some games i played in

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Feb 19 ~ Apr 02

If last year weren't a clue, I kind of ended up playing old short-form arcadey fare, stuff I could whack on for a few minutes and walk away from. Breath of the Wild came with my Switch, but I intentionally set it aside until I felt the calling. A month and a half into the new year seemed the right time for whatever reason.

It's the game that got everybody talking! I'm like four or five years late to the party, but it still holds up and I can definitely see what all the fuss is about. I'm struggling to remember what the last true open-world game I played was.

Does Grow Home count? The hub in LEGO Marvel Superheroes was stacks of fun, but perhaps not the intended main attraction. Honestly, Grand Theft Auto 3 was probably the last one I engaged with, mostly for inciting rampages with shotguns. But the open world itself, not just the things in it, are what make Breath of the Wild such a breath of fresh air.

The game's just so tactile, which I love. In a game where you're typically doing a whole lot of travelling between objectives and landmarks, the joys of moving around is such an important aspect. Link has a satisfying sense of weight to him, and the ways he engages with the world in more ways than just running and attacking is terrific. Climbing rockfaces is incredibly cathartic, lending an air of strategy and problem-solving to getting up high -- and how the world interacts with itself, be it fire creating air currents or traversing water via sail or iceberg, is just so dang compelling.

It's a game that lets you call the shots. Some stuff you gotta do the hard way, of course, but if you want to open a door by wedging it open with a shield, you can do it. There's creative solutions abounds, and after growing tired of past instalments because of how by-the-book they felt like, this is refreshing, if daunting. The opening few hours are intimidating because of how little you know -- how does this mechanic work? What do these things do? How am I meant to scale this mountain without save-scumming?? But figuring out solutions is compelling, and also strangely relaxing. It was the ideal game to play in the evenings, simply charting out more of the map and setting goals to tend to next time.

I would argue I was a little at odds with the combat system. Not with the breakable weapons, which I actually appreciated (it's an incentive to adapt on the fly, find creative uses for every tool, not rely on old standbys forever and ever, all those platitudes!), but with the armour and damage system.

Enemies are colour-coded similarly to the NES games, denoting their health and how strong they are... but given how 'tactile' the rest of the game felt, it came as a bit of a shocker for some Bokoblin to wipe out my entire health bar with one swipe of a club, when a blue one would do the same animation and barely scratch me. It's all about paying attention than not at all, but it felt a bit of a crapshoot half the time. Do keep in mind I probably died a couple hundred times and also did not make good use of elixirs or food buffs, so you're entitled to think I'm an idiot. Just say it to my face, please.

It's the kind of game that makes me think, I'm having a good time with this open-world/sandbox game... should I play more of them? And while I wouldn't rule it out, I think the simple pleasure of traversal is what makes this game so endearing.

Jumping and climbing and finding opportunities to use your glider is just so engaging, and the weapons and tools at your disposal are also good fun, especially when ragdoll physics are employed. It's tactile! Sometimes the journey's more important than the destination, but BOTW makes sure everything's entertaining by giving you such neat ways of interacting with the world. it's great.

I admittedly haven't gone back to the game since I beat it, but I'm looking forward to it. A petty part of me wishes there was a second quest that changed item locations or outright modified the map, but that's asking a lot when I could just walk in a different direction, innit.


Dudes gotta jumpstart the sun because shit's fucked, basically. There's a review of this on the blog years ago where I raved about it, and I still love the movie's quiet, melancholy vibe, but rewatching it did reacquaint me with the stuff I was not so fond of.

As grandiose as their mission may be, the real drama comes from the lonely, desperate, isolating journey the characters have on the way there, the risks and sacrifices they've made for the good of humanity. Seeing it harsh their mellow with the surprise snafus thrown their way, and the chain of command getting disrupted. Characters who come across as hotheads have reason to be heated, it's just cracking under pressure! But for the most part they all do the best they can, with the jock going to ludicrous extents in the finale to keep the ship running.

The talk of having enough resources to keep all but one of them alive is a dramatic turn, as they're forced to confront who gets the honour of being killed for the greater good. things come to a head, but ultimately the guy who's feeling remorse over the initial incident that lost the captain kills himself, effectively freeing them all of the hard decision.

The problem is the film has effectively run its course by this point -- that's the emotional climax right there! A story about folks making hard choices and sacrifices but getting caught up in their own petty squabbles, yet ultimately the greater good prevails, glum as it may be. The characters learn a lesson from his death and seem to unite in grim solitude. They've still the last leg of the journey to endure, but there's no more story left, we've had our emotional climax already!

So that's why the movie introduces the fuckin' slasher villain who speaks a lot of prophecy bullshit and kills everyone, basically. It's almost kind of hilarious how quickly the film's third act takes a turn with his appearance, quickly killing off the remaining crew and having big loud setpieces. It certainly makes for an intriguing sequence, and a spaceship is a fun arena to face off against an unstoppable killing machine, buuuut it kind of goes against everything that made the rest of the film so compelling.

Again, I'm reminded how often the 'vibes' of a piece of media resonant with me more than its overall quality, so to speak. I've still a soft spot for the movie -- I just can't get enough of melancholy lads in space -- but coming in aware of the twist, it only made me more conscious of how the film falls apart in that last act.

F-Zero X
Nintendo 64
Mar 11 ~ Mar 26

I keep wanting to call myself an F-Zero nerd, but in all honesty I've barely played many of the games, and GX is the only one I'd consider myself intimately familiar with. I've long wanted to play F-Zero X, but it never really clicked with me on past attempts, y'know? The release on Wii ran at 50hz, which is unforgivable, and the fact a grand prix had six races felt a bit of a slog for a sit-down session before I'd fully committed to it.

My long-standing belief was I'd finally get into the game if I could play it on a handheld; F-Zero Climax was a staple of my train rides to work for a while. I bought a Wii U last year not just to finally play Star Fox Zero, but partially because it'd be a portable outlet for playing N64 games; not that I could actually take it out with me, but still! And that was only because I briefly considered a Vita for homebrew purposes, only to learn it still struggles to emulate anything more advanced than Mario 64. Bloody hell, lads.

Anyway, I got a Switch, and they finally added F-Zero X to the Nintendo Switch Online lineup, so that was perhaps the most sensible option. Hooray!

It, uh, kind of controls like ass.

That is, it probably controlled fine on a Nintendo 64 controller, with its ridiculously sensitive stick to accommodate its range of movement. It prides itself on precision steering, forcing you through narrow passages and between mobs of competitors, and pushing too far will cause you to drift out of control.

On any other control stick, you have to nudge that thing with the utmost care for fear of spinning out. This meant playing the thing in handheld mode was an absolute bust. Great. Love it.

It was neat to properly sit down with the game though -- having leapt straight from the SNES game to GX, it's interesting seeing the missing link between the two, X feeling like a logical extension of how the SNES game played. The physics really harken to the original, machines bouncing around on collisions with one another, and a dangerous pinball effect if you bang into walls.

The tracks are incredibly narrow, so not only is precision steering essential, but attacks are that more dangerous; you really gotta put your weight into it for sideswipes to work, and you really feel the oomph one way or another -- you don't wanna miss and throw yourself into the wall...!

It's got a seriously steep learning curve though. You lose speed extremely easily and for almost any incursion -- braking, bumping, that aforementioned twitchy turning -- which is especially extreme if you crank your stats slider towards max speed.

You also need to hold both drift buttons to get the most out of boosts and jumps, apparently? I know both 3D F-Zero games have some "space flying" tech, but you literally lag behind the competition in even the easiest difficulty if you don't take advantage of it; every jump was a serious setback until I figured this out, but given the placement of the drift buttons on the Switch, this was not exactly fun or comfortable to do on the reg.

Another petty grievance is you unlock racers in batches rather than piecemeal, meaning you gotta put the work in and actually get 1st place on an entire league before you can vary up your choice of racer. None of the initial lineup did much for me, and discovering Octoman wasn't as good as in GX really got my goat...! Bio Rex was a comfortable alternative though, followed up by Kate Alen. It is fun seeing the different physics engines treating their stats so differently between games, though getting comfortable with the racers in this one was a trial, between the controls and finicky stats slider and all that.

While it was satisfying to eventually learn the game and take 1st on the first three leagues, I'd had my fill by the time I unlocked master difficulty. Playing on anything but original hardware is seemingly a less than ideal experience thanks to those funky controls, and I honestly just didn't click with its game feel as much as the others.

I can definitely see why it made a splash, easily a more hardcore racing experience than most other options at the time -- but whether it's down to the controls, the presentation, or simply fine-tuning the difficulty a bit more, I think F-Zero GX is more my speed than this one.

I do miss the art design of F-Zero X, though. Its simplistic visuals are by choice for the sake of performance, but I love how abstract the worlds are. With only a background colour and some bitmap decorations, they gotta work overtime to evoke a vibe, basically working within the exact same limitations as its SNES predecessor. I just think it's neat! A great demonstration of how games of the era had to get creative with their presentation. It's a jarring game to go back to, especially when GX set the standard in my book, but darn if it ain't appealing to my low-poly sensibilities.

And the character designs! GX, pretty as it is, is kind of all over the place when it comes to character models; the in-game models looking the most, er, on-model, compared to some of the eccentricities in their prerendered versions... but then I love how bulbous Black Shadow looks in story mode, the animators trying their damnedest to match the motion capture to this puffy-shouldered muscle man.

But I do prefer the more overt comic book stylings of this one -- GX's interpretation of that into realistic 3D ends up evoking Power Rangers more than anything. X's character designs feel more gnarly, the monster characters suitably monstrous, the heroes appropriately heroic, and everyone looking larger than life... which is a pity when each pilot only has three pieces of art. They've got their pilot profile, one with their ship, and the picture that goes with their victory quote. If you want any more then you've gotta scrounge through fanart or fleetingly rare third-party sources...!

It also makes their changes in GX and the anime that more disappointing. The ladies have all got such powerful presence in X, with two-tone bodysuits, shoulderpads and defined musculature, all of which gets nerfed to put them in thongs for GX. Mrs. Arrow at least looks like a body builder, but it stinks to see them made so bland...!

Panzer Dragoon Remake

Worthless opinions incoming! I've never played a Panzer Dragoon before, and I've heard dodgy things about MegaPixel Studio's output, so I've got nothing meaningful to add on how it stacks up to the Saturn original, even after playing both of them.

It's a solid little Star Fox-like, a 3D auto-scroller about blasting stuff with your pilot's gun or dragon's lock-on lasers. What's unique is enemies come at you from all directions, and you can point the camera to the rear or sides, meaning to master the levels requires more awareness of what's approaching from all angles, and cutting them off before they get too close for comfort.

There's no weapon upgrades, screen-clearing bombs, or power-ups of any sort, making the affair perhaps a bit plain... but there's merit in only having your bare essentials, and being forced to make the most of them. Making the most of your lock-on laser is especially satisfying, but knowing when and where to land shots to get through foes faster is good too.

The sheer aesthetic and presentation is where it shines, though. This game's got the cinematic feel, its lush environments and especially its orchestral score, sweeping and soaring as you fly through enemy forces. I hate making constant comparisons to Star Fox, but between both their 3D instalments, it's neat seeing how they both aspired to have cinematic appeal, and tackled the concept in their own unique ways. Where Nintendo's series is more a pastiche of familiar sci-fi media, Panzer Dragoon is way more fantastical and alien-looking, feeling very much like one story in a world far bigger than we can imagine.

I played the remake on Switch and the Saturn version on emulator, and I'll have to confess I didn't find much difference in the gameplay...! The Saturn version felt harder if just because there didn't seem to be as much freedom of movement, boxed in on a smaller screen with stuff appearing way closer to you; I did play the Japanese version, and I'm told the American release cranks up the difficulty, though I've yet to find a page that goes into the nitty-gritty of it.

Visually, the remake does an incredible job making the levels look spectacular; I do love the lo-fi Saturn visuals, but clarity is not its strong suit...! It doesn't match the highs of its concept art, but it gives it a fair bash.

The remake totally bungles the cutscenes, though; they look wooden and janky, overcompensating with needless flair that only muddies what's meant to be the central focus. Seeing the intro for the first time was a shaky experience, and I foolishly thought, "well, maybe it's like this because they're being really authentic to the original." Nope, the Saturn's FMVs are directed way better, do an exceptional job conveying the action and visuals, and still hold up as terrifically directed animations, honestly. It's a bummer seeing something so essential to conveying its identity get mishandled in what's otherwise a decent looking remake...!

I haven't the long-standing familiarity with this game as many SEGA diehards have, so I can't really say how well the gameplay stacks up under new management. I will say the Saturn version was definitely tougher; I could barely tell the difference between the difficulty options in the remake, and since all you unlock after beating the game are options to make it easier, I hadn't much incentive to come back to it.

It's neat to see SEGA acknowledge the series again and give it a bit of spit and polish, and for a game that cost peanuts on sale I can't complain too much, but there's a petty feeling of "oh, that's it?" about it. I enjoyed it, but there's not much drawing me back or inciting enthusiasm for more remakes; maybe SEGA just oughta bite the bullet and fund proper Saturn emulation...!

Blazing Beaks
Switch / PC

I got this for all of £1 in the Christmas sale last year, hoping it'd make a good handheld twin-stick shooter... only to run into hiccups with it even wanting to start up in handheld mode. That issue seemed to resolved itself down the line, but even on first play it just didn't quite click with me, and it took a while before I truly sat down and got acquainted with it.

It's a twin-stick shooter roguelike! Run around single-screen stages, kill all the enemies to open the exit, simple as. You have a gun and an ability, which by default is an evasive dash, though you can swap out ability items when you find out. Each character has a different default weapon and some native perks -- longer range, enemies have a chance of exploding when they're killed, stuff like that.

Enemies drop hearts and coins, the latter of which can buy new guns in the shop, but they also drop "artifacts", which give you a hazard or debuff of some kind. Slower speed, less range, reducing maximum HP, even stuff like coins hurting you or spawning a lethal ghost every piece of destructible terrain you break. They're often absurd and require you to adapt in strange new ways -- forgetting what effects are in play can be lethal in some cases!

Each artifact increases your risk metre, and can be cashed in at the shop for items that serve as permanent buffs -- sometimes a trade-off, but usually beneficial. But the levels, their contents and their exits are random, so you don't know when you'll find the next shop, or even have to fight a boss before the next one. Is it worth racking up debuffs for the big payout, or do you take the out while you still can?

The game didn't gel with me for a long time until I figured this out -- both the assumed lack of handheld mode and its somewhat frosty first impression left me a bit disappointed, but as usual with roguelikes, figuring out the ebb and flow turned me around on it.

Some artifacts are easier to live with than others, but it's still easy to come a cropper due to a debuff I'd forgotten or even just enemies getting punchy unexpectedly. There's an artifact that clones every enemy on-screen when you take a hit, which is nasty when you don't mean it, but when you're farming for items, it's a godsend!

Each bird's individual perks make a difference in how you approach enemies, items and secrets. Slacker was a longtime favourite for his strong default weapon and discount on purchases, but losing speed for every hit is a real hazard during some boss fights, particularly the desert one. Enigma was a fun alternative for getting a random new weapon on every stage, meaning coins are unnecessary except for the random heart vending machines. Penguin's probably my standby though; he's a good all-rounder, and while the random chance of cloning enemies can be dangerous, it just means more item drops!

The game has six worlds, and as is the norm you start from the beginning whenever you die, so you gotta wade through them all over again no matter how far you got -- world 2 ends in branching paths, so you can at least mix it up after the graveyard. Each world has some notable enemy types and iconic traps, and it's fun getting acquainted with them all, especially how they can be used against the enemies. World 2 has gravestones that spawn malevolent ghosts when shot, so luring enemies into striking them can be beneficial, though world 5 can become a bit of a nightmare if you trigger too many rolling ball traps at once...!

If I had to grumble, playing the game over and over did make me aware of the 'rules' it sets on its procedural generation. Certain weapons and artifacts won't show up until several worlds in, and until then you have a more basic set of 'beginner' items. It's understandable, it wants to encourage trading out weapons and abilities as you progress, and not just settling for the best gun right off the bat...

... but when you get so acquainted with that early-game stuff, sometimes you just wanna bust loose and play with the fun toys! Arguably the option to just start at a later world or even on the second loop would bypass that, and starting at a disadvantage since you'd have no artifacts or money carried over could be the trade-off, but so it goes.

I later picked this up on PC, which has online play thanks to Steam's Remote Play function, I think the first time I got acquainted with it? Playing battle mode with a couple of pals was a good time, though they were at a disadvantage because of the input lag from cross-continental connections. It's a bit of a bummer the campaign is limited only to 2-players, and that battle mode has no option for CPU opponents, but for balance and coding reasons I can understand.

This version also supports mod characters through the Steam Workshop, allowing you to give them a starting weapon and ability, as well as play with their stats. You can't give them 'conditions' the way the default characters have, though -- no random chance of enemies exploding, cloning, etc., so you can't concoct truly unique ways to play the way the default roster have. It would've been nice to have permanent artifact effects -- I'd love to play the game with "taking damage clones all enemies" or "defeated enemies shoot a grenade at you" conditions, but still, it's a fun extra, and exploring the Workshop for new options is a neat distraction.

It's just pleasant seeing a simple roguelike that I like, y'know? Twin-stick shooters can be so hit or miss from my limited experience, but I'm glad this eventually won me over. It was a bit abrasive at first glance, but it's got a simple, tactile formula -- the destructible nature of levels and practicality of their traps are so fun to play with, and the game is at its best when your gun's gimmickry, the enemies and the environment are all playing off one another.

Super Bomberman R

Didn't I already play this? Yes, but on Steam! The Switch version was on sale for peanuts, and I figured, well, maybe having it on a handheld might change my tune...? I ended up never touching it in handheld mode, or at all until I was house-sitting and decided to replay the campaign on easy mode. I'd dare say that alleviated a lot of my prior complaints?

The bosses aren't nearly as drawn-out, and for whatever reason it just felt like a more pleasant experience this time around. Is the game actually different from the Steam version, be it in collision detection or graphics fidelity and clarity? Or was it just psychosomatic? I've no idea, i was just happy to have an okay time with the game. It's still no masterpiece, and definitely not the direction I'd want them to continue going without some serious overhauls, but, well, nice gestures and all that.

I did get the chance to play the campaign in co-op at long last! Not on Switch, but on Steam via Remote Play, streaming my game to them or vice versa. It was my first time getting acquainted with the feature, and one I ended up using a lot -- it's very handy! It's not perfect, and playing with pals in Brazil was sadly a hoaky experience for them, but to play stuff like this at all in any form is appreciated; I tried the battle mode for the first time, and boy howdy, folks weren't kidding about that clunky netcode.

Parts of the game do feel optimised for co-op -- some levels start you on opposite ends of the map, able to cover more ground before converging on the next area, and bosses go much faster when you can target multiple weak points at once.

It doesn't reach the peaks of the SNES games in terms of fun, but finding uses for the battle mode abilities to help each other out does lend some fun scenarios to play with -- like remembering to steer clear of Pyramid Head Bomber, whose instant-kill attack will still harm co-op partners! In fairness, the series has never had friendly fire, why change now...?

That might be a sign the game isn't that optimised for 2-players. The game already has clarity issues in its art design and level design, but the camera zooming way out to keep both characters on-screen, yet still losing track of yourself behind HUD elements, is less than great. For every element that co-op alleviates, it also exacerbates one of the game's core flaws. Still, it was neat to have the chance to experience the game in a new way with different folks.

I am the dope who finds occasional enjoyment in the game and wants to find merit in it, but it's hard to overlook its foibles. The first three worlds are a pretty breezy ride, bosses aside, but worlds 4 and 7 are padded with multiple "survive for X minutes" missions that just make me lose the will to live, on top of their already obnoxious gimmickry that makes navigation a nightmare.

That, and my previous criticisms still stand: its level designs are unwieldy, its art direction is inconsistent and difficult to parse important details, and its bosses are muddled and overwrought. There's some fun to be had, and I give HexaDrive kudos for working within whatever limitations they were given, but it's a mite frustrating to see it get hung up on issues that had already been solved in the past.

Super Bomberman R Online: This came out a couple years ago! The confusing title didn't do any favours for what it was -- it's a free-to-play battle royale set across a grid of 16 arenas that slowly close off until all players left standing are boxed into one room. It's a cute idea, if riding on the coattails of PUBG and the like, though the simple fact it's the first time international audiences have gotten a free Bomberman battle game is appreciated; we missed out on the free-to-play mobile games!

Unfortunately, it's a wee bit wanting. Between atrocious load times and queues, it's hard to even get a full roster of 64 players in a match, pitting you against rooms and rooms of some of the dopiest CPU-controlled foes the series has seen. I can only wonder if it's a concession made for the sake of logistics; is this the first online mode with both human players and bots? If so, running 63 of them maximum might be intensive on top of recording all player inputs as well.

What this means is I would do pacifist runs where I'd refuse to lay bombs of my own, and I would still manage to wind up in the top 4 somewhat consistently. To see them uselessly lay bombs with no strategy and still blow themselves up was kind of depressing. Though there's also something very zen about playing passively, even if you could also describe it as not paying attention to the game.

For the bulk of its lifespan there was only one map with zero gimmickry at all, beyond the newly-reintroduced Louie (who's exceedingly rare and not even all that helpful). Later they rotated between it and Orion Town, a new map where every room is slathered in different gimmickry -- conveyors, slippery floors, verticality... to the point where it feels kind of sloppy?

It's a very odd map, one where players are way more prone to getting killed by traps than bombs. Players do get multiple lives, so they're not out for the count after one death, but to lose one of them to sliding into a pit because of a patch of ice does take the piss just a bit. The original Super Bomberman R hyped up the verticality and gimmickry built into its battle stages, so for this game to have none of that until this map, which utilised it in an extremely haphazard manner, probably isn't a good look.

The game was a wee bit notorious among fans for being handled poorly, with an original release on Google Stadia that was practically untouched for a whole year, then three seasons that were shockingly dry on content, before telling folks it'd be shuttered by the end of this year... and ultimately selling it for $60 nine months later in the form of Super Bomberman R 2.

SBRO cost nothing to play (the ability to make private rooms cost a tenner though!), and by that virtue you could almost let it slide. If someone wanted to see what this Bomberman malarkey is all about without having to plonk down £40 on Super Bomberman R, it was nice to be able to point them towards this.

Obviously that's no longer an option, and I believe if you want to play any older instalments by official means, your only options are on PlayStation 3, Xbox Live Arcade, and the flippin' Windows Store...! Good luck finding other players, needless to say.

It was an easy punching bag, but I got some fun out of what little I played of the game, though maybe not in the ways they intended. It's just not what I'm looking for from Bomberman, so I'd no inclination to play it or research it feverishly. Life's too short, man.

The Flintstones

Watched this while house-sitting because I didn't want to inflict it upon anyone else. I've no idea if I saw this in cinemas, my only memory is catching it on TV at Christmas as a youngster and being baffled and somewhat disturbed by its climatic setpiece -- but I'll get to that!

First of all, I love the film's production values. To try and recreate the cartoon world of The Flintstones in live-action is a toughie, and while it's not without its ghoulish puppets, or the general uncanniness of its wardrobe and human-animal interactions, it is a sterling showpiece. Films from the '90s had such a great 'physicality' to them -- seeing these big, extravagant sets trying to bring an alien world to life never stops impressing me.

They're not just making a film, they're making a world! They gotta make the buildings, get everyone dressed up, find a way to make these absurd foot-powered cars practical... make it all come alive, basically. It's an effort I always appreciate across all ages of film, but I think knowing there's something physical, tangible there makes it all the more appealing, not just a bunch of CGI and green screens.

I don't know how you bring The Flintstones to film without it just being a bunch of vignettes -- how do you turn a domestic comedy into a summer blockbuster? Instead it's some bizarre story of Fred becoming an executive because Barney (apparently a secret super genius?) traded his aptitude test for his, causing the Flintstones' wealth to drive a wedge between their relationship with their neighbours. But the executive position was all a ploy to make Fred a fall guy for some asshole exec's embezzlement, leading to Fred being hunted down when the workforce are sacked and having to prove his innocence with his talking dictabird.

It's a strange story, one that makes Fred and Wilma into assholes for the second act and puts Betty and Barney through the wringer. I wouldn't know how else to make a Flintstones movie, to be honest, but it just seems a bizarre take on the material, a plot that's both low-key and too much, yet not enough of one or the other. It's fine, it's just... not great??

It does give the film an excuse to go through the usual locations and setpieces -- domestic situations, all over the worksite, across town, bowling with the Water Buffaloes, the works. Again, I laud these productions, as seeing the cartoon brought to life is fascinating, if certainly uncanny, especially Fred's penchant for gravity-defying celebrations. I do love that kind of absurdity, playing with cartoon physics in real life, so to speak -- the ending has a great moment where he floats up to punch the air, rethinks his decision, and slowly flutters down again.

I did mention the absurd finale, right? Where the exec kidnaps their children and threatens to get them gibbed on the automated construction site?? The third act is already a bizarre escalation so this is no different, but putting the characters in actual life-threatening peril feels like a strange turn -- the only threats 'til now had been angry mobs and being hit by pteranodon dung. Seeing real people in these cartoon deathtraps just hits differently, especially in a film that had been incredibly domestic up until now...!

This frenetic setpiece on a construction site feels so out of a place in an otherwise low-key film. It ending with the baddie being smothered in concrete, his frozen body being talked over like it was nothing, was my only real memory of the film. I was worried I was mixing it up with the end of Goldeneye, so I'm relieved I hadn't dreamt it, but what a distressing image to end on...!

But! I will say, it's the perfect endpoint of a film like this, where set, prop and production values are so lavish. We've seen this world as a charming backdrop, but to turn it into a playground is what we want to see, where they've got to horse around with giant catapults, conveyor belts and absurd verticality. It's no doubt the video game nerd in me talking, but that's what you wanna see in real sets like this, yeah?

The Mario movie climaxed with the showdown across the streets of Dinohattan. Street Fighter had Bison's HQ explored and trashed in every single capacity. While this automated dig site is new and only been seen as a scale model before, to just see the characters interact with these earthy sensibilities is a treat, y'know? I wish I were better at explaining it. It makes me want to play the SNES game and see if it does anything right. I doubt it though.

I don't know what to make of the film, quite honestly. I don't even know what I think of The Flintstones; it's strange to consider it was a cultural touchstone at some point. Cartoons really were in a bad place, huh? For the sheer novelty of its existence (and its fabulous sets), I'm glad it's a thing, but I don't know who'd actually want to watch it for entertainment value now.

Gex 2: Return of the Gecko

Pal WanderingFellow goaded me into streaming this on Discord, and I figured after slandering the series in my Croc article (tell me "tail-whippin', channel-surfin', casual homophobe" isn't a great descriptor though) I owed Gex a fair shake. My long-time takeaway from it was "Mario 64 but bad": you enter a world, you choose your objective, you fumble around to eventually collect a remote that unlocks new worlds, yadda yadda. But I'd dare say it was enlightening to finally play it, and I would argue there is merit to the game...!

First of all, it's a real technical showcase for Crystal Dynamics. The PlayStation quite infamously struggled to handle the wide-open 3D spaces that the Nintendo 64 revelled in, on account of limited memory and CD loading times and all that; it's why a lot of games relied on compact boxed-in areas, fog, or outright pointing the camera away from the draw distance. Every time the game boots it flies through all the locales of the game before winding up at the main menu; a frivolous teaser of what's to come, but also the devs lauding, "look what we can do!"

Not unlike Mario 64, you enter a level from the hub and choose a objective to pursue, but compared to most other 3D collect-a-thons, its levels are framed a little more like linear challenges, per se, with a defined beginning and end. There might be branching paths or distinct areas designated for a particular mission, but there is a clear endpoint to the level, usually the default mission, and taking on the other objectives will take you off the beaten path into new areas.

The results do vary, naturally, but the best ones do a great job presenting a sense of flow to the world and are rife with setpieces, giving the player something distinct to do. The first toon world is pretty basic, but the second one has eye-catching challenges like scaling a boulder-laden cliff or jumping along tilting girders. I addressed in my Croc article how 3D platformers leaned towards exploration over actual platforming challenges, so it's nice to see Gex do good on the jumping front.

Each of the world themes feel distinct not just in visuals, but in what types of challenge they present: the cyber worlds are big on verticality and timed obstacles, the martial arts world naturally focus on combat in between spinning platforms, while the horror worlds offer stacks of rooms and secrets to uncover and explore, though they do admittedly become a slog later in the game -- the last one was a real "kill me now" experience.

It's got a great tactile sensation to it, aided by how nicely Gex controls, arguably better on d-pad than the analogue controls. His jumps have a satisfying sharpness and arc to them, and even his silly karate kick has its charms too; you can't course-correct once you do it, carrying me off more cliffs than I care to recall, but the fact that didn't deter me is perhaps the sign of a move that's too fun not to use.

It even arguably makes more dynamic use of 3D space than the competition, able to crawl along any surface marked by paw pads, including along walls, ceilings, in a vertical 360°. The camera being locked behind him during it is very disorientating, though, a symptom of one of the game's biggest fumbles, but the adorable plap-plop sounds his feet make almost makes up for it. It doesn't innovate in the tongue department though; that button is used solely for eating power-up flies and using their effect, though the fact I can't remember what they even do is probably telling how useful they are.

As you collect more remotes you unlock more worlds to enter on the hub, and clearing boss fights unlocks new areas of the hub to explore. The boss fights are all dirt simple, more obnoxiously drawn-out than anything else -- fighting Mecha Rez as a Gex kaiju is cute, but they're otherwise not interesting challenges. "Not worth the trouble" is how I'd put it, both in playing them and the devs designing them.

That kind of sums up Gex 2: the highs are high and the lows are looow. It's such a mixed bag...! When it's good, it's surprisingly fun! The second toon world is the peak in my book, but all the worlds have such fun locales and setpieces to romp around in.

But then there are levels where you are banging your head against their obtuse macguffin hunts, their dizzying scale, or surprising one-off challenges like bumbling around in low-gravity, fumbling around for where to go while your oxygen rapidly depletes. When it wants, Gex 2 plunges you into a special kind of hell you could never have anticipated.

The camera is perhaps the big setback, though. It's very tight and closed-in, and although you can rotate it and zoom in and out, none of its positions offer much clarity. The constant sound effects it makes when fiddling with it will drive you mad; to be fighting for visibility while the thing's making cuckoo noises and refusing to turn is a frustration I can barely find the words for.

But it also flounders in funny old ways you might not expect. The hub is extremely large and needlessly spaced-out, requiring a huge amount of trekking to find new areas, and not even with any nice sightseeing, just bizarre Greek columns and floating platforms. The only way to save your game or even check your progress is to complete a stage -- there's no other way to check how many remote you've collected outside of manually walking up to each level and counting, which makes scrounging for the last few you need that more of a nightmare. It's shocking seeing what this and Croc 2 whiffing on something Mario 64 nailed right out the gate...!

It doesn't help there's three colours of remote: red remotes open new levels, silver remotes open bonus stages, and beating a bonus stage will get you a gold remote that eventually unlocks a final level. Having them all be remotes seems unnecessary -- to clear a bonus stage and realise it doesn't even count towards reaching the end is a pain, and I don't get why they weren't just lumped into one item; just make the bonus stages require X number of remotes to open, it's not rocket science!

The worlds are pleasantly interactive in that you're busting down doors, climbing on walls, and all the nifty environments you're slinking around, though there are moments they feel like they're missing something. There's so many textures of doors or cracked walls that feel like you should be able to bust them open, but that might be residual Zelda muscle memory talking... and yet the horror world has a few trick doors that you would legitimately never expect unless you felt like crushing yourself against every possible plane and surface.

What's curious is that, menus and mission objectives aside, there's no in-game text of any kind. The game conveys its personality through visuals and voice clips, sure, but it feels strange for it to otherwise explain nothing to the player outside of the manual -- no hint boxes to explain Gex's abilities, that sort of thing. I might just be salty about those freakin' horror stages, though. Don't leave me to suffer like this...!

It doesn't help that in Mario 64, you only need 70 out of the 120 stars to beat the game; what's that, not even 60%? There's obviously plenty more game to play, but if you just want to put a cap on things then it still makes for a satisfying playthrough, allowing you to pick and choose your challenges. Gex 2? You need to practically 100% the game before you're allowed closure; of the 36 remotes, I'm pretty sure you need 34 to get in.

And that realisation single-handedly altered my relationship with the game. If I struggled through a tough level to get one remote (usually the cyber levels), I'd think, cool, I don't want to come back here ever again. Let me focus my attention on the fun levels! But now I knew I'd have to engage with nearly every single facet of the game, warts and all; I can't just throw in the towel after being stuck in the horror world for over an hour, trying to locate all the blood coolers and getting hopelessly lost, losing all my progress after dying because there's no checkpoints in this non-linear level -- I need that remote!

It's quibbles like that that deflate the whole affair, because what the game does well, it does very, very well. It's technically competent! The visuals are great and ooze with charm, Gex looking a treat in low-poly 3D, and evoking its cartoony sensibilities really nicely (with only occasional exceptions, like the ninjas who look like they stretched and bit-crushed a photograph of one of the developers). Its pop culture framing device is hacky and dated, but they at least take the opportunity to cook up some fun imagery.

I played the UK version, which has Carry On regular Leslie Phillips voicing Gex, giving a more mature, "wise old gecko" vibe as my dear old Gex fanatic friends in the 90s described him. Dana Gould's snarky performance of the character across the trilogy paints him as a sleazy, classless slacker, and yet hearing him self-describe as "wasting my days in front of the TV" comes across as strangely charming and self-effacing when spoken in this dapper gentleman's tone. The sort of guy that actually feels appropriate to see in a dinner suit or smoking jacket, not just because he's trying to ape the late-90s James Bond craze.

I'd dare to say Enter The Gecko is perhaps the peak of the series. It's still a very wishy-washy product, with heaps of awkward, fussy elements that are very dodgily designed, but the strength of its core gameplay and setpieces do lend it a lot of merit. The low points mixed with its obnoxious American dialogue do make it an easy punching bag, but darn it, I had some good times with this game, and its approach to 3D platforming does give it an identity of its own. I just wish it weren't so stymied by weird quirks and cruel challenges, as although the sequel cleans up a lot of those faults, it also doesn't have the highs of this game.

Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko

Miserable slog towards the finish line aside, I was pleasantly surprised with what I got out of Gex 2, and was quite looking forward to this one! It's definitely trying to make an impression with how much more open and bigger it is than last time -- the level entrances are now spread across three characterful hubs, each stage is way bigger with no repeated themes, Gex even wearing a thematic costume in each of them, from a Sherlock Holmes getup to Egyptian pharaoh, or "an usher at a gay rodeo" as he puts it.

Gex immediately controls a lot better, especially with analogue input and better camera input; it's still not perfect, but it's on the right path. There's a lot more gimmickry this time around, with more noticeable power-ups that give Gex elemental powers, brief stints riding in vehicles, and even the ability to play as Gex's prehistoric ancestor and overweight cousin, Rex and Cuz. The two are purely cosmetic and totally mute, limited only to brief bonus stages, but the attempt at fleshing out his world is cute.

My big takeaway is the change in level design, though. The levels don't seem to be built with the same kind of setpieces in mind; Gex 2's linearity meant it could present a fun flow to each world, taking you through various distinctive locations with their own unique challenges. Gex 3 more overtly emphasises exploration, with multiple levels that have a central hub leading to other chambers, sometimes requiring a spot of puzzle-solving before the rest is opened up... though when it is more linear, it results in a level that's just a lot of retreading old ground.

You just don't engage with them in quite the same way; there's not the same 'tactile' feeling as the last game, of challenges that feel immediate and compartmentalised. The pyramid stage feels most indicative of this failing, where you fumble around in the enormous hub area just to unlock the chambers where all the actual objectives are hidden; there's no longer the immediacy of its short-term goals, and its sprawling tasks just feel like busywork. Occasional gimmickry like snowboarding, swimming, or camel-riding can only make up for so much.

While the hub has a lot more going on, where finding items and even level entrances is like uncovering secrets, they're overwhelming if not outright mystifying in their own right. They're bloody huge! Figuring out where to go or what they have in store is a challenge in itself, and with no map or quick-warp, trying to find a level again is a hell of a scavenger hunt. You can view your totals for each stage via the pause menu though, cutting down on foot leather just to check your progress.

The game is a smidge more forgiving; 30 remotes (out of at least 49) is all you need to reach the final boss, meaning I didn't need to be quite as exhaustingly thorough with the stages. The superhero and gangster worlds I barely got visiting, both because they're very tough and involved, but also because I was very tired by this point.

The levels just get a bit long in the tooth, with some serious imbalance in structure. The pirate stage has you perform a long, long, excruciatingly tedious sequence of platforming and trigger-switching to climb to the deck, every single time you enter the level, all for the luxury of getting lost in all the nooks and crannies up there. Corn flies no longer award extra lives like they used to, so you really miss the glut of extra lives you'd rack up from casual play.

Its lows are low, and its highs are not nearly as high as that of Gex 2. As much as it tries to shill its sense of scale and spectacle, it feels like a step-down in a number of ways. Gex's level design has always been a bit of a muddle, but I think the previous game's worlds did a better job conveying their unique identity, setting themselves apart from the competition. This one really leans into just being Mario 64 on PlayStation, only -- you guessed it! -- not as good.

Some levels like the mystery stage have merit, but nothing stands out as much as the last game. The technical improvements are appreciated, but functionally worthless when all the platforming challenges are more obnoxious than endearing.

I'm reminded of the Jurassic Park games on Mega Drive, how Rampage Edition is arguably the better game, with better mechanics and more comprehensible gameplay... but I prefer the first one just for its weird, grungy charm. As aggravating as it was at times, Gex 2's gameplay just left a better impression on me.

If you just want another 3D platformer, then I figure Gex 3 delivers -- it's certainly trying to step in line with the trends of the time, but I can't help but miss the direction its predecessor was taking. They're both uneven experiences; this one a bit unambitious and half-baked in places, the former more a relic of the early experimental days of 3D game design, and as such hard to recommend for pleasure rather than study. Neat to have experienced it, especially with WanderingFellow as co-pilot on Discord, though I don't think it's a franchise I'd go to bat to defend like I would for Croc. (don't think i didn't consider outlining an essay though)

Sonic Spinball

After pinball-head pal Ray talked about the score mechanics in this game, a few folks on Discord felt inclined to try it in an impromptu race, though I think they rightfully bailed or game over'd by the second level. Playing on NSO, I figured its rewind function made it worth trying to beat the game and put the darn thing behind me.

It's not just a regular pinball game, but a platform/puzzle-solving game in the pinball framework...? It's unlike anything else, that's for sure! Amidst regular pinball crap like bumpers and flippers and whatnot, there's baddies to bash, switches to toggle, gates to open, Chaos Emeralds to collect, and surprisingly large areas to explore and navigate, slowly working your way to wherever the boss may be.

This always felt the odd man out among the Mega Drive Sonic games, not just for its genre shift, but for its strikingly different aesthetic. I later learnt this was all US-developed, which explains the SatAM influence -- Cluck appearing as a baddie, the Freedom Fighters in the bonus stage, etc. It's got a really funky presentation going on, with a dramatic intro of Sonic and Tails attempting to storm Robotnik's fortress that really makes an impression... that and how nightmarish the game's aesthetic can be at times.

Compared to how colourful the main games are, this is extremely grungy. Every level is dark and grimy and industrial -- I mean, no duh, seeing as it's set in Robotnik's base and all -- with a variety of off-kilter robots and constant scare chords when you're in peril, and each level capping off with an extremely horrific Robotnik-faced robot.

It's a surprisingly unsettling game, just for how different it looks. The laughter when you died or game over'd spooked me as a young'un, and when you have so little control over Sonic, seeing him caught in the jaws of a robotic alligator or dunked into toxic ooze feels a lot more terrifying than in any other game...!

As a parade of gnarly imagery and uncanny sound effects, it's definitely an experience. As a pinball game... well, it ain't gonna win any awards. The game suffers with serious choppiness and slowdown, a far cry from the clean, smooth motion of a good pinball game, but it almost feels essential to keeping up with the action. Navigating the levels is a nightmare, a veritable maze of warps and tunnels with very specific ways of getting between areas, and one slip-up can send you back a looooong way. It does not pull any freakin' punches.

I do respect it for just how unique it is, though. I'm not a pinball aficionado, but I do appreciate weirdo takes on the genre, Pinball Quest on Famicom and the like, and nobody can deny Spinball isn't a really unique slant on it. I can't think of another game like it, with its sprawling tables, lock-and-key puzzles, brief moments of extremely dodgy platforming...! Whether or not that's a good thing is up to you, but I respect the chutzpah. The devs put their whole ass into this, clearly intent on making something quirky and with attitude, which is more than I can say for some of the Game Gear instalments.

The first level is obtuse but easy enough to follow, having replayed it so many times, but it so quickly turns into a slog. It's a surprising amount of navigation and problem-solving required for a ball and paddle game...! When it comes to pinball, it's flawed because it's so unoptimised, chugging under its own weight and with tables that don't play nicely if all you want is score.

And as a game about progression, to be stuck in one place for so long is just so demoralising, and what control you have over your character is so disparate to anyone who just wants a typical Sonic game. I would not have had the patience for this were it not for NSO's savestates and rewinds. There's a reason we were wowed back in the day when a friend showed us there wasn't just a second level, but a third level too...!

I dig the notion of turning ball-action games into something with, like, pretence -- Wizorb and Strikey Sisters both left something to be desired, though giving Breakout a fantasy wrapping is neat, with secrets and overworlds and whatnot. To just be able to see the entire table would make such a difference, to zoom out or pan around, to get your bearings. It'd arguably go against the fast-and-furious vibe it strives for, but it's admittedly a game that's hard to determine who asked for this, at least the way it came out. I respect it, but I ain't touching it again...!


I'd played this already back in 2016, but WanderingFellow bullied me into playing all the instalments on stream, so what the hell, let's play it again.

The breakout title on 3DO and ultimately an also-ran on wherever else it was ported, what it brings to the genre is a surprising sense of scale -- not just in its large characterful graphics, but in the sheer size of the levels, with Gex able to climb up the side of level geometry or even certain backdrops. There's a lotta level to explore, with secret warps, fake walls, dizzying verticality, even though the goal is just to get to the exit...!

I tell a lie, the goal is to find the TV remote, then get to the exit -- otherwise you can't unlock the next stage. The game admittedly makes a dog's dinner of communicating this, as the all-black remote is extremely easy to overlook in the many dark and dingy backdrops, and it adds a surprising amount of anxiety to the gameplay. It's hard enough surviving the onslaught of enemies and traps in later worlds, but you gotta keep an eye out for any sneaky places they might be hiding that key...!

It's not quite so bad revisiting the stage once you've cleared it once, but this is perhaps at its worst in the jungle world, where there are two auto-scrolling stages that force you to endure the first three-quarters just to get a second shot at the remote's brief window of opportunity.

The game does make a lousy first impression, honestly. It commits the platforming sin of starting you in a dark, dingy graveyard environment (Garfield: Caught in the Act, Johnny Bazookatone, it's such a downer way to start your cartoon romp...!) that's not just dull to look at, but rife with muddy level design that's shockingly tricky to navigate at times. If you're not unwittingly going in circles, you're falling into pits of spikes or just plain having a bad time.

Things immediately pick up once you enter the toon world, and it's a far better representation of the game's strengths. It's not riddled with floor hazards, for one thing, so you've better incentive to run and jump and bust loose, especially with the great vertical environments it gives you to play with. And with more meaningful access to the televisions, you can actually use the firefly power-ups tactically and meaningfully, using their projectiles, invincibility or speed-up whenever is most applicable.

Gex is fun to control, too, which helps a lot -- he's got a great sense of acceleration and momentum, but not so much that he's out of control like a certain bobcat notoriously is. Having a dedicated run button helps, though he does pick up speed even when walking which can be a little off-putting. His big sprite means he takes up a lot of space, resulting in a lot of contact with hazardous enemies or falling off narrow platforms; later stages with precision platforming are particularly hairy in that regard. You're not punished as badly as in the 3D games, mostly because the game is so much zippier by comparison, but still...!

The problem is that... the game's too big for the screen, basically. Gex is huge! The graphics are huge! Everything's huge! And as such, everything eats up so much space on the screen, seriously limiting your visibility. Gex can move at a zippy clip, which means Gex is constantly bashing into things. The horror world is full of blind spots where climbing up onto a ledge will put you smack into an enemy's path, literally out of sight until you're committed to it. There are so many blind jumps...! And don't get me started on collision detection, as even Gex's tail whip or bounce are liable to hurt you before actually harming the enemy.

It's pretty tough, possibly even brutal if you're so inclined, and a lot of these problems could've been mitigated if they could zoom out the camera, or deign to shrink the graphics a tad. The former I assumed was technically infeasible for whatever engine they were using... right up until the final boss, when lo and behold, the camera zooms out to accommodate Rez's stupid huge sprite. Maybe it only works because of the small, simple arena, I've no idea, but it's a kick in the teeth seeing what I'd wanted the entire game...!

Still, it's hard not to appreciate it as a technical showcase. The juxtaposition between the hand-drawn enemies and the prerendered Gex admittedly doesn't do the star any favours, but its presentation is pretty swish on all fronts, from its music to its effects to its gratuitous use of voiced quips. Aside from (sigh) The Flatulator, all the bosses feature some nifty presentation, be it a rotating arena, segmented sprites, or zooming the camera out to aid in platforming, arguably making them the most inventive and memorable in the entire series, which either is or isn't saying much. I wouldn't call them great fights -- the Flatulator is perhaps one of the most embarrassing attempts at a puzzle boss I've seen -- but they make an impression...!

Again, a tough game to recommend mostly on account of the nebulously-defined window of when the game could be considered "decent" -- its crummy first impression can't be denied, and it grows seriously tiresome towards the end, with the final worlds boasting incredibly tricky and drawn-out challenges with a dearth of checkpoints.

But it is nice to play it again and give it credit for what it does well. It's got a solid core with the potential to shine -- having greater freedom to pick and choose levels instead of playing in a strictly linear fashion would make such a difference, allowing you to tackle the horror world when you've gotten acquainted with the game in a more forgiving level first. Instead all you can do is dream, because the Game Boy games decidedly did not pick up the slack. Oh well!

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond

The same pal who talked me into getting a Switch also talked me into trying Pokémon again, their master plan all along. I talked a great deal about the series in my ONM Remembered column, but I take for granted how little of the series I've actually experienced!

I also recapped my experience with the series in that blog post about RPGs I've tried -- I played Blue to death back in the day, but Silver and Sapphire I just kind of bounced off of, and I'd never felt inclined to get into the mainline games again after that... but I figured, between getting it used for cheap and the convenience of Switch's online connectivity, there's gotta be more to bite into this time around.

It sure is a Pokémon game! You wander around, you capture folks and fight blokes, you challenge gyms, if you're lucky there might be a vague inclination of a story. It's very simple, but very pleasant. I do prefer games with more immediate action, but there's something nice and chill about a chill little adventure where you can take your time and mosey about, with no shortage of new critters to run across.

Something I never got to capitalise on back in the day was how Pokémon is very much a social game. To trade, to battle, to generally share your experience and journey with other folks, it's a big part of the charm! It was absolutely a staple of school yard discussions back in the day, but to bring your Game Boy into school or generally entrust people with your digital property was kind of asking to be robbed.

I streamed the game on Discord when I first got it, and it honestly sold me more on the sense of community than the in-game feature. Having friend Ray lend their expertise was a great help, and just being able to share the experience adds a lot, letting pals call the shots on what to name these dumb little critters. I still haven't bothered with battling randos -- the metagame's just too hefty to want to pick apart -- and my two battles with Ray left me smeared against the wall. I knew what I was walking into!

Using the Wonder Trade is a particular highlight, though. One of my quibbles with certain games, especially RPGs, is how although there's no shortage of options at your disposal -- what teams you build, what equipment you use, etc. -- you're still at the mercy of what the game offers you and when. It's still a relatively linear experience. The Grand Underground has a lot more diverse Pokémon to catch, but the thrill of getting somebody's random critter, possibly with an adorable nickname and a totally unusable moveset, was all the more endearing -- somebody has to find merit and love in this Marill named Failure...!

Admittedly a good chunk of my playtime was spent farming and hatching eggs, usually rare critters or ones with helpful traits, and then sending them out into the world via Wonder Trade. Having to raise them from level 1's gotta be a pain, I'm sure, but it's nice to think someone's getting something useful out of this, even without knowing them -- the face-to-face aspect of prior Pokémon interactions were probably a turn-off, now that I think about it.

I've zero experience with the DS original, so the specificities of this remake are lost on me. I think the presentation is adorable, but I can definitely see how it looks a mite underwhelming compared to its more lavish-looking contemporaries. The Poketch is interminably fiddly without a second screen to streamline its usage, and it still adheres to its decades-old eccentricities of having vital functions located in different towns, requiring a lot of flying and foot leather to breed monsters or access the Wonder Trade. It's still old-fashioned in a lot of ways.

Though it remains very much a game you can mostly steamroll just by knowing type advantages, there's a decent challenge to be had, especially hearing of the post-game content offering tougher rematches against the leaders. As of this writing I hit a wall at the eighth gym, forced to find a team that could counter the diverse type-and-moveset match-ups the gym leader had. It's forced me to reassess my loadout and really consider varied, hard-hitting options... but if I can't have a level 100 Drowzee on my team then I want no part in it.

I try to steer clear of gaming discourse because I like to enjoy myself, but "do people still want turn-based JRPGs?" still seems to be a talking point, fuelled by Final Fantasy steering away into other systems... while Pokémon happily stays in that lane. Compared to more 'traditional' JRPGs, it's seemingly more simplified with its four-move limit and only having one-on-one fights (doubles battles are still a rare sight, sadly...!), and yet multitudes more complex, with all the freakin' mons, stats, types, and other quirks to keep on top of.

While streaming on Discord a stranger felt the need to hop in and rag on the series, complaining about us playing this and not some other turn-based RPG more worthy of attention. I can understand hardcore gamers being a little upset a kids game is the most popular representation of their favoured genre, but I do think the social aspect adds a lot to it.

You can get a full experience playing the game alone and offline, but Pokémon feels like an experience meant to be shared in some capacity, even if it's simply sharing a log of your journey with pals. If I'm in a jam, I could count on Ray to offer some monsters to trade my way, or turn to Wonder Trade for something unexpected; I'd admittedly hoped there would be more co-op options, the lack of doubles battles or meaningful interactions in the Grand Underground were a bit of a disappointment, but so it goes...!

The Game Boy Advance seemed to be the one time JRPGs casually embraced connectivity with other players, with Golden Sun and Mega Man Battle Network supporting link-up battle...! While I enjoyed my time with Persona 3, I couldn't have done it without pal herrDoktorat to share my progress with, discussing and debating its developments and choices. What I'm saying is I only play RPGs when it doubles as a book club, and I don't tend to take recommendations from people who say what I'm currently playing sucks ass.

I'm editing this in February 2024 and still haven't made any progress, and a friend has since gifted me a copy of Pokémon Violet that's still in its shrink wrap, so there's pressure to beat this and move on...! It was a lot of fun being talked into trying the series again; I can't vouch if it's a series I'll stick with, the time investment's such a turn-off, but it was fun diving in again and sharing the ride with folks.

Double Dragon

And the rest!: [[[[

The Man From The Window

If my Bowser and Kraid articles weren't enough of a warning, I'm playing furry horror games where the protags are fat and have enormous baps. Look, sometimes you just gotta be honest to yourself, and nobody said being honest meant keeping your dignity intact.

A child unwittingly summons a demon from a storybook, which helpfully also includes an outline of where it goes in search of its new 'playmate', and as their mother, you have to take every precaution you can to hold it back until its time is up.

With only a three-room apartment to barricade (and I mean that literally -- bedroom, bathroom, living room, nothing else!) there's not exactly many options at your disposal, and it ultimately comes down to making three decisions, then reading the book to determine where you and the child should hide. What order the rooms are investigated is randomised, a staple of all of Zed_Technician's games to facilitate replay value, and though it took me about an hour to suss it out, it's very much a solved game once you know the tricks.

I came for the fat animals, but I stayed for its surprisingly earnest and people-centric take on horror concepts. I like its approach to horror, where overt scares are downplayed in favour of dread and uneasy atmosphere. Unless you choose to peek through the keyhole, you don't even see the titular threat, instead seeing its prowling the apartment through a first-person perspective, a recurring theme in Zed_Technician's works.

So many horror games rely on surprise and the unexpected -- and naturally, that stuff's scary! -- but this one expresses everything right out the gate, nearly exactly what you need to do, and leaves you to it, allowing you to peruse the book for instructions again if you need to. Heck, it even lays out the threat's motivations ahead of time -- the hows, whys, and grislier details are left unanswered, but it's nice to have one less thing to worry about when you're fearing for your life.

Most of all, it's big on heart, which is my favourite part. The man from the window is just a thing that happens, an uncanny little ritual that lasts a few minutes, and then goes on its way -- it's not a tangible, persistent threat that needs to be stopped, though it would be nice if it didn't happen. And by playing as a plus-sized mom, fending it off is not exactly in your wheelhouse, but looking out for your kid is priority number one.

People arguing that horror games don't let you fight back enough is so tiresome to me, and I appreciate it instead focuses on what your feasible options are in this situation.

Mama rabbit is going to do what it takes to keep her son safe, and that's using the rules of the monster to her advantage, stalling for time rather than going out swinging. There are two bad ends depending on which of you gets abducted, and it's a serious gut-punch to see the grief the one left behind has to go through. What fate awaits the abductees is left to our imagination.

I am very biased, and there's no denying the game's author isn't banking on that in some capacity, but this is a charming little game that offers a fresh and appealing take on a genre I've otherwise little interest in. More than just being a tiddy game, being able to find meaningful merit in its characters, its themes, its philosophy towards horror and character building, is just really sweet.

I just think it's neat! It's not the first game from Zed_Technician, but it's a great hopping-on point to see if this problem-solving take on the genre is up your alley, and I was keen to see what else he had to offer.

Beware the Shadowcatcher

A lonely diner suddenly finds business in the form of a family of shadows, who are under surveillance by the shadowcatcher, storming into the establishment at random to abduct whoever he sees. Your job is... to make their orders and not get seen.

Zed_Technician at it again with another quirky furry horror game, manifesting as a diner kitchen simulator, of all things. The three shadows each have an order, and Sam and Maude have to make it to their specifications: on Easy difficulty they just tell you outright, and all you have to do is consult your cookbook and cook it up. On Normal difficulty however, they don't give you a clear answer, instead listing things it does and doesn't have, and that's where the ingredients and utensils used in each recipe need to be scrutinised...!

Simply navigating the kitchen and figuring out how to make each meal is a lot of fun, bumbling through the various cupboards and steering this plush sheep around the appliances. Only Maude can cook and only Sam can serve, so there's sadly not the potential for tag-team efficiency like I'd come to master in Overcooked, but the two can barely fit in the same space anyway. I admittedly only played on Easy; knowing exactly what I was meant to make gave me enough trouble without having to play guessing games...!

"And I don't want anything with pork in it!"

The shadowcatcher shows up at random, and honestly, until I tested it again for this write-up, I wasn't even aware there were clues to his arrival -- you'll hear footsteps from outside and see him approach the doorway through the window. It mustn't have been audible on my speakers...! Not knowing this did admittedly make the game a lot more frustrating, natch, as the cookers are all in view of the entrance, and being in his line of sight is all it takes to be taken away.

Sam is easy enough to park behind a booth until she needs to deliver, but poor Maude is left to rush around avoiding that window -- she's too big to hunker down beneath it! It meant a lot of the game was spent waiting until the shadowcatcher paid a visit, knowing that'd spare me at least 20 seconds of kitchen time before he showed up again.

The game is spread across three days, seemingly with no real difference beyond how often the shadowcatcher shows up. The third day does allow him to intrude into the kitchen, appearing from the dark wall at the back -- this is the only time I was able to notice him, since you'll see his face for a few moments before he strikes. The only hiding spot is right at the opposite end behind the counters, so you gotta hustle if you're far from it...!

Again, the setting establishes that sense of dread and unease, of being caught in the middle of monstrous affairs that are none of your business, but you gotta do what needs to be done. Maude is a space-case who thinks nothing amiss of their shadowy new patrons, and threatens to teach that shadowcatcher some manners, while Sam is much more real about the situation, but sticks with it to keep her pal safe.

"As long as we have each other, we'll be just fine."

Each day has an intro cutscene setting the scene, from their initial debt and the threat of closure, to incredulity that these high-risk customers are what's keeping them afloat. They can also talk during gameplay, and it's really sweet seeing them express concern for each other in the middle of this fiasco, but confidence they'll see it through.

The bad endings show how losing the other well and truly wrecks them, but it's otherwise a surprisingly fluffy affair, with the ending showing their money woes resolved, the shadows welcoming the rest of their ilk to this safe haven, and even the shadowcatcher turning over a new leaf.

It shows Zed_Technician's knack for lightweight first-person puzzle-solving, putting a new twist on horror conventions. Admittedly that part's superfluous compared to the simple joys of steering an oversized animal around a narrow kitchen, but having to skulk around your own diner for fear of being seen is a fun dynamic, if arguably a bit disruptive to the riddle-solving element. The comparatively longform gameplay and difficulty options do give it more replay value than The Man From The Window, but where it shines is in the character department, and I'm always eager to see the new characters and premises in each game.

Visitors: Marine Invasion

I played the first Visitors back in 2016, exhausted its content in under fifteen minutes, and asked for a refund. I felt kinda crap about that though -- I mean, how far is 79p gonna get anyone in today's society? -- and made sure to support the sequel once it came out. It's taken me this long to actually play it to completion, but it's the thought that counts...!

It's... a... first-person fishing game?? What would you even call it? You're the sole operator of a fishing barge, tasked with reeling in the lines whenever there's a bite and hoping to make a profit. All the while you're assaulted by various spookums -- there's ghost ships that send ghostly assailants drifting towards you, damaging you on contact, and can only be warded off by burning them with the spotlight. Below deck there's drowned souls who'll try to flood the ship by cracking the windows; there's no preventative measure for this, all you can do is repair the damage.

And then there's the titular visitors, aliens who beam down from a UFO to steal your fish. Not a joke. They're otherwise harmless, but if you don't spray them with the fire extinguisher they can quickly empty out your day's haul. If your ship floods or you get clobbered by too many ghosts, it's game over.

It's an odd one! It's a quirky formula, and having played Zed_Technician's games earlier in the year, it's given me a greater appreciation for unconventional quote-unquote horror games. I like the concepts of horror, but the angle and gameplay of most horror games just does nothing for me, while this is such a fun approach to take. I'm just tryin' to fish here and there's freakin' monsters after me!!

You fish until the moon sets, and when the day's done you can spend your earnings on upgrades -- alarms for when the hold is flooding, faster fishing reels, etc., but they're admittedly not that exciting. It's a very small ship, but getting acquainted with it and the flow of gameplay is satisfying as the game goes on, and even little things like scrolling your mouse wheel to reel in a catch is particularly fun (even if I mapped it to a turbo button on my gamepad for convenience...!).

The problem is there's no diversity. Those three threats are all you'll encounter, their intensity ramping up over the five days of fishing, but there's no real surprises to encounter -- nor even much to look forward to, seeing how boring the upgrades are.

The last day drops the time limit, but doesn't end until you've caught 50 fish, meaning a non-stop flow of threats until you reach that threshold. It's tough and intense, and knowing to take it steady is key -- better to keep things at bay and let the aliens gaffle some of your stash than risk a game over letting the threats pile up.

If you survive that skirmish, the game ends with a pan-around of your ship and the text "your father would be proud." There was zero mention of your father up 'til this point, or any story whatsoever, so, uh, that was a fun non-sequitur.

It's hard to say if I enjoyed my time with the game, honestly. Streaming it on Discord on a whim was amusing, but it's just lacking in its current state. It needs more variety, something to spice up -- even multi-player would bring something to the table, everyone having to juggle so many responsibilities at once, in the vein of Overcooked or what-have-you...! As is, it's cute, certainly a curiosity, but a tough one to suggest going out of your way to play.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge

I was very dubious about this game leading up to its release. The first strike against it was being published by DotEmu -- they've since rehabilitated their image by funding niche people-pleaser projects, but I was still burned after their deluge of cheapie no-budget Neo Geo ports...! Strike number two was it being developed by Tribute Games -- me and them don't get on well.

I admire their pool of talented pixel artists, and I respect their ideas at the very least, of creating simple, old-school games with attempts to punch them up a notch. Yet every single one of their works I've played has been... unsatisfactory, to put it politely. Wizorb looks cute but struggles to be the amped-up brick-breaker it wants to be, and Curses 'n' Chaos instantly botches the promise of a single-screen combat game. Ninja Senki DX has the good fortune to simply be adequate, if intensely forgettable.

And then there's the fact that, truthfully, I'm not the biggest fan of the old Ninja Turtles beat-em-ups, or most of Konami's entries in the genre. Being able to revisit X-Men on Xbox Live Arcade was a novelty, though that's what their games seemed to rely on. The novelty of a 4 to 6-player cabinet, the novelty of their lavish cartoon presentation... but when it came to gameplay, it felt like they lacked the tech, the nuance, the level of control of even older fare like Final Fight.

There's a certain 'mushiness' to them that just never felt as tactile as most other brawlers, and after the genre's resurgence in the Xbox 360 era with games that certainly meant well, but left lots (and lots and lots and lots...!) to be desired, I can't say I was optimistic...!

So I joined friends who were playing it together through Steam Remote Play, and it was a hectic mess rife with lag and stream quality that was literally unwatchable. It was a darn good time and I bought the game instantly. Let it be known I ate crow swiftly and heartily.

It's clearly taking a leaf from Konami's arcade games as you might expect, but amping it up a notch. Although the jump and attack buttons handle the bulk of your moveset, everything just feels so much more... tactile. My fears about this taking the wrong inspiration were unfounded, as this game very much knows its beat-em-up pedigree, turning what I considered a mushy and forgettable game into something that shines.

The game's got twenty-something levels, each a hearty three to five minutes a piece, and though the campaign takes at least two hours to beat, it never feels like it's dragging out, it's got a great pace and tempo to it. Whenever the usual brawling wears a bit thin, you can trust a hoverboard stage to show up and break up the pace with its auto-scrolling obstacle evasion and unexpectedly bangin' vocal tracks. Every stage moves fast and has a distinct vibe to it, with fun setpieces to interact with: avoiding stampeding animals at the zoo, clobbering the Foot Clan with equipment at Channel 6 News or the shopping mall.

Each stage also has achievements to shoot for: don't get hit more than X times, find the hidden character, hit an enemy with this specific object, that sort of thing. It's a breezy little extra that's mostly to reward EXP and shove in some cameos, but having goals to shoot for when replaying a beat-em-up is something I wanna see more often.

There is a level up system, hence the EXP. I'm always extremely dubious of these in beat-em-ups, or in any game, because it's something you gotta balance the right way otherwise the challenge has a finite lifespan. It does appear to be mostly passive stuff -- another pip to your health bar, extra special attack stock, maybe an upgraded aerial attack, but stuff that's merely a pleasant bonus, not running the risk of tipping the damage scales or gatekeeping you from essential parts of your movelist.

And that's key, honestly, because the game's moveset is extremely solid. Everything feels good and purposeful, and every character has their own strengths, like April's double-jump and wicked aerial attacks. Even the back-dash that I constantly overlooked has great appliances that make it worth its while. It feels redundant to praise a beat-em-up for having decent moves, but you'd be surprised how many combat games struggle to make their combat any fun -- Shredder's Revenge delivers!

Of all things to praise, the fact it has a how-to-play upon starting the game makes such a difference. Konami's games were so dirt-simple they hardly needed one, but it might explain why I never quite attuned to whatever nuances they had. To simply know what prompts certain throws and have an inkling of their practical uses makes such a difference; you wanna be assured the buttons you're mashing are doing something!

If there's an aspect that could be charitably considered a mixed bag, it's the bosses. They're some deep pulls with great variety, and they all follow patterns that are engaging enough... but they almost invariably have a state where they're totally invincible, and you outright cannot harm them until it's finished running its course. This ranges from them digging underground or bull-rushing around the arena, to peacing out and letting you deal with other goons, or even forcing you to jump over mobs of nibbly rats!

It's not out of the ordinary for beat-em-ups -- Damnd in Final Fight is untouchable when he's whistling for goons to come in, and I'm sure most others in it have a state where either they're invincible or put on a strong front... but the fact every single boss has a state that forces you to back off for long, long periods of time just feels lousy and unsatisfying.

I can understand with up to six players all stocking multiple special attacks to bust out in a row, you need some way to prevent them from just constantly laying into a boss from all angles... but the fact every boss effectively plays by the same rulebook is a serious drag, and might as well turn it into a turn-based game. Krang calls timeout.

Considering all the other ways the devs truly honed the beat-em-up formula, this aspect just feels like they couldn't find a better solution. Enemy numbers and their health is already scaled up depending on the number of players, surely damage scaling the players' attacks and letting the boss shove them away would suffice...?

Speaking of multi-player though: it's good! It strikes that perfect blend of manageable chaos, a screen that's not too cramped or too spacious, just large enough for everyone to be able to tackle their own . Even how it handles health and lives is nicely done; you can high-five your partners to donate a few pips of health their way, and when someone is KO'd you can kneel for ten seconds to revive them at low health...

... but if they expire then they'll use a life to respawn at full health, so sometimes it's better to croak. I'm sure on higher difficulties with fewer resources you want to make the most of every life, but even with lives to spare you wanna be a good Samaritan to your friends!

Here's a petty pet peeve: for a game called Shredder's Revenge, Shredder's not really in it! You'll see him supervising the efforts to get back all of Krang's pieces, but he's lost in the shuffle of all the other chaos going on. By the time you do finally fight him, it's almost underwhelming; we've seen so many deep cuts by now!

He's not as big a mover and shaker as everyone else, and without James Avery voicing him (RIP), he simply doesn't make as much of a splash as he should (and it's a little disappointing they only got the original voices for the Turtles, not April's VA or anyone else still with us, but oh well...!). I think people were hoping for him to be playable, too, but no such luck.

I bought the game brand new at full price, something I rarely ever do, and admittedly I haven't gone back to it all that much, but every time I have has been a treat. It's just a surprisingly solid experience! And you don't need me to tell you the presentation is outstanding. Its pixel art is lush and full of character, breathing such life into these classic characters, and even the soundtrack is a banger, courtesy of Sonic Mania's Tee Lopes and even the freakin' Wu-Tang Clan!

I'm admittedly not up to snuff on modern beat-em-ups; it's a genre I've slept on the past decade-plus, and I feel bad for missing out on any potential game-changers out there, but to play something new that pushes the right buttons and immediately feels rightfully 'classic' is just... satisfying. It handles so many little things so deftly, even the hoverboard stages with their emphasis on jumping and verticality never feel too bothersome.

After the Xbox Live Arcade era of games like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim that made such immediate lousy first impressions -- their level-up systems, drawn-out stages, and sluggish combat killing any desire to stick with them past the demo -- I had every right to be pessimistic about anyone knowing how to make these games. There's a craft to these brainless button-bashers, gosh darn it! And though it's not perfect, Shredder's Revenge shows a great understanding of what makes a good brawling experience, one I hope more devs take lessons from.

Awesome Possum Kicks Dr. Machino's Butt

I can't recall if I was requested to play this on stream, or if I willingly subjected myself to it, but I figure if I can give Bubsy and Gex the time of day then I can spend an hour with this also-ran.

One of the many fast-paced mascot platformers looking to get a slice of that Sonic pie, boasting big, vertical, slope-ridden levels to romp around in, with a heavy eco-warrior slant. Every level takes you through a location under threat of waste and pollution, battling robots and machinery, and even getting quizzed on ecological and wildlife facts after every stage.

The immediate takeaway folks make from the game -- besides the fact this motherfucker is chattier than Bubsy, constantly quipping and squawking mid-level -- is that the game doesn't run very well! Although relatively fast-paced and with huge vertical exploration to make the most of, it chugs and sputters at a framerate that doesn't do its sense of speed any favours. And given how up-and-down the first world is in particular, it's hell on people with motion sickness...!

Still, I'd dare say I enjoyed it? Croaky framerate aside, it feels like you've more direct control over Possum than a lot of other competing mascots; he's not at the mercy of interminable momentum the way Bubsy is constantly. Only having a jump and no other abilities is a drag, but getting such extreme height by bouncing off enemies is its own joy, practically soaring you to a different biome in the appropriately accommodating levels.

It is a bumpy ride, though. The second world is set entirely underwater, neutering your speed and momentum something fierce, but also struggles to make you meaningfully engage with the levels; it's too easy to just swim off the top of the screen and ignore everything. The worlds after that do pick up again... but they're kind of aggressively tough with some especially nasty tricks and traps, not helped by the often-woeful collision detection, so much so I played the remainder with invincibility and access to the level select. I understand that might undermine my talk of enjoying the game, but let me be a pariah in defending Awesome Possum, just for a lark, alright?

He is kind of a crappy character, though. The game's whole schtick is its eco-warrior attitude, fighting pollution and protecting the natural world... which is mostly represented in the trivia questions at the end of each level, quizzing you on facts about wildlife and human waste. It's a real mood lifter, lemme tell ya!

Its nature-versus-technology theme ties into that, but also results in enemies that are universally dark and grungy-looking, and one can't help but wonder about the waste caused by blowing them to smithereens. Freeing the animals was such a nice unconscious gesture on Sonic's part that added a lot to its environmental themes, that even destroying baddies is doing a good deed. Awesome Possum instead makes you fight robot eels in its water levels, which threw me for a loop -- I thought we were on the side of the animals...!

the lakota have suffered enough their mountain doesn't need a furry on it
that said more national landmarks do deserve fursonas
write to your local congressman and ask for them, among other civil liberties

I have to give the game credit for its use of sampled voices, whether I like it or not. Possum has something to say about everything he does, in audio that's surprisingly crisp and clear for the Mega Drive. I feel like it's meant to be in the vein of Bubsy, but it kind of hits differently.

Where that bobcat was ironic and self-deprecating after seeing his cartoonish death animations every five seconds, this guy is dropping catchphrases and tooting his own horn constantly, so to see him just crumble into debris when he finally runs out of health feels almost disrespectful. Bubsy better evoked Looney Tunes sensibilities, but seeing Possum graphically eat shit is like, are we supposed to want to protect this guy?

The game absolutely makes a crap first impression -- the frame rate is woeful, the level design is cluttered, and the lack of meaningful abilities puts a damper on your enthusiasm, not to mention that extremely boring second world. Again, playing with cheats surely tampered my feelings had I been playing normally, but I wanna say there's a smidge of merit in here, something that serves as a meaningful contrast to Bubsy.

Where that game effectively tanks after the first four levels, I feel like Awesome Possum gets a little better if you stick with it and ride out the bumps. By no means a recommendation to any sane person, but if you enjoy suffering through funny animal bullshit, it's worth a goosey, at least in the company of friends on Discord.


I don't know ALF. At least, I don't know him by choice. I have heard of this creature's existence ever since I got on the internet via osmosis, and it remains one of those bizarre bits of American pop culture that boggles me. How and why was the country entranced with the antics of this pug-ugly cat-eating son of a bitch...? I was on a short-lived kick of playing dodgy TV tie-in games with pals on Discord, preferably ones I had no familiarity with, then watching an episode afterwards to see how it stacked up.

I'm also boggled by the fact Alf has a Master System-exclusive video game, and how to even categorise it! A 2D platformer cum adventure game...? Alf wants to get back to his home planet, but to do that he needs his scooter in working order. This involves getting money so you can buy batteries, a ladder so you can even reach your scooter, and so on -- and doing that entails exploring the house and the neighbourhood, including unexpected places like a cavern in the basement or a deep sea trench in the backyard.

It's a quirky setup, one that blends the mundane and exotic to uncanny effect. Alf is constantly pursued by a slow-moving secret agent who'll kill him on contact, making even exploring the bedrooms of the house a mite threatening. Though presented entirely from a 2D side-on perspective, the neighbourhood allows you to move up and down ala River City Ransom, a strange change of pace that seems to serve only to throw roving cyclists in your way without warning, a serious hazard given your repeat journeys here to buy supplies.

It's very much an abstracted key hunt -- you can't access the basement because there's a rat running around that'll kill you instnatly. So you abduct the cat and use it to fend off the rat... but then there's bats in the cave, so you need to grab a stick of salami from the fridge as an improvised weapon. All this to get some gold bars you sell for $50 at the store, to then spend on an item that'll hopefully aid you on your quest. Some of the shops sell red herrings that waste your money and effectively put you in a walking dead state -- perhaps most infamously the book, which regales you the premise of the game before resetting to the title screen. It's an odd one.

It's a shockingly small game once you see the big picture. You could chart it out entirely on an A4 piece of paper -- here's where everything connects, here's what items you need and where... As a concept, it's interesting. Its lock-and-key mentality feels like an attempt to fuse the point-and-click adventures of home computers with something more in-line with what consumers expect on a console, and the mash-up of mundane settings and outlandish setpieces is actually quite charming, frustrating as they might be. Kind of akin to Bart vs. The Space Mutants in its fusion of adventure game cum platformer, but both more comprehensible and also way more obnoxious somehow.

The execution just leaves so much to be desired, though. The collision detection across the board is seriously wonky, it's unreliable registering at your button inputs, and the action challenges are this close to crapshoots. You can't even call it a platformer, because the cave is the only area with meaningful platforming! It's a fascinating game to struggle through with savestates, but when everything is a one-hit death, dying sets you back to the beginning of long screens, and there's limited lives, it's not exactly a game you play for fun. I do feel sorry for any child who was invested in Alf and hoped for something entertaining.

Dragon Bros.

Not you again...! It was only after refunding this game that I realised there was shockingly little documentation of it online, not even a playthrough -- and lo and behold, the game finally went on discount, a much easier price to swallow at £1.39 compared to its original £7. Admittedly £7 is very reasonable for an indie game in this day and age, but I couldn't express enough how disappointing Dragon Bros. was.

Playing the full game twice now has done little to change my mind. It's certainly an ambitious game -- making a Contra-like is no small feat, especially with only a four-man team making all-original pixel assets, 2-player co-op, five difficulty settings with extremely different patterns in each one, on top of all their other aspirations. The latter half of the game plays with more dynamic setpieces like moving platforms and tricky trap floors, as well as a whole bunch of unorthodox boss fights. You can't say it doesn't try!

... it's just a bit blah, is the best I can say. Some of the Ultra attacks for certain weapons are unique, like the laser's satellite sweep or the shotgun launching exploding spike balls, but the weaponry is otherwise extremely ordinary with no spark or pizazz. For its efforts to appear intense through its crowds of enemies and rockin' music, it just feels sluggish and muddy. Even the prospect of fun bonus stages immediately dries up once you realise the Pang and Space Invaders homages are literally all it's got...!

It's got a lot of ideas, but just doesn't really execute on them. Firing your weapons has kickback that can launch your dragon backwards, even up to higher platforms if you shoot downwards, but there's little tactical to usage this; more often then not you need to lock your aiming (which stifles all horizontal movement) to prevent yourself from sailing off a ledge.

There are a couple of "rhythm" stages that trigger traps in time to the beat of the music... but the beat of the music is so hard to make out, both audibly and in terms of note structure, it might as well be random. Pair this with it's constantly locking the screen to allow enemies to flood in, but rarely having a clear sense of pressure, and it comes across like a game with mechanics you just don't want to engage with.

As of this writing I still haven't finished writing the commentary for my YouTube playthrough, but it was interesting reading up on its development through its Kickstarter posts, convention showings and podcast appearance and whatnot. It's technically an unfinished game -- it never met its funding and its credits even expressly state "thank you for playing the early access of Dragon Bros", something they didn't omit for its retail release on digital marketplaces...!

I always want to applaud folks for getting a game or any creative endeavour finished at all -- it takes hard work and dedication to get that far, and I'd hate for ornery farts like myself to take away from that accomplishment. Their feedback from conventions claims it did well with kids, so maybe that's who it's for...?

There's a wide range of difficulties from pleasantly easy to surprisingly brutal, so there is room for players of all ages to try their hand at it if the more acclaimed run-and-guns are too much for them. I confess my response is: if you're gonna make something that compares itself to Metal Slug, you gotta bring your A-game...! (that and the "Metal Slug meets Bubble Bobble" quote used on its Kickstarter suggests a game idea that could've been more feasible and more unique...!)

Double Dragon (comic)

One of the confusing things I learnt about Double Dragon's spin-off media is that nothing has synergy. I thought, oh, surely the film came first, and the cartoon was based on that, and the comic an off-shoot of that, right?

Wrong on all counts, it's entirely the other way round! The comic was the first tie-in to come out, its first issue cover dated July 1991, and the cartoon wouldn't debut until 1993, then the film in 1994. Those things require a lot more production turnaround than a comic, so it makes sense -- this almost feels like a prototype for what would eventually mutate into the cartoon.

The first issue kicks off with some heavy scene-setting by Marian, a police officer going undercover to investigate Oligopolis' crime syndicate led by Nightfall, and whose rapport with the local martial arts practitioners, the Double Dragons, has been a big help -- she feeds them info via local kids to help bust their crimes, but is kidnapped after finding the ledger that shows who they're paying off.

It's the classic "save Marian" premise, an excuse to show a bunch of fight scenes in varied locations against a bunch of gimmicky supervillain types, trying to set up some kind of history between them and the Dragons. It's an attempt to set up something vaguely superhero-y, I guess, but it's just kind of ridiculous. Exo-Skeleton is the only baddie who makes an impression because he's just so stupid.

The initial premise has promise, seemingly setting up the foundations for the first episodes of the cartoon -- the brothers' contrasting attitudes, their sensei, the kids they keep in contact with, and the shadowy force behind attacks on the city. It's a mix of futuristic and grungy, with a lot of common or garden punks, but also the odd mutated freak here and there, plus vehicles that are almost exclusively flying pods or bikes.

The brothers channel the Dragon Force by fighting together or joining hands, adorning them in silly superhero ninja armour. They've got gadgets and toys to play with on occasion, mostly "Dazzle Stars" to blind foes, but also have a flippin' jet on the roof of their dojo. It tries to juggle martial arts mysticism with superhero crime-fighting / toys-and-gadgets nonsense, and it's a breezy read, but not one for getting invested in, y'know.

Dwayne McDuffie handles writing duties for the first four issues, and does a good job working with the dodgy material and making the writing feel sharp when it needs to. Billy is easily the star, his wisecracking attitude a fun contrast to his straight-laced brother, but Marian is a surprising contender -- although a damsel in the first two issues, she can look after herself and has a no-nonsense attitude to justice, forming a balance to the brothers' hardline opposites, usually the one to make the right decision when the two are busy arguing. She also gets to blow up the rogue dragon with missiles in issue 4, a badass moment that makes a stronger impression than the real solution.

Dwayne's run does feel like it intentionally tries to subvert expectations -- Nightfall is set up as the big mysterious baddie, the dragon statue an important macguffin, but by the end of issue 3 both are destroyed, and then the dragon itself is killed, proving its presence isn't key to their powers. The Lees come to blows over who gets Marian as their girlfriend, and she herself chews them out for their childish attitude; she's not just a trophy for them to fight over.

Issue 4 ends with the introduction of Stan (looking a little like "Smilin'" Stan himself), who knows about this dragon stuff and reveals himself to be their father, and the last two issues wrap around on themselves to give way more history to the Dragon Force users, his history with their Sensei, as well as bringing Nightfall back from the dead and making the old villains vaguely relevant again.

After McDuffie's very breezy writing, it's a bit strange seeing it have to put the brakes on to establish a stack of lore upfront. The writing's still adequate, but admittedly my interest wanes in the wake of all this guff, especially knowing it's only got two issues left to play with. It was fun to see Nightfall billed as this big evil power, and then get wiped out by his own hubris. Bringing him back as a big supernatural nasty, while befitting his spectral appearance, is just a bit of a snoozer.

It's a fun reading licensed tie-in comics and seeing which ones will take off, and which ones will fulfil their limited series quota and nothing more; who knew Transformers had legs, honestly? Double Dragon clearly wants to cater itself to the comic-reading audience with its supervillains, costumes, drama, all that malarkey, and I'd argue the first issue holds up as a decent bit of self-contained world-building.

It's hard to give a toss in the long-term, though -- and if you thought the later adaptations had nothing in common with the source material, this definitely pushes it! I'm glad the folks involved got a paycheck, it's a breezy enough read if you want some self-contained superhero guff, but it ain't gonna make a lasting impression.

Angry Alligator
Jul 1 ~ 25

My quote-unquote personal brand among friends seems to be being nuts about all things crocodilian, reptilian, whatever you want to call it, and after seeing the trailer for this I figured I had to see what it was like. I went out of my way to make a USA eShop account just to get it on discount, and I sadly don't think it was worth going to that trouble.

A 3D open world game where you're a newly hatched croc and your domain has been infringed upon by camping humans, and the alligator elder, Wisecroc, sends you on various missions to reclaim your turf and assert your dominance. This predominantly involves eating things.

Eating (or tail-whipping, it accomplishes the same thing) stuff refills your health and stamina (the latter of which is constantly ticking down and kills you when it's drained), and also nets you experience points, which counts towards levelling up, which... I'm not sure what levels do. I think it just opens access to new missions?

You do get stronger, that's for sure. Each area is marked with a recommended level, and it's not unlike Feeding Frenzy or games of its ilk, where at low levels mere ducks and bunnies can wallop you, but as you get stronger those foes tend to leg it on sight, and it's bigger threats like bears or pigs you'll be scrapping with. Not that there's any real nuance to combat -- you just mash buttons until one of you dies or runs off, it makes no difference whether you're biting or smacking them.

Once you leave your starting paddock you're more or less free to go wherever you want. You can explore the world and find new locations to earn experience, and find mini-games to play. You can terrorise human camps by wrecking the place, pulling all their belongings outside the ring. There are baskets that scatter fruit you have to eat within the time limit. And there's toilet runs, where you rush between outhouses to eat their occupants. I... think that's it. I can't remember any other mini-games...!

There is a certain thrill to exploring this big ol' world at first, as your alligator has a very satisfying sense of movement. It's a bit tank controls-y at times, but it moves in a satisfyingly alligator-y fashion -- its low-slung gait makes it sliver up slopes and clamber over obstacles, it's something we rarely get to see when most protags are upright bipeds...! It's not a patch on A Dog's Life or anything, but in a game all about playing an alligator, it hits the mark on basic things like slinking around. Swimming around lagoons and skulking around is enjoyable in a "turn off your brain" kind of way.

It's a pretty-looking world, with a superfluous day-night cycle and a few fair biomes and locales to visit. There's a lot of campsites, natch, but there's windmills, a polluted swamp, a beach, farms, bridges, even an underwater coral reef to explore if you feel like going beneath the waves. It's a charming little resort, and moseying around and seeing the sights as a funky little croc is a pleasant way to get introduced to the game.

The game looks pretty, even if the creature design is a bit hit-or-miss. The alligators look fantastic, I love them, they're incredible, hashtag good crocs. Some of the other animals, not so much. They've got a bug-eyed look, kind of like the dog from The Mitchells Versus The Machines; it helps make you not feel too bad about killing them, but it does make the art design feel a tad lopsided. There is something pleasing in simply exploring the world at first, because it is a big world... and also a very little one.

That's the problem, it's the best first impression you ever get from the game, and it never, ever, rises to any sort of height. There's very little fun about the game. There's so little to actually do! Sure, there's activities and objectives, but none of them are fun, or engaging, or anything more than busywork, honestly.

Eating things is all right, but all you do is approach something until the mouth icon appears, then munch. It hasn't exactly got oomph. You could make an Adventure Island comparison in that since your stamina is always draining, you need to be eating somewhat constantly... but unless you're exploring out in the sticks or out at sea, it's never really an issue.

Eating is the primary way of getting experience points, and eating humans gets you the most. The game has a number of features that suggest humans should be an actual threat, like an 'awareness' system for sneaking around them undetected -- you do get to one-shot them if they haven't seen you, but it doesn't matter because no matter what level you are, humans are probably the easiest foes because you can just stun-lock them with every attack, and get a full health refill for beating them, so what's the point?

So eating quickly becomes busy work, especially when it's so hard to keep up with animals. You do get faster as you level up, and you unlock a couple of items throughout the game that can help chase down prey, but the rocket booster doesn't come until the very end of the game, and the crocodile companion is not only slower than you, but seemingly won't target prey until you're practically on top of them. So again, what's the point?

The game does have achievements that earn you extra experience points, but they are literally just... eat ten squirrels. Eat twenty squirrels. Take 800 damage from humans. Take 800 damage from eating junk. It's numbers! It's nothing interesting! I finally paid attention to them in the late game when I was looking for anything to give me a break from just eating animals ad nauseam for 10~20 minutes to level up... and achievements were not the answer.

The progression, such as it is, is talking to Wisecroc and being given an objective, which is mostly just a prolonged introduction to the game's features -- tutorials for mini-games, scouting out areas, or getting your item unlocks. It's a neat way of being drip-fed objectives across the world, but it's actually shockingly hard to find Wisecroc's dens at times...! They are marked on your map and they even glow, yet it's easy to overlook them if you're looking at them from a funny angle.

The four bits of gear you acquire from these missions include a boombox to make humans break into defenceless dance; a baby croc you can summon to hunt critters on your behalf; a spiked barb to tail-whack things better; and a set of rocket boosters to travel fast. The baby croc is a cute companion and the most immediately useful, with only a minute's cooldown between uses... but it never upgrades to match your stats, so it's not long before it's functionally useless because you can catch prey before it even sees it.

Again, the idea of earning new functionality is neat, but it ends up more bother than it's worth. The boombox and rockets both require batteries or fuel to use them, forcing you to go scavenging if you want to make repeated use of them, and the spike barb requires you to sharpen it on a rock... but only specific types of rocks, with no indication what you're looking for. I only found one at the very end of the game, and the rock grants a few uses before you're expected to find another one to 'mine'. It's only required for knocking down wire fences, so only at the endgame was it necessary, I just found tricksy ways to get around them instead.

Anyway, Wisecroc's missions are rarely that exciting, and consist mostly of being told to go places. Not to do things there, just to visit! And even that becomes a farce when you're told to go some place to fight a boss, only to be immediately told, oh no, you're too weak to fight them because I say so! Go away and level up some more.

There's bosses, by the way! The only notable one is the shark, which you fight far out at sea and have to chase down using your rocket booster, making it far more of an ordeal than it needs to be -- stocking up on rocket fuel before venturing out, and hoping you beat the boss before you starve to death, because I couldn't find much food out there! That's the only boss worth mentioning, because even the final one is barely any different from any other fight in the game. I mentioned the combat stinks, didn't I?

Speaking of things that don't contribute much, one of the first things you're introduced to in the game are drones: little flying camera things that'll shoot at you unless you hide in tall grass. Right out the gate the game emphasises this stealth mechanic -- you're frail little baby croc after all, and no match for a mounted machine gun! It gives you the impression that stealth is vitally important, downright essential for taking down prey.

... not really! Stealth's pointless. I mean, everything is unnecessary, it's that kind of game. And these drones feel like a red herring, as they go otherwise unexplained and unexplored in the story, and seem to show up totally at random, without warning. They're easily the toughest hazard the game can throw at you, but they don't exactly facilitate any of the game's strengths either, whatever those may be.

And that's the thing! It's just... a shockingly boring game.

Like, as a thing to look at, it's pretty. Walking around as a crocodile is satisfying. Exploring this world as a crocodile is satisfying. But doing anything in this world... not so much! There is so little fun about this! There's some brief moments of joy to be had eating people in the crapper or strapping rockets to your side, but... it's... just... boring. There is no engagement here. You eat things to get stronger, you unlock abilities that are next to worthless, and you keep doing the same thing over and over until the game says you're done.

And there's not even much of a story to string you along? Wisecroc tells you everything to do, asserting yourself as king of the turf by muscling out the competition, culminating in Ali G, the biggest croc of them all. Then the ending says he and all the other bosses were good guys, actually, and everyone's friends now, but implies there's mysterious goings-on at the barn... but if there's any post-game content, I can't find it.

There are collectibles you can find, including diary pages from the viewpoint of your croc learning about the world -- the fact it's in cutesy lolcat speak and refers to humans as "hoomans" was a bit too schmaltzy to digest. To play more of the game was to realise... oh, this is it. This is all it's got, and no amount of progression is going to change that perception.

It stinks, because I want more animal games! Taking control of something on four legs is immediately so much fun if done right, and while this game flounders on motive and missions and general reason to engage with the world around you, roaming around is a blast. To explore as something long and low to the earth just hits different, and it's a shame a game like that only comes along every console generation or two -- I guess Stray is the newest one that made a splash? I'm biased, of course, but I think there's concepts to be explored there, whether it's playing as a bird or a squirrel or a dragon or whatever.

Angry Alligator just makes me depressed. I spent $15 on this thing on discount, and I couldn't imagine how hard it'd sting to pay full price. Maybe kids would enjoy it? I don't know, I just find it such a banal approach to game design. It's just... nothing happens! You run around doing the same thing, seeing a number go up, and you're not even having fun during it. A lot of games can be boiled down to "number goes up", and I'm aware of the hypocrisy of repetitive games -- when is it boring, and when is it cool and compelling?

Visuals aside, there's nothing in the gameplay to actually latch onto here. Maybe on paper the ideas were exciting, but the execution is just... I've said enough already. I'm angry talking about it. Ironic, I know.

The Adventures of Gilligan's Island

Still on my short-lived kick of playing tie-in games to TV shows I'm only aware of through pop culture osmosis, and have otherwise never seen a second of. I'm eternally fascinated by this era of gaming when they'd make a tie-in to just about anything, even twenty year old sitcoms. Who asked for this, why does this exist, and what did the Japanese development studio make of it when it was dropped in their lap?

I can only imagine it was a cheap license to acquire, possibly made to sway family members buying stuff for their kids more than anything else... unless the show was still that relevant because of reruns? I've no idea. I don't believe the show was even broadcast in the UK beyond the '70s.

Despite its sitcom-like pretence at the start of each chapter, it's a very mysterious game at first glance. You play as Skipper, who can jump and punch, the latter of which doesn't seem to accomplish much. You walk around long horizontal screens, following paths to more identical corridors of jungle; Gilligan and Skipper share constant banter, lending a fun bit of personality to the game, but it doesn't help clue you in on where you're going or what you're meant to be doing...!

Gilligan is your perpetual tag-along, forever terrified and terrorised by whatever wild animals are currently assaulting you, and you have to account for his short attention span and spotty pathfinding to make sure he doesn't get left behind. If he does, you've a short amount of time to fetch him again or else it's time up and game over. It's tough enough babysitting this buffoon, I've still no idea what my objective is...!

But like many games, you then realise the whole thing is a fetch quest. You talk to the professor, who needs resources to build an invention -- you better believe he wants some coconuts. So you go to a very conspicuous tree with Gilligan, because Gilligan is the only one dumb enough to climb it and procure one -- hence why Gilligan is required to have around, not just as a handicap -- and then you give it to the professor.

And the game goes on like that, fetching trinkets or checking up on people, some excuse send you clarting over to another part of the map before walking back again. The first chapter culminates in getting a club so you can smack some sense into a thieving gorilla, but combat isn't really a meaningful factor of the game.
A later level has one of the ladies kidnapped by the native tribe, but you're still being asked to do benign requests. Is she not a priority then...? Maybe that's in-line with the show, I've no idea.

Enemies sometimes drop items -- time extensions, health, rope for recovering Gilligan when he's lost -- but fighting them isn't something you anticipate or enjoy, because it's such a tremendous crapshoot. Trying to hit that gorilla was a war of attrition, trying to line yourself up right and figuring out how close you need to be to whack that hitbox...!

The levels do get more convoluted, with labyrinthine underground passages that connect to otherwise isolated parts of the overworld, or flowing rivers and quicksand that also lead you unexpected places. You do have a map with all your friends marked on them once you find them, but not key items or areas of note, and especially not anything underground or warp-related...!

By the final level I'd turned on invincibility and infinite time, because figuring out where to go, how to accomplish it, and then doing it within the very tight time limit was a mite stressful! Each level is timed, and though I ran out the clock on the first level just getting my bearings, after that I was in the clear...

... until this final stage, with half an hour to make sense of its multiple underground connections. It's honestly a bit of a blur. It culminates in you beating the shit out of a skeleton though. Either that or using magic to defeat it instantly, I forget.

I beat the game over the course of two Discord streams, and capped it off with an episode of the original TV show. I could see the fun in it, it's a simple sitcom setup, a light bit of wackiness that I can see kids getting into it. I'm used to modern shows being so quick and snappy by comparison, there was admittedly a feeling of, "oh, we're not done yet?", but it's a pleasant bit of fluff. Still a bit mystified why it was such a staple of American pop culture for a while, but I guess it counts as high-concept...?

We then watched an episode of the animated follow-up, Gilligan's Planet. God, that show was hopeless. What an absolutely miserable time. This is why you pay your actors royalties, folks: so they don't have to star in dreck like that, and we don't have to be subjected to it.

It's such an odd game, but I was fascinated by it. I love playing a game just to figure out, what is the game design here...? Even in the GameCube era with fare like Wario World, some of them are just very cryptic about-- what kind of game is this trying to be? What challenges is it trying to present to you? It's always nice to finally figure it out, even if the answer is invariably something simple like "it's a collect-a-thon," or "it's a fetch quest."

The presentation, with its inventory, its underground mazes, its River City Ransom-style perspective and whatnot, it really does make a curious first impression. Learning it's made by Human Entertainment, who'd use its approach to greater effect in the likes of Clock Tower, is all the more intriguing...!

Admittedly writing this long after the fact I'm a bit mystified at what entertainment I derived from the game, but that's the joys of playing with pals on Discord, innit -- collectively figuring out how this game works, where to go, and piecing together what little we collectively knew of Gilligan's Island before finally watching an episode, it's a heck of a bonding experience. That and all having our own ways of exasperatedly saying "Gilligan...!" I was actually hankering for more of the game, if just to have something to stream and troubleshoot together. ROM hackers, there's a bounty waiting to be collected.

Captain Novolin

Played on request for pals on Discord. One of those games that's forever been an easy punching bag for video game humour sites, Encyclopedia Obscura and the like -- a superhero with diabetes?! A 2D platformer that's educational!? Bad Game Hall of Game has since written a meaty essay on the game and its backstory, one that offers a lot more insight and context into its creation, the hows and whys and what it set out to do. It's a good read, as are the rest of Cass' articles.

Anyway, yes, it's a 2D platformer. On your quest to rescue the mayor, you walk from left to right and avoid the incoming killer snacks, while picking up the appropriate mealtime items to fulfil your dietary requirements and regulate your diabetes -- or, to put it simply, eating the stuff your doctor tells you to eat at the start of each stage. Eating too much, not enough, or the wrong stuff makes Novolin keel over, so it's tasking you with basic memorisation in between avoiding and stomping the incoming baddies.

It's an extremely simple game, but also pretty wonky for a number of reasons, most egregiously the absolutely massive sprites. Everyone's huge! I'm not sure if I'd call the graphics good, they are extremely ghoulish, but they're detailed is what they are. Enemies fill a good chunk of the screen as it is, and tend to come at you like a bat out of hell or in persnickety jumping patterns, so to power through levels is to ask for a smack in the face from a killer donut.

As such, you're inclined to slowly inch forward step by step, because otherwise you simply won't have the time to jump out of the way. You can stomp enemies by holding Down while landing on them, your one and only offensive manoeuvre, and one that's perhaps not intuitive compared to other platformers.

The game's supervillain and final boss, Blubberman. Body image seems an odd thing to villainise in a game about dealing with health issues...!

It's a niche edutainment game presenting itself as a 2D platformer, so I can see why it made a sour impression on a lot of folks, but I suppose coming in aware of all its quirks and shortcomings, it's not a bad little romp. It's extremely simple -- a couple of speedboat levels are the most it offers to mix things up, as there's not even much actual platforming...!

The final level is a surprise step up in difficulty, the one time I resorted to save states, and I was grateful a diabetic friend was in chat to correct me on the gaps in my medical know-how. You're quizzed on factoids between stages, and the ending seemingly hinges on the correct way to resuscitate someone in diabetic shock.

I did try some of the developer's other games -- Packy & Marlon is more acceptable graphically-speaking, as the sprites are small enough to allow more than two characters on-screen at a time. Unfortunately, it's an Amiga-style collect-a-thon where you bumble around massive levels with no clear sense of direction. It more resembles a video game, I'll give it that much credit, but it's also quicker to dismiss it for its failings because of that...!

Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon I bailed on after two minutes -- who would've thought a game about blasting plaque and tobacco viruses from inside a smoker's gullet would be disgusting to look at?

By virtue of having low standards and expectations, I'd argue Captain Novolin's the best of that bunch. I'd dare say I enjoyed it! This is going to be a bonkers comparison to make, but it's almost like the Silver Coin Challenges in Diddy Kong Racing. It's not enough to get to the goal, you gotta make sure to keep an eye out for the right items and collect them all, while still keeping on top of the usual platforming malarkey. It's an odd game, more a novelty than anything else, and probably not something you'd want to have paid money for, but it was nice to give it the time of day.

Super Mario Odyssey

My brother sent me this after he was done with it, and I was grateful for the generosity. It's the big new Mario game I've somehow missed out on until now! The big gimmick is Cappy, Mario's hat friend, who can be thrown around to be used as a blunt implement, a platforming aide, or to take control of objects and enemies: jumping high with frogs, travelling along power cables, or taking command of an octopus to blast things or propel yourself skyward with water. It's admittedly more of a Kirby move, but darn if it ain't cute to play as a Bullet Bill for fleeting moments!

The playthrough is a very linear experience. You're chasing after Bowser, witnessing him stealing furnishings for his wedding, and cleaning up his messes and finding Power Moons to fuel your ship to the next stop. You've the freedom to go where you please and do what you want to some extent, though it's very much built on setpieces -- scaling the foodstuff mountain to fight the giant bird, restoring the power to New Donk City for Pauline's big number... they're fun sequences with great payoff.

It very much rewards exploration. The game is at its best when you simply see what lies in unsuspecting nooks and crannies, fooling around with the enemies you capture or Mario's own toolset. The stuff you can do with triple jumps, wall jumps, then throwing and diving towards Cappy to reverse your trajectory is bananas, and I love to see it, even if it is incredibly finicky to get to grips with. A lot of the more specialist moves rely on motion controls -- and I get it, the game uses darn near every button on the controller, but it's a drag knowing clutch moves rely on the fussy motion sensor of thrusting the Pro Controller around...!

But at the same time, it feels the opposite of explorative. While it lets you go off the beaten path a little bit, you're still progressing through the game the same way... which stands in stark contrast to Breath of the Wild, which gave you free rein to go wherever you wanted, tackling the missions in any order, even ignoring them entirely for idle item collecting or gunning it straight for the final challenge. It loosens your leash but still doesn't let you cut through the grass, so to speak.

And by being an actual odyssey, a journey, the game feels like it loses a lot of the replay value of the previous games. You can't choose to replay the missions -- the game's not structured that way! It's not interrupted with menus the way Galaxy and the like were, you just keep going -- and that makes for a great first playthrough with a lot of immediate drive to the proceedings. You wanna see what comes next!

Its free-flowing nature means there's less room for static, structured challenges the way previous games did it; where that excels is picking up Moons along the way on your main quest, doing smaller errands en-route to that massive floating pyramid or whatever. But it means I felt zero inclination to pick up the game when it was done, because, well, what is there left to do...?

There's actual buckets of content in the game -- there's like a thousand Moons to collect, and revisiting worlds once the game is cleared will expand them with more things to do... but without that drive of big ambitious missions, it feels like idle busywork. Following clues from Luigi or Captain Toad, ground-pounding conspicuous spots on the ground -- stuff that's fun to figure out when it's helping you access the next world quicker, but as the only thing left to do on your completed save file...?

The more I play 3D Mario games, the more I realise Super Mario 64 is still the one for me. It's very likely just the nostalgia and muscle memory speaking, lord knows the game has quirks out the wazoo... but it suits my needs. I can get what I want from it, chart a different route to give myself a change of pace, or sidestep the worst parts if I just wanna have a good time. That's so much harder to do in the latter games, and though Odyssey arguably has the most stable quality throughout, the thought of every playthrough being so railroaded and having nothing to revisit after the fact is kind of deflating.

I am extremely glad to have played the game though. It's a rock-solid experience, a real showpiece of how much fun Mario is to play around with in 3D spaces, his basic toolset already offering so much even before the Cappy mechanics come into play...! But I think one of my things with games -- or media in general -- is I tend to resonate more with stuff that's flawed or imperfect. Mario Odyssey is a quality game with boffo presentation, polish, the works... but I just don't connect with it. More an indictment of my fussy ass sensibilities than anything else, but still.

Super Bomberman 5 (& 3 & 4 & Saturn)

Putting these under one banner because screw it. I've played these games plenty before, but this was my first time playing them in co-op!

Super Bomberman 3 was the last of the SNES instalments I actually played, so it never quite made the same impact on me, dare I say. It's styled after Bomberman '94, and I just found that game to be a better single-player experience -- the way its level were set up felt more conducive to playing the game solo. But playing SB3 in co-op makes a difference -- the single-screen rooms are much more compact and compelling, working together and trying to warn each other of your respective blast radius, to self-destructive results...! It's fun and creative, and cheap final boss aside that we were stuck on for what felt like half an hour until we worked out a cheatsy strategy, it's a good time. Well, a stressful time with a lot of screaming and panicking, but we enjoyed ourselves.

Playing Super Bomberman 4 after its predecessor kind of shows what a fall from grace it is. The graphics are arguably more detailed, swapping out the oversaturated look for something easier on the eyes, but they also feel kind of muddy and with not as much personality -- the landmarks aren't as striking, for one.

While there's technically more levels, each level is only a single screen, while SB3 made later levels encompass multiple screens, turning them into a gauntlet -- you can't be wasteful with your lives, you gotta survive three screens before the level's complete! As such there's a real "stop and go" vibe to 4, it doesn't have the pleasing flow of the last game. That, and while 3 was definitely challenging with some tough enemies, 4 just feels obnoxious more often than not. The hideouts you gotta destroy in world 1, the blocks that rise and lower later on... and don't even get me started on the bosses, which are perhaps among the most drawn-out and boring in the series. Bloody hell.

While I'm at it, another big strike against 4: no Louies! Despite just being recolours, it was easy to keep track of which one did what. Now, certain enemies turn into eggs after you defeat them, with a dozen possibilities spread between organic and mechanical eggs, and it's an absolute dickens figuring what they do.

Some are passive, upping your movement speed or blast radius, others have totally unique abilities like missiles or kamikaze attacks, while others are just an alternate way of getting a common power-up like the Punch or Bomb Kick. It's certainly an interesting approach, but it trivialises the game's difficulty and even the concept of steeds in itself; you get them for the defence first and foremost, and what ability they give you is circumstantial.

It was fantastic finally being able to co-op Saturn Bomberman though. It was co-op partner Rachel's first time experiencing the game, so that made it even better. I can't gush enough about how pretty that game looks...! The bigger screen resolution makes it a little more ideal for co-op, giving you more room to work separately without stepping on top of each other, and its slower pace just makes it such a chill game to play in general. This is a game I'll pop on once a year and breeze through in a couple of hours, often as an excuse to stream and chat with pals on Discord. It's not my perfect Bomberman, but it's a darn good package.

Co-op-wise, it's still got the conveniences of the previous games, where you can poach the other player's lives if you run out, and earn extras every 10,000 points... but it's also introduced a brand new inconvenience: the camera only follows player 1! You can't scroll the other player off-screen, the camera will 'jam' if they're right at the edge, but it does make exploring the more vertical levels a bit of a pickle.

Alongside newfound wrinkles like how puzzle bosses (like Rodeon or Mujoe) are tricky with two players, the other big hiccup was Mr. Meanie's Secret Base, a four-in-one level I never gave much thought to when playing the game previously or documenting it for my site... but now I realise it's a throwback to the multi-screen 'gauntlets' of Super Bomberman 3. If you get a game over during that stage, you gotta redo it from the very first screen! It's funny the stuff you only discover when you're accidentally blowing yourselves up more often than not.

Super Bomberman 5 I actually played in co-op with a couple of folks this year, and was my first time seeing it through to the end after my botched playthrough a decade ago. Its levels are a lot simpler than 3 and 4, while its items and Louies are a distillation of those games' loadouts... but I don't know, it's fun in the moment, but perhaps doesn't make the best impression after the fact.

In theory the branching paths mean no playthrough is the same, and you should be incentivised to chart different routes each time... except you get the bad ending if you don't take one specific path, locking you out of the last phase of the final boss. And though each world has twenty-something possible stages, it's possible to breeze through them only seeing a couple! It doesn't help that all the bosses before the endgame are just rival battles with a little bit of gimmickry, starving you of any real setpieces.

It's a game built on replay value, to find all the possible stages and exits to get 100%, and it's fun to do that on your lonesome, but as a co-op experience it lacks the highs of the other games. A pity, because it's arguably the best multi-player suite of the SNES games, and it lays out interesting foundations for a new take on the single-player game, it's just lacking a certain something to give it that punch...!

At this rate the only games I've yet to co-op with pals online are the arcade games. Neo Bomberman's a bit drawn-out and sluggish from what I recall of shanghai-ing Rage Quitter 87 into joining me, a shockingly slow pace for an arcade game, but it's got some neat challenges. The Irem games I'll be keen to see how they fare, even if I expect them to be pandemonium.

Kirby's Dream Buffet

One of those strange games nobody expected, nobody asked for, and yet a lot of people seemingly dropped everything to get it day one, myself included. I wouldn't consider myself a hardcore Kirby-head, but I am all about non-standard racing games, especially when the name of the game is wanton gluttony.

Rather than running or driving or anything sensible, this is a game all about rolling! Taking first place is almost secondary to the real goal of being the biggest eater around -- you want to munch all the strawberries you can, and that entails hopping pits, bashing baddies, and travelling the route less taken. You do wanna get first because that's where the biggest pile of strawberries is, natch, but there's enough rewards for random happenstance that it's anybody's game at the end.

It's not entirely a racing game though -- every other challenge is a mini-game or battle royale, dunking you in an enclosed arena in a rush to get the most strawberries, either by bashing baddies or crates, or simply nabbing them as they fall from above. The final challenge adds more environmental hazards into the mix, as well as measure to turn the tables, picking on the leader and showering those falling behind with more goodies.

Personally, I love this. The randomised nature of the leagues means you'll be getting different courses and challenges every time, and it keeps you on your toes, forcing you to get acquainted with all modes of play. I wish Mario Kart took a leaf out of this...! The simple act of moving Kirby is simple and fun but still with a learning curve to it, how to work with his rolling momentum on shaky terrain, it adds an entertaining chaotic factor to gameplay.

It's very much designed for online play, and the first few weeks were rife with matches. It's a silly game that throws crap at the wall constantly, so there's rarely anything to get mad about, you're here just to pig out and have a good time. It unfortunately released a few weeks before Splatoon 3 came out, and that immediately ate into its playerbase -- I think I've found all of two matches since that game's release, and not even with a full four players...!

I did play local split-screen with my brother when he was over, and that's possibly the ideal way to play -- it's the perfect party game anyone can pick up and play, and there wasn't anyone who didn't enjoy watching. Being stuck to only two players is a bummer -- maybe if it were top-down like that mode in Air Ride they could support more players...!

It's neat to see a small-form spin-off like this, something small but with a tight focus on what it wants to be. My time with the game was admittedly a bit short-lived, but it's the ideal game to pop on and play for a bit casually, and I'd love for there to be more games like this. Kirby seems to be the franchise taking most advantage of digital-only spin-offs, and I wanna see more learn from that...!

Splatoon 3

Splatoon's a series I've appreciated from afar, a fandom I enjoy spectating on, but never felt inclined to get into. It's a bit of a commitment plonking down cash on a multi-player game before knowing if it's my thing or not, innit? I tried the first one very briefly when I foolishly got my Wii U, and playing with that tablet was a nightmare.

But the demo they put out the night before Splatoon 3's release well and truly won me over; playing with friends was a good time, and I figured I'd take the plunge. I did try and talk myself out of it by saying "I don't need another distraction in my life," and it's a game I've been playing nearly every day since I got it, so, uh, here we are.

I'm not a shooter person. I am exceptionally awful at the basics they expect from a player (which probably explains why I spent more time trolling in Halo than playing it legit, sorry), but the way Splatoon paints itself (har har) is just right up my alley. You ink turf! Sure, you can splat dudes, and there's modes that offer different objectives, but by and large the objective is simply to paint more of the terrain than the opponent. And since that involves shooting everything but the enemy, I'm almost halfway qualified for that.

I like that it's a very literal interpretation of capturing terrain. You can swim through your own ink to go faster and refill your gauge faster, while on enemy ink you slow down, take damage and can't enter squid mode. There's a very clear meaning and advantage to capturing terrain, or even inking spots in unorthodox ways -- sliding roller bombs and swimming through their trail, hopping between puddles to slip behind enemy lines, or even the extremely casual use of verticality, slinking up walls or through grates. It's a compliment I throw around a lot, but it's tactile! There are many benefits to being a marine lifeform!

The quirky variety of weapons are a lot of fun. I primarily use the Dualies for their versatility, particularly the Dapper Dualies -- laying warp points behind enemy lines to catch them in a pincer movement is very satisfying, and my typical game plan in the Tower Control or Splat Zones modes.

I'm rubbish at actually splatting people though, which is why I was quite partial to the Flingza Roller early on -- hanging back and painting every last inch was satisfying, then maxing out my special metre to launch some Tentamissiles across the map. It's extremely cheap and scummy, yes. I have no defence for my actions.

It's fun dipping my toes into the modern multi-player experience -- there's no classes or what-have-you the way other games have, your playstyle is defined simply by your weapon (with sub-weapon and special ability) and your clothes, which offer perks like increased speed, bomb resistance, etc. After hearing talk of the 'meta' changing during a game's lifespan, it's cool seeing that in action -- folks learning new tricks, how to counteract certain weapons, how to navigate the maps, and so on. My brother had picked up Splatoon 2 last year and kind of bounced off it, and I can imagine that happening when you join a userbase who've already got years of experience under their belt, but being able to share this ride has been a lot of fun.

Personally though, Salmon Run is my favourite mode. It's a purely cooperative experience, you're not blasting players to smithereens, it's just you versus the enemy, so there's no hard feelings! Fending off Salmonid with a rotating assortment of weapons is a lot of fun, and the ideal way of getting to grips with each one -- you're not risking the outcome of a Turf War just because you wanted to try out the Blaster, so long as you can survive the next hundred seconds...!

That and it's intense -- with the varying weapons, you have to adapt on the fly to their strengths and weaknesses, and how they best work against Salmonid crowds or Boss Salmonid. Being stuck with a crummy weapon when you're up against Cohozuna ain't pretty, but you might as well give it your all...! Increasing in rank dishes out prizes quicker, but also increases the threat level of each outing -- getting prizes quicker isn't a big deal since I play this mode a lot anyway, but seeing how far you can rise in the ranks and how well you can survive the uneven odds is a draw...!

While the regular multi-player modes feel somewhat 'grounded', the story mode's levels are more akin to Super Mario Galaxy or even Sonic Adventure, more about abstract setpieces and challenges with the various tools at your disposal or obstacles you come across. It took a little while to get going, but it offers a unique playstyle of its own, a lotta fun to be had fighting the various Octarians, and a fun incentive to replay levels with different weapon loadouts or to set faster records. Getting the chance to play with special abilities in challenge stages or seeing the characters bounce off each other is a good time as well; you better believe I'm nuts about Deep Cut.

It's probably my first time getting truly acquainted with a console-centric multi-player game, so stuff like map rotation, daily gear and whatnot is all fresh to me. A lot of it is kind of overwhelming, and I can see this stuff creates bad habits -- marathoning matches to afford the clothes you want, or wrapping my head around the absurd amount of currencies and collectibles... but it's so ideal to pick up and play. Matches are short and snappy, hopping into any mode takes no time, and even playing offline in story mode or the Tableturf Battle card game are a lot of fun.

I've probably hit my skill ceiling at this point, though, spending more time swearing at sniper rifle users and spiking my heart rate. There's a reason the Splatoon manga has them lecturing the opponent "remember to have fun!" at the end of every chapter...! Still, between the variety of modes and just how dang pretty and characterful it is, I'm still playing this game into the new year, and I guess I've another franchise to be a wee bit obsessed about. Welp.

Tiny Toons Adventures Wacky Sports Challenge

Among the first new games pal Rachel introduced me to through netplay, after familiar stomping grounds in Donkey Kong Country 2 and Super Bomberman. This is a game I recall seeing on store shelves way back in the day and always kind of pining after, so it was neat to see what I'd be been missing all this time.

The answer is: one of Konami's Track & Field games! You've got the pole vault, competitive swimming, the discus throw, weight-lifting, alongside wackier fare like skiing, aerial bombing, bungee-jumping and whatnot.

Some games are turn-based, while others are a four-person scrum, players bouncing and bashing off of each other, very much taking advantage of the SNES multi-tap to turn it into a party game. Otherwise you're pitted against CPU opponents, and though in terms of AI they're not hard, the scores they manage to get can be ridiculous, especially on Super Hard (the only difficulty that'll net you a proper ending!). We typically had to partner up if we had any hope of progression, the better of us playing for score while the other served as saboteur, keeping the computer opponents at bay.

Getting bonuses during the ranking phase is darn near crucial to progression in the harder difficulties -- games like Chicken are literally impassable unless you do it perfectly! -- and they're extremely cryptic, seemingly an excuse for the CPU to pull ahead without reason. Some award extra points for getting pummelled by hazards or failing spectacularly -- getting repeatedly flattened by Montana Max and Elmyra in the bungee jump game might be what it takes to meet the score threshold...!

The game looks the bee's knees, though. I only borrowed Buster Busts Loose briefly back in the day, but its presentation was delectable -- all of Konami's licensed fare at the time was knockout, let's be honest -- and this game is no exception. There's so many terrific poses and expressions for the four playable characters, and all the environments are a beaut. Every mini-game has some cartoony flair to it, typically when it allows bodily bludgeoning your opponents; I can see why the game made a splash on Rachel, who'd stacks of nostalgia for it.

I confess realising it's a Track & Field game kind of soured me on it after the fact...! I think a part of me was holding out for something more 'traditional', a mini-game evoking the platforming of the aforementioned game, something like that. A bit of nuance, as it were! Buuuut no, the game's almost entirely about mashing buttons and timing inputs. It's an ideal party game in that regard, a very easy game to play.

On the flip side, it's a very easy game to play. There's only so many ways they can dress up how nearly half the games are the same basic schtick. It's a formula Konami were clearly attached to, having run with it from the arcade to NES, N64, even mobile games, and presentation is arguably what they bank on, the mania of exerting yourself to make a dude run. I think Combat School being among the first games I played in MAME means the olympics stuff just doesn't capture my imagination the same way...!

Still, as a game to compete and cooperate in with a friend, it was a lark, and managing to clear all the difficulties (with only a little bit of save stating, i swear) was very satisfying. The joy of media sometimes is in being shown what your friends have a high fondness for -- it might not be my cup of tea, but their enthusiasm can be infectious.

Mystical Ninja 2

I remember reading the walkthrough for this over and over again in Official Nintendo Magazine and being fascinated by it. I loved the first Mystical Ninja on N64, but for one reason or another I just never got to playing it -- maybe I didn't see it in stores? Whatever the case, pal Rae had grown up with it and was eager to try it in co-op over RetroArch's netplay, and having a maestro show me the ropes was a great way to experience it.

Unlike the previous game's 3D adventure stylings, this is a return to the classic formula as a 2D platformer; admittedly an odd sight on N64. It's relatively straightforward fare, running to the end of the level and bashing lots of baddies in between, with each character having some sort of unique perk: Goemon and Ebisumaru have a double-jump and butt-bounce respectively, making them better suited for platforming, while Yae and Sasuke learn the ability to dive underwater and are better equipped for clearing out enemies.

Rather than the first game's approach to upgrades and permanent growth, this one leans more on short-term power-ups -- collecting lucky cats will upgrade your weapons until you take damage, and armour/life extensions are more crucial than ever given how little health you have...! Characters do get special abilities down the line, primarily for puzzle-solving or accessing new areas; Ebisumaru's megaphone that produces platforms is a particular favourite, finicky as it is.

Similar to Super Mario World, some levels will have multiple exits leading to different paths on the overworld, and you can't access the boss stage until you've acquired enough entry passes. You get one after every stage, and can earn more by entering towns and doing missions; some of these are simple fetch quests, but some give you new objectives in levels you've previously explored.

The most interesting (and obnoxious) ones are Ebisumaru's races against his doppelgänger, Obisumaru -- essentially a speedrun that requires you come to grips with tricky shortcuts and how to skip past enemies, as well as sniping the bastard while he's napping. A lot of them are just busywork though, exploring every nook and cranny to bash specific targets, or a particularly heinous one where you have to whack scarecrows -- but not the wrong ones, otherwise it'll end the level, and there's seemingly no way of telling which is which besides trial and error. Ugh.

The 2-player co-op is a big draw, and possibly one of the few co-op games on N64...? It's quite chaotic but helps lift up the game, able to bring a fun bit of teamwork into the mix -- you can ride on the other's back, delegating one player to jumping and the other attacking, which is actually a good way of using projectiles for free (they otherwise cost money) or even helping your partner reach higher platforms.

This does prevent Goemon or Ebisumaru using their aforementioned powers, so you gotta be confident in your jumps, which is tricky when the latter half of the game leans heavily on collapsing platforms -- and the camera doesn't zoom out to accommodate you both, the edges of the screen are just invisible walls, so you gotta act fast if you do it separately..!

The game's kind of unexpectedly brutal. I don't know if it runs at 60FPS, but it's definitely a lot speedier than the last effort -- possibly to its detriment? Characters don't really have hang-time or arcs to their jumps, they just zip straight up and straight down again, and it's very unforgiving.

Even the most basic of jumps requires some seriously tight timing, and Goemon's double-jump is the only thing that makes it halfway tolerable; Ebisumaru's bounce is still butt-clenchingly scary to use, and god help you if you're playing as the other two. Playing in 2-player is a boon since you can revive so long as the other player is still kickin' -- otherwise you're kicked to the start of the room. There's no mid-level checkpoints to my recollection, and falling eats a whole life, which are in short supply...!

The level design on the whole is kind of a blur -- it stands out from Yoshi's Story or Mischief Makers by being fully 3D, but backdrops and boss fights aside, it feels like it doesn't amount to much...? Levels are extremely flat, just plains with rows of enemies to wade through, and maybe a branching path that only matters during town missions. There's not really a flow or a rising sense of challenge to them, just a bunch of stuff that happens before it throws an end-of-level tanuki at you.

I wonder if the camera is partly to blame. It's very zoomed-in! Possibly a limitation of how many 3D assets it can render, who knows, but there's maybe only two Goemons worth of distance between the player and the screen's edge in some areas, meaning every enemy might as well be an ambush. It resulted in us constantly throwing projectiles while running and jumping, just so we wouldn't be taken by surprise. It's the optimal way to play, but it also means you're not really engaging with the game...!

Playing the SNES one back in 2020 was my first experience with 2D platformer Goemon, and I kind of wonder if I came to this too late to be won over by it...? The presentation is nice, using the full-3D to create nifty Klonoa-like setpieces, but it's not nearly as eye-catching or evocative as the 2D games, or even the previous game; the asset reuse doesn't help either. For being a very different experience, it's hard not to think "I've seen this before...!"

The Impact fights introduce Miss Impact, who moseys around in the background and can very lightly interfere with melee swipes or single projectile shots. She's ostensibly there for the tag function, allowing you to swap control whenever an unavoidable attack is headed your way, though the second player can interrupt the boss during key moments, or even volley them back and forth in combos if you time your attacks properly.

Working together to blitz the boss' health to zilch in no time at all is a lot of fun, as otherwise it can be a war of attrition, trying to pull off your powerful special moves when you can so you're not just whittling them down with your basic melee combos.

I'm glad to have finally played it, and being able to share the experience definitely made up for all the hiccups (that and savestates!), but it does feel like a flawed game, and not having the nostalgia of growing up with it kind of highlights that.

At worst, it feels a wee bit ramshackle...? From the seriously funky jump controls to dodgy level and mission design, or even the fact there's three or four vehicles you can ride that appear so fleetingly it's hard to even recall it's a feature, it just feels like it wasn't given as much time to cook. The SNES games had vehicles, and they're cute to dink about in, but are locked to tiny areas and this close to useless. Why!?

Still, it's got its moments. While I haven't soaked in its atmosphere for years the way I have the first game, it's still got fun character, like silly interactions in town and some amusing interactions with villain Bismaru. It's a contender with Mischief Makers for most robust traditional 2D platformer on N64, and the co-op is a serious draw; I'm holding out hope the SNES ones might be more cohesive experiences, but between all the screaming and savestating, we had a good time hanging out together, and sometimes that's all you can ask from a video game.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

Bringing the Switch over was a fun constant of hanging out with dad this year; he sat in on key parts of Breath of the Wild and Pokémon, the entirety of Super Mario Odyssey, plus a variety of stuff on NSO, and I figured I might as well pander to him by picking this up as the next big play.

I haven't played the previous Ultimate Alliance or X-Men Legends games, but I was acquainted with them as multi-player action RPGs, all about over-the-top team-building brawling, very much on mashing buttons and busting out super moves like mad. I think knowing Koei Tecmo developed this instalment had me expecting something a little more nuanced, but I might've forgotten these are the lads known for Dynasty Warriors...! (which I also haven't played, beca

It's a good time, though. The thirty-plus characters all have their own styles of play, and coming to grips with their combos and special moves in the heat of the moment is fun. Their moves come with various properties, be it elemental damage or how they move or dish out damage, and there's some finesse in figuring that out, when and where to best utilise their ultimate moves, but it's a pretty approachable take on the mass carnage genre.

The fact it's one of the few comic book games on modern consoles that isn't a LEGO game is a real draw, and it revels in every facet of the Marvel universe. After some initial showcases for the Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man, you get some fun deep cuts with the defenders of Hell's Kitchen, a visit to Xavier's academy, a quick jaunt to catch up with the Inhumans, and a lavish excursion to Wakanda under siege by Hydra.

A lot of it's obviously shilling some modern TV or cinema project, but it's fun seeing the sheer variety it's got to offer, especially in how they're presented: the Avengers are very much inspired by their MCU incarnations, but the X-Men look like they've been plucked straight out of the '90s, and the attention to detail on characters like Venom or Nightcrawler is superb. It revels in its fanservice and over-the-top qualities, and it's kind of what you want from big dumb crossovers like this...!

It's a good meaty campaign, all ten chapters having fun setpieces to bring to the table, and it kept me occupied into the new year, with the DLC's extra chapter a nice way to round out the experience. There's some bumps in the road though, primarily when it dabbles in puzzle shenanigans -- early chapters have 'mazes' where you need to navigate invisible walls or toggle doors to get where you need to go, and in multi-player it's probably easier to figure it out with some group brainstorming, but on your own it's just fiddly and awkward.

Enter the Dark Dimension and you're tasked with charging ethereal crystals by standing in the way of enemy attacks, then throwing them to break down defences... a cute gimmick and a change of pace, but also an absolute dickens to keep track of amidst all the carnage -- never mind not knowing what charges the stones or will knock them out of your hand, or even finding where they are in the crowded arenas...!

My big beef, though, is that it's very much a numbers game. There's a level up system that some of the super moves are locked behind, but quickly just becomes about cranking up your stats. Fights can take an eternity if you're under-levelled, but are over before you know it if you're over-levelled.

You do gain XP Cubes you can spend on characters without having to grind as them, and there is a certain rush to beasting on a boss that gave you trouble the first time, but I'm just not a fan of that style of game design...!

In addition to the campaign there's a variety of challenge modes, often with gimmickry and conditions to contend with -- working under a time limit, only certain moves dealing damage, solo runs, etc. They're arguably where the long-term gameplay lies, beating them and earning all the achievements...

... but knowing you invariably want to play them when you're as high a level as possible kind of takes the sizzle out of it. The Danger Room mode does balance team levels to be somewhat equal, being a competitive multi-player mode and all, but the fact the rest of the game doesn't have that option is a bummer.

Still, it's a very entertaining button-basher, and as simple as it is there's a lot of satisfaction when you're in the groove, with a fun flow to combat. Whittling a Sentinel's stagger metre down then busting them open with a team attack never gets old...! If you're the min-maxxing type there's the ISO-8 to play around with, crystals you equip to tinker with characters' stats and can be fused, levelled up and god knows what else -- it was too rich for my blood. And I'm sure there's still mileage to be had playing online with folks too, not that I've tried!

It was fun while it lasted and certainly satisfied in the fanservice front, with heaps of modes and challenges to dive into if I'm so inclined. The sheer grind of the level-up system is admittedly a turn-off, a longevity feature that only gives me less reason to be invested, but knowing there's a lot of game if you're into this genre is a boon, and it's so easy to pick up and play.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

I borrowed this game from my brother for a couple of days while he was visiting, and did my dangedest to beat the game before he returned home. Playing under a deadline ain't really conducive to engaging with it the right way (hence my salty experience with Super Mario Sunshine a few years back...!), and I wasn't really in the right mood to be playing a tough-as-nails 2D platformer, but I did want to experience the game, so...!

It's more Donkey Kong! Dixie and Cranky are added as playable partners with their own respective properties, a feature I'm surprised took this long to be incorporated; aside from animal buddies, the series has never really had power-ups in the Mario sense, granting you new abilities you don't normally have.

It's a bit rude calling Diddy a "power-up," but in this context it kind of applies -- they offer different abilities, often themed to the current challenge you're up against, motivating you to learn their distinct traits... but if you want a personal challenge you can still just stick with your favourite.

The other big change is the reintroduction of swimming and water levels. How you move underwater has been totally revamped, giving you all-directional control, and even a roll equivalent where you spin forward like a torpedo. It takes some getting used to on all fronts, from the air metre to interacting with cogs to open gates; even the fact water is no longer lethal threw me for a loop...! Screens would come to a stop with no way forward and only water below -- Returns usually painted that as instant death, so it'd take me a moment to remember, oh, doy, I can swim.

The bosses were perhaps the lowest point of the game. I can't remember the bosses in the last game too well, but I don't recall ever being too overwhelmed by them; they were tough, but they were a fair enough challenge. That's a tangent in itself, how it might be a good thing when bosses don't make too strong of an impression, because it means they weren't too much of a disruption, so to speak.

Tropical Freeze's bosses are long, drawn-out, and needlessly elaborate; they even have mid-fight checkpoints, and they wear out their welcome extremely fast. They've got lots of patterns, changing up their behaviour two or three times per fight, with a lot of crap to keep up with and extremely narrow windows of opportunity in which to bonk them.

It's possible you might be able to sneak in more hits if you know what to expect and when to counter, but even the most telegraphed opportunity is easy to miss, making you wait half a minute or more for your next shot. I'm sure the intent is for the fights to be fast and furious, but having so little impetus in moving things along just kills the pacing in my book.

The fights are impressive, with great spectacle and perhaps some of the most elaborate patterns across the entire Mario and Donkey Kong franchises... but to what end? There's a polar bear who shoves ice cubes around, a fun platforming challenge in itself, but the fight took an absolute eternity waiting for the stars to align to land a hit.

There's a boss fought underwater, a first for the series, but the 3D perspective made avoiding the cavalcade of spiky hazards way more difficult than it looked. Even the final (i'm assuming non-secret) boss gave me trouble because you very specifically had to bounce on his shoulder while he's charging -- not his helmet, because that's spiky! Not his back, because that's non-corporeal for some reason! Between the way he's shaped and the extremely narrow window, it gave me a shocking headache even though I'd figured out everything else about the fight.

Again, the SNES games did not have strong bosses. The latter two games might mix things up with a slightly more puzzle-orientated fight, but by and large they were simple and straightforward, a test of your survival skills in an enclosed space, basically. Not saying they were good, but they didn't wear out their welcome...!

I figure since the platforming stages are so much more robust and dynamic than the previous games, it makes sense for the bosses to lean into that similar sense of surprise and dynamism... but I just found them a slog and didn't enjoy any of them. It gave me flashbacks to Metroid Prime and its overwrought boss fights, which distracted from the pleasures of the main game in just the same way.

I hate to grouse, because the game is lovely. The core platforming gameplay remains as slick as ever, and the ways it continues to surprise me with level-altering setpieces and spectacle is always a blast. It's rude to compete it against New Super Mario Bros., but I adore just how 'tactile' these worlds are -- the Kongs are such a force of nature their rampage through each stage is partially why they change structure to drastically, smashing through columns and upending the earth when they land from blast barrels.

David Wise returns to produce the soundtrack, and it's... different! After having heard his ambient, atmospheric tunes for years, it's a surprise to hear something new that still wows. The rich instrumentation is partly what gives it such life: the second world's Windmill Hills is arguably where the game truly comes alive, its quirky platform challenges mixed with the funky yet calming banjo-violin-harmonica mix was what sold me on the game's strengths.

For whatever reason I was convinced the game was developed by a different studio, with only marginal oversight from Retro Studios, but they're given top billing over co-developer Monster Games...! It's a game that positively looks the biz, with rock-solid foundations and a lot of mesmerising ideas -- they certainly weren't resting on their laurels by just making a new level pack, they brought a lot of freshness to the table!

But perhaps because of that, there's just a few things that feel a little bit shaky: the attempts at changing perspective during vehicle stages at the expense of clarity; or even fussy things like the controls, how run, roll, and jump never quite applied to the function I thought they would underwater or on Rambi.

Still, it scratched an itch, and it can't be said it isn't an extremely solid game. A lot of my complaints about games this year partially boil down to me being late to the party or simply not in the right mood to gel with them. The moment had passed for Mario Odyssey to make a bigger splash on me, and this game came out in 2014; I was itching to play it back then, but I think the fever had subsided. It was likely foolish of me to hop straight into a new Donkey Kong Country after not playing any in years -- I needed to warm up! And to rush through it with the intent of finishing it solely so I can return it on time isn't really a pleasant motivator.

Contra: Hard Corps

Contra's just a series I've never really gotten passionate about, despite my love for a good run-and-gun. The NES game is solid, but none of the others I've tried have ever truly clicked with me -- the SNES game made me legitimately nauseous once it entered the top-down portion...! I know the 'gimmick' stages are never regarded with much fondness, but bloody hell, dial it down, lads.

Pal herrDoktorat suggested we play this, pointing me towards the Japanese versions of Nintendo Switch Online to play the much more fair original version, and I had an absolute blast. It's a very different beast from its other releases, featuring four playable characters who all have distinct weapon loadouts you can toggle at will once they've been collected, and even access to screen-clearing bombs that can be deployed whenever. And there's hit points! (only in Japan though)

I think being reared on Metal Slug as my gateway into the genre had me thinking: this game has top-tier run-and-gun action, and it's got personality -- what's Contra got by comparison?" And, frankly, this is the first game that got me sold on Contra as a franchise worth getting invested in.

The fast-and-furious action is one thing, but to have it framed with this grungy, ridiculous, cyberpunk aesthetic, a colourful crew of motley weirdos responding to crises featuring giant robots, inexplicable astrology-themed virtual reality battles, and an entire laboratory being mutated into a colossal organic being... hell yeah, count me in.

The briefings are short and merely there for context, but their presentation just lends so much to the atmosphere, y'know? Levels sometimes feature dialogue choices that lead to branching paths, with drastically different levels depending on your route -- thinking I'd seen it all only to discover the train level and its unique climax was a real treat...!

While the characters all use the same dialogue, their diverse weapons and radical appearances immediately lend such charm to the proceedings. Contra's got story and lore and whatnot, but it's always felt somewhat 'faceless' to me -- I'd no real interest in getting to know these muscle men, the alien threat, or the world it took place in. It was adequate video game fare, but Hard Corps leaning heavily into the more ridiculous side of sci-fi, with over-the-top villains and goofy machinery, is so much more endearing. It doesn't share staff, but it's got a lot of the same energy as Gunstar Heroes, from its weapon system to its weird setting to every boss feeling like a relative of Seven Force...!

I've long been meaning to give Contra a fair shake; I just think the flow of Metal Slug is more my speed. That series is more a game of "arcs", so to speak -- the characters jump in floaty arcs, the primary obstacle to worry about are grenades that fly in drifting arcs... there's a sense of watery gravity that permeates the whole thing. Contra, meanwhile, is much more 'direct' -- jumps that arc much more sharply, bullets that fly straight in your face and say "fuck you," and so forth.

Hard Corps pulls no punches -- there's barely time for orientation on your first time playing, it's unleashing goons at you from the word go, with no shortage of tricky bullshit that'll eat a valuable hit, or an entire life in the English version...! You lose your currently-equipped weapon upon dying, so there's value in learning when you're doomed and deciding which of your guns can take the dive.

And yet it's extremely satisfying to learn the levels, to master your capabilities, and make it through without taking damage. Simple additions like the slide mechanic give you more tools to play with, its brief moment of mercy invincibility a life-saver during tricky boss patterns. Playing with each characters' toolset and how best to utilise their weapons is a lot of fun, and all the more reason to replay again and again, taking new route and new characters.

Between this and Double Dragon, I think I like to play arcade games the first time using cheats, savestates, and whatever else allows me to stumble my way to finish line, to at least get a lay of the land... and then knowing it's made its mark on it, come back and do my best to clear it legit, working towards a 1-credit-clear. Once I'd done a few runs of the Japanese version, I worked on the English release; I honestly can't remember if I got a no-death run in the end, but gosh darn if I didn't have a good time trying.

Needless to say, I was very happy for Dok to give me the push to finally play this game; if our internet connections were better I'd love to do more co-op runs of it. Unfortunately, it's also made me even more miffed that no other game in the series matches this one in terms of personality, at least from what I've seen...! I do own the PS2 instalments, and I will rave about Hard Corps Uprising if given the opportunity, but unless the game's world is like some forgotten 1990s OVA with extreme shitpost energy, it's probably not gonna float my boat...!

Bloodbath at the House of Death

I am forever grateful for Talking Pictures TV, a channel dedicated to old and obscure films and serials, for always having some unexpected surprises in its scheduling. Where else would I stumble upon a film like this?

A couple dozen people are murdered in a mysterious mansion, one that years later a group of paranormal investigators explore to document a mysterious radiation reading coming from it. Meanwhile, the nearby village is actually a secret order of monks worshipping Lucifer, looking to stop them trespassing on sacred ground, and things escalate in silly, silly ways. It's a very corny, low budget film, somewhere between an excuse plot and a series of skits and vignettes, but darn if it isn't entertaining.

The eight investigators are introduced in pairs, all with some sort of schtick. Kenny Everett's character is eccentric, a former surgeon who's been reduced to paranormal crap after an making an arse of himself, feeling like he's got something to prove, and limps around on an unexplained metal leg. Another is a strict authoritarian with a thing for bondage, and we're subjected to a flashback of her stringent religious upbringing (applied by her mother who wears a confession box on her head, complete with pull-string curtains), leading her to decapitate her parent with psychic powers, peeling her head off with a can opener. Also unexplained, by the way.

So you might think all these investigators are going to have their backstories or angles explored in a similar capacity. Not really, no! Everyone is very much a one-note joke -- the American has amnesia, these two are gay, this guy's a drunk, this lady's fed up with the investigation... they're all pretty flat, but they work with the material they're given, there's some cheap chuckles to be gotten out of everyone.

The film has a silly, infectious kind of humour, and a weird, uncanny energy to it, full of extremely hokey gags that I can't help but enjoy. Playing on horror tropes like Kenny Everett mentioning the mansion to the villagers, the crowd falling silent and staring at him... only for him to realise his fly is undone. It's dopey, it's puerile, alternating between crass sex and fart gags, absurd circumstances (the pub keeping track of all the mansion's murders to the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas), or just plain silly wordplay -- screaming "a bat!", then getting clonked on the head by a cricket bat. You'll know very quickly whether or not if it's to your sensibilities or not.

It's a very meandering watch. The investigators mill about and settle in, having minor incidents around the house -- dinner causes one of them to have a violent chest burster-esque reaction that only turns out to be gas, one woman is assailed by a ghost in what's played up like a rape scene, before cutting to them both smoking cigarettes having clearly enjoyed themselves. There's lots of little gestures, those scenes included, that you might think are going to build up to something bigger. Not really, no! Like I said, it is a film built on dodgy gags and vignettes.

It splits its focus between the investigators and the villagers snooping on them. The previously friendly police and pub patrons actually murderous ne'er-do-wells, led by Vincent Price as their cult leader, who absolutely steals the show. He is campy as all hell and hamming it up something fierce, delivering great monologues about the sinister force of evil they are honouring, while bickering with his idiot underlings. There's a lot of cheap gags to be had, for sure, but there's a fun dynamic going on there.

Price never even shares any scenes with the main characters, and is unceremoniously killed when he's set ablaze while trying to light a fire for a ritual. "Oh, this is just great. The exalted one is about to arrive and I'm on fire! I'm gonna miss the whole goddamn thing! I don't believe it, 700 years undead, and now this! You try to be mister nice guy and what do you get?! Well, at least I'm wearing my old robes. Oh, god, it's hot."

Things take a weird turn when his death summons demonic doppelgängers of the eight investigators, who use their proper-ass demon powers to fucking nuke all the monks. The film had a good thing going on with their side of the story, and in one fell swoop explodes them all and leaves us with non-speaking stalkers to carry the torch. The onslaught is a great silly image, exploding them into smoking cloaks like something from Monty Python (or the Meltdown episode of Red Dwarf), but it's an iffy introduction to a duff third act...!

The remainder of the film is the investigators being picked off one by one by their dupes; some of them utilise their quirks in creative ways, like Kenny Everett being fried to a pile of ashes Wile E. Coyote-style through his metal leg, or the closeted dominatrix having her mother return looking like Darth Vader and slicing her head off. The American has a frankly outlandish sequence where he's dragged down the toilet, while his partner pledges her love to his clone... whose mole sprouts an actual mole that bites her neck off.

The rest, meanwhile, are merced in ways that are frankly unsatisfying. Don Warrington is stabbed in the mouth by a killer phone, his partner is strangled, and the drunkard gets stabbed by a teddy bear with a shiv for some reason. They're kind of nobodies after their introduction anyway, but it stinks not even getting creative or thematic with how they're offed.

It's also jarring because this was an idle mystery movie up until now, and suddenly it's a slasher! With only one investigator alive, she stumbles upon the attic library that helpfully answers the mystery: it's not Lucifer or devil worshippers, it's aliens, and the mansion is their base of operations on earth. They abduct her in a ropey Close Encounters homage, the house blasts off into space, and that's where it ends.

It's, uh, a bit deflating, to say the least.

I think I've an inexplicable fondness for films or media that's a little bit half-baked, and this film really has potential. It's got some dodgy pacing, especially with so many characters to introduce, but it's got such a fun, simple premise to play with. Between all the characters and curveballs it throws at you, you can't help but hope it's going places, but even for a 90 minute movie it's surprisingly padded and extremely unfocused, feeling longer than it is.

It's somewhere between Monty Python and the parody schtick of Airplane, but, y'know, not as good or as punchy as either of those things. It's a little too uneven and half-baked to wholeheartedly recommend; tt's definitely a background watch, something to put on and half pay attention to while you do laundry or something. It's not going to be anyone's favourite film, it's just too flawed, but I'd like to think folks might come away from it with some merit. Glad I watched it, but man, British B-movies have a real problem with botching the ending and souring whatever goodwill they had left.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

One of those films I've long been meaning to see, mostly out of dire curiosity than any actual desire, and I seized the opportunity to spring it on a friend when he was visiting... and he talked over the entire film.

I mean, we still experienced it in some capacity, but between that and the seriously compacted subtitles that remove a lot of flavour from the dialogue, let's just say it wasn't an optimum viewing.

So Earth's kind of gone down the shitter, and humanity's mostly taken refuge in Neo New York, a city behind a massive barrier to keep the spirits out.

While the spirits are largely considered malevolent monsters, scientist Aki's research leads her to believe they're actually facets of Gaia, the planet's life force, and has to search for one that'll help her findings, or something. There's a big cannon that's going to blow up the spirits. I think the earth explodes. I sincerely can't remember. Look, you read the first paragraph, this is going to be a ramshackle review.

I didn't see the film when it came out, but it's hard to look at it without knowledge of how Final Fantasy was being presented at the time. Here in Europe we missed out on all of the numbered instalments until the PlayStation era, but boy did they make a splash. The imagery of FF7 alone took magazines by storm -- big sword man! Dude with a gun for an arm! Midgar alone! So much larger than life imagery, characters immediately iconic, visuals that are just eye-catching and striking.

But I can definitely see why folks who saw Spirits Within thought: this isn't Final Fantasy. There's no Chocobos, there's no recognisable monsters... there's a Doctor Sid, and the themes of Gaia are reminiscent of the Lifestream from FF7, but it bears no artistic resemblance to any of the games, not even the fantasy/sci-fi fusion of the PlayStation instalments.

It's a space marine movie. I actually wondered if I'd put in the right DVD when the menu came up -- this wasn't Starship Troopers, was it? Its story is inherently magical and spiritual (it's right there in the title!), and the finale involves them entering the earth's core, looking like the fleshy innards of a massive organism (or like something from Parasite Eve)... but for a science fiction film that's entirely CG-animated, it's shockingly low-key a lot of the time.

Frying Bear's old article correctly said that video game fans are perhaps the audience most critical of visual fidelity and special effects. The console wars were all about people competing their consoles' graphic capabilities against each other, and eternally remain a dick-measuring contest.

That's a tangent in itself, the sheer rise in quality and potential of computer animation: most folks kept their eye on Pixar and ILM and the like, but SquareSoft were well and truly flexing on the PlayStation. FF7 and 8 were marketed almost entirely on the awe of their FMV sequences alone, so it's no wonder this was considered the next big move -- they were already dominating on PlayStation, why not bring their might to the cinema screens as well?

Taken on its own merits, Spirits Within really is visually impressive, and still holds up in that regard! It is admittedly the sole 'realistic' CG-animated film at the time; Antz or Shrek were probably the closest it had to competition on that front, and it certainly stands out on account of not many other Hollywood fully-animated features looking to be serious, grandiose sci-fi.

Even now, people are waxing nostalgic over the 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for being a CGI movie that was allowed to be dark and moody, even if it's still very much a kids flick. This has no pretence of pandering to younger audiences, it wants to be grown-up and mature and looking to fit somewhere in between Star Trek and Aliens.

It can look good when it wants to be. There's some decent action and moments of awe -- interactions with the spirits sell just how ethereal these things are, swimming through people and dragging the manifestation of their life force away kicking and screaming as their body simply falls limp. And truthfully, it handles its realistic animation supremely well -- I was constantly forgetting it wasn't live-action!

There's little to no moments where an action looks jarring or unrealistic (as happens all the dang time in the likes of Beowulf), and it clearly revels in animating Aki and her hair... which makes it all the more vexing that every other character is bald or has a static Action Man haircut, looking like a hairpiece they plopped on.

It rides the unusual line of being very Japanese, but also very Hollywood, and neither side quite gets to breathe or be the best it can be. Its themes of Gaia and trying to understand the spirits feels very Japanese, but it's all couched in western military space marine nonsense, looking like something out of Starcraft. The Final Fantasy games have dealt with soldiers as key characters, sure, but these are the bulky buzzcut hoo-rah variety bobbing around in frumpy togs, and it arguably helps bring the heady affairs down to earth... but we want larger-than-life characters, not dudes we can find in any other flick!

The problem with the film, in its story and in its art design as an idle watcher... is there's not much scope. After a great opening setpiece in the ruins of New York, the bulk of the film is spent in the barrier city, basically a military hangar co-opted into a living space and research centre for the remnants of humanity in that region. It's a nifty looking area and immediately a fun premise to work in, these masses of people huddled away for who knows how long, the outside world too threatening for anyone but the most experienced to venture into.

But it also means the film is incredibly monochromatic. With no natural light there's no sense of time passing, and everywhere they go is just a nondescript chamber; the bunk rooms, the medbay, there's nothing to make them feel unique or lived-in. Contrast this to Aliens, where even with the futuristic hospital room Ripley wakes up in, we can still tell what everything is.

Maybe that's the point, that when so many people have grown up living with threat, the sacrifices made to keep them safe also denies them what truly feels like a home. Hell, contrast it even to the then-recent game instalments, which was all about making such disparate locations feel like places people could call home.

It doesn't just mean it's hard to parse the environments in a meaningful way, it also starves us of what's at stake. We get no glimpse into life in the barrier city, we have no idea how the regular people live -- literally the only characters we see are Aki, her team, and the council. It stands in contrast to the story's themes, how the spirits are the manifestations of ghosts of an old planet, both sides are fighting for what they believe is the earth's future, and there's a mass (planetary?) evacuation after the spirits breach the city...

... but despite this scope, we only see the world through a pinhole. Given the cost of asset creation, I can understand the lack of superfluous extras, but it feels wrong for a film this expensive having to "tell, don't show" us main characters' backstories, Aki's work with sick children that kicked off her mission.

And for such a compact cast, they didn't really make a big splash on me. Again, not paying attention, I know. Ming-Na as Aki does a good job leading the show, and the relationship between her and Sid is extremely charming, played excellently by Donald Sutherland, like a father figure to her as they research together... but everyone else feels extremely one-note.

I was never convinced Alec Baldwin's character was cool or compelling or someone I didn't want to punch, despite the entire movie pushing for them to be an item. The other soldiers all get iced within the same five minutes, doing very little to establish themselves before then; Steve Buscemi sounds like a caricature of himself, which is a feat for Steve Buscemi.

It looks decent and cohesive, but it just doesn't use what it's got to its full potential. It's a pity, and feels like commentary on the trajectory of the video game industry: the pursuit for realism means nothing without strong art design. FF8 and FF10 both leaned away from their conventional anime stylings, but still had clear and evocative styles in how their worlds were designed, the architecture and costumes selling the vibes they were going for.

Spirits Within is technically impressive, but its imagery or characters left no lasting impression on me, and time hasn't been kind to its advancements. The large, varied environments and seamless blending of monsters into its world are great uses of its special effects, but it's competing in an arms race against live-action movies. Lord of the Rings was probably the only one on that scale at the time, but after two decades of special effects movies since then...!

Many of its failings feel like it's because it's trying to be a film, as odd as that is to say. The benefit of an RPG is how much more time you get to invest in its characters, it worlds, its setting, and the sub-two hour runtime feels insufficient for its emotional beats to carry much weight.

Honestly, I wonder if this should have been a game...? So many of the wide shots of the barrier city feel tailor-made to be backdrops for text box dialogue exchanges between characters, to get acquainted with all its faculties and denizens as you would Balamb Garden or Midgar. It would allow for the relationships to be fleshed out, for bit players to make that more of an impact... I'm not saying it'd be a good game either, but humour me, buddy.

I do wonder if the branding was perhaps a mistake. I mean, damned if you do, damned if you don't, right? You need Final Fantasy in the title for people to give a shit, but having it there only raises expectations for something that wants to be an impressive CGI Hollywood movie first and foremost. Being a Final Fantasy movie, and having things people would conventionally expect from a Final Fantasy movie, is not on its agenda; the closest it ever gets to evoking that is in its dream sequences, looking like B-roll from the intro to FF8.

You know what movie is Final Fantasy? FF15: Kingsglaive. It's got airships, it's got monsters, it's got swords that people throw and they can teleport to them. It's got flippin' Ultros for some reason. Its story is a confusing mess and I have zero knowledge of how it connects to FF15 (or anything about FF15), but it's a film that, purely on a spectacle level, evokes why people are invested in Final Fantasy. It's loud and messy and larger than life and built on excess, but darn if it doesn't stir the imagination just the way the games on PlayStation, SNES, even NES did back in the day.

Still, I respect the chutzpah of Spirits Within. Square were hella ambitious for attempting this endeavour: This was four years in the making. This was synergy between the east and the west. This was Square sinking tons of resources into a grand new venture and hoping to innovate in Hollywood, staking their future on the success of this film, even flippin' banking on the concept of "digital actors" (something Kenji Eno already did with Laura from the D games, but she didn't get on the cover of Maxim, did she?) -- they'd only do all that if they were truly committed to it!

There's so many factors: wrong time, wrong place, not what people were after... and by its nature, video game fans are a fussy, pissy bunch and are going to be the least impressed by this. Mortal Kombat was still considered the best video game movie solely because it looked like the games, not for its stirring characterisation or lack of padding.

Spirits Within is unique, and its melancholy atmosphere does make it stand out somewhat from other sci-fi fare, but it feels like a film designed to impress computer magazines moreso than movie-going audiences. The games are dripping in phenomenal imagery and setpieces -- Alexander the mechanical castle fighting freakin' Bahamut, with lasers and missile barrages and goodness knows what else! -- while the film struggles to take advantage of the fact it's even animated the majority of the time.

I hate knowing I watched the film distracted, because am I gonna have to watch it again to give it its proper dues...? I really don't want to...! Unless I'm going to have a two-hour debate with someone about it afterwards, I've got better things to do with my time! A film that, personally, is more interesting to talk about the circumstances surrounding it than the actual content: a showcase of ahead-of-its-time technology used to limited gain, a tragic demonstration of hubris stunting one of the powerhouse game developers of the '90s... it's a fascinating topic of conversation, but as a film...?