Monday, 30 September 2013

Star Trek #1

Next Generation Favourite Episodes - Season One

For some reason I seem to have few memories of my childhood. It wasn't a traumatic period for me or anything like that, quite the opposite in fact, I just don't remember much of it – just odd snippets here and there really. One thing I do recall, however, and recall fondly, is waking up early on Sunday mornings, cooking a couple of French bread pizzas, and sitting down to eat them while watching Star Trek: The Original Series (or just Star Trek, as it was known back then) on the little TV in the kitchen.

I hadn't been doing this for too long, however, before I heard something quite remarkable – Star Trek was returning, not only with new episodes, but with a whole new crew and ship! This series was of course the appropriately-named Star Trek: The Next Generation, set 70 years after Kirk’s adventures, and news of its arrival was met with optimistic curiosity from most existing fans, myself included. Without getting into a detailed analysis of the new show, I think I can safely say that it succeeded on most levels and brought many new fans to the franchise as well as satisfying all but the most stubborn of those that already existed.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

First Look PSN #2

ibb & obb by Sparpweed (2013) - PlayStation Network (PS3)

As a platform game fan (2D ones, obviously), it’s very pleasing for me to find so many new ones turning up in the world of homebrew and independent developers. This particular example is one I’d never heard of and just happened to stumble upon during a rare flick through the PSN Store. It is indeed a platformer, you see, but not a normal one. It was designed to be played by two, each controlling one of the titular characters - semi circular green and red creatures respectively - who must simply make their way from left-to-right through each of the surreal scrolling stages. The trick is, the 'platforms' in them consist of a single line representing the horizon. Both characters can walk and jump around at will, but they can also flip from one side of the horizon to the next by passing through wibbly sections called warps.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Saturn Shmups #2

Blast Wind (1997)
By: Techno Soft Genre: Shooting Players: 1-2  Difficulty: Easy-Medium
Featured Version: Sega Saturn  First Day Score: 472,450
Also Available For: Nothing

The name of Techno Soft is one that was and still is revered by the retro gaming community. A large reason for this is their awesome Thunder Force series but they are still known for a few other titles as well. One of these, however, is generally not Blast Wind which, while still a shoot 'em up, is a rare foray into vertically-scrolling territory for them. It was released exclusively in Japan and only on the Saturn (although an arcade version was apparently planned), which certainly wasn't unusual for Sega's planetary powerhouse, but it does mean there's a fair amount of kanji, including in the intro sequence. The premise behind the game is therefore something of a mystery to me (even the static intro images don't really help with that) but I believe it has some sort of environmental theme and a good deal to do with a creature/object/place called Gorn. Anyway, whatever it is, let's go kick its arse!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

TV Shows #3

Charmed (1998 - 2006)
Created By: Constance M. Burge Starring: Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan, Shannen Doherty, Brian Krause, Dorian Gregory, Julian McMahon, Drew Fuller, T.W. King, Greg Vaughan, Karis Paige Bryant, Kaley Cuoco

Certificate: 15 Running Time: 42 Minutes (per episode)

Tagline: "The Power of Three Will Set You Free"

Love them or hate them, the Americans do contribute a rather sizeable percentage of the world’s TV shows (as well as many other entertainment media). Their competence at this no doubt varies wildly depending on who you ask but, for me, the 80’s were pretty awesome. When I was growing up, shows like The A-Team, Dukes of Hazard, and Airwolf were the greatest things ever, but when we reached the mid-90’s things took a dramatic downward turn when a new trend reared its ugly head. Shows started appearing which were filled with good looking and/or popular actors/actresses but which had no other redeeming qualities. They were usually playing characters for which they were completely ill-suited and were therefore not convincing as, the premise of the show was usually ridiculous, or at least unrealistic, the stories barely existed, and the characters were usually boring. Shows like Buffy, Dark Angel, Alias, etc, are prime examples of this curious-but-unwelcome trend but one of the last to appear was Charmed.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Crap Games #7

Crackout (1991)
By: Palcom / Konami Genre: Bat 'n' Ball Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium-Hard
Featured Version: Nintendo NES First Day Score: 7,990
Also Available For: Famicom Disk System

In my last review for this series of features I spoke of the lowest magazine review score I could remember from back in the good old days but I may have spoken too soon. Recently re-entering my conscious mind from the dark realms of depravity that lurk in its basement is this game; an NES game which was rather unusually released in neither the Japanese nor American markets. Us lucky Europeans got to sample its delights though, but probably not too many gamers bothered based on the review I can now vaguely recall which savagely hacked it to pieces, then ate and pooped out the pieces, then set them on fire, then peed on the ashes. Such savagery was probably as much in jest as genuine disdain but I think it's likely that Crackout is not generally viewed as the pinnacle of its genre all the same. I'm nonetheless keen to find out just how bad it really is, especially since it's an example of a genre I'm rather keen on, no less. So... shields up, phasers on stun, energise...

Friday, 20 September 2013

Licensed Games #4

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom (1982)
By: Sega Genre: Shooting Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 23,297 (one credit)
Also Available For: Master System, SG-1000, PC, MSX, Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20, ZX Spectrum, TI-99/4A, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari XE, ColecoVision, Coleco Adam, Intellivision

It may have taken a few years but it still wasn't long before the first few licensed video games started to appear. One of the first such games to grace an amusement arcade was this example, by my beloved Sega no less, and was based on the (mis)adventures of Captain Rogers. Well, I say 'based' but this is a game that, name aside, has pretty much nothing to do with the source material - something that would become a familiar story in the years to come - but as we all know, that doesn't necessarily make it a sucky game, just an unfaithful one. Planet of Zoom, for example, takes the form of an into-the-screen shooter. Nothing unusual there for a 70's sci-fi show, I'll grant you - plenty of shooting done in most of those. However, as long as it might have been since I've immersed myself in the gallant exploits of Buck, Wilma, and Twiki, nothing else from the game seems familiar.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Top Five N64 Rare Games

We all have our favourite game system but what qualities earn it this prestigious rank for you? For most, it's probably the quality and/or range of titles available, pure and simple. Generally there are many game developers to thank for this but every now and then one appears who goes on to release a succession of high-quality titles on a particular system to such an extent that they alone become a major reason for owning said system.

Two examples I remember well are Ultimate for the Spectrum and Team 17 for the Amiga, but the period that stands out most for me was that of Rare, ironically the modern incarnation of Ultimate, and their run of releases on the Nintendo 64.

In the eyes of many, Rare's releases for Nintendo's black slab, whilst not always particularly original, were so consistently superb that they even eclipsed those of Nintendo themselves. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far myself but they certainly contributed a great deal towards the success of the N64 and my enjoyment of owning one. They released more than ten games for the system in total; none of them sucked but these are my five favourites:

5. Diddy Kong Racing (1997)

Many consider the N64 instalment of Mario Kart to be the weakest so you could say Rare didn't have to try very hard to improve on that particular title, but that didn't stop them from coming up with this stonking game anyway! It was very similar in concept though, to be sure. As well as offering four-player tomfoolery, there's also an 'Adventure' mode as well as the usual 'Quick Race' option. This offers a series of semi-explorable worlds which each contain several racing circuits and a boss. The worlds are based around four themes - a normal grassy area, bright sandy beaches, twinkly snow/ice, and fiery lava-filled caverns, and there are ten characters to choose from (including a pre-sweary Conker), but the best part is that there are three different vehicles to use, with aircraft and hovercraft in addition to the usual carts. It's still not a perfect game - the bosses are teeth-shatteringly tough for one thing - but all the other stuff helps make DKR more varied than Mario's game whilst remaining at least as enjoyable. Great fun for any number of players.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Film Round-Up #2

I've talked here before (probably lots of times) about the wonder that is Netflix. Some moan about the 'poor range' of films and TV shows available to stream but I suspect these people are looking a specific show or few shows that don't happen to be available (yet). For me, it's fantastic - user friendly, near faultless service (I would've left out the 'near' but an episode of Battlestar Galactica I tried to watch recently didn't have sound - it was okay after a couple of days), no advertising anywhere, and more films and TV shows than I've got time to watch, all for a miraculously generous price of £6 per month!

There is of course a downside to this, at least if you're married as I am. That is, of course, when the 'other half' wants to watch something as mine often does! Occasionally one of her choices turns out to be great but more often they are average or even head-explodingly bad. Nonetheless, I figured I might as well mention such titles here, whether for good or for ill. Of course, most aren't worthy of a full review, so, to that end, here is the first of my Netflix Round-Ups!

Stick It (2006)

When this title was selected during one of partner's many extensive searches, I shuddered and feared for the worst. It comes from the same writer as 'Bring It On' and I was duly expecting one of those annoying teen high-school-based dancing films but actually it's none of those things. Well, it is a teen film and stars Missy Peregrym as talented but rebellious former gymnast 'with an attitude', Haley, who's forced to return to the sport by a judge after a brush with the law so she can gain some structure and discipline. She is sent to a gymnastics academy run by legendary coach, Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges), where she is greeted with hostility by the other gymnasts while training for an upcoming competition. So yes, it's all pretty girly stuff, but the gymnastics action is very convincing (at least to my untrained eyes), and Peregrym and Bridges are superb value (especially the former) as the film heads for its not-wholly-predictable climax. Hardly a 'must see' but not as bad as I feared... 6/10

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Doujin Platform Games #3

Cottonhead (2013)
By: Genre: Platform Players: 1 Difficulty: Super Easy
Featured Version: PC First Day Score: Complete!
Also Available For: Nothing

Although I've been playing fan-made games for a couple of years or so now, the homebrew scene is still one I know relatively little about. The regular competitions that are held, for example, are the province of far smarter people than me. They do occasionally yield a game that I somehow find out about, though, and Cottonhead is one such example which was created for the latest Ludum Dare competition. It stars a small cloud-like creature who's fallen to earth from his home in Cottoncity. Your job is to get him back, but first he must regain his ability to fly.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Next-Gen Driving Games #3

Screamer (1995)
By: Graffiti / Virgin Interactive Genre: Driving Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: PC
Also Available For: Nothing

I've mentioned here several times that I've never really been much of a PC gamer but I don’t think I've ever mentioned why. There are two main reasons, the first of which is that I didn't even have my own PC until the mid-90’s. The time that I did finally acquire one, however, happened to coincide with the emergence of the super graphics accelerator cards like the 3DFX and PowerVR. These things cost a pretty penny themselves but PC’s powerful enough to take full advantage of them were also far beyond my reach, so about the only games I used my PC for were Solitaire and Freecell. None of this prevented me from hearing of the wonders of 3D-accelerated PC gaming though, and one game that seemed to get the most press in the day was Screamer. I've always assumed that, like many such games of the time, it was little more than a tech-demo which wowed gamers with its snazzy graphics whilst offering few gameplay-related treats, but I hadn't actually played it until the last few weeks thanks to the wonders of Good Old Games. Time now, then, to see if I was right!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Arcade Classics #5

Bosconian (1981)
By: Namco Genre: Shooting Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 73,850 (one credit)
Also Available For: X68000, MSX, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum

The main reason for starting this series of features was to further my knowledge of arcade games from pretty much the only era that was before my time but, despite knowing at least something about most of the popular games from this period, Bosconian is one of the few I knew absolutely nothing about. I'd heard the name before, of course, but I had no idea even what genre it was. It was quickly deemed a prime candidate, then, for this feature! So, to educate probably only myself, I've spent the past few days playing this Namco release and quickly discovered that it's an over-head-viewed, free-roaming, multi-directional shmup - a fact that makes my shame weigh heavily on my weary shoulders, but it's also widely considered the first such example of this sub-genre which makes my indiscretion even more shocking.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Gaming Flashbacks #1

For most of us, gaming is a casual interest or pastime. Regardless of how 'hardcore' you may or may not consider yourself, and regardless of how many hours you spend in front of the screen, video games aren't actually that important when it comes right down to it. That's not to say, however, that time spent with them is wasted.

The virtues of our hobby are often argued about but one that seems to get taken for granted is that of nostalgia. Sometimes it might be the games themselves, other times it's incidents or periods in our lives that are associated with them, but being reminded of them, usually by way of a certain sight, sound, or even smell, and often suddenly and unexpectedly, can bring a flood of long-forgotten memories and warm feelings rushing back, and that's exactly what recently happened to me. There I was sitting at home writing a post for this very blog while listening to music on my MP3 player which features many thousands of songs, both game music and 'normal' music, when suddenly a tune started that I hadn't heard since many moons ago in my youth. This happens now and then of course - sometimes the tune is slightly familiar, other times I don't even remember it, but on this occasion I recognised it instantly.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Bomberman Series - Part 10

Bomberman a.k.a. Atomic Punk, a.k.a. Dynablaster (1991)
By: Irem Corp Genre: Maze Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 29,000
Also Available For: Nothing

Many gamers mainly associate the Bomberman series with certain consoles, generally the PC Engine or SNES I suppose, but there have been a handful of arcade-based instalments in the long-running series. This simply-named example is the first of them and was handled by Irem. Its quality should therefore be assured and, being an arcade game, its content should be too. Sure enough, 'inserting' some coins presents the choice of a one/two player Battle Game, or one/two player Normal Game. The latter has always been my preference though, and was therefore the first mode I tried here. It starts with a short intro explaining how Bomberman and King Bomber became the 'best robot team in the world'; that is, of course, until King Bomber 'suddenly attacks mankind', leaving Bomberman (and his brother, Bomberman 2, who's red, incidentally) to 'defend the people'. Which apparently involves clearing a number of enemy-ridden mazes.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

First Look PSN #1

Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse by Sega (2013) - PlayStation Network (PS3)

There can't be too many owners of the mighty MegaDrive, whether former or current, whose eyes don't mist up at the mere mention of the words 'Castle of Illusion', so I think it's safe to say this update (or reboot?) by Sega is one that's been excitedly awaited. The big question is: have they produced a fitting tribute to the original, an entirely new game, or have they conjured up a stinker to tarnish our cherished memories? Based on my first impressions of this PSN version, I'd say the first of those would be the most accurate classification (despite the fact that the stages are only based on those of the original rather than direct copies), and that does of course means it's a platform adventure spread across several themed worlds featuring many dangerous creatures, and indeed a good few spooky illusions here and there as well.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Top Five Michael Bay Films

A vast majority of movie-goers, certainly ones who aren't hardcore film snobs at least, don't generally give two pieces of monkey crap about who directed one film or another. However, even for the most casual of film fans there are usually a few names that stick in the memory. On the plus side there are Spielberg, Cameron, and Tarantino, but on the negative side are Paul WS Anderson, Uwe Boll, aaand… in the minds of many, the master of big-budget destruction, Michael Bay.

For the purposes of this post I'll be concentrating on the works of Mr. Bay (partly because I haven't actually seen five films by either of the other two!) who, despite fairly consistently earning studios huge amounts of cash, is almost universally looked down upon by square-eyed viewers (I think Pearl Harbor was the biggest culprit) who quickly tired of his style-over-substance approach to the art. I know, therefore, that for some movie fans, compiling a list like this is somewhat akin to making a 'Top Five Ways to Commit Suicide' or something, but there are a few bearable ones in there. Here are, in my view, the five best (or perhaps least worst):

5. Armageddon (1998)

Released at what was arguably the peak of the 'disaster movie' sub-genre, Armageddon even had a direct rival released mere months earlier in Deep Impact. Bay's film had the stronger cast though, and was also unsurprisingly the most hyped. The story, such as is it, centres on Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis in gruff mode) and his crew of drilling experts who get roped into helping NASA deal with an approaching asteroid 'the size of Texas' which, if left unattended, will end all life on earth. Our only chance lies with the bumbling drilling crew who have mere days to be trained and sent to the space rock in question, drill a big hole in it, slip in a giant nuke, and fly away quickly! As corny and predictable as it may be (Stamper finds out his second in command played by Ben Afleck is shagging his daughter played by Liv Tyler of whom he is very protective, etc), I still enjoyed the first two-thirds of this oft-maligned film but the final act is a bit too over-the-top for my tastes, even if it does include some fantastic special effects. Stupid and hyperactive but worth watching.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Overhead Racers #15

F1 Circus (1990)
By: Nichibutsu Genre: Overhead Racing Players: 1-5 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: NEC PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16
Also Available For: NES

As well as having the distinction of being one of my favourite types of game, overhead racers, or 'top down' racers as some prefer, are also one of the oldest genres with Atari's Sprint series dating all the way back to the mid-70's. That series, which includes one of my favourite examples of the genre - Super Sprint, is of course inspired by F1, but there is another series based on the same sport which debuted much later that I've never even played! There are now over ten F1 Circus games (and no, it's not a mistranslation - the 'circus' apparently refers to the somewhat overblown pageantry of F1) on a variety of systems but, as usual, I'll start my coverage of the series with the very first one which is best known on the PC Engine (the NES version didn't appear for a couple more years). That means, owing to the absence of a TG-16 version, much of the text featured in the game is in Japanese (which I can't read) but I'm hoping it won't interfere too much with my 'research'.