Monthly Archives: January 2012

Graphics so real you’ll forget it’s only a game

I love portable gaming.  The sheer audacity for Capcom to claim that the graphics are ‘So Real You’ll Forget It’s Only A Game‘ is nothing short of hilarious.  Of course back in 1990, Gargoyle’s Quest probably was the best looking game to grace a handheld, and to put it in context, it was a fantastically attractive game running on a culmination of technology from the 1970s and 1980s.   But what the advertisement doesn’t tell you is that Gargoyle’s Quest, as a game, was probably the most ambitious Game boy title of the day, and even to this day is probably one of the best games for the platform.

GargoylesQuestScreen

And that is simply what I love about portable consoles – the concessions that have to be made in order to deliver a quality product that appeals to whatever subset of people the developer is going for.  What I love even more is as the Game Boy (in particular) matured it tried, man did it try, to emulate what was happening one the ever-more-powerful home consoles.  And don’t even mention the fact that the Game Boy had only two buttons that were feasibly usable for game play.  Of course, that didn’t stop them from trying to implement control schemes that heavily relied on the Select Button, with one example coming to mind being the Game Boy version of NBA Jam Tournament Edition, which used the select button for the almost mandatory Turbo function.  This didn’t stop me playing more of the game than I care to think about – I just had to utilise an early version of the claw that PSP Monster Hunter fans are so familiar with.

NBAJamTEGB

There were reasons for trying to shoehorn these games onto a system that was clearly not designed for it though.  Back in the 1990s, the arcade was king, and the biggest deal in the world was that fateful day when those arcade classics came to home consoles for the first time.  The launch of Mortal Kombat on every console known to man at the time was a big deal, with September 13 1993 being dubbed Mortal Monday in an incredibly intelligent marketing campaign, accompanied by full page adverts in most gaming publications.

And the hype was worth it.  the console versions, for the most part, lived up to what was expected from an arcade port at the time, and delivered the game play that made the arcade version so popular (without the Fatalities on the Super Nintendo, that is).  Unfortunately, the Game Boy version was a shadow of its former self, delivering a game with almost unplayable levels of controller input lag, a shrunken roster, and game play that more resembled a Tiger Electronics handheld game than anything that had been seen on the Game Boy to date.  Looking at a screenshot (as below), you can’t help but see the promise though, and admire what the development team at Probe Entertainment attempted.

MKGB

Promise that was largely reached with the follow up entry in the series, Mortal Kombat II, which abandoned any hopes of emulating what the bigger home consoles could do, in favour of just making a good old fashioned fast-paced portable brawler.  The decision to develop the game on the system’s own merits reaped rewards, and although the graphics varied greatly from other console versions and the roster was again shrunken down from the arcades, the game was to date the best 2D fighter on the market for Nintendo’s humble handheld.  Unfortunately the third game in the series took a massive step backwards with Software Creations cramming an awful lot into the Game Boy cartridge, at the expense of game play.  Admirable, but perhaps a little too ambitious.

MK2GB

Of course Midway weren’t the only company to have a go at giving gamers on the go that beat ’em up they craved.  In 1996, Atari Games entered the ring vying for some of that arcade beat ’em up conversion money that Capcom and Midway had been raving about.  The game was Primal Rage, launched in the wake of Jurassic Park fever, and although the game in hindsight wasn’t that great, at the time it was the latest thing that had kids lining up in droves at the local arcade to play.  Not only did it look absolutely amazing with its stop motion animation, but in terms of sheer blood and visceral violence, it went toe-to-toe with the unbeatable behemoth Mortal Kombat II.  With this in mind it was a no-brainer to bring it to console audiences, and development was started across all major platforms, which by this stage included the next generation of hardware.  Obviously seeing the profitability of other genre leaders porting to handhelds, Atari commissioned Probe Software (who were handling most, if not all of the console ports) to handle the Game Boy and Game Gear versions of the game.  And the results, at least on the Game Boy version, weren’t too far off the mark.  The game looked and played the part,   and was a worthy version for those who didn’t have access to any home consoles at the time.  And while there were omissions – one character, Vertigo, was missing from this version – it wasn’t enough to render it entirely unidentifiable from its brethren on other systems.  In fact a Game Boy owner could consider that they had experienced Primal Rage even if they had only ever played the portable version.

PrimalRageGB

And for these achievements, I have nothing but absolute admiration for these developers who worked so hard to cram so much into the Game Boy.  By the end of its life cycle, it had seen entries in most major 2D fighter series of the day, including Street Fighter II (which played more like Super Street Fighter II) and Killer Instinct, and even a few attempts at matching what developers were achieving on the Super Nintendo, including the illustrious Donkey Kong Country experience through its sister series Donkey Kong Land, which in its lifetime saw three games that mimicked the respective entries on the SNES.  While these achievements aren’t that impressive, in particular when compared to what is being achieved these days on the 3DS and the Vita, within the confines of Nintendo’s little green- and grey-screened beast these games present nothing short of genius from the programmers working on them.

StreetFighter2GB

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Nintendo 3DS: First Impressions

My lovely girlfriend bought me a shiny new Nintendo 3DS for Christmas and has hardly regretted it at all, despite the fact that I now tend to ignore her in favour of Princess Zelda whenever we’re on a train journey. Poor girl. Anyway, it’s been exactly a month since I unwrapped Nintendo’s latest little wonder, so I thought I’d better share my thoughts on the good and not so good things about my little Cosmos Black 3DS.

Oooooh, look, it’s in 3D!

The first question everyone asks is “Does the 3D work?” Well, yes, it does. I don’t know how it does, but it does, and it looks pretty damn good too. The best thing about it is that it creates a really impressive feeling of depth, which works a lot better than those gimmicky 3D films where things keep flying out of the screen towards you. In fact, it’s generally in moments when objects pass directly in front of the foreground that the 3D effect is tarnished a little – your eyes tend to get thrown off when something passes very close to your face, but the effect works very well in creating a sense of distance.

The 3D also tends to work better in some games more than others: I struggled a little bit with the 3D effects in Ocarina of Time 3D, as I found that with large busy landscapes moving around fairly quickly, my eyes would often get thrown off, particularly when I found myself looking around at different points in the landscape. By contrast, the effect works extremely well in Ridge Racer 3D, despite the fact it moves very quickly – I suppose this is because you’re mostly focused on a single point in the distance.

Ow, my eyes!

I’ve not experienced any trouble with eye strain yet, although I can see that playing with the 3D on for extended periods of time could easily cause your eyes to give out with a feebly protesting whimper. And of course, the beauty of the system is that clever little slider on the side of the screen that lets you find a comfortable level of depth, or to even turn off the 3D effect completely. I’ve generally been playing with the 3D on, as I really think it adds to your immersion in the game, but it’s almost impossible to play in 3D if you’re on public transport. This is probably the system’s greatest setback – the 3D effect requires you to keep your head and the 3DS almost completely still, as any movement tends to throw out your eyes and requires you to refocus. This of course is disastrous if you’re on a bumpy tube or train, so I’ve found myself turning off the 3D whenever I’m on a journey… but those are also the exact occasions on when I’m most likely to be playing on a handheld console.

Motion schmotion

The fact that you need to keep your head and the 3DS reasonably still for the 3D to work also makes the 3DS’s motion controls somewhat pointless. The motion controls are undeniably clever, and surprisingly accurate, but having to constantly refocus your eyes as you wave the machine around somewhat drains the fun. Also, I can just about live with the shame of waggling a Wii remote in the privacy of my own living room, but waving a 3DS around in a crowded tube carriage is an ignominy I’m simply unwilling to bear.

Showing off potential

But despite being adamant that putting motion controls in a handheld console is an utterly pointless innovation, I am willing to concede that it’s a good way to make your relatives look foolish: watching my dad playing Face Raiders was probably the highlight of Christmas. And the 3DS is an undeniably impressive console – everyone I’ve shown it too has been intrigued by the 3D effect, and the pack-in games Face Raiders and AR Games are remarkably clever from a technical point of view. I was particularly impressed with AR Games, and I believe my jaw may actually have dropped at one point (have a look for yourself below).

The 3D camera also made people smile when I showed it to them, but to be honest I’ve only ever used it to show new people what the 3DS can do. At the end of the day it’s pretty blurry, and there’s not really much you can actually do with the pictures once you’ve taken them. Similarly, Face Raiders and AR Games are fun for five minutes, but I’ve no real desire to go back to them now the initial excitement has faded.

So, what DO you like about it then?

I’ve been a bit lukewarm about the system so far, but there are a few things about it that I absolutely love. I’ve already mentioned that the 3D effect is pretty damn impressive as long as you’re sat fairly still, but I’m also slightly addicted to Streetpass. Streetpass is a system in which your 3DS can swap information with other people’s 3DSs as you pass by them, which most often means that their Mii character ‘jumps’ onto your console and you can use that character in a game called Streetpass Quest. Although at heart I know that it really is very slight entertainment, I always get a little tingle of excitement when I get that little green light telling me a new Mii has popped in to say hello. And yes, I’m aware that this is incredibly sad.

Another nice feature is the pedometer – the system counts how many steps you’ve taken and converts them into ‘play coins’, which you can then use to buy features in games. It’s a neat little idea, and I like the way it gives kids an incentive to get out and walk around.

But by far my favourite thing about the 3DS is the games: so far I’ve got Ocarina of Time 3D, Ridge Racer 3D, Star Fox 64 3D and Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, and I absolutely love all of them (although Shadow Wars is my runaway favourite right now). With top quality software like this, there’s your reason to buy a 3DS right there.

The sting in the tail

Ah, but there’s a catch – that bloody battery. With the 3D on, battery life is barely three hours, and the system has run out of juice on me at least twice now. You can extend the battery life by turning off the 3D and turning down the sound, but that does take away from the playing experience somewhat. And don’t even think about putting the system into sleep mode while you’re in the middle of playing a game – having a program running during sleep mode eats up the battery like nobody’s business.

Final thoughts

Oh, that cheeky wee 3DS. It certainly is a charmer with it’s fancy looks and clever 3D trickery, but it’s an awfully naughty boy when it comes to squandering electricity. But then again, the 3D is amazingly good – as long as you’re in a position to turn it on – and I’ll be interested to see how game companies think of new ways to use it in the future. And speaking of games, there’s recently been a flurry of fantastic software for the system – with games like these, it’s easy to forgive the minor niggles.

Oh, and I love Streetpass. Did I mention that?

[As dictated by Lucius Merriweather in The Library]

 

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Excuse my lateness…

Huge apologies, but this week’s post has been slightly delayed – the perils of holding down a full-time job! Check back here tomorrow evening for my thoughts on Nintendo’s latest handheld box ‘o tricks.

Lucius Merriweather

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Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – I am definitely not cut out to be a locksmith

I am an Imperial knight named Swarley with an innate ability for cutting dudes up with a sword, for protecting my jewels with a shield and for conning the honest to goodness merchants scattered all throughout Cyrodiil out of hard earned revenue with nothing but my alleged good looks and silver tongue.  Of course that pecker of an elf in the imperial city deserves a bit of scamming, with prices like his, he’s practically asking to be scammed.  Welcome to the world of The Elder Scolls IV: Oblivion.

Thirty minutes into my journey I met a guy just outside of the imperial city.  Having just escaped from a life sentence in a dungeon, I was starved for human contact, and keen to make some friends.  So I agreed to hunt down and kill some special fish for him.  Whatever, not like I have a whole lot else to do.  And  I had the best of intentions, I swear; I wanted to find those fish.  But as I explored the world, killed a few spirits of deceased Elven Kings, smashed a few underground necromancer operations, and became the best mercenary-for-hire, hit-man and arena fighter in the land, those fish that the guy that I couldn’t even remember the name of became trivial.  I was above all that.  I was the king of the world.  I had  the power to do anything – good or evil.

I guess, like in real life though, I couldn’t have everything.  So while I could practically kill anything by looking at them, jump what seemed like six feet in the air, and light up a room with a slight hand gesture, I couldn’t pick a simple god damned lock to save my life.  So consider me humbled (but I still didn’t find those fish).

That was pretty much the only frustration, albeit one that plagued me almost for the entirety of the 80 hours I poured into my adventures in the world of Cyrodiil, that could possibly make me think ill of Bethesda’s masterpiece.  After all, what was the incentive to fight my way through samey dungeons, Elven ruins and miscellaneous mine-like locales if I would stumble upon a chest right at the very end that may or may not contain something valuable or useful to my character?  You wouldn’t think much.

Apparently not how I role. Play.

But something drove me to do all of the above,  and that annoyance is also what made Oblivion so absolutely fantastic in the end.  After getting over the fact that I was not born to pick locks, I accepted that it was my choices that led to my inaptitude in that area. Too often you hear how freedom opens so many doors, but for me, its the choices and decisions you make, all the way down to the character you create, that can also lock things off.  That may not tickle many people’s fancy, but to me it is what I’m missing out on that can make an experience just that much more involving.  Because hey, that’s life.

It is high praise when the biggest faults I could find with the game were the same things that I felt made it utterly fantastic.  Unfortunately though, they are faults that look terrible on paper and so come off rather scathing.  But if you actually read into what I’ve written there, nothing stopped me from playing the game night after night after night (80 hours is nothing to scoff at), and in spite of a couple of glaring sore spots, nothing can take the shine away from what is largely considered to be 2006’s game of the year.  And it is probably because it was 2006’s game of the year that those ‘sore spots’ even exist at all – time can be a cruel, cruel beast.  Not cruel enough to make Oblivion anything short of a ‘must-play’ video game though – and even though I preferred the world and story of its predecessor Morrowind, my time in Oblivion was well worth the subsequent decline of my social life.  Just don’t let me see that Skyrim case sitting, waiting in ambush next to my TV.

I remember when this was spectacular

 And with that I successfully knock my first game off of The Mantelpiece.  Feel free to send me gifts in celebration.

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Ten Games of 2011 Lucius Definitely Would Have Played If He’d Had The Time

A New Year’s message from Lucius Merriweather, Esq.

As you probably know by now, both Sir Gaulian and I have a considerable backlog of games to play through (see The Mantelpiece), so most of my 2011 was actually spent playing through games from 2010 and earlier. As such, I almost finished the year without playing any games released in 2011 whatsoever, although an 11th hour Christmas gift of a Nintendo 3DS ensured that I did at least partake of some of the gaming glories that 2011 had to offer (look forward to more on my experiences with the 3DS in a later post).

This means I can’t really speak with any authority about the ‘best’ games of 2011, seeing as I didn’t actually play any of them, so instead here’s a list of my top ten games I WOULD have played, had I the time. (And let’s face it, seeing as I can barely find the time to play one game a month, I’m unlikely to play any of these in 2012 either… but hey ho, one can but dream.)

10 – Shadows of the Damned

Sir Gaulian is a particular fan of this one, so I won’t go on about it suffice to say that you should read Gaulie’s fawning praise of the game here and here. A game made by Suda 51 AND Shinji Mikami? Sign me up please.

9 – Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I never played Elder Scrolls IV,  but I finally got round to playing Fallout 3 at the beginning of 2011 and loved every minute of it, so I’m pretty keen to experience more of what Bethesda have to offer. Sadly though, considering the sheer number of game hours that Skyrim requires, I very much doubt I’ll ever get round to playing through it – I mean, I’ve still got to play through Mass Effect 1 and 2, and those games aren’t exactly short. Still, if I ever win the lottery and resign myself to a life of leisure, I’ll give this a go to while away the hours of languor.

8 – Dead Space 2

I loved the original Dead Space, and I’m happily playing through Dead Space: Extraction at the moment, so I can’t wait to finally play Dead Space 2. It seems to tick exactly the right boxes for a sequel – all the niggly annoying bits from the previous game have been expunged, and everything else has been made bigger and better, but importantly it seems to have retained the crap-your-pants scariness of the original. And seeing as my good friend and co-podcaster Ian actually has a copy of this game he can lend me, there’s a somewhat better than even chance I might actually get round to playing this one before the year’s out.

7 – Star Fox 64 3D

Star Fox? In 3D? But, like, actual 3D where it looks like you’re going into the screen? And with improved graphics? Ambassador, you are spoiling us! I remember how completely blown away I was by the original Star Fox on the SNES, so I’m hoping that this new 3D version will boggle my mind all over again.

6 – L.A. Noire

I really can’t wait to play this one – even my non-game-playing friends have commented on the uncanny realism of the motion capture, and the interrogation sequences look really superb. It’s a shame that the makers Team Bondi imploded earlier this year, making the prospect of a sequel unlikely. Still, it’s set an impressive milestone for video game technology, and it will be really interesting to see how this motion capture technique is developed in other games.

5 – From Dust

Ooooh, this one looks good. It’s been described as a “spiritual heir to Populous“, but it reminded me more of one of my most fondly remembered GameCube games, Doshin the Giant (although, er, without the giant). The graphics are nothing short of sublime and it’s received fantastic reviews, so I’m sure I’ll be spending my hard-warned Microsoft Points on this one soon.

4 – Bastion

I first heard of this game through the blog Grinding Down, and the idea of a narrator commenting on your every move really intrigued me. It’s one of those “why has no-one thought of this before?” ideas, so I’m really intrigued to giving this a go. Plus it’s yet another game on this list with very stylised, beautiful artwork – it seems 2011 was the year for fancy looking painting-style graphics.

3 – Batman: Arkham City

I almost, ALMOST bought this on day one – something I haven’t done for about ten years. I completely fell in love with Arkham Asylum, and so I was far more excited than any grown man should be about the prospect of a second slice of Batman gaminess, leading me to hover agonisingly over the ‘pre-order’ button on Amazon for what felt like hours. In the end though, the guilt of having all those unplayed games on The Mantelpiece stopped me from ordering it, and I resolved to wait until it came down in price and I’d thinned down the backlog a bit. Happily though, Ian caved in and bought it in the first week, so now I can just borrow it from him for free. Result!

2 – El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

I love completely batshit Japanese games, so I was eager to learn of El Shaddai, which is an utterly bonkers action game based around the Book of Enoch (an ancient Jewish script). It sounds a bit like the wonderful Bayonetta on paper (in particular the quasi-religious imagery) and looks absolutely amazing, but it seems to have completely split reviewers, receiving an ecstatic 9/10 from Eurogamer but a lacklustre 5/10 from IGN. I have to say though, I think the IGN reviewer completely missed the point – I watched the IGN video review and was surprised to hear this American chap drone on about the fact the game “changes too much”, whereas the Eurogamer reviewer seems to more closely reflect my point of view in praising El Shaddai‘s diversity: “…about a third of the way through the game, it begins to reinvent itself dramatically with every new chapter. It gets better and better.” All said and done, El Shaddai looks right up my street, and it will definitely be the first game I buy from this list… just as soon as I’ve finished playing through my backlog that is.

1 – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I actually got this for Christmas, but I’ve yet to play it as I’ve been working my way through Ocarina of Time and Ghost Recon on the 3DS. I can’t wait to get stuck into it though – I’m a massive Zelda fan, and the reviews for Skyward Sword have been off the scale. A fitting swansong for the Wii I think. Having said that, I seem to do most of my gaming on the Wii at the moment: thanks to Dead Space: Extraction, Umbrella Chronicles, Darkside Chronicles, MadWorld and Sin and Punishment 2, my Xbox 360 hasn’t been turned on for months…

And Finally…

Two games from 2011 that I actually DID get to play in 2011 (just) are The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, both of which are superb so I thought I’d better mention them here too. I was particularly impressed with Ghost Recon, simply because I didn’t really know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was designed by Julian Gollop of UFO: Enemy Unknown fame. Look out for my thoughts on both games over the coming weeks.

So, you’ve heard our thoughts on the best games of 2011 – do you agree? Let us know what you think in the comments section…

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Sir Gaulian’s most agreeable games of 2011

2011 was a ripper year for gaming.  Ken Levine, in an interview with Eurogamer, even went as far as to proclaim it the best year for gaming since 2007.  While I would draw the bow slightly longer to compare it to 1998, there is no doubt that the last 12 months has been an incredible year.  And for the record, 2007 was an average year, and Bioshock wasn’t that great.  Sorry Ken.  The point is, whatever your taste, 2011 was a fantastic for video games and hard to isolate a few highlights.  But alas, it is a New Year public holiday, I’m back to work tomorrow and I’m short on time.  So what better time for a list of sorts.  So behold, the most agreeable video games for 2011.  That I played at least.

Shadows of the Damned

Back in August I poured my heart out to Shadows of the Damned.  I’m a big fan of both Suda 51 (Killer 7, Michigan, No More Heroes) and Shinji Mikami’s (Resident Evil, Vanquish) collective works, so the mere thought of the two artists coming together for one product was too much for me to contain.  And the wait was worth it.  Not only was the setting, characters and story line fantastic, but as a video game it totally held up.  And the game was genuinely laugh out loud funny, so bonus points for a joke about demon pubes.

Portal 2

Source: store.steampowered.com

Portal 2 may have successfully overthrown the Half Life series as Valve’s most important property.  Everything that was good about Portal is in its sequel – and for that reason alone Portal 2 is not only probably the best game of the year, but perhaps one of the greatest games ever made.  While for most it probably would have been enough to just push on with the whole GLaDOS thing, Valve  went above and beyond to create new characters and environments that not only make the game very different from its predecessor, but also flesh out a relatively sterile and purpose-built world.  Even without the fear of death, I would gladly keep testing for Aperture.

Dark Souls

Source: www.joystiq.com

Because I have to earn money to live, I have a job.  Because I have a job, I haven’t played anywhere near as much Dark Souls as I would have liked.  But in the barely 15 hours I have put into it, it has successfully made me look at University websites to look at what additional degrees I could do, rejig my budget to see if I could survive working only 10 hours a week, and has also made me wish more games are like this.  The answer to all of those questions is no, but at least I still have Dark Souls.  It is the game that other developers are afraid to make.  And I love it.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

I think the fact that I don’t even like the Warhammer 40,000 table top game speaks volumes to the incredibly high quality of Relic’s Space Marine.  Put simply, no other game this year has been so blissfully fun.  The combination of very visceral gun play and heavy melee combat makes being a Space Marine incredibly rewarding, and using the wide range of weaponry at your disposal as an Ultra Marine to tear the enemy to shreds makes Space Marine the one game on this list that I would probably recommend to anyone with a pretty decent idea that they will get scores of enjoyment from it.  And in an age where sequels are all too common, main character Titus is actually a Space Marine you should be wishing to see in a sequel.

Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together

Source: www.wired.com

I actually feel like I’ve cheated on handheld games this year by playing almost exclusively console games.  But when I was reaching for a handheld, it was Sony’s system with Tactics Ogre cemented firmly in.  The game itself never did see a release in European territories (and by virtue, Australia) despite being released in Japan for the Super Famicom back in 1995, re released in 1996 for the Saturn in Japan, and then released in Japan and North America for the Playstation in 1998/1998.  Finally this year though, it saw a release on the PSP, and an enhanced release at that.  Not that I was waiting – but the ‘wait’ was totally worth it, and Tactics Ogre represents the best of the genre on a system that includes Final Fantasy Tactics, Jeanne D’arc and Disgaea.

Where was…

I actually played a hell of a lot of video games from last year, last year.  Unfortunately though, despite my best efforts, there is no way in hell I could have gotten close to playing all of the games I wanted to – sorry El Shaddai.  The list of games that I didn’t get to is incredibly embarrassing  only rivaled by that of the dream where you somehow left home and went about your normal day with no pants or underwear on.  You know the one, right?

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