Posts Tagged ‘opinion’

Ender, man?

15 September, 2014
"We don't need no steenkeeng Windows!"

“We don’t need no steenkeeng Windows!”

I suppose all good things have to come to an end and all eras must grind to a halt. No, I’m certainly not talking about the 1707 Act of Union (we’ll find out its fate on Thursday and, yes, I have my voting papers) but instead Minecraft as an independent videogame. It was announced today that the rumours were true and Mojang, that the studio which has been developing Minecraft over the last few years and created one of the truly phenomenal independent gaming successes of the last decade, has been sold to Microsoft. More alarmingly, the Mojang founders will also be leaving the company.

There has, understandably, been a wave of gloom and despondancy throughout the enormous Minecraft community, including me. I love Minecraft, I think it’s one of the greatest games ever made, combining the greatest creative tool since lego with an actual game requiring exploration, skill and strategy. The fact that it’s been a big hit with everyone from young children to adults who’ve been gaming for decades is testamount to its appeal. But another thing that has helped its success is its adaptability, being highly mod-friendly and in many ways parallel-developed by the community as much as Mojang. It’s losing this adaptability, and the spectre of one of the great evils of the modern software business – “micro transactions” – that has worried Minecraft players. Microsoft assure us it’ll be okay, but that’s PR, it’s what they do. They are, in reality, a hulking great corporation which regards our game as just another money-farm; it is truly sad to see the best kind of business taken over by the worst. I only hope the future is less gloomy than we all fear and that Minecraft continues to be a game that inspires and entertains more generations of players.

Retro City Rant-page

17 December, 2012
RCR allows the player to indulge themselves in lots of horrible '80s hairstyle. Player is currently sporting some kind of crazy big hair and '70s tache combo.

RCR allows the player to indulge themselves in lots of horrible ’80s hairstyles. Player is currently sporting some kind of crazy big hair and ’70s tache combo.

The first test of any videogame is whether it’s fun. Not if the graphics are good, not if it has an “incredible storyline” that makes idiots try and compare videogames with cinema (whoever said “I had a great time last night playing Lawrence of Arabia and beat my train-destroying record?” Exactly), not even if it’s original. No, what makes a great videogame, primarily, is the player having lots of fun.

And for that reason, based on my first two hours of play, I’m declaring Retro City Rampage a great game.

What makes it even better is that it has everything the snotty games-are-art crowd turn their noses up at: the graphics are knowingly 8-bit and cheesy as is the music, the plot is preposterous nonsense more in love with referencing ’80s and ’90s culture than anything “serious” and the hero is a deliberately empty vessel called “Player”; he doesn’t even have features in-game.

And yet this game scores where it matters: it’s superb fun. I spent yesterday playing in-game stages that referenced – in gameplay and looks – everything from Frogger to the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Commando, chuckling at the sort of daft shop names and in-jokes that used to make the GTA series such fun (and hopefully still will in the future) and engaging in some of the most entertaining videogame police chases I’ve had since I first picked up GTA Chinatown Wars, more than three years ago. I’m sure there’s more disappointing stuff in it later on, there usually is with these things, but right now it’s been good stuff all the way: engaging, good, silly, fun.

If you’ve ever used phrases like “games are a mature medium comparable with cinema now” or “the best thing about Zombiefest IV is the conflicted central character” then Retro City Rampage probably isn’t for you. If however you still think jumping over mutant telephones in Manic Miner is fun and don’t think Pac-Man has anything to do with Citizen Kane then you should probably give this a try. The only downer for me, so far, is the price which I think is a little steep at $14.99 (£9.29 in real money). It’s currently going at a reduced price on GOG.com though and you might be able to get it cheaper elsewhere.

Grumpy old man?

15 November, 2011

"You Sons of Bitches", indeed.

The verbose ewgf on World of Spectrum drew my attention to this YouTube video (which itself was a response to this earlier clip) which is an excellent summation of what’s gone wrong with mainstream commercial gaming. The emphasis on storyline, character and plotting (all of which have traditionally, with the exception of text adventures and RPGs, been made secondary in videogaming) means that the actual “game” experience is turned into less a challenge and test of skill and more of an interactive, and frequently interrrupted, way of passing through a narrative. I was amused to find that I wasn’t the only one thinking “I wish they’d get on with it” when watching the parody narrative in the “modern Doom”.

The irony is that its two games which, in their own right, are very good that are to blame for this malaise: Half Life, which popularised the linear environment and “cinematic” feel in FPS games; and Halo which introduced the “hide and recharge” mechanic (which made sense in Halo’s universe but makes none in modern shooters). Whilst, at the time, these games felt innovative and refreshing the way they’ve come to define The Only Way Games Should Be Done means that their faults become glaring.

I don’t play a lot of modern games and when I do I’m always frustrated that the superb visuals and in-game physics are used to create such story-driven, set-piece riddled “experiences” rather than good old fashioned explorable levels and shoot-em-up gameplay. Are there many modern, commercial, mass-market games which buck the trend? Do let me know.

The art of fuzzy

12 February, 2011

In the retrogaming community there’s always a certain amount of chatter about “authenticity”. Of course, people will say, all these old games have been preserved for posterity and can be played on just about any platform imagniable thanks to emulation but it’s not the same as it was back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. There is nothing, so the cry goes out, quite like playing it on the original hardware.

Now, whilst in most cases this is completely true (just try playing the arcade Star Wars on the original cabinet controls – you can’t go back!) in some respects this is a case of nostalgia getting the better of people. Some of the older computers weren’t all that robust and had a tendency to overheat, and you couldn’t just save out quickly and easily to hard disk and instead had to fiddle around with floppy disk drives or, even worse, audio tapes if you wanted to keep your place in a game (that’s assuming they’d let you). And, rather than a nice crisp monitor picture, you’d have to watch everything happening on a blurry old television set.

Except, was that last one really a problem? The old RF ariel input and CRT television sets might have created a blurry picture and colour bleed but not only was that something that makes 30 and 40-something retrogamers all nostalgic, if you owned a C64 or ZX Spectrum or Sega Megadrive it was the way you were expected to see your games. This meant that the developers often drew graphics based on the assumption that they would be seen on a CRT television set. Because of this, pixel dithering which is obvious on a monitor was barely-noticable on a TV set and graphics which look blocky and chunky on the latter look smooth and “rounded” on the latter. As a result, when we play these old games on a monitor we rarely see anything like what we used to see when they were published and, consequently, future generations would have no idea what these games were really meant to look like.

But things might be changing. For a while now, many emulators have had a “scanline” setting which impersonates the lines seen on CRT TVs and monitors to give a more accurate rendition of the original picture but it’s still always looked too “crisp”.

(NB Click this pic to see full-size). Top shows 'Stormlord' in RF emulation mode, bottom in "clean" monitor pic. Note how the dithering works and how different the fairy looks.


Now, though, we seem to have the beginnings of proper “TV emulation” appearing thanks to the latest release of ZX Spectrum emulator Spectaculator. Long regarded as one of the best ways of emulating Sir Clive’s beast, the latest version (v7.5) comes with something that really makes it stand out – RF ariel emulation. And, for the first time I can remember, we can see Spectrum games as they ought to look on a modern monitor. For an example of what I mean, click on the picture on the right.

Hopefully this trend will extend to other emulators. Some C64 emulators already boast something close to a TV picture but emulation for other plug-into-the-TV machines still lags behind. Veering as close as possible to the original hardware experience isn’t just about fuzzy nostalgia, it’s about experiencing old games the way they were intended and the way the developers often saw them. A fuzzy picture and a bit of colour-bleed is, in fact, very often a tiny part of what made these games what they were.

Attack of the Zombie Monsters and why we all need to be more critical

25 July, 2010

Invasion of the Zombie Monsters: it's good, but not THAT good.

A few months ago a new, commercial, ZX Spectrum and MSX title was announced. Going by the admittedly rather cheesy name of Invasion of the Zombie Monsters this game, inspired to some extent by the classic arcade game Ghosts n Goblins was originally published by a small indie developer for €14.99 and then, this month, was finally also released as freeware. Gameplay videos and screenshots which looked promising had caused quite a bit of excitement in the ZX Spectrum community and so when the game was released freely mere months after its commercial outing we all pretty much pulled our pants over our heads and ran around the room.

I, along with dozens of other spec-chums, downloaded the newly liberated game and gave it a whirl. I really enjoyed my first game, loved the graphics, found it surprisingly fast and extremely well-presented. On my second game, though, I started to notice that the difficultly curve was way too gentle which, sadly, is quite common in a lot of indie games; I also felt that the character block-based movement, whilst as well implemented as could be expected, meant it lacked the fluid-feel of games like GnG. By level four, however, the game begins to get reasonably challenging and I was left, and am left, with the impression of a pretty good, if flawed, piece of indie software.

Now, that on its own isn’t all that interesting (other than that it’s my opinion which is, of course, always interesting) what was more telling was the response for the Speccy community. You see, the reaction to this game was extremely favourable, it’s already shot into the Top 100 games on World of Spectrum (it was riding close to the top of the chart for a while) and a thread devoted to the game even contains posts claiming that, had IotZM been published in the ’80s, it would have been a dead-cert for the coveted “CRASH Smash” (CRASH being the best (shush YS fans) Spectrum magazine of the period) award given to games scoring 90% or higher – the best of the best.

As cowboys supposedly said “woah there” and as I doubt they said as often “let’s all calm down”. IotZM is quite a good game, it’s a fine piece of work for a bunch of indie coders to produce and I think the fact that it’s free means we can overlook its flaws to an extent but a CRASH Smash? Really?! Is it really comparable with The Great Escape or even Robocop?

See, if we’re going to be completely objective and honest I can see IotZM scoring 70-80% if it was a £2.99 budget game and came out around 1988 but the idea that it’s one of the best games released on the Spectrum in its entire history is a bit hard to take.

Justin: a not-bad wee isometric game (although someone ought to have told the main sprite about the 'isometric' bit) but not brilliant.

Unfortunately, I think this reveals a small problem with how the retrogaming community respond to new software: there’s a bad tendency to get overexcited and married to the understandable desire to encourage the hardworking indie coders who produce it we get a great deal of overrating with almost any new release routinely described as “brilliant” by the WoS community and quickly bumped up into the 7 or 8 out of 10 scoring zone. Now, I don’t want to be seen as patronising or as dismissing either the coders or the games, there are some real talents at work (Bob Smith and Jonathan Cauldwell in particular) and some of the games are superb; indeed I’ve said before that I think Egghead Round the Med deserves its considerable plaudits and is one of the best platform arcade-adventure games on the Spectrum I’ve played. But I think there’s something wrong with simply throwing plaudits at every indie title which appears, and especially something wrong with saying that every genuinely great new game developed by indies on obsolete platforms is necessarily one of the best games released in the entire history of that platform.

For starters, if the Mojon Twins or Bob Smith or anyone else released a game as excellent as Hydrofool, Starquake or Exolon then the plaudits, the words we’d all need to rightly use simply wouldn’t be there. What’s the use of “this would have got a Smash back in the day” if it’s been used to describe good-but-not-great games like IotZM or even rather average titles like Justin? Even though I think a lot of good stuff is being produced by the indie programmers it doesn’t help anyone to pretend it’s some of the Best Software the Spectrum’s Ever Seen. Whilst we need to encourage this new breed of coder-enthusiasts and applaud the great work they do I think it’s also in the interests of both the retrogaming community and the programmers themselves to be a little more criticial. The corporate commercial programmers of the 8-bit heydey had their bosses and playtesters to sit them down and tell them what needed to be improved or tweaked to make their games as good as they can be, the new breed of 8-bit programmers rely on us, their fellow enthusiasts, to do that for them. And it pays off – the Mojon Twins have been releasing a pile of games this year and amongst all the usual “good on you, brilliant game” stuff a few people have been pointing-out the problems they find in the gameplay and the Twins seem to be taking it on board; that’s probably why their latest game – Cheril Perils – is one of their best so far.

I still think the current crop of 8-bit indie coders have it in them to produce many more titles which really do stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the masterpieces of the golden age but to do that they’re going to need friendly criticism as well as encouragement. Yes, it’s great people put all this effort into giving us entertainment for very little renumeration or even for free but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise our virtual hand and say “lovely graphics, everything move beautifully, but at the same time I really think that…”. I hope IotZM spawns a sequel and I hope the gameplay faults – the gentle difficulty curve, the lack of levels and the slightly ineffectual end of level baddies – are ironed out so that it can be something truly special. Perhaps actually deserving of a CRASH Smash or, at least, a Your Sinclair Megagame.

Micro Men – a quickie review

9 October, 2009
"I don't know what it is, Chris, I just keep thinking of rubber keys..."

"I don't know what it is, Chris, I just keep thinking of rubber keys..."

Last night (8th October at the time of writing) BBC4 broadcast a drama based on the early years of the British home computer industry. Originally given the geeky and puntastic title of Syntax Era, the name was changed later on to the far more general public-friendly (and nowhere near as good) Micro Men. Described by the BBC as a “an affectionately comic look at the race to dominate the home-computer market in the ’80s”. The narrative focused on two key figures of the early ’80s PC industry – Clive Sinclair of Sinclair Research (played by Alexander Armstrong) and Chris Curry of Acorn (played by Martin Freeman).

I was unsure about Micro Men from the trailers the BBC put up on their website in advance of the broadcast last night. Martin Freeman looked fine as Chris Curry but Armstrong’s performance as Sinclair came-across from the short clips shown as being a bit too comic and caricaturish, like something from a sitcom rather than a lighthearted drama. Fortunately, within the first ten minutes of Micro Men this feeling subsided and Armstrong’s portrayal of Sinclair as a tempremental, aggressive and somewhat-buffoonish business bofffin – an angry ying to the more chilled-out yang of Freeman’s Curry – started to feel quite natural and most of my reservations were left at the wayside.

The story focussed on several different episodes in the rivalry between these two men, taking place over a period of years. The first was Sinclair and Curry setting-up rival computer-manufacturing businesses after working together in the late ’70s (the breaking-up of the state-supported Sinclair Radionics is shown near the start and precipitates the two men parting ways); the next was the race to gain the coveted BBC seal of approval and become the Beeb’s official “BBC Micro” (Acorn famously winning-out in the end, although there was a nice moment when Sinclair presumptuously placed a BBC logo on his mockup of the ZX Spectrum’s casing); the third was the scramble for the Christmas home computer market in 1982-83 and the fourth was both companies crashing spectacularly after failing to build on early success and releasing new products that failed to catch-on in the way their early models had.

And, I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. Knowing a bit about the background and presonalities involved helps but even without that, this was still a funny, engaging and sometimes moving piece of drama. There were some marvellous “face-off” scenes between Sinclair and Curry; notably a cafe confronation in which Sinclair attempts to emphasise his self-styled position in the pecking order by ordering Curry’s food before he arrives (“their oxtail soup is warming. And nutritious!”), and a fight in Cambridge Pub “The Baron of Beef” over an Acorn advert attacking Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum which a little research informs me actually took place. There were also plenty of in-jokes and period details: the infamous Sinclair “RAM-pack wobble” gets a mention, Acorn staff are shown desperately cobbling together their BBC Micro prototype mere days before men from the Beeb come to inspect it, the notorious C5 is practically a running-joke throughout the whole thing and Sinclair at one point, exasperated by his “hobbyist” home computer becoming a games’ machine complains “there’s even a game about me trying to get a knighthood!”. And speaking of games, that reminds me: there are also lots of namechecks and brief clips from classic 8-bit games from the period which should keep a lot of you lot happy. In spite of its faults (Armstrong’s makeup never looks quite convincing enough and some scenes – such as Sinclair taunting Curry from his C5 on the late-night streets of Cambridge – were a bit too silly) this was a superior piece of comic drama and a nostalgic look at a period when it must have felt that, as far as computers went, anything was possible.

Now, all we need is someone to commission a drama about the rise and fall of the British videogames industry in the same period…

(For those in the UK, Micro Men is doubtless still available on the BBC’s iPlayer service. I also hear that it’s likely to be repeated on BBC4 if watching things a bit fuzzily in a monitor doesn’t appeal)

Gameswipe – just my opinion

30 September, 2009

BrookerGameswipe, then. For those of you who don’t know (which, probably, means you live somewhere other than the UK) clever and opinionated but slightly-overrated (ooh!) journalist and TV presenter Charlie Brooker put-together a one-off TV show called Gameswipe for BBC4 which went out last night. The idea behind the show was to give an overview of videogames, where they came from, what flavours they come in and what they’re all about. Brooker is an ex-games journalist and famously good fun when he spouts off about stuff as well as shamelessly knowlegable so this looked good…

I’m not really in the mood for a big ol’ essay so I’ll divide this review into appropriate sections:

What Gameswipe Got Right

Probably the most impressive thing about the programme was that it covered a lot of bases. A major bugbear for me when the media deal with videgames is the “Pacman-Sonic” syndrome whereby Ian Journalist has only heard of the games the mass-media has meaning that he thinks it all started with Pacman then there was probably some other stuff which wasn’t important and then that fucking blue hedgehog appeared and that’s when games were important again. This is infuriating because, of course, there was a very successful gaming industry in between these two periods and, most importantly, Europe had its own almost self-contained industry at the time with the British side of things basically being an overblown cottage business largely staffed by people under 25. Gameswipe mentioned this era plenty of times and we saw more than enough snippets from games of the period from Manic Miner to Elite to Knight Lore. Jolly good stuff. I also thought it was clear that Brooker was a proper gamesplayer who Knew What He Was Talking About rather than the sort of mouth-breathing idiots who too-often become games journalists these days and are impressed by fancy graphics and a “good” (ie sub-Hollywood-B-Movie) storyline. Brooker’s dismissal of the new Wolfenstein in favour of the 1992 original because the latter is a bit more, well, fun was a perfect case in point. Who cares about the protagonist? Who cares about what blokey has to say about the super nazi-gun? Just get on with it! This is a game!

I also liked the talking heads. I don’t quite agree with Dara Ó Briain’s argument against unlockable content since I think such arguments are a demonstration of how consumerist and WANT IT NOW we’ve become – well-done unlockables increase the lifetime of a game and give us more to work for – but I enjoyed his rant against difficult bosses. Graham Linehan was really good value, though. I’ve said before that I don’t like the emphasis on storyline in modern games because too often I think it detracts from the gameplay, but I thought he made excellent points about why game storylines suck – because game developers simply try and ape some film(s) they saw once giving us tiresome cliché and hackneyed characters (although using GTA: Vice City – a deliberate parody – as an example probably wasn’t the best idea). Linehan argued that game developers should do proper research (as, for example, writers do) into the scenarios they develop adding more realism and atmosphere and gave some very good examples of how this can pay-off.

What Gamewipe Got Wrong

This wasn’t so much a fault of the show as a fault of having to cover so much in so little time (50 minutes) but too much of the show felt incredibly rushed. Brooker referred to the terrific Manic Miner as “pythonesque” but didn’t actually explain why this was the case because there simply wasn’t the time. And that wasn’t the only thing that was given short shrift, the coverage of the different genres was also too brief. Beat ’em Ups, for example, were condensed down so that only one-on-one fighters were included and genre classics like Target Renegade and Streets of Rage 2 (which represent a whole subset of the BeU genre) were ignored; Role-playing Games were even more poorly represented with about ten seconds of Final Fantasy VII having to stand-in for a genre that consists of everything from Heavy on the Magick to Dungeon Master to Oblivion.

The show’s desire to squeeze things in also lead to a certain unevenness. The new Wolfenstein and a Fifty Cent game were given what essentially amounted to full reviews for no other reason than, apparently, that Brooker thought there was entertainment value in doing so; but in a show where most of the items discussed were lucky to get more than twenty seconds it felt weirdly jarring and, given that neither game is especially important, a little inappropriate. I suppose it was an example of how games reviews will look on Screenwipe, all well and good but maybe it would have been better to stick to Gameswipe as an overview of the videogaming phenomenon and not the same but with a couple of full reviews thrown-in. It was also hard to work out who the show was aimed at: much of the show seemed to be about explaining gaming culture and history to newcomers and yet I doubt newcomers were those watching.

Overall

As you might expect, overall I thought it was a pretty good show if rather flawed. What’s really needed is for the BBC to commission a full series so that each genre (or era) of videogaming can be investigated properly with interviews with designers, proper explanation of gameplay mechanics and gaming quirks. Gameswipe showed that you can do TV about videogames without it being boring or just a succession of five-minute clips of games being played whilst a voiceover states the obvious (far too many youtube bedroom reviewers take note). All we need now is for someone to make that series; and put Dr Ashen as Noseybonk in it, of course.

UK residents can catch Gameswipe on iPlayer. Non-UK residents can, ahem, probably find it elsewhere…

Why aren’t you all playing ‘Homebrew’?

12 September, 2009
Alcohol brewed from fruits dropped by shot bees? That's sure to be good!

Alcohol brewed from fruits dropped by shot bees? That's sure to be good!

No, I’m serious. Apparently, not many people have downloaded Jonathan Cauldwell’s new ZX Spectrum game Homebrew which is scandalous.

So, using my amazing powers of persuastion which are almost nearly arguably not quite as good as Derren Brown’s I’m going to (hopefully) convince you all to download it.

For starters, like much of Cauldwell’s work Homebrew is free and not only is there no real excuse for not downloading a freeware game but to not download this one is to thumb your nose at all the hard work Mr C has done (no, not the one out of the Shamen).

Secondly, it’s a great game because it invokes the spirit of the early Ultimate Play the Game titles like Jetpac and Cookie – single screen, baddies all over the place to be shot and a collect-and-drop gaming mechanic. Although, rather than fuelling a spaceship or making  a cake the player is trying to homebrew booze which doubtless wouldn’t have been allowed in commercial gaming in the ’80s lest the kids try it at home and be sick all over the walls.

Thirdly, you play a barrel. I think this is the only game in the history of gaming where you play a barrel. You want to own the only game in the history of gaming where you play a barrel don’t you?

So, go here and download a copy to play on your Spectrum emulator (or real Spectrum if you have the know-how); if you need a Spectrum emulator go here.

Well…. off you trot!

Oxfam Music Love

21 October, 2008

I don’t know about anyone else but I love my local Oxfam Music, not just for the cheap CDs but also for their often-excellent choice of old videogames for a wide range of platforms. In recent months I’ve managed to pick-up secondhand copies of Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle, the brilliant Total Annihilation, Commandos, SimCity 3000 UK Edition (I’ve actually got SC4 but it hates this PC due to lack of memory) and Ascendancy all boxed (huge, old-skool boxes too – back when they actually had manuals in them) for the princely sum of £1.99 each. I got around to playing the last one today (via the excellent DOSBox) since it’s a space exploration/conquest game and suitably similar to Colonial Conquest 2 that I thought it would be worth doing a small comparison which I might put up in the next couple of days.