Friday, 29 October 2010

Board Game - Dingbats

Board Games

Some games are a stroke of genius. Others are more of a damp squib, cashing in on a licence or relying on a daft gimmick. This applies to board games just as much as computer games. Take Headache, for example, with the “pop-o-matic” dice system. It’s basically Ludo, isn’t it? Yet we own both. BOTH!!! Why?

One game has been copied by TV and the puzzle pages of many newspapers and magazines, but NOTHING holds a candle to the original and best version of the game.

That’s right, it’s Dingbats.

So what is a Dingbat? It’s a puzzle, essentially, based on word play. There’s usually no pictures, however letters, numbers, mathematical operators and shapes might be used. Usually the position or size of the letters is important too. But the answer might be a little bit less straightforward than you’d like. The most readily available example of Dingbats is the popular TV quiz show Catchphrase, with the motto “Say what you see”, but they’re usually blindingly obvious. A true Dingbat is slightly trickier than that. For example, what’s this one?

OK, so you’ve got the word “Grass” there, in the middle is a plus sign. The only clue I’m going to give you is… WHAT is a plus sign, and WHERE is it? Think about it, I’ll give the answer at the end.

The board itself is nothing too exciting, however the two piles of cards are the genius behind the games. Like most board games, you’ve got to get from the start to the finish, solving puzzles on the way (if you land on a puzzle space). There are two types of Dingbat puzzles, the Standard or “easy” ones, and the Diabolical, or “Stupidly obscure”. Like all puzzles, you’ll find there’s many that can be identified/solved in the blink of an eye, others that you’ll never get in a month of Sundays, but when you hear the answer you’ll be kicking yourself.

Solving Dingbats is done against the clock, 1 turn of a 30-second egg-timer for the easy ones, 2 turns for the hard. Some Diabolical Dingbats are played as  “All-plays” where everyone tries to guess the Dingbat in competition.

And… erm… well… that’s basically it. The winner gets to wear the “I’m a Dingbats Winner” badge, and there’s not much more to be said.

Except, of course, you are in for hours of fun and laughter as you try to reach the end of the board. Those fiendishly difficult Diabolical Dingbats will have you shaking in fear, praying you get one you’ve seen before (but there’s a lot to get through!), although we deliberately didn’t share the answer on those that weren’t guessed correctly.

The concept of the Dingbats puzzle has been copied in magazines and puzzle books everywhere, however compared to the slightly off-the-wall nature of the true dingbat puzzle, they’re often far too easy, requiring 5 seconds or less to solve.

Dingbats – The Board Game… the original and best.

Oh, the answer to the above Dingbat… “Snake in the grass”. Did you get it?

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Arcade - NARC

Continuing with the theme of controversial games, how about this gory little side-scrolling shooter?

My history with this game is accompanied by an amusing back-story. Back in the days of regular holidays to Cornwall, we stayed at a little holiday site which had a large shed for a games room. It’s one of those things, I always loved going on holiday to a new site because I wanted to see what gems were in their games rooms. This particular one had a Ghosts & Goblins, Gladiator (a.k.a. Great Gurianos), Mat Mania (with only 1 button instead of 2, making things nearly impossible), Chase HQ, and a Q*Bert. Because they were working on a new building, we were offered a cheap return to the site for the October holidays, which we took up.
When we returned, not only had they finished the new pool and the block of new buildings, but they’d removed the old shed, and all the games from it. Instead we had a new games room, with a Pac-Land, Renegade (the only time I’ve EVER seen it in the wild), Iron Horse and Enduro Racer. And not much else. I was disappointed they’d removed the Ghosts & Goblins and Mat Mania, mainly because in the previous holiday someone had knocked open the coin doors on them and we’d been playing them for free for 2 solid weeks.

Part way through the week, Enduro Racer was removed, only to be replaced by NARC. And here’s where I manage to bring the review back on topic.
Y’see, Pac-Land, Renegade and Iron Horse were all excellent games. Iron Horse is in fact one of my all-time favourites, and fairly rare. But I didn’t play any of them again for the rest of the week, saving all my 10p coins for NARC instead. It didn’t matter that it was twice the price per play (a massive 20p!) of all the other games. It didn’t matter that parents who saw the game in there didn’t approve of the disconnected limbs flying round the screen when you shot people with a rocket.

Nope, all that mattered was getting as far as I could. Which wasn’t greatly far in one credit to be honest.
So, on to the game. First off, nice big cabinet, excellent hi-res graphics, partially digitised, and sampled speech a-plenty. Nice simple concept, you (and a friend) are part of some kind of special anti-Narcotics squad, and must find and stop Mr Big’s drugs operation. Mr Big has a LOT of people on his side, from the thousands of trenchcoat-wearing pushers, to syringe-throwing maniacs, muscle-bound PCP-addicts, perverted clowns and more.

You have two ways to deal with the enemy, kill them or arrest them. Killing enemies often leaves behind ammo, cash or drugs. Collecting these will go towards a bonus count at the end, as do all arrests, or “Busts” as they call them.
You’re armed with a machine gun and a rocket or grenade launcher, and each kill is nicely detailed, from blood splatters when hit by bullets to complete dismemberment when using your rockets. There are also dogs who simply shrink to puppy size when shot, detracting slightly from realism, but then again so is the whole plot of the game.
Once you discover how to “Bust” the enemy rather than kill them, you’ll discover it’s a quick way to rack up a lot of extra lives early on. You get points there and then for removing an enemy from the scene, and you get extra points in the end-of-level bonus. Busting an enemy is easy enough, just get close to them for about 3 seconds. Don’t be stupid with it, though, you can’t bust the tough, headbutting thugs or the dogs. And probably a few others as well.

But believe me, when you reach the end of the game, you’ll need those lives if you want to stand any chance at all. Mr Big turns out to be a fat guy in a motorised wheelchair, then a massive robot head thing, which takes an age to damage, after which he becomes a skull robot. After that, you gain access to a vault full of Gold for your final bonus.
I know I’ve still not mentioned the fact that you get to drive a big red sports car (It could be a Ferrari, but I wouldn’t know one if it ran me over.) on a couple of levels, and the enemy occasionally take to the sky in helicopters.
Overall, NARC is an enjoyable shooter, with an insanely difficult final few levels and boss. The controls take a little getting used to, but once you’re up and running, you’ll be having no problems controlling it and arresting to your heart’s content.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

PC - Carmageddon

So, you’ve designed a driving game. It takes place in huge sprawling cities (kind of like GTA3, perhaps). You have to drive through checkpoints to complete laps to win the race. Sounds very bland, doesn’t it?

OK, how about you can also win by smashing your opponents to death. For some reason, you running head on into them damages them, and not so much you. Now, that’s more like it.
How about you’re up against a clock? And there’s nowhere near enough time to complete the race, and you can earn more by smashing the opposition up? Now, that’s more like it.

How about if you smash up certain cars you can actually pinch them and use them yourself? Ooh, now that sounds good. And you’ve got to have power-ups too, but make them interesting, like “Instant Handbrake” and “Solid Granite Car” and “Electro-Bastard Pedestrian Killing Ray”.
Hold on… did I just say “Pedestrian Killing”? That’s a breach of the Green Cross Code, right?

Now wait just a minute, because like all truly memorable games, Carmageddon did not avoid the glare of the censors, but the story isn’t exactly straightforward. You see, Carmageddon first came to my attention thanks to a playable demo on a PC Zone coverdisk. The demo was time-limited, but very intense, and included the game as it was intended… the streets crowded with innocent pedestrians whom you could mow down with your vehicle in a shower of blood and guts. Furthermore, you could win the race yet another way, by finding and killing all the pedestrians on a map.
HOWEVER, when the game came to be released, there was much disappointment as the pedestrians were changed at the last minute to “Zombies”, given green skin and blood. Why was this? Why wasn’t the game quite as enjoyable? Does this mean I’m a psychotic murderer deep down?

I don’t think so somehow… but yes, something just didn’t feel quite “right”, it felt a little bit like Shadow Warrior, where the Shurikens were suddenly replaced by “darts” for the UK market. For some reason, SCi had to swap the pallet colours of human flesh and blood.
Fortunately PC Zone came to the rescue by supplying a coverdisk with a “gore patch”, which restored the original graphics from the demo into the main game. So, back we went to zooming along straight roads and then hitting a sideways skid through a large crowd of the general public, hearing them scream first in terror, then in pain, then the satisfying splat… Yikes, I’m beginning to scare myself now.
You’ve got a choice of 2 drivers (whose reactions cam be seen on the “Prat-cam”) and a selection of difficulty levels ranging from very easy to ridiculously hard (a.k.a. As hard as French Kissing a Cobra) You would start out at Rank 99, gaining 1 or 2 ranks for each race you won (Depending on the difficulty selected). Your rank dictated which races you could select, usually 5 races at a time were selectable out of the list of about 36. The races themselves took place over about 8 different maps, but these maps were big enough to hold several different tracks, although you invariably would go exploring elsewhere anyway for more points and pedestrians to slaughter.

There’s some incredible jumps to hit, and in the mineshaft levels some insanely deep pits to fall down, and between levels you can add better bumpers and defences to your car. Most races are won by wrecking the opponents, but sometimes you realise they’ve gone completely off to the other side of the map for some reason, therefore you’ll have to complete the race to win, or earn enough time to hunt them down. Killing every single pedestrian isn’t really an option, as they really are all over the place. You can call a map up, but without a certain power-up pedestrians don’t show up on there.

There’s many amusing moments in the game, the Harvester power-up for example, or zipping into the stadium and hitting the line-up of American Football players with a skid straight over the top of them. But absolutely my favourite power up was the Electro Bastard Pedestrian-Killing Ray, which would zap any pedestrians within range of your vehicle as you passed by. Obviously, through big crowds or long straight streets this made for huge combos, giving you the chance to increase your measly 1 minute 30 seconds timer to well over 10 minutes, and a good chance to enjoy a nice speedy bloodthirsty drive around the map. Of course, the fact that it’s totally hilarious helps too.
But was all this necessary? Carmageddon got rave reviews at the time based on the excellent gameplay and physics involved. Take away the controversy and the gore, and you’ve still got an excellent driving game. The question is, would I have bought it? No, I probably wouldn’t. On that basis, I’m glad they went down that route.

Still not convinced? Trust me, it’s worth a go. Strap yourself in, hang on to your helmet, and drive to survive.