Friday, 16 April 2010

Sega Dreamcast - Virtua Tennis

Virtua Tennis
Sega Dreamcast
Tennis simulations have always been a difficult one for me. Too often there’s something that lets them down. The usual problem has always been overly-simplistic controls, which, when you watch the sport properly, is obviously flawed and restricting. Tennis is a game of considerable skill and strategy, there’s much more to it than just returning a ball. It’s a bit like snooker, where every care has to be given not just to make your shot, but to consider where the ball is going to end up.

To some people, Association Football is the beginning and the end of sport. They don’t have the time, patience or intelligence to look at other sports, and often abuse them whilst not really understanding the finer points of what makes a sport entertaining or exciting. Tennis, Rugby, Cricket, Golf, Darts and many other sports suffer this prejudice.

This may be why for so long Tennis games have simply been about hitting the ball. It’s almost as if the code has been written to say, “Player has returned the ball x amount of times successfully, time for the computer-controlled player to put the ball out, miss or lob it up for player to smash.”
Sega changed all that. Virtua Tennis was the first Tennis game I played that actually felt realistic. You could now place your shot and control your spin like never before, bringing into life the reality that simply returning the shot wasn’t going to win you a point, you need to BEAT your opponent. Couple that concept with excellent graphics and animation, finely balanced difficulty and superb AI, and you’ve got a cracker of a game, right?

Well, naturally! Virtua Tennis should have been a smash (pardon the pun!), and given that nearly every Dreamcast owner had this game, it is such a shame there weren’t more Dreamcasts sold. Successful enough in the arcades, the Dreamcast version was streets ahead of most games you had ever been able to play at home, and set the bar for sports simulations at an all-time high.

In fact, until the release of Virtua Tennis 2, I don’t think anything came close to it in terms of sheer quality and enjoyment. The big question for me is how do the very latest games in the series compare to the original?

I will hopefully be finding out very soon, but for now, Virtua Tennis has stood the test of time in my book.

There’s not an awful lot else I can actually say about this game. Tennis is tennis is tennis, and those rules don’t change, but for those that like a bit of variation, there’s Singles and Doubles matches available, the computer AI is more than a balanced challenge at every level, and as well as the famous Arcade mode, there’s also a World Championship option where you have the chance to improve your skills and enter tournaments around the world. There’s the unlockable content, too, such as stadia, clothes and doubles partners. The animation is silky-smooth and the physics are scarily life-like, with players skidding, being wrong-footed and, if you’re not quite positioned right, making awkward shots that don’t always go to plan.
In conclusion, Virtua Tennis is a game that you may overlook, especially if you're not a tennis fan, but if you do, be aware that you’ve missed out on something special.

Commodore Amiga - Battle Chess

Battle Chess
Commodore Amiga

You know when you watch a film or read a book, and you get a feeling you’ve seen something before? Almost as if the author has deliberately stolen an idea, trying to pass it off as their own?

This is something I’ve seen in the case of Retro Games, where an old idea has been picked up by someone else and recycled, without so much as a “tip of the hat” to the original idea. Sometimes it’s so blatant, you wonder if there’s a case for a lawsuit…

I’m no Harry Potter fan, but unfortunately I watched the first movie, and saw nothing other than a string of stolen ideas put together into a lacklustre story on a crash-course to nowhere. Most ideas looked to be lifted straight from the worlds of Roald Dahl, but there was one which I knew straight away was stolen from an old game by the name of Battle Chess.

Battle Chess is a chess simulator. Chess has been around for years, and unfortunately there is only so much you can do with it. Computer simulations of chess have been available since Computers could first handle games simply because it’s one of the most instantly recognisable games ever, based on simple (ish) rules and parseable (I’m not sure if that’s a word, but it means can be “parsed”) logic.

So, how does one chess game stand out against another?

In the case of Battle Chess, it was simple. Bring the pieces to life. Let them fight for real. Before the gore and fatalities of Mortal Kombat were even a twinkle in the eye, this game brought dismemberment, cross-gender murder and even religious fights between Bishops, which probably could have caused ructions had it been more widely known.

Assuming you have some knowledge of Chess itself, then you know that not much can be said about the A.I. or difficulty, and I’m not a good enough Chess player to be able to rate that. But what I do know is that the sometimes comical battles between the pieces make you want to play the game to try and see all the possible combinations.

Let’s say you manage to locate this game and have a play of it… my advice to you is that my favourite battle, STILL, is Knight vs Knight, and if you’ve ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you’ll find it hilarious too.

If only sampled speech had been available in those days. I’d have loved to have heard “’Tis but a scratch!” during that fight!

If you’re a chess fan, chances are you might like this. If you’re not, there’s sufficient entertainment to encourage you to learn the rules just to try and see all the possible combinations of battles. Either way, for curiosity alone it’s worth a look.

Commodore Amiga - Cannon Fodder

Commodore Amiga
Cannon Fodder

Controversy. You can’t beat it. If you want a game to be successful, bundle in some free controversy, and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster. Sure, you need to have a half-decent game with it, but nothing sells like controversy, except perhaps sex. And that just wouldn’t have fit in with the theme of this little gem.

There’s an amusing history of controversy in video games, and several games have been the subject of campaigns to ban them. Probably the most high profile case of recent years was Manhunt, but let’s not forget Carmageddon, Night Trap, Thrill Kill and various other “Video Game Nasties” as the popular press dubbed them (or in the case of the Daily Mail, the not so popular)

But back in the days of the humble Commodore Amiga, there was Sensible Software’s Cannon Fodder. With gameplay that looks like the inspiration to the highly successful Command and Conquer series, it seems strange to think there was such bad feeling towards this game. They did court controversy just anyway by adopting the Poppy as the boxart for the game, as well as having it on the title screen.

Maybe not the smartest move, but then why should that cause offence? After all, they said themselves in the instruction manual that war is not a game and talked about the futility of war, and as the poppy is one of the most recognisable symbols of war, I think the message is carried exceptionally well. The only question I would raise is the appropriateness of the tagline…


In fact, when you first load the game up, you’re treated to a catchy reggae number as part of the introduction, singing the tagline to you over and over again, along with instructions to “Go to your brother, kill him with your gun, leave him lying in his uniform, dying in the sun”.

So, controversy aside, was the game worth the money? Well, fortunately, yes, it was, in fact the game sold exceptionally well and deservedly so, because it was nothing more than it proclaimed to be… a fun little shooter/strategy game with a finely-balanced ratio of action to black humour. Like Command & Conquer, you simply use your mouse to direct your troops by left-clicking where you want to go, and right-clicking where you want to shoot. A combination of clicks would enable you to launch grenades or fire rockets when they were available, and you could also split your squad up to flank the enemy or send in a scouting party ahead of your main force. Tactics like this were valuable, especially for learning where booby traps are on later levels.

There were also a selection of vehicles to use, and a variety of landscapes in which to battle it out. Overall, there seemed to be little in the way of coherency or storyline, simply a series of missions with certain objectives that must be met. Most common was “Kill all enemy”, however there was often “Destroy all buildings”, "Rescue hostages" and even "Destroy the Computer"

War might not have been so much fun, but was the game fun?

Oh, yes, indeedy. Whilst the early levels provided a nice shallow learning curve, by Mission 8 you would be tearing your hair out at the quickness of the enemy’s reactions and the regularity you’d not spot that spike trap on the ground, or even guide your entire squad straight down a hole in a bridge to their doom on the rocks below.

Between levels, you saw your heroes promoted according to how many missions they had survived (From what I understand, this did make your men improve slightly, I think mostly in range than anything else), and you also received a list of those who had perished in action. There was also the screen where your new recruits queued up to join the action, between each Mission another 15 would come to join. The hill behind them served as their final resting place should they be lost in the field, little gravestones or crosses according to their rank would scatter across the hillside as you made your way through the game.

As I mentioned, there was the little touch of black humour along the way, sometimes a man wouldn’t die, he would lie there, bleeding and screaming periodically until you put him out of his misery. The bodies of the deceased would disappear after a few seconds, but you could play keepy-up with them by shooting them repeatedly.

All in all, this game is a fun diversion for a while, but once completed has a fairly short “come back and play again” factor. You could play through the whole game in a few hours, but your reactions would need to be tip-top if you expect to do it first time.

Forget the controversy, this is a little gem of history, so much so that I’m thinking of trying to play through it tonight…

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Nintendo Wii - Resident Evil 4

Nintendo Wii
Resident Evil 4

Scary games have been around since the early 80s, probably one of the most famous was the TI99/4A hit, Hunt the Wumpus. Back then, the tense atmosphere created by the element of surprise made the game seem more sophisticated than it actually was… Almost as though the game was plotting your demise from the very beginning.

Fast forward a few years, and there’s System Shock 2, a game so incredibly dark and atmospheric, you almost can’t help but scream when approached by nasties from the shadows. Playing the game with the lights off was a sure sign of utter hardness, an example of “man at his most man”.  The game as a whole was well executed, and once again it seemed as though the game was planning to scare you senseless from the very beginning.

Which kind of brings me nicely round to Resident Evil 4. Once again, a game where every section has a perfectly orchestrated scene involved designed to terrify and frighten you to the point of breathlessness. And it’s done so well, I’m going to stick my neck out here, and make the boldest statement I have probably EVER made. Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition is gaming perfection, and strongly contests for “Best Game Ever” in my book.

OK, so now I need to back that up. 

First of all, the backstory. Ashley Graham, the President’s daughter is missing (hold on, is this a 1980s videogame?) and one man has been sent to find her; Leon S Kennedy, A.K.A… you. In your quest you will find yourself immersed in a world of the undead, the zombie-like Ganados are hiding Ashley somewhere, and it’s not long before they’re trying to eat your brains to prevent you completing your mission.

The game begins with some of the most difficult sections of the game (mainly because you haven’t “hardened up” by means of weaponry or increased health bar, which I’ll touch on in just a moment) where you first of all find yourself checking out a house on the outskirts of a village, then being attacked by the inhabitant, and then surrounded by several more of the brain dead outside. 

Once you escape this first little skirmish (although you’ll feel like that was actually a bit of a battle with your ammo so scarce, the truth is you didn’t have much to contend with there at all in comparison to later sections) you’ll head to the village, where you will in fact be chased into a building, repelling enemies from windows and the stairs, and just as your ammo is fizzling out you’ll be wondering how on Earth you’re supposed to survive this onslaught… And probably feeling really genuinely terrified because they just DON’T GIVE UP.

You haven’t seen the half of it yet though, believe me. This is a game of so many parts and sub-sections, it’s an epic adventure of gargantuan proportions. To give you an idea, I thought the game was nearly over and escape was nearby as I approached the big castle, only to find that in fact I had just finished ONE THIRD of the game, and had two equally huge levels to complete. And in that time you have some truly HUGE enemies to dispose of in any way you can. 

I mean, the first time you run into one of the Chainsaw-wielding zombies is bad enough (the ones with the bags on their head). With weak weaponry, he’s a real challenge to escape from, never mind kill, and it really is a case of running for your life as he’s not opposed to lopping your head off if he gets close enough. The grisly cut-scene does not disappoint, graphically depicting the sequence of events that occur in the event of contact between human neck and active high-powered chainsaw. (Just in case you’re not sure, it begins with pained expression on Leon’s face as chain begins to rip through his flesh, through excessive amounts of blood as the jugular and other blood-carrying lines are severed, to head being completely disconnected and lifeless body slumping to the floor. It’s intense and somewhat disturbing, but it really brings home the fragility of human life).

Along the way, you can save your progress by means of the typewriters scattered around the maps, something utilised since the original release back in the days of the Saturn, which might not earn any points for realism, but then again neither does the plot (although it does a good job of trying to convince us THIS COULD HAPPEN). One or two other features of the game are a little less convincing, but still don’t detract from what is a superb experience.

Feature number 1 is the Merchant. These guys are scattered throughout the map (sometimes in the same place as a Save Point), and they’re your one-stop shop for all things weaponry related, as well as a couple of other bits and pieces, such as a larger inventory, treasure maps and first aid sprays. He’ll also buy things from you, such as any treasure you might find (some treasure can be combined to make more valuable treasure, such as gems in a head-dress) or any ammo you’re not going to use. He’ll also tune up your weapons to make them more powerful, faster to reload, faster to fire or even just chamber more rounds at once (Again, perhaps a slight misjudgement making a sub-machine gun capable of holding a 250-round magazine).

You’ll want to toughen yourself up too, though. Along the way you’ll find herbs with healing qualities. Green herbs are the most common, and each one restores a good chunk of health. Mix them with a red herb, and they’ll completely refill your energy bar. Mix a green herb with a yellow herb and your maximum health is increased. Mix all three herbs together and get both your health bar increased and boosted to its new maximum.

Feature number 2 is the sub-games. The pendant-shooting game is fine (and you can understand / appreciate some sort of magical/mythical link between the pendants and what’s going on), but the shooting gallery moments feel like they were only put in to simply take the mick. They don’t really belong, and although there’s a nice bonus for collecting all the “prizes” and getting the top scores, they do feel like they shouldn’t be in there.

The main reason is there’s a massive game here already (50 hours of play time it took for me to finish it the first time!), but once you complete the game, you’re actually sorry it’s over, and you’ll want to do it again. Luckily, you’ll have unlocked “Professional Mode” (I think it’s supposed to be harder, but I can’t really tell), Separate Ways (Where you take the role of Ada Wong in all the parts of the story where she actually crosses your path through the game as Leon), Assignment Ada (another Ada Wong mission) and the Mercenary challenges. This, for me, is the pinnacle. The mercenaries missions basically form the premise of throwing you, kicking and screaming, straight into one of the hugely intense mega-battles from the main game (e.g. the first village) but this time REALLY with no end in sight, a time limit and high scores to challenge. Attain enough points and survive to the end of the time limit and unlock another character. There are 4 mercenary missions and 5 mercenaries to choose from.

There are several rewards for completing the extras, for example new costumes, but also new weapons you can receive or buy. For example, the “Chicago Typewriter” (a powerful machine gun) or the “Handcannon” (A Magnum variant that can be upgraded to 99 times as powerful as a standard handgun.)

Look, there’s not much more to say. This is an epic, and a classic. I’m going to say it once again, I’m a STRONG retro-head, firm in the belief that until this game, nothing had a hope of EVER being as good as Chaos, Sim City 2000, Pyro II, and so on.

This game has dominated my evenings of gaming completely, and even after completing it, I’m gasping for more, something that has NEVER happened before, except with Chaos.

If you don’t play this (on the Wii, the way it was MEANT to be played), and you miss out on many hours of some of the finest gaming to be had since the dawn of the electronic era.

Bloody play it. See for yourself. NOW.

There’s no excuse. None whatsoever.

You still reading this? Then go and buy a Wii and Resident Evil 4 now and immerse yourself. Do it.