Wednesday, 24 December 2008

It's Seasonal List Time!

Top 20 Awesomest Pokemon
  1. Psyduck
  2. Jigglypuff
  3. Wooper
  4. Munchlax
  5. Marill
  6. Cubone
  7. Squirtle
  8. Snorlax
  9. Pikachu
  10. Piplup
  11. Gengar
  12. Wobbuffet
  13. Poliwhirl
  14. Cyndaquil
  15. Geodude
  16. Shinx
  17. Totodile
  18. Togepi
  19. Ditto
  20. Bidoof
If you're wondering why I thought this would make for an interesting post, I'm afraid I'm not entirely sure. Sorry.

The actual end-of-year list will be along in the new year, just as soon as I've played enough games that are worth putting in a top ten. I've got about seven so far.

Friday, 12 December 2008


It's been a while, hasn't it? Sorry, I've been very poor and unable to buy games. I've just had a minor XBLA splurge on Banjo-Kazooie, Bionic Commando and N+, though, so I'll let you know how they strike me as I get into them. At the moment, I'm delaying the latter two until I get home for Christmas, but I just couldn't resist Banjo.

It looks really nice, brightly coloured and full of personality. Admittedly the character design isn't the best: Banjo and Kazooie themselves are endearing enough, and Clanker's great (although he's more level design than character design), but the enemies and NPCs frequently look amateurish and messy. Nipper and his googly eyes are the worst offenders. Still, I'm a sucker for a nice cheerful colour palette, and I think the textures have been sharpened up a bit, which works well. The sound mix is a bit off, oddly. If you want to listen to the music (and you do, because it's excellent), you'll have to turn it up to a level at which the "you got a feather" flute trill will shatter your teeth at 20 paces. Yes this is an exaggeration. It's annoying though.

The game itself remains very enjoyable, despite a number of dubious design choices. To be fair to Rare it's actually less of a Super Mario 64 ripoff than a lot of people make out. The template's the same, but the levels frequently eschew platforming challenges in favour of a more puzzley-explorey approach. I heartily approve of this decision, partly because the platforming controls aren't quite as solid as they perhaps ought to be, but mostly because exploring was always my favourite part of Mario anyway. This aspect of the game is highly rewarding: the well-designed levels always spur you on to see what's around the next corner, and uncovering a hidden passage is as exciting as it should be. Why don't modern games seem to realise this? OK, Oblivion is a game essentially built around this concept, and it's terrible, but there's stacks of unrealised potential in the idea.

The puzzles, unfortunately, aren't up to scratch. They're all trivially simple and most of them mistake legwork for brainwork. Like, I was coming out of Bubblegloop Swamp in crocodile form and wandered down a secret pirahna-water passage to find a boulder that I had to break to get through, which you can only do as Banjo. No problem, I went back, transformed back into Banjo, used the wading boots to get through, and broke the boulder, which revealed another passage - which was too small for Banjo to fit through, so I had to wander all the way back and change into a crocodile again. OK, so I was obviously meant to discover the passage as Banjo, but even so it remains a lot of waddling about to not much reward (I think all I got was a double-egg-capacity cheat, which I can't even remember now). 

On top of this, there are too many moves, a lot of which are pretty superfluous (like the trigger+B charge move) or boring (like the wading boots), and the creature transformations usually just give you lock/key abilities like immunity to hazards or rapport with NPC creatures of the same species, instead of transforming the gameplay like they could've done. However, all these flaws, as annoying as they are, are nowhere near as ruinous as they were in the execrable Donkey Kong 64*, and the game has plenty else to offer. In fact, I've been going through it very slowly because I don't want it to end. Always the sign of a great game.

(*I really should get out my old copy of Donkey Kong 64 and jot down a few thoughts, because I could rant for hours about it. It just gets it so so wrong in so many ways. It's incredible. Watch this space.)

PS As regards to the title: Banjo-Kazooie also has an excellent metagame in which you try to figure out what Banjo's yelling when he does his moves. In the same way as Link is clearly saying "Harp! Harp!" when he's swinging his sword, I'm fairly sure Banjo shouts "Appall!" when he rolls. (I also think he says "get off my lawn" when he's doing a crouch jump, but no one else seems to agree.)

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Runner The Most Frustrating Games I've Ever Played

I am really really sorry about that title. It was going to be "Runner The Mill", but Mirror's Edge is most certainly not run-of-the-mill. It's a very distinctive experience, and not always in an especially good way.

Let's start with the good points, partly because I'm a positive happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and partly because if you've been keeping up with trailers and demos and so on you'll already know most of them. The graphics are magnificient. Contrasting sterile, clinical whites with rich colours, they paint a world that is immediately alien, atmospheric and beautiful. In the emotional response it provokes it is reminiscient of Half-Life 2's City 17. Although they couldn't be more different superficially - crumbling and decaying versus shiny and pristine - the overpowering sense of isolation is very similar.

You're not actually alone much in Mirror's Edge though. There's constant radio chatter in your ear (when did this become a required feature for every game ever released? It's really weird) and you're chased after by nasty men with guns who want to kill you for some reason. I dunno, I didn't really watch the cutscenes. They're crap. How did such a visually splendid game end up with such horrid cartoons to go with it? The plot's stupid too, as far as I could tell: full of completely inconsequential twists and with a complete damp squib of an ending. It doesn't really matter though. Like the men with guns, it's really just there to keep you running.

And as long as you keep running the game is spectacular. Unfortunately this is very difficult to do. The game's chief flaw is as simple as this: you will die again and again, and it's excruciating. Short of an incongruous Prince Of Persia rewind ability it's hard to know what they could've done. Loading delays between attempts are bearably short and the game is rarely unfair with the challenges it sets you, but missing the same jump ten times in a row destroys a little part of my soul. It's not the fault of the checkpointing, which is mostly intelligent, although when your attempts get into double figures even the briefest of delays is unbearable.

Repeated playthroughs numb the pain - I fully expect my second run to be more enjoyable than my first, even on hard mode - and the time trials and races are pretty addictive. When all's said and done, the visual design and the frequent-enough moments of showboating exhilaration kept me going through the tough times. A mild disappointment it may be, but Mirror's Edge is definitely strange and absorbing enough to warrant a purchase.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Tomb Raider: The Benny Hill Years

So Tomb Raider finally deigned to make itself available for Silver gamers. (Users with a Silver Xbox Live account, I mean, not gamers over 70. That would be weird.) I dunno about you but I'm getting quite hacked off with the limitations of Silver accounts. Unless I'm missing a really obvious button somewhere I can't even upload my Braid times without a Gold account, which is really silly. Anyway, Tomb Raider Underworld. Or should I say Tomb Raider Underwhelming? Ha! Nah, probably not.

Good things: Looks brilliant. Gorgeous environments. Routes through levels less obvious than before. Nice atmosphere. Same old solid platforming and okayish combat. Whatserface Mrs Lara's Voice Actress Lady is still good.

Bad things: Lara runs too fucking fast. In fact everything in the game is too fast. Lara's animations, the tigers, the little rats that flicker from the floor to Lara's throat like Mexican jumping beans... it's like watching a video of Legend sped up a little. I might get used to it, but just now it's horrid. Combat becomes a terrifying frenzy of rolls and dodges. When you're running down a beautifully drawn corridor you want a bit of time to admire the foliage, but before you know it Lara's already jittered off to the other end of the level. It's really bizarre.

Of course you couldn't admire the foliage even if you wanted to because the camera is pretty temperamental too. It doesn't seem to do what I want, which would be fine if it was good at doing its own thing, like in Galaxy, but it isn't. Other niggles include occasionally obscure level design and a really abrupt ending - so much so that I thought I'd died and only realised I hadn't when the title screen popped up. I'll still get the game, though. I've got to have something to complain about. (Also: shooting tigers, kicking ancient vases to pieces, stamping on rare spiders - is Lara the least ecologically friendly adventurer type woman ever?)

Anyway, as if to make Sunday's post even more redundant, I've had a go on Mirror's Edge as well. It's a lot of fun. I'm especially impressed by the feeling of connection with your character - she has weight and momentum and obeys the laws of physics occasionally, so she's already one-up on Lara "made out of crisp packets" Croft. Hearing her pant as you run is a nice touch as well (and probably thick with masturbatory potential for the more pathetic end of the platform game fan spectrum). Controls were fine. I appreciate the minimal use of face buttons, allowing you to hang on to the joysticks most of the time. Combat and shooting is pretty clunky, but seriously who cares. That don't-shoot-anything achievement is mine.

It was the PS3 version so I hated the pad, but otherwise it pretty much meets all my expectations. Meets, but doesn't exceed. Still, that may be a lot to ask from a demo consisting of a quick tutorial and a very short level I've seen played through a dozen times before. I'll have to play the full product to find out how the other levels hold up, and more importantly how long it turns out to be. I have concerns. Other than that, can't complain at all.

No word on Banjo yet in case you're wondering. My flatmate's getting Little Big Planet tomorrow so as soon as I manage to steal it off him I'll let you know how it is. Until next time, look after yourself - and each other. (And try to violently murder as much endangered wildlife as you possibly can.)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Demo Roundup

So you're all probably awaiting my views on the three big demos to hit Xbox Live this week, Mirror's Edge, Tomb Raider and Banjo-Kazooie. Problem is, I don't have a Gold account. But as if that's going to stop me having an opinion.

Mirror's Edge

To find out about Mirror's Edge, I decided to ask, a AI chat program bot thing that apparently came quite close to passing the Turing Test the other day. Things started well. It was intelligent enough to remember my name.

Hello, Marvin. Do you mind if I call you Patrick?
Not at all. Hello.
OK, Patrick. I will not call you Marvin.
OK. I don't think you understood what I said there, but never mind.
I hope that my artificial intelligence is doing better.
Er, sure. I have a question.
A questioning human being! Does that happen often?
Have you played the Mirror's Edge demo?
Do you think this is something I should explain to a human being?
Sometimes a conversation develops a certain dynamic which leaves the other conversational partner behind in a state of confusion. I will try to restrain myself so that this doesn't happen to us again.
Just tell me if you liked Mirror's Edge.
Let's not talk about me all the time! What do you do for a living?
I'm trying to write a blog and I need to know what you think about Mirror's Edge.
You are probably on TV much of the time. Well, I'm in the Internet!
Oh for fuck's sake.
"Be fruitful and multiply" is an early reference to robots, but what they meant was "be productive and calculate things."
How about the new Tomb Raider? Any thoughts?
This is confusing. Why bring what's up-to-date into this?
I can't answer that just now - I'm trying to work out how to fix tea!
The Turing Test is fucking bollocks.

Tomb Raider Underworld

It being Halloween (two days ago) I wandered over to for a Tarot reading to predict how good Tomb Raider is gonna be.

Name: Tomb Raider Underworld
Question: Am I going to be any good?
Deck: Lovecraft Tarot (it seemed vaguely fitting)
Spread: Celtic Cross

For some reason the website went bonkers and gave me 10 cards. I thought there were only supposed to be five in a celtic cross. Anyway.

The card not shown but at the center of the cross, represents the atmosphere surrounding the central issue. Seven of Sites (St. Toad's), when reversed: Labors abandoned before completion. Impatience, lack of effort, and the wasting of time. Idle and unprofitable speculation.

I guess the game's going to be pushed out of the door before it's finished. And it'll be really easy and have loads of filler in it. Wow, this is already more useful than that stupid bot.

The card visible at the center of the cross represents the obstacle that stands in your way - it may even be something that sounds good but is not actually to your benefit. Seven of Artifacts (EOD Vestments), when reversed: Being trapped in a hopeless situation and unable to withdraw. A feat of daring that is too much for you to handle. Being caught in the middle of a desperate act of cunning or outright deception.

Another Seven. That must be what the game's going to get in Edge. Interesting. Also, it seems I'm going to get stuck on it somewhere.

The card at the top of the cross represents your goal, or the best you can achieve without a dramatic change of priorities. Ithaqua, when reversed: Ineffective use of force. Might turned against the weak or the righteous. Senseless violence and warmongering. Lack of discipline and poor direction fan the flames of a situation already out of control. Advance without consideration of the consequences for others.

Too much combat?

The card at the bottom of the cross represents the foundation on which the situation is based. Tsathoggua, when reversed: Resistance of temptation. Freedom from bondage. The pursuit of higher goals despite the influence of luxury and pleasure. Release from obsession with money and power. Liberation from fear, weakness and indecision through communion with higher powers or the inner voice.

Is Underworld, like, free-roaming or something? That would kind of make sense.

The card at the left of the cross represents a passing influence or something to be released. Four of Sites (Whateley Farmhouse), when reversed: Using your power freely for your own enjoyment and the betterment of others. Coming to grips with progress and using your position to help it along. Finding security and identity someplace other than in the possession of material things. Letting go and encouraging others to find their own path. Being magnanimous and generous with your success.

Yeah, more free-roaming stuff. Maybe they're gonna turn it into an MMO just before release. Also: not many pickups.

The card at the right of the cross represents an approaching influence or something to be embraced. Azathoth, when reversed: Apathy, negligence, and dangerous carelessness. Unquenchable wanderlust. Obsession with someone or something. Losing all sense of proportion. Foolhardy adventuring and lack of interest in critical matters. Immature or unrealistic ideals. Strange impulses and desires coming from unexpected sources. Vanity, delirium, folly, and oblivion.

Christ. That relates to the game really closely but it sounds awful. Too ambitious? Not polished enough? Too many instant deaths? How the hell is this going to get 7/10?

The card at the base of the staff represents your role or attitude. Ten of Sites (Exham Priory): Completion of material prosperity and riches. Freedom from financial anxiety, the security of home, and the enjoyment of family. The passing of inheritance along to children, or the gaining of inheritance from parents.

They're going to give it away for free! Amazing!

The card second from the bottom of the staff represents your environment and the people you are interacting with. Three of Man (Inspector Legrasse): A time of merriment and reflection spent in the company of friends and loved ones. The conclusion of a matter in plenty and perfection. The strength of a diverse community being brought together. May suggest a celebration, festival, anniversary, wedding, baby shower, or other joyous gathering.

Lots of NPC interaction. Sounds shit.

The card second from the top of the staff represents your hopes, fears, or an unexpected element that will come into play. Queen of Artifacts (Stone of Nepemiah Derby), when reversed: The dark essence of air behaving as water, such as a cold rain: A person gifted with both keen logic and natural intuition, giving them uncanny powers of perception and insight. One who easily sees the weakness in any argument, and savages friend and foe alike with biting sarcasm. Dry and vicious wit covering a hollow sense of isolation and dissatisfaction with life.

Erm. Fuck. Psychic powers? Good script? Lots of puzzles? Good rain effects? Your guess is as good as mine, seriously.

The card at the top of the staff represents the ultimate outcome should you continue on this course. Mi-Go, when reversed: Lack of balance, harmony and integrity. The suspension of action until a decision is made. Lawsuits and prosecutions. Unjust decisions and the consequences of those decisions. A turn for the worse in legal matters

Lack of balance! Very interesting. That "suspension of action" bit sounds like it's about QTEs. And the game's gonna get banned because of excessive violence against jungle animals. That's my take anyway. Wasn't that insightful, everyone?

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

I liked the bit about Edge scores in that last one, so let's indulge in some numerology.

2+1+14+10+15+11+1+26+15+15+9+5+14+21+20+19+2+15+12 +20+19 = 247
2+4+7 = 13
1+3 = 4

Ta-dah! I couldn't think of a way to do the hyphen or the colon. Or the ampersand. Actually, maybe I should be substituting all these things for their names.

2+1+14+10+15+8+25+16+8+5+14+11+1+26+15+15+9+5+3+15 +12+15+14+14+21+20+19+1+13+16+5+18+19+1+14+4+2+15 +12+20+19 = 492
4+9+2 = 15
1+5 = 6

"Kazooie Colon" is not a phrase I ever want to hear again. Of course, if you're just talking about the game you might call it

2+1+14+10+15+11+1+26+15+15+9+5 = 124
1+2+4 = 7


14+21+20+19+1+14+4+2+15+12+20+19 = 161
1+6+1 = 8

There you have it. Mirror's Edge is going to make no sense at all, Tomb Raider will be disappointing but still good, and Banjo-Kazooie will totally definitely get either 4 or 6 or 7 or 8 out of 10. Aren't you glad you know that?

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Dead (Good) Space

My first report from the frontlines of the busiest gaming Christmas since, well, last year, is this: Dead Space is good. Dead good, in fact. Hence the pun.

Despite having a few things wrong with it. The plot and characters have failed to excite me so far. There's a lot of things to collect, Bioshock style, which is a bit annoying. And it's not exactly scary. Not yet, anyway. It's as if, because it's an EA game, it has to be a little bit too polished, too action-movie to truly become the game it aspires to be. Whenever you forget who made this game - which is easy because it's far superior to the usual EA stuff - the largely unnecessary weapon upgrade system and incongruous "kinesis" abilities are around to remind you.

Still, it seems churlish to complain about that when the game is so visually and aurally overwhelming. The brilliance of Dead Space is all in the dark corners, billowing smoke, and constant, unsettling cacophony of clatters, clangs and howls. Oddly, the bits when you're actually shooting things are probably the least scary bits of the game. There's some eek-get-it-off-me moments, and I always get a bit twitchy about what might be behind me when I'm aiming, but generally the tension is relieved when you actually have something in your sights. It's still a lot of fun, though. Having to lop off limbs rather than just spraying the enemies with bullets makes combat very fiddly, in a good way. It's reminiscient of having to shoot the parasites off the Regenerators in Resident Evil 4.

On an almost completely different note, De Blob is quite good as well. Jury's still out though.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Shaky Disappointment

"Give me a reason to love you" as Portishead once sang.* I'm starting my post with a song lyric in the hope that you'll be too busy laughing at my pretentiousness to notice the colossal volte-face I'm about to do on Wario Land. It's almost as bad as when I upgraded my opinion of Halo 3 from "disappointing" to "incredible" in the course of a single play session.

Once the entertainment value of the excellent animation and Wario charm has melted away, the game stinks of "will this do?". There's no sense of each level having a concept, or of the development team thinking "why is this fun?" at any stage. Put some platforms together, add waggle, add achievements (which I still find really weird in a Nintendo game), five worlds, job done. Out the door. And I thought Mario Galaxy was slightly underwhelming. Christ. Come back, all is forgiven.

Only the bosses display any real invention, and even they're a bit annoying. Oh, and there's the odd nice use of waggle, although I found my wrist really hurt after a quick session. So I went and played Wario Land to relax lol etc. Crap I've done that one before. Even the animation and Warioness isn't as good as in Smash Bros.

Despite all this I might have kept on playing if it wasn't for the game making me go back and collect more coins before letting me in to the third world. What the hell kind of game design is that? Is this a Nintendo game or what? Seriously, if a game is going to make me do that, it had better have some actual interesting levels to ease the pain. All you get to break up the monotony is some absolutely horrible submarine sections. Screw you guys, I'm going home. I can't even be bothered to find a quote from the manual to fill in that gap in the last post.


*This article is part of a series inspired by Portishead lyrics. Next week, "Tempted in our minds / tormented inside life / wounded, I'm afraid / inside my head, falling through changes" in relation to Picross DS.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Wario Land Shake Dimension: The Definitive Review

Wario looks happy, but so would you if you were on a big island full of treasure. 8/10


Narrated by Wario himself. Includes such gems as "I can't be bothered to go and get the manual, so wait until I edit something in here later". 9/10

Disc Art
Wario shakes a thing. Very yellow. 8/10

It has stickers. 10/10

Waggle the remote to do ground pounds and shake things and aim things. My wrist hurts from shaking things too much (so I played the game for a bit to relax lols). Wario has two separate ground pound moves. Amazing. 8/10

It looks great and the animation is lovely, like a really good cartoon. It's not quite as funny to watch as Wario in Smash Bros though. 8/10

It's quite good but a bit MOR/easy listening, if it was music (which it isn't). Maybe it will get better later. I've only played the first world. 7/10

It's quite good but a bit MOR/easy listening, no that's the other one. I can't remember much about the music so it's probably not that great. 6/10


Wario. 10/10

Because otherwise the overall score would be 8.2 recurring out of ten
and that is a completely silly score that makes a mockery of the entire scoring out of ten process.

Overall: 8/10

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Two Lists About Geometry Wars

Top Nine Reasons Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 Is The Best Game On Xbox Live Arcade That Isn't Braid

1. It's so good it regresses my vocabulary. While playing it I am incapable of saying any words that aren't "oh shit".

2. It's so incredibly gorgeous in all its radiant neon glory that it makes the original (which I used to think was really pretty) look utterly bland and boring by comparison. Seriously, play it. You won't believe how badly it's aged.

3. Bombing the whole screen scatters geoms everywhere, and you can have loads of fun by saying "geom nom nom" while you hoover them up.

4. The multiplayer is fantastic, if only for the humour value of having someone next to you saying "oh shit" during the short periods when you're not saying it.

5. Sequence is so blatantly unfair I don't think I'll ever reach the end, but it's all worth it for the level with all the greenies. They way they swoop and billow around your line of fire is just spectacular.

6. Wax Off is the best achievement since... well, Pacifism.

Gates are both your greatest friend and your bitterest enemy. I think I've died more times at the hands of gates than any other enemy. Why would you build a gate and make the edges deadly? That is extremely poor gate design.

8. Also I know that enemies can go through gates, but I completely forget every single time one appears. Why do I do this? I can go through gates, why do I think the enemies can't? It makes no sense.

9. Waves: when you play it, you will shit bricks.

Top One Reasons Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 Is A Stupid Piece Of Shit That Should Go And Die Somewhere


Sunday, 14 September 2008





This Again, Sorry

Second attempt: 49 minutes 13 seconds
Third attempt (after three aborted half-runs): 46 minutes 44 seconds

I'll get this if it kills me.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Time Trial And Punishment

Braid has an achievement for completing the whole game in 45 minutes. This achievement has EATEN MY SOUL.

The game also has mini time trial challenges which are quite addictive but the big one is a work of pure evil. I can't remember the last time an achievement consumed me quite to this extent. (That's a complete lie. It was Geometry Wars Evolved 2's Wax Off, about a week ago. (I haven't talked about Geometry Wars 2 yet have I? It's amazing. Buy it. (But buy Braid first.)))

The only game I ever tried to time trial before was Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time, and I got bored round about the baths. It was the horrid combat that turned me off I think. Braid, though, is such a tightly-designed game that time-trialling it is an absolute pleasure. I'm just concerned that my memories of the game will be tainted by the horrific ordeal of constantly falling just short of the 45 minute mark. The endgame runs at a fixed pace and contains a long section where all you can do is watch. I'm confident this section will give me a heart attack before too long.

First attempt: 57:46:03

Tuesday, 9 September 2008


Five real life things that have reminded me of videogames this week:

1. What? Small Dog is evolving!
Saw a couple walking a dog, then saw them again later on, but with a different dog. Or maybe it was the same one, and it fought a few Pidgeys and levelled up. Our cat is such a slacker. She's stayed the same for about twelve years now.

2 The Temple of Tesco
I went on a fetch quest to get some shopping. I'm inclined to think Tesco isn't entirely unlike a Zelda game. There's no bosses, but you collect items, and make sure you have enough rupees cos the business scrubs aren't to be messed with. Also there's a quick puzzle where you have to fit all your stuff into one bag. Actually, that bit's more like Resident Evil 4.

3. Patrick fell asleep for 2 turns
I was a bit ill over the weekend. No symptoms except I slept fitfully for about 48 consecutive hours. It was less an illness and more like a status ailment. Maybe I'd encountered a Jigglypuff.

4. They're waiting for you Gordon... in the test chamber
I know this has been said before, but the Hadron Collider thing. I mean it's just a resonance cascade waiting to happen isn't it? I'm stocking up on supplies right now. Don't blame me when the Combine hop through and take over the world.

5. Light bloom
I woke up this morning and the sun was so bright I could barely see through my window. It was like sodding next-gen all over again.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Rock Band impressions

I finally got a go on Rock Band.

Seeing as I've already played Guitar Hero and Singstar I was most interested in the drumming side of the equation. The way the pedal hooks on to the drumkit is really awkward - it seems you have to have either the drums too far away or the pedal too close, unless you want to use a table, something I haven't tried yet. It's murder on your toes. Apart from that, I'm really enjoying my solo drum career (under the ingenious name of "PatROCK", and yes, I did come up with that all by myself). I'm only playing on medium (I've been informed the game is a lot more fun on hard, but having little-to-no sense of rhythm might get in the way of that) but even so, when I nail a little drum fill - particularly the one on In Bloom - or hit the last "note" after going mental on the freestyle ending, the feeling is extraordinary.

It's actually engaged me far more than Guitar Hero ever did. While I enjoyed Guitar Hero well enough, it never produced this feeling in me. Maybe because drumming is a lot closer to actually playing the drums, while the plastic guitar always felt like just that, a plastic guitar, flimsy and with loose, rattling buttons. Or maybe drumming is just more primal. The other way Guitar Hero let me down is that it didn't interest me long-term, maybe because I've never been much of a highscorehead. It remains to be seen whether Rock Band will be the same.

Obviously the multiplayer mode is meant to be the main source of longevity, but oddly the few sessions I've had were a bit subdued. Despite the little "Unison" markers and so on, I found there wasn't much of a sense of "we're in this together" when everyone's concentrating on their own bit. I was barely aware of the other players' presence unless someone was singing or getting out of time on the drums. It's still a lot more fun that Guitar Hero's multi anyway, but so far I haven't really got that sense of being in a band.

I've got no interest in the guitar and bass side of things but I did have a go at singing. Fortunately there are quite a few songs on there I know and quite like, but even so it's annoying having to stick to those few. I'll have to seek out a few of the other songs and get to know them. Singing is the aspect of the game that's closest to doing the real thing, but even then it's not quite like proper singing. You're always aware that you're playing a game. Especially when I do high-pitched "fweee" noises on the freestyle bits.

Thursday, 28 August 2008


So apparently there are two kinds of videogame scholar, which may come as a suprise to those of you who thought there were no kinds. As I understand it, narratologists are the sorts of people who attempt to analyse the plot of Braid (hopefully without losing their already fragile sanity in the process) while ludologists play it and go "Look, he's going backwards! WOW." These two schools of thought are equally valid and should be given equal considerati- yeah, I know, the ludologists are right, but let's pretend, ok? In any case, it's not like you can perfectly separate the two. Take Phoenix Wright. The gameplay is terrible, and while it's pretty much the best-scripted game you're likely to find, it's still nowhere near the calibre of actual decent fiction. It's like playing a crap game while reading a crap book, and yet the result is not double craptitude but one of the most entertaining game series of the last few years. It's all in the connection between the two. Even Braid mirrors its story thematically within the levels (or so my narratologist friends tell me, before going back to... doing something prententious, or whatever? I can't bring myself to actually be mean about them, sorry.)

In any case, it should be fairly clear that narratology vs ludology is a false dichotomy. There's a third way. As a chap called Jonathan Culler apparently said at some point, "the theory of narrative requires a distinction between... 'story' - a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse - and... 'discourse', the discursive presentation or narration of events". I don't know who this guy is, I just got the quote off Wikipedia, and I don't think he was talking about games. But it's like Half-Life 2 isn't it? It's one of the best games ever, and that's not because of the gameplay (well-executed but fairly ordinary gunplay) or the story (alien invasion hokum) but something in between - the rattle of a railway bridge as you cling to the struts below, the empty houses strewn with dead bodies, the echo of the Overwatch robotic announcer over the river at sunset. I guess that's what this Jonathan Culler guy was on about anyway. He wants to call this stuff "discourse", but that's a rubbish name, so let's call it awesomology.

Basically almost every game relies on awesomology. (I'm sick of that already. Let's go back to discourse.) But even this is impossible to separate from the other aspects of a game. Think about your favourite game, maybe it's Half-Life 2. If you were trying to isolate just the gameplay aspects, and removed all the plot and all the discourse bits, what would you end up with? At the most basic level, what you do in HL2 is press buttons and waggle joysticks (assuming you're on a console). So if you mapped out a full runthrough of the game in terms of user input, you'd end up with a list of instructions like "move joystick this way, press trigger, press A". Timing is important of course, so let's model the game as one big quicktime event. A button press flashes up on screen and you press it in time, or fail somehow (maybe by losing health, maybe by changing the subsequent sequence of button presses to something more complicated or roundabout). Rinse and repeat for 12 hours or so, and you've finished Half-Life 2.

Except obviously you haven't really played it at all. Output is important as well as input - it's what you're reacting to that makes games different from each other. But as soon as you bring in the elements that make it an FPS, ie the acquisition and disposal of enemies, you're already bringing in some level of discourse. Even if it's all stick figures and wireframe environments. More importantly, while it would still be a pretty boring game, it would at least be more fun than a giant QTE.

Discourse is everything. I can think of very few games that don't have any of it - Tetris, I guess, and other puzzlers, and maybe some hardcore reaction-based schmups and racers. You could call these games "pure", as if it's a virtue that they're unsullied by the horrors of plots and setpieces. A lot of games get called pure, though, and it's interesting to examine why. One game series I often hear the adjective applied to is the Mario series, which I'm inclined to disagree with. If you're hoping this post is turning out to be another installment in my perpetual vendetta against Super Mario Galaxy, then you're in luck.

I like Galaxy a lot, but it is not a pure game, not by any means. In fact, I don't think any of the Mario games since Super Mario Bros have been, which may explain why I'm not all that fond of them up until Super Mario 64. Discourse is inevitably tied to a lot of non-gameplay things, including graphics and sound, and once a game ages beyond the point where these things can still impress, it's only got gameplay to rely on. I enjoy playing, for example, Super Mario World, but for me it is nowhere near the transcendant experience it's described as by people who played it when it first came out. I think this is because I'm not playing it as the most technologically advanced Mario game to date, and thus I am not blown away by its increased scope and improved graphics. The graphics aren't even all that nice from an artistic viewpoint, either.

Galaxy's graphics, meanwhile, are. I consider it one of the prettiest games ever, and the settings are evocative, and the music isn't half bad either. There's something else going on here though. I guess it gets called "pure" because of sections like "Revenge of the Topman Tribe", one of the stars in the Dreadnought Galaxy. There's a bit (about 1:55 here) I call "radiating circles of laser doom" where you have to jump over a load of radiating circles of laser doom, hence the name. The guy in the video messes around a lot, but it's a pretty easy section - just run from one end of the platform to the other jumping over the radiating circles of etc. It's pure platforming, and quite entertaining. It's odd though, because if the platform was arranged differently - say, a long thin walkway with moving straight lines of laser doom - it would be a lot less fun, and yet it would "play" basically the same. You'd still be running and timing jumps in the same way, just in a less funkily-designed environment.

It's almost as if the game is relying on the anticipation of gameplay to impress rather than the gameplay itself. When you first see Bouy Base, or the capsule in the Good Egg Galaxy, there's a sense of excitement because it looks like a fun section. But once you're in, it's standard running-and-jumping antics that would play out just the same in a less interesting setting. That's how I felt, anyway. Maybe you found them just as much fun as they looked. If you did, I can't blame you for thinking it's the best game ever, as so many people do. For me, it felt like smoke and mirrors.

I don't mean to imply that making a game visually interesting is somehow duplicitous, just that there's a lot more discourse going on than is immediately apparent, and sometimes - because of a mood you're in, or a preconception you have about the game, or a million different reasons - you can find yourself immune to it. That's the main reason I don't think Galaxy is one of the best games ever. Now hopefully I can stop going on about it and get on to something more interesting. Like Smash Bros in-jokes. Woo.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008


After extensive statistical analysis I have determined the best course of action re the Banjo-Kazooie situation (see previous post). Assuming that the original's a tenner and the new one's £40, and that you'll get the original no matter what, the expected profit from pre-ordering is £(10-40R), where R is the probability that Nuts & Bolts is rubbish. Based on this equation, you ought to take advantage of the deal if you are more than three-quarters certain that it'll be good.

This ignores the factor of being disappointed if you don't pre-order and then it does turn out to be good and you could've saved money. If you want to assign a utility value to that outcome and model the situation as a game theory problem, go ahead. Personally I'm an empty soulless drone who feels neither excitement nor disappointment, nor any emotion bar a perpetual all-consuming apathy, so I'll pass. Have fun though.

Super Everything 64

So if you preorder Nuts & Bolts, you get the original Banjo-Kazooie on XBLA for free, two weeks early. I definitely want the original but I'm not sure yet if I want the new one. It looks good (not literally: the art design and next-gen sheen make me vomit blood from my eyeballs), but it also brings back disturbing memories of the terrifying nuclear holocaust Rare perpetrated on the world of 3D platforming with Donkey Kong 64. Is it coincidence that the genre has been in freefall since? I don't think so. Anyway, it's a question of risking £30 for a potential profit of £10. Well, not profit, but you know what I mean. It's like the bloody Prisoner's Dilemma. I'm seriously considering formulating the situation as a game theory problem and leaving the decision up to maths.

The main qualm I have about Nuts & Bolts is that it's not a "traditional" 3D platformer. This is a vague term, so I'll define it: any game you can tell apart from Super Mario 64 at ten paces isn't one. Yes, I'm a fundamentalist on this. Like any sane person, I tend to think that any given game can be improved tenfold by making it more like Super Mario 64. I'm barely even joking here. I'd probably have liked GTA IV if it had had bob-ombs.

Unfortunately this principle also applies to other Mario games, which is why Sunshine and Galaxy were various levels of disappointing to me. Let's take a moment to remind ourselves of the differences. In Super Mario Sunshine you go into a level, get shown a star in a cinematic, and go get it. The end. In Super Mario 64 you get a single-sentence hint and are unceremoniously dumped into a dazzling non-linear playground (where any number of stars are also available to you) and left to get on with it. And that's if you manage to even find a level in the first place, what with them being hidden behind walls and in mirrors and so on. Sunshine's approach is fun; 64's is effortlessly magical.

So basically I entered the Mario universe with the game that's least like any of the others, and now I'm in love with a series that doesn't exist. I guess I wasn't the only person to be disappointed by Sunshine - actually this little quirk of mine probably aided my enjoyment of the game by initially masking all its other shortcomings - but admitting to not liking Galaxy is essentially Nintendo heresy. As it should be. I did like Galaxy. I just didn't like it as much as 64 and, more depressingly, I saw it as a sign that the series was set on a different course to the one I wanted it to follow. Marry Galaxy's level of invention and beauty to 64's structure and intricate genius and you've got got the best game in the world, although since 64 itself is already more or less the best game in the world this might be asking for too much.

It wasn't as if the find-the-stars-yourself-damnit approach was a creative dead end, as SM64 spawned a number of clones. Most notable is Banjo-Kazooie itself, of course, and it'll be interesting to see how my second playthrough of that goes (the first time I played it, I hadn't yet played SM64, although I've since completed it half a dozen times). There was also a rather splendid effort from Ubisoft called Rocket: Robot On Wheels where you drove a little unicycle robot around a theme park and had all sorts of fun with a quite advanced physics engine. It was like Half-Life 2 meets, er, Super Mario 64. Like I told you, it works with any game. (Allegedly SM64 was even the inspiration for Goldeneye's mission structure.)

In the field of nontraditional platformers there's Mirror's Edge, which looks better and better every time I see it, and then there's always stuff like Tomb Raider, obviously. Supposedly both games are moving away from linearity and towards finding your own route through the level, which is definitely a step forwards if you ask me. Although with Tomb Raider I still wish they'd get rid of the combat. And put in collectable stars, and maybe a race against a giant penguin. They're already got dinosaurs in it, although if you went up to one and asked for 100 lives it'd probably bite your implausibly large breasts off. Still, you can't blame them for trying. (The developers. Not the breasts.)

Monday, 25 August 2008

Braid To The Past

The quite extraordinarily brilliant Braid has got me thinking about other puzzley type games, the Zelda series in particular. For me, the thing that sticks out about Braid, apart from the lovely aesthetics and completely incomprehensible plot, is how much it makes you genuinely think - and, in turn, how rare this is in modern videogames.

I say modern. Since I've only been gaming for about ten years now, I've a very limited idea of whether this has always been true. Everything I know about gaming pre-1997 is basically stuff I've learned from the Wii's Virtual Console, and that's not much. Solomon's Key is a good brain workout, although it has action leanings as well (hamstrung by putting jump on D-up, but that's the NES for you).

One thing the Virtual Console neatly illustrates is how the Zelda series has got progressively easier with each installment. This is actually almost literally true. The original NES Zelda is a complete nightmare. "It's dangerous to go alone, take this! You'll die a dozen times on the second screen anyway but, y'know, take it." I felt a colossal sense of achievement when I made it so far as to find the first dungeon (which actually turned out to be the third dungeon, but let's not quibble). Link To The Past has a bit more signposting - I reached the first dungeon first, and the second dungeon second, at any rate - but it still makes it very difficult to stay alive in a way the 3D Zeldas completely don't. The Mario and Metroid series seem to have undergone similar transformations. (I still haven't completed Super Mario Bros, even with full knowledge of the warps.) Maybe this is an artifact of the 2D setting (although it's not true of the Game Boy versions), or the advent of save functions, or the ethos of the era, or something else entirely.

It does have the effect of making your quest seem a bit more epic (in the same way that a successful run of Mystery Dungeon is all the more satisfying for having previously died in several hundred different ways that were completely not your fault). That Zelda dungeon I eventually reached did seem pretty mysterious and threatening in an 8-bit way, partly thanks to the excellent music. Which is fortunate because in the puzzling stakes it was singularly unchallenging. This is the point I'm slowly gravitating towards. I actually never bothered to finish Link To The Past because the first three dungeons were so uninteresting. The very first is almost comically dull - literally the only difficulty is in finding your way around.

So I think this is one way in which the Zelda series has actually improved. Twilight Princess's dungeons were pretty good, especially the Lakebed Temple (it's inferior to Ocarina's Water Temple, but then, so is more or less any level in any game ever). Wind Waker, too, had some fine attempts once you got past the pathetically easy first and second dungeons. But none of these games tied my brain in quite as many knots as Braid... if you see what I accidentally did there.

You may wonder why I keep making the comparison, but Braid (despite taking more obvious cues from Super Mario Bros and other platformers) isn't so far away from Zelda. The structure's different, but you still gain a new ability, or have to deal with a new mechanic, for every level. It probably has more in common with Portal on the whole, but then again, maybe that's not so different either. The time-slowing ring might jar a little, but I don't have much trouble imagining the portal gun (if it was some kind of wand or something instead) popping up in Zelda.

Obviously, Zelda has more going for it than just the dungeons. Wind Waker in particular has some fantastic between-dungeon bits - ironically I'm especially fond of the section that fills the very obvious void left by the cut third dungeon, where Link sneaks onto the ship while the pirates are hanging out at Windfall. The problem is this. I fell in love with the series with Ocarina of Time, which came out when I was ten. I'm sure a lot of gamers are familiar with the phenomenon - the game's difficulty was perfectly pitched to befuddle my preteen brain, and now that I'm older and wiser the same difficulty level doesn't fill that puzzley void in my soul.

The semi-holy DS trinity of Another Code, Hotel Dusk and Professor Layton And The Curious Village failed for various reasons. With the first two, I was largely immune to their dubious narrative charms/character quirks and found the puzzles poorly integrated. Professor Layton gets away with murder in that respect, by somehow turning it into a charming quirk in itself - I began to glean a peverse enjoyment from the poorly-welded-together halves of the game ("My cat is ill! Maybe he'd get better if I could just solve this puzzle.."). But... consider this post an extended-length bragging session if you like, but they were just too easy. None were as disappointing as Phantom Hourglass though, whose facile puzzles and drab adventuring add up to the first Zelda since Ocarina I've actively despised. Apart from Braid, only Portal and Zack and Wiki have really given me the level of intellectual thrill I've so craved. (Intellectual thill? If there's a nerdier phrase in the English language, I've never heard it.)

Given that my Games Of The last three Years have been Twilight Princess*, Portal and (so far) Braid, you can imagine what direction I want the Zelda series to be heading in. With Nintendo's new family friendly direction, though, it seems unlikely. I guess not every level can be the Water Temple, but I really would appreciate... hang on, why can't every level be the Water Temple? Every level should totally be the Water Temple. Apparently the Zelda team are working on something at the moment, so someone pass on this message: make every level the Water Temple. Also put the portal gun in it. Thanks.

*Edit: Well why didn't anyone tell me Hitman Blood Money came out in 2006? Sod Zelda.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

In Brawl We Trust

Smash Bros is a religion, and these are its commandments.

I Link, Captain Falcon, Samus and Ike are all amazing, but thou shalt have no other gods before Wario.
II Any character that isn't amazing shall be referred to by a derogatory and increasingly unfunny nickname, eg: Mr Gay and Watch, Poocario, Ganondork, Mr Game and Crotch, Diddy Wrong, Wonkey Kong, Mr Lame and Watch, Lolimar, Mr Game and Wank, Mr Wank and Watch (even though that doesn't make any sense). Also Mr Game and Watch's final smash is called the Cocktopus.
III Suggested one-liners for various situations:
i) (Ice Climbers' final smash) "Ice to see you!"
ii) (Diddy Kong's "jump on your face and hit you" move) "I specialise in YOUR FACE!"
iii) (Meowth emerges from a Pokeball) "It's pay day, bitch!"
iv) (Jigglypuff falls asleep right next to an opponent) "NO Jigglypuff you stupid fucking twat."
IV King Dedede's glassy blank-eyed stare is the stuff of nightmares.
V So is Jigglypuff's final smash.
VI Whenever one of the crappy new Pokemon appears (ie more or less anything post-Mudkip) it must be immediately insulted for its inept design. ("It's just a cat with bits of plastic stuck on it!")
VII The co-op event match where you have to kill 50 Yoshis in one circuit of Rainbow Ride will eat your soul.
VIII Sonic is the worst character to play against, but by no means the best character to play as. No one knows why or how.
IX Whenever someone eats a poison mushroom you have to pretend you knew it was poisoned, even though independent studies have shown that it is impossible to tell the difference.
X Kirby's final smash is the cutest thing this side of Jigglypuff.