Some games I played in
2014
(games)



Sonic Dash

iPad
Feb ~ Jun

I was gifted an iPad from a relative, and naturally my first objective was to fill it with whatever free trash I could find, this being the first one. It's Sonic the Hedgehog in an endless runner!

So, uh, I've never played an endless runner before. It's one of those genres I've heard and read plenty about, and it seems like a genre that you choose a "flavour" more than one that's good. The App store is crawling in them, so you've got plenty of choice - what licensed character do you want to star in it? What gimmick do you want attached to it? There's plenty to choose from! Maybe there is an all-powerful endless runner that's undeniably better than the rest... but for the moment I stuck with Sonic because I have juvenile taste. The site's called Random Hoo Haas, for goodness sake.

So you run forward endlessly, see. Sonic can sidestep, jump and roll, and your goal is to top your high score by collecting stacks of rings and rolling through Badniks. There are different paths you can take at the end of each section, and after a few paths you'll face off against a boss before repeating. You can spend your rings on upgrades (a longer-lasting shield, less rings to fill your boost metre, etc), and completing special challenges nets you Red Rings, for even better upgrades or even new characters!

If you're aiming for scores, you can apply modifiers at the beginning of each run that reward extra point bonuses for certain actions - collecting ring streaks, defeating gold Badniks, hitting springs. They're totally optional, but they help give you certain objectives to focus on for repeat play.

The game is free to play and on relatively decent terms about it, though it does make efforts to either keep people coming back or paying up. Daily challenges reward players with increasingly desirable goodies for every day they do the same thing, and three-parter challenges encourage players to do every possible action in the game in exchange for Red Rings - roll for 1000km, defeat 20 Crabmeats in a row, crash into 5 totem poles... totally inane nonsense, but it does make you approach the game differently!

It can be quite stingy with these rare rewards - Red Rings only show up if you have an internet connection, and if you want to forfeit a challenge (if it's too impractical or too BS) you have to pay 2 Red Rings... the same amount you'd get for winning three challenges. You could, in theory, grind the game like mad and amass enough to unlock a new character, but the game actually stopped offering me challenges after a while - apparently I'd done them all!

As mentioned, endless runners are endless - there's no goal in sight, so either you keep playing to beat your high score... or you set your sights on unlocking this character. The game offers decent assistance for score runs, but let's face it, if you're playing offline, who cares? And if you're playing online then you realise these folks have too much time on their hands. So you can focus your efforts on unlocking a new character, but it's all rather moot because everyone plays the same. There's no gimmicks, not even voice clips, just different animations and a different skin. It satisfies the urge to play as that one character you really like, but it's a gesture that weighs entirely on how invested the players are (and in my case, i'm still a sucker for these characters - i'm sorry!).

The game's fun while it lasts, but it does get a bit repetitive after a while. After you collect a certain number of rings in one run the difficulty suddenly and consistently spikes, so you want to bank them before you fall down a bullshit pit or something. You could aim towards unlocking all the characters, be it through Red Ring grinding or coughing up the 60-something to unlock them all... but then you strip the game of incentive as if you're not playing for score, what are you playing for?

As an introduction to iPad gaming it's pleasant enough, even if I did end up using it as a case study for monetised gaming and how to string people along. Fun while it lasts, even if the shelf life is limited.

Bomberman Chains

iPad
Feb

This game has the dubious honour of being the first iPad app I paid money for. It's basically like Bejeweled or Candy Crush or any number of those puzzle games - you swap the positions of two shapes to try and join three or more of the same type, erasing them, and you'll want to get some sweet comboes while you're at it. If you connect four or more at once, you'll get a bomb which can be detonated at any time to erase the enemies on its X and Y axis.

It's very simple, and RucKyGAMES, the guys responsible for it, are known for making dirt-simple mobile games, judging by the library on their website. It's a lot of fun for how simple it is, and there's a good learning curve from knowing the mechanics to outright mastering them. My first runs were pretty wretched, but afterwards I knew how to manage my bomb stocks and aimed to complete the game without losing once. Not sure if I ever accomplished it, but I gave it a good effort! When I bought it the game cost it around 2 to 3, which nets you a 50 level single-player mode and two time attack modes - no level select, unfortunately. It's a solid little product that delivers a simple puzzle game with no ads, no fuss and no muss.

If I had to gripe, two of the enemy types are so similar in colour that it's difficult to tell them apart; I'm looking at the board and either thinking there are or there aren't any matches, because those types just throw me off. The game also loves adding easy match-ups when new tiles are brought in, which is incredibly vexing when you want the board to reset itself. There's no matches anywhere except the ones you keep giving me, game - wipe the slate already!

I wasn't expecting much from it, but it's probably my favourite game on the iPad, if just for how easy it is to pick up and play.

Bomberman Touch 2: Volcano Party

iPad
Feb

An auto-scrolling Bomberman game - the gimmick is that every level has a lava flow chasing you from the left-hand side of the screen, and you want to blast your way to the end of the maze (and grab whatever goodies you can along the way!) before it engulfs you. There's three levels with a different boss at the end, plus your typical battle mode.

It's great seeing different takes on Bomberman like this! The usual "blow up all the enemies and find the exit" affair is all right, but it's long overdue for a new approach to shake it up - and it's great that it got an international release, as well! It's almost criminal reading up on all the Japan-exclusive mobile titles, all the interesting directions they took the traditional gameplay, and how they're lost to time on obsolete mobile gaming services. That used to keep me awake at night, y'know.

Back to Volcano Party! It's got a few new gimmick items that make use of the iPad's features - a tornado that you swipe the screen to direct its movement, boulders you fling about or tilt the iPad to move, things like that. They're flashy if rather pointless additions that literally pause the game until you're done using them, but the game itself is a solid enough little instalment for all its size. It is a bit fiddly, though - the levels aren't entirely grid based so there's a lot of open areas to explore, and diagonal movement, which is a rarity. The virtual d-pad is a bit mushy, though the fact the areas are so open does help get around that fault. I do wish you could play the game with a controller, but as it stands I've seen worse virtual d-pads out there.

Tails Adventures

Game Gear
Feb ~ unfinished

A cute little adventure starring Tails; it could almost be regarded a Metroidvania. You choose an area from the map and explore, finding items, exits and perhaps a boss to fight along the way; items are necessary to overcome certain obstacles, but you can only carry four into each stage, so revisiting old stages with new equipment is a big deal. There are also stages set in the ocean using Tails' SeaFox submarine, though they're more formality than anything.

The game is a bit tough to get into - I've dabbled in the game on all the prior Sonic collections, but the first level can be a bit of a roadblock if you're inattentive. Not only is the level long, but you have next to no health on hand, and midway through it throws surprise stage hazards at you that are almost assured to throw you on spikes... which at this point in the game are a one-hit kill. And because of that, you get to replay the level all over again! It took me a few attempts to bash my head against it, but after that it's a smoother run.

The level-based design is interesting and keeps the challenges self-contained, though it can be a trifle tiresome. Each area is arguably a puzzle in itself, and some stages you can't progress past the first screen until you come back with new items, but replaying a stage just to try a new item on a certain location gets boring real fast. There are no shortcuts, there are no checkpoints - if you replay a level, you have to trod through the entire thing from the start. And when you're already completely lost, stumbling through entire stages you can't tell if you've fully explored or not is one way of killing a game's momentum.

Big glaring "this is why I stopped playing" gripes aside, the game is enjoyable, I swear! Flying around these Game Gear-sized mazes is fun and finding purposes for the new items you collect can be exciting. It's a nifty little game that admittedly has nothing to do with Sonic and could easily have been a standalone product, but so it goes. If it interests you it's worth at least taking a peek at, though it does require a bit of patience.

Kirby's Fun Pak

Super Nintendo
Mar ~ Apr

I was suddenly in the mood to play this again, and it was quite sweet to revisit it - it's a game I've played with nearly all my buddies over the years, so it means a lot to me... even if I was playing it on my own. (thank goodness for the CPU-controlled allies, though - what a feature! why don't more games have that?)

My aim with this playthrough was to do things a little differently - it's so easy to play the game on autopilot and just do things the way I always do.

In this case I tried to use abilities I'd rarely even touched before, such as Suplex - for the longest time I'd written it off as a lousy move since it had no effect on large boss enemies... but I'd never realised how huge its damage multiplier was! Chucking a boss's projectile back at it using Suplex does enormous amounts of damage. It is a situational ability that demands objects to grab, but it's actually a lot of fun to use and helped me view the levels differently. I'll have to play it again and focus on other abilities. Maybe someday I'll find the Cutter ability remotely fun for once. Probably not, though.

I also realised that many of the levels feature rooms that, outside of an extra life or a rare enemy ability, are otherwise totally worthless, and ignoring them gets you to the exit way quicker. I'm almost shocked my brother and I kept going into them every single time we played, even though they often slowed us down and got us bickering at each other - why'd you pick up the Ninja ability? You don't even like it that much! Its wall-grab is only going to slow us down in this vertical chamber, man!!

The game means a lot to me, and it's always a treat to revisit it. Even little things like seeing its unique style of visuals warms my heart - 16-bit games rarely did prerendered graphics well, but they work really nicely for the backdrops in this. I've been interested in checking out the DS remake and see what it's like - it looks neat, but I wonder if it'd tick all the boxes. Couch co-op is a big deal, man, even if I only ever get an opportunity for it, like, once a year.

Columns

SEGA Mega Drive
Apr

I needed a game to play on the pooper, so this became my defacto puzzle game for a couple of months. Columns is all right. It's not a very imaginative puzzle game; it hasn't got the versatility of Puyo Puyo, nor is it as catchy and addicting as Tetris. You've got these vertical columns, you can cycle the colours on tem, bam, put 'em down. Try and match three or more of the same colour using horizontal, vertical or diagonal lines. You're done.

It's actually only recently I even discovered you could do diagonals in this game, which does add a mild degree of depth to the game... but for the longest time this was a game I played solely for the mood. It's an okay puzzler, but it never feels as intense as other games in the genre, it's missing a real sense of buckling under pressure. You just kinda play it to go brain dead for a while, and I'm trying to say that in the kindest possible manner.

It's game I play for the mood. Something about the old Greek imagery and the dour music, it's got a kind of melancholy feel to it, if not straight-up depressing? It's a game with a distinct mood, which I feel I have to commend it for. Tetris on Game Boy has a lovely title screen and bouncy music, but it otherwise has no visible theme. Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, the blobs are cute and all, but the game itself takes place on boring-ass cave backgrounds - totally lifeless! But Columns, personally, has a very distinct theme and mood to its gameplay... even if it does come across like a mausoleum or a man's suicide. I don't know what to make of it, but I like the game for what it is.

Newer Super Mario Bros. Wii

Nintendo Wii
May ~ unfinished

This is a fan-made mod for New Super Mario Bros. Wii, featuring new levels, new worlds, new enemies, new graphics, and even a couple of new items! As of this writing I'm about four worlds into it, and it's pretty dang nifty. It's a mod that aims to emulate the feel of the original game while offering all-new content, which is very commendable.

It's not a mod that's hard for the sake of being hard, so if you're looking for Kaizo stuff, look elsewhere, pal! It offers a lot of new gimmicks, but they flow very naturally into traditional Mario gameplay - there haven't been any levels set in darkness or on those giant flying manta rays yet, so I've got that to be thankful for.

It's groundbreaking to see such an extensive hack of a Wii game - there have been level editor tools in the past, but this is a full-on revamp with new menus, coding, the works, all while maintaining a high level of quality. The new background graphics do vary in quality a bit, some of them do look a bit cheap, though it's all miles ahead of what we've seen in ye olde NES ROM hacks. The fact it's got brand new level themes with newly arranged music is enough to be thankful for - discovering that the base game just reused the worlds from the DS predecessor was such a killjoy.

As of yet there haven't been many new enemy types. There are giant versions of previously not-giant enemies, and although you still fight the Koopalings aboard the airships, there are new bosses that ape Yoshi's Island by giving ordinary enemies new attacks and gimmicks. It's a cute way of maximising assets, though none of the bosses are terribly exciting to fight... which is made worse when you fight them in both the fortresses and the castles. The second bouts do feature Kamek applying a new danger to the arena like pits or moving platforms, though it's rather inconsequential.

The overworld has been totally revamped, boasting a huge seamless map where you walk from one world to another. It's a neat showcase of the new code, though it can be a little slow to traverse, especially when backtracking. Star Coins are now used in shops to purchase power-ups, and mushroom houses feature brand new, hideously obtuse mini-games that aren't really worth your time. They're not additions I'm all that keen on, though they do make you value your item reserves. The base game totally drowns you in Mushrooms that you never fear entering a level unprotected, but this mod? You might want to hold on until you really need them!

It's an interesting and very enjoyable hack, especially in multi-player, which its levels have been greatly adapted for. Some of its additions leave something to be desired, but on the whole it's a terrific mod that actually makes me excited to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii again, something I haven't experienced in years! It's a bit dry in single-player, but it's well worth checking out if you can get it set up.

Super Dungeon Quest

Xbox 360 (Indie)
Jun

I picked this up on Xbox Live Indie Games because I'm still freakin' desperate for another game that plays like Pineapple Smash Crew as a dungeon crawler.

This is not that.

You choose a class from around seven options, some melee and some ranged, all with different stats and traits, and you're dumped in a dungeon. You romp around the expansive dungeon floor and kill masses of enemies. Killing and killing and killing. They might drop loot when they die - you might find loot without having to kill anything! Eventually they drop a key and that allows you to exit, where you can spend that loot on stat upgrades, before repeating the process on the next floor.

It only cost around 1 so it wasn't a crippling disappointment, but the whole affair is very plain. There's not much pizzazz to fighting enemies; it's a twin-stick shooter without the twin-stick. You hold a button down to auto-attack and you can use the trigger to lock-on. That's it. The range of classes is neat, but the difference feels negligible given how long the sessions can last.

The game uses a cute pixelated style that does allow for a large variety of enemy types, but they just swarm you at varying speeds; only one or two behave differently enough to be a noticeable threat. The maps are randomly-generated and are quite expansive, but there's nothing to them. There's enemies, there's loot and there's an exit. You'll find no surprises if you go exploring. Even the stat upgrades feel negligible. You're best upgrading your Luck to max, that way you'll be drowning in gold and can go nuts on the upgrades in no time.

It's a simple little time-killer, but it lacks ambition and has no finesse to its game design. Kudos for starting and finishing a project, but it could do with a lot more punch and sizzle.

Broforce

PC
Jun ~ Sep

I'd seen screenshots for this floating about and just thought it was some amusing dream game someone had conceptualised, until a pal informed me no, it's real, and there's a beta you can play!

Pretty much "Action Movie: The Game", this boasts a wide range of movie characters, from Rambo to Conan to Blade to Agent K to the Terminator, all with unique guns and abilities. It's a dirt-simple game, as your only objective is to make your way to the exit, shoot the devil in the face and then escape on a helicopter... but the game's design feels so, so rich.

Every player can jump, scale walls and melee, and each character has their own unique gun and grenade; some are rather traditional, like John McClane's machine gun and flash grenade, but other guys mix it up a touch. The Terminator boasts a giant fuck-off chain gun that's crazy powerful but also has wild kickback, which can actually propel him backwards around the map! He has no grenade, but can temporarily expose his exoskeleton, increasing his firepower and nulling all recoil from his weapon. Blade trades the gun for a sword, and his bomb attack is to dash forward through anything - enemies, tanks, terrain, you name it!

There are prisoners around the map that give you an extra life when rescued, and put you in control of a new character; dying will also respawn you as a different dude. On one hand this is a bit frustrating - there's over two dozen characters and more being added with each update, so it's rare for you to use one character for terribly long. However, it does force you constantly re-assess how you approach the level - some characters are ideal for going gung-ho, but some specialise in being slow and stealthy, picking off guards one by one or each breaking through the walls instead.

Which brings us to one of the game's shining features - the levels are so interactive. Well, I say interactive when I mean they crumble like soggy bread, but it's a terrific sight. Explosive barrels can be rolled along and dropped off ledges; gas canisters will fly forward once ignited before detonating; and platforms and bridges actually have support structures, so tearing the ground apart can cause the enemies above to come tumbling down to their deaths.

Enemies react to the deaths of their comrades and some grunts are even posted as watchmen to alert the others. It is easy to catch them off-guard before they can react, but it's great seeing how enemy forces can assemble depending on how you advance through the stage.

As of this writing the game is still in open beta, and alongside a basic arcade mode (with no level select, so i've no idea how long it is!) there's a mission mode (which is just the same but with a few bosses and a map screen), a few multi-player-only modes, and even a level editor, though I've yet to touch a lot of these extras. And then there's Expendabros, a standalone tie-in with new characters, levels and bosses! It does repeat material from the main game, but for a free download it's definitely an excellent extra, and a great demo.

I was blown away by Broforce, and its constant updates just keep giving me more and more to love! I dig its approach to gameplay that balances quick pick-up-and-play, but with incentive to stop, learn, and experiment, be it with the characters' loadouts, exploring the environment or how to approach an enemy encampment. Give us more games like this, please. Highly recommended.

Little Racers: Street

PC
Jun ~ unfinished

A little top-down racer; I was hoping for something a bit like Micro Machines, but it's got a more realistic vibe with some sim elements to it. Racing is a bit slower than that game; a bit crunchier, with more emphasis on using handbrakes and knowing how to use your car. You race in tracks formed from two open world cities, winning prize money to spend on upgrades or on new cars; you begin on Rank E, which is for duff old bangers and hippie vans, and you work your way up towards Rank A, which is for super fast sports cars and the like.

It's a fun little game to spend half an hour at a time to dink about in. It's a very slow-going game, however, as upgrading and buying new cars is a costly process, and it takes time before races start offering decent money. You can only enter a D Rank race with a D Rank car, and although cars can raise or lower in Rank depending on how you mod them, there are some cars and setups that literally have no chance of beating the competition. You can win challenges to earn more money or even new cars - get 1st place with a certain car X number of times, and so on, though on the whole it's a game that expects you to just grind away at it, taking whatever win or loss comes your way.

I've enjoyed my time with the game, and it's very easy to pick up and play, though I'm not sure if I'm gelling with its idea of game progression. It's a tough game to determine if winning comes down to skill, or simply having a kickass car. There are some races where you cannot claim first place, the leading racer is halfway around the track by the time you reach the first turn. It is entertaining in how it makes you prioritise how you spend your money - upgrading is cheap and effective, but blowing your entire wallet on a new car might have more pronounced results. I suppose accepting the results and just plugging away is the best you can do.

An interesting little game that goes for cheap during the Steam sales, though as far as I can tell, there's absolutely no multi-player presence nowadays, nor any local multi-player options, which is a bummer.

Rayman 2: The Great Escape

PlayStation
Sep - unfinished

I picked this up for cheap during a PSN sale; I'd been a little interested in replaying the game, and had heard this had different stages and challenges from the N64 one, so that'd be interesting to see. Not that those differences would be evident since I haven't touched the N64 game in about fifteen years now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

This makes the jump to 3D platforming, and it's mostly get-to-the-exit stuff, though there is a bit of collecting, puzzling and fighting with dodgy controls. Each level is quite big with a few hidden collectibles to find, though the illusion of size is shattered by the PlayStation's weak hardware and the loading screens between checkpoints. Levels can take at least half an hour to finish (or longer!), and it gets straining pretty fast. This is a game I ended up resorting to an FAQ a lot because I just couldn't be bothered.

It is a really magical looking game, though. It's not as polished as the N64 version, but it's still a really beautiful game - I've cracked wise on ONM Remembered about Jest setting out to look like a French comic and looking more like hot garbage, but Rayman 2 nails the look really well, a style they went on to master in Rayman Origins.

The kooky-eyed, oddly-proportion creatures look great in 3D, and the environments are really fantastic; seeing the textures in such clarity is a real treat. As a kid these areas felt genuinely big, as if there were huge landmasses just beyond that pit, but inaccessible due to the level design. The PlayStation version struggles to hide that each area is just a big walled-in box, but I'd dare say that's charming in itself.

It's hard to say if I'm actually enjoying the game or not. On one hand it's neat to see all these old locations and challenges again... but on the other hand the gameplay either hasn't converted well to PlayStation or aged well.

The combat in particular is bloody awful, nothing but strafing around enemies using Zelda-style Z-Targetting and praying the enemy dies sometime this year. Totally pleasureless. A lot of the puzzles and platforming are especially finicky both because of the controls, and the hardware limitations - it can be hard to tell where you are in 3D space, so just when you thought you'd cleared that pit...!

It's a nostalgia trip, I'll give it that, but I can't imagine myself going back to it in a hurry. Not this version, at least.

One Way Heroics

PC
Nov

Picked this up for pennies during a Steam sale (though it's only around 2 even when it's not on sale, so pick it up anyway why doncha). A strange little mish-mash of an RPG and a roguelike - you're dropped in an RPG overworld with a wave of enveloping darkness forever creeping in from the left side of the screen, and your job is to track down and defeat the source of this evil. You travel to the right, exploring dungeons, defeating baddies, amassing items, and even recruiting allies if you're heroic enough.

It's a tricky game to describe, but I can tell you it's surprisingly engaging and easy to pick up and play. It's a great game to run a quick ten minute session in, and even easier to lose track of time and realise I've been playing for an hour and a half. Not a fun thing to realise when I've got work in the morning!

What makes the game so fun to replay again and again is the variable nature of it - the overworld is randomly generated with each playthrough, and there are a variety of "challenge" variations you can choose, like extra tough enemies, gold-only item drops and other gimmicks.

You can make a new character for each run, choosing from a number of classes and perks that change how you approach the game. Making a heroic dude with stacks of charisma makes it easy to recruit any allies you meet on your way - so long as you can find any! One entertaining run was played as a super buff pirate who wrecked everything in his path, amassing all manner of killer equipment and loot... but his criminal reputation meant I couldn't find a single NPC who didn't try to murder me on sight.

It's a quirky little game that's tough to describe and probably even weirder to watch in videos, but I was really taken by it. It's fast-paced and breezy, and can be played as methodical as you want it to be. I've completed a number of runs and unlocked all the perks and classes, but I've yet to see every ending or clear every challenge. Looking forward to it, though!

Mario Kart Arcade GP 2

arcade
Nov

I was reminded of the Wii mod that allows you to play Triforce board arcade games, and figured I'd give this a bash. I'd played the game twice before in arcades; once in a bowling alley up in the country, and earlier this year in Belfast Airport. It was a good laugh the first time, though the second one had no link-up, a faulty brake and a non-functioning item button... which dilutes the fun a bit, needless to say.

If you haven't played it, well... it's Mario Kart, only adapted for modern arcades. One credit gets you only one race, and although you can choose any race in any cup, you need to play the courses in order to unlock them - and each track is duplicated, the second time usually with some sort of gimmick... and sometimes not! Drifting performs differently and is used more for its new temporary invincibility function than it is for speed boosts, and tracks are littered in Mario Coins - collecting a certain amount will unlock extras like new karts, new items and new borders to adorn your mugshot photo.

It's a real novelty playing it in the comfort of your own home, and the mod does a good job emulating the game, though it's prone to stuttering if your SD card isn't optimised, and there's some things it obviously can't do: there's no link-up multi-player, naturally, and the camera function is gone. It's an entertaining way of spending a half hour each evening - play through this cup with this character, trying out different item loadouts each time, seeing what the next unlock will be. It's fun while it lasts.

It's clearly a game built for the communal arcade experience, though. Each racer has their photo taken to identify them in races, and there's an optional narrator who announces every little action on the track: "Wario used... the Koopa shell!" It expects you to play in an environment with people you're familiar with, so when you see that face you go, "I'm aiming for you, buster!" or wonder what they're up to when the announcer states what item they've acquired. The game also expects you to use the "Mario Card" to record your progress, so when you come back you can pick up from the last course you unlocked and have a huge selection of items to use.

Yeah, that's a thing: there's over 100 items in the game! You're usually given a random selection, but on some courses you can cherry pick which ones you'll find in item boxes. It's a genuine novelty, but they all feel kind of samey. They're split into three categories - throw, lock-on and use - and there is a wide variety, though a lot of them are repeats and recolours with some side-effect. Some of them are quite unique, like the FLUDD that shoots paint in random directions; the tornado that sweeps up opponents; Dr. Mario viruses that mess up player's controls and tires.

There are plenty that stink, though - there are close-range melee items that are next to worthless, and a lot of items do nothing but annoy the player by vandalising their photo, flashing images across their screen or playing loud music. In an arcade environment I can see where that could be amusing, but finding that outside of Japan is mighty tough... and without a Mario Card, all of these bells and whistles are lost. You get the first course of each cup, a few items and that's it.

Oh, and it doesn't help that you only get 3 items per course. Sometimes you can choose from the ones you've unlocked, sometimes they just give you a random set, and they are simply not enough to replace the arsenal you get from the mainline games. The loadout in Mario Kart is meant to equalise the playing field, isn't it? The leader can only set traps, players behind can find ways to slow them down, and whoever's in last place can drag everyone else down to their level. If you're lagging behind in this, there's no easy way of catching up. Koopa shells don't even bounce, for crying out loud! I think there are a couple of all-range items like the lightning bolt, but you're granted them only as part of the predetermined loadout, not because you're in a bind.

As a result, the game feels really, really tame. Where's the wackiness? Where's the unpredictability? There are no lightning bolts, no chain chomps, not even ghosts to steal enemies' items. There are very few items to surprise players, to keep them on their toes and find ways to prepare for them - you see what items you're getting at the start of each race, so you know exactly how dangerous you and your opponents are going to be. The console games are more than willing to screw the player over with enemy bombardments, yet this arcade game, where the operators would profit from such behaviour, has surprisingly little in the way of tide-turning weapon antics. Perhaps that sort of behaviour would sour players on coming back, since drip-feeding them courses and features is clearly its raison d'etre...

... but you can't even say the difficulty is meant to come from mastering the tracks and the controls, because the courses are some of the tamest in Mario Kart history. They are very, very bland. A lot of the game's assets are lifted from Double Dash!!, and that game was the first to really emphasise the wild and wacky nature of Mario Kart, with giant cannons, huge jumps, thrills and spills and all sorts. This game's courses barely comes close to matching the SNES game in intensity half the time. And it has the gall to repeat each course a second time with barely distinguishable changes!

The game is a novelty. It's got some interesting ideas - its arcade mentality works well and unlocking stuff with the Mario Coins kept me coming back to see what new items and karts I'd be getting next - but it ends up feeling like one of those sleazy iOS games. It offers trinkets and gadgets to keep you coming back, but disguises that it offers nothing of worth. It's not a bad little game to play idly when you have the chance, especially in an arcade, but playing it at home not only flaunts the game's faults, you're missing out on half the experience.

Wario World

GameCube
Dec

So I'd rediscovered the old game show channel on TV and found myself rewatching The Crystal Maze. I'd forgotten how much I loved that show. Richard O'Brien was a terrific host, his eccentric wardrobe and wry attitude practically making him one step away from being a Doctor Who protagonist. The 'world' it created felt really inventive, something that was really eye-grabbing and sensational when I watched it as a kid. It was a real nostalgia trip to be seeing it again!

... but watching it again made me realise: the bulk of the running time is mostly pointless.

The goal of the show is to collect crystals, right? They're won by completing physical or logical challenges, often involving a lot of thinking and teamwork, and they run the risk of losing a team member if they fail. There's a lot on the line, is what I'm saying. But for all the stress involved in collecting them, their only purpose is to add five extra seconds to the final challenge, which dictates whether you "win" or not:

Collecting bits of foil inside a wind tunnel.

That's the part that matters. Not the expansive world laid out before them, not the risks and challenge that face them out in the field - it's how many golden tickets you can pick up in a breeze.

And it gave me a sudden realisation: Wario World is the same bloody thing! There's four worlds with two large levels in each, and the game feels jam-packed with stuff. There's stacks of enemies on every path, coins to be collected, treasure to be found, challenge rooms where you win red crystals, spritelings to be freed, golden statues that increase your maximum health, stamps for accomplishing certain achievements... not to mention Wario has an extensive moveset (for a Mario game, at least) with punch comboes, dashing, picking up and three kinds of throwing!

... but it's all kind of for nothing, because the only thing that matters is the red crystals.

The game is arguably a 3D platformer, although viewed from an almost side-on perspective, a bit like an old beat-em-up. A lot of the game is spent beating up things, sometimes using their bodies to pound buttons or spin cogs, though they're largely a distraction. Levels do feature an obvious start, end, and path leading between them, though there's enough exploration to cram the five or so types of collectibles in there, including the challenge panels.

Stomping through those lands you in a small, self-contained challenge room where your goal is simply to nab the red crystal... and that's all that matters. There's nearly a dozen challenge rooms in each level, though the first world requires only 3 crystals, so once you've got that many you can literally walk past everything and exit the level. Coins? Treasures? Enemies? Worthless! Coins can buy you health and revive you when you die, but all those extra gubbins might as well be distractions. They do little to aid your progress. You can collect gold statues to increase your maximum health, but why bother when dying in a challenge room goes unpunished? After two levels you fight a boss, which, for all their flair and bluster, involve little more than waiting for them to get tired and then piledriving them. Then you repeat the process on the next world!

A lot of the game feels like filler. It wants to emphasise the combat and Wario's moveset, and often does so by trapping the player in an arena for a minute and rewarding them for the number of waves they defeat... but besides coins, there's no real reward for fighting. You can actually stand on a pillar and wait it out with no repercussions. Wario hasn't the versatility or manoeuvrability to make combat exciting, either; he's slippery as heck, actually. It wants to have puzzles, but the controls and camera and stage design often make them finicky, especially when it expects you to spin a cog using a giant swing.

The only time the game feels concise is in its challenge rooms, which range from mundane to complex. Often you're give a square room to simply jump or climb on blocks to make your way to the crystal; sometimes they're jumping puzzles across vast bottomless pits, or on rare occasions, you're asked to rearrange and destroy the blocks in just the right manner so you can reach the crystal. They can actually be surprisingly entertaining and are easily the core of the game... and yet they're not actually designed around Wario's moveset. Yes, it occasionally asks you to climb and punch things, but it doesn't demand spinning piledrivers or comboes or dashes; all it needs is barebones 3D platforming. So... why cram both in there?

I just don't know what the game is trying to be. It's a very short game, with only 8 levels and 13 bosses, and I suppose all that extra fluff - the collectibles, the challenge rooms - is there solely to make it appear bigger, I guess? I'm reminded of what I've seen of Treasure's Stretch Panic - that game is nothing but bosses, and yet you need points to open the doors to their arenas. There's an area with completely harmless enemies you must kill to farm those points, and the only purpose of points are for opening doors... so why have the points at all? Why have the doors, that area and those enemies? It's like a peacock's feathers, there to distract you from the scrawny-lookin' bird underneath. There's no eatin' on that thing.

I can't help but wonder what you could do to make the game better, but the elements are simply too disparate. Combat isn't entertaining because it simply involves battering foes until they're weakened enough to pick up and throw, but there is satisfaction in charging through a line of grunts, sending them scattering. Exploring isn't entertaining because it's just a formality in between finding challenge rooms. And bosses aren't satisfying because you've spent all this time exploring and fighting and challenge room-ing only to face yet another boring-ass by-the-numbers boss fight that's not worth your time.

The credits show that only a dozen or so people worked on the game, and Treasure do have a knack for making experimental products, which I appreciate. Kudos to Nintendo for giving them the opportunity to do something weird and out of the ordinary, but it feels a bit of a waste knowing we could have had a real 3D Wario adventure instead. The game does have interesting elements, but I've never seen anyone speak positively of it or declare it their favourite Wario game.

In all honesty, the game is really fucking boring. Before I sussed out the game's design I was intrigued, eager to find what its goal and purpose was, but once I figured it out it was a genuine chore. The challenge rooms have merit, if just because you know that actually counts towards completing the game, but it otherwise feels totally aimless, a half-baked idea that somehow made its way to shelves, with an RRP and everything.

It was nice to see it through to the end, as leaving it unfinished had been haunting me for a number of years now. Can't say it was worth it, though.

Pac-Man World 2

GameCube
Dec 17

This is another old game that had been haunting me; I think the furthest I'd gotten was to the lava world and its difficulty just put me off, but I wanted to see what was beyond it. I threw it in my GameCube and it's telling me it can't access the memory card; it freezes every time it tries. So I thought, fuck it, let's complete this in one sitting. So for the next four hours, I sat there and finished the game. Not the best way to spend a weekend afternoon, but I got it off my chest.

It's a simple little 3D platformer; there's not much Pac-Man can do, actually. He can jump, he can butt-bounce, and he can rev-roll, which is essentially Sonic's spindash - it's used to roll over gaps, bang into enemies and test the limits of the physics engine. It starts off very simply and fun: Pac-Man controls great, bouncing off enemies feels very satisfying, and the levels feel in the vein of Crash Bandicoot - straight-forward, linear levels with just enough side-paths and diversions to encourage exploration or item-gathering.

Problem is, further along the line it just gets too tough and too monotonous. The slippery floors in the ice world are out of control, throwing poor Pac into frozen waters with little you can do to save him. The lava world is the absolute worst; not only is it full of instant-kill lava, but its levels seem to be based entirely around backtracking. You reach the end of a tunnel, activate a switch that drains the lava, allowing you to descend to a new tunnel to activate another switch to drain the lava... and so it goes. The levels aren't designed for backtracking, and neither is the camera, making it a thoroughly joyless experience.

And it's not even the end of the game, 'cause after that there's a world built like a cheapo version of Star Fox! You swim forward underwater while avoiding everything, followed by an awful shooter segment, before you move to the final haunted world which begins with a diabolical roller-skating stage.

And I thought, surely that's the last of the awfulness. Once we're past the gimmicks things will be all right?

Nope! Because then there's a fucking awful maze that takes an eternity, then a really tough, really badly designed stage afterward, and that description just applies to everything at this point. It's like whoever was designing the game early on left the room and they had to build the game without their guidance.

The design choices are so bizarre, they feel poorly implemented or even borderline unfinished. The final platforming stages are rife with areas that just don't flow well, even the camera doesn't know what to do or where to guide you. Mind you, I had been playing for three straight hours and took a break for lunch at this point, but it had become so straining to play. My patience had worn thin by the end of it, I'd looked up a walkthrough to show me how to kill the final boss because I could not be arsed.

Kudos to the developers, though. It's fun while it lasts, and collecting items to unlock extras and arcade games adds a lot of appeal. And as a simple, linear platformer, it's something I'd wanted and really appreciated at the time - Super Mario Sunshine had been a bit of a disappointment and I wanted something a little more back-to-basics, and this delivers that. The game begins very nicely, and I'd recommend playing at least the first two worlds to see what you think of it, but come the lava world you can just throw it in the trash - it doesn't get any better from there.

Bakufuu Sentai Bombermen

PlayStation Portable
Dec

I'd happened across a forum thread discussing the 2014 Bomberman game for smartphones (specifically my coverage of it - it feels good to be relevant!), and someone had mentioned this game, concerned there was no information for it online. Time for me to fill that gap!

The game's split into two modes: the Classic mode is very much the original NES game, complete with 3D Dot Heroes-esque recreations of the pixel graphics, wherein you blow up baddies, find the exit - bare-basics stuff. Then there's the Arrange mode which turns the Bombermen into Super Sentai heroes, each one with a gimmick: the red guy can punch blocks, the pink one can jump, the yellow dude's got a Line Bomb, and so on. There's more levels, more gimmicks and more varied enemies, plus a boss fight for each member of the squad.

It's strictly a score-based game, though. The game flaunts your highest score and quickest time on each stage, and that's the only real replay value - even though the single-player game is called Story Mode, there's no actual story to speak of. There are a bunch of demos of other games to play and a multi-player battle mode, but that can't be played alone, frustratingly enough.

I'm still trying to look into why the game was made. Hudson never mentioned the game on their site, nor are they mentioned anywhere in the game or on its packaging. As far as I can tell it's a Sony development made as a cross-promotion with Intelligent Qube and XI Coliseum to flaunt the game-sharing multi-player function? It's certainly one of the stranger-looking Bomberman games, though it doesn't actually play all that unique.

I don't know if the game was sold at a discount or what, but the regular PSP Bomberman feels like a better product: it's got a fully-fledged single-player game rather than the measly 14 levels you get in this, plus a multi-player mode you can play with or without friends... though this did come out three months before, so maybe as a stopgap measure it was alright.

I'd love to see a Bomberman game fully explore a score attack mode, as the concept of attempting the same stage with different item loadouts could be a lot of fun, but this doesn't quite deliver, and, well, I think it's a bit late for that now. The game isn't bad, but it's more a novelty than anything.

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