The Game Jar Files: My crimes against gaming revealed!

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Originally published on The Game Jar – December 17th 2013

With the Christmas spirit in full effect, I thought I’d take advantage of you all. Whilst you’re all feeling warm and fuzzy about the prospect of spending time with your loved ones during the festive period, I’m going come clean about my crimes against gaming in the hope you’ll go easy on me. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, I’m going to unburden myself of all my biggest gaming sins in the hope that I can begin the new gaming year with a clean conscience. So settle down dear readers, as I take you on a journey through the seedier end of gaming.

I’ll begin slowly by confessing to a crime I don’t really have a problem with – I’ve never owned a Sega console of any kind. I’ve played on family and friends consoles plenty of times, but never actually owned one myself. When The Gameboy was first released, I coveted Game Gear for its colour screen and TV tuner, but there was absolutely no way I was going to convince my parents to buy me one. During the great war between the Megadrive and Super Nintendo, I was firmly on the side of good, righteousness, and more controller buttons. From there I spurned the Saturn for Sony’s fledgling machine, quite rightly in my opinion, and so my Sega boycott continued. The closest I ever got to owning a Sega machine was the Dreamcast, which looked ultra-cool with its chiselled lines and special memory cards, but I never quite got round to turning to the dark side. I don’t really regret never owning a Sega machine because I thoroughly enjoyed the consoles I did have, but I do feel a little responsible for Sega pulling out of the hardware market. Perhaps if I’d had been willing to settle for an inferior console, Sega would still be making them. So I’m sorry Sega fans, it was all my fault.

I’m not proud of this one, but I did say this article was all about truth and reconciliation, so I will come clean: I have played through, and finished Too Human on more than one occasion. For those of you who that don’t know what Too Human is, it’s an action RPG game based around a futuristic take on Norse mythology. Now before you start to think that doesn’t sound too bad, let me give you a potted history of its development. Originally slated to be a PlayStation release in 1999, development moved to the Gamecube in 2000. Five years later, the rights were sold to Microsoft and it became an Xbox 360 title. Finally releasing in 2008, Too Human had spent nearly a decade in development hell, but the saga wasn’t over. Approximately a year before the game’s release, Silicon Knights and Epic Games (creators of Unreal Engine 3 – the game engine Too Human was built upon) became entangled in legal action. Silicon Knights eventually lost, and were ordered to recall and destroy any unsold copies of the game. Given its difficult birth, there was no way Too Human was ever going to be a good game, and so it turned out to be. During a third playthrough of the game, my 360 chose death by Red Ring of Death rather than play any more of it. Yes, that’s right; so bad, even the console wouldn’t play it.

Lastly, this is the one I’m genuinely not proud of. The rest of this article is fairly lighthearted – I don’t really think Sega consoles were bad, for example – but I do feel slightly bad about this. I knowingly traded in a broken Crackdown disk, and bought the rather excellent Dead Rising with the proceeds. Knowingly traded because I was the one that broke it. I’d thrown it across the room in a fit of gamer-rage, Frisbee style, and the result was a tiny, barely visible crease in the leading edge of the disc which rendered the disc unreadable. Having turned my game disc in to little more than a shiny coaster, I hatched a sinister plan. I removed any signs of damage from the disc, placed it back in its case, and took it into a game shop that I shall not name here. For one tense moment, I feared I’d be rumbled as the assistant examined the disc, but no! He smiled, declared how much it was worth, and rung up my new copy of Dead Rising, which I got for free. A month or so later, after I’d finished playing Dead Rising, I picked up a second copy of Crackdown during an Amazon sale, and picked up where I left off. Occasionally I felt the odd twinge of guilt about my deception, but not for long, because… well, Dead Rising was a great game!

So there we go, my deepest darkest crimes against gaming laid bare for you entertainment. I hope I haven’t shocked you too much, and hopefully my confessions have given you the courage to step forward, and unburden your gaming soul too. During this season of goodwill to all gamers why not indulge in a little group therapy, and get it all off your chest, we can even hug it out if you want. Come on, confess your gaming sins. You know you want to.

The Game Jar Files Animal Crossing: My life amongst the animals

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 04/07/2013

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Recently I had a twitter conversation about Animal Crossing with fellow Game Jar writer, Paul Everitt. He was asking whether the game was worth a try, and I, in a completely ham-fisted way, attempted to explain that yes, it’s a great game and he should definitely try it. After three tweets I gave up. I simply couldn’t convey to him what the appeal was in a game that is essentially about going to work every day to earn money, so that you can buy cool stuff. Unperturbed by my inability to describe in 140 characters  just why this particular form of video game masochism is worth playing, I decided that many more words were needed.

I’ll start by asking you a question. If you had to, how would you describe Animal Crossing to somebody else? Very probably, your answer would look something like this: You start off by rolling into your new town with nothing but the clothes on your back. A friendly Raccoon called Tom Nook offers to build you a house, which you’ll have to pay for obviously, but he’s generous enough to do the building work before he’s seen the colour of your money. You earn some money by selling fruit and catching fish, and eventually you pay off the money you owe. Debt free, you’re at liberty to run around town, living for pleasure alone. Well almost. Because old Tom Nook doesn’t take kindly to folks running round free of debt, so he convinces you that your current home is too small, and offers to expand it – for a price. And so begins your life in Animal Crossing, at the mercy of an evil loan shark Raccoon.

In addition to supporting your new house improvement addiction, there are other tasks that demand your time. For a start, your town needs to be kept pretty. That means pulling up weeds, planting trees and nurturing flowers. Then there’s the museum collection to take care of. Obviously a museum without exhibits is somewhat pointless, so the curator – Blathers,  would like you to take care of that. All on your own. Then there’s the animal townsfolk. These guys borrow stuff from each other all the time, and frequently pester you to return it for them. In fact, your neighbours apparently live the life of luxury. They don’t run their own errands, they don’t help maintain the town, and they certainly don’t donate things to the town museum. In short then, you spend all your time doing exactly the sort of things you do in real life – working to earn money, and paying bills. So why the hell is Animal Crossing so damn popular? I think it’s because it taps into two of our most basic desires.

Most humans feel the need to collect stuff. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know, we just need to collect things. Animal Crossing exploits that need both beautifully and ruthlessly. I’ve already mentioned that you begin your new life with an empty town museum. Filling it up begins a collecting mission that could realistically last a whole year. You see, fish and insects are seasonal, and if your collecting begins on the first day of spring, you can forget about seeing any winter fish or bugs until the following year. Fail to have caught a spring-only fish or bug by the first day of summer, and you’re similarly boned. Almost everything in the game is similarly tied into real-time; house furniture, gifts from special visitors, prizes for seasonal events.

Deep down, we all have an idea of what a perfect real life would look like. Most of us are fine with knowing that it’s never really going to be wholly obtainable, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying it digitally. Animal Crossing allows us to realise our vision within a video game world. It gives us the freedom to mould our house and its surrounding environment in any way we wish. Want all the trees to be laid out in straight lines? No problem. Want only red flowers in grow in your town? Just change them. Want your house interior to be entirely decorated in a bizarre mushroom theme? A little weird maybe, but OK. Almost nothing is off-limits. The whole process of arranging things “just so” is immensely therapeutic. It’s akin to getting everything in your head neatly organised.

Trying to describe Animal crossing in 140 characters is impossible then. So many of its core game mechanics sound like a tedious chore when described in isolation and out of context, and yet no fan of the game would remove any of them. It strikes me that Animal Crossing is a prime example of something being greater than the sum of its parts. On paper, a game that replicates so many of aspects of our day-to-day real lives shouldn’t be that interesting, but strangely, it is. Nintendo have bottled lightning with Animal Crossing. Thanks to Tom Nook, and all the other crazy animals in my town, I look forward to going to work every morning, and I can’t say that about any other game.

The Game Jar Files: A look back at the Nintendo Gameboy

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 14/02/2013

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In today’s broadband world, where new games can be bought in seconds, and downloaded to your smartphone in minutes, it’s hard to imagine a time when your handheld gaming device could only play one game. Well, it isn’t hard to imagine if you’re as old as me. In which case you probably remember what a Tomytronic is (or was), and how awesome it seemed to those of us who were kids at the time. But it’s awesomeness pales into insignificance next to the effect that the original Gameboy had on us fledgling gamers.

Way back in the late eighty’s I was still at school, and carting round a slightly battered dual screen portable gaming device made by Nintendo. It was one of their Game and Watch series, and on it I could play Donkey Kong, and only Donkey Kong. Sure, you had a choice of game version A, or game version B, but if you actually wanted to play something that wasn’t Donkey Kong, like say Mario Bros, you either went and bought a whole new handheld, or borrowed your mates one. If you were really lucky, on the last day of term, when you were allowed to take games in, a class mate would bring his Mario’s Bombs Away in. Other than that though, you were locked in. It was a strange situation to be in to be honest, because at the time we had home consoles and computers that were capable of playing multiple games, and yet here we were, with handhelds that only played one thing.

So with that it mind, I’d like you to consider the impact the Gameboy had when it first arrived. It was a  handheld from Nintendo, so it was sure to have our favourite games on it, but crucially, you weren’t buying just one game, you could swap them out! It blew our tiny, child-like minds back then. Mobile phones were massive, videotapes were massive, even NES cartridges were a bit massive, and yet here was Nintendo packing a whole game into what was at the time, a small square bit of plastic. In the school playground, all we talked about at the time was the Gameboy; who had one, who was trying to talk their parents into buying one, who would lend you one. Even the strange Sega kids, once they’d piped down about how good the Gamegear was going to be, eventually had to grudgingly admit that they’d quite like to play one. It was a genuinely big moment in gaming.

Nintendo’s handheld held didn’t have the market all to itself though, oh no. First up to the plate was the Atari Lynx. Released the same year as the Gameboy, the Lynx was the first handheld to offer a colour screen. It was impressive, I’ll admit, but we gamers soon realised that adding a fancy-pants colour screen had it’s drawbacks; quite apart from it being nearly twice the cost of a Gameboy, it also ate AA batteries for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Six hours was the best you could hope for, roughly half of what the average Gameboy user could expect. Nintendo had stiffer competition from long-time rivals Sega and their Gamegear. Their colour screened handheld arrived a year after the Gameboy’s launch, and was sleeker in design than the Atari Lynx. It had access to the back catalogue of Mastersystem games via an adaptor, and even a TV adaptor. The Gamegear though, paid the same price for its colour screen that the Lynx did, it was more expensive, and consumed batteries at a greater rate. Sega’s handheld sold reasonably well, but it never came close to matching the Gameboy.

As advantageous as having cheaper hardware and better battery life was however, it wasn’t the biggest factor in the Gameboy’s victory, Tetrominos were. Bundled with the Gameboy itself, Tetris helped sell millions handhelds to gamers all over the world. For many gamers, myself included, Tetris was the reason to own a Gameboy. Mario may well be Nintendo’s most famous creation, but at the time, gaming was still seen as very much a children only thing. Tetris had a wider appeal. It’d already been a successful game on PC, and bundling it with the Gameboy meant that Nintendo’s new handheld was selling to more than just kids. Tetris gave the Gameboy a fantastic head-start on it’s rivals, one that it never looked back from. Once Nintendo started to get it’s more established IP’s on to the console, the competition was pretty much over, the Gameboy had tucked two snooker balls into a sock, smashed it’s rivals in the face, and declared itself to be The Daddy.

Over it’s lifespan, Nintendo released a total of seven different hardware versions of the Gameboy, with a colour screened version arriving in 1998, long after both the the Lynx and Gamegear had expired. Total sales across all the various iterations reached a staggering 118 million units, and to this day, the Gameboy is still the one of the biggest selling games console of all time. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why somebody else loves something so much, but not in the case of the Nintendo Gameboy. The grey plastic handheld with the purple buttons and the black and green LCD screen was a genuine landmark in gaming, one that ensured a lasting love from fans. The Gameboy, in my opinion, is one of the most important consoles ever released. It saw off it’s technically superior rivals, and appealed to more than just children. The Gameboy was genesis.

The Game Jar Files: Are Mario and Nathan Drake the saviours of Handheld Gaming?

Originally published on The Game Jar – Oct. 24th 2012

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Oh dear, it’s the old mobile versus handheld debate again. Many, many opinion pieces have been written about this subject already, but what fascinates me is that it seems that nobody really knows for sure whether one side or the other can actually win. The common consensus seems to be that handhelds are nowhere near as dominant as they once were, and it’s unlikely in a post iPhone world that they’ll ever be top dog again, so what keeps them alive? It strikes me that the reason many commentators (including myself) can’t call a potential winner is that the handhelds have something in their corner that can’t be measured very easily; our emotional attachment to familiar titles.

With the possible exception of the PS Vita’s Skype app, I think it’s fairly safe to say that mobile devices do all the non-gaming things better than a gaming handheld. Whether it’s surfing the net, updating social media, or taking photos on the fly, I find that no gaming handheld does it as conveniently or as intuitively as a smart phone. Sure, the web browser on the Vita is OK, but when you also have an iPhone in your pocket, only being OK isn’t good enough. The 3DS one isn’t any better either, in fact if you’re not surfing a mobile enabled site I’d argue it’s quite a bit worse. This kind of social functionality on gaming handhelds always feels shoe-horned in to me. So handhelds lose the social media connectivity part of the fight then, but that’s not the only battle they have on their hands, as smart phones and mobile devices also do gaming very well too, all of which begs the question; why carry a gaming handheld at all? If Nintendo and Sony are to convince us to not only invest in a new system, but to carry it around in addition to our phones, they need to either do mobile gaming exceptionally well, or offer something that’s not possible to do on a touch screen phone.

To me it seems very simple, handhelds are kept alive by catering to many gamers attachment to specific marquee titles. The app store might have a large number of cheap games on offer, but unearthing the gems can be tricky. With a rating system that largely feels broken to me, picking out a quality game is done either via friend recommendations, or by trial and error and a willingness to potentially waste a pound on a crappy game. For every Plants vs Zombies or Infinity Blade I’ve found, there’s been five other terrible games that’ll never darken my touchscreen again. With this uncertainty over quality control in mind, I and many other gamers will often fall back on familiar titles like a some sort of gaming security blanket. If you’re looking for a side scrolling platformer to play for example, Super Mario is the safe option. Eating special mushrooms and jumping down big green pipes might be a little overly familiar these days, but in a weird sort of way it’s also quite comforting. Human beings are creatures of habit in the main, and gamers are no different. A recognisable name on the box seems to have a built-in guarantee of quality, Super Mario Kart was a great game therefore all future Mario Kart games will be great. But what if we stop caring about these franchises, what happens then?

Consider for a moment that your favourite Sony or Nintendo IP didn’t exist, would you purchase the hardware? If instead of Mario there was Dave the fat builder from Hackney, staring in New Super Dave Land 2, would you even give the 3DS a second look? As an avid fan of the Mario Kart series of games, I find it hard to think of a time when I would pass up the opportunity to play a new version of the game on a brand new system. Maybe I’m too easily parted with my money, but other people buy consoles on the strength of the games available too. In fact, the success of every console launch I can think of has hinged on launch titles. We all go through the same process don’t we? Am I going to buy the latest generation of console – what games does it have at launch? Years ago, when I bought my PlayStation 2 on launch day, I totally ignored the salesman’s advice to buy Timesplitters because I didn’t recognise the name. Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer were what I knew, so I bought them instead, much to my later regret. For as long as I’ve been a gamer, people have cared about the name on the game box, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

It’s this attachment to our favourite titles that keeps handhelds viable in my opinion, mobile devices will only truly win out when they can offer you a proper Uncharted game starring the real Nathan Drake, and not just a mockbuster. With that in mind I’ve come to the conclusion that if mobile devices ever do kill off gaming handhelds, it’ll be because Sony and Nintendo let them. The value of having a great Uncharted game only on the Vita or a must have Mario title only on the 3DS cannot be overstated in my opinion, and as long as the big two remember that there’ll always be a place for their machines. I think everyone has at least one game that they love enough to buy based purely on the name, and Sony and Nintendo need to exploit that. It’s not going to be easy for them, sustaining a console with a comparatively small user base is going to be hard work, but I think it’s possible with a steady flow of high quality games. The only unknown variable here is you. Would your favourite game being available only on a handheld be enough to prompt you to buy one?

The obligatory E3 post

I’m sorry, it’s in the local blogging by-laws. During E3 every blogger is legally obliged to give us “there take” on the big three’s briefings.

In general, all three briefings weren’t very good. Nintendo’s was marginally better than the other two, but both Sony and Microsoft were clearly treading water until their next console turns up. A quick trip around the various major gaming sites reveals pretty much the same thing, reheated franchises that are all too familiar, and a presser almost identical to last years. I’d like to propose a new rule for next year, Microsoft cannot mention Kinect and Sony cannot mention Move until I personally have seen proof that Kinect-playing Mrs Casual Gamer, and Move-playing Mr Casual Gamer are actually tuning in to watch the live stream. Core gamers don’t care about these devices, so just who do Sony and Microsoft think they’re talking to? Were the casual gamers really tuning in to the live streams?

And before you say “they must be”, you know a casual gamer or two, ever seen a gaming magazine on their coffee table? No, you haven’t, have you? 😛

But my real ire, my furious anger is saved for Sony. Three games. Actually scratch that, two games. Two games and a game logo. That’s the best showing you can muster for your brand new handheld gaming machine, Sony? Yes OK, they’re busy saying right now that they’ve got “25 games on the show floor..”, but they sent out a terrible message at their press briefing. After the failure to properly support the PSP, and no real content on show for the out going PS3, this was a golden opportunity to put the Vita front and centre in it’s launch year. Instead they dropped the ball badly, and many of my friends and fellow Vita owners are now left wondering whether we’ve bought another PSP, doomed to early abandonment.

 

 

Super FX Chip!

I was reading an article about the new 3DS Starfox game a few days ago and it took me back to my SNES days. So for no reason other than I loved them at the time, I thought I’d dig out some screen shots of the two SuperFX chip games I had at the time, Stunt Race FX and Starfox. I remember being pretty blown away by these new FX chip carts at the time, and somehow I also managed to find the £60 they cost!

 

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