Some games I played in
2015



Another year of this routine!
Perhaps realising the games I played last year weren't that interesting to talk about (Columns, really?), this year was all about projects: re-assessing old games! Completing unfinished business! Finally getting around to some Steam trash! It's also where I found myself getting real dang wordy about pretentious things like game design and... well, just game design, but I got real pretentious about it, I know that much.
(once again, a whopping big thanks to pal Matt for transcribing huge swathes of my notes)
 

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

PlayStation 3
Jan ~ May

Had another go at this again! It was selling for dirt cheap on PSN and I figured I'd pick it up to play online with my brother in England. We played one match and realised, welp, one of us has played this way more than the other.

All my points from 2013 still stand. It's a terrific kart racer with oodles of content, especially for local multi-player... but when you're done, you're a little bit done! Getting 100% puts you at a very pronounced skill ceiling where it was easy to blaze through the entire game again in a few two-hour sittings. The CPU rarely offer a challenge, most online opponents can't top you, and those who can are easy to dismiss as bozos who've been playing the game for too long. I mean, psshh, my playtime on the 360 version was only in the 100 hour range!

It remains a perfectly valid game, but until someone clocks me on the head and I forget all the perfect drift and stunt opportunities, I think I've exhausted it. Which is frustrating, because knowing the PC version has updates and DLC the console versions missed out on is mighty tempting...

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2

PlayStation 3
Mar ~ May

Another cheapo PSN purchase my brother encouraged me to get for the co-op more than anything else. The co-op is... interesting! Sonic and Tails are always paired up whether you're playing alone or with a pal, and the two can unite at any time to perform combination-partner abilities, be it flying, a combined rolling attack and... that's about it, isn't it?

The co-op's fun, if a bit hard to keep track of since both players need to be on-screen at the same time. You're constantly teleporting to each other's side, either because you're scrolled off-screen or by performing a partner attack - you can use that to bail each other out from dangerous situations... or accidentally drag the both of you into certain death.

The Sky Chase stage was easily the highlight of co-op if just for my ineptitude. Tails pilots a plane while Sonic uses it as a platform, and trying to figure out where my brother wanted me was a total mystery. Maybe I'll just stay there and sit tight! Nope, I keep getting pushed into enemies. So I thought, I'll avoid the enemies, and would consistently plunge to my doom with every jump. It was a bit of a shitshow!

I guess for 2D Sonic gameplay it's fair enough? It's a step-up from the first episode of Sonic 4, if just for bringing the co-op gimmick to the table, but it still suffers from deathly slow acceleration and other quirks of 2.5D platformers nowadays. The bosses were rather imaginative, but were also mighty tedious and wore out their welcome within seconds.

I played most of the game in co-op first before tackling it alone; I'd finished the game with three Chaos Emeralds but had no interest in getting more. Truth be told, I just don't really get Sonic games anymore, and it's hard to tell if I've simply outgrown it, the games aren't for me, or if the developers just don't know what to make of it. Not gonna lament, though.

The Elk

PC (Klik & Play)
Mar 8 ~ May 29

A Klik 'N' Play creation from 1998 (download it here): a side-scrolling platform-shooter made in a utility that didn't even allow screen-scrolling, yet this managed it. You play as super agent Pete Armstrong and run through long stages jumping over pits, shooting dudes and dying in a single hit. It's dirt-simple Mega Man style shenanigans, only simplified to an even more basic level.

For a little indie project from '98, this is a quality game with a surprising amount of challenge to it. It's very, very tough! You look at it and think, eyyy, all you gotta do is jump and shoot, and that is pretty apt, but it's also a much more patience-driven game. Pete is a fragile guy and rushing ahead often leads to enemies swamping you before you can react, so you want to inch forward to trigger them to spawn one at a time, and find the best vantage point to take them out. You can only shoot forward and diagonally-upward, so you'll either be sneaking shots whenever you safely can, or jumping around to lure flying enemies up into your range of fire.

There's a lot of metagame there that I wonder if it was intentional, or just a by-product of the simplistic enemy AI. You want to play the game like a gung-ho Mega Man title, but a lot of your time is spent hanging about, luring enemies, replaying stages and other activities that kill the game's tempo. You only have 3 lives at your disposal, the stages have no checkpoints, and you're only given a password after every third stage. It's bitterly challenging, needless to say!

I'm a sucker for old Clickteam games, mostly as relics from online communities gone by, but this one is well worth checking out. It's also a technical novelty for having long scrolling levels in a program that couldn't officially support such a feature, and for having wholly original graphics. It's a pity Klik 'N' Play is such a nuisance to play on modern machines - I had to fart about with a Virtual Machine of Windows XP, which is a lot of hassle to play one game I would inevitably ragequit within two minutes.

Further watching: There's a playthrough (with captioned commentary!) on my YouTube channel.

Super Mario 64

Nintendo 64
Apr 06 ~ 07

For the month of April I thought it'd be fun to replay all the 3D Mario platformers again, starting with my personal favourite. I finished the game in two 2-hour sessions with 70 stars.

What can I say? I absolutely love Super Mario 64! When I played it as a kid I had all manner of gripes - why can't I ride Yoshi? Where's the multi-player?! Why can't I use the D-Pad!?! And it has become almost fashionable to complain about the game now, if Arin on Game Grumps being a bit of a pissy shit about it was any hint... and yeah, the game has its faults. The camera is fiddly as hell, for starters - the default Lakitu option is the most awkward, and it took me years to even realise you could zoom-out with Mario view. (Seriously! I thought the game legitimately had an option to wedge the camera into the back of Mario's neck.)

The camera sucks, the controls are fiddly, and some of the star objectives are a bit needlessly obtuse, a little too thinking-outside-the-box. Both in regards to strange objectives and also-- a lot of stars are just about finding hot-spots! You stand somewhere in the level and you hear a sparkly noise and you're told to find four more of those spots with little to no indication where they are, and then a star appears and you're like "okay, thanks. Why?" They do encourage exploring every nook and cranny of the levels, but not in a terribly motivating manner. They're easily the duds of the game.

But Super Mario 64, though! What needs to be said? You're given a big castle with a bunch of worlds in rooms, you gotta collect all the stars in those worlds so you can reach Bowser and kick his ass and rescue Peach and each world has 6 stars or objectives to do. It's all very varied! You've got grasslands, fortresses, giant swimming pirate cove places - it's got lots of fun worlds, is what I'm saying!

It's most definitely not what one would have expected from Mario in 3D at the time, what with the shift from left-to-right romparoos to almost overwhelming nonlinearity, but it remains a stellar game that's quick to come to grips with. Perhaps more importantly, it's perhaps the most accessible of the 3D Mario games in terms of freedom of choice.

There are six stars in each level, and for the most part you can tackle them whenever you darn well please. Some are gated by which star you choose - Koopa The Quick and King Bob-Omb only show up on their respective stars - and some require a star to be cleared before the level alters (like Whomp's Fortress)... but so long as you know where to go and what to do, you're free to approach them however you like.

Heck, if you're only going for basic completion you can ignore stages entirely! I completely ignored Rainbow Castle because screw Rainbow Castle!! I got one star in Jolly Roger Bay and didn't look back because I'm still a big baby around that fuckin' eel, don't even get me started! King Bob-Omb, I didn't even bat an eye at him until I was 50 stars in.

The game has stacks of freedom, which is further emphasised by how you unlock levels quickly and in batches. Only 3 stars into the game and you have four levels at your disposal. After your first scrap with Bowser you've another four levels to explore, and it's not long until you've all fifteen stages unlocked. The only thing stopping you from getting every star in one fell swoop is the need to unlock the special caps... but even without them you've access to more than enough stars to reach the ending.

The game is superb and I just plain love it! It's all down to its fast-paced no-nonsense attitude. It can be surprisingly wordy at times (does every boss really need four paragraphs of gloating?), but there's no story sequences or mandatory diversions to slow you down; starting a new save file takes no time at all, and jumping into the game for even five minutes is enough to get you a new star.

Very fast-paced, very accessible... I've run out of positive words! It remains one of my favourite games to pick up and play, and I perhaps respect it more now than I did years ago because of that. Five minutes is all you need to dive in, pick up a star you missed and go on with your day.

Super Mario Sunshine

GameCube
Apr 8 ~ 11

I respect Super Mario Sunshine, but it's a game I'm eternally conflicted on. I first played a friend's copy years ago and was totally entranced by it, having stacks of fun just romping around and collecting the Blue Coins and Shines he'd missed. I loved it then, but loved it less so when I got it myself.

It's a good game??? But I can't say it's a good game without putting a lilt in my voice that says, well, I'm not mentioning something here.

It's still a 3D platformer with lots of large worlds, only 9 of them this time, and Mario's now packing the FLUDD. Nintendo must've been trying to bank on iconic backpacks after Luigi's Poltergust 3000, and the FLUDD's certainly a good follow-up, able to spray water and be used as a jetpack, speed booster and to super jump. It's very inventive! It's very interesting! It's a lot of fun and the game makes great use out of it, building missions around its practicalities, certainly not shoehorning in for the sake of variety. It's put to good use and it's a real neat tool.

That said, I remember being really objectionable to it years ago, and some folks never warmed up to it. I think there's something a little off-putting when an established versatile character suddenly has to rely on an accessory, because you prefer to think they can resolve it with their own skills? For instance, would you say a character's arsenal defines them to a degree? Samus is always sporting new armours and upgrade. Link is never short on swords and shields and other utensils. Mario's always had power-ups, but nothing has been as 'core' to his moveset as the FLUDD. I wonder if people were salty about that?

... I had a great big discussion on this stored up at one point and I've completely forgotten it. I'm disappointed with myself now.

Sunshine has a slightly more in-depth story than prior games, and it's a bullshit one. Mario and company go on vacation only for him to be framed for a crime he didn't commit by Shadow Mario!!!, forcing him to go about collecting the lost Shines to restore the island's power or some bollocks; meanwhile, Bowser Jr. reveals he was actually Shadow Mario and kidnaps Peach because he thinks she's his mom, and... that's kind of it!

For all the effort they put in, from the numerous rendered cutscenes, voice acting and sheer novelty of a Mario game having story sequences in the first place... the story amounts to nothing. Not to mention the game begins with twenty minutes of Mario going to court. Mario freaking Sunshine begins with Mario appearing before a judge - and being imprisoned! - for the heinous crime of slapping ink on things, and it's like, why did they bother?! I guess they needed some reason to pad out Charles Martinet's recording hours besides shouting "whoopee!" on end.

Not only is it an uncharacteristic shift in tone, it's a guaranteed killjoy. You think, oh, I'd like to start a fresh save file on Mario Sunshine! Hang on, I need to wait twenty minutes before the game actually begins! Stuff that!

Even after that, the early game is throwing cutscenes at you constantly, all of them devoid of worth and totally unskippable. I think that's the most frustrating part - they went to the effort of producing animated cutscenes for the Mario characters to speak and interact with each other, and you know what happens? They stand around flapping their gums. There's nothing in any of these cutscenes that couldn't have been replicated with text boxes and idle animations.

It doesn't develop into anything interesting. Peach gets kidnapped after ten Shines, sure, but the whole game is just community service, the only thing stopping you from chasing after her is a closed door. Bowser isn't even seen until the end of the game, and I don't think he even has any stake in the plot - he's having a bath, for god's sake! I guess the idea is that he's having a vacation and letting Bowser Jr. have all the fun while Mario gets a hard time...

... but it feels like a totally wasted opportunity. This is the first and possibly only game for Bowser to have intelligible English voice acting - wouldn't it have been fun if they took a leaf from the American cartoons and showed us what antics he was getting up to after every few Shines? Something, anything to give these cutscenes a bit of worth or humour! Anything to make them worth my time and not an active deterrent from ever revisiting the game!

Another big turn-off is how predetermined the level progression feels. You no longer unlock levels in bulk, and outside of possibly finding the secret challenge room Shine, you're forced to play the missions in order. The game hates the very idea of you doing things any other way than its very specific order.

You unlock new nozzles for the FLUDD after a certain number of stars, and you don't unlock Yoshi until you clear the fourth mission of Pinna Park; until something's unlocked on the hub, you can't use them in a stage... except for the missions where you can pick up a new nozzle, and it'll save your game and everything, but that's just a ruse - it means nothing until you fight Shadow Mario for it on the plaza.

You might think, oh, that means the game gives you the power-up when the mission actually demands it, right? ... well, no, because the last star of Ricco Harbour requires Yoshi, and you can run around the whole dang level trying to figure out what the hell you're meant to accomplish, until you talk to the one NPC at the starting point who tells you to bog off to Pinna Park and get Yoshi first. Never mind the fact that most NPCs offer only meaningless flavour text, so the possibility of one telling me I was wasting my time even being here was unexpected, to say the least.

... and I wonder, why does Yoshi need to be unlocked in that level specifically? Why does any of this stuff need to be unlocked separately from just finding them in levels? It's just another means of gating them off from the hub until you've made such and such amount of progress... but until I unlocked Yoshi, the game actually locked me off from getting the nozzles!

I cleared Yoshi's level approaching Shine 40 and returned to the hub to chase Shadow Mario around. I hatched Yoshi and it saved my progress. It then returned me to the hub to chase Shadow Mario again for the Speed Nozzle. I was immediately dumped to the hub yet again to chase him for the Rocket Nozzle, and I'm thinking for god's sake, WHY?! I already found these nozzles in the stages! Don't put me through this bloody tiresome routine again!

On one hand it's a novelty, having something action-orientated to do on the hub - it would've been neat to have a similar conflict occur in Peach's castle in SM64, outside of chasing that rabbit about. I just wish there was more to it than finding stuff I'd already found. I had hoped to avoid Pinna Park entirely because that level stinks, but this not only delayed me getting vital upgrades, but was also a foolish endeavour to begin with. More on that later.

Which brings me to another big complaint: the missions suck! The missions are awful! I don't like the missions.

The beginning of the game is a chore to wade through on repeats - you have twenty to thirty minutes of cutscenes, a lot of hanging around and not doing much, and the first task you're given is fight the same enemy four times. You fight the goopy Piranha Plants on the runway, to unlock the first level, in the first level, and later on to unlock the third level. And they just show up again whenever. There's no change between any of these fights! The first couple of times could qualify as target practise, sure, but after that it's just repetitive and boring and any number of negative descriptors.

On that note, fuck Gooper Blooper. Son of a bitch shows up three times and not once does he change his tactics.

A lot of the missions just didn't feel that engaging; a good number of them felt more like trials of patience, to be honest. I forgot that the Chuckster mission is actually essential to completing the game! I made one attempt on that stage before checking a video walkthrough because screw that mission. At least the pachinko level (which I somehow aced on my first try?!) is totally optional. There was an answer from Miyamoto in Official Nintendo Magazine where he did state the game was tough, but hoped players would persevere and overcome the challenges. On one hand it's appreciated that they weren't shy from offering a solid challenge... but the shitty dick in me wants to say that I'm not having fun here. Some of these missions are just boring, simple as that.

Going back to doing things in the right order, you don't unlock the final level until you get 7 stars in each world - i.e. clear the "chase Shadow Mario!" missions. I was under the assumption it behaved like 64 and Galaxy where you just hit a certain number of Shines, but nope, it's only hauling ass after Shadow Mario that counts. Before I knew that, I treated each of the worlds as a trial of patience: I'd ask myself, how many Shines until I say "fuck this world" and never go back to it again?

Ricco Harbor ends at star 8 for me, as that Yoshi puzzle is tedious bullshit. Gelato Beach came close with the red coins in the coral reef, but hits the mark with the obnoxious watermelon festival. And with Serena Beach it was the second star! That level boasts a massive three-story hotel, complete with lobby, two floors of apartments, bathrooms, a swimming pool, and even a ventilation system. This area is explored in only one mission. Besides that and a few token blue coins, it is completely pointless. That stage is a farce in what inane bullshit they'll make you to go through all to get past one bozo standing in a doorway.

It kinda felt like they built the levels first and then thought, okay, what can we fill these with? And called upon a different, crapper team to perform that task. Some levels just feel a bit wasted, especially when one Shine is always dedicated to finding the entrance to a secret zone with a FLUDD-less platforming challenge - some levels feel starved for good missions, so why weren't those relegated to the hub and a new mission put in its place?

See, I think Super Mario Sunshine is a game where you have to prioritise your enjoyment. I was playing these games with the intent of finishing them quickly - not necessarily in a rush, just making a beeline for the end completion state - and I found if you're just running from mission to mission, doing this and that to progress, it just gets tiresome very quickly. It's busy work. I confess I struggled to comprehend this - you're telling me you need the Shines to complete the game, but that's not where the joy of the game is found?

The real fun lies in simply running around and exploring: using the FLUDD to see what nooks and crannies you can find in this map and what secrets they may hide. There's a dozen or so blue coins hidden in each stage, and for every ten you get a Shine; admittedly that can be busywork when you're desperate seeking all 120 Shines and there's no record of how many blue coins are left, but it's also a great incentive to simply explore each level and see the sights. It counts slowly towards your progress, and also allows you to take your time sightseeing, figuring out where your FLUDD can get you to.

The levels are beautiful. Noki Bay in particular is fantastic looking, a real sight. Fun to look at and fun to run around. Ricco Harbor's a great playground - a bit tricky to navigate, but it's full of nifty nooks and moving platforms! There's some really nice environments here, and using the FLUDD to ski-boost around them and stuff like that, there's real fun and thrills to be had with it!

But if you're playing the game running from mission to mission, it just feels like work. Maybe it's the fact you have to do them in order; maybe if it was just picking and choosing at your leisure that might be good, but... I don't know. There's something very anti-fun about the way the game is structured.

Just take the game at your own pace. Do some exploring, see what you can find. Have a blast. Make a holiday of it if you can; take your time and see the sights, only doing stuff when you feel ready for it. I guess in that regard it's a little like Animal Crossing? Take it easy, you'll have a good time, but if you're rushing around then the game makes you faceplant or get stung by bees or something. Applying that logic to a Mario game feels counter-intuitive, but I'm not Nintendo so what do I know?

I couldn't help but get the feeling the game was designed to suck up a kid's summer with useless endeavours. Okay, the same can be applied to all video games, but with its summer sights and the blue coin hunting and the boring-ass missions and trial-and-error secret areas... it feels less designed for your amusement and more to sap a kid's time until they have to go back to school. Of course, some kids wouldn't bother going outside anyway. It's saying something that I first experienced the game when a good pal brought his copy with us when we went to a country house on holiday. While I hogged the GameCube, he marathoned Chobits. We were never destined to be outdoorsmen.

Also, yeah, the tropical vibe gets boring real fast. Beautiful looking! Fantastic looking! But holy crap do you get tired of that summer theme. It's nothing but beaches!

Super Mario Sunshine... there were good times to be had, but I didn't have a good time with it overall. It's got bad parts that are going to happen no matter what, and it's up to you how many you want to experience in one sitting. I finished the game in four days with sessions never under two hours, and yeah, perhaps powering through it like a crazy person is not how you're meant to be playing it. It's got merit, but holy crap has it got a lot to complain about as well.

Super Mario Galaxy

Nintendo Wii
Apr 13 ~ 19

And onto Galaxy. This game was fun! It's probably the third or fourth time I've played it, but I always find myself struggling for words when talking about it. It's very enjoyable and entertaining, going back to basics in terms of abilities and enemies, but also adding a whole help of innovation to the mix: the power-ups, the planetoids, how very "3D" the worlds feel.

It's bursting with whimsy. Thank god the level themes are more than just beaches this time! There's space and space junk and weird looping platforms wrapped around black holes - and of course very traditional themes like ice lands and grass plains and ghost houses. It's a pleasant mix of new and old, and whatever old elements make returns feel smartly designed to the new method of gameplay, like turning the Fire Flowers into puzzle components.

I think everyone's said it already - Galaxy's a solid game. It's exciting and interesting and brings new stuff to the 3D platformer field. It's really good.

I think I'm stuck on the subject of level progression, though. Galaxy's a funny one. The Observatory hub is split into rooms with 3 galaxies in each, 3 stars in each world, and sometimes a small one-off galaxy or two to boot. You get enough stars to unlock the boss level, and beating that will open up the next room, and that's your formula. And then there's guys you can feed Starbits to unlock new galaxies, and there's galaxies within galaxies and secret stars and stuff like that just to make things complicated.

It mixes things up and adds a bit of variety, but the game does start off slow. You've got this drawn-out introduction where you chase after rabbits, then Rosalina explains everything, and you're pretty much stuck playing the whole first room in order because you need to beat the boss to unlock the next batch of levels.

As you progress your options do branch out, as boss stages don't require that many stars to unlock so you're free to pick and choose which galaxies you enter. The game starts extremely bottle-necked, but after a while it really blossoms out into a huge variety of options. At times I visited rooms and I thought, hang on, were there really this many galaxies I skipped over?

Unfortunately, the illusion of choice kind of slips away later on as you realise how many stages are just rehashes of old challenges. Beat this stage under a time limit, beat this boss with one hit-point... it's a nice way of maximising the challenge from the game's assets, but also a real bummer knowing those last few stars are going to be lousy levels.

Super Mario Galaxy's a game I'd like to play more of, as it's a very good game. Can't state it enough! Once I'm in, I'm having a good time. I think little foibles do turn me off from playing it, though, like the lack of choice at the start of a new game or even how I can't be arsed to set up the Wii Remote and Nunchuk every time. 64 and Sunshine are excellent for quick pick-up-and-play sessions; the Blue Coins in the latter seem tailor-made for accomplishing something in even five minutes of playtime.

The Wii, meanwhile, feels like a chore every time you start it. Welp, gotta dig out the remote! Has it got healthy batteries? The Nunchuk's not grimy, is it? Where's a good place to seat myself? One new problem I encountered was my living room is too big for the sensor bar's signal to reach my sofa, so I had to pop it on a box in the middle of the room so it'd be within range. It wasn't so bad this time because I knew I'd be playing it in two-hour chunks, but it's a problem I wouldn't have with a plain old gamepad.

Even the Observatory feels counterintuitive. It's a lovely area, but it's incredibly fussy; you forget how long you have to trek from the centre to the top just to go to one level... and it might not be the one you wanted. It's a really interesting little hub, it really plays into the cosmic whimsical feel the game captures so well, but boy is it a nuisance. The acrobatics involved are a wee bit excessive!

It's a good game, though, trust me! There's better written praise out there, read that instead!

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Nintendo Wii
Apr 23 ~ 28

Yeah, it's very much an expansion pack. There's a few new power-ups, new worlds, a new hub and an overhauled map system in the vein of New Super Mario Bros., with less need to backflip and teleport around to reach certain levels. Oh, and Yoshi's in there, too!

It's the same thing that's a little bit new, a little bit different. If you liked the first one you'll like this. You've heard it all already. It remains a mighty solid game, and it's the first time Nintendo have ever been punctual with a 3D sequel. It was, what, three years after the first one? Some punk on a forum made a thread ages ago arguing Nintendo made us wait too long in that time, but three years for an expansion pack is fair play in my book. Certainly better than waiting seven years for Sunshine! I'd sooner have taken an expansion pack to 64.

Regarding level progression, this was my first time really putting effort into the game so I hadn't the repeated observation to critique this subject that's only interesting to a total of maybe three people, but it felt like it had more options than the last game. It didn't feel quite as railroaded, but the variety of options didn't blossom out in the same way either.

I felt like I was starved for good missions towards the end as I was approaching 70 stars, especially because a good dozen or so stars are locked off until after you defeat the final boss, which was a rotten move. All I had to go on for the last few were lousy stages or comet rehashes, like beat this annoying boss with 1HP. Get lost, pal.

Another quirk I noticed about the Galaxy games -- 64 and Sunshine despite their faults, they really enveloped you in these worlds. Bob-Omb Battlefield, Ricco Harbour, they were obstacle courses that encouraged you to explore and run around and find their hidden secrets - 64 had quirks like the warp points and hidden cannons, Sunshine had Blue Coins to facilitate it - but they also felt like worlds. Because of the NPCs or 'backstory' (such as it is) attached to them, they came across as tangible locations that characters would mingle around and explore when Mario's not around. They meant as much to the game as the characters, almost!

Galaxy has quite big worlds. There are traditional worlds like the beach stages, and then there are some that are just obstacles mashed together in space. They're all pretty fun, but they're only 3 stars long, 5 at maximum, and it'll straight-up pop up a message saying "this galaxy is complete" when it's done... so why bother going back there again? Galaxy 2 does introduce things like time trials and coin challenges to give you incentive to revisit and compete with the other save files' records...

But I never felt encouraged to bask in the worlds. Gusty Gardens and Good Egg Galaxy were memorable more for their music (the music in the Galaxy games is pretty freakin' awesome, did I mention that?) than, well, being neat worlds. Even the ones that feel like worlds - the snow worlds and beaches - they're still just voids floating in space above black holes. I guess it's whimsical, but it's also real dang depressing. Mario 64's stages were just paintings, but you look at the skybox and see islands in the distance and think, well, at least there's a world out there.

There was this old SM64 glitch site that had a poem about all the secrets and things you could never see, and I need to dig it up because I keep coming back to it, it's so strange and nostalgic. And Sunshine, as much grief as I give it for its boring themed levels, it's really nifty how its all interconnected, it's all part of Delfino Island. Galaxy, well, it's a friggin' universe, it's a network of multiple galaxies... it'd be a tough job to make it feel 'worldly', I guess! Just a dumb point of interest.

Anyway Super Mario Galaxy 2's a fun game and it's good to have a 3D Yoshi who doesn't disintegrate in water so that makes it worth checking out.

Super Mario Pandemonium

PC (fangame)
May 07

Did I include fangames on my list? Holy crap I did. I was on a small fangame kick in May, mostly to record them for YouTube, and partly because The Elk was still giving me grief. This took a whole day to play through and record.

Super Mario Pandemonium is a notoriously hard game. It's got one-hit kills. There's these stupid speed-up segments where Mario moves uncontrollably fast and you have to jump over obstacles you can barely see in a fraction of a second. There's long, long levels with no checkpoints! And of course, it a game that uses Ninja's custom-made Paper Mario sprite, so your only attack is to hammer dudes; forget about stomping them.

Its other claim to fame is its bizarre story. What is it again? Mario and Luigi are captured by Bowser before the game even begins, and escape from his airship but get separated in freefall. Mario runs into Sonic the Hedgehog and is told that Bowser's made an army of clones of the two brothers, so Mario heads to the clone factory to shut it down.

Then it turns that Bowser killed Luigi, Sonic is working with Bowser, and there were no clones, it was all a big ruse to get Mario where he wanted. And then Sonic runs into a spiked wall and kills himself, Mario escapes and that's the end of the game.

It's a total nonsense story, full of pointless plot twists, immature swearing and jokes that would've been fit right in with sprite comic communities of 2001. As frustrating as the game is, you want to keep going just to see what stupidity is coming up next! The sequel only upped the ante with Bowser working for evil Mario lookalike Revol, and Mario on the run from Sonic's friends, but it never went beyond a demo. An unfinished masterpiece, for sure.

The game itself, though? Not great! The platforming's very standard for that era of MFGG fangames (ie. not great), and the gimmick stages are wretched roadblocks. It's a novelty, that's the best I can say about these things! I find myself thinking that a lot about these fangames - I'm not playing them for pleasure, more just... I don't know? For the pleasure of recording them for YouTube and spending 10 hours writing commentary...? I lead a sad life.

Escape Goat

Xbox 360
May 16 ~ 17

An Xbox Live Indie title I thought was long overdue to complete. You play as a goat escaping a dungeon (natch), it's a very nifty single-screen puzzle platformer where you have to figure out how to open the exit and how to get there: moving blocks, pushing switches, activating or deactivating mechanics of the room. You also have a mouse friend who can travel through small passages to hit buttons you can't reach, and you can find a magic hat that allows the two of you to swap places.

It builds a lot out of these simple mechanics, and it makes for a uniquely-entertaining puzzle game! It's tempting to say it's like a good old Super Nintendo or Game Boy game, but I'd dare say there's no point making comparisons to nostalgia; it's just a terrific little game. It's 10 worlds long with 6 stages in each, each world focusing on different mechanics; you could argue it's a bit short (I want more!), but it offers a hearty number of challenges with all its premises and puzzle options.

I later got the game on Steam which includes a bonus campaign of stupendously tough stages, though I didn't get too far in it. Sometime, surely!

Lost Planet 3

PlayStation 3
May 18 ~ 20

I got this for 4 in a PSN sale. The week before I'd been speaking to a pal and had expressed interest in this, and he told me not to play it, it ditches everything that's unique and good about the series. I was disappointed to hear that but hardly surprised. But, well... it's cheap! Let's see how bad it can possibly be!

Well, boy howdy, is this a western game. The franchise is by Capcom, their take on a third-person shooter but with Japanese sensibilities. Lost Planet is a bit of a strange series; I love it and all, but it's tough to recommend because the first game's boring and the second game's great but has dodgy levels that aren't really fun to replay and it's built entirely around multi-player but there's no multi-player audience anymore so you're left with a husk of a game!

The third one doesn't expand on the engine of the prior games, but is instead just a very Western third-person shooter. It's set as a prequel where you're one of the first guys colonising EDN III, putting a lot more emphasis on the story; how he learns the secret of the big bad organisation he's working for, that they're not the first colonisers and that the ones before them were screwed over by said organisation. Unravelling the mystery and forming alliances and making enemies and that sort of thing.

The story is... actually good! The other Lost Planet games either rooted in anime bollocks or faceless characters who mean nothing. The first one is waist-deep in anime rubbish, you can't care a whit about these guys. The second one has fantastic elements - a changing focus spread across all these factions, the scuffles and interactions between them before they all unite to stop the great threat - but there's no actual characters amidst any of it.

Lost Planet 3 is a lot more focused on the people. They can be a bit stock, some of them feeling like they're trying so hard to rip off the cast from Aliens, but they're relatively likeable. The main character is this guy from Earth who had to leave his wife and baby son, so every few missions there's a video postcard between the two, giving each other updates on their lives, asking what the kid's up to. It's actually really sweet! The movie scenes are animated really well, full of great dialogue, facial expressions and acting in general. They're stellar little treats, and there are a couple of lines that are legitimately sweet, heartwarming or funny. That one compliment is more than I can say towards any of the stories in the other games!

The story and interaction entertained me so much I would've bought it had it just been a direct-to-DVD sorta deal. Though the story is very disparate from the rest of the series-- yeah, it's a prequel, so it's retroactively setting up the groundwork for the later adventures, but it's otherwise its own little thing that just happens to have ties to continuity. I can't help but wonder if there was no game attached to it, would it stand on its own? Would it have been as profitable versus being developed as a fully-fledged $60 game? Complications, complications.

What I'm getting around to saying is every time the story scenes ended and I was dumped back to gameplay, I would groan. I don't wanna do this. There's no mechs anymore. The Lost Planet series' big draw is that there's lots of mechs to stomp around in! You've traditional hominid mechs with arms and guns and jets! There's these giant drilling machines, there's flying machines -- all anime bullshit, but it's really fun anime bullshit!

In this you only have one mech, and it's a supposedly all-purpose Rig. It can clobber things with its arms, it drills for minerals, it serves as a set-down point to grapple to places from... but it's just so tedious to use! It's slow... and boring... and it can't really do anything! Using it for darn near anything is just boring.

There are fights where you battle Akrid in your Rig, and it's the most unsatisfying thing in existence. It's a big beastie! It's bigger than most of the mechs in the other games, but it's too much of a big lumbering asshole to facilitate doing anything interesting! A lot of the time you're literally swiping flies with its giant crane arm, or battling rolling beetle monsters in a manner almost akin to Punch-Out!!. Not even good Punch-Out!!, but unlicensed, knock-off GBA Punch-Out!!. We're talkin' Wade Hixton's Counter Punch level of quality.

What I'm getting at is fighting in the Rig sucks.

If the Rig gets too damaged then you're ejected and have to wait for it to repair itself. The other games treated the mechs as power-ups to your mobility and firepower, and you could sacrifice your energy to repair it if damaged, but if it was destroyed, it was gone for good. To be frank, ejecting from the Rig in this game only serves to remind you how much faster and in-control you feel while on foot, but you inevitably need the Rig to clear some barrier or something, so you just gotta hang about. It's pretty boring!

The rest of the game is just eh, a very typical third-person shooter... and it wasn't very fun! It's hard to say it was even challenging. Everything just took too long. Every boss fight felt like it ran on for several minutes too long, without fail. There's one boss where I thought, it'd be great if it ended right here. It's run its course of attacks, we've traded tons of damage. It'd be very climatic and satisfying. But then it ran on for several more minutes and the moment was lost.

(i played the game for a bit on easy and now the boss fights ended before there was any tension. there's no happy medium!)

You can buy upgrades for your guns and your rig, but none of them are satisfying. I bought upgrades for the shotgun and pistol to increase their damage, but the difference was negligible. There was maybe one upgrade that felt like it made a hearty difference, but it was the exception - none of them felt good. I was hoping it would behave like other games and have all your stats laid out for you - this one will increase your reloading speed, your damage, your range. Haha, no. You're offered two upgrades per gun and that's that. I was begging for a damage upgrade for the machine gun, but it would offer crap like faster reload speeds and refined spread - I'm on my knees, pal, give me something stronger! I don't like any of these guns!

Some of the enemies are kinda cool, at least. There's these weird tiger things with multiple tails that are rather rad, but a lot of the time you're just fighting the same old enemies again. They're Akrid, so they're all strange and alien looking, though they felt shoehorned into the roles of typical third-person shooter opposition. The tiger things are there to leap over cover and melee you; there are walking bulbs that explode on proximity; monsters that shoot mortars, basically.

And there's a lot of corridor shooting, actually! I think you find a couple of old ruined ships that have been used as nesting sites by Akrid, and it's nothing but unashamed cover-shooting only with aliens filling the shoes of what typical military opponents would be doing. It just... takes the whimsy away a bit, doesn't it? Especially when it's not until the end of the game that you actually fight any humans. It feels a bit more appropriate then - it's not any better, mind you, but it feels more thematically suited for the gameplay.

I confess I rushed through the game, ploughed it on Normal difficulty in 3 days. I tried a couple of side-missions but they took too long and weren't very satisfying and just meant I had more dialogue to sit through. The dialogue's alright, but it's a distraction when the game's not good. In hindsight, perhaps the side-missions would've offered better rewards and upgrades had I stuck with them, but would I rather prolong my experience to make it marginally enjoyable, or forego that to end it sooner? Quite a pickle.

I respect that the game did something differently. It's about time Lost Planet had a story worth giving a damn about. But hooee! This gameplay is bad!

I think that's the most frustrating thing. Lost Planet 2 is a fantastic game. It's positively loaded with content! There's tons of weapons, character customization, loads of mechs, stacks of enemies, lots of terrain! But it's a game built around co-op, so you're not getting the full experience playing it alone. And there's lots of modes in multi-player (so I'm told! nobody's ever online! you can't even play with bots, there's a separate mode for that which only has five maps! GIVE ME MORE MAPS!!) that allegedly have totally unique enemies and mechs exclusive to some modes... but I've never seen them, and I am goddamned bitter because when am I ever gonna get a chance to see those?

Lost Planet 2 is good when you're into it, but it's difficult to find a mission I can happily replay and say, that's a very satisfying level. I kinda wish there was - a bit like Resident Evil 5 - a challenge mode that just gave you the best bits. No need for story or context, just an all-purpose mission where you put in these enemy types and these vehicles and let me play around.

All that waffling amounts to: Lost Planet 3 is a humongous step back. It's a very basic game. It has six weapons and two grenade types, and there were several dozen of each in the last game! Lost Planet 2 isn't just dripping in guns and mechs and weaponry, but it's got lots of options for approaching combat. You had a grappling hook to get you to high places. Stages featured huge arenas where you dealt with massive monsters, you and your party scurrying about trying to find the best vantage point or hiding spot. It was a very versatile game, and it felt very 3D.

This by comparison feels very ground-bound. There's no jumping. The map is mostly just tunnels and paths, where you can only use your grappling hook from predetermined spots, and-- ugh!! Doesn't that frustrate you? The game sets its sights so much lower and arguably more realistically versus the feature-packed predecessor, but it ends up accomplishing so little I wonder, why even bother?

4 was enough. I'm happy I played the game and saw what it was like, as a Lost Planet sucker who wants to try and support the series. But, ultimately, this is definitely not the direction I want it to go. Kudos for trying to take it someplace new, but it's not what I want. Try harder! Gimme the old game! Gimme an expansion pack!

Bomberman

Nintendo Wii
May

I bought this a year ago and completed a world or two, so I just picked up where I left off. I finished off my save file and then finished it again because it makes you-- well, let's get to that in a bit.

It's pretty typical Bomberman. It may be 3D, but it's no different from the old 2D games; you walk around grid-based maps, find the exit, maybe blow up some enemies to make getting there easier. It's a Bomberman game! What more can I say? Do you want to know how many stages and bosses there are? Wait for the Shrine Place coverage, why don't ya!

It has a few Wii-centric gimmicks like hazards or obstacles that require a bit of waggling or pushing the Wii Remote down like a lever to, you guessed it, push a lever. You can buy upgrades between levels, albeit very very very basic upgrades - forget finding power-ups in the stages, you have to buy your bomb stock, your fire power, your Bomb Kick and Line Bomb and whatnot! That said, there's a fair few stages with upgrades hidden behind secret passages, so there's incentive to go revisiting stages.

After you complete the game you're given a key that unlocks doors you've seen throughout the game, opening up another dozen or so levels and granting access to power-ups you couldn't access before. I'm not sure what the reasoning is behind this. It pads out the play time, for sure, but it also means your first go-around is a bit dry; you don't get access to all the power-ups (the Penetration Bomb is locked away until near the end of the second playthrough!) and the difficulty curve takes a long time to make itself known. The second playthrough gives you access to an alternate path through the worlds, but why wasn't that just accessible from the start? It's not like the levels you're replaying and bosses you're fighting again are any different.

It's pretty plain, but as far as Bomberman games go it's fair enough. There's a couple of cute ideas in there, and I suppose being the last ever Bomberman game to be released on physical media (and only in Japan!) makes me give it a bit more respect. Only a demo of the multi-player mode saw release overseas on WiiWare. I need to spend time with it as I hear it's got some unique features, including 8-player support and a jetpack item?!

I think I'm the sort of person who wishes the series got a bit more ambitious in its later life, but Hudson were in such financial straits that doing the same old thing was the only thing they kept them alive. As it stands it's fair enough; it's an acceptable single-player/multi-player package and if you want more of the same then gosh darn, aren't you in luck!

8Bit Boy

PC (Steam)
Jun

A very standard 2D platformer taking stacks of cues from Mario, if the title didn't clue you in - you bash blocks, get coins, stomp enemies, get fireball-throwing power-ups and find the exit. It does have a vibe closer to old European Amiga games, though, with its greater emphasis on exploration and item collecting. The levels can be deceptively huge at times; there might be a straight path to the exit, but you'll be missing on secret exits, warp points and other odds and ends that the game demands you get if you want to see the true ending.

It aims to be old-fashioned, with a variety of difficulty levels that strip away quality-of-life features like saving progress between levels; it also saves the number of lives you have, so on the difficulty I chose, that just meant when I played the game without checkpoints, having to reload after death because I'd no lives to spare. Maybe it means more when I'm playing hardcore, but the first go-around was so blah I don't think I'm in a rush.

It's perfectly average. It's better than your basic Clickteam game, I'll give it that, and it goes for dirt cheap during Steam sales, though it all depends on how desperate you are for another 2D platformer to play. It's just not terribly inspiring or inventive, which is probably the point.

One strange note about the game: it's got this strange, almost melancholy vibe the whole way through. The music is never peppy or upbeat, but instead a downtone drone. The level themes are stock video game affair, but lack the life and colour you'd expect from the genre.

Even the intro features you, the player, expressing how goddamned depressed you are that 2D games don't exist anymore! You're then zapped into a video game (a 2D one, natch. no comedic irony here) and you gotta save the day! And in the ending all the feathers you retrieved from the bosses are meant to represent virtues like creativity, and passion and retro-gaming bollocks, and that's why you could save the world...!

It's... cute. The game was one guy's personal passion project so they can do whatever the heck they want, but it just felt stupidly self-congratulatory.

Crash Twinsanity

PlayStation 2
Jun 15 ~ 18

I'd started this four years ago when I first bought the game, getting only 40% in. This takes Crash in a new direction - it drops the five-stage-per-hub and turns it into a quote-unquote "open world" game. Everything's kinda connected now, as levels just seamlessly segue into each other.

For instance, the first world is a basic platformer/tutorial stage, before fighting Cortex's robot at the end. The robot explodes after its defeat, sending Crash and Cortex rolling down the crater it leaves like a marble down a track, avoiding obstacles. Following that, you're carrying Cortex and have to throw him around to shoot at switches or enemies, before seamlessly transforming into an ascent through a vertical shaft before the lava gets you. And that's just the intro! Whew!

It's a fantastic transformation for Crash into PS2-level 3D. The character designs are suitably eccentric and kooky, but most importantly charming! They've shown real effort turning these low-poly chumps into models that feel at home in 3D. There's a much more involved story this time with a number of amusing story scenes, though Lex Lang easily steals the show with his performance of Cortex. The worlds look really good - the first couple, at least - and it feels like a lot of passion went into the game. The variety of gameplay gimmicks like rolling into a ball, carrying and throwing Cortex, all feel innovative and a logical extension of the game's ambitions, y'know?

But on the other hand, woof, was this game rushed! And glitchy! It feels darn near half-finished at times! Even something as simple as having Crash blow up after rolling into a nitro crate, he vaporises a full second later, meaning he just suddenly vanishes and his eyeballs and shoes rain from the sky without prompt. It ends up making the affair feel more grotesque than it should be.

These quirks and glitches are why I couldn't complete the game four years ago. I put quotation marks around "open world" because it gives the illusion of being open, but you're still expected to go down this path at this point in time; going anywhere else just tends to get you lost.

The second world, Cortex's lab, requires you to take a long route through a cave to find your way to the second floor of the facility... but there's nothing stopping you from falling down again with no way of getting up, meaning you have to retread the path and replay those entire segments, unskippable cutscenes and all! That's exactly what happened to me, and it's a bit of a buzzkill, to put it lightly.

There are elements of the game of the game that are really terrific, that feel like a natural evolution of Crash Bandicoot gameplay; it can be a wildly different beast from the old, for sure, but it feels like a genuine progression. There are things that are fussy, like the strangely-placed checkpoints and the jumping being a little funny. And then there are bits that are really, really crap. Stealth segments! For the love of god, there are stealth segments where if an enemy sees you, you're killed instantly, no matter how many shields you've got. It's really fuckin' boring!

You can also play as Cortex who runs around with a gun and has to reload it by smashing crates. It's rather boring. There's a new character, Nina Cortex, who's Cortex's daughter/niece/robot creation/it's very vague, who's got this grappling hook arm that's used to clamber up buildings. It's very boring. Cortex, as an accessory to Crash, is entertaining because it offers new gameplay gimmicks and means of solving problems, but on his own he's simply got nothing going for him. Nina's abilities are an interesting idea, but the execution is slow and cumbersome, and she only appears shortly before the end of the game - she's got maybe 3 stages to play in, tops.

The game simply feels rushed, especially after a certain point. When my last playthrough ended at Cortex's lab I thought I was only just beginning the game, but that's the halfway point! There's a meagre four worlds you visit in the game; Crash's island and Cortex's lab, which are both long areas - then you visit Cortex's boarding school, which is only drawn-out by its four stealth segments in a row (holy crap kill me now), and ending on Twinsanity Island which... isn't all that long, as far as I recall? The only thing holding me back was I found it hard to tell where to go. I took a wrong turn and had to repeat an entire sequence I'd already done.

It's one of those things - on one hand some of the design looks really top-notch and solid, and some of it just looks like... whoops! Didn't have time! Crash Mania features lots of words from the actual developers, showing off stacks of ideas for levels and bits and bobs they wanted to put in but didn't have the time for, and even before I'd played the game it was a really interesting read... but I didn't realise until now just how much didn't make it into the game! When they talked about the amount of unused content I thought, wow, this game must be packed... but it's really not, no.

I completed this in 3 days and my finished file's running time said 4 hours. There was more time than that because of repeats and deaths and game overs, but it remains a very short game! There are crystals in each world you can get to unlock bonuses like concept art and little videos... but there's no more game to unlock.

It's rather disappointing. The other Crash games (or at least, I know the third one did it) would have extra content available, be it secret stages within worlds or extra levels unlocked by clearing time trials or collecting gems. Little gestures that gave you incentive to revisit the game, explore and master it.

Crash Twinsanity, because of its quote-unquote "open world", you can't really revisit stages. Well, you can, but it's not like the others where you just access a stage from the hub and warp right to it. You're left bumbling around the hubs trying to find the starting point of each area, and because they all seamlessly segue into each other, you've gotta do the whole shindig and not just the bit you want, because it all seams and segues together. Blegh.

It's kind of a disheartening game to think about, because I really enjoyed my time with it, but there's also a lot of crap to wade through. It needed more time in the oven. I'd say it's worth checking out because it's quite short. It was a nice effort, though it's a pity they didn't get a second chance. Poor Crash, I forget how badly he got it!

Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing

PC (Steam)
Jun 18 ~ 27

I'd exhausted the sequel but was still looking for more of the same to tide me over, so I picked this up for cheap in a Steam sale. The game ran like complete ass on my regular PC, mind you, and even after dialling it down to the lowest settings it would actually pause for two seconds certain parts of each tracks so it could load the next part. That was a momentum killer if nothing else! It ran much better once I got a proper gaming PC... but I still completed the game in its entirety before that, I was just so eager for new content to play.

I've already described Transformed twice already, and this is basically the same game without the boats and planes! It's SEGA's take on Mario Kart with a drop of OutRun-style drifting, less outrageous weapons and a real obscure character roster. The sequel's roster felt a bit more familiar since its characters' had seen rereleases at the very least, but here you've got Opa-Opa, the Bonanza Bros, and... Zobio and Zobikio from some Japan-exclusive House of the Dead spinoff? I think? It's a really freakin' obscure cast and I kinda love it in that regard!

You don't unlock things through a World Tour mode, but instead (in a feature totally ganked from OutRun Coast 2 Coast which i played later in the year) you have SEGA Miles, which are accumulated from racing well and can be spent to unlock characters, courses or even music. It's... admittedly a way of padding out the game, as the more you play the harder it is to rake in the big bucks, but it does allow you to pick and choose what you unlock, and when.

Transformed's World Tour restricted you by what were challenges available; you gotta get two worlds in before you can unlock Pudding, and even further if you want to unlock Gilius. In this, so long as you're thrifty, you can save up to get any character you want as soon as you can afford it. I like it for that aspect, but then I realise I've been playing the game for a month and I'm still trying to unlock all the music! And even things like having to buy courses for the freeplay mode - whose bright idea was that? I'm trying to play a party game here, man!

This one has a Mission Mode in place of World Tour, which is basically the same thing - avoid the traffic, win a race as this character, collect all the rings, yadda yadda. It feels more varied and less formulaic than World Tour, though they're both great modes. One thing I notice is that every mission has colourful description stating what you're doing and why you're doing it - it doesn't matter if Shadow's doing a time trial or Eggman's lost his eggs, it provides some sort of context for it. It's totally pointless and does nothing but gives someone at Sumo Digital a chance to flex their creative writing muscles, but I kinda love it! It's just one of several details that give the game a touch more personality.

That is my main takeaway, that this game has a bit more personality than its sequel. Like, the All-Star moves aren't just invincibility states with graphics mods, they have little cutscenes when you pull them off showing the transition - the Bonanza Bros hop into their blimp, Akira leaps out of the car and punches it for a speed boost - and each character's victory animation is essentially its own cutscene, with swooping cameras and whatnot.

Transformed has a lot more content and is definitely a longer-lasting game, but it felt like the budget left no room for these little touches. There's something to respect about short dynamic cutscenes in the middle of a racing game.

For a stopgap measure to fill the gap Transformed left after I aced it, and for 2.50, not a bad job! The PC port is missing the online multi-player and DLC, unfortunately, meaning I've less incentive to revisit this than the sequel, but if you just want more of the same (minus the boats, the planes, the crossover characters...), this delivers. Though if you're going to go for just one, Transformed is definitely more ambitious. The World Tour mode is more involving and fun to replay, and the courses feel so much grander and expansive. Still, I'm glad I played it.

Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex

Xbox
Jun 19 ~ 22

After Twinsanity I reinstalled this and figured I'd get it out of the way. I'd bought it ages ago and started it twice before, but lost my enthusiasm pretty quickly.

For a supposedly next-gen Crash, it remains much the same as ever - five stages per world, five worlds in total, a variety of play styles and vehicles, bosses mocking you during level intros. The usual. I can understand if folks perhaps felt a little conned at the time - it's on whole new hardware and it's basically a Crash 3 expansion pack! - but I'd dare say that's appealing in itself. The Crash design is tough to top, y'know? It offers you freedom of choice from the get-go, you don't get lost wandering around open landscapes or bashing your head against one tough spot. It may be old-school, but it's perfectly functional and compelling.

The problem is, there's a lot of really crappy levels! The game is bonkers about switching things up from just Crash running and jumping - in the first two worlds alone I was forced into seven different vehicles, from auto-scrolling jeeps to totally worthless planes to ungodly janky submarines. Some of them are passable (the hamster ball stages are an amusing change of pace), but it all boils down to... well, I didn't ask for these! I'd look at the stage previews, count the number of vehicle stages and make the tough decision of whether it was better to suffer through them now or leave them 'til last.

Like, who on earth asked for three underwater stages in a single world?! They're slow and they're awful and you can barely see ahead of you so you keep running into mines, and there's not enough Aku Aku shields to keep you alive and the submarine is the worst goddamned upgrade on the planet and the list goes on. Fuck swimming. Somebody blow up the ocean already.

Coco is also playable in a few levels, but she has no worthwhile differences from her brother. She kicks instead of spins, but she's kind of exactly the same except slower and not as interesting. Her gimmick in Crash 3 at least made her unique, getting the tiger-riding stages all to herself. Here, I imagine she's present to appease fans of the character, but it doesn't really amount to anything. If the two characters were completely interchangeable then that could've been a nice gesture, but as it is I was left thinking, why did they bother?

It's not a bad game when it delivers what you want. The actual proper Crash gameplay is decent enough, but a lot of the game is just spent waiting for the good stuff. It's kind of few and far between! The vehicles are almost unquestionably dreck, and it leaves you starved for good platforming segments.

And all the bosses are kind of crap? Every battle is against the new rival character Crunch Bandicoot, given an appropriately-themed power-up by one of the evil elemental masks - one covers him in rocks, one sets him on fire, and they're all rather boring. For all the posturing of him as Crash's rival, you never actually fight him mano-el-mano. The closest you get is during the final fight... where all Crunch does is step on switches to trigger traps. It's a bit bullshit.

The bosses from the older games - Tiny, Dingodile, N.Tropy - only show up as mid-stage hazards. Mid-stage hazards! They're positioned around the hamster ball stages, spraying fire or shooting projectiles or what have you, and they'll make no reaction to Crash appearing or colliding with them. It's a little wretched, isn't it? You've got these colourful characters that fans have gotten attached to over the years - they made toys of these guys! - and here they are as bloody obstacles.

I finished the game without all the crystals and gubbins, meaning I got a rather nonexistent ending. You're expected to collect all the secret gems and clear all the time trials, which I did attempt before getting sick of it and inputting a cheat to access the secret stages.

They're okay.

Ultimately, I wonder if that's the best way to play the game. It's an okay game at best if you want a little more Crash in your life, but I feel players would be a lot happier just inputting the "WOMBAT" cheat and picking and choosing what levels to play, rather than suffering through trash.

Haven: Call of the King

PlayStation 2
Jun 29 ~ Jul 6

I bought this as part of a lot years ago and have started it anew at least three times - it's one of those games you start up, play to a certain obnoxious segment, wonder why you bothered sticking with it for this long, and stop. It's been unfinished for so long, I kinda just wanted to see what more there was left to it!

The developers defined the game as a "free-forming" game, meaning it's more than just a 3D platformer - it's got driving, it's got puzzles, it's got flying, it's got flying in space, it's got shooting segments... it's not just one thing, it's a bit of everything. If nothing else, I respect the ambition and execution of it. It's mighty impressive for a PS2 game, one made in 2002, no less.

The game's technical prowess is to be commended. The art is all high quality, with charming little environments and personality-filled characters and machines - I do find their style a bit ugly, personally, but it looks good for what it is. There's no also next to no loading times; it might stutter when a cutscene loads and it'll be forced to pause when you load your save file, but otherwise? Everything flows smoothly. This is especially impressive when segueing between locations or when you hop into a spaceship and-- er, I'm getting ahead of myself.

There's a lot of gameplay in a sense, and I was blown away by how big the game was. There's lots of areas, there's lots of objectives, and just when I thought, "have I already reached the final boss?", it turns out I'm only a third of the way into the game - there's still lots more to do. (I think playing Crash Twinsanity the month before had skewed my impressions a little)

The game is big, and it gets surprisingly so in the last third of the game when you begin planet-hopping for some reason. You hop into a spaceship and shoot into space, fight some baddies, and then approach your destination in real-time, entering its atmosphere and seeing all the islands appearing from behind the mist. It's really incredible to see it all happen without stopping to load at any point. The planets aren't that big - you can see the detail loading in as you get closer - and the locations in that chunk of the game are admittedly a bit bland. I was reading that the game uses fractals to create these worlds and their dynamic loading, and it's an impressive effect that does result in huge landscapes, but admittedly very boring ones.

Like, the first half of the game I'd say is very detailed. There's lots of really nice little villages and so on; there's next to nothing to actually do in them, mind you, but the detail is appreciated, a little attempt at building a convincing world. And then it seems, when you're not in an actual mission level, you're just kinda left in these sparse, undetailed environments, waiting for a vehicle to show up and make the trek easier. There's a lot of vehicles in the last third, and you could argue it increases the scope, really showcasing the monster-sized environments you're in... but it also suggests they didn't have much to fill them with, you know?

The gameplay boasts a lot of different modes; 3D platforming is arguably the central part since that's when you're taking direct control of Haven, but there's also turret segments, flying your spaceship, driving a quad car, rolling around in a hamster ball, driving a speedboat, and all sorts of things. There's a lot of variety and they're impressive ways of mixing up the core gameplay, but they're not terribly fun.

I talk about the space stuff a lot because the last third of the game features a straight freaking hour of flying to planet to planet in a row, with nothing to spice it up in between. You hop in your ship, escape the atmosphere, are tasked with shooting down enemies repeatedly to build up enough "warp energy" to proceed to the next wave, and repeat until you can finally reach your destination. Sometimes it wastes your time further by throwing a shield generator in your path, forcing you to blast baddies until you get a rocket power-up to penetrate its defences. It gets a bit tiresome.

Driving the car around is nifty, if a bit fiddly. Driving the boat around is cool, but all you're doing with it is racing or collecting keys and cogs. Even the 3D platforming segments feature very little platforming, and boil down to basic key hunts. The beginning of the game has you exploring Haven's village which is under enemy reign, I think. There's guards wandering around that'll attack you on proximity, and villagers meandering about who never react to any of this. It's a really nice village, full of quaint little houses and a variety of people, but there's nothing you can do with any of it.

You collect your keys to let you move on to the next area, and that's it. That's the entire 3D platform formula. If you're not in a mission area where you're hopping and jumping through hoops to get to the next zone, then you're just running around a hub area trying to collect objects to unlock the next area. It's never involving, and it feels like someone made a formula to design these areas and stuck it on repeat.

How does the beginning of the game go?
● You're in the hub area, collecting objects before going through a basic platforming segment,
● Then you land in another hub area where you're collecting objects,
● Then I think it's a turret segment - the turret segments are universally awful by the way, especially the one in the boat, my god.
● After that you're in another area where you fly around in a jetpack for a bit putting out fires with your giant water cannon, and it's not very fun because it controls like ass and there's too many fires and not enough water and you run out of jet fuel and it takes too long.
● You fart about in a speedboat...
● ... before hitting another hub...
● which then pits you in another turret segment that's the absolute pits. It's got an overheat gauge, so you can't even fire too fast, and it doesn't tell you that if you tap the button you can actually recharge while firing. Ugh. It's awful.

And that's kinda the problem, there's a lot of stuff going on, but there's never a distraction from "do the mission!" to make you sit down and appreciate these environments or anything. Like, you're in these lovely little hub areas, little old seaside towns and the villages and so on, but there's nothing to do. You run around and collect the objects to open the next area, and that's it. There's villagers walking around but you can't interact with them. There's buildings, but you can't enter them or do anything with them.

I'll admit I didn't pay attention to the story on this playthrough. The cutscenes are totally unskippable and I've sat through them three times already, so I had the volume down and listened to a podcast instead. It made the game go by a lot better. The cutscenes are of decent quality with great animation and expressions, but they're often quite long and placed right after checkpoints, so I kinda grew to tune them out. It doesn't help that they're full of silly accents that are borderline racist, all voiced by members of Traveller's Tales and Midway - including Brian Silva, the voice of Bubsy! I hear people say the cutscenes are well worth checking out, and maybe I will sometime, but not this playthrough.

That's the problem: on a technical level it's impressive, especially for an early PS2 game, and it's a perfectly functional game. There are no game-breaking glitches, and outside of the boat segment with its dodgy overheat gauge, there's nothing that really makes you think "oh, screw this", you know? It's impressive... but it's not impressive, if you get me. The 3D platforming is alright, but I'm pretty sure Jak & Daxter and other big names did that better. The space stuff is alright, but I'd wager Rogue Squadron offers a meatier experience. The car stuff is alright, but, well, the list goes on.

And a lot of the game overall just feels like padding. I said it before, but the constant shooting of crap in space, all the collecting stuff in the town - there are numerous instances where it gives you a vehicle, but prevents you from using it or taking it anywhere until you've gone hunting for a bunch of cogs or feathers first. A lot of the stuff just feels like it serves no purpose but to stretch out the game.

That reminds me of one of the most obnoxious mission in the game!! I can't even remember where it is, but you talk to these lizard people who are stoners or something with accents that are borderline racist/stereotypical/I dunno what else, and they want you to gather these eggs and put them in some sort of hatching pools? So you have to hop in turrets and protect them from egg-snatching bugs until daytime where you then pick them up in a jet and dump them into the pools--

-- yeah, that's another thing! A day-night system! It's completely unnecessary and has no bearing on anything outside of this mission, but the time of day changes as you play, and there's a dynamic weather system that also serves no purpose but to make Haven pull up his hood whenever it rains. They're impressive little extras that make for great talking points but have no bloody bearing on gameplay!

Anyway, you're shooting bugs all night and shuffling eggs around all day, and it takes about five to seven minutes for the time of day to change, so it takes a while. If you do it perfectly you might be able to do it in one night, but if you don't, you can expect to be guarding these eggs for half an hour or more. New eggs are airdropped in if any are taken away, so you have no option but to hatch the required amount.

Once they're hatched you take them aboard a train and - you guessed it! - have to man a turret to stop the bugs from stealing the carriages. At this point it doesn't matter how many they take, so long as you arrive at their destination with at least one, so now I'm bitter and angry - you put me through hell to safeguard these things, and now it doesn't care when they die?!

But I digress.

I feel like reading about the game's development is sometimes more interesting than playing it. There's quotes from Jon Burton, a higher-up at Traveller's Tales and the director, design and writer behind Haven, saying how it was a very personal project for him. Ambitious statements like how he wanted these worlds to be vast and expansive and fold out before you, and how as a Christian he wrote the story to have a number of parallels to the crucifixion of Christ and whatnot. The game apparently took six years to make, and I've nothing but respect for the accomplishments they made in developing the game; like I said, it's a very functional and technically impressive product. I'm just thinking, boy freakin' howdy, do I wish I had something fun to do in between hunting for keys!

It's wonderfully modelled and the game controls well, but I just wish there was something more fun about it. Even little things like the double-jump not being as satisfying as it should weigh against the experience. The "Mag-Ball", Haven's attack weapon, is more finicky than useful because it's effectively a yo-yo, with a narrow tube-like hitbox compared to the wide swing of a sword. The cars and boats and ships and turrets, they're all impressive in their own way, usually because they span so large an area you think "shouldn't there have been a loading screen a couple of miles back?" But it just keeps going. It's impressive for a PS2.

I just sincerely wish I was getting something more entertaining than this... and that's the best way of summing the game up. You look at its reception on Wikipedia and it rather deservedly gets 7s and 10s for its impressive technical feats. It's aged pretty well, too, and it remains perfectly functional and accessible for a PS2 game from 2002. It's just a bit of a bore!

It was satisfying to see it through to the end, and it's definitely a game the developers put a lot of heart and soul into. It just didn't do much for me, though some folk hold it in high regard. There's plenty to commend it for; it's not excessively long, but it's a very packed campaign compared to some games you see nowadays, and I didn't even do 100%. Apparently there were special "Rune Towers" that contained extra challenges if I wanted to see the secret ending, and I might give them a bash sometime.

I confess I felt like I was missing the game after I had completed it. I finished it in seven days, and it was a week of straining patience and ranking determination over enjoyment, but I ended up looking at it on the shelf rather wistfully afterwards. It deserved better, y'know?

BlazeRush

PC (Steam)
Jul 1 ~ 13

Picked this up in the Steam summer sale. A fantastic top-down racer, very much in the vein of Micro Machines, with a lot more emphasis on items, weapons and massive explosions! Admittedly the only Micro Machines I'm intimately familiar with is V3, and in that game items were more like bonuses you had to go out of your way to find. BlazeRush says "nah, stuff that" and just drops speed-ups, rocket launchers and machine guns all over the track.

The game has three modes: a race mode and a "king of the hill" mode (stay in first place for longest), but the real star of the show is the survival mode, where all players are being chased by an enormous steamroller; surviving longer gets you more points, so you're encouraged to screw over your opponents by any means possible. Blast them off the track, shove them into walls, just park in front of them if you have to!

One of my favourite aspects is how easy to pick-up-and-play it is, and its simple control scheme: you've a button for speed items, a button for weapon items, and you move with the control stick. No steering or anything, you just point where you want to go. It sounds incredibly dumb to even mention it, but there's not many top-down racers that use that style of control! It's beautifully smooth and allows you to pull off some asshole manoeuvres, like flying off a ramp, spinning in mid-air and firing a sonic cannon to blast the guy behind you before landing wheels-forward.

That's only if you're playing with a gamepad, unfortunately - the keyboard controls use traditional 'steering', and it's incredibly un-fun to work with. The game simply requires too fine a control to make steering work; you want to point where you want to go, not angle yourself. So long as you have an Xbox 360 controller it shouldn't be an issue, though.

If there's one other gripe, it's that the AI is far too predictable. The game is meant to be played with other people, but campaign stages or even multi-player matches with bots can get insufferable when you're behind AI opponents all driving in a line, all doing the same predictable attacks... and there's no way to skip to the next round when only AI players are alive. Still, that's small buttons compared to how fun the game is otherwise.

It's a tremendously fun game, a true successor to Micro Machines with the same asshole multi-player spirit. There's over a dozen vehicles, a decently-sized campaign mode, and I can usually find a multi-player match going on during the weekend. Highly recommended!

Little Racers: Street

PC (Steam)
Jul 01 ~ 13

I'd still been playing this on and off since last year. It remains a very leisurely top-down racer where you just take whatever result comes your way, though I had come to notice more of the depth and mechanics as I played.

Like, it's probably the stupidest, most overdue observation in existence, but some cars excel in different fields than others! One car I had boasted decent speed but absolutely killer cornering, so where every other car was crashing into a big pile-up at that hairpin bend, this car could sail across it effortlessly. Another car has an amazing boost that'd give it an easy lead on straightaways, but was squandered if on courses with too many turns. There's a strategy to picking a track that you know one of your cars will have the necessary talents for... and if there's something you car's just not suited for, then either start hunting for a new one or try rearranging their stats.

The game is pretty rough at the start, as the E Class races are almost unbearably slow and your winnings are comically tiny; not to mention a percentage is subtracted from your prize money for all damage you take, up to a maximum of 80%. It's not so bad late in the game when even the fraction of the prize money from a Class B race could fund buying several cheap cars or an upgrade spending spree... but early on, you feel very starved for progress.

The Challenges are where the progress really lies: performing certain accomplishments like winning 5 times with a certain car or taking 1st place twenty times in a Class will give you a reward, either a fat stack of cash or a free car. It's at the bottom of the menu so you might be inclined to ignore it, but it'll offer you a better headstart into the game than raw racing ever will.

I first went into the game thinking "eyyy, Micro Machines!" as it looks like a similarly simple game, but Little Racers: Street has a lot more depth... perhaps more than you actually want. It doesn't play softball at all, and although you can adjust the difficulty to be easier or harder, doing so also tweaks the winnings you get. It's a very grindy game, as no matter what you do you're going to be running endless races to either complete this challenge or amass the cash to buy a new car that'll then be outdated by the time you reach the next Class.

There is a level of skill involved, which is why it was so great to figure out the specialities of certain cars, but so much of it boils down to stats, too. You aren't going to win if the opponents are so much faster than you, and the only way to overcome that is... win more races to make more money. It's not like Mario Kart where every racer has a fair shot at winning, you're going to be left in the dust if you don't pay up.

Which is especially frustrating on the multi-player front. I sent my brother a copy and tried a few matches, but he was working with the absolute beginner cars with zero upgrades and was struggling to pull ahead of the crowd. Even with a few tiny upgrades to my weakest cars, I had to hold myself back from easily lapping him and all the other racers.

Besides downgrading my cars, there was nothing I could do to help us get on an equal level, outside of waiting for him to sink a half-dozen hours into the game and hope he's upgraded by then. We could do that, or we could just play something that offers gratification a little more instantly.

One of my biggest complaints is how the game carves tracks of the map by blocking off the roads with bright fluorescent blue barriers. Yes, it means there's absolutely no way you're going to miss that that's where you can't go... but it means where you can go is sometimes less obvious, obscured by the dark visuals or the skyscrapers blocking the screen. I imagine the coding involved would've been a hassle, but having the track be underlit would've been a great help; as is, I'm constantly darting my eyes from the race to the mini-map to double-check I'm not going to crash into a wall I can't see off-screen.

Oh, and sometimes the barriers aren't flush with the geometry so scraping along them will suddenly sending you bouncing back several feet, which is a superb way of instantly losing a race. That's great.

I considered the game complete after I cleared the challenges for winning 20 races and 15 in 1st place in Class A.

Little Racers: Street is a competent little game for what it does, and it's good to have around just to kill a bit of time whenever necessary. There's a lot of questionable stuff about its design, and I'll confess there were plenty of times I wondered if I was actually having fun or just desperate for the sense of achievement from beating it. I enjoyed my time with it nonetheless, though I am glad to have it out of the way.

Tomb Raider Legend

Xbox 360
Jul 11 ~ 21

I bought this in a 4-games-for-10 deal years ago, got 10 minutes in, found a water segment and thought, nope! That fuckin' eel from Mario 64 still has me terrified of water in 3D games, and the previous Tomb Raiders certainly fed my fear of low-poly monstrosities. I mean, the original one has a giant fuckin' tyrannosaurus come out of nowhere without warning, not to mention sharks and yetis and other shit I didn't ask for!

I was keen to actually experience the game, so I finally looked up a wiki with an enemy list, and the only water-based enemy was a boss, so that was a relief. They give you ample warning for bosses nowadays.

I'm honestly not that familiar with the original Tomb Raider games. My brother played the second one, I had a pal who was absolutely nuts about them, and I've watched Kim Justice's retrospective on the series (it's a good watch!), but otherwise I'm clueless. They're intriguing-looking titles, but they are kind of relics by now (har har).

I remember seeing this for the first time and thinking, wow! Tomb Raider's finally reached the modern times! It's got proper real-looking environments, no longer just block-based stuff! It's got Lara with actual curves now, not just triangles playing pretend! A more involved story! Lip flaps to the voice acting! And all that carry-on.

A lot of the game doesn't look that impressive eight years after its release.

You play it and think, wow, this is modern game design. Lara's got these two sidekicks back at home base who monitor her actions, meaning there's lots of banter to fill dead air. The levels do get explored and climbed about, but the path through them is very linear. There's some bullshit story about a friend she left behind but has turned evil after using a magical artefact -- I don't freakin' care. It's a modern game so it's got to have cutscenes, but I found it hard to give a damn.

The gameplay is your typical exploration crap. Combat's a total joke; you just hop around and shoot until the locked-on target dies. I had no reason to use any weapon but the pistol.

Exploring the locations isn't too bad, it can be kind of interesting if a bit finicky. It's hard to tell what it wants you to do at times. Lara now has a grappling hook that she can use to pull objects or swing across gaps, but it comes across as very... I don't know, specific? Its uses are few and far between - it's not like Bionic Commando where you can swing anywhere and pull anything, it use is often reserved for these objects and these objects alone. There were so many instances where I was totally stumped, wandering around aimlessly only to finally remember, "oh, the grapple!"

The game does looks good; it's impressive for an early Xbox 360 game. There's a lot of environments, and if you want you can go back and collect extras... but it's one of those games I literally cannot imagine going back to unless I had nothing better to do, or was playing for someone else to watch. It's alright, it's just perfectly uneventful. I remember back in the day going, wow, it's about time Tomb Raider played catch-up and entered the modern day, but it's kind of lost its edge, hasn't it?

To go on a tangent (WHO'S GONNA STOP ME), it's the sort of thing I wonder... the originals were very blocky, very polygonal, very grid-based, but it had a sort of suspension of disbelief. You got these blocky-ass worlds, like Mayan temples made out of giant cuboids and low-res textures, but you believed, yes, I am playing a buxom woman jumping around an ancient, unseen temple and solving puzzles no civilisation has been aware of for thousands of years.

Meanwhile, playing through Legends was just like, eh. It's a modern video game. I feel its time has come and gone. It was an exciting new venture on its release, but it doesn't mean much to me and I wonder if it means much to anyone else.

Something that bugged the heck out of me: It's disconcerting that every single woman in the game has Lara's physique. I thought that's what made her unique - she's the buxom one in this universe! - but everyone else has her exact same proportions and it's a bit terrifying to be honest.

LEGO Marvel Super Heroes

PC (Steam)
Jul 23 ~ Sep 04

I picked this up in a cheapo Steam sale because my dad heard you could play as Galactus, and there was no way he could miss out on that action.

The last LEGO game I played was LEGO Star Wars on PS2, and I slogged through the first episode before realising I simply wasn't having fun with it. A lot of my time was spent wandering around muttering "what am I meant to do?", with literal head scratching. I think that's why it's taken me so long to adapt to the LEGO games. You look at all the licenses they have - Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Jurassic World, Marvel Superheroes, DC Superheroes - they're all action franchises!

... but the LEGO games aren't action games. For all intents and purposes, they're puzzle games. You're given a select few characters, each with their own special abilities - Iron Man's missiles can break silver blocks, Captain America's shield can reflect lasers and protect him from fire, Mr. Fantastic can transform into context-appropriate tools and use their powers in conjunction to figure out what to do and how to do it.

Which is... it's interesting! The main levels are basically setpieces: explore this area, try and find an exit or create a a pathway so you can get to the next screen, with a bit of basic combat thrown in to let you unwind. If you zoomed out enough they'd almost look like a LucasArts point-and-click adventure; use Spidey's webs to pull this grate open so Wolverine can activate this claw-switch, and so forth.

It's enjoyable enough if perhaps a bit fiddly because there's not enough prompts to tell you "here's where you're going wrong, dumbass". It'll flash reminders when appropriate to tell you "fire attacks can melt golden blocks!", but my quibble is I can't even see the golden blocks on-screen! Are they even relevant to the mission at hand, or only there to hide bonus collectibles? And trying to keep track of what powers you've got on hand and what colour of brick they're relevant to... like I said, it's a bit fiddly!

And then there's instances where I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out how to get Hulk across this gap. I built an object but none of my powers could interact with it. What am I supposed to-- oh. I walk into it. Because it's a rotating lever. Don't I feel dumb. It is a children's game and there's only so many ways you can interact with things, so when you find something you just do everything you can with it, from your abilities to your characters to even just walking or jumping into it. It just took me a while to get used to it!

The story is cute, fluff Marvel guff that's an excuse for every villain partnership and hero team-up they can think of, and an excuse for my dad to drop infodumps on every obscure character who showed up. I wasn't blown away by the voice acting everyone sounds so samey! Nick Fury, Loki and Thor are good soundalikes for their screen actors, and Fred Tatasciore does deliver a suitably Hulky-sounding Hulk, but everyone else is just generic white hero man voice. It's also a bummer to no longer have the pantomime of LEGO Star Wars, and in its place a lot of standin' and talkin'.

There's a dozen main missions that are about twenty to thirty minutes each (though longer for me because I was bad at them), but perhaps where I enjoyed the game most was the overworld. You've got the whole of New York City and its surroundings to explore, finally putting the heroes' powers to use in an open sandbox. Climbing about as Spider-Woman or soaring through the sky as a micro-sized Galactus shooting lasers at cars is stupidly fun in itself, and that's before you get to the oodles of tiny li'l quests to do around the map. Help this little old lady across the street while muggers swarm to attack her! Run this obstacle course in a speedboat! Go fetch Drax's saxophone! Get photos of landmarks for J. Jonah Jameson!

On one hand it can be seen as real bottom of the barrel crap, mindless busywork to hide away golden bricks from you, but I personally found it entertaining, and it makes the most of the overworld's nooks and crannies. It's a refreshing step away from the scripted story missions, and when scouring for golden bricks gets too monotonous, I can have Arnim Zola drive over everything in a monster truck.

Steam sales are always bananas and for 3.50 I most definitely cannot argue. There's a stonkingly huge amount of content, from characters to vehicles to missions, not to mention collectibles and objectives, and I kept finding new stuff with every other session would you believe how long I'd played before I discovered the create-a-character function?! Whether or not it's your cup of tea is another matter, it definitely took me a long time to warm up to it, but it's good to finally see the appeal of LEGO games.

Krusty's Super Funhouse

Super Nintendo
Jul 25 ~ Aug 3

I'd tried to start this a few times in the past couple of years, but I'd only get a certain distance in before giving up. I was determined to see it through to the end this time, even if it meant lots of save states and fast-forwarding and hooing and hawing.

Krusty the Clown's Super Funhouse is suffering a rat infestation, so you run around, picking up and using blocks to help lead them to the exit, where the likes of Homer and Corporal Punishment will help dispose of them in various colourful ways.

As a game it's actually really really solid! It's very fun and very engaging, dishing out some really challenging puzzles and introducing new mechanics with every world. At first you're dealing with only basic blocks that can be stacked to make walls or stairs, but then you're getting fans that blow rats in one direction; pipes that transport rats from one end to the other; and cage blocks that trap rats inside and can be transported elsewhere and released with a kick.

They craft some really fantastic, truly mind-bending puzzles out of these block types, and working out how to get the rats from point A to point B across increasingly complex maps is tough stuff, but truly satisfying to figure out. It's a really commendable game design. It's just a pity there's a lot of bullshitting about.

For instance, there's a damage system. Krusty isn't just some invincible avatar, he can get clobbered by giant snakes and flying pigs and laser-toting aliens - not to mention falling damage! - and if you lose all your health, you restart the stage. You do get tools that can defeat these baddies like pies and bouncing marbles, though they only come in limited amounts and the marbles are also vital for breaking destructible blocks, so there's a certain level of strategy to it: do you spend the whole level avoiding and evading these baddies, or do you waste valuable resources stopping them from harassing you?

At times it just becomes too much of a hassle, especially obnoxious hazards like the water droplets and laser turrets that you have no means of disabling. You're here to escort rats, not to contend with egg-laying birds! It doesn't help that if you lose all your lives, you have to restart the entire world. There's six worlds in the game with over a dozen levels in each, and some stages feature puzzles that can be irreversibly botched; some are so malicious they place pits that Krusty can't get out of, forcing you to exit at the cost of a life.

The game has a password system, but there's no way to record your progress in the middle of a world; your only option is to finish it in one sitting. This isn't so bad in the first world which can take around twenty to thirty minutes to complete, but I foolishly tried to complete one world per evening session. This slowly grew from half an hour to one hour to two hours, until I was spending whole sessions on just one fiendishly difficult level by the fifth world.

There were a lot of failed attempts, and I was so glad to have save states because although it is a puzzle platformer, some of the sequences feature almost twitch-fast levels of reaction. You've got your rats bottled up on this tiny platform... now you gotta release 'em and build that staircase! Quick, get that block! Pick up the pace, that one's gonna-- argh! And if they fall, screw you, man! You've no choice but to chase after them, make sure they don't backtrack even further, and repeat the whole process. Save states are a godsend, and I almost wish there was an option to slow the rats down.

On one hand it makes for a really outstanding game, one that requires an equal mix of problem-solving and lightning fast reflexes, but it also requires a hell of a lot of patience for trial and error. Some levels aren't considered complete until you either find and complete the hidden timed bonus stage, or destroy a trigger block. If you miss them, you need to complete the stage again and find them this time! While often in simple, innocuous stages to begin with, later on they're placed inside stages that already require a huge amount of setup just to get the rats where you want them - now you need to go hunting for hidden passages, too!

It's bad enough when you're desperate to hold onto your pies or marbles, as the trigger blocks look no different from the blocks that may replace your items so you may have seen it and intentionally ignored it. And the bonus stages? You have to collect all the objects under a devilishly short time limit, and you only get one attempt; fail it, and you have to exit the stage and try again. Thank goodness for save states!

And then there are just some frustrating levels, often long and complex and covered in enemies. One short but tough stage required you to lead rats into a pipe suspended above a pipe - making a staircase wouldn't work, as the only blocks I had were cage blocks that would trap them inside. The gap was too far to place the cage in front of the pipe and open it. There's a fan nearby, maybe that'll blow them directly into the pipe? No, they just collide with it and fall into the pit.

The real answer was to place the caged rats diagonally above it and kick them, dropping them into the pipe's suction. Ahhh. Totally simple once you know it! It's real oldschool puzzle game design; you're wracking your brains over something when the answer is actually so simple, yet you still feel tremendous satisfaction making it work. Good job, game designers!

Krusty's Super Funhouse is a game I'd really recommend! I couldn't imagine ever playing it on actual hardware, though - the trial and error with no chance of fixing your mistakes, the inability to take a break between levels. It doesn't care how many levels you completed, you're going to be re-completing those levels over and over again! ... which I guess could be a good thing, as it'd really hammer home the mechanics into your noggin.

It may have boggled me for years, but I'm glad I played it and now I kinda wish there was an expansion pack. The opening credits say "based off a game by Fox Williams," an Amiga game called Rat Trap, and I was almost holding out for it to feature totally different levels... but that's just a polite way of saying it's the same game undergone a graphics swap. Still, it may have stressed me out like nobody's business, but I'm disappointed it's over now, as I had an unexpected blast with it.

That's another subject: The Simpsons license itself. I don't really know what to make of it. The intro suggests you're in some kind of TV studio, but the supposed funhouse is full of these gonzo-bananas Amiga-land worlds; one looks like an ordinary house environment, another is full of alien-looking terrain like something from Turrican (complete with Euro-shaded laser turrets), another is like an expansive back garden... all under one roof.

There are posters around for the place for Kent Brockman News, Sideshow Bob's poetry readings, various Krusty products. All the enemies have a suitably Simpsons-esque appearance, with big goggle eyes and overbites, and characters from the show man the traps at the end of each stage. But it's all window dressing. If you changed a few graphics and removed a couple of soundbytes, you'd have no clue this was a Simpsons game at all.

There's something strangely unsettling about it all. The characters look fine in-game, albeit with squat, chubby proportions that look rather cute, but in the intro Krusty is a starry-eyed nightmare. The levels are large and spacious with plenty of stuff to find, but they almost get lonely at times; the only things out there are strange monsters out to kill Krusty, and characters from the show who never budge from their traps.

Even a totally innocuous place like the hub features this seemingly jaunty carnival song until it starts playing a SNES approximation of opera singing, and it's really unnerving for some reason. It freaked us out when we were kids, and we'd try and rush to the next world before it started playing. You can turn the music off with the shoulder buttons... but that only makes the isolation feel worse.

It really doesn't help that the way the characters exterminate rats get increasingly creepier. Sure, squashing them and zapping them isn't bad. I can live with that. Then Sideshow Mel sticks a tube up their ass and inflates them until they pop, and Corporal Punishment launches them off a spring into his waiting maw, swallowing them whole. We've got inflation, we've got vore - it's a good thing it stop there, otherwise we'd need to start ticking off a fetish checklist.

It always intrigues me when a one-and-done game is suddenly picked up for the most unfitting of licenses. Rat Trap's a great game, but I imagine tacking the Simpsons license on would help it sell. But then you think of Sleepwalker being converted into Eek! The Cat, and Strider Returns being born from some dodgy Euro Commodore game, it comes across like the licenses to these games were cheap - what better way to make a quick buck off of them?

Sonic the Hedgehog

SEGA Mega Drive
Jul 25

I was in the middle of playing Krusty's Super Fun House and watching playthroughs of three different Sonic games (at least!), so I figured I'd take it easy and spend an evening with the original again.

Watching the playthroughs, I couldn't help but pay attention to how the games were designed: what 'toolset' each level made use of and how those obstacles changed how you approached the level. Green Hill Zone is emblematic of what people see as the "open-ended" gameplay in classic Sonic - you can rush straight through the level, or you can take your time and suss out secrets; all the obstacles are there to demonstrate "this is when fast is good, this is when slow is good."

Marble Zone is very slow, very blocky, all about taking your time or else you'll fall and lose progress; Labyrinth Zone tips this on your head and urges you to rush for fear of drowning. Spring Yard alternates between hurtling yourself skyward using massive half pipes, and crawling through cramped passages full of danger and timed challenges. Starlight Zone is all about using your speed against you; having fans that'll blow you back or off-courses, deadly dead-end drops, and enemies that are impervious to your rolling attacks. And so on!

It's still a tough game for me to say why it works. I mean, I enjoy it! One of my favourite things of the Mega Drive Sonic games is the pinball physics, the thrill of just hurtling yourself down a straight or off a ramp and seeing where it takes you. But then the game puts a stop to that for two whole zones that don't really take advantage of Sonic's unique features. It's easy to say why Mario's fun, but Sonic's something hard to define, and I almost wonder if it's less the game itself and just an attachment to these silly animal characters. Still, good to play it again! It's a fun little game.

Die Hard: Vendetta

GameCube
Aug 6 ~ 15

I had two highlights for this game queued up for ONM Remembered with the plan to simply commentate, "I'm a Die Hard nerd, and here's my idea of what a Die Hard game should be like"... but then I figured, it's a GameCube game. I've got a GameCube. I've got a USB reader It probably goes for dirt cheap. Why not try it out and see what it's like...?

Before I got my GameCube this was on my must-have list, alongside those early Batman games that I ended up never batting an eye at, despite being unreasonably hyped for them at one point. In the case of Vendetta. I'm a little disappointed I never played it all those years ago, as I'd love to have known what my reaction would've been to its design choices. The only other first-person shooter we had at that time was Turok Evolution, and it was hardly a bastion of good design either.

Die Hard: Vendetta is a goddamned relic. Even in 2002, five years after Goldeneye on N64, you can almost pinpoint all the little cues it ganks from it, though not without good reason; if you're going to plunder stuff, plunder from the trend-setter!

I tried to follow the story at one point, but the game kind of got in the way for me. John's daughter Lucy is a cop now and she's present at an art museum when it's robbed of priceless works that have been donated by Piet Gruber, Hans' son, and both McClanes bet he's up to something sneaky. There's some horsing around where Piet claims to be innocent, before revealing he's teamed up with some ex-Hollywood actor/fitness instructor who's now a mercenary...? I don't even freakin' know.

I could not follow the storyline. All the beats of an action movie are there: they see a recognisable bad guy, what's he planning? They investigate, oh, it's actually a different bad guy, but then oh no, it really was him, and then it twists and turns and inevitably leads to snooping around warehouses.

... but I honestly couldn't tell you what the plot was by the end of the game. There's a missile involved at the end of the game, and I only learnt this by accidentally skipping one cutscene (the only one i skipped!), where the first thing out of John's mouth afterward is exclaiming "Gruber's got a fucking missile!" Naturally I was like, whoa, whoa, hang on! I had to replay that level just to see what I missed. Not much, apparently!

It's a crock, let's put it like that. There might be an half-decent story in there (by Die Hard standards, anyway), but the game itself denied me from getting too engaged in it.

It's a first-person shooter where the developers touted in interviews how they wanted to create a very interactive world, something that felt alive and held consequences to your actions. Those choices feel really evident in the early parts of the game, and those parts are really really good!

The first stage in the art museum is a bit of a dud, but the next two in Hollywood Boulevard and a Chinese theatre really play to the game's strengths. The second stage has you investigating some small petty crimes, but along the way you stumble across a bunch of other crimes, some relevant, some not - just things that John happens to encounter while on the beat. You learn more of the story from solving them - these punks are stealing materials relevant to this bigger crime, which is funding this bigger crime.

The game's big gimmick is the seamless toggling of action and stealth, as easy as pressing the B Button. Stealth holsters your weapon and halves your speed but makes you totally silent, allowing you to grab guys from behind to take them hostage; this can be used to get information out of them, force their comrades to surrender (or use one as a human shield when they call your bluff, welp) and to arrest them.

It's a very nifty feature, and the second stage makes great use of it. Although it's just a walled-in street, there are lots of characters to speak to and it feels very alive. Some of the petty crimes have no relevance to your objective, but you're free to take them down however you wish, going by the book or blowing them away. Talking to people with your gun drawn or holstered will get different reactions. It's totally vapid stuff and of no real consequence, but at that early stage it does a lot for your immersion. You wanna be thorough with police procedure, even though the civilians are literal props waiting to be interacted with. You wanna be a good cop!

The second part of the stage has scenarios you can approach from a variety of entrances. There's a gang member hiding out in a record store, and entering from the front will have the owner engage you as a customer, trying to clue you in by recommending the really good gangster rap underneath the counter; take too long and the baddie just jumps out and opens fire. But if you enter from the rear entrance you can eavesdrop on the two, the gangster urging the store owner to do him a solid and not squeal to the cops. At this early stage in the game, it does wonders for your immersion.

The systems shown off are really cool and neato, but the toggling from action to stealth can perhaps be a little too literal. You open a door while in stealth mode, nobody will ever notice. You open the door in action mode, and although there's no visual or audible difference, everyone in the vicinity will know you're coming. You can actually stand behind someone in stealth mode, switch to action mode and remain completely motionless, and they'll suddenly know you're there after a second or two. It's a bit cheap, but oh well. It was still technically early days of console FPS games, right?

That's ultimately a problem throughout the campaign - there's very little to clue you in on what to do or what you can do. There's an optional tutorial that's nothing but twenty to thirty minutes of playing with every weapon in the game (including sniper rifles and grenades which only show up in two levels, tops?) and showing off Hero Time (a gauge that slows enemies to a crawl and plays Ode To Joy, which is hilarious), before finally telling you important things like taking hostages or being sneaky.

Its priorities are in a funny spot, as you cannot complete Hollywood Boulevard until you know to take capture someone from behind, or are aware just how invisible stealth mode makes you... and it'll only tell you that if you prove your marksmanship with every firearm under the sun.

For all the variety of options in Hollywood Boulevard, it also demonstrates that doing things the wrong way might get you an instant game over. Did any one of those punks in the jewellery store see you, even the one in the changing room? They kill the hostages and it's an instant game over. There's a lot of trial and error in the game, and ultimately, that's kind of what kills it.

I say the game takes cues from Goldeneye, but Vendetta actually introduces checkpoints! Though they're more a formality because the game has to load the next chunk of each stage. They're better than restarting the entire level, but they still feel very spartan, especially when the early stages are chock full of scripted events and routines, and all the ways you can interfere with them. Half the fun is approaching the same situation and seeing what's a more efficient way of going about it.

But when you're retrying and retrying and retrying stages over and over and over... and over again...! Yeah, you get a bit fuckin' sick of it! What begins as a surprisingly immersive experience quickly devolves into sighing, okay, what event flags do I need to hit before I can proceed?

I was stumped on the second part of Hollywood Boulevard for ages, as I was oblivious to the capture function and just gunned down any baddies I saw, when you're actually given two opportunities to capture one and squeeze the name of their boss out of them. Knowing the name gives you a lead on where their club hideout is, but you need a uniform and an ID card to gain admittance, which are helpfully found from the two other crimes you stop. Entering the club nets you a key to their real base of operations, the Chinese theatre, and that lets you progress to the next stage.

Discovering these bits and pieces and figuring it out on your own is actually rather nifty the first time, as the area is rather open to explore so you might not know the significance of the club at first... but the more you replay, the more you devolve it down to its key beats, and all the whimsy is gone. It's really boring when you put it down like a checklist, y'know?

All the levels take about an hour to complete, if not two hours...! Some of them do get really effing long. At the results screen it would consistently tell me it took 20 minutes to complete the stage, but only because it counted my final, optimised, I'm-sick-of-this-bullshit run. The story in each mission is meant to be unravelled as you go through the stage, observing what you see and collect, but when you've groaned your way through the same challenges and setpieces again and again, all that immersion is gone. All you see are bulletpoints.

Goldeneye was no stranger to trial and error, offering large, complex stages and an abundance of objectives on the harder difficulties, but I'd argue it did a good job of pacing them. The fly-by before each mission would show you key points, so you knew a little of what to expect. Bond would bounce around from every enemy shot, so it was never a mystery when you were soaking up damage. Even the replays of where you died had a use; sure, they didn't replay your exact circumstances, but they at least showed, oh, perhaps I should be more cautious going around that corner.

This game is a bit too keen to throw surprises at you, though, yeah, that's the big deal of the movies. John McClane has this shit thrown at him and he no choice but to adapt and react - and be quick about it! Die Hard: Vendetta wants to do that, but doesn't give you the resources for it.

There were so many times I was down to 5 HP, desperately hoping for a checkpoint ad muttering, "please don't surprise me" repeatedly, before... I don't know, some shit would happen that'd erase my progress and leave me fuming. Quite realistically, a spat of machine gun fire can reduce your health to zilch in seconds (or less!), but there's no warning or reaction from John. He doesn't get bounced around by the shots, there's no pronounced damage indicator, he just absorbs it before keeling over. Frustrating!

In hindsight, perhaps I wasn't using precautionary measures enough. Doing good deeds like arresting baddies and helping folk increases the duration of your Hero Time, but the slow-motion it offers is almost too extreme! After a couple of test runs early on (where I couldn't turn it off and had already blasted all the baddies), the one time I used it was against the final boss where I could dump two whole SMG clips into him (even factoring in the reload time!), killing him before he could finish his opening animation. It's a cool feature, if perhaps a little overpowered, but... the problem is, at least with the GameCube version, the aiming suuuuuucks.

The aiming system is also ganked from Goldeneye, unfortunately - it's that spongy style of aiming that re-centres itself the moment you let go of the stick. Maybe that's as realistic a simulation of aiming a gun you can get with a gamepad, I don't know! All I know is that it stinks. Goldeneye had a bit of momentum to it, so it wasn't too sensitive; Vendetta's is so sensitive, you can use it to judge the exact degree you're pushing the C-Stick, it moves in such a jittery, incremental fashion. There's not enough "very"s to prefix just how finicky it is.

There are mechanics that give you improved vantage points for aiming, like a command to lean around corners or even the ability to get on your belly so you're looking from ground-level... but the aiming is still wretched. There's stacks of settings in the options menu like stick sensitivity - so much so it almost feels like a PC game - but none to swap the aiming for something decent. And some of the settings don't feel optimised: the default turning speed is positively glacial, you'll have ten pounds of lead coating your spine by the time you see who's firing it.

The closest it has to a solution is Auto-Aim, where it'll lock-on to any guy it's got a good shot at and it will hit them, no questions asked. It doesn't matter what type of gun you have, if it's got a fix and you shoot, they will die. No misses!

It's an absolute joke. It's an answer to the dodgy aiming, but it's certainly not a fix; if they wanted to fix something they'd make the aiming remotely controllable, but with this you never have to aim again in your life. You enter a room filled with eight guys on all corners, and if you've got them in your sights you can dispatch them all before they even raise their guns; the moment a guy is dead it'll lock-on to the next target. The auto-aim is that good.

It makes you feel like you're playing Iron Man or Robo-Cop more than some surly cop, it's that comical! The interviews with the developers state that they wanted the player to feel like John, like an ordinary relatable guy with a lot of guns - and here he is, a freakin' machine man shooting every bad egg in sight before they even present a threat, it's that bananas. I will say it's a really good feature, one I'm very happy for, as without it, there's no way I could have finished the game using manual aiming. But, boy, does it strip the challenge from a lot of encounters!

Mind you, the aiming quirks may be exclusive to the GameCube version. Looking at footage of the PS2 version, its gun control looks a bit more traditional, always aiming at the centre of the screen. Well, I know what version of the game to recommend.

Is it a Die Hard game? See, when I think Die Hard, I think the first two movies. The third one's all right, but to me, Die Hard is about one guy in a big self-contained location, filled with enemies, and becoming intimate with the environment is a big part of overcoming them. The game has 11 different environments, so there's no way that's gonna happen.

The only voice actor they brought back was Reginald Johnson for Al; he's only there to call John "cowboy" and try to urge him not to go too crazy - that old routine - but he's good to have around. Everyone else is played by soundalikes of varying quality. The guy who does John does a decent job! It's been a while since I've watched the movies, mind you, but he does a competent enough job; he gets the vibe of the character and delivers some adequate one-liners.

The writing's very blah, though. There's a few decent lines, but I couldn't bring myself to care about the story, partially because of the trial-and-error gameplay undermining it. There's twists and turns, which I respect if just for the varied levels they take you to, but a lot of the time is spent on John trying to find his daughter. To their credit, Lucy is a more competent cop than she ever was in Die Hard 4, where she seemed to exist merely as a power fantasy for protective dads, but that's another argument for another day.

Piet Gruber is there, but what exactly does he do? He's there to give a C-tier Alan Rickman impressionist some work, and there's a level set in Nakatomi Plaza that should have been awesome to see, but it's one of the shortest levels in the game. It's got the lobby and the hub where the hostages were held in, but it's otherwise remarkably bland - and you don't even fight Gruber, he dies in a freakin' cutscene! The whole stage and Gruber himself feel rather tacked-on, like they served nothing but a reminder that you're playing a Die Hard game. I don't know. I don't feel qualified to talk about the story when I remember nothing of it.

The rest of the voice cast is pretty ehhh, especially Dick Thornburg the newscaster. He appears throughout the game, one time as a hostage who John delights in giving a hard time to, but he has the worst freaking actor. William Atheron did an incredible job portraying him as a completely unlikeable smartass - you hated him! All the characters were champing at the bit to smack him one! But his actor in the game is... dry and lifeless. And if there's anything worse than a smartass, it's a half-assed smartass.

Early on there's a cutscene of a news report on the new bad guy, Jack Frontier, an ex-soldier turned ex-fitness instructor turned ex-Hollywood actor, now a mercenary who wants to blow up the world. His back story is revealed before we even see him through one of Dick's "where are they now?" celebrity gossip stories. It comes across like it's trying to be a satire on modern pop culture and TV gossip, in the vein of The Running Man for instance... but the scene feels so bloody dry I felt like asking, where's the laughs?

Not to mention it's shown only as that, just a TV report. There's no context for it, like John catching it on TV or asking himself "who's this Frontier guy I've heard about?" It's a totally dry segment and the actor playing Dick can't save it. It's just a long shot of the guy at his desk with silly image edits on the sidebar occasionally. And for the three minutes it spends expositing on the game's villain, I earnestly couldn't tell you what his motivation was besides "I'm angry".

I couldn't help but feel like the GameCube version was a little unfinished? There's also a strange dearth of music during the game at all, outside of one recurring atmospheric track. The game also utilises prerendered cutscenes using in-game assets (i guess because they couldn't optimise the game to run them in real time?), yet some of the cutscenes chug! They cannot run at the full framerate! The final cutscene where the building explodes (spoilers, the building explodes), the prerendered cutscene is choppy as heck!! They had the power to run it at full speed, and yet the prerendered cutscene drops stacks of frames. It's absurd! In their defence they probably had to compress those scenes to hell and back to fit on a GameCube disc, but it's strange they had to encode them at all.

The game does a decent job running at a solid 60FPS, and even has the option to run in Progressive scan for a sharper looking resolution. The one big exception that springs to mind is a stage on the movie studio where you and your enemies can shoot through prop walls, but the amount of debris they generate drops the framerate to zilch. It's the only room they appear in and there are a lot of those destructible walls, but it seemed so poorly optimised.

(i should mention i ran this as an ISO off a USB drive so maybe that explains some of the quirks but shhh don't tell anyone)

It took me about 10 days to finish the game with a couple of breaks, and it's a game you need to dedicate 2 hour sessions to, otherwise you might not make it through because of the trial and error involved. This is a game that could've benefited with saving mid-level, as completing those long-ass stages in one effing sitting got mighty tiresome! And I've certainly run through the game's faults: the slightly dry atmosphere, lack of good music and actors, the controls are a bit dodgy, some of the mission design is a bit hokey...

But there's potential for a good game in there. It's a game I would like to recommend, but the trial and error really saps the joy out of it. On one hand it really encourages the player to experiment and approach scenarios differently. It's a game that wants you to observe - what can I do to approach this guy? Will stealth alone suffice, or can the environment help me? And on the other hand the repetition kind of kills the desire to do any such thinking - I've played these parts already!

There are a few scenes that offer helpful environmental hazards like that - a scene on the docks has a lever you can shoot to dump a pile of fish atop thugs holding hostages, so you can free them unharmed. The Chinese theatre requires you to shoot a banner to allow you to climb it to the second floor. A warehouse features a fish tank you shoot to leak water into a pit to help raise some buoyant barrels to serve as platforms.

They're cute details that harken back to the first two movies: the location was as much a character as anyone else, with Nakatomi Plaza and the airport's variety of nooks and crannies and tunnels contributing as much as any of the gunplay. The game attempts to emulate that, usually with a few token explosive barrels when appropriate, but there's not enough of it. The game is too low-poly and blurry-textured to clue you in on what you can interact with and what's just level geometry.

One stage features a desk you have to push to grab a key from the top of a cabinet, but there's no indication that it is the only desk in the entire game that can be pushed. So I guess what I'm asking for is... more unnecessary stuff? Dumb gubbins that you can interact with if just to help demonstrate you should keep an eye on the environment?

It's got some interesting and nifty ideas, that's the takeaway. It's a game I'd recommend looking at if just to see what concepts it plays with, and how you could re-apply them and polish them up a bit. I love the idea of accomplishing things in different ways, and the Hollywood Boulevard stage is incredible in that regard - there's all these crimes, relevant or not that you can solve in a variety of ways. You can run in guns blazing, you can stealth in and make them surrender, come in through the back entrance, there's little traps you can activate... it's cute, it's nifty, and I'd like to see it more often! A reason to replay a level just to see what other options you missed.

All in all it's a very interesting game, one I'm glad I experienced, though I do wish it didn't leave me so bitter. I do wonder how a younger, more patient and receptive-to-bullshit me would have thought of the game, its features and its quirks. And I kinda wish there was a Die Hard game that fit my unreasonable expectations, to boot. Maybe I'll try the NES game sometime, it looks strangely compelling.

Captain America & The Avengers

Super Nintendo
Aug 05 ~ Oct 03

I started this both to get another unfinished game from childhood off my chest, but also as a way to fill up the evenings. Do an old-school playthrough, no save states or anything, and see just how far I could get each night; a session would only take 20 to 30 minutes anyway, so it wasn't a grand ordeal or anything.

I'd been ripping sprites from the arcade version during the Summer, so I was constantly replaying and fast-forwarding through bits to load the palettes in, and doing so made me realise - boy, this game's a little broken once you know what moves to exploit! For instance, I'd discovered that picking up and throwing grunts was an instant kill.

Combo-ing a guy into a throw, no such luck, but picking them up first? They're toast the moment they hit the floor. And picking up dudes is pretty simple, you just walk to the centre of their mass, press attack and you've got 'em. I'd also learnt to exploit the downward projectile attack while jumping, which not only zaps punks where they (usually) can't get you, but also gives you a little extra air time to plan ahead.

So I figured, maybe I can apply some of that to the SNES version and finally beat the bloody thing. It... kinda works and it kinda doesn't! For one thing, hoo boy, is this a bloody diabolical port. The controls are stiff and awkward, full of strange quirks like how once you start moving diagonally, you won't stop moving diagonally until you let go of the D-Pad entirely. Bit of a nuisance when you're in close quarters!

I don't think enemies have any sort of stun or recoil to punch attacks, meaning it's darn near impossible to enact a full combo without getting a boot to the face. They'll fall down if you laser them, hurl an object at them or finish the combo, but anything else, they'll keep gunnin' for ya.

And every hit you take is a knockdown. Doesn't matter if you're blasted by a mighty typhoon or a feeble punch, your ass is knocked backwards to the ground, with your invincibility lasting mere fractions of a second by the time you get up! You need to move instantly when you get up, otherwise it's so easy to get caught in a loop of enemy fire pinning you down to the curb.

The enemies are ferocious! They'll rush at you and circle you, making it mighty difficult to even clear the first screen without losing most of your healthbar. If you perform the non-lethal throw at the end of a combo they don't even lie down for a while, they land on their feet and continue advancing - in the case of the laser guys, it's possible for them to fire a shot before you've even finished your animation.

So much of your playtime is spent laming it out, picking them off one-by-one in the most boring manners possible - either picking them off from above with lasers, or moving up and down, mashing the attack button hopping desperately you'll pick an enemy up sometime this century.

I made seven or eight attempts to finish the game, and I never figured out a surefire way to pick up people! I think you hold a direction and press attack...? It's really unreliable and incredibly fussy.

Think about it - this is a beat-em-up where punching is worthless. If you don't exploit your lasers, your throwing and your jumping, the enemies on the first screen of the game can body you without a problem. I try not to be dramatic, but repeat that to yourself! This is a arcade brawler where punching is worthless! You absolutely do not want to be up-close to anyone, unless you're walking up and down in which case you're this close to being untouchable. Just... don't rely on it.

That's another thing: each enemy suffers a certain number of knockdowns before they explode. Regular grunts require 3 knockdowns, shield guys 2 knockdowns, the big grabby dudes just one. However, your punch combo is the only attack at your disposal that doesn't instantly knockdown until it ends in the throw. Your lasers, your dash attack, they'll knock a guy down instantly. So why punch?! You're putting yourself in the line of danger for at least three seconds, close to immobile -- why bother when a dash or a laser is stronger and more reliable?

I played the game on Easy, and have never played on anything but. Now that I think about it, I need to check if that's a misprint, because it's not easy! The most lives you can have is 5, and that was just enough to reach the first boss of the final stage, but not to the three bosses afterwards. I can get to Control, the two bozoes who team-attack, and they're bloody freakin' tough. I dare say those guys are the toughest fight in that stage.

I should mention this was an arcade game by Data Easy, ported to SNES by Ironwind Software under Mindscape's publishing, and it is not a good port! It has gotten no adjustments for the console market in any way; there are tiny health refills in the shoot-em-up stages, but otherwise you set your lives, choose your difficulty, and away you go. There are no continues, nor even a level select code. Get good, pal.

I want to say they probably haven't adjusted the enemy strength or balance either, but any such changes are already botched with the dodgy programming. The port is very simplified from the arcade edition, lacking a lot of nuance and comes with its own hokey peculiarities. I mean, this is a game that needs to load the next chunk of each stage by pausing for two seconds after you clear a wave - there are four load points in the first stage alone!

To its credit, the graphics aren't too bad. They're still at their original size (or close enough) and relatively nice looking, though the animation was so much smoother in the arcade. The backdrops lost a ton of detail from the originals, and the last couple of stages look kind of crap to be honest. I'd dare say they look unfinished, the backgrounds are surprisingly spartan of detail.

And there's no ending! The game ported the comic strip story sequences between each level really well, with an improved translation and everything - the dialogue in the arcade game is pretty bad! This finally makes it seem like proper English. But there's no ending! Not even the cinematic of the ship escaping, you're just given a stinking text crawl.

Going back to enemy balance, each boss usually has a pattern you can kinda work out, and once you know the lasers are still an instant knockdown, you know you don't have to waste your time punching them. Whirlwind just slowly follows you, giving you time to blast him twice before hopping to his other side. Grim Reaper can be interrupted before most of his attacks, and there's usually an opening to relocate yourself if necessary.

But there are some that are just too fast! The slight pause after landing from a jump is often just enough for them to catch up and clobber you - which, combined with the nigh-nonexistent invincibility time, makes getting on your feet an ordeal. It's not fair, to be perfectly honest! Ultron is absolutely bloody bananas; raining lasers from the ceiling, shooting projectiles, and dashing around without warning, during which he becomes a humongous horizontal hitbox that you're guaranteed to get smacked around by. The lack of animation and sporadic movement means there just aren't enough tells to read bosses like him.

As aforementioned, the two Control dudes in the final stage are really bad (the buzzsaws chewing up the floor don't help either)... but every boss after them is a comparative cakewalk! Crossbones is a cinch when you spend the whole time airborne, and he can't do a thing to stop you because he's got no aerial attacks. The Red Skull's second form fills the screen with projectiles and traps, but it only ever effects you if you share his horizontal plane - jumping in, lining up shots and moving away made him almost too easy.

I should mention that I had to cheat and use infinite lives on my last attempt because I just wanted this game out of my hair. The game's been bugging me for 21 years now, buddy! I used only 7 lives in total, which I was expecting to be far worse. That's perhaps the most frustrating thing - I was only two lives away from finishing the game without cheats.

Back in the day it was a novelty for my dad to see a game starring Captain America, and there was fun to be had farting about in 2-player, but playing it now, having experienced the arcade version... all I'm seeing are its faults. I'm surprised we even had patience for it back then, to be honest. Its sound clips and graphics survived the transfer well, but you're simply not getting the game as part of the package, so why bother? Just emulate the arcade version and enjoy something halfway decent.

OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast

PC
Aug 20 ~ Oct 24

My brother was getting rid of some stuff, so I got a hold of this. I'd previously played OutRun Online Arcade on the Xbox 360, and OutRun 2 in a Belfast arcade (and had to restrain myself from singing along to Night Flight), but this was probably the first proper home version I played, and it was interesting to see what all they done to it.

Alongside ports of the two arcade versions, this introduces the titular Coast 2 Coast mode, which is basically a big bunch of missions and objectives. Win this race, drift better than your opponent, things like that. They're like little bite-sized sessions of OutRun, and they're a lot of fun to dive in and out of or spend time perfecting; it's nice to not have to replay the same opening stage every time like you do in the vanilla game!

This version has quite a lot of cars - more than the Online Arcade version - with Standard and OutRun versions of each car, the latter of which have rally paint jobs and souped-up stats (and cost way more to unlock, of course). The Standard versions are a bit more car-like, with handling and acceleration you'd expect from a realistic automobile, while the OutRun versions are a bit more... arcade-like, shall we say? Bananas acceleration, outrageous maximum speeds-- you really gotta crank those gears up and down if you want to make those turns without crashing!

They're really nifty! It's quite cool to play the OutRun versions after using the regular ones for so long and find yourself blazing through these levels. They are a bit outrageous when you unlock them at first - wow, that's fast! - but getting acquainted with them is like a crash course in learning OutRun. It really emphasises when to speed up, when to slow down, how to work the gears to keep the acceleration smooth, how to approach those turns - you can't just drift at the last second, you gotta slow down first, you plonker!

The problem is, it kind of disrupts the balance of the game? Like, for the most part I bought one car, maybe two, and that served me fine for the first half of the game - I think it was the 288 GTO? Midway through Coast 2 Coast mode the missions got a bit hard! I would be in 10th place until the final circuit and could only hope to overtake the lead in the last few seconds. There were some really tight runs. I definitely could've improved my play, but a lot of it just raised the question, what do I do to rectify this? What can I do to make it more fair?

Some of the tracks do seemingly encourage you to use an OutRun car, and even then with the fastest damn car you're still in the same predicament, only overtaking the leader at the last second. I can't tell if that's down to sneaky AI or just how the game's intended to play: you're either miles ahead of everyone or trailing behind and are expected to make overtake seconds before finish line. I'd wager you could clear most of the game with a Standard car, but there's only so much good driving can do for you when OutRun cars have a superior maximum speed! Trying to milk the most challenge from the game without making myself unstoppable or in an unwinnable situation was something I had trouble with later on in the game, but I shouldn't have been worrying so much. It's a leisurely game! Take it easy, man!

The Coast 2 Coast mode is split into regular missions and Heart Attack, a staple of OutRun 2 where you have to perform tasks on the fly to impress the gal in your passenger seat. Coast 2 Coast now has 3 girls, each specialising in different tasks: the first is general challenges, the second is "stunts" and the third is "puzzle". A lot of the tasks I've seen before in the Xbox 360 version, but even just arranging differently really makes me approach the game differently - it's a lot of fun! Daft quests like hitting all the ghosts on the track, outrunning the convoy of trucks, dribble the beachball - stuff that's kind of brainless but when you're driving at nearly 200MPH it keeps you on your toes! You become intimately familiar with each track because the other mode makes you revisit them so many times, now it's throwing curveballs you've no idea what to expect!

That's another thing, to unlock the next 'world' of missions in Coast 2 Coast mode, you need an average score of "A" across all missions. The other half isn't so bad, but Heart Attack really demands you know your stuff! You can replay certain tracks and even certain missions, and it's great fun to try again and again in hopes of nailing that coveted "AAA" score. I confess I got a bit cheatsy and sometimes drove through them in first gear, not even doing the missions but just studying the land and seeing what order the missions were in, so I could be prepared for them on the next go-around.

It really can throw you for a loop! The second girl loves you to issue challenges where you have to drive above a certain speed limit, but then follow it up with a high-precision mission like drive in the red lane or knock down these cones. So you're belting it down the track at full speed, and then you're told "HIT ALL THE CONES!" and I'm like CRUMBS I WASN'T PREPARED FOR THIS and crank it to first gear and slow all the way down. I'd be a real killjoy on joyrides, I'll tell you what. Perhaps because of the second girl's challenges, there are courses I feel are a wee bit impossible with a Standard car. There are some that ask you to drive above the speed limit on a trick so twisty I couldn't find a way to even build up the speed, then I try it with an OutRun car and it's totally effortless.

Another thing unique to the game is the garage where you can buy bits and bobs; I'm so used to the Online Arcade edition where you had everything out of the package, but here you have to buy all the cars, all their colours, all the music, all the tracks (for Time Attack mode, i assume?)...! You earn OutRun Miles currency after each victory, moreso for better performance, so it's quite nice to treat yourself to a new music track after some tough courses, even if it is a bit outrageous having to unlock each car's individual paint jobs. It does make you savour your purchases though; even if I buy a crappy car, I'll give it some mileage to see what I can do with it, and what areas its exceeds at compared to my staple car.

OutRun 2 Coast 2 Coast is really, really fun. A great chill way to spend the evenings. It's good to have a game that's easy to pick up and play, both to just chill and do a bit of cursing, or to attack missions head-on and perfect my score for each individual track. It's rare a game captures both moods so perfectly, and it's something I really respect. And it's an ideal outlet for OutRun! You can do the typical OutRun 5-course challenge, or you can go to Coast 2 Coast mode and mix it up a bit. Really chill, and really, really enjoyable.

And as a PC port it's pretty good! It supports the Xbox 360 controller out of the box and it supports anywhere from 640x480 to 1920x1080 resolutions, though not sure if it goes beyond that. There's no local multi-player, sadly, but there's a LAN option and an alleged online multi-player, though no idea if it's still operational.

The only real quirk I noticed is in the OutRun 2 tracks (only those tracks, never those from SP!), the framerate would sometimes accelerate in the intermission between circuits! You could tell by the in-game timer counting seconds faster than it should, and the car would run notably faster; it would always stabilise once I reached the next circuit, but it did throw me off at times, even costing me a race or two because I'd gone off-course onto the grass. I played using the unlimited framerate, mind, so while it's not a huge deal, there's an option for a locked 30FPS that might sort it out.

A really stellar game, one I'd highly recommend, and one I'm disappointed SEGA hasn't given a proper rerelease! The Xbox 360 version was a nice effort, a good way of getting a casual into basic OutRun, but I feel this game is an ideal package. You get plain ol' vanilla OutRun 2, you get OutRun 2 SP, and you get all the extras! What more can you ask for?

OutRun Online Arcade: In Coast 2 Coast mode I was playing the courses so much it really helped my skills with the game, I was getting "AAA" scores all over the place, so it gave me the notion of playing the Xbox 360 version again - maybe I could finally get those last pesky achievements!

It took some time to get used to not only because I was playing with the Standard cars again, but because the scoring system in this version is a lot tighter! It's almost surprising how forgiving it is in Coast 2 Coast. You can miss a few cones, slip out of the green line, even scrape a few cars in that game and still net an "AAA" in Heart Attack. The 360 version is not so kind; you graze any car, exit the lane for even a second, miss a single cone... you don't get "AAA".

So that really forces you to step up your game. What's the best path I can take? What car should I take? Manual or automatic? What's the ideal car for all the challenges ahead of me? You have to do your best because getting "AAA" scores gives you "AAA" challenges; anything lower and you get a different set of challenges, so I couldn't even coast through just to have an idea of what's ahead of me, I have to bring my A-game (or my "AAA"-game, har har) just to plot out the route.

Plotting out my approach for each mission took some time; go full-welly on this, then slow way down so I can hit all the cones, but be sure to speed up so I can overtake the traffic-- mercy! It's wild stuff! And during all this if I even graze the grass once, there goes my "AAA"!

Heart Attack was tough. Time Attack was tough. But I don't know which was tougher. Heart Attack was all about memorisation and pulling it off with no slip-ups. Time Attack felt like circumstance? My eyes were locked on the ghost cars every time, trying to do what it did right and avoid what it did wrong... and in the end I won using an automatic car on a run I was treating like practise. Hrm.

OutRun Online Arcade, yeah, it's a good introduction to OutRun! You get OutRun 2 SP and that's that. You don't get all the cars, music, courses from 2 or the odds and ends like that. It's just an arcade game, and in that regard it's satisfactory. It offers a hardcore challenge and the leaderboards are a nice incentive that you miss out on the PC Coast 2 Coast version. It's good to play for the achievement challenge, too - I remember telling my brother I was working for it and he said he beat those scores no problem on Coast 2 Coast. But now I see why, that game has fast-ass cars!

OutRun: good. I like OutRun. Want more OutRun.

Megabyte Punch

PC (GOG)
Aug 21 ~ 26

Picked this up on GOG yonks ago. It's a bit like Smash Bros. if you played as customizable robots instead; attaching parts to your head, limbs, etc. to boost their stats, change their special attacks or even provide sweet abilities like teleporting, turning into a drill or just a really rad uppercut. It's quite interesting!

There's lots of parts and a lot of fun to be had in customising your character. It does start a bit slow, since you start the game with only one part that's got one of the most boring abilities in the game. Once you start progressing you either unlock or buy new parts, and then you can have a ball optimising your stats and fine-tuning your moveset. I admit I'm a sucker for just equipping my guy with all the most powerful attacks: the hammer blow, the teleport strike, slow attacks that do fat stacks of damage. It's a quick and easy victory, innit?

Being a Smash Bros. clone it uses the same percentage system to determine how far dudes are flung, and in the Battle mode the only way to defeat foes is to hurl them off the stage. Adventure Mode has you fighting grunts and gimmick enemies in the main stages, who are defeated either by doing a set amount of damage or hitting them really hard into a wall; as such, my quick way of defeating dudes was to push them against a wall and use the hammer blow to just instantly disintegrate them.

The Adventure Game has some humdrum story about factions fighting over a power core to justify you going through eighteen stages of exit-finding and walled-in enemy-fighting. It's a fun change of pace, especially given the variety of grunt enemies you face; after every boss you unlock a new part with a special ability that changes how you approach stages: it might be a drill that pierces breakable blocks, or a head part that renders you immune to lethal gas, or odds and ends like that. It's an incentive to revisit old stages to find areas you couldn't access before, netting you rare parts or new colours or other bonuses.

The levels are pretty huge, filling every inch of their square boundaries, and the winding paths take you all across them. There's lots of hidden coins and other doodads to collect, so it's worth your while exploring, but it can be a little frustrating as there's almost always a need for the drill part. As an attack it's really weak and predictable, and it's a bummer having to sacrifice one of your four special attack slots just to dig through soil.

The Adventure Game's fun enough, if admittedly a bit long at times - your only checkpoint is at the boss of each world, so if you lose all your lives in the three stages before it, tough luck, you gotta do it all from the start. Towards the end I found myself just rushing through stages - I might not have enough lives to reach the boss if I start looking around!

There's a hub world between stages, a bit like Cave Story's Mimiga Town, where folks point you where to go and offer story updates. It's a cute idea, but the town is just so big. When I began the game and there's only one level accessible, I spent way too long trying to track it down. Where do I go?! Just show it to me, man! As things go on more paths open up and it becomes less of a problem as you have a frame of reference; level 6 is located just beyond level 2, and level 2 is the upper path before level 1, and so on.

Besides finding parts in stages, you can also buy them from a shop on the hub. though it's tough to get excited about it. The stock is boring and expensive to begin with, and they don't change their wares until after you buy something, so you have to throw money away before it becomes worth your while. Why bother!

Admittedly there isn't much to come back to afterwards for a single-player experience; the tournament mode pits you against hard CPU foes to win rare parts, but otherwise you're replaying the story or doing random battles. That's the bummer with Unity - this game has a clear idea of what it wants and it does a great job accomplishing it, but there's no hope of online multi-player. If you have local pals willing to give it a shot, all modes support up to 4 players, even the Adventure mode, apparently!

I had a fun time with Megabyte Punch. It's a solid little fighting engine that's got a fun bit of depth to it, even if that depth is just working out how to cheese the AI into an easy death. It's also a concept I'm glad to finally see in action, and if nothing else I'm still missing a bunch of parts, so it'll be fun to go back and experiment more with the movesets.

A Game With A Kitty

PC
Aug 31 ~ Sep 1

A li'l Multimedia Fusion game inspired by old SNES and Mega Drive games (you can download it here). A dumb little kitty aims to explore a tower that's appeared out of nowhere, but you gotta find your way there and pay the toll booths first. It's a basic little platformer where at first all you can do is walk and jump, but as you progress you gain more abilities - running, an airdash, a wall climb, stuff like that.

Only a few levels actually have a beginning and an end, as some loop just back to the entrance - there are multiple levels on the world map, but only a few actually lead forwards, usually requiring you to pay a toll to get past.

That's what the other levels are for: to find the hidden money bags or grind for cash to pay the toll. It's a rather cheap method of halting your progress and forcing the player to faff about, padding out the playtime, but it does allow you to revisit old stages and put your new powers to good use. Just wish it was for a purpose more substantial than some bozo blocking your way!

The game's visuals are especially nice; it's got a really lovely, very kooky art style going on, and a terrific choice of palette. The backdrops in particular are real standouts. There's something very cute and dream-like and fuzzy-wuzzy about the style, for lack of a better term. Dude's a good artist!

I haven't much to say, really. It's a cute little game with only around nine levels that I finished in a couple of sessions. It's a tiny download, so if you're looking for something...!

Technical issues: The game's a bit funny to run in fullscreen on modern computers, I've found. More often than not it'll remain in its default resolution and fill the rest of the screen with a black border. I think there's ways to get around it through its compatibility properties, either making it run in Windows XP mode or set it to run via 640x480 fullscreen... but when you do that it disables any keyboard-to-joystick applications, unfortunately. I never found a satisfying solution, and just used a zoom function on my TV to make the window fill the screen. I think using "Run as Administrator" for both the game and your key-config programs might bypass that problem...?

Multimedia Fusion has built-in joystick support, but knowing Clickteam it's horribly unreliable. You don't want to use Joy2Key, as it's got issues about pressing between left and right directions quickly. If you're jumping and holding right, and then turn left in midair, you'll just stop and fall. It's a bloody nuisance, particularly late in the game when you have to wall-jump for extended periods. Just use Xpadder instead, I had no issues with it!

Celestial Mechanica

PC (GamersGate)
Sep 6

I picked this up for cheap off GamersGate yonks ago - the graphics looked neat, but I otherwise knew nothing about it.

It's a 2D platformer very much in the vein of Knytt and other early indie jump-abouts: a small character exploring long, ambient areas with little in the way of combat, just plenty of exploring and a bit of puzzle solving. You run around and find shrines where you earn new abilities to solve puzzles; basic stuff like double-jumps, wall-jumping and floating, as well as niftier stuff like being able to pick up or reflect enemy projectiles.

... I accidentally listed all the upgrades you get. It's a very short game! I hadn't known until I'd finished that this was a Kickstarter project with only two people behind it, one of them the artist behind Super Crate Box. The character sprites are very nice, easily the game's shining point: they're cute and well-animated, and what few frames of animation they have pack a lot of personality.

The background graphics are fair enough, but very spartan. Knytt and Cave Story have a certain appeal to their graphical styles, partly because the camera was so far zoomed-out that your character felt like a speck in a huge, complex world. Perhaps because of the resolution, you never really feel the scale of the world in Celestial Mechanica; a lot of the game is just spent walking in one direction, no elevations, no obstacles, no nothin' - just walkin'! And in games like Knytt the scope was big enough to soak in the abstract world around you. This game isn't framed as static screens, which is helpful for precision platforming, but does mean there isn't a lot of scenery to soak in on your journey. I feel I should've chipped in some cash for nicer backdrops.

The game's pretty linear, just progressing from one shrine to another. There are some smart puzzles, like the last area requiring you to use the float ability in a way I hadn't thought I could, and the water shrine has some nifty rooms where you push blocks into position before raising the water level to make them into platforms.

The water shrine, by the way, was an extraordinarily fiddly and awkward area for me. Its puzzles weren't conveyed terribly well, requiring a lot of back-and-forth between screens, and it was easily the most directionless part of the game - not to mention it was home to a nasty glitch where if ascended to the screen above in the wrong position, you'd be stuck inside the geometry and have no choice but to reset the game. Pro-tip: You gotta jump away from the wall you're looking to climb. Madness, I know!

And it's the second area of the game, by the way.

I finished the game in an hour and a half, though there's a speedrun out there that clears the game in twenty minutes. The game's pretty forgettable, really. As a Knytt-like it's fair enough, it adds a few gimmicks, an attempt at story and atmosphere, but in doing so it only made me think, why didn't they go further with those?

It's already pretty barebones before it adds a story that's got no bearing on the gameplay. The backstory is that the Earth was about to explode until these robots arrived and saved the world, leading humanity to worship them as deities, but now there's an uprising in robot society and they think humans don't deserve to be protected.

Your robot has lost her memory and is helped along by a mysterious ally who turns out to be the exiled prince, who's rebelled against the villainous king because he dared to believe humans are worthwhile creatures and should be given a chance.

... but there's no humans. Once aboard the Celestial Mechanica there's all this talk of humans and what the robots have done for them, but there's not a soul to be found. It's already a lonely game, the chunk of the playtime taking place on a seemingly barren Earth with only the prince appearing on rare occasions. I kept waiting to find even a hint of the humans' existence, and not just claiming they built the shrines.

Well, there are exactly two humans in the entire game, and they're cameos from the developers. You talk to them, they say some meaningless fluff, and then offer hyperlinks to their online portfolios. The world is already so spartan, it feels cheatsy to make two of the few characters you can interact with fourth-wall-breaking outsiders shilling their services.

I find myself having this problem more and more often; I say I don't care about story in games, and proceed to whinge about it for multiple paragraphs. I want to say it's more a matter of what story there is, and what they do with it. The game's story is already wafer-thin, but a few moments of clarity would've stopped me from ranting about this.

For instance, it's revealed in the ending your character is special because they're a "hybrid"; I assume some sort of fusion between human and robot, literal, symbolic or otherwise, it doesn't say. It's all very dramatic and like something from an eleventh-hour anime finale, but it's never elaborated upon. It's just the excuse for why she was cast out. Humans serve as the driving force behind the heroes' exile and the villain's conviction, but are only ever alluded to. The climax is about saving the freakin' Earth, and there's still no humans!

It's something to do, that's the best way I can put it. It's an okay game with neat graphics but it wasn't something I played through thinking, "I'm having a fun time", but instead "well, I paid for it, I might as well finish it."

A Game With A Kitty 2

PC
Sep 9 ~ 15

Despite the title, you don't actually play as the kitty in this one, and there's not even any story relevance: you play as some prince's liege from a dark dimension who has to go find a princess or some daft self-aware story like that.

It's pretty much the same thing as before; there's an overworld where you visit stages and do a bit of platforming, you unlock new abilities that often require you to backtrack to old stages. I swear it's a bit more interesting than that, but describing game formulas is tiring, y'know?

The character has a few more moves than the Kitty, including the ability to throw stars to harm enemies and bust blocks, and even pick up keys, tramopolines and other doodads. There's a lot more depth to the game, with four times as many levels as its predecessor and a lot more complexity. I admit because of that it wasn't quite as easy to get into; there's a lot more levels to be backtracking to (possibly in vain!), and the projectiles are a bit finicky as you have to keep replenishing your stock from item boxes, they feel more trouble than they're worth at times.

That said, it was still an entertaining play. OrigamiHero has a really terrific art style as well; the sprites are simple but really cute, though the backgrounds are what really impressed me. They're beautifully done with great use of colour, coming across as weird and warm despite a mostly green/blue colour scheme. They're wonderfully dream-like, and give the game so much of its character.

I admit I'm inclined more towards the first one just for how short and replayable it is, but this is a more robust package - for a free download, no less! - that's well worth checking out too.

Little Nicky

Game Boy Color
Sep 14

I was watching an Adventure Pals stream when the topic suddenly changed to Adam Sandler, where they discussed Little Nicky on Game Boy, an awful game they bought to tide themselves over during a long road trip to a gaming convention years ago, laughing themselves silly at its awfulness. The chat was cracking up over at the mere mention of the name...

... all the while I was wondering, what's Little Nicky? What am I missing out on?

Well, not much. I looked it up, and it's an Adam Sandler movie where he plays the son of the devil, and has to go to Earth to find his missing brothers before the big D decomposes and passes over reign of hell. It's a pretty typical Sandler-fest, with a bevy of bizarre cameos - Regis Philbin, Ozzie Osborne, Henry Winkler - as well as nigh-incomprehensible special effects and hamfisted product placement for Popeye's chicken.

It was also a multimedia sensation, apparently! With McFarlane Toys producing high-end action figures of the big name characters, a soundtrack CD and, of course, the video game on Game Boy Color. How did I not hear of this? Was ToyFare full-up on advertising at the time?

I played the game first and only watched the film by the end of September; until then I was only familiar with the posters, the toys and a synopsis, and playing the game I was forever asking myself: What kind of tie-in is this? Is it a companion to the film, covering events that happened off-screen in the movie? Er, no, after watching the film I realised that this is a literal adaptation. It is the exact same script with the exact same jokes, following the exact flow of the film, just with platforming levels thrown in.

In hindsight it's rather bewildering? Scenes from the film are copied word-for-word (with a few minor changes to get past the Nintendo censors) in the cutscenes, but said cutscenes consist only of idle animations with text above them, so dialogue relating to visual gags are repeated word-for-word... without the visual gags. Without knowing the film, I was wracking my brain over why they were saying something so irrelevant.

Anyway, it's a 2D platformer. The gimmick of the game is that Nicky is fuelled by heat; by default he's cold and shivering, meaning he walks incredibly slowly and can't do much, so you'll want to find some source of heat, be it a furnace, car exhaust, a warm lamp, toxic ooze, whatever fills up the thermometer at the top of the screen. As it fills Nicky will run faster, making jumps easier, and also serve as a power source for his various abilities. You get 8 abilities throughout the game, but you don't actually use them that much so I'm not sure why I even mention them.

It's real basic platform guff is what I'm saying, with an obnoxious gimmick; using powers or getting hurt will lower Nicky's temperature, and thus his speed, making escaping from threats even harder. Your goal is to either just make your way to the end of the level, or you fulfil a basic objective like collect a number of items or capture a number of demons. There's 23 levels of this, by the way.

Nicky's powers have very little practical usage, not to mention there's very few enemies he can actually defend himself from - most powers only work on certain enemies, so a lot of the game is spend hopping around and avoiding things. You're at a permanent disadvantage; by default you're slow as molasses, so you're always seeking warmth to up your thermometre to make yourself move faster - but not too fast, otherwise you'll be set alight and run around uncontrollably. A bit like Burning Wario from Wario Land, only not as funny or as practical.

The game features a couple of stages where you have to capture demons in your flask, which is done by walking up to humans and using the "get in the flask!" command (complete with digitised Sandler speech). Some humans are humans, so they don't count. Some are demons in disguise, and get whisked away without issue. And some are demons that shed their disguise and become harmful, giving you no choice but to set them ablaze with your flaming belch. They reveal themselves suddenly and often deal damage, and using your belch also depletes your thermometre, so you'll be moving at a snail's pace sooner or later. These stages are often long, large and multi-tiered areas with only a few sources of heat, so a lot of time is spent backtracking to them and struggling with the platform collision detection. It's quite tedious.

The game's lack of context isn't just a source of bewildering cutscenes, but also a final boss that had me stumped for a good while. The "Release The Good" projectile serves you fine during the first phase, but then he turns into a bat and is too fast to target, and the shots that hit no longer appear to make an impact. What's the solution? Why, to use an ability you've never seen before, of course? In its defence, two levels ago there was a cutscene where you were given a "sphere" and told "it will only activate at the right time"... but it never names the ability, never suggests you've even got a new ability, and I could go on.

Oh, and speaking of roadblocks, the password system actually saves the number of lives you have, so thanks a lot for that, lads. And there's no checkpoints either. Enjoy your backtracking!

It's not a good game. Not not not a good game. It's sort of a relic of the Game Boy Color era, an example of the pap they'd put on shelves, though there's certainly been worse games on the handheld if VGJunk is any proof... but it's not a fun game. I'm glad I played it for the sheer novelty if nothing else. It's got a few bizarre minigames (including one where you propel pineapples into Hitler's asshole - who's wearing a maid outfit, by the way) that I suppose could offer some replay value, but there's not much to say. To think IGN gave this an 8 out of 10. Don't play it, is what I'm saying.

I actually recorded a full playthrough of this game, spending a whole day (and then some!) recording every damn facet of it, and outside of the manual, I'd dare say I'm the ultimate resource on the Little Nicky Game Boy Color game. So I've got that title now. Anyone want to challenge me for it?

To be honest, I'm disappointed I didn't record my thoughts before watching the movie, as I came up with some pretty bizarre interpretations of what the movie would be like based off the game. Now there's an idea for a collaborative jam if ever I saw one.

Further watching: There's also a playthrough of the mini-games on my YouTube channel.

Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

PlayStation Portable
Sep 28 ~ Oct 11 (X)
Jan 11 ~ 14 2016 (Vile)

I picked this up in a PSN sale but -- god, who can be bothered transferring it to a PSP? I mean, I've modded mine so I don't know if it would even work, but if you do then you're playing it on a dinky little handheld with a temperamental Square button, and if you want to run it off a monitor then it either needs an unreliable TV cable or to be run through a PC using RemoteToJoy, which requires you adjust the PSP's internal settings so it runs at a correct speed...

... and I figured, why bother? I'll play it on an emulator. So I tried it on PPSSPP and it ran pretty well! The animated cutscenes did run at hyperspeed, mind you, but everything else looked darn near perfect as far as I could tell. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Yeah, it's a remake of Mega Man X on the SNES except now it's in 3D and it's portable and it's got stuff like voice acting and cutscenes! I had written paragraphs and paragraphs of critique until I read Codiekitty's review and the line "stick with the SNES version" about summed it up. I could argue in the game's favour with its new Sigma stages, save-game functionality, quality-of-life features and whatnot... but yeah, at the end of the day the SNES version is still definitive.

All I have to add is: why did rearrange the item locations? On one hand I get it - I've played the game a bunch of times in the past, it's nice to shake things up after a while, but some of the modifications just wreck the flow of the game. There's minor things like Flame Mammoth's stage, where freezing it would allow you to access a Heart Upgrade... but now that little corner just has a life refill. Why bother having that little area at all when the reason for its existence is gone?

The big switcheroo is you no longer find the Dash Boots in plain view in Chill Penguin's stage, but buried somewhere in Flame Mammoth's, I think? It's somewhere obtuse that I had to consult the Mega Man Home Page because playing the game without dashing was insufferable. You're missing half the bloody game! Like, kudos for mixing things up a bit, but why not forego the capsule entirely and just start you off with the Dash Boots?

Vile's mode is worth talking about, though. He doesn't have Master Weapons, but instead acquires parts he can equip to his shoulder, Buster and knees, with different styles of attack and effect. Each part costs a certain amount of points to equip, though defeating Mavericks unlocks more points and parts, increasing your options as you go.

It's really really interesting! Forget the item shuffling, this truly makes you re-evaluate how you approach each challenge. At the start of the game X is maybe a little bit fragile, but his charge shot is more than capable of getting him through sticky situations. Vile, meanwhile, starts with a piddly little rapid-fire machine gun that does like no damage, a shoulder cannon with limited range and enormous wind-up time, and powerful bombs that are slow and have even less practical firing range.

As such, even the bloody intro stage took me quite a few tries to get through! It is tough! I'd dare say when you begin the game as Vile you have to approach the stages as puzzles: what can I even do with these abstract weapon loadouts? The rapid-fire machine gun fills a gap but isn't really worthwhile or satisfactory. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise I could aim the shoulder cannon, but its sluggish firing speed is what kills it.

The bomb is easily the strongest weapon, but the best way to use it is to jump above an enemy, drop it downward and try to land safely... meaning a lot of your time is spent in close proximity to enemies and bosses with dodgy hitboxes and enormous collision damage.

That wouldn't be so bad if Vile hadn't a tiny health bar and zero defence! Even basic attacks will kill him in short time, and he's lucky to still be standing after two collisions with a boss. For half an hour it was just trying each stage and asking myself how far can I get - can I reach a heart upgrade or something before snuffing it?

Before discovering how powerful the bombs were the likes of Boomer Kuwanger's staged were fiendishly tough; here's a shielded enemy, and both my machine gun and cannon put me in the line of fire. If I even defeat this guy, how much health will I have for the next encounter? ... it's just one obstacle after another! A lot of the early game is spent in trial and error; a bit like my first time playing any new Mega Man game, I guess! Bashing my head against these stages with surprise hazards and trying to work out a winning formula somehow.

Once you beat one boss things tend to fall into place, though it seems no matter the difficulty you won't have enough points to equip anything new until you defeat two bosses, which makes the game... a bit tricky! My first run gave me the Speed Boots immediately, which is a real life saver; no longer being such a big lumbering asshole makes a world of difference, which is all the more frustrating when my Hard Mode playthrough withheld them from me until later.

There's a lot of fun in experimenting with all the different loadouts; the flame shots are great fun for tearing up regular enemies, but the bosses' invincibility time renders it a bit useless. The short-range rocket fist is a blast for just one-shotting most foes. I'd dare say the default bomb is the best option for the knee? There's variants for napalm bombs, cluster bombs and all sorts of effects, but the basic one seemed the most practical; it still does big damage and it recharges quickly enough for you to remain airborne, meaning one of the best tactics is to just float above dudes dropping bombs until they expire.

The story in Vile's mode is some bullshit about Sigma releasing him from robot jail to help his campaign, but he's like nah, I'll just blow up all these Mavericks instead. I don't know. It's a dumb excuse to do the same crap X did, fight those same bosses... but at the same time it removes the man's mystique. We're so used to Vile being this mysterious Boba Fett guy who's so cool and so badass, and here he is being a petulant teenager.

I'd dare say that's kind of charming, though. There's so many characters who look badass but don't do anything to actually back it up, and it's neat to see them taken down a peg. He may have rad armour and be bristling with weaponry, but Vile's a whiny sack of shit who'd make insufferable company. You'd rather hang out with Spark Mandrill. Now that would be a cool character to play as!

Vile has a really interesting play style and it's one I'd like to see come up again. Zero and Axl have distinct play styles from X, but Vile's toolset is so wildly different - he hasn't even got a dash! - that it makes you rethink your approach to the entire game. Abusing the hang-time from your shoulder and knee attacks plays such a key role, it's hard to believe it's the same game as X's mode, who has no means of staying airborne.

Maverick Hunter X has its quirks, but it's definitely picking up just for Vile's mode if you want more out of the classic game. It's just unfortunate the series didn't go anywhere and it's never been ported to other platforms. The game looks terrific when blown up to 1080p on emulator, and so many of the game's foibles feel like they could be easily fixed... what a bummer!

Brilliant Bob

PC (Steam)
Sep 30 ~ Mar 16 2016

Fuck Brilliant Bob.

This was a game my brother wanted on his wishlist and I thought, oh, I'll get that for him sometime, it's only 7, it'd make a nice gift! Geometric shapes with giant sunglasses and toothy grins are totally his aesthetic, and it looked like a reasonable little indie 3D platformer. I think it was reduced to 20p during the sale. He bought a copy each for me and himself, and said it wasn't what he was expecting. Well, I'm glad I didn't pay for it.

You play as Brilliant Bob. You run around. You can jump, double-jump, wall-jump. You can pick up objects and throw them or smash them. Your job is to get to the exit. You're also encouraged to pick up all the "dollaz" in each stage, and there's tons of them, but all they do is unlock costumes and reskins of Bob. It's not worth it.

It's made in Unity, and it's... I can't say for certain but going off the Steam community discussions, every asset in the game looks to be ganked from something. Bob himself is probably an original object, but the bad guy, the level assets, the enemies... I think even the music -- the music is this weirdly twinkly lounge piano crap, and it's... not unfitting, but it's not fitting either! It just feels like first "hey, this is free, right?" choice the devs made.

Pretty much every asset is nabbed from somewhere -- you could say it's not a good looking game because nothing really fits. The bad guy is like an early-days-Dreamworks cartoon alien but he's gross and gibbly and over-detailed -- eyeugh! Just unsightly. Bob is just a cube with block limbs and a textured grin. The bat enemies have these :3 mouths and look like they belong in a Nippon Ichi RPG. Then you got these cartoon creatures set against a photo-realistic mountain landscape. I honestly thought it was just a JPEG backdrop, but no, those are needlessly high-poly 3D mountains. They're totally unnecessary, you never get to walk on them or anything!

As an art style, art design, whatever you want to call it - it's not consistent. It doesn't look good! As a 20p entry free to seeing what Unity can do, however, it's actually not bad! Like, yeah, the devs probably aren't using it to its best ability, but the game runs smooth, the landscapes are huge with draw distance for days, and it performs smoothly even on my crap PC! It makes me think "if Unity can perform well with this crap being slung at the wall, it must handle precision design pretty well too!"

I haven't played it so the comparison's probably gonna fall flat, but I get the impression the game's trying to be like a 3D version of Super Meat Boy? It tries to have precision platforming with feats of derring-do and big-dick stunts, like wall-jumping for twenty miles with no floor beneath you and lethal boxes raining from the sky, or trying to leap to moving platforms while using a tumbling stack of boxes to carry you across a pit, or what have you. It sounds fine on paper, but the execution just left me cursing at the game designers.

Whatever it's doing, it can't friggin' do it. The controls are wishy-washy and floaty and fudgy and Bob's got to accelerate and decelerate and he doesn't turn fast enough. And I literally had no idea how to wall-jump until the very end of the game because glitching around it is so much more convenient than learning how to wall-jump?

The game design is mind-boggling at times. The game teaches you early on to interact with crates by either throwing them or breaking them, but smashing them is useless because there's nothing actually inside them? You can throw boxes to harm enemies, but enemies are so harmless it's a waste of time - not to mention boxes only appear in about six levels, so why even bother?

Levels are huge and mostly composed of floating objects, be they static or moving platforms, disappearing trampolines and other gubbins. They're big levels, sometimes with lots of verticality! But kind of like the original Sonic Adventure, your only control over the camera is to rotate it left or right. When you first play a level it will show you a couple of shots highlighting new obstacles and the exit, but the camera is so friggin' horrible it'll often clip into objects and you have no idea what it's pointing you at! And after that you can never view that preview again. You can't look above him or zoom out, you can't-- the right stick's not calibrated, you can't use it. If you want to get an eye for the level, especially if the exit is above your starting point, take a hike!

Simple things like standing on a platform - simple blooody things! - feels... janky. Half-baked, poorly-coded, however you want to phrase it. It feels unsafe, like the game's just itching to screw you over; the lack of proper shadow is one thing (realistic lighting is no help when i'm trying to figure out what's beneath me!), but Bob never feels rooted to moving platforms. Him staying on it feels more like a firm suggestion that it's waiting for a chance to disobey out of spite. I probably spent more time fretting about it than it actually happening, but I can vouch I've had Bob get thrown off a moving platform to his death during a sharp turn.

The first world - the game's split into fifty stages across two worlds, a forest and a castle, all ganked assets - is pretty boring. It introduces all these elements like wall-jumping and trampolines and gimmicks, but it doesn't really do a good job of acclimatising you to them. Wall-jumping. like I said, I have no idea how it's meant to work. The game relies heavily on its physics engine so things can be wildly unreliable, wall-jumping especially. You have no idea if Bob will wall-jump to begin with! You don't know what direction he will take - usually the opposite of where you're facing, but who knows!

Bob doesn't turn fast enough to align with your control stick - if you're facing right, jump and turn left, Bob won't be facing left until after you land, and you need to be facing the wall to wall-jump to begin with. If you want him to line up properly, you just have to assume and hope and pray for the best and-- fuck everything! You don't even know how fast he'll jump! It might be a tiny nudge, a meagre bump away from the wall - or it might fuckin' rocket him away from the wall! I ended up played the game with a turbo button assigned to the jump command to make it easier, and it is bugged! Bob will rocket forward even across flat plains if you rapid-fire the jump button.

For the majority of the game, I did not wall-jump, I wall-scaled. It was easier to keep ramming myself into a wall and spamming the jump button, making Bob perform tiny wall jumps against the same surface, than figure out how to line him up with the opposite wall. It's that bad.

The first world is pretty cack. It spins its wheels with dull introductory garbage, stuff that plain ain't fun, and the least helpful trial-by-fire lessons you can imagine. The wall-jump tutorial expects you to be carried across floating platforms that turn unexpectedly over gaping pits, so you have to spend twenty seconds crossing those after every restart before you can even 'practise' wall-jumping.

If the gaps leading to instant death beneath the walls weren't charming enough, it then expects to wall-jump over the gaping pit you crossed earlier, and preferably not fling yourself into the waiting abyss because of dodgy physics. It's meant to be a learning process, but it only encourages you to give the game the finger. Most wall-jumping challenges are across rectangular walls - nothing's stopping you from scaling to their top and just walking across. Why wouldn't you do that instead of wall-jumping above a gaping pit like the game wants you to?!

Include an audible sigh here.

Once in a while there's an idea that's intriguing. One of them has you start in the centre with hundreds of blocks rotating around your platform, starting slow at the centre until they're rocket-fast at the outside, and you have to make your way to the exit at the farthest point. It's an interesting idea; if it had a competent 3D platform engine, I could enjoy this! In Brilliant Bob... it's not at all! It's bad! It's bad, it's bad, it's bad! Is it challenging? I don't know! Beyond the simple prospect of "here's the exit, go here", you are fighting with the bloody engine. You're fighting for Bob to do what you want to do, and second-guessing yourself because you don't how he's going to react with the cornball physics engine.

There are some good levels-- I say good, they're still bloody awful, but they're interesting ideas that I'd like to see someone explore in an engine that wasn't quite so busted. On that note, aspiring game developers! For only 20p you can suffer through this game to see if there's some interesting level designs and do them better yourself! I'd love to see a Brilliant Bob Redux game jam with the proceeds going to charity because fuck this game.

When you reach the second world it's meant to be the big bad guy's fortress. It's bloody dark. You can't see a damn thing. It's awful. I hate it. Why would you make the game that dark. But it's also the first time the game actually becomes half-decent. Interesting ideas that you don't see that often! The first few stages introduce a triangle then you use to hook onto a zip-line. It's little more than using the physics engine to play around with shapes and collisions, but it's actually a cute idea? It uses physics in an interesting manner, it's well done and it's a gameplay element that adds a bit of much-needed levity to the experience. IT ONLY TOOK HALF THE GAME TO INTRODUCE IT

At first the stages in the second world are actually quite f--. Quite f--. I don't want to say fun. They're interesting! They're almost entertaining! But only by the standards of the game; by this point it's like Stockholm syndrome. What's a good game? I don't know. It's day thirteen of Brilliant Bob and I've lost so many things.

There are interesting ideas on display. A couple of stages feature platforms that are too high or far to reach, and a stack of boxes and a trampoline nearby. You can either bounce to the top of them and simply jump across, or you can push the stack over and run across across them before they fall to get a running start. I was genuinely surprised by it, that's a really nifty idea! It's not executed reliably because of the physics, natch, and the trampolines take 10 seconds to respawn after you bounce off them, which is a needless waste of time, and the game simply expects too much out of Bob and his crummy controls... I could go on.

The next level took me two nights to finish. It expects you to climb a stack of boxes and use them to reach two moving walls so you can wall-jump between them to reach another platform. It's a bloody joke. I tried using actual wall-jumping, but again, I had to scale the walls because I couldn't find an angle to begin wall-jumping that didn't just hurtle me into the abyss! You can't wall-jump from that angle! And the walls never stop, they're always moving, so you need to time tipping the boxes over just right so you can get there in time... but turning Bob in time is a nightmare, so your easiest option? Aim for the side of the wall and scale up it.

And that's just the first half - it expects you to do it again, with the walls a little further away this time! I thought maybe it expected me to do it properly that time, but with a few attempts, I could scale on top and get carried across. It's not a game that encourages you to play by the rules because its rules are bullshit. They're nonsense, and darn near every challenge in the late game is less a challenge and more waiting for you to break it.

AND THAT'S ANOTHER THING! The game has no unified menus! There's a main menu and a pause menu (that requires you to use the mouse, stupidly enough), but the costume select and level select are actually isolated hub worlds. For the costumes it's no big deal, you just jump into a costume, return to the title screen and away you go.

But the bloody level select is a platform maze that's forever expanding with every level you complete, with all these floaty, tuggy warp points that take you to the level - but because you can't pan the camera up it's hard to even see the stage each warp corresponds to. It's not bad for the first world because it's somewhat self-contained, but for the second world you need to take a floating platform across a pit and then wall-jump all these walls, bounce off these trampolines, all to find what level I'm after. And I need to do that every single time I want to pick up where I left off. It's cute, I guess??? I don't know! Maybe it's meant to be a refresher on how to play before you enter the game proper, but-- it's bewildering. It's a waste of time!

It usually just meant whenever I was at the end of my tether and wanted to call it quits, I urged myself to keep trying - because I don't want to go through the level select again! I don't want to have to find where its entry point is. I don't want to walk past level 30 and then fall off the platform and redo the fucking level select again. It's only twenty to thirty seconds, never more than a minute, but it's just more wasted time that makes the whole thing a bloody dredge.

So no matter how bad you're doing in the game, you could be suffering, you could be agonising, but you think... I don't want to quit now... because then I'd have to find my way back through the level select. And when something as simple as that deters you from either quitting or picking up the game again, that's not a good sign.

It seems to be a habit where I play these awful games at the end of the year. I'm nearly at the end of this game! I only kept at it because I figured I got to level 16 already, there's only two months left of the year, how hard could it be! Another feather in my cap! But god almighty, it wasn't worth this.

While recording this I fell on the floor for dramatic effect.

Fuck Brilliant Bob.

Addendum: I finally finished the game the following year, using Cheat Engine to play the final wall-jump challenge at half-speed. The final stage is some bullshit maze, and it ends on a sequel hook. It was not worth the effort.

On A Roll 3D

PC (Steam)
Oct 1 ~ 7

Rage Quitter 87 had this on his wishlist and it looked like a total ripoff of Sonic 1 - it's got versions of Green Hill Zone, Marble Zone, Scrap Brain, all the level themes! Not to mention it's a game about playing as ball who rolls around, collects stars, and loses them all if it gets hit. Hmm!

I was kind of holding out for it to just be 2D Sonic with a modern physics engine, but it's more of a time-trial-focused platformer. You roll through levels, solving little puzzles to open doors and progress, and the big giant records and leaderboards screens encourage you to replay them and get fast times. The puzzles are simple things like pushing levers, moving boxes and dodging obstacles; little things that you might need to backpedal and retry at first, but after replays it should be an automatic process to deal with.

It's a cute, very idle little game that's easy to play. I only played it to completion and only attempted a couple of fast records, but time trials aren't really my scene. It's dirt cheap and there's plenty of records out there to compete against, but if all you want is a basic platform game there's probably more compelling options out there.

Undertale

PC (Steam)
Oct 13 ~ 23 (4 endings)

So all of a sudden this Undertale thing's a sensation, huh? ChipCheezum and VoidBurger were hyped on Twitter about its impending release, I was tripping over cutesy fanart on Tumblr, and consensus on the Comic Sans font had taken a sudden U-turn. My usual approach to hit sensations is to totally ignore it but somehow absorb 60% knowledge on it through osmosis, but this time I figured I might as well hop on early and see what this all the fuss is about.

So you're this kid who falls into an underground kingdom where monsters have been exiled after a war with humanity, and are trapped there by a barrier that requires seven human souls to be dispelled - and yours is the last soul it needs.

I say that's the plot, but at the end of the day you just walk around this weird world of monsters, observing their strange little culture and strange little people, before bumbling your way to the king in the hope he'll let you go home. It's only along the way you realise, oh, there might be ramifications to letting a human go home.

It presents itself like an RPG, but the battle system is the big shake-up: your turn involves either hitting foes, doing nothing, or ACTing, while the baddies' turn plays out like a shmup where you avoid their patterns. You can either kill dudes, or you can defuse the situation: here's a depressed ghost, maybe you should cheer it up? This muscular seahorse won't go away until you flex those pythons. There's a non-violent solution to everything through ACTing, or even not ACTing.

It's unique! Random encounters still remain glorified obstacles, but it means a lot to be able to interact with them in one ways than slicing them in half. Toby Fox said in an interview how the likes of Final Fantasy and other RPGs, all those enemies... what are they? They're just icons with different stats predisposed to certain attacks. They could be anything from vampires to dragons to weird fish-mans, but they're just icons on a screen representing numbers with only one method of engagement. It's refreshing to have a little more investment to these encounters.

(ganked from Codiekitty's image directory)

That's my takeaway from the game: it's about investment. This is the first game in years I've cackled and chuckled and gone through a gamut of emotions while playing. The writing is funny and the characters are all incredibly charming, and knowing there's more to the game than just beating things to death, it makes you resonate with it more? It's one of those things I've always fussed about - people say there's gotta be more to video games than fighting, and I agree! It's just a matter of finding a way to express that.

One of those ways is writing, natch. Plenty of games try, but good writing is hard to come by, especially when it comes to making you feel invested in your actions. Like, Wizorb. It's a bloody Breakout clone, writing is obviously not its focus, but it has little extras like using your money to rebuild the town... but it doesn't really mean anything. You get a line of dialogue, it counts towards an achievement, but it's got no real consequence. You might rebuild a shop so you can spend your money on something that effects gameplay, but it's otherwise just something to make your time between levels look productive.

(i am not at all qualified to start talking about games with stories - look at the games i've played in the past three years and tell me what games had stories worth a damn!)

In Undertale its writing is key. All the characters, be they plot-important or simple townsfolk, are unique and charming and you get invested in them. Every main character can be summed up in a few keywords - lazybones prankster; socially inept anime nerd; exaggeratedly violent anime nerd; mom - but there's depth to all of them, some background to show why they are who they are. They're cartoons, they're monsters, they're alien - but it's all very human as well.

Like, I resonated so dang much with Alphys: a total dorkathon who doesn't know how to use a phone. It's like looking into a pixelated mirror! The reasons behind her diminished self-confidence are, well, a bit wilder than I expected, but you still resonate with them. They're cartoon characters with comedy routines, only you realise along the way there's, like, reasons behind those charades, man.

I confess I'm real dang lousy conveying my feelings here. I literally can't remember the last media where I resonated with the characters so much, and it comes in the form of sassy skeletons! I was giggling and laughing and screaming "oh no!" along the way, they endeared themselves that much to me.

It's a sharply designed game. One of the big gimmicks is how your save file is acknowledged by certain characters - you can kill a boss, reload, and spare them, and Flowey will be there to say "I saw what you just did, buddy". There's lots of ways of interacting with characters, tweaking how events play out, and a variety of endings. It's a very compact game as well, only running four to six hours on an average playthrough, with no real exploration to speak of. The game travels in a pretty linear path from setpiece to setpiece.

That can be a little disappointing from a world-building viewpoint - is the underground really just a straight line? - but it makes the game so easy to come back to. It's densely built! There's lots of dialogue and little bits and bobs that are easy to miss, and even on my fourth go-around I was spending time with things I'd missed before. It kind of became comfort food: just running through the same scenarios and enjoying the dialogue again and again. Some events change after your first playthrough, characters recognise this is a repeat and flip the script a little bit, and I confess I deleted my save file just to get the original edition because I'm pathetic like that.

The game isn't perfect, especially when there's so much to come back to on repeat play: some areas simply aren't as compelling as others, and once you know their tricks the random battles do become formalities. Even the groundbreaking gimmicks aren't that groundbreaking: games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon acknowledged when you faffed about with save files in the past, I'm sure! The game pays homage to a lot of things, though it's more how it plays with those concepts than the belief it's 100% original or whatever.

Then... there's the hype. People were nuts about this game! Pat talked in the Super Best Friendcast about the hundreds of people that were nagging him to play Undertale. Have you played Undertale yet? Undertale is so good! Oh my god, I love Undertale. Why aren't you playing Undertale?

He played it, and he enjoyed it, but the sheer volume of people urging him to play it, gushing their love for it, telling him how he should play... it spoilt the experience! If he'd stumbled upon it in a Humble Bundle or something with no expectations and played it then, he admits it would've blown him away. But as it stands, he calls it overrated.

(ganked from Codiekitty's image directory)

And I can totally see that. I admit I enjoyed the hype because I friggin' loved the sheer amount of fan art and fan fiction and fan videos and fan theories and whatever else was coming out. The game was already comfort food, so here's a second course of all I can eat! Having enjoyed the game so much, it was great seeing other fans expressing their love too, and I watched four separate Let's Plays just to enjoy the reactions and experiences of other people playing it - their take on the characters, responses to certain scenes. I lapped it up!

But if I didn't hop on early I'm sure I would've been fuckin' sick of it. You literally couldn't get away from it, and the fandom worked itself into a fervour so quickly that it's become a bit unsightly. Untamed hype can soil a game, and it's a bummer a unique game like Undertale has gotten such a stink about it.

Still, I had a ball with Undertale. I confess it's a game I've probably played so much it's hard to view with a fresh face anymore, but it was possibly my favourite game of the year. It was fresh, engaging, and such a breath of fresh air. Cute, silly and stupid, too!

Further reading: I found an excuse to talk more about Undertale in a review of Treasure Adventure Game.

Asterix

PlayStation
Oct 18 ~ Nov 1

One of those games I can't remember where or when I even bought, I just recall being a bit disappointed with it, but for some reason I wanted to see it through to the end one of these days. Well, now that I've done it I can say: it's not really worth it!

The game bills itself as the "smart strategy game"; you've got the whole of France split into 80-something sectors, all occupied by Romans except for Gaul. You pick up a certain number of dudes from one area and move them to an adjacent area and a random number generator determines if they win or not. A Roman can send one guy in and obliterate four of your dudes, or you can outnumber the enemies 5-to-2 and you'll still get thwomped. It's bare basics. It's not even like Age of Empires with horses and cavalry and ballistas or anything, it's just numbers against numbers.

The ultimate goal is to collect seven ingredients and six barrels of nebulous contents for Getafix, which are found throughout the map. Each side's turn is split into three actions - dishing out potion to replenish your terrain, making attacks, and rearranging your units. It's dirt freaking simple but it's kind of cute in a way; I got strangely invested in the action at times, and learning the tricks of battle (what few there are) can be quite rewarding. For instance, each area needs one person to keep it 'conquered', but that one person can't be sent out to attack other areas, so my winning tactic was to divide and conquer: ring off Roman terrain that has only one occupant, preventing them from moving or getting repopulated until they break through my lines. A good way of saving resources!

The game isn't just wartime strategy - entering an area with one of Getafix's ingredients will take you to a 3D platforming stage. Well, I say "platforming", but phhhbbt, it's just a really crappy beat-em-up. You move Asterix or Obelix to the end of the stage, beat up Romans and that's your lot. You can collect coins that offer bonus potion when you complete the stage, but it's dirt-basic stuff.

It's... not awful looking. It's colourful, and for early PlayStation it's not a bad simile of how the characters look. The animation is rather jerky - you can count the frames, there's no interpolation between them! - but it does a good job conveying the characterful movements. Visually, it's a satisfying recreation of typical Asterix locales, but as an actual game it's just bland and a bit worthless.

The stages aren't bad when they're simple beat-em-ups, but the later stages try and mix things up a bit too much. The French Alps stage is a really friggin' terrible platforming stage where you control Obelix, who has the slipperiest goddamn controls in the world. You make that guy run and he'll slip all over the fucking place! And it's the only stage that expects you to do proper platforming, and it makes you do it over teeny tiny little platforms across gaping pits. Fall down a hole and you lose half of your maximum health!

I want to go on a tirade for a moment: the game's depth perception is rotten as hell! Now that means absolutely nothing until you reach the French Alps where you think you're gonna make that platform, but all you've got to go on is a glitchy shadow texture and you miss! The shadow's better than nothing, but holy cow! Jumping over platforms! There's one in the background but you can't tell how close you are because there's no camera controls! FUCKIN' A!!

Anyway.

There's another stage that's basically a big maze - once you know where you go (go up the alley in the centre to get a key, then all right), you're fine, but until then it's a dauntingly huge stage... with not much going on! You're finding coins and enemies and underground paths, but that's not the goal! The goal is to find the exit, and the exit-- who knows where the exit is!

Normally when you take units to fight it's just numbers against numbers, but when you enter a platforming stage it determines how much health you start with - I think 12 is required to fill your maximum health. The map usually has a visual icon to show you this place is special, expect something when you enter! It's just a bit frustrating - especially in the fuckin' Alps - because any units you throw at an enemy sector has a chance of whittling their numbers down.

But in platforming stages, you can take ten guys to that French Alps stage and then squander them all by falling down a pit. Those units are gone! They're obliterated! History! See you later alligator! And... it's just frustrating.

Especially, especially, ESPECIALLY!!... in the random barrel stages. Alongside the seven main ingredients there's six barrels you need to get (maybe more on higher difficulties? i played on the default setting) but they're in random locations with absolutely no marker on them, so you might think, I'm just gonna take a shitload of dudes and conquer this tiny little place! Nothing's gonna stop me!

But then suddenly a message appears saying "Throw the Roman".

... this is one of those little Asterix gags that you see alot in the cartoons: Obelix making a sport of assaulting scrawny Roman footsoldiers. You play as Obelix holding a Roman by the legs and swing them around, ala Mario 64, and then throw them. Basically like shotput, isn't it? And you need to throw them far enough to fill the progress bar until the stage is complete.

THESE STAGES ARE GODDAMNED AWFUL.

I... I don't know if I ever beat them before? I don't remember. After spending two weeks playing the game, I only beat them on my final session, and I was actively working around them until then. I'd save the game right before them so I could retry them again and again just to figure out HOW THE HECK THIS WORKS.

There's not much to it! You mash the Square button to determine your speed, then hold X to determine how high the guy is thrown... and then you let go and that's really it? Except it is so extremely fussy - you're working with a very narrow path to the target, you've gotta be facing the right way to begin with, and you've a gauge saying how high you'll throw, but it doesn't say after a certain height you'll actually be making no distance.

Like, the bars for how fast and you're spinning and how high you throw-- they're really big! But only a tiny percentage of them actually mean anything! Only the centre of the height bar will get you any distance - otherwise you'll instantly fall on the ground or just sail into the air and go nowhere. And the same thing goes for speed, if it's not at the very top there's no point bothering. It's so easy to just fuck up either of the bars or throwing out of bounds, and to have this sprung upon me with no warning, and come to the realisation I lost all those units because I couldn't throw a single Roman... ugh!

The other type of barrel stages just dump you in an arena with enemies and barrels, and you've got to break all of them in under sixty seconds. That's it! They're criminally easy and you're given way too much time... which only makes Throw the Roman all the more frustrating, but there we go.

So the mini-games are crap. The 3D platforming stages are somehow barebones yet trying too hard. The strategy game itself is... not bad, but it's not what you want out of an Asterix game. I think that's ultimately the whole problem behind the game. The strategy bit? It's not bad. It's really basic and a little unfair and a bit tiresome, but it does what it does and it does it half-decent. But everything else, the 3D platforming, the mini-games, are framed around how you access them.

Because that's another thing worth mentioning - the Romans can re-conquer areas, including the sectors with the ingredients! And when that happens you've gotta conquer them again - meaning you need to play those stages and mini-games again! In some cases it's not too bad, the stages are all pretty straightforward, and the French Alps stage I could breeze through once I'd finished it because I'd played the damn thing so many times...

... but that's kind of a problem, innit? The stages end up becoming a punishment for not playing the strategy game efficiently. And after losing and re-conquering the French Alps five times, what's the point of challenging me with it again?

The game is... not loooong, but it's not quite linear. It's not like a straightforward "play these levels in a row" sort of affair. They're distractions peppered throughout a strategy game, and the strategy game is for all intents and purposes the be-all - well, it's hard to say what's considered the meat and bones of the game! The platforming probably had more programming go into it - the animations, controls, enemy behaviour and whatnot... but it's not that interesting!

It's novel to see Asterix characters beat each other up in 3D, replicating the exaggerated slapstick through counterattacks and so on, cute details like that, but... if what you want is to play as Asterix and Obelix in 3D beating up dudes, it's not enough! And you're wading through a rather dreck strategy game to get to it! And if the strategy game is your jam, then you've gotta wade through these bloody awful platforming stages that are mandatory hindrances in the way of your end goal! (and if the mini-games are your favourite then i'd suggest calling a head-doctor)

I don't know. It's not a good game. I think I love trying to work out a game's design, how it worked on paper and how it's all meant to tie together, and there's something to respect once I see what they were going for. It might not have worked, but I understood the direction! A mixture of all the action you saw in the Asterix comics - making minigames out of the slapstick, Asterix and Obelix beating up swathes of dudes, a little bit of warfare stuff, it's all there.

... it's just not really that fun!

The best I can say is check it out if it sounds interesting to you. I'm glad I finished it just to have it off my chest. Chock it off, it's gone, it's no longer a worry, I can plug ahead in my life unhindered! It wasn't really worth it, but it's too late to say that now!

Captain America & The Avengers

Arcade
Nov 09

I was still a bit salty after the SNES version - holy cow is that version bad! - and I figured I should wash the stench off with the definitive edition. I wanted to play the real experience, see what tactics I could bring to it, and maybe sometime in the future, try and work towards a one credit run? It'd be tough and kind of a worthless endeavour, but it could be fun!

It's amazing to see the original arcade version in action after suffering through the bloody SNES version for over a month. It's a fast-moving game! The open arenas and small sprites mean the action is very zippy and acrobatic in comparison to the likes of Final Fight. It does result in basic punches lacking the same oomph as those types of games, but the variety of moves and enemy types do make up for it. There's a surprising amount of moves using only two buttons and a joystick, and for only having like three enemy grunt sprites, they manage to milk a lot of different attack behaviours out of them.

The shooter segments are a nice change of pace. They're fast! And there's lots of enemies on-screen! WOW!!! Once again, I've been so acquainted with the slow as molasses SNES version and how the game felt like it was choking the poor hardware just to support three enemies on-screen. But no, the arcade shmup segments are... well, shmup segments! They're dirt simple and boast even less complexity than those in Super Mario Land, but little details like being able to destroy enemy projectiles make it an entertaining challenge. (yes, the SNES version lacked that ability too, surprise surprise)

That also reminds me, the SNES version has a few quirks the arcade version lacks, and the most beneficial of them was the ability to stay suspended in midair almost infinitely so long as you spammed your laser. The arcade version lets you use it once, and any other aerial attack will just be the dive slam. It's a good balance change, honestly - you only required it in the home port because it was so ungodly brutal.

The bosses are still a bit bullshit at times in the arcade, and some of them I still couldn't work out a pattern for - I need to challenge Ultron and find a method to his madness. But even minor changes like not falling to the floor after hit you take means a lot, and makes even the most hectic battles less frustrating. Cap can take a punch too, y'know!

Long story short: the arcade game still has all the foibles of arcade games where it's designed to kill you quickly and suck up your quarters, but it still feels somewhat balanced. The player has enough versatility, enough moves at their disposal that if they know how to use them, can get them out of most sticky situations. Bosses feel 'paced' - they don't spam their attacks like even the most basic grunts of the SNES port. The arcade version plays like an actual enjoyable game! Fancy that!

Not to mention it's full of great little details. The graphics really are superb. The player characters have stacks of animation, and the grunt enemies are all these cute looking robots - very Data East! Real reminiscent of Atomic Runner Chelnov. There's a plethora of great voice clips full of dodgy acting and delivery, but it only adds to the charm. Between missions there are comic book panels explaining the story, and some of these sequences made me laugh my ass off. The prelude to the final mission shows Red Skull has a cannon that will destroy "not only America, but the entire Earth." I was still cackling a minute into the level.

The backdrops, at least for the first couple of stages, look like real painted stuff, bristling with texture and details that aren't even necessary; the sprites pop out from them nicely as well, there's no clarity issues here. Even little touches like when a boss is low on health, it replaces the boss music with an up-tempo version of the heroes' theme, highlighting the dramatic turnaround. I'm biased as heck, especially after playing a rotten port of it, but I just loved noticing these little bits of polish that go a long way to creating a lasting impression.

I was playing with the intention of getting a feel for the game more than hitting the ground running... and I finished the game using 14 lives. Oof! I used half that amount on the SNES version. One thing I'd forgotten until watching the attract mode afterwards was just how many moves there were - I'd totally forgotten about the guard function! I oughta replay and make full use of them, I'll be intrigued to see where some of these attacks can be applied.

It's not a top-tier beat-em-up - I imagine after a few replays I'll be seeing its low points from a mile away - but as far as licensed games go it's relatively solid. If you're in the mood for a quick half-hour romp with meaty explosions, acrobatic combat and bombastic voice acting, here's one option to look into!

Portal

PC (Steam)
Nov 12 ~ 13

I played this yonks ago on The Orange Box when I first got my Xbox 360, but just never really got into it. My brother urged me to get Portal 2 so we could do co-op sometime (as of this writing: hasn't happened yet!), so I figured I might as well finish this one first.

It's that game where you shoot portals and stuff goes in one end and out the other and you use that to solve puzzles. It's interesting! I can see why the game was such a big deal; this was among the first first-person games to not have -shooter attached to the end, and the stuff it does is frightfully nifty. Working out the puzzles is a bit head-wracking, especially without a faraway viewpoint to assess the whole situation, but it's satisfying when it all works out.

The game is bloody nauseating, though. I would've finished it in one sitting, but playing the game on a projector was probably a bad idea - the constant flipping upside-down and righting myself before flipping around again just made my stomach churn. Barfarama city.

How long has it been since the game came out? Seven, eight years? The game still holds up, and finally playing it for the first time I can see how it charmed so many people. It's a kooky atmosphere with a great balance of intrigue and dark humour, and it was a fresh take on first-person gameplay that probably opened the floodgates for people to do more with the genre than just shooting guns. Art games, exploration games, puzzle games - there's more to first-person now than just headshots!

That said, it's also disheartening to play the game and experience how neat and fresh it is, when for the longest time I'd only been exposed to the internet's meme-ification of it.

Going back a bit: I like Undertale. I couldn't get enough of it! But people got sick of hearing about it. Lemme tell you about Undertale - have you played Undertale yet - you gotta check out Undertale! I saw a forum thread recently titled "I can't go a single day without seeing that fucking Undertale skeleton". And, yeah, that about sums it up. It's great to know people are loving Undertale, just like people were really loving Portal nearly a decade ago... but at the same time, give us some room, buddy!

There's a lot of fun details, quips and moments in Portal, even lines of dialogue you might've missed the first time. You slither into crevice outside of the testing chamber and you find "the cake is a lie" scrawled on the wall. It's funny, because this guy thought to warn others that the robot A.I. wasn't really rewarding users with dessert. You probably don't chuckle because I just explained the joke, but the idea is you chuckle and move on.

Not on the internet! Seeing that phrase online... ugh, it just deflates you. It sucks the life of out of you. What was once a funny little thing is now like a codephrase to let people know there's a gamer in the room. Go find a pier to jump off, buddy.

Even the ending song, Still Alive... it wasn't ruined for me because it's just such a fun song, the perfect way to cap-off all the twists and betrayals that occur in the ending. I know what it's like to want to gush about a game to everyone who dares listen - why else would I write about what games I play each year?! - but in Portal's case it just turned me the heck away. It mutated fun little gags that fit perfectly in their moment into facets of gamer culture to spread viciously online with little regard for their context and what made them work.

My ironic distaste for gamer culture aside, I haven't much to say about the game! It's neat to have something different, something truly three-dimensional that used every plane of every area. I do feel a lot of games struggle to make players 'soak in' the area in full 3D; the Bionic Commando remake is still the best example I can think of getting a feel for an area's verticality with the last amount of camera-panning. It's a niche-ass thing to comment on, but I'm still waiting for it to be done right!

Anyway, Portal's nice. Not a fan of what it became due to its fanbase. It was fine to play; I wasn't blown away, but I respect it.

Meltdown

PC (Steam)
Nov 17 ~ 23

I've had this kicking about my Steam library for a while, and couldn't tell from the screenshots if it was an arcade shooter or some sort of tactical strategy game. It's a twin-stick shooter, mercifully! You run through levels shooting or slicing enemies, surviving wave attacks, occasionally fighting bosses, the usual affair.

It's a very fun, almost leisurely kind of game. The levels are partially randomly generated, the basic flow of a level remains the same, but enemy placements and structures are kind of varied each time. It has the same level of difficulty if you revisit that level, and if it's got designated areas for enemy waves or gates then they'll always be there, but the wheres and wherefores might be different.

The graphics are really pretty; very squat and a bit low-poly, but there's enough gloss to make it feel sharp and flashy. It's easy to say that when there's only a few enemy types and every level looks identical! (it's a pretty level, but the repetition is a bit of a drag!)

The quirk with the randomly generated levels is the emphasis on "random" and "generated". You can go through the intro of a stage multiple times and find different enemy patterns each time, and enemies will literally warp onto the field. If you rush through a level by rolling everywhere, it's common to have two enemies spawn on both flanks, unload their weaponry and kill you instantly before you can even react. Lord have mercy if a shotgun guy spawns and you're not behind cover - those guys are strong!

Playing cautiously is key, and it can be entertaining to plough through the same level and see what surprises they throw at you. Deaths are common; melee attacks have an unfortunate habit of leaving just enough of a gap for enemies to counter-attack between strikes, so you can be smacking a guy and then BANG! Point-blank sniper round to the head and... you're dead! You can choose to use a 1UP which you find in bonus boxes to respawn where you stand, yet restarting a level is never too painful either; it actually encourages me to play better and not screw up so much. Not that that ever happens, mind, but it's a nice thought.

There's two modes, a 'campaign' mode and an 'arcade' mode; the latter uses pre-built weapon loadouts you unlock with your earnings, while the former has an in-depth upgrade system allowing you to unlock weapons, armour and parts and apply a limited number of buffs to them. After completing the game you're given to the option to reset to your default state, but now with more upgrade slots per weapon.

It's fun to play around with and optimise your buffs; some guns are pretty lousy at first, but suddenly after gaining a 20% chance of stunning enemies they become a great compliment to your arsenal! The grenade launcher is a bit impractical, but paired with a revolver to keep foes at bay, it's ideal for pinning them down before blowing them down.

While it's neat to play around with, upgrading or even downgrading your weapons costs coins, so it's not exactly an incentive to experiment with new skill trees. You can sink wads of cash and parts into upgrades and decide to reset, and you won't even get a refund, you have to scrounge up that dosh all over again.

Upgrade systems are one of my pet peeves with video games, at least in terms of working out how to scale it with the difficulty curve or multi-player. Why bother resetting if it's just a drain on resources? A friend on Steam hopped into my game once, which was a nice surprise, but he had maxed out so many times and had so many upgrades there was barely anything left for me to shoot. I would've liked to play more multi-player, but equalising the playing field isn't too convenient; you either pick a crap gun you haven't upgraded or you choose to reset and lose everything.

I think that was my big hurdle with enjoying the game: I played it to the end, reached level 50 and reset to do it again, thinking I'd save up the money to buy my killer weapon combo I used last time (I think it was the crossbow and shotgun?) so I could pour all my resources into them. One hiccup is that you need to buy guns in a certain order to unlock them all, but that's not a huge issue...

... but at this point I realised I wasn't experimenting with anything, I was just min-maxing. I've got a winning formula and I'm sticking with it, and while that's a nifty power thrill, it's a bit boring! I'd love more incentive to experiment, but wasting everything you spent - and then some! - just to choose a different upgrade tree is a real killjoy. I found myself thinking, why bother resetting? Another twenty levels and this playthrough will be over, I can save my money for the next run.

It's a level of optimisation that I found a bit distracting - I'm frustrated I waffled about it for so long, as the game underneath is fine! It's an easy game to pick up and play; it's great to work out the best way to deal with enemies on the fly, or how to make use of your new toys after you unlock them. There's some seriously tough challenges later on, and while the formula certainly gets repetitive, it's a great game for both quick and long sessions. It's optimised great for Xbox 360 controllers too - the lock-on is a boon without being overpowered, and you're still free to play it twin-stick if that's your bag.

It's cheap, it looks and plays good, and it seems to still have a playing audience. It probably wasn't exactly what I wanted (MORE PINEAPPLE SMASH CREW), but I had a good time with it. Check it out!

The Legend of Zelda

NES
Mar 19 2008 ~ Nov 23 2016

Finally sunk a few sessions in around October to get this thing done and dusted.

It's a very compelling game, and it was good to finally get that dumb seven-year project out of the road. The game's worth commenting on, but the epilogue for my playthrough and conclusion of each chapter kind of sum it up.

Good ass game! It can be old and finicky, but it's rock solid!

Further reading: dude what did i just mention

LIT

iPad
Nov ~ Dec

Pal Matt worked with WayForward on this game, so I just had to try it out to show my support!

You play as a teen in a spooky school that's been flooded with lethal darkness, and your only safe haven is light. Using tools to break windows, operate light fixtures or destroy monsters, you have to make a safe path to the exit door.

The game is an overhead tile-based puzzle game; you hold where you want your dude to go, you tap on a flashing object to interact with it, and that's your lot. It's very compelling, though! Trying to work out the best way to use your limited inventory to make a path to the access can be a real brain tease, and the game encourages you to try them again to get your fastest times. The best ending can only be achieved if your combined stage stages are under a certain amount, so that's an incentive to shave off the seconds. There's only a dozen or so stages, but they're decent challenges and make for good short sessions over the space of a week or two.

The game was originally released on WiiWare and I'd dabbled in it a bit, though I'd dare say it feels a better fit on a tablet or mobile. The WiiWare game was still a tile-based puzzle game, but it also had boss fights, 3D graphics, and using the Wii Remote as a flashlight thrown into the mix, which I thought kind of clouded up how I was meant to approach it (though it's been years since I played it so it may be worth a revisit). LIT for iPad condenses the game to the core essentials, and I'd say it's a more attractive package because of it. And it's free, no less!

Corporate shilling (for a friend): It took me so long to write this review that the game's been released on Steam since then. Hey, if tablets ain't your bag, now you've got options!

Escape Goat 2

PC (Steam)
Dec 8 ~ 13

More of the same single-screen intense puzzle action! The game now boasts a hand-drawn art style over pixels, and it's really quite nice. The creatures have a more distinct silhouette to them with characterful animation, and the colours and shadows really give the environments a great atmosphere.

It is a bit strange to get used to; it's tough to tell where the goat's collision is when he's falling compared to the old sprite, and the heavy use of shadows meant a number of stages had me wracking my brains on what to do, until I realised a vital piece of the puzzle was just in some dark corner I'd glossed over.

As far as I recall there's not much actually new from the last one - maybe a new power-up for the mouse - but it eases new players in nicely while also offering a wicked challenge. There are some very intricate puzzles, many requiring seriously tight timing.

To fully complete the game you need to find secret exits in certain rooms to enter 15 worlds of stained glass, which feature the toughest challenges in the game. Finding them is a tough enough job in itself, never mind finishing them - I had to resort to a walkthrough for what rooms they were in.

There's a lot of solid game in there, plus even an option for custom stages I've yet to explore. A dang good game, highly recommended.

Diddy Kong Racing

Nintendo 64
Dec 10 ~ 17 (Adventure 1)
Dec 17 ~ 21 (Adventure 2)

My brother was playing this and waxing nostalgic about it, so it put me in the notion to do the same. It's an easy game to emulate and hop into, whether you're picking up where you left off or starting afresh!

For the life of me, I can't remember if I've ever completed this. Rare's games are like that, they tend to play the credits at a completely arbitrary moment, leaving it hard to recall if I've finished the game or not. Donkey Kong Country plays fake credits before the final boss is even defeated. Banjo-Tooie plays the credits after the quiz challenge, before you've even met the final boss. I know I've completed that game, but have I 100%'d it? I can't recall with certainty!

Diddy Kong Racing's the same way - you beat Wizpig, it plays the credits, then he tells you "don't celebrate yet, suckers!" Here's another world you haven't seen yet! And after beating that it plays the credits again before telling you there's still Adventure 2 to clear, so... when are you really done?

It's a fun little racing game, very colourful and cute but it manages to carve a unique identity away from Mario Kart. It's got three different vehicles, for starters, but it also presents itself as more of an adventure game. You've got a hub with four worlds and four courses in each, along with boss fights, Silver Coin challenges, battle arenas and trophy races, not to mention finding secrets hidden around the overworld.

The overworld and vibe of exploration is a really, really cute gesture, it's something I loved as a kid. I loved flying around the overworld and seeing all there was to see and do. I loved the little frogs by the lake and the springy foliage and all the caverns and-- I just loved all those details! It made the world come alive.

Playing it now I kinda realise the overworld perhaps masks the game's brevity. Besides entering each world hub, what is there to do on the overworld? You race Taj three times across it, basically serving as a tutorial for each vehicle. There's four secret balloons to get, and you unlock Drumstick there after meeting the requirements. And that's it. That's all it's there for - and it's really tiny once you get a scope for its full size! It's there to create atmosphere more than for its practicality.

The stages are quite a lot of fun, especially their jaunty music. The variety of racing styles are interesting, and the mechanics feel suitably unique from Mario Kart; there's no drift-boosts or anything. It focuses a lot more on braking and knowing how to get the most out of boost zippers- letting go of the accelerator vastly speeds you up, but also makes it tough to control. It takes some time to get used to (I'd dare say this playthrough was my first real mastery of it) but it does a good job of providing a new challenge.

But yeah, it's strange re-playing the game and finding a lot of it is almost intentionally obtuse, especially all the items and trinkets you collect. What all is there?

BANANAS: Collect 10 in a race to increase your maximum speed. I don't know if it tells you that anywhere in game, but it's something I read everywhere from Nintendo magazines to online tips and tricks, and I earnestly thought someone was pulling my leg. But no, if you check the speedometer it'll creep above 60MPH when you get 10 naners. It isn't until the latter half of the game there's enough bananas on the track to conveniently collect 10 to notice the change before the race is over. For time trials it's a cute little extra to plan your routes around, but it otherwise doesn't add much. It's no game changer.

GOLDEN BALLOONS: Won from races, used to unlock more levels.

TROPHIES: Won from trophy races, basically old-fashioned Mario Kart grand prix. You need these to access Future Funland, but not once does the game ever tell you what they're for. The bosses say "now try the trophy race!" after their rematch, but never explain how it counts towards your progress.

WIZPIG AMULET: Won from bosses, needed to unlock the first battle with Wizpig.

KEYS: Only four in the game, found in certain tracks in intentionally obtuse locations off the beaten path. These unlock the battle stages.

I'm astounded Rare made a racing game and still managed to cram their trademark collectathon element into it. These items really emphasise the game's exploration, and it goes to show, wow, they really made the most of these locations. They are hidden in oddball locations you would not even think of unless you looked at a guide... though I've a feeling we did find a few ourselves when we were young. Apparently I enjoyed farting about in random directions in my off-time?

Going back a bit, that's one of the reasons the game's courses and world are so good. I complain that the hub is a bit unnecessary, there's not much going on, but... the worlds feel really fun. They're jolly and jaunty and there's creatures flying around - some are obstacles, some are helpful, some are just for flavour - and it helps make them feel active and alive.

These aren't just disparate locations thrown together for the sake of visual variety (well, that too), this is an exciting and adventurous island the racers are exploring, stuffed full of different locales! Some of the levels like Snowflake Village, to me, are definitive of the N64, the kinds of locations I loved when I was young and almost wanted to explore more - not just in a racing game, but on foot to see what all's going on there. Playing the game via high-definition emulation does highlight all the seams of each stage, unfortunately, but back in the day I found real magic in these little maps.

T.T. AMULET: Won from battle stages. It... does not tell you what the T.T. Amulet does! It's not until you've got all four that it says it opens the "T.T. Door"... and now I'm like, have I missed something? Can someone give me directions to the freakin' T.T. Door!? The T.T. Door is actually in Future Funland and locks you out of the final boss unless you've got the completed amulet.

There's a lot of stuff the game throws at you that the manual might explain, but it gives you all this junk and you're left wondering, what is this building up to? I ranted about this before in Wario World, how a game can swamp you in items but do little to clarify which are important and which are mere trinkets.

Even the Banjo games did a good job of conveying why you're collecting this: Jiggies unlock levels, Notes unlock doors in the castle, Jinjos get you a Jiggy, things like that. But in DKR's case you're thrown these gubbins that must be important because they get special splash screens, and you'll have to trust them on this one.

The game makes for a fun little adventure, though I would say the difficulty balance is a bit off-skew. Some levels are right and utter cakewalks - there's no way around it, they are easy as piss. In Boulder Canyon, you are tripping over blue balloons in that level, along with a heap of speed zippers and a number of curves and logs that easily trip up CPU opponents. It's a rarity to see any opponents after the first lap.

And then there's some levels where you're left lagging behind, and if you had the right balloons you could catch up, but they don't offer them when I need them, so you're hung out to dry if you don't get a good headstart.

That's another interesting point about the course design: the balloon placement. Balloons are your items and come in five flavours: missiles, speed boosts, traps, shields, and magnets. You can collect multiple of the same type to power them up for longer or stronger effects. It's an interesting system and obviously far different from Mario Kart, where they throw any old item at players to balance it out - this game doesn't just have to worry about where it places these balloons, but also which types are offered at what points, where they think they're necessary, or to encourage players to work out how to utilise them efficiently.

For instance, the second Wizpig race has a speed balloon early on, and you could hold onto it for the part afterwards which is full of tight corridors and laser blasts, you'd like a good pick-me-up... but you're also prone to crashing there if you use it, so using it as soon as you get it is actually the better option.

I would say it makes for a more skill-based game. You need to know these tracks, the tricks, and when to use items. If you're far, far behind, what can you do? There's nothing to help you catch up. There's no Lighting or Bullet Bill equivalent to pull you forward to the rest of the pack. You just gotta make it on your own. It serves as an interesting challenge.

It does result in the shield and magnet power-ups being kinda fluff. I mean, who wants 'em? The magnet's range is fidgety, there's little reason to upgrade it beyond its base strength, and it's possible to totally waste it if it doesn't lock-on correctly. The shields have slightly more purpose, most notably in the second Wizpig race, but since they only pop up at certain locations you don't want to hang onto it and lose a chance to use other items. They have their uses, perhaps moreso in multi-player, but they don't feel quite as versatile.

One of the game's major hurdles for when I was younger were its Silver Coin Challenges - repeats of races where not only must you take first place, but also collect the eight coins hidden around the track. On one hand they can be seen as a cynical reuse of content with a sinister stumbling block added on... but this time I found them to be really entertaining challenges! It's one thing to know an ideal route around a course, but having to stay ahead of your opponents while accounting for all the strange places you've got to pass to grab these coins, it really makes you rethink your strategies. I often had to do a practise lap of each race, counting each coin and plotting a course for my proper attempt.

Speaking of cynical reuses of content... there's Adventure 2. This is unlocked after 100%ing the main game, and it's just a misleading name for mirror mode. The enemy AI is more or less identical, which makes the initial runs through each course a bit of a slog. I've done all this already! Admittedly some courses are a bit disorientating from the new perspective (I had stupid amounts of trouble hitting the zippers in Snowflake Village), but it's not enough to be a genuine setback.

The Silver Coin Challenges feature new and even sneakier arrangements for the coins, which I definitely recommend trying out, but otherwise Adventure 2 was a bit of a wet fart. After beating Wizpig, clearing T.T.'s time trials and winning the Silver Coin Challenges in the vanilla Adventure, I already knew all the tricks to acing each race. Flipping the axis wasn't enough to cut it, sonny boy.

I've waffled a bit here! Diddy Kong Racing was a fun game to revisit again, and spending a week playing the adventure mode to completion made for an entertaining time. I always felt I'd never quite known it fully, as if there were facets I didn't quite understand; I like to know a game's flow, how it's designed, what you're accomplishing with these objectives and why you're doing it, and this was a good chance to take notice of it. It's a dorky exercise, sure, but it helped me see what a crock of shit Wario World was, so it's got merit.

Admittedly this probably obliterated any mystique the game once had by blazing through it in eleven days. Little kid me was still invested in it even years after it came out, wondering what further sights challenges awaited me in it. It's a fun game and certainly an early gem for kart racing, though one I'm glad to have laid to rest.

...

I kinda wonder what the DS version is like, though.

Curse of the Crescent Isle DX

PC (Steam)
Dec 24 ~ 25

A dinky little 2D platformer that goes for dirt cheap even before Steam sales. The description and reviews seemed to imply it's in the vein of Super Mario Bros. 2, a linear romp all about picking up and throwing baddies, but I'd dare say the game bears closer resemblance to Klonoa. You've got your basic platforming toolset, but alongside picking up enemies you can also hold them beneath yourself, and chuck them downwards to act as a double-jump.

A big part of the game is using the enemies' unique traits for various puzzle purposes. There's an icicle enemy that freezes enemies, water, even fireballs to use as platforms. There's a drill that breaks blocks, and one that enlarges objects when hit with it, which is necessary to destroy sturdier blocks; an hourglass that stops time, a skull that reverses gravity which way you hold it... along with the usual enemies just meant for hitting stuff. Very much like Klonoa!

It's a very simple, linear game all about finding the exit to the next area; when it's not basic platforming, it's just a matter of working out how to get there using the tools the enemies provide you, and in what order. I confess when I first played the game I was just hankerin' for some SMB2 shenanigans, so to throw an enemy into another one and not have them go hurtling off the screen in a satisfying clobber-session, that was a bit of a bummer. Once I acknowledged this wasn't Doki Doki Panic, this was more in the vein of Klonoa, I was a lot more on board. (I keep making this comparison but I'd be scratching my head if you asked me to pin down the differences. Level design? Challenge structure?)

The story of the game is about a marriage between two kingdoms being disrupted by some unruly wizard, who transforms all the citizens into monsters... so just like the original story for Super Mario Bros., every enemy you encounter is actually some poor schmuck who didn't ask for this. After every boss fight you return to the town to find the place getting steadily repopulated... and should you throw an enemy down a pit, you'll see a little human ghost floating away from where it perished. Ooer! It has absolutely no bearing on the plot or anything, but... after Undertale, every time I kill an enemy I find myself thinking, could I have done that differently? Am I punished for this? No, it's just a little touch to make you rethink your actions. Cherish your enemies!

The game is pretty basic, but using the unique enemy powers to your advantage feels satisfying; one particular stage is a bit of an ordeal, requiring you to freeze water with an icicle so enemies can walk across it, so you can use them for other obstacles in your path, by which point you're juggling two to three enemies at a time. Most stages just highlight one enemy type and make the most of them, like the block-breaking drills and the gravity-reversing skulls.

It's a very short game, though. It probably took me fifty minutes on my first run, but then I tried the speedrun mode and collected all the hidden coins in around forty minutes, and then again without the coins in thirty five. On one hand that's charming; it's a perfectly quaint, short little game with a neat concept that does what it needs to do - here's some gimmick enemies, here's some stages to play with them, some bosses, a rudimentary story, and there you have it!

But on the other hand I feel they could be doing more with this. Some of the enemies only get the spotlight in a couple of screens, and some features are kind of bare - visiting the town after each boss is a total ripoff/homage to Monster World IV, but I kept thinking, is there more I could be doing here? No, it's just a breather until until you go the next world, and flavour text is all it's got.

It's another Super Princess Peach situation where I find myself liking the idea of the game more than the game itself. Like, I love the puzzle platformer idea of using the enemies and cherishing the enemies to get to the exit. But you've only half an hour to an hour's worth of game there, and it's pretty breezy at that.

In the game's defence its aesthetic is easily the shining quality. It takes a heck of a lot of cues from the Monster World games - it's got darn near the exact same graphical style! All the bobble-headed and puffy-limbed humans, the slightly Arabian theme, the cute blocky-like enemies, even the big chunky animal dudes who serve as spirit guides after bosses or something. And the soundtrack-- not something I'd listen to on its own, but it fits the vibe well. A real SEGA Master System sorta feel. It's good a good aesthetic going on.

For a 4 game it's a fair enough little package, with a short little adventure that you're encouraged to speedrun, get all the collectibles or play with a pal in co-op (still lookin' to shanghai someone into that!). There's a few little quirks that get in the way of the game feeling just right, like bizarre physics at times (sometimes throwing an enemy will propel the player off the top of the screen??), and there are a couple of instances where if you lose an enemy you can become stuck with no option but to restart the stage. There's infinite lives so there's no real consequence, but it's a nuisance, innit? Even the extra modes are a bit lacklustre; the speedrun mode has no on-screen timer, and the bosses are kind of inconsequential so a boss rush mode is a bit moot. A level select would've been nice, instead of a fiddly password system!

I like the game and enjoyed it a lot. It's not perfect, and I've probably ragged on its minor quirks and quibbles than it deserves, but it's a game I want to rally behind and see more from it! It probably won't be everyone's cup of tea, but 4 for a breezy platform romp with cute graphics isn't too bad in my book.

The Guardian Legend

NES
Dec 28 ~ 31

This is one of those NES games I seemed to always be tripping over when browsing the ol' NES scene, like Flying Omelette's review in particular, and it always sounded interesting. A mash-up of Zelda-style overworld combat and exploration with a dose of vertical shmup, and you play as an anime girl who turns into a spaceship? What took me so long?!

You explore a big sprawling space station and have to navigate the various sectors to activate a self-destruct mechanism or-- I don't know, there's a story reason I'm sure, but they're boss stages, basically. They're hidden deep within the sectors, so you have to find the keys to open them up and figure out each door's specific unlocking procedure. These parts are played in an overhead Zelda-style format, and they're kind of cute just for what they are. The graphics are really neat, with funky barely-distinguishable enemies, techno dungeons and your playable anime gal with her giant backpack and big boots (B-O-O-T-S, to clarify).

The objective in these parts is simply to find where the boss stage is, and maybe find a secret that will tell you how to open that boss stage. Because you can find the entrance, sometimes they open and that's fine, but sometimes they don't and you need to solve an obtuse little puzzle to open them. Like, stand here and shoot for ten seconds. Or walk into the room five times. Or talk to a shopkeeper five times. Or use a special weapon to open the door-- or don't use a special weapon to open the door! Weird little obtuse things like that!

It's even worked into the universe by some means; you find what I assume are journals from the maintenance crew with messages like, "whoops, I sealed this door too tight, you might want to use a special weapon to fix it", or "I really screwed this one up guys, talk to the blue guy and he'll bail you out." And the blue guy is a shopkeeper, so you walk into his shop and he says "I see you're having trouble. I'll help you out here" and opens the door. It's... it's quaint! It's cute! It feels like a relic of old-timey Japanese game design, but it's unique and only requires a bit of exploration to find your answer, you're not left to blindly try everything in hopes of a solution... usually.

The exploration segments are a double-edged sword, though. On one hand, the overworlds are cute and it's cool to wander around and explore, to find new things or counter dangerous new enemy patterns. But on the other hand, it's not where the progression lies, so to speak. There are rooms that have bosses on the overworld, but all they offer you are sub-weapons or upgrades. Those are good and helpful, but they're not necessary. You can literally walk past these boss rooms and ignore them entirely. The only bosses essential to completing the game are in the shmup stages.

The sub-weapons are a big part of the game, though. Your regular attack is just a plain ol' projectile, but if you press Select you can choose from up to a dozen sub-weapons, that require your energy metre to use: stuff like an omni-directional Metal Blade-esque shot, a sideways shots, a short-range laser sword, grenades, slow-moving shots that do fat damage, a rotating barrier shield... things like that! They're really nifty and fun to play with, though there's not much incentive to use them in the overworld.

The boss stages are the meat of the game, and play like your regular old vertical shoot-em-up. It's quality shmup stuff, though! You fly forward, sometimes at lightning fast speeds, sometimes not at lightning fast speeds, and you shoot dudes until the boss shows up. You beat the boss and you either get an upgrade or a key, and if you get a key then you get to open another part of the space station and repeat the process from there!

You can use the sub-weapons at any part of the game but they're most important in the space stages because, well, that's where the progress lies. Your vanilla projectile only fires forward, so you need sub-weapons to cover your sides or create a barrier or simply fire a stronger shot to plough through a wave of enemies. The bosses and some of the enemy patterns especially emphasise this.

There's one particularly frustrating boss who's this five-eyed giant face - it's like, three sets of eyes, one of them shoots out regular eyeball projectiles, one of them shoots regular non-eyeball projectiles, but the last one shoots homing eyeball projectiles... so wherever you are, there's always something headed your way! But it flies around so much your best option is actually to fly right next to the eyeballs and use your horizontal-sword weapon to chip away until they disintegrate. There's another enemy that produces these weird vines in front of itself that are harmful to the touch, so you want to use the omni-directional sub-weapon to take pot shots at diagonal angles. Things like that!

It evokes a real Mega Man vibe at times - how can I use this weapon to my best advantage? - and it's really cool fighting a boss and figuring out the tricks to acing them. There are some bosses I spent an eternity trying to suss out a plan, before deciding to sit in one spot, firing everything I had and trying to drain their health quicker than they could drain mine. If you kill enough enemies one of them will drop a power-up, be it health, energy or what-have-you. So if you shoot enough projectiles or enemies you're gonna get something for your efforts, meaning you can get enough health power-ups to keep you afloat while the boss's life drains away. It's a bit cheatsy, but it got me through!

There's fun to be had. It is quite cool walking around the space station and exploring, finding little secrets and getting upgrades to your weapons. The upgrades are handy, but sometimes they come at a cost, now consuming too much energy that they're no longer practical. I think I got the third upgrade to the horizontal-sword and it just ate up too much energy to help me enough during one boss fight; it doesn't help when you deplete all your energy, your default projectile is reduced to its weakest state! It wasn't until I got an upgrade to my energy metre that this weapon became useful again.

It's a cool game and I'm glad to have played it. It took me about six hours to beat and I was happy with that, though it did get a bit long towards the end; I began fast-forwarding through the exploration segments, for one thing. Some of the boss stages got a bit boring; either the enemy patterns were too hard or too easy, and some of the bosses repeat, which did give me an opportunity to exploit some of my new sub-weapons and upgrades, but I could've lived without it.

Like, I feel I enjoy the idea of a combination overworld RPG-lookin' exploration game with shoot-em-up more than the actual execution. It is a neato combination, and sharing the weapon loadout between overworld combat and space-shootin' is really cool, the same weapons serving difference uses in either mode. It's just... I wish the overworld had more bearing on the overall game. Sure, you spent a vast majority of the game there, but combat feels wasted in it; all these bogeys and nasties crawling around, and I've little reason to blast them. They'll respawn in a few seconds anyway!

I wish the combat was a bit more engaging there. Having a projectile as your default weapon gives me little reason to engage with them unless they're resistant to it; a Zelda-style sword would alleviate the problem, but instead I just stand at the edge of the screen and blast away. You also continuously take damage so long as you're overlapping an enemy hitbox, so that's even less reason to get near them... which is probably why there are some enemies that exist solely to populate the screen en masse with DEATH ZONES. Some of them take tonnes of damage before they die, so why bother? It's possible to die near-instantly by walking into a screen with these guys and not react fast enough.

Still, I'm glad to have played it, and it's a charming curiosity. It's a real video game-ass video game, y'know? This anime gal who turns into a rocket ship, all these weird NES-style enemy sprites, some of them are vaguely identifiable while some them are like, what the heck? What can we make out of three colours and lines? It's real NES aesthetic and I love it. It's probably a game I'd like to study more than anything. I love the look, I love the genre combination, but how do you perfect it? How do you take what it does well and make it gel? Oh well. Sometime!

Poi

PC (Steam)
Dec 31

An early access 3D platformer on Steam, a quaint little throwback to the Mario 64 style of collect-a-thon adventures. You play as an apprentice explorer who, well, explores! There's no big bad guy, there's no threat of any sort or even much impetus to exploring, it's just... go out there and find things! It's nice to see that for a change.

It's pretty much-- I don't want to say a rip-off, but it's clearly inspired by Mario Galaxy, Banjo-Kazooie and those sorts; the controls are practically identical to Mario 64! You've got your triple jumps, your backflips, your long leaps... it does go to show the level of polish that goes into a Mario game to make everything feel right, be it little things how long you jump, how quickly you turn. Poi does have room for improvement, but it does a satisfactory job at the moment... even if I do find myself abusing the wonky wall-jump to scale things I probably shouldn't.

It's pretty early access so there's only two worlds, a grassy plains and a volcano, with five missions, ten buried treasures and twenty locations to find in each. Everything you find and accomplish adds to your "Explorer Points"... which I assume are meant to unlock new stages ala Mario's stars, but they didn't come into play much as far as I could tell!

It's a quaint little game, and very much structured like Mario 64 - you pick a mission and it'll show an introductory camera pan around the objective of choice, but you're otherwise free to run to around as you wish. The first mission expects you to hit some switches, but I just ran around and got used to the controls, and in doing so found seven keys that awarded me a medal. I like that! I always appreciate the freedom to do things without the game saying stop that, go back and do this.

The missions may have fancy names like "Mystery of the Lighthouse", but it's the same sort of stuff we've seen since Mario 64: collect these items, get to this location, that sort of biddly-dop. There are also five bonus missions on the hub very much in the vein of Mario Galaxy or Sunshine's secret stages: stuff like climb this rotating puzzle tower or scale these rolling logs. You get the best of both worlds: you get levels that feel crafted and explicitly designed to be explored and poked through, and then you've the bonus levels that are crapped together from basic geometry shapes and offer a wicked challenge.

It's a promising little game! I bought it in the Christmas sale at half-price for 7, and I'm the sort of person who encourages folks to throw money at early access stuff if just to generate good will and wish them the best... but I also did every mission and found nearly every treasure in under two hours. It's still brewing, though, so there'll be more content in future, and as it stands it's a perfect little something to tide you over!

Addendum: As of this editing (January 2017, yikes!) the game has ballooned in size, with three new worlds, oodles of bonus missions and mini-worlds, and more content than I can even keep track of. Whatever price it's at now, I'd argue it's a good one, as you're getting a lot of polished game for your buck.

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