Monthly Archives: June 2015

From The Armchair: Say Hello To Merriweather Jr

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums!

You may well have noticed my conspicuous absence from this illustrious online tome over the past month or so – my endless thanks to Sir Gaulian for keeping things ticking over with a steady stream of fantastic articles. I have a good excuse for my blogging slackness, however – the birth of my son.




Yes, that’s right, Merriweather Jr has finally made his way into the outside world, glory be! Needless to say, he’s been keeping us all very busy these last few weeks, but things are gradually calming down now as we get used to his cheery (sometimes teary) presence.

Needless to say, my gaming time will be rather limited from now on, but I’ll endeavour to post here as often as I can.

Toodle-pip for now!


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Why I’m looking forward to Rare Replay

My article on the Xbox One Rare Replay collection just went up on Kotaku UK. And there’s one game I’m particularly looking forward to playing again: Solar Jetman.


As I say in the Kotaku article, this NES game wasn’t hugely successful in terms of sales, but it garnered huge critical praise – and it had me hooked. Yet despite this, I never quite managed to finish the game, mostly because it’s rock hard. I still hope to finish it one day though, and hopefully if they include a way to save the game in Rare Replay, this will be a bit easier than it was back in the day. The original game had a password system so you could skip levels, but extra lives were incredibly limited – an option to reload a save game would be most welcome, if a little cheaty.

I actually still have the original Solar Jetman cartridge – it’s the only NES game I’ve kept hold of, although I no longer have a working NES. For ages I’ve been toying with the idea of picking up another NES just to play this game again, but thanks to Rare Replay I no longe have to. Hurrah!


Buy Rare Replay (Xbox One) from Amazon.

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80’s music and the flicker of an old telly let me live someone else’s video game history

Pitfall2600Yeah, I’m well versed in Atari’s sordid history, allegedly bringing the gaming market to a crash. I’m also aware of the meteoric rise of Activision in that same period, driven by recognition hungry developers who more than anything, just wanted their name on the box.  I happen to also have held an Atari 2600 joystick or two in my life, admiring the stylish woodgrain panels on the front of the system, and playing a round or two of Asteroids or Centipede while admiring their simplistic charm.  But being just a tad over 30 now, it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see that I was barely a twinkle in my parents’ eyes when the 2600 was at its peak, and so the rise and fall of that little American company that could came and went while I was still well and truly relieving myself directly into my pants.

So to say I’m not an Atari veteran is an understatement.

But years after Atari had come and gone, and other companies had risen to take its place at the top, there I was sitting in my teenage bedroom, enjoying Activision’s classic Atari games in much the same way a mullet-sporting 80’s teen wearing stonewash jeans and a jean jacket would have.  Of course I was sitting there in the early 2000’s on hardware umpteen jigawatts more powerful, clothing that in hindsight was only slightly less embarrassing, and a television that while now is antiquated was modern for its time, earning patches and dealing with a rolling picture all the while listening to a mixtape of bands including Naked Eyes and Twisted Sister.  For that moment in time I was an 80’s teenager.


Activision Anthology on the Playstation 2 was my gateway into the time before the Euro-centric home computer boom of the 80’s, and of course the rise and rise of the Japanese console manufacturers.  It was a time of mechanically simple games that relied on charm and the pursuit of high scores, of games that required little more than quick reactions and pattern memorisation, and a time where every game courted the competitive streak and sibling rivalry in every one.  They were in many ways the formative years of video gaming as we know it today, and while the history of Atari systems and its games taken in isolation couldn’t be more uninteresting to me, I couldn’t help but be utterly mesmerised by that collection of forty-something 4k artefacts.

I could never have imagined that, with games like Ridge Racer V and Gran Turismo 3 vying for my attention, what equates to a teeth brushing shoot ’em up of Plaque Attack would keep me glued to the screen in a ‘one more coin’ kind of way.  And in isolation they probably couldn’t have.  There was nothing particularly special about Barnstorming but I spent hours playing it, nor was playing multiplayer Ice Hockey any better than almost any subsequent sports game release.  But there I was sitting in front of the telly fixated on these video games most of which predated me, games that weren’t necessarily within my wheelhouse, and games that comprised someone else’s gaming history and nostalgia.

That’s when I realised that the history of the medium is more than just the games themselves.  It’s a function of its time – the sights, the sounds, the tangibility – that makes people hold these experiences dear.  Just as I would always associate the games I played with a time and place, there was something intrinsically 80’s about the Atari, something that could never be separated and enjoyed in the same way out of context.  And whether it be the flickering of an old cathode ray tube in a dimly lit room or Wall of Voodoo’s Mexican Radio playing on the very latest in tape deck technology, for many, playing these very old and very simple games takes them back to a time where their whole lives were ahead of them and where technology was changing the very fabric of society. Literally if you were dedicated enough to take a polaroid of your scores to score a coveted cloth patch to show off to the world.  And Activision Anthology was a window back into that world.

To say that the Activision Anthology was was a historical video game collection done right isn’t doing it justice.  It perfectly recreated a point in time, enabling those of us who weren’t around to live someone else’s history, and bask in everything that made that moment in video game history so special to so many people.  It allowed me to be a tourist in someone else’s video game history, into a time that I have no recollection of, and certainly no conditioned fondness for.  I don’t remember Atari, I don’t remember Safety Dance being on the radio, and I sure as hell don’t remember a time where wood-panelling was the pinnacle of home electronic design.  But for those precious few months in the early 2000’s, I could’ve sworn I did.



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Like sands through an hourglass, so are the games of our lives

DaysOfHourLife_LogoI’m not scared on much. I balk at the ideas that spiders are to be feared, I ogle some of the most deadly snakes right in the eyes, and walk through dark alleyways at night like they’re fields full of flowers.  But the things I am scared of are stupid, inane, and quite simply irrational.  Time is one of those things. Not getting old per se, but rather that I have a limited amount of time to ration out across the things I like to do.  My brain is trained to optimise things, and well wasting time, that’s simply not an option.

Which means I really don’t like doing things twice.

When I first met my soon-to-be-wife, one of the first things that struck me about her, was that she would watch things over and over again.  And not just “I have seen Star Wars a hundred times”, no, there was a pile of TV shows and films that she had seen enough times to remember the script off by heart.  It was the strangest thing about her at the time, but now after a good decade and then some, it has rubbed off on me to the point where now I do the same thing.

But when I really think about it, I wasn’t that dissimilar at times in my life, and I can’t count the number of 80’s and 90’s games I’d played through more than I care to admit.  Whether it be the Game Boy games like Balloon Kid or Radar Mission that I became enamoured with in the early nineties, or Amiga classics like Turrican or the Great Giana Sisters, my childhood was full of playing and replaying the same games ad nauseam and loving every minute of it.

But somewhere in the mid-to-late nineties that all changed and bar a few very special cases, I was content with playing a game to the credits, and putting it on the shelf to gather dust.  In my early twenties, while I was right at the start of my career, I became ridiculously aware of the passage of time.  If you’re not quite at that point in your life, enjoy it while it lasts, because once you hit that point your brain will start to rationalise every minute of every day.  It was at this precise moment that I realised that I’d never experience Resident Evil 2 again.  And that terrified me.

RE2 screen

Since that time, those same shelves have been inundated with games that have well and truly become pre played, no longer fulfilling their worldly purpose.  When I think about the great times had, the great memories collected, and the great ‘people’ I’ve met playing some of my favourite games over the past few years along, I realise that I’ll probably never relive those moments again.  I’ll never walk the halls of the USG Ishimura,  window shop in Willamette Parkview Mall, or live out Jimmy Patterson’s one-man tale of triumph behind enemy lines.  And they’re in good company, as I’ll never Escape From Colditz again, nor will I play political-god on planet Dion, or try my hand in the Killing Game Show.

So my nostalgia for these games will have to remain just that.

Which may be a blessing in disguise.  I find that nostalgia is a wonderful but terrifying thing, and for me, part of the appeal is knowing that those moments and experiences are lost for good in the annals of time.  It is the reason people are fascinated with the probably impossible idea of time travel, with reading history, and with reading people’s biographies from a time long past.  For me, most of the appeal of Roald Dahl’s autobiographical Boy and Going Solo were so appealing to me, was that they transported me to a specific time in history that is lost forever.  His tales of childhood debauchery in England in the 1920’s are brilliant depictions of a time that, in all likelihood, I’ll never be able to return to.  Like my own childhood it is lost forever. And much like the games I played there.

I love the idea of everyone having their own gaming history, a biography built on their own individual game experiences.  Because amongst the stories of our real lives, many of us were living parallel lives through the games we played, visiting other worlds and meeting other people.  And while it’s certainly possible to go back in time and relive these memories, I prefer to leave most of them in the past, moments forever lost left behind by the passage of time.  Just like sands through an hourglass.


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Fallout and the splendid sound of silence

fallout3xbox360“Speak to Colin Moriarty”. It was the task that will always define Fallout 3 for me. As I traversed the wasteland in search of high adventure, there it was, always sitting at the top of my quest log.  It was at around the 60 hour mark I finally made my way to Moriarty’s Saloon, took a seat at the bar next to a lady of the night, and used my way with words to convince Moriarty to tell me the whereabouts of my father.

And then the true adventure began.

But I joke about the time it took to speak to Moriarty because it, in a lot of ways, defines my long and enduring relationship with Fallout 3.  So captured by the Capital Wasteland that simply existing in it was enough, so much so that hours were spent traipsing aimlessly about the wasteland, taking in the sights and the sounds.  It would be weird to call Fallout 3 some sort of escapism from the vicissitudes of everyday life, because it was hardly a beacon of light for humanity, but in some ways it became the game I’d go to merely to exist and explore somewhere other than the here and now.  To get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

If you’ve ever driven along an empty country road alone, no other cars in sight, you’ll know just how soothing spending time in your head with just the radio and the road for company is.  Fallout 3 recreates this feeling almost perfectly with walks in nature to the soothing tunes of the Ink Spots or Billie Holiday proving to be a veritable dalliance with luxury in a world that can barely offer them to its inhabitants.  Because those moments of respite, when you’re not fighting for your life against the men and mutants that want to take it from you, are some of the most relaxing video gaming has to offer.

More than once I found myself finding a seat alongside an irradiated lake or an abandoned cabin next to a collapsed freeway and just sitting.  Sitting and starting at the screen watching the world go by.  Watching the occasional crop of dust fly by or a stranger with his lone brahmin walking alone a dusty trail way off in the distance.  Because amongst all of the despair humanity brought upon itself and if you look closely, past the derelict buildings and the mutilated corpses, post-apocalyptic Earth is a beautiful place.

After the hours upon hours spent in the decrepit former capital of the United States, I felt as though I was actually the long wanderer.  I was the guy that rigged the election in the Republic of Dave.  I was the guy that ended poor Harold’s life in Utopia. But more importantly for me, it was me walking around in my own company, watching the sunrise and sunset. It was me enjoying the silence of the wasteland.  And as I looked I up at the stars it was easy to forget that humanity was on its last legs.  And that for me was some kind of bliss.  Who knew the end of the world could be so relaxing?



Filed under Most Agreeable Moments, Opinions

You had me at the sound of a V8

“By my deeds I honour him, V8.”

Like the rest of the world I was pretty stunned by just how good Mad Max: Fury Road was.  As I sat there at my local cinema and watched the mutant cars duel along fury road for a good two hours, I couldn’t help but notice my cheeks starting to cramp up for the endless ear-to-ear smile planted on my face.

But while the explosions and the gun fights were amazing moments, if I’m entirely honest, the film had me before it had even started.  Because just as the lights dimmed, and the Warner Bros logo splashed up on screen, there it was., the real reason I was sitting in a freezing cold cinema on a minus six degree Canberra night.

It was the warm and fuzzy feeling I got at hearing the sound of the roar of a V8 engine.

I’ve written about how, at heart, I’m a little bit of a bogan.  But watching Mad Max brought that part of me right up front and centre for the whole world to see.  As the sound of the beastly V8’s screamed from the cinema’s surround sound speakers I sat there giddy as a school girl, almost audibly squealing as the hulking great cars flew through the desert at high speed, the sound of the engines shaking the earth and my ear drums as the pursuit through the desert turned to crashing and burning.

And it’s not any old engine that turns me into a raging pile of testosterone, it’s that specific type of car that gives me goosebumps.  I can appreciate the high pitched whine of a Formula One or a McLaren F1, but it’s the roar of a big ol’ V8 or a straight-six 186 you’d fine sitting in Aussie muscle cars in the late-70’s and early eighties that gets me excited.  They were the cars that most teenagers aspired to have at a time before Gran Turismo hit and so are an almost ingrained part of the Australian psyche and identity.


Sadly that era of the heavy pieces of metal propelled by even heavier engines doesn’t received the tender love and care in video games, with developers more often than not opting for the sleeker and sexier sports cars that are coming off production lines as we speak.  They’re fast, absolutely, but are they furious?  I’m not so sure.

But when it’s done right, when a game decides to hone in on those heavy muscle cars, it’s a thing of beauty.  Vigilante 8 (and to a lesser extent its predecessor Interstate ’76) were games practically built on that American love of much the same thing, putting its array of hulking great gas-guzzling on centre stage.  The menu screens alone are not-so-subtle audio love letters to muscle cars, using the unmistakable sounds of an eight-cylinder engines, and the rickety suspension buckling under the weight of the chassis as they fall onto the screen, as cues for both car and level select.

And the game isn’t alone in its audio slavery to muscle car-worship, the “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” screen in Daytona USA is joined by a chorus of race-ready revs, imploring you to slam your foot on the accelerator peddle in preparation for that rolling start.  They are small touches, sure, but they capture so much of what it is to love cars.  And I’m convinced that it’s that moment, that still image accompanied by the wonderful sound of the rapid burning of fossil fuels, that left us all with the glowing first impressions of that arcade staple.  And you know what

Because it’s one thing to look the part and games have been hitting that aspect for six for the best part of two decades.  But capturing the feel, the impact, the physicality of a petrol-swilling V8 engine is something else.  It’s the first impression you usually have of a car’s power.  It’s the thing that has women and men standing around cars, kicking tyres, patting each other on the back as the engine goes from idle to high revs and the body of the car tilts in place.  It’s this physical presence of a standing car that few games recreate, and while visions of cars in motion and the sound of screeching tyres and they grip the road for dear life is great, its the simple beauty of your favourite model revving in situ that stands above all else.

So Gentleman, start your engines.  And let me hear that sweet purr for just a little longer.

Gentlemen start your engines


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What’s going on with that Radio? – how broadcast is the perfect video game device

Prey was a lot of things when it was released. It was the next big game for the transient Xbox 360 early adopters.  It was a technically proficient shooter that promised a unique take on online multiplayer.   And it was a technical showpiece that had console gamers scrambling to buy HD televisions. But one thing it wasn’t was a great world builder.  It had some great ideas and moments, mostly created by the anti-gravity walkways that featured heavily throughout the games, but for the most part it was the sort of shiny high-tech metal-walled spaceship we’d walked through what seemed like a thousand times before.

But those radio broadcasts. They were really something.

Ambient storytelling isn’t new, even back in 2006, but Prey used it so brilliantly to pad out its otherwise benign world that it merits special mention.  While the game’s narrative doesn’t directly posture the alien invasion as a great threat to humanity as we know it, it’s these talkback radio broadcasts that give it a greater sense of desperation and (pardon the pun) gravity than it would otherwise have.  I was never really invested in Tommy’s quest to avenge his grandfather’s death or save his girlfriend, but the prophetic ramblings of a paranormal shock-jock and his loyal followers, well that was something to pull me down the shiny metal hallways and through the sphincter-like doors.

It was this ‘window’ into what was happening on Earth, what ordinary people were seeing from the ground, that really drove the gravity of what was happening in Prey more broadly.  It was easy to imagine people down on earth spotting lights in the skies and tuning into their radios for updates from the authorities – or in this case famous supernatural broadcaster Art Bell – about what exactly they were to do next.  And as the calls get more and more frantic, it becomes clear that Earth is under attack, and that its people are terrified and helpless.


And there is real life precedent for the importance – and resilience – of radio in emergencies.  While radio is perhaps not the cutting edge medium it once was, it is an enduring medium, and one that people rely on significantly in daily life.  Its reliability makes it, more than modern technologies like shared LTE networks, the second best contingency behind amateur radio.  The long distances both AM and to a lesser extent FM frequencies broadcast at mean that the towers are more likely to be out of harm, and the fact it is largely insulated from interference and congestion makes it a far more likely to have resilience during disasters.  In a disaster early warning and public announcements mean the difference between life and death in some cases, and if you’ve driven through the Australian bush, you’ve probably spotted the emergency frequency signs on the side of the road for that very reason.  While emergency services will continue their push to get access to high-value spectrum to roll out dedicated networks for operations, it’s radio that’s the equal opportunity broadcast medium used to alert the masses, and its the good ol’ wireless they’ve sat by for generations to get the latest on the world around them.

Prey isn’t the only game to depict broadcast in times of global disaster – Fallout 3’s radio broadcasts of both Enclave propaganda and Three-Dog’s entertainment and news programming is probably a pretty decent depiction of mass communication in the end times.  Sure there’ll always be HAM radio, but without the regulators dividing spectrum rights, spectrum of (literally) every colour is up for the taking.  And at a time of civil unrest and anarchy, and when the nuclear weapons have all fallen, the power to spread messages to the masses looking for a glimpse of hope against the post-apocalyptic backdrop is the best weapon.  It’s no accident that nigh on every game has a mission where you’re tasked with either rigging up or ripping down a broadcast or communications tower.

When the end times come, or even when it seems like it has, it’s the precious invisible roadways that both provide us with comfort and help keep us safe.  And it’s in this context of video game world building that radio broadcasts make a lot of sense as a medium both for ambient storytelling, and for mission design to drive a broader narrative.  Radio may not be as personal as unicast communication, or as sexy and impactful as the “they’re at the door” recording found by a corpse, but it does make real world sense.  And in that respect it’s one of the best narrative and mission design devices around.

Sir Gaulian has a not-so-secret love for spectrum management has spent far too many hours gazing longingly at radio towers during his time in the industry.  He dreams of the next spectrum auction.  Follow him on twitter @oldgaulian


I stood starting up at this broadcast tower for far too long before I took the picture…

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