Category Archives: Reviews

The Year of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons

A while back, I set myself the goal of finishing all of the Zelda games I’ve yet to play before I start the latest game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Oracle of Seasons is the first one I can tick off that list.

Originally released for the Game Boy Color back in 2001, just as the ageing handheld was being superseded by the Game Boy Advance, Oracle of Seasons is an odd fish. For a start, it was the first Zelda game to be developed by an outside studio, Capcom, and confusingly, it was actually released as two games – Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. At the time, I assumed that this dual release was a way to jump on the Pokemon bandwagon, a tactic of releasing two basically identical games with a few minor differences. But that’s not the case – each game is a fully fledged, unique, standalone adventure, although there’s an overarching narrative that spans the two. Cleverly, you get a password when you complete one of them that lets you carry over your save game to the next instalment, although it doesn’t matter which order you play the games in.

Apparently, the whole thing was originally going to be THREE games, each representing an aspect of the Triforce. But the third game was cancelled, and the protracted development saw the concept undergo enormous changes – hence why the games were released so late into the GBC’s life cycle. In fact, they didn’t emerge until well after the release of the GBA, the GBC’s replacement. The Oracle games’ huge ambition and wonderful graphics are typical of late-stage software for an ageing console, as developers finally master the hardware and are able to push it to its absolute limits.

The Rod of Seasons lets you change, ahem, the season, which is key to solving puzzles.

But to start with, I wasn’t enormously enthusiastic about playing Oracle of Seasons. I recalled a few reviews from the time being a little lukewarm about the game, especially in the wake of the astonishing Ocarina of Time, so I never saw it as a ‘must-play’ title. How wrong I was.

I’ll just put this out there right now – I reckon Oracle of Seasons is better than Link’s Awakening. In fact, I’d easily class it in my top 5 Zelda games, it’s that good. It’s just packed with so many great ideas, such as a boxing kangaroo called Ricky that you can ride on to leap over holes and punch out enemies. (In fact, that bit was so fun, it’s a real shame that Link stuck to riding boring old horses in the later entries – bring back Ricky, I say.) The collectible items are also inspired, particularly the magnetic gloves, which allow you to attract or repel certain enemies and pull yourself across gaps by latching onto a metal pole.

Hey Ricky, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Ricky!

But it’s the brilliant dungeons that really make the game. The below instalment of Boss Keys does a much better job than I could of explaining what makes these dungeons so good. They’re a joy to play through – challenging but never frustrating, with a real sense of achievement when you make it through alive. Wonderful stuff.

I’ve already started on the next game, Oracle of Ages, and judging by how much I enjoyed Oracle of Seasons, The Year of Zelda is going to be a very fun year indeed.

This article is part of The Year of Zelda, an attempt to play through all of the Zelda games I’ve yet to finish.


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The Year of Zelda


Like pretty much everyone else in the gaming world, I’m very excited for the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After the slightly lacklustre reveal of the Nintendo Switch, I’ve decided to get the game on the Wii U and hold off on purchasing a Switch until there are a few more games. But before I buy it, I want to polish off the few Zelda games I’ve yet to complete.

I’ve played almost every Zelda game out there, but there are still a few that passed me by for one reason or another. I missed out on Minish Cap on the Game Boy Advance, although I recently purchased it for the Wii U. I played Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS, but I never got around to buying its sequel, Spirit Tracks. I got Skyward Sword just after its release, but six years on, I’ve still yet to play it. I’m not sure why I keep putting it off – somehow it just feels like I need to save it for a special occasion.

Well, I guess now that special occasion has arrived. The release of Breath of the Wild is shaping up to be a landmark moment for the series, and I’ve resolved to play through every Zelda game I’ve missed before buying this latest entry. That might mean I miss playing it at release in March, but I can wait – it will only make playing it for the first time all the sweeter.

Changing the season in Oracle of Seasons is key to solving puzzles.

Changing the season in Oracle of Seasons is key to solving puzzles.

At the moment, I’m about two-thirds of the way through Oracle of Seasons, one of a pair of Zelda games for the Game Boy Color that were, uniquely for the series, co-developed with an outside developer, Capcom. I remember the two games, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, got a lukewarm reception at the time, but I’m heartily enjoying my playthrough of Seasons. I’d even go so far as to sat that – heresy! – it’s better than Link’s Awakening. Don’t lynch me!

Anyway, here’s the list of Zelda games I’m planning to play through before finally getting my hands on Breath of the Wild, roughly in the order I intend to play them. I’m leaving out Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures and Tri Force Heroes, as really they’re spinoffs (and they don’t particularly appeal to me, anyway).

  • Oracle of Seasons (GBC)
  • Oracle of Ages (GBC)
  • Minish Cap (GBA)
  • The Legend of Zelda (NES)
  • The Adventure of Link (NES)
  • Spirit Tracks (DS)
  • Wind Waker HD (Wii U)
  • Skyward Sword (Wii)

I’m aware that the two NES titles might be a slog to play nowadays, and Adventure of Link is renowned as being the worst in the series, so I may very well just dip into these rather than playing them to completion. Similarly, I’ll probably only dip into Wind Waker HD, as I completed the original back in the GameCube days, but I’m intrigued to see how they’ve tarted it up for the HD generation.

I’m also intrigued to play Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland on the DS, starring everyone’s favourite fairy-wannabee manchild. If I can get hold of it, I might add it to the list.


Are there any Zelda games you’ve missed out on? I’d love to hear if you’re planning a similar Zelda marathon ahead of the launch of Breath of the Wild.


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Review: Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones

fire-emblem-sacred-stones-cover-art-gbaNintendo’s Virtual Console policy continues to frustrate me. Certain titles are exclusive to the Wii U or 3DS, which makes sense up to a certain point – Wii games wouldn’t really work on a handheld, for example. But why make Game Boy Advance games exclusive to Wii U? Surely the only reason is to drive sales of the ailing console, yet these games would be much better suited to playing on the 3DS. Why can’t GBA games be sold on both consoles? Why not have the option to buy the games once and download them on both platforms, like Sony offers with the PS3/PS4 and Playstation Vita?

What’s especially irritating is that Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones was previously made available on the 3DS as part of the 3DS Ambassadors programme for early adopters of the console. Yet five years down the line, these games have still yet to be made available to ‘regular’ punters. Come on Nintendo, open up the vaults to everyone, regardless of which console they own – there’s pure gold to be had in those game coffers.

And Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones really is pure gold. I remember at the time of its release, it was criticised as essentially being a reskin of the previous title in the series, which was simply called Fire Emblem in the west. Even though the latter was the seventh game in the turn-based strategy RPG series, it was the first to be localised for western audiences, and it was an absolute cracker. I reminisced about it for 1o1 Video Games That Made My Life Slightly Better a few years ago, particularly about its unforgiving permadeath mechanic, which ended up leaving me with the thousand-yard-stare of a war general who’s seen to much. So many purple-haired youngsters sent to their deaths…

Good old Seth, what a powerhouse that man is.

Good old Seth, what a powerhouse that man is.

Actually, I never quite managed to see that game to its end – by the later levels, I’d lost so many characters that it was becoming impossible to get through the stages with my weakened band of war heroes. Sacred Stones on Wii U, on the other hand, benefits from the ‘Restore Point’ mechanic that’s added to all Virtual Console games – which essentially lets you save at any point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I abused this mechanic to the full, so by the end I still had a full crew of warriors (until the brutal final battle, that is).

I’m still a little conflicted about this: by carefully saving regularly and replaying sections if a character died, I was able to see the inter-character relationships develop across the game. But it also felt a little like cheating, and it meant I never quite experienced the highs and lows of seeing a favourite character just about scrape through to fight another day, or see a dutifully raised knight perish suddenly thanks to a silly mistake or unexpected ambush. Still, at least I finished the damn thing.

Ah, Dozla - so playful with that axe!

Ah, Dozla – so playful with that axe!

It’s clear that Intelligent Systems realised that people love seeing characters bloom and get to know each other, hence why this mechanic is hugely beefed up in the most recent games, Fire Emblem: Awakening and Fire Emblem: Fates. They also saw the good sense to add mid-level save points.

Sacred Stones isn’t quite as good as series pinnacle Awakening, but for my money the story is much better than its prequel, Fire Emblem. The pixellated graphics also have a wonderful charm to them – in many ways I prefer them to the more beefed up graphics of later entries in the series. Having said that, they look utterly shit on the big TV screen, as pixels become the size of fists and lose all their charm – I played the game using the gamepad screen instead, on which the graphics seemed much more at home.

Finishingo Sacred Stones has left me hankering for more Fire Emblem, although thankfully I still have the DS title Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon waiting in the wings. Although again, it’s on the Wii U and not the 3DS, its natural home. Why, Nintendo, why?

Franz starts off as a bit of a weed, so it's satisfying to see him grow up into an armoured death dealer.

Franz starts off as a bit of a weed, so it’s satisfying to see him grow up into an armoured death dealer.

Hopefully all this Virtual Console nonsense will be sorted out the the Nintendo Switch, so finally we can have all of our Nintendo games in one place, as well as the option to play them at home or on the go. And while I think about it, I would love to see the big N localise the initial six games in the Fire Emblem series, which still haven’t made it to the west. Go on, Nintendo, you know you want to.


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Review: Gunman Clive

gunman-cliveIt’s a great name, isn’t it? I can’t think of many video-game heroes with the name Clive, although there should definitely be more. In fact, the only famous Clives I can think of are Clive Anderson and Clive James. But where are all the young Clives? ARE there any young Clives?

And now I’m thinking about a video game starring Clive James. It would see him questing about the Outback meeting B-list celebrities and gently mocking them as he delivers satirical monologues. It would be called Clive James on Video Games in honour of his long-running ITV television show Clive James on Television, and it would feature appearances by Dame Edna Everage, Keith Floyd and Margarita Pracatan. It would be beautiful.


Gunman Clive is not that game. But it is beautiful nonetheless.

It’s basically Mega Man but in the Old West, although that description doesn’t really do it justice. It starts off with the usual cowboys shooting from behind wooden crates, but quickly escalates to the point where you’re fending off bomb-dropping pelicans and giant robots. It’s charmingly bonkers.

The game is the work of one man, Bertil Hörberg, who worked on the excellent Bionic Commando Rearmed – and we even get a cheeky nod to that game with one of the bosses. It’s pretty short – you could probably finish the whole thing in an hour – but it only costs a couple of quid, and there’s a really special character to unlock at the end.


These 2D platformer-y things usually aren’t my cup of tea, but Gunman Clive just nails the controls and level design so well that it became a joy to play. Dying causes you to start again at the beginning of the level, but the levels are so short that it doesn’t cause frustration, and the difficulty curve is spot on. The art style, too, is wonderful, all sepia tones and sketchbook lines that look great in motion.

Yet despite creating a little gem of a game, Hörberg seems to be fairly humble about his achievement. In the gameplay trailer, he describes the game as “a generic oldschool sidescroller” with “weird artsy-looking 3D graphics” and “lots of brown”.

For the record, Bertil, I love brown. More please.


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Review: Child of Light

child_of_light_artMy first impressions of Child of Light weren’t that great. I’d realised that week that I just don’t particularly get on with 2D platformers any more, and after half an hour of jumping around I was ready to give up after “the same old platforms and puzzles reared their ugly heads”.

But I’m glad I went back to it, because it actually turns out to be a fun little game.

Of course, really it’s not a platformer at all, it’s a 2D RPG, and soon after the point at which I initially gave up I received the gift of flight in the form of tiny fairy wings. This turned out to be a literal game changer, completely removing the need for leaping about – and it made the game much more fun as a result. By drifting lazily through the levels on my tiny wings, I had more space to appreciate the real beauty of the hand-drawn artwork in that game. And it really is a stunner. “A fairy-tale storybook come to life” is the phrase at the forefront of my mind – and in fact the game presents itself as a tale of a fantasy kingdom being retold.

Also, it has the best hair animation I’ve ever seen. Your tresses float along behind you as if carried on some invisible current, an effect that even drew coos of appreciation from the normally cynical Mrs Merriweather.


Speaking of Mrs Merriweather, she did enquire at one point why I was playing a “girl’s game”. I considered the evidence. Yes, I was controlling a princess with fairy wings. Yes, one of the members of my party was an adorably cute mouse called Robert with a tiny hunting bow. Yes, I had fabulous hair. Hmmm.

At that point I did what any red-blooded male would do under the circumstances… and berated her for her narrow-mindedness when it came to gender divisions. I am fully in touch with my feminine side, and it thinks that mouse is  SO GODDAMNED CUTE I COULD JUST EAT IT ALL UP.


Going back to the game, it’s not all hairstyles over substance. The turn-based battle system is pretty nifty, with a well-implemented skill tree that had me carefully considering my strategy and play style as I chose which path to go down. The battle system itself relies on a meter that shows a ‘wait phase’ and an ‘attack phase’ – you can line up attacks at the beginning of the attack phase, but if you get hit between the start and the end of the attack phase, your attack is cancelled and your character gets pushed back down to the wait phase. Of course, you can inflict the same annoyance on enemies, too. It’s certainly not a new system – I’m certain I’ve played a game that used something like this before, possibly Skies of Arcadia – but it works really well.


One thing that doesn’t work well is the game’s insistence in presenting dialogue in tortuous rhyme. It raised a small smile at first, but then when the characters carried on speaking in rhyming couplets after the first few interactions I had the horrendous realisation that the designers intended to keep this up for the ENTIRE GAME. I wonder whether at any point, as the script writers were struggling to come up with yet another rhyme for an awkward word, they said to the person next to them: “Hey, maybe this rhyming thing was a bad idea? Maybe we should just, you know, stop?”

This was probably met with the rejoinder: “NO PHILIP! We’ve come so far, we can’t possibly stop now! I’M GOING TO SEE THIS THING THROUGH TO THE BITTER END, SO HELP ME GOD. Now, what’s a rhyme for ‘attack phase’?”

The game is also a little bit on the short side – roughly 10 hours or so. Reading online, this seems to have annoyed people who picked up the game for full price at launch, but as far as I’m concerned, the shorter the better. My precious gaming time is at a premium these days. (And it helps that I bought it on sale.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some woodland creatures to level up.

Buy Child of Light on Amazon and we get a little cash. Ta!


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Better Late Than Never: Journey

Journey-coverI’ve played Flow and Flower before – two of Thatgamecompany’s earlier games, both imbued with an ethereal feel and gameplay unlike anything I’d seen. More a meditative experience than traditional titles, they teeter on the fine line between art project and bona fide video game. Both were compelling in their own ways, but I didn’t feel the need to revisit them.

Journey, on the other hand, feels more like a regular video game, collectibles and all. Yet it still has an ethereal quality that marks it out as other – and stirs more emotions in its short timespan than most other games manage in tens of hours. Upon finishing, my first motivation was to start it all over again.

The simple gameplay is beautifully explained without the need for words of any kind (indeed, I was irritated by the regular appearance of ‘Saving’ in the top corner, a needless use of a word when the game otherwise does so elegantly without them). A mysterious mountain looms in the distance, and your simple task is to guide your berobed avatar towards it. That’s it. Holding down the X button will launch your avatar into the air, and you can fly for as long as the patterned symbols on your scarf remain lit. Certain collectibles make your scarf longer, and allow you to fly for longer. Holding down the O button elicits a sort of chant that can activate objects.


The game mostly sees you hunting for objects to activate in order to unlock the path forward, and really there’s very little more to it. But it does an astounding job of creating a strong worldfeel, and of drawing out intense highs and lows of emotion. At one point you find yourself surfing down an enormous sand dune in the company of some playful fabric eel things, skimming through archways and leaping off rocks for the sheer fun of it, and it’s simply joyous. Later, you find yourself trapped in a scary underworld being hunted by monsters, and the feeling of menace and fear is palpable.

One of the chief ways in which the game draws out these emotions is through the sumptuous orchestral music – the original soundtrack is phenomenal, and was rightfully nominated for a Grammy award. The graphics are similarly stunning, and the sweeping use of colour – from the descent down the dunes in the golden sunset to the creepy blue caves of the underworld – really affects how you feel about the game.

I love the way it never explains itself, too. You’re left to make up your own mind about what the journey represents, and what the various things you encounter actually mean. It’s a refreshing change from tiresome cut-scene exposition, and all the better for it. I’m a big fan of leaving things unexplained – the world would be better off without midichlorians and better with far more films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.


I was worried that because the game came out four years ago, I wouldn’t be able to experience one of its signature features – meeting other people who are playing at the same time, and wordlessly teaming up with them on your shared journey. However, I did manage to bump into a handful of other players, and it was fascinating to wonder what they were thinking. Was this their hundredth playthrough, or their first? Where were they in the real world? All I had to go on were their movements – was that straight line sprint for a collectible an indication that they were an old hand at this game? Did they play it every night, perhaps as some part of their daily routine?

Like reasoning through the mystery of the game itself, I loved the way I had to impose my own meaning on the actions of others. And although I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to pronounce Journey as profound, it’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever played before.

Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?


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Better Late Than Never: Uncharted 2

uncharted-2-box1A few minutes into Uncharted 2, and it’s already apparent that it’s leagues ahead of the previous game, both in storytelling and finesse. After a meeting in a beach bar with some old associates, Nathan Drake finds himself persuaded to join a museum heist in Istanbul – an opener that immediately draws attention to the ‘Among Thieves’ subtitle. It’s a bold statement – Nathan is unequivocally a bad man, a man who thinks nothing of stealing for profit. Yet as the game goes on to show, he’s a somewhat less bad man than the other bad men and women who dog his every step. And later on he finds himself torn between the archetypal ‘bad girl’, who shares his thirst for adventure and questionable morals, and the ‘good girl’ who perhaps reflects his better side.

It’s a much more fulfilling plot than the mostly black and white storytelling of the first game, the latter being a much more basic set up in which bold adventurers journey in search of El Dorado. One of my favourite parts of Uncharted 2 is when the two rival women in Nathan’s life finally meet, which leads to some wonderfully sharp dialogue – a domestic crisis played out under gunfire and across a quest for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala.

The game's cold opening is brilliant.

The game’s cold opening is brilliant.

But it’s not just the story that makes this game stand out above its predecessor – the set pieces and locations are fantastic. The very start of the game sees Nathan clambering up the ruined carriage of a derailed train, which is hanging precariously off the side of a snowy mountain cliff for unknown reasons. We then cut to the beach bar scene, and realise that the derailed train is a flashforward to something that must happen much later on. As a cold opener (pun intended) it’s fantastic, and I like the way that it builds expectations for what’s to come. When the train section of the game does eventually arrive, it’s easily the stand-out part of the entire game, a pitched battle along the length of a train that winds its way through jungles and up into the Himalayas, all the more exciting because you know how it must turn out.

And it’s not the only memorable set piece – the scenes in war-torn Nepal are beautifully evocative and wonderfully drawn, and the Istanbul heist is brilliantly tense. Then there’s an exciting chase scene involving a seemingly unstoppable tank, as well as some eerily beautiful (and huge) ruined temples imbued with ancient machinery – even if these are defiantly copying a page torn out of the Tomb Raider textbook.

The Himalayan village provides some stunning views.

The Himalayan village provides some stunning views.

The controls are improved too, making gunfights much more enjoyable and less frustrating than in the original game. Yet gunfights still occur far too frequently for my taste, and Drake steadily mows down an absurd number of people for someone who is essentially a wise-cracking treasure hunter. His good-natured humour and murderous intent seem somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows.

The finale, too, rubbed me up the wrong way. The eventual denouement comes as something of a letdown, a tedious ring o’ roses with a bullet-sponge bad guy that’s more frustrating than exciting. It felt more like a need to fill a hole on a design spreadsheet that said ‘INSERT FINAL BOSS FIGHT HERE’, and it amazes me that video games still feel the need to throw in end-of-game bosses even if this doesn’t fit with the nature of the game. Bosses are a relic from eighties’ shoot ’em ups, yet they still get dragged in to all sorts of modern titles as a matter of course. I fondly remember how Banjo Kazooie subverted this trend by switching out the expected final boss fight for a quiz show. I’m not saying that there should have been a quiz at the end of Uncharted 2, but the point is that there are many ways of ending a game that don’t have to involve ploughing bullets into an overpowered boss.

It really is a stunning game that clearly pushes the PS3.

It really is a stunning game that clearly pushes the PS3.

When all’s said and done, Uncharted 2, like its predecessor, is a big dumb old adventure game that would never win an Oscar for its plot. But in terms of sheer fun and spectacle, it trumps the first Uncharted in every single way. And even if the characters feel a little cartoonish at times, I found myself caring about what happens to them – a seemingly simple requirement that many other, lesser games regularly fail to achieve.

Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?


Filed under Better Late Than Never, Reviews