game Boy-style minimalist graphics.

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Yarn Yoshi has been pre-ordered!

NOVEL_ura_0613Success! After the ups and downs of the past few days, I’ve finally managed to pre-order a Yarn Yoshi amiibo.

I received a tip-off from this Reddit forum that GAME are taking in-store pre-orders for old yarn-face himself, even though you can’t currently pre-order through the website. So after confirming this was the case with my local GAME store, I hot-footed it into town and gleefully handed over my £5 deposit to the piercing-adorned sales clerk. He told me that the Yarn Yoshi pre-orders had been “going crazy”, so I’m glad I got in now – sounds like they might not be available for long.

The shop assistant still didn’t have the exact price for the amiibo, but if it follows GAME’s usual pricing it will be a cheeky £14.99, a good £4 higher than the RRP. I’ve noticed that quite a few retailers have hiked up their amiibo prices in response to the demand – as my economics-expert blogging-buddy Sir Gaulian would say, that’s basic economics for you.

I also pre-ordered Yoshi’s Woolly World from GameSeek for a bargain £25. I was originally going to pre-order the version of the game with the Yarn Yoshi amiibo included from GAME at the same time as ordering the amiibo. But seeing as the standalone game has an RRP of £44.99 (and GAME tends to stick with the RRP), my guess is that this version would cost at least £50 in store, so it will probably work out cheaper to get the amiibo and game separately.

Getting that amiibo pre-order in has made me immensely happy. Part of me is appalled that a grown man like myself can get so excited about a fluffy toy that’s essentially for children. But then again, who cares? I’ve got a Yarn Yoshi amiibo, hurrah!

UPDATE: Just after I posted this, pre-orders went live on GAME’s website and ShopTo – typical! Still, looks like I saved a bit of money by ordering the amiibo and game separately – as predicted, the version of Yoshi’s Woolly World including the amiibo is going for £49.99. But the amiibo on its own is a cheeky £19.99! I guess that wool don’t come cheap…

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Most Agreeable Moments – Halo: Combat Evolved

Playing through the original Halo again its hard to not be transported back to early in the new millenium.  It was the sort of game that made jaws drop at the time, from the way light reflected off of the shiny surfaces in a way I at least hadn’t thought possible on a console, to the sheer scale and scope of the titular Halo world, it just felt streets ahead of anything we’d seen on consoles before. Sure the Playstation 2 had been wowing us with some pretty great games, but something about Halo felt futuristic and special.  And with the controller in hand it was pretty clear that Halo was indeed Combat Evolved.

But while the seemingly perfect weapon balance and revolutionary control scheme were game changers – world beaters even – it was something far more simple that caught my attention. Mere moments an epic battle through the Pillar of Autumn, sheer seconds after you’re forced to crash land onto the mysterious Halo, an unassuming UNSC drop ship swoops into view and with it brings one of the most powerful and symbolic pieces of Halo ‘paraphernalia’ in the series decade-plus history.  And as you approach the precious four-wheeled cargo, the isolation and rapidly fading sense of hope that the vast alien landscape evokes abates,   As you slip behind the wheel of the greatest in military hardware suddenly it all feels like you could survive.  And as the explosive power of the rapid fire mounted gun on the rear of the vehicle leaves a lasting ringing in your ears, you know you’ll survive.

Welcome to the Warthog, Chief.  Welcome to the war.

There is no feeling quite like the first time you slide around a natural rock formation at speed, or send yourself and your passengers flying airborne over a canyon or a rapidly running river.  The way the rather pedestrian Volkswagen Kübelwagen lookalike handles is unforgettable, with its loose suspension and all-wheel drive making it feel more world rally championship than modern warfare, and its high speed making every moment behind the wheel feel like a desperate dash to save a life.  Hooning from skirmish to skirmish in the Warthog, while your adoring comrades take aim and rip through any grunt or elite covenant soldiers that get in your way, brought with it an almost unrivalled sense of power.  The Warthog turned the trained Spartan soldier into a feared guerrilla warrior, and to me, those first moments behind the wheel were the foundation of the Master Chief I came to know over following games.

As someone who fell off of the Halo wagon shortly after finishing the fight with Halo 3, I am pleasantly surprised by how many of my fond memories of a game that changed the way the world looked at console shooters have been proven true.  Everything from the roaring sound of the MA5 echoing through the compromised corridors of the Pillar of Autumn, to the strategic advantage on the battlefield provided for by the rather deceptively powerful covenant weapons, it all changed my expectation for what a console shooter, nay game, could and should be.  But it was the unassuming vehicle that are the basis for my fondest memories of the game, and there has been nothing in any shooter since that has quite matched the feeling of taking the battle to the convenant on all fours.  And it’s nice to know that these moments still make Halo the same special experience it was a good 14 years later.  Combat evolved, indeed.

Halo_Warthog

Did you have warm and fuzzy feelings taking control of the Warthog for the first time?  Or do you have a favourite video game moment?  Join the conversation in the comments below, or on Twitter using #MostAgreeableMoments.

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Has the Yarn Yoshi dream already crumbled?

Regular readers will already be familiar with my current obsession of obtaining a Yarn Yoshi amiibo. Sadly, that dream seems further away than ever this afternoon – I just learned that preorders for Yoshi’s Woolly World – including a Yarn Yoshi amiibo – went up on Zavvi’s site on Saturday and sold out almost immediately. Currently, GAME and Zavvi are the only UK websites offering the Yarn Yoshi amiibos for sale, and it appears that both have already sold out.

It seems there are plenty of people in the UK who are just as desperate as I am to get their hands on one of these woolly wonders.

So, I suppose the only option now is to wait for preorders to come up on another retailer, like ShopTo or Amazon, and hope they don’t sell out immediately. It’s not looking good though – apparently they went on sale on Amazon’s German site a few days ago and sold out within 15 minutes.

15 minutes! Flippin’ ‘eck.

So perhaps my best option is just to convince myself I never really wanted one of these adorable Yoshi amiibos anyway. I mean, I’ve already got Toad, Link, Marth and Ike, with Robin, Lucina and Ganondorf on the way – the living room is beginning to resemble a toy shop as it is.

But then again, Toad’s looking awfully lonely over there next to the Wii U. He could really do with a woolly companion of some kind…

I suppose I could get one of these as an alternative. It's not quite the same though.

I suppose I could get one of these as an alternative. It’s not quite the same though.

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Fighting over Richie

TestMatchCricketGame1In case you’re not aware, cricket is a pretty big deal down here. Over the Aussie summer it takes over this rather large island nation, with every advertisement sporting crickets past and present spruiking any and every company’s products, every news bulletin seemingly topped and tailed with news of Michael Clarke’s hamstring or the latest musings on the hilarious collapse of English Cricket, and people of all ages dragging their metal stumps and Kookaburra Bats out of their sheds to have a hit of backyard cricket with the kids down the road.  It’s a wonderfully magical time of year and one of the reasons I love living in this country.

But the even more telling sign that summer and cricket had arrived, were the distinctive voices of the men that commented the game on the telly for most of the modern era, certainly all of my lifetime.  Yesterday we sadly lost another of these cricket icons, former Australian cricket captain and leader of the Channel 9 commentary team, Richie Benaud.  Growing up, Richie Benaud was almost omnipresent throughout summer, with his rather unique voice on every television in every shop, “that’s a marvellous shot” he’d say after the batsman played a beautiful cover drive for four.  Richie was more than just a former cricketer, or the voice of summer, he was a cult icon and in many ways the embodiment of Australia’s love for sport. 

And the country’s love affair with sport makes gods out of men and the great minds of sports broadcasting – Richie Benaud, Tony Greig, Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell – are often at front and centre of the cricket-loving public’s minds.  Sure growing up watching the sport it was the likes of Dean Jones, Allan Border, David Boon and Merv Hughes that entertained on the field and had us hooking the ball over the neighbour’s fence in the backyard.  But rest assured that when that ball was caught one-hand one-bounce by your sister or edged to the automatic wicket-keeper, the cries of impersonating Bill Lawry’s “GOT HIM” or Richie Benaud’s “Marvellous Catch” could be heard across the neighbourhood. Unless you’d caught a blinder a short leg that is, in which case you’d “pulled a Boonie“.  But the fact still remains that the voices of cricket were as much a part of the sport for most Australian kids – and adults no less – than they guys in their whites out in the middle.

While cricket video games have had some time in the sun – Shane Warne ’99 is still a classic – they’ve never quite clicked in the same way a simple board game by the name of Test Match.  Dubbed “the authentic all-action cricket game” on the box,  Test Match was taken very seriously in my household, and I’d hate to think house many hours were spent laying on the floor or sitting at the table ‘bowling’ a ball bearing down a ramp toward the batsman.  We’d prepare the green-felt surface with the same tender love and care Damien Hough would curating the Adelaide Oval pitch, we’d make sure the boundary was long on every end, and once the game had begun we’d carefully place our fielders in the slips in the hopes we’d catch the batsman’s outside edge.  It was a highly tense and competitive environment, with all focus concentrated on the field, hoping for the odd nick to the catcher or for the ball to knock over middle stump.  The battles of Test Match were always fierce and often long, and as frustrations on both size continued to rise, so too did the sledging.  We are Australian, after all. 20150411_150757 But the battle began even before the teams were out in the middle, even before the field was prepared, as we’d fight over which legends of the game we’d have in our teams.  Even though they were nothing more than names on a scoreboard, they represented something we’d hope would give us the competitive edge,  that somehow Shane Warne would make runs at the end of the order or Viv Richards would go on to make a double century.  A team of legends would bring us Test Match glory, we thought.  But the real fight was always over whose team Richie Benaud would captain. I pulled out my old Test Match Board game today and found pages upon pages of scoresheets that accumulated over years, each one littered with famous names from cricket past.  Joel Garner. Rodney Marsh.  Ian Chappell  Graham Gooch.  Shane Warne.  Even the current Australian coach, Darren Lehmann gets a guernsey in later years.  But the one thing most of the matches between greats of the game is that, somewhere, Richie Benaud’s name is on the scorecard.  Before every match and before every toss of the coin, there was guaranteed to be fighting over Richie.  It may have been symbolic, but to us, it meant something real.

Scan 151010004

This sadly was not his day

So here’s to our great national pastime, getting out into the sun, having a hit out in the nets.  But more importantly here’s to Richie, the voice of cricket, and the most prized player in Test Match history.  What a marvellous innings.

I highly recommend something great I read the other day about the difficulties of an Aussie expat living in Canada adjusting to life without Aussie sport.  If you’re not across cricket, I also recommend reading something I wrote a while back about how cricket isn’t baseball, because it’s really, really not.

Scan 151010005

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