Thursday, 19 November 2009

Nintendo 64 - Super Mario 64

Nintendo 64

Super Mario 64

If ever there was a game series that was going to last forever, or at the very least die trying, the Mario games are precisely that.

Mario’s appearance over the years has barely changed. Alright, he’s joined the realms of 3D since his first appearances in Donkey Kong, but he is still the recognisable game sprite even today.

But his first foray into 3D was on Nintendo’s 64 bit console, and the game was received very warmly. So warmly, in fact, it is still considered as one of the best games of all time by many gamers, and regularly tops the “reader’s charts” that appear periodically, even above Super Mario Kart, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Ocarina Of Time, although sometimes Ocarina Of Time does jump above it.

Strange, they’re all Nintendo games. Well, it’s no secret that Nintendo consoles have been blessed by more than their fair share of classics. With the advent of Super Mario Galaxy, then, are we going to see another regular chart topper?

I don’t care, it’s not a retro game. Super Mario 64, on the other hand…

Quite simply, you need to play this game. It’s one of those that grabs you by the scruff of the neck, drags you in kicking and screaming, and refuses to let go until you reach a particularly tricky level, and then lets you make a choice; do you give up, you sad, pathetic wuss? Or, do you keep having a crack until you finally complete the game?

Well, in my case, I waited about 5 years before returning to it and finishing it off, but even then there’s plenty left to do.

Let me explain a little better. The object of the game is to find the Power Stars hidden around the castle. Most of these are in the individual levels, and obtaining them requires completion of a specific task, such as beating Koopa the Quick in a race to the top of the mountain, or beating the penguin in a downhill sliding race, or even just reaching a certain location. As you obtain more and more stars, doors in the castle unlock, opening ways to new levels. Each level has at least 8 stars to collect (There’s bonus stars available, such as collecting 100 coins or all 8 of the red coins on each level), and there’s also some hidden stars around the castle too.

Once you’ve collected enough stars, you’ll get the chance to take on Bowser in the final battle, and release Princess Peach from her imprisonment. But even then, there’s more to see as you will need EVERY star in the game to open the cannon to shoot you to the castle roof. I never did manage this, but I’m not one of these people who needs to see EVERYTHING a game has to offer, so I’m not right fussed. Actually, always having that little bit extra to achieve adds to the game’s longevity, so as far as I’m concerned it’s all good.

The important thing here is that Mario didn’t lose any of his charm as a character and indeed as a playable game through the transition to 3D, and thankfully Nintendo got it spot on. Amazingly the game feels as natural as the best 2D platformers, the analogue stick was simple and intuitive to control and the finer points of Mario’s acrobatics are explained by reading signs around the castle. And trust me, you’ll need them all as you try to collect all the stars available.

Mario’s finest moment, then, or at least it has been regarded so until the recent Super Mario Galaxy game. If ever you get a chance to play this on a real Nintendo 64, grab it with both hands.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Nintendo Wii - Trauma Center: Second Opinion

Nintendo Wii
Trauma Center: Second Opinion

Ever since the days of the Amiga, I can’t think of another game of this genre since Life And Death 2 (the one where you do brain surgery), so when the Trauma Center series arrived on these shores, I was instantly attracted. I think the DS version was the first to arrive, but then this version for the Wii proved to be one of the games I would get with the console.

Reviews marked it highly, magazines recommended it, surely it was going to be pretty good?

Absolutely. It was a fresh challenge of steady hands, quick reactions and a nice difficulty curve. Well, until you get to the final missions, that is.

The magazines raved about the steep difficulty level, but to my experience, it wasn’t all that hard to complete the main game. The final levels (the ones where you basically found out WHY the main diseases in the game had been created) were awfully hard, but rewardingly so. There was a reason why they were saved to last, and why you didn’t need to complete them yet still feel you’d beaten the game.

So, how easy is it to don the gown and surgical gloves and start slicing your way to someone’s innards?

Pretty straightforward. Grasp your remote in one hand, nunchuck in the other, use the nunchuck joystick to select your tools, and direct the pointer on screen with the remote. Pressing the A button will utilise your tool, so if it’s the scalpel, you’ll start slicing your way in. Occasionally you will need to use the defibrillator, on these occasions you must actually move toward the screen and time your charge to get the heart going again.

You do also have what’s known as the “Healing Touch”, but I won’t give away too much, you need to play the game, follow the story (which, by the way, is brilliantly delivered by way of lots of cutscenes and dialogue) and you’ll understand what it is, what it does and how it benefits everyone.

As you complete some missions, you’ll find a secondary story going on in the background. Once the main game is completed, the two storylines converge, building up to a not-entirely surprising ending.

Trust me, if you haven’t played this game yet, you have steady hands and like a nice challenge (and I stress, NICE challenge. It’s not as difficult as some magazines make out), invest in this title and begin operating on everybody who comes through Hope Hospital’s doors. Or do what I did at first and see how many times you can stab a heart with a scalpel before it gives up.

Commodore Amiga - Walker

Commodore Amiga

When I first discovered this game, I was but a child still, a spotty teenager schoolboy who had managed to see the ED-209 scene from Robocop at some stage in my life, and thought how cool those big droids were.

So, the opportunity to BE one of these droids… well, that doesn’t come along very often. But when this game found its way from a friend at school to my grubby little paws, I inserted it into the floppy drive of my Amiga and was transported into a world of one massive ED-209, millions of bullets, and tiny human sprites getting splattered in a gory mess of blood and lead.

Sounds good? Oh, it is…I’m not quite sure about the whys and wherefores, but basically you seem to have got stuck in some kind of timewarp, and find yourself transported to different times and places around the world. Your opponents reflect the era and location, but all will succumb to the enormous amount of  firepower you have at your disposal. Twin Mini-Guns (you know the one, rotating barrels and a ridiculously high fire rate, made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II) provide your arsenal, and with an unlimited supply of ammo (Realism? What’s that?) all you need to worry about is overheating.

Although bullets hit you pretty much instantly (as you would expect), the more powerful rounds can be avoided by simply walking backwards and forwards as they arc towards you. Trust me, you still have the ability to die if you take enough damage.

The control method was remarkably simple, and probably quite revolutionary for the time, but a combination of mouse and keyboard was the order of the day here. You only needed to walk forwards and backwards with the keys, but your heavy guns were aimed by mouse cursor, which was a great idea, and worked exceptionally well.

But, for the ultimate humiliation, when it came to the little soldiers, you could walk all over them, resulting in a satisfying squelch (imagine Duke Nukem’s shrink ray). It was the little touches like this that set this game apart from an already crowded genre, and remains great fun to play even today.

New version, please. On the Wii. I’d buy that for a dollar. (Wow, I waited a whole 5 paragraphs for the final Robocop reference. Self-control or what?)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Arcade - Mad Dog McCree

Mad Dog McCree

Back in the early 80s, there was a smattering of games using the "cutting-edge" technology of Laserdiscs. You'll remember them, they were pretty distinctive with their high-quality graphics (compared to what was around at the time), usually using high-quality cartoon animation or real explosions or something, trying to create a new experience in arcades. Unfortunately the games were either too hard, too boring or too broken to be playable for any length of time.

Fast Forward to 1990, and my holiday to Eastbourne. In the arcade on the pier, I found a Simpsons arcade machine to waste 40p a play on, only to find that I was beginning to get a bit squashed while playing... due to the crowd surrounding the latest "hot" game they had acquired... Mad Dog McCree. 

This was Eastbourne, for God's sake. Every gamer for 20 miles must have been there! There was no other explanation! Due to the crowd, I didn't dare try to get near the game until a year or two later when the fuss had died down a little, but this game was seriously popular. What I didn't realise at the time was that this was a machine not entirely dissimilar to Dragon's Lair et al from the early 80s.

American Laser Games resurrected the old laserdisc format, but this time used live action film sequences to string together a wild western themed shooter that allowed you to be the mysterious gunslinger who comes to clean up the town. Various ham actors served up a visual treat of typical schoolyard cowboy "deaths", your story's progress governed entirely on your speed and accuracy with the pistol. A basic concept, using comparatively basic technology, delivering a very basic gaming experience. It's as "on the rails" as you can get in a shooter.

But wait! The game kept you on your toes, sometimes changing the location of the hideout from what was on your map, or changing what to shoot to disarm the booby-trapped mine. So you did need to pay some attention to what you were doing.

Well, yippee-ki-ay. At the end of the day, it was still the same basic premise as Dragons Lair and any other
Laserdisc game, perform an action at the right time, see the next bit of the film. Get it wrong and lose a life and see a different bit of film. Being the first of a line of this style of game, it probably delivered the best experience, later games in this style tried to over-complicate the concept. Looking at some of the best-loved light gun games of all time, it's plain to see that simplicity works best (Virtua Cop, anyone?)

So, has time been kind to Mad Dog McCree and his henchmen? Believe it or not, despite its lack of real depth and longevity, this game is still worth hunting out for a quick credit or 2. It works best in small doses, has a bit of a challenge to it if you're rusty, but I wouldn't say it's a game you must play before you die. It certainly has its place in history, and if I found a working one, I'd play it, but it's not one for the collection. Laserdisc games were often unreliable at the best of times, but for some reason I saw more of these switched off than on after a few years, and those that were on often didn't work for shooting on one side of the screen.

"Looks like it's time to take this old boy to Boot Hill." as the undertaker would say. The final nail in the coffin for this game is the unfortunate release of this game, along with Mad Dog 2 and The Last Bounty Hunter, on the Nintendo Wii. Now, being a big fan of this game in the past, I bought it. Whilst the conversion isn't bad, as such, there are a couple of niggles that have, quite frankly, put me off recommending it whole-heartedly to anyone. For instance, the quick draw showdowns are near-impossible, and very often the timing window for a successful shot "feels" wrong, and there's STILL the baddies you can't see who will shoot you without even being visible (e.g. the Corral scene). This one's for true hardcore retro-fans only, not for those who are thinking about getting into retro.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Arcade - Double Dragon


Double Dragon

Back in the heady days of arcades, there were always certain games I would approach before others to put my 10p's into, and Double Dragon wasn't one of them.

WHAT? WASN'T one of them? But Double Dragon is a classic game! A genre-defining moment in the history of Video Games! Well... yes, that's true. Let's not forget I was but 7 years old when this came out, and when I became a regular arcade hunter, I was more interested in the likes of Paperboy, Indiana Jones, Rampage, etc. I'd watched people play this, but always kept myself away from it.

But why was this? Maybe I considered the outright pugilistic nature of the game too "adult" for me? That's a laugh looking back at some of the other games I played... Anyway, I remember an occasion in the "Oasis" amusements in Southport where a guy had put a quid in for 7 credits. I asked him if I could join in. I eventually used my credit... and all his... and reached the end of the game.

And thus, I began playing on my own, and discovering that the whole game was terribly easy except one part of the forest section.

This bit, with the broken bridge. I spent entire credits trying to jump this and dying every time. But hey, adopt, adapt and improve, practice makes perfect and any other phrase I could coin, eventually I got the hang of it.

Hold on, I've written all this gobbledegook and not one mention of the game itself, the story or anything! That can be swiftly remedied. Plot wise, it doesn't get much more standard, to be honest. Bad guys kidnap your girl, you go off to rescue her, beating up anyone who tries to stop you, and if you have a friend you can take your brother along for the ride. All the basic ingredients of a fighting game are there, and with buttons to punch, kick and jump, there's many combinations available, and different moves available according to what position you and your enemy are in. For instance, you can punch three times to knock over your opponent, but move in a little closer during the combo and you'll get them in some sort of lock position and pummel their head in, or even give them a throw. You can combine buttons for flying kicks and the infamous back-elbow move that virtually ensures completion of the game. Or, most controversially, a double tap of the joystick engages the head-butt move, which you will only use to look good, because as moves go, it's crap.

Enemies range from standard bad guys to huge hulks and to fast martial arts experts. Oh, and there's a couple of women in there too. And a man with a gun. No-one else could afford one, it seems. However, they do manage to afford some Baseball bats, rocks, dynamite, knives and whips. All the best weapons to use against one man in his quest to get his woman back, then.

But was it any good?

Well... yes. It was. If you can discipline yourself not to use the back-elbow move all through the game. It really does spoil it, because using everything else in your move set allows the game to remain a challenge throughout. As soon as you start to use that move, though, it becomes more than just easy, it's an absolute doddle. The scenery becomes more of a hazard than your opponents.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Nintendo Wii - Wii Sports

Nintendo Wii
Wii Sports

Well, after several weeks of waiting, I finally got my Wii, and as a result, Wii Sports.

I got several other commercial games with it too, but I’ll be honest, I’ve spent at least ten times the amount of time on Wii Sports so far as I have Zelda: Twilight Princess.

The main reason for this is that it’s so much like Crazy Taxi in that it’s simple, pick-up-and-play fun from beginning to end, no two games are exactly the same, and you don’t feel like a complete idiot playing it.

To begin, then… Wii Sports brings together five sports and makes them playable through simple remote gestures. First on the list, and probably the most challenging, is Tennis. Swinging the remote will cause your Mii to swing his/her racket, and as might be expected, both forearm and backhand swings are recognised. Timing is crucial lest the ball fly wildly to the side and out of play…

Bowling and Baseball are two of the most addictive sports included, and are both very realistic to play, bowling especially. The temptation on Baseball to hold the remote up and shake it slightly whilst waiting for the pitch is immense, especially as your Mii rather satisfyingly copies your action in doing so. The temptation to use true-to-life gestures is equally immense, but simple “flick” gestures seem to work just as well. Bowling, on the other hand, includes the function of actually letting go of the ball, as well as picking up twisting motions in the swing to calculate spin on the ball. All in all, it’s fun, addictive and realistic.

Golf is probably the most frustrating event included. It’s all about balance of power. Hitting the ball too hard will result in it going off course, GUARANTEED. For best results, swing gently but firmly enough to fill that power bar. The chances are, though, you’ll not play this as much as the other events.

The final event makes use of the nunchuck controller, but is scarily easy to control… yup, it’s boxing. Punching with the remote or nunchuck results in a nice head-shot being sent out, or going low with a thrust gives you a body blow. Swinging upwards will deliver an uppercut, whilst swaying left and right will make your boxer sway left and right. That’s right, it really works, almost like Police 24/7 in the arcades, you can move your body to dodge the blows, really try to float like a butterfly. Stinging like a bee is difficult, though, without some care and thought into your punches you’ll be stinging more like a gnat.

As if that wasn’t enough, there are three training games for each sport (ten of which must be unlocked), and also a Fitness mode. This mode should be used once a day to chart your “fitness” level, simply by partaking in three different challenges from the training mode. With age 20 being the maximum score, you can view a graph of every time you’ve competed and chart your progress over a period of time.

So, as with most games these days, Wii Sports isn’t without its faults, but they’re only minor, and none of them really detract from the sheer playability that you’ll find in abundance here. Just watch out, Nintendo… I can foresee not only court cases over the amount of time put into Wii gaming, but for injuries attributed to Wii Sports… Tennis elbow, anyone?

Friday, 23 October 2009

Nintendo Gamecube - Crazy Taxi

Nintendo Gamecube
Crazy Taxi

I HATE driving games. I'm terrible at them. It's probably because I hate the idea of driving. But this game takes driving by the horns, and makes it fun. Is it because there's no penalty for crashing? Is it because you have to drive like a maniac to get anywhere? Is it because it's totally Crazy?

d) All of the above.

I don't know, this game has a lot to offer. It's a relatively short game, and unlike most modern games, there's not a great big story or long involving process to some fantastic ending sequence, it's a throwback to the quick "pick up and play" days of arcade games, real intense, fast-paced, high skill requirement arcade games, the one that you really struggle to get your money's worth from.

From the off, you're required to drive at breakneck speed, picking up your first passengers and striving to get them to their destination in record time. In order to rack up your score and climb the high score table (and gain a good "grade" for your performance), you should aim to miss vehicles on your route, but near misses are rewarded, so try to barely miss the paintwork of your fellow road users.

Get your passenger to their destination as quick as you can, gain a time and score bonus, and do it all over again. Until you run out of time, that is. Best get a shift on, boyo.

And that's it. No complicating the concept, just easy fun. There's additional bonuses to be achieved, like Crazy Jumps, fast starts, some short cuts, none of which are essential, and that's your lot.

PC - Sim City 2000

Sim City 2000

If I had to make a list of the best 3 games of all time, this would be on it. I’m not sure where it would be exactly, but it would be with Pyro II (PC) and Chaos (Spectrum). I paid the princely sum of £15 for this game, which is £15 more than those other two games, but one was on a covertape and the other is PD. Which goes to show, you don’t need to spend a fortune to play excellent games.

So, the sequel to Sim City sees you thrust into a 3D landscape on which you must build your city. As before, you need the basic ingredients… Power, roads and zones, but if you want your city to flourish you will need Police and Fire protection, provide water resources and maybe even park facilities.

Oh, wait, that’s not all you can offer… how about hospitals? These Sims are a demanding bunch, and will demand you provide them with such amenities and entertainment as Stadiums, Marinas, Airports, Seaports, Zoos and parks, lest they take their presence, and indeed income tax, elsewhere.

It’s all about striking that careful balance… Keep taxes at a level the Sims are willing to pay, get enough of a balance between residential, industry and commerce to keep the Sims both happy and employed, educate them in schools, protect them with police and fire brigades, and generally look after their well-being.

So, you’ve managed to strike some sort of balance, and you’re actually pulling in a profit… are you out of the woods yet? You need to make enough every 50 years to afford a new power plant, because that’s how long they last!

The more you delve into the game, the more you discover… some zones are boosted by the presence of military bases, while others suffer a detrimental effect. Balancing Taxes and the income and expenses from City Ordinances is tricky, certain ordinances will boost your population and their opinion of you, their mayor, but will cost you money. Others will not endear you to your citizens, but will make you a little extra dosh.

Remember that some services, such as the police and schools, will need money constantly pumping into them every year to maintain their effectiveness, as will roads (YOU CAN’T CUT BACK ON FUNDING! Or at least that’s what the guy who looks like my old Maths teacher says, along with the threatening line of “YOU WILL REGRET THIS!”), so you will need to be a shrewd thinker and take your time, don’t rush into building too much too quickly and running out of funds… Or even worse, finding yourself in serious debt…

Oh, sod this. Just get the bloody game, play it and feel totally absorbed and involved with your citizens. Oh, and read the funny “About” scrolling message…

Sega Saturn - Virtua Cop

Sega Saturn
Virtua Cop &
Virtua Cop 2

When I bought my Sega Saturn, I came up with a list of games and accessories I absolutely HAD to get with it. The Virtua Cop games and the Virtua Gun made the list, pretty damn easily, in fact. And with damn good reason… To this day, I don’t think any light gun has matched the Saturn’s Virtua Gun for being the right feel, so accurate and downright reliable!

Sega decided that the conversion of their arcade hit should retain the feel, and as such the Virtua Gun was essentially identical to the ones found chained to arcade cabinets around the country. A swift crack at the Gun Calibration screen in the options menu ensured the gun worked from wherever you sat / stood / crouched, and that was it, you were off into the Virtua underworld to shoot first, ask questions later. Well, let’s be honest, it’s a case of shoot or be shot.

The bad guys pop up at a quite alarming rate, but you are helpfully informed just how long you have until they open fire thanks to your high-tech coloured homing sights (imagine the targeting system in Robocop!), and the screen helpfully zooms in allowing you to make your shot count. Bonus points are awarded for having the skill to shoot the gun from the enemy grunts’ hands, or indeed if you can hit them with three bullets…

Of course, a game like this would be boring if it didn’t have power-ups…

Actually, no, it wouldn’t. It’s so much damn fun I wouldn’t care if there weren’t any extra weapons, but nevertheless there is, for a limited period you can have the 15-shot clip of the Automatic, the power of a 3-shot burst Rifle, the Magnum that shoots through barrels and walls, the shotgun with a nice spread or the full automatic of the Machine Gun. All you have to do is find the weapons (dead baddie, shoot a crate) and shoot it, and mysteriously it’s yours. No, I’ve never really liked that system, but in the case of on-the-rails shooters, what else can you do?

Virtua Cop itself is a fine game, but the superior sequel was superior for only two reasons: The improved graphics and a higher difficulty curve. That’s not to say Virtua Cop was too easy, although once you’ve played it, as with most games of this type, you start to learn where the bad guys are hiding and in what order they attack you. And of course there’s always the unlockable Mirror Mode to mix things up for you the next time you play…

One thing Virtua Cop offered that Virtua Cop 2 is sadly missing is the extra “Training” mode. This was a stroke of genius on the part of Sega, this mode essentially thrusts you into a shooting range on which you can hone your shooting skills. Either compete against some of the game’s characters in a shooting contest, or take on the series of goals to progress through the various ranges and target formations. Performing well in this event is rewarded by a rating in the form of Virtua Cop Badges.

So, with very little to actually complain about with these games, and with Sega getting almost EVERYTHING right, then this is a moment not to miss out on, right?

Hold on just a second. Unlike some other consoles and computer hardware of the past, which aren’t going to have any problems, the light gun, or at least most of its incarnations, are going to become useless. As people upgrade from their Cathode Ray Tube TVs to the LCD and Plasma panels, retro collectors will notice their light guns will no longer work. Indeed, the instructions for light guns claim that they will ONLY work with bevelled (curved) 50Hz TVs, and not 100Hz TVs, pure flat tubes, projection TVs or any kind of modern flat panel. So although these games come with the official Fishsta seal of recommendation, they do also come with a warning… make sure you’ve got the right equipment before investing in them. Otherwise, you’ll end up very disappointed.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Sega Saturn - Athlete Kings

Sega Saturn
Athlete Kings

Back in the old days of Arcade action, there was a hugely popular title by the name of “Track and Field”. A simple enough concept, re-enact the energetic exertion of Olympic-standard athletics by means of mashing buttons as fast as you can, attempting to qualify to move on through a sequence of “popular” events.

Simple graphics, simple concept, simple fun. Simple, eh?

Fast forward a decade and a bit, and the concept receives a new lease of life… a coin-op by the name of “Decathlete”, and the Saturn conversion by the name of “Athlete Kings”.

Introducing a selection of athletes to choose from for starters, they all have their own strengths to draw on in the different events. American Rick Blade and Japanese Joe Kudou fill in as “All rounders”, the Brit, Jef Jansens (hilariously named “Robin Banks” in the arcade version) and Russian Aleksi Rigel as the throwing specialists, Karl Vain, the German jumping specialist, and then the women, Ellen Reggiani, Femi Kadiena and the chinese teenager who is amazing at running but has the most forgettable name in the world.

Anyway, the events are all as you would expect in a game like this, and they take on the form of the traditional Olympic Decathlon. The 100m sprint and the 110m Hurdles are short but intense button-bashing races, the hurdles being interjected with occasional presses of the action button to jump said wooden barriers. The 400m and 1500m races are a little more leisurely, simply because you have to watch your stamina. The Long Jump, High Jump, Pole Vault and Javelin are all about button bashing to power up, and then good timing with the action button to set angles, extend legs and plant poles. The Shot Putt is all about timing alone, unless you use the “spinning” method, whereby you can increase the power using a circular motion on the joypad, the same method you must employ for the Discus event.

Whether alone or against friends, the game provides ample challenge, with tight qualification targets in arcade mode, and the honest, simple multiplayer fun, this is one of the best of the genre.

The simple truth is, this game has been one of the prides of my collection, so this doesn’t just get a recommendation, it’s a “Game to Play Before You Die”.

No, really.

Incidentally, I’d be interested to know what sort of records other people have attained on this game. Here’s the ones of mine that I can remember…

100m – 9.52seconds

Long Jump – 9.98m

Javelin – 99.04m

High Jump – 2m 56cm

Pole Vault – 6m 34cm