Posts Tagged ‘games of the noughties’

Games of the Decade – Jets n Guns

17 January, 2010

Caboom!

It’s a sad, but true, fact that there are several gaming genres that have fallen by the wayside in recent years, overtaken by fashion and the whims of the gaming industry which seems to think that people are only interested in playing variations on the first-person shooter (invariably set in either World War II, the modern era or the future; come on guys, there are more historical wars to pick from surely?) and Gran Turismo. One of these genres, once extremely popular, is the scrolling shooter. Unfortunately, it seems to have been a victim of the fad for polygon-based gaming: scrolling shooters really have to be side-on or top-down (into-the-screen based shooters have their fans but your correspondent has never got along with them, give me R-Type over Space Harrier any day of the week) and that means that, even if they use polygons, they retail an old-school 2D feel and certainly an old-school gameplay. “Boring” say ver kids, their sweaty hands clutching their moulded plastic XBox controllers, “it’s not 1995 any more, grandad, give me yet-another Call of Duty game! I WANT ANOTHER CALL OF DUTY GAME SO I CAN SHOOT PEOPLE IN THE HEAD LOL PWND!”

Kids are idiots.

(As a disclaimer I should point out that I quite like both racing games and first-person shooters but, dammit the industry, do we really need so many of them?!)

Luckily for people who actually like games rather than just playing the same two over and over again for ludicrous amounts of money (yes, it’s a bit snobbish to say that; no, I don’t care) a few titles in this genre still trickle-out every year, largely ignored by the headshot kidz and boy-racers. Today’s Game of the Decade, published in 2004 by indie developers Rake In Grass and unknown to your correspondent until a couple of years ago is just one of these game and one of the best in the genre I’ve ever played. It’s called Jets n Guns.

No, that's not X-Factor contestant Rhydian but vain space-dictator Justin Perfect.

Now, I should point out at this juncture that I’ve only played the Gold edition of this game (unexpectedly given-away for free for one day via Game Giveaway of the Day, back in ‘08; a bargain I don’t expect to see repeated) which has numerous additons (such as extra ships to fly and extra levels to play) to the original although I’m sure that’s more than great as well.

In Jets n Guns you play a futuristic space-mercenary in his little ship and you take various missions for money. On these missions you shoot things, lots of things, many of which explode in spectuacular, often bloody and sometimes hilarious ways. There’s a thin plot running through the whole thing (accompanied by pre-level comic-style pictures in the Gold edition) explaining each level but really this is just a classic level-based blaster with the storyline adding a little atmosphere and an explanation for the scenarios each level is based around. Whilst many side-scrolling shooters have a power-up scheme throughout the level (meaning that the player is left vulnerable on losing a life since they tend to lose all their power-ups with it) Jets n Guns has a pre-level “shop” sequence where the player arms-up their fighter craft with whatever weaponry and armour they can afford. Naturally, beating a level leads to a cash injection which can then be used to make the fighter a bit more badass for the upcoming stage.

There are several things that make this game so much fun. The first is that it’s a really hectic, really exhilarating shooter. Pressing fire unleashes a bona fide hail of bullets/plasma beams/whatever at the enemy and, very often, they respond in kind. These aren’t all stoopid “fire off a bunch of glowing balls in all directions and hope they hit” enemies of the sort seen in so many shooters either; many of them take aim before firing meaning that the player can’t just casually fly through the levels lazily dodging floating bullets. If you want to survive you’ll have to weave and dodge as well as fire; this game isn’t just interested in showing you the pretty scenery (although that is very nice) it makes you work for it; you know, like games used to in the old days. When you complete a level of Jets n Guns then, fuck me, you feel a sense of achievement.

Of course, were it Rhydian then that ship I've just trashed would probably contain Simon Cowell which would make it twice as satisfying.

And it’s also funny in a way that doesn’t make the game seem cute or childish. One level sees the player escorting ships flown by attractive women and defending them from the unwanted attention of boorish male pilots of various extraterrestrial types whose ships have things like “Mr Loverman” painted on the side and who broadcast White Van Man-style comments over the airwaves just before you satisfyingly blast them to pieces. Another stage is set on a “perfect” planet overseen by a self-consciously attractive Alpha-male type who promptly sends his security forces against you as you trash his gleaming skyscrapers and blow the crap out of passing craft carrying his adonis-like face on giant TV screens. Even the violence itself is funny with poor, largely-defenceless spacemen with jetpacks being sent against your heavily-armed fighter and being messily blown across the screen in return with ridiculous Pythonesque amounts of blood.

And then there’s the variety of other features: the different weapons and add-ons (and, in the Gold version, the different ships) you can arm yourself up with; and the medals you receive for completing various achievements on a level; and the hidden rubber duck (really) bonus pickups; and the excellent ways of receiving extra money like the device you fit to your ship which broadcasts your carnage to a TV network and pays-out for extra gore. Someone put a lot of thought into this game and it’s paid off handsomely.

Okay, there are problems: there isn’t enough visual and audio feedback when the ship gets hit for my liking, the damage indicator would have been much more useful as a bar than the dial they use and it inexplicably doesn’t seem to support joypad control (although, on Windows at least, the excellent Joy2Key utility deals with this without too much hassle) but, for me, these are fairly minor quibbles. I love this game quite unashamedly and utterly and, when I loaded it up a few days ago to refresh my “feel” of it for this article I got sucked right back into it and wouldn’t leave it alone until I’d reached the next stage. This is a truly brilliant game and well-worth the asking price for those who aren’t afraid of a bit of old-school difficulty. It’s available for Windows, Mac OS and Linux. You can get a demo and order the full game from this link here.

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Games of the decade – Wario Ware

10 January, 2010

For the next game in my Games of the Decade (the noughties, that is) series there’s not all that much that I can think of to say because, to be honest, it’s a game famed for its simplicity. It’s Wario Ware for the Gameboy Advance.

Let’s cut straight to the chase: Wario Ware is essentially dozens and dozens of extremely-simple minigames. The “plot”, if you can call it that, is that Wario (Mario’s evil nemesis type person thing) has set-up a software house to publish games and the games you get on the cart are Wario Ware’s output. The games themselves are gathered into “themes” based around different characters (who each have their own excellent little intro animation) and are played rapidy and at random. The player is given no instructions and almost-always has to work out how to play the games themselves which is easier than it sounds. The games have various genres from shooters to racing games to simple puzzles. No game is played for much longer than a few seconds and if the player “wins” they get a point, if they “lose” they lose a life.  If you score enough points in a level then you can take on a “boss game” for an extra life. It only ends when you run out of lives but to keep things interesting the games get faster, harder and are played for less time as things progress. Get enough points and you can unlock more gaming themes and characters and the option is always open to return to previous characters and attempt to beat your high score. There are also other extra games (“full games” based around Doctor Mario and the like) which can be unlocked by completing other tasks which the player can discover by themselves.

Wario Ware works for two reasons. The first is that it’s gaming at its most simple: plotting, complex controls and byzantine scoring systems simply don’t exist here and given that this game was released when console games were aspiring to become some sort of “true” artform and beginning to forget they were games at all this was a breath of fresh air. The second reason is that Wario Ware has tremendous personality, in fact it’s one of those games which could actually be described as charismatic. The games have tremendous graphics, amusing and charming sound effects and a terrific sense of humour: if you play this game it’s almost a certainty that several of the games will make you laugh out loud on your first play.

Playing Wario Ware is basically a joy. If you have a Gameboy Advance or a Nintendo DS then you really ought to own this game or one of its many sequels. You owe your console that, at least.

Games of the decade – Egghead Round the Med

27 December, 2009

Our hero wanders around the ship's cargo hold.

It might seem a little bit contrived to claim that a title for the ancient (well, early ’80s) platform the ZX
Spectrum is one of the games of the decade; a bit of nostalgia on my part, too much rose-tinted memories of being
ten years old and sitting around playing Head over Heels all day.

But it’s not. Jonathan Cauldwell’s 2007 indie release, Egghead Round the Med really is one of the best games I’ve
played this decade. It’s true that it’s in a genre I love – flick-screen arcade-adventure (action-adventure in
Americanese) but it’s the best example of a game in this style since Sir Clive’s machine’s heyday and easily one of
the best in the genre on that platform in the last thirty years, let alone ten.

So what makes this game so great? Simple: it takes elements of some of the best in the genre (Jet-Set Willy; Auf Wiedersehen, Monty) and adds to them in a way that works. Not only does this game use the expanded memory of the
128K machines (and I mean use, it’s a huge huge game) but it uses it well, in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the player whilst giving a great sense of freedom.

The plot involves our hero Egghead (one of those sprites who somehow manages to exude charisma despite only having a few frames of animation) having to save his friends who have managed to get themselves lost in various Meditteranean countries during a trip on Egghead’s yacht. There are two ways the game can be played: puzzle mode, which is an arcade-adventure involving having to find and collect/use objects and a more traditional collect-em-up mode which involves exploring the game and collecting all the objects to win.

The puzzle game is undoubtably the best – Egghead’s first task is to sail his yacht to one of the countries his
friends have become lost in which involves grabbing a lifesaver (to get into the sea) and then taking the anchor and
dropping it elsewhere so that the ship can move. After that, he has to get to the bridge and steer the ship to
France, Malta, Egypt or one of the other countries so he can embark.

The puzzle element means the game opens-up gradually with the player initially confined to the yacht and having to
actively reach the wider game. Once this is done, the player can try and attempt the different countries and their
puzzles in any order. This fairly non-linear way of playing the game helps with replay value, as does the size (140
screens!) and the sheer playability. ’round the Med moves smoothly and quickly and the different screens (each with
their own name, very important in this kind of game since it adds bags of extra atmosphere) are cunningly designed.

It has flaws – there are no in-game sound effects, some of the puzzles can seem a little badly-implemented (for
example, the anchor mentioned above needs to be collected and then dropped for the ship to move; if you carry the
anchor when you try and steer it it won’t work) but these are minor issues in a superior platform game. I think I’ve
played this more than any other Spectrum game in the last two years and I keep coming back for more. Despite the age
of the hardware, despite the faults, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s in a genre no longer very fashionable this game deserves its little pedestal on this particular list.

Egghead Round the Med is freeware (another reason it’s on this list) and can be downloaded via Cauldwell’s own site.

Games of the decade – Morrowind

22 December, 2009

This is my character. He might look a bit tasty but he's called Snively Pickles. Really.

Morrowind. Oh, where to start with Morrowind?! Well, I can actually trace this back with my excellent super-memory. Around November 2005 I picked-up a second-hand X-Box from one of my local(ish) gaming emporiums. Then I took it back because something small and metal was rolling around inside, then I replaced it with a new one (with a noisier hard drive but I wasn’t willing to lug it all the way back across town again) and realised that GTA: San Andreas and Knights of the Old Republic II weren’t going to keep me going for the coming year or so. I needed more games!

Cut to a week or two later and I’m reading a forum on NOTBBC where someone is bigging-up a fantasy RPG I’d never heard of and waxing lyrical about travelling from town to town, atmosphere and a few other people chip-in saying how good the whole thing is. I think “hmm, I’ve not really got into a CRPG since my Eye of the Beholder days, I might give it a try”. So I picked-up a second-hand Game of the Year Edition of Morrowind, the said game, took it home and started playing a game which, four years later, I’m still playing, still loving and still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of.

Fans of Morrowind will tell you that it’s a world in itself; when playing the game you get to know it, get to know its nooks and crannies, quiet settlements, frightening crypts and dank, monster-filled caves like you do your home town. And all this is true but it’s only the merest paragraph in the Big Book of Why Morrowind is Great.

The game is usually played in first-person mode. Here, my brother's character stops to chat with an orc at a daedric shrine. Awkward small-talk ahoy!

When I played Morrowind I realised I was playing the type of RPG that the genre had always promised right from the early days of The Dungeon Master and Swords and Sorcery on the Spectrum right through Eye of the Beholder and Fallout in the ’90s. Finally, here was a game where the player creates a character, has them dumped in a world and is pretty much free to do what they want. In Morrowind, the non-linear nature isn’t the result of side-quests which can be done at will to supplement the main quest, the main quest is literally an option. If the player wants they can ignore it and just concentrate on rising through the ranks of the Fighters’ Guild, or becoming an outlaw, or a vampire, or (in the expansions in the Game of the Year Edition) going-off to deal with the Dark Brotherhood in the capital of the Morrowind province, or help build an imperial colony on the frosty island of Solstheim. It’s literally up to you, Bethesda (the development team) have actually said there is no correct way to play the game and when you play Morrowind you realise they mean it.

Everything is presented first-person and, unlike games like Fable, there are no fixed “routes” to follow. Tired of wandering along the road from one town to another? Why not jump over the fence and wander off into the wilderness? You can do that, you can climb any mountain you come across (or at least try to), swim across (and under) and lake, river or sea you find; get the correct spells or potions and you can even fly high above the landscape. The landscape is so open that it’s actually possible to plan out a journey to the lair of the game’s paramount villain from the start and pick a fight with him (although a level one character doing so is sure to get his arse presented to him on a silver plate with a side-salad and a helping of chips).

My brother's character again, doing a spot of magical levitating over the daedric shrine. They want him to come down again "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" he says.

And not only is the landscape open, it’s also full of things to explore and do. The game largely takes place on the island of Vvardenfell in the province of Morrowind and the island itself is split into regions each with their own flora and fauna and each run by a separate House of the Dunmer, the indiginous (and rather racist) population of the province. Exploring the landscape from region to region the architecture changes, different animals appear to menace (or just curiously observe) the player character, ruins and settlements are stumbled-upon and inhabited and forgotten caves and mines appear all over the place, often filled with as much hostile monsters and people as treasures.

Morrowind‘s “open” RPG experience was developed in its prequels, Arena and Daggerfall (now available as freeware) but Morrowind removes some remaining restrictions. No longer, for example, are certain character classes restricted in what armour and weapons they can use. The move from the mixed sprite-and-polygons “two and a half dimensions” to full polygon-based 3D also removes the graphical restrictions of the original – no longer do monsters and objects’ perspectives go all “funny” when looking at them from above or below.

I’ve not even started on the many reasons I love this game. I haven’t told you about the sheer atmosphere – the beautiful night sky, the changing weather conditions, the excellent sound (I still don’t like going into Dunmer crypts when playing the game late at night, those whispering voices!), the little touches like characters walking around with torches when you enter a town at night. I haven’t mentioned the extremely complex and self-configurable magic system which allows even non-magic-using character classes to commit themselves to learning a little magic if the player is willing to put the time in. I haven’t mentioned the way the Dunmer Houses gift you a home if you rise high enough in their ranks and how you can fill your new home with trophies collected on your travels turning them into a personal museum. I haven’t mentioned the game’s customisability on the Windows version of the game whereby players can change and mod certain aspects of the game to make it more realistic or more challenging. There is so much about this game that you need to find out for yourself and if you don’t have a copy (and the Game of the Year Edition probably costs peanuts these days) and you’re willing to invest time in this type of game then there’s no real reason not to.

Of course, Morrowind isn’t perfect; the combat system is a bit wonky and there are a few features I didn’t care for (like NPCs spending all night wandering around the place and never going to bed, although the game lampshades this in conversations with some characters) but overall this is simply the best RPG I’ve played in over twenty years of gaming and which I’ve been playing on-and-off for four years and could well be playing for another four. It’s for that reason that it’s the first of my ten games of the decade.