Thursday, 27 February 2014

Exploring the BBC Micro

For young scamps growing up in the UK in the 80's like me, there were a good few choices with regard to playing these fancy computer games we kept reading about. In my experience the most popular choice was the trusty ZX Spectrum but there were also a good few Commodore 64's and Amstrad CPC's doing the rounds and even a few less popular examples such as the Acorn Electron, Dragon 32, or one of the numerous MSX models. However, whichever choice you made (or had made for you), there's a good chance that the first time most of us used a computer it was none of these. For most, our introduction to computing was with a BBC at school.

It wasn't a looker but those red function keys stood out...
Although most commonly known simply as the 'BBC Micro', it was actually designed and produced by another British company - Acorn - who beat several other computer manufacturers (including Sinclair) to the rights to build the machine for the BBC's Computer Literacy Project. The result of the unlikely collaboration was initially available as the 16kB Model A or the more common Model B which came with either 32kB or 64kB of RAM. The Model B was unsurprisingly the one found in my school's classrooms and it was probably (although I can't be sure) the first real computer I ever laid my grubby mitts on. Unfortunately this was mainly for educational purposes but on the odd special occasion our teacher did allow us to play a game - the only game they had, in fact - Granny's Garden, although even this was a game with an educational slant (those crafty teachers never miss a trick, do they?). Alarmingly, this remains the only BBC game I've played.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

PlayStation Driving / Racing Games #3

Ridge Racer Revolution (1995)
By: Namco Genre: Racing Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Sony PlayStation
Also Available For: Nothing

If any game ever demonstrated the difference between arcade and home gaming it was Ridge Racer. Released in the arcades just as the obsession with polygon games was taking hold, it went down a storm, especially if you were lucky enough to happen upon the enormous version complete with a full-size car to sit in (a Mazda MX5/Eunos Roadster, I believe, which doesn't suit the game really). However, upon receiving a hasty conversion for the PlayStation's launch, the shortcomings of Namco's racer were all too obvious to everyone but the biggest graphics tarts. Yes, it looked nice - nicer than the rival Saturn version of Daytona USA - but the pitiful one-and-a-half courses got old very quickly, and that's if you even liked the game to begin with which I didn't thanks to its stupid twisty-twirly car handling. What this game needed was a sequel.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Indie Nuggets #2

Ninja Twins (2013)
By: Matriax / Kronbits Genre: Puzzle Players: 1 Difficulty: Hard
Featured Version: PC
Also Available For: Nothing

Like monkeys, anything featuring ninjas is automatically cool, and that's a fact apparently recognised by Spanish indie developer, Davit Kasia, a.k.a. Matriax, who recently released this puzzler on Kronbits, his own label. As you might've guessed from the title, there are actually two identical ninjas here, and square ones at that as well! Their home, for the purposes of this game at least, are 30 single-screened stages, each measuring 20x13 blocks in size. The object is to get one of them to the treasure chest that sits somewhere on each stage. It's not as easy as it sounds though, obviously. Firstly, the ninjas can be moved in four directions using the cursor keys but they'll keep moving until they hit something. Secondly, they both move at once and if they touch... it's game over!

Friday, 21 February 2014

Film Review #61

Superman Returns (2006)
Director: Bryan Singer Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Frank Langella, Eva Marie Saint, Parker Posey, Kal Penn, Sam Huntington

Certificate: 12 Running Time: 154 Minutes

Tagline: "This Summer, the World's Greatest Hero Returns..."

Superhero films are awesome, everyone knows that. The fantastical characters and abilities, as well as the routine threats to our very existence, never cease to enthral and amaze. I suppose we all have our favourites, especially since the spate of related films in recent years which has not, for some strange reason, included Superman nearly as prolifically as one might've thought. Perhaps because of this, perhaps not, but the Kryptonian oaf is one of the few 'main' superheroes I've never really been that keen on. It might be because he's an alien and was already a 'superhero' from birth, at least to us mere humans. He isn't some tortured 'normal' guy who happened to have an accident and became 'cursed' by weird new powers or something like that - he's just a higher being doing us the odd favour whenever the need arises. Whatever reasoning is behind it though, I wasn't particularly bothered about seeing this film when it was announced and have in fact only just gotten around to it...

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Arcade Fighting Games #3

Karate Champ a.k.a. Karate Dou (1984)
By: Technos / Data East Genre: Fighting Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Arcade First Day Score: 26,100
Also Available For: NES, Commodore 64, Apple II
Download For: Wii Virtual Console

Not quite sure why a bull is here...
Considering how popular video games have been since... pretty much always, it's surprising they haven't featured in more movies. Perhaps it's a copyright or royalties issue or something but a few do make appearances here and there. One of the most memorable examples for me was Karate Champ which was featured in a favourite film of mine as a teenager - Bloodsport (1988) - where Frank Dux (Jean Claude Van Damme) was invited to challenge Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb) to a digital bout. It was a short sequence but it's always stuck in my mind, perhaps due to its similarities with the film itself. Both consist of a series of one-on-one contests, both employ fairly technical martial arts, and neither feature much in the way of story or exposition.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Currently Playing...

Forza Motorsport by Turn 10 Studios / Microsoft Game Studios (2005) - Xbox

My introduction to Xbox gaming came recently with Ninja Gaiden which was good but far too difficult for a wussy like me (it must've been designed by Chuck Norris) but regardless of its quality it was never going to take me long to buy a racing game for my green box o' tricks and, very splendidly, I found this, the first game of the Forza series, in my local second-hand shop for a mere £1.50! Unusually for me I even tried it out as soon as I got home from work. I selected a mighty Aston Martin DB9 and went for a spin on the arcade mode only to find that... this game is also difficult! In fact, it reminded me of the hardest racing game I've yet played - F355 Challenge. Both are closer to racing simulators than arcade-style games and as such both have numerous driver-assist options which are all active by default. Here these include anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, and an on-circuit racing line (complete with braking zones). I tried turning them off which obviously made things more difficult (though not nearly as much so as F355) but even with them turned on I was having trouble staying on the track for more than ten seconds at a time! Nonetheless, I soon also gave the career mode a try since most of my time would be spent there anyway.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

TV Shows #4 - Part 2

24 Seasons 1 - 3

After rambling on for much longer than intended in the previous post for this feature, I thought it might be best to take a look at the first few seasons of the awesome 24 in a separate post. As usual, it's taken me ages to get around to it (partly due to the time spent continuing to watch the show - I'm up to season five again now!) but here, finally, is a quick look at the first three seasons. It's also worth noting that I've decided not to give each season a score, simply because they're all awesome!

Spoiler Alert: is it assumed for the purpose of this feature that you've seen the show in question or at least don't mind knowing about some of its most prominent moments, so don't come whining to me if it ruins something that you haven't seen yet!

Day 1

Jack as we often see him - armed and alert...
After getting cosy with his family, Jack gets called into CTU who have uncovered an assassination plot against presidential candidate, David Palmer, on the 'day of the California Presidential Primary'. Not only does Jack have that to worry about but his wife and daughter have also been kidnapped by the same terrorist - American, Ira Gaines. He and his crew are actually working for Victor Drazen, a Serbian war criminal with past ties to both Senator Palmer and Jack himself as well, who is trying to use Jack's family to blackmail him into assassinating Senator Palmer who is having his own problems with a journalist who's attempting to derail his campaign by airing some dirty family laundry. This first season starts off quite slowly, and coming back to it after having watched the later seasons does make things seem... maybe the teensiest bit unsophisticated at first, but it introduces several important characters and quickly pulls you in, building up the tension with its sense of urgency and (what would become) characteristically snowballing story.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Gaming Memories - Part 13

The early 90's were probably when we saw Sega at the height of their powers. Their splendid Master System was a big success here in the UK (and Brazil) but a failure everywhere else. The release of the mighty MegaDrive, however saw their success duplicated in all regions of the gaming world. It was a fantastic machine to be sure, but it didn't even have any serious competition either. That was, until Nintendo's long-awaited successor to the elderly NES arrived...

Being a Sega fanboy, basking in the dominance of the MegaDrive, I sneered at the first pics to appear of the Super Famicom and laughed most heartily at the hideous US SNES. Then, when reports began to emerge of its under-powered CPU which could only limp along at 3.5MHz, I openly mocked the pitiful grey slab. This poor performance often resulted in some major slow-down in games and was a joke compared to the MegaDrive. Even the secondary processor ran at 3.5MHz in Sega's machine with its main power plant running at almost 8MHz! It wasn't long before shots from games started appearing as well, and they did little to sway my allegiance. A new Mario game? Okay, but it doesn't look much better than the NES games. Sim City? Old PC game, blah, blah. Gradius 3? Not bad but the MD has plenty of decent horizontal shmups. Super Tennis? They'll need to do better than a tennis game to defeat Sega! But then, after the UK launch had been and gone, I saw some footage of F-Zero and Pilot Wings in shop windows. Convincing 3D graphics? What the devil? These games looked much more interesting and were of a type the MegaDrive, and indeed most previous systems, did not excel at.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Computer Shmups #1

Hybris (1989)
By: Cope-Com / Discovery Software Genre: Shooting Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Commodore Amiga First Day Score: 132,375
Also Available For: Nothing

It was many moons ago now that I took a good look at the various shmups available on Commodore's 16-bit monster and I ended up making what I believed at the time to be a fairly well-considered and definitive Top Five list. However, since the moment that post was made I've been hearing regularly about a game that did not feature in my list; a game that I didn't really know of and therefore didn't even consider, no less. That game is unsurprisingly Hybris which, as well as being popular with the Amiga fanboys, is also in fact the prequel to one of my existing favourite vertical scrollers - Battle Squadron - which was released on the Mega Drive as well as the Amiga. The version on Sega's powerhouse is superior, obviously, and that was the version I had, so what will I make of its Amiga-only predecessor?

Monday, 10 February 2014

Sega SG-1000 Round-Up #5

Crikey, I was supposed to be breezing through these SG-1000 titles but it's been over eight months since my last visit to Sega's jaunty little system. Oops! Oh well, better late than never! The five games I've chosen were again randomly picked so, with that in mind, there is once again some nice variety - a scrolling fighter, a classic platformer, a vertical shmup, an overhead shmup, and a racing game. Read on to see which of them are great and which suck donkey balls :)

Dragon Wang (1985)

As 'hard' as it is to believe, this game is probably more famous for its humorous name than anything else (chortle). It was actually a late release, coming only a couple of years before its better-known sequel, Kung Fu Kid for the Master System. As limited as the MS game is, though, this prequel is even more so. It places you within an enclosed, multi-tiered stage in which you must collect three keys to escape. Each of these is held by a boss character at various locations around the mazey place. So far so good, but there are a few problems. First of all, Mr. Wang, if indeed that is his name, has a solitary attack move - a kick - which means it gets boring quickly. Secondly, it's very difficult (and I have little affection for hard wangs - hee hee!) - something not helped by the super-jerky scrolling and rather sluggish controls, and something definitely not helped by having to start that key-collecting business from scratch each time you lose a life! Grrr! ... 4/10

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Film Review #60

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Director: J. J. Abrams Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Peter Weller, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Deep Roy

Certificate: 12 Running Time: 133 Minutes

Tagline: "Earth Will Burn"

Well, for better or worse, the Star Trek movie series returned all shiny and rebooted with 2009's decent effort. Most critics approved while fan opinion was polarised. Nonetheless, the result was the most successful instalment in the long-running franchise so far which made this sequel inevitable. It was extensively promoted and looked like it would offer more of the same but bigger and better. Happily, all the Enterprise cast return here and we rejoin them a year after the events of the previous film where Captain Kirk (Pine) is busy flouting Federation protocol by attempting to save a primitive culture from a super-volcano that's threatening them. Upon returning to Earth he finds himself demoted for violating the Prime Directive with command of the Enterprise returning to Admiral Pike (Greenwood). Soon after, however, a series of terrorist attacks forces Starfleet to re-evaluate Kirk's position.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Visual Novels #1

Kanon (1999)
By: Key / Visual Art's Genre: Visual Novel Players: 1 Difficulty: N/A
Featured Version: PC
Also Available For: Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, PSP, Android, iOS

Like many of us 'Westerners', the wonder that is anime became known to me upon the arrival of the mighty Akira in the late 80's. I quickly became a fan but my pursuit of this interest has been sporadic over the years, due partly to the unreliability of finding ones that I think I'd like. I've bought and watched a decent number of shows though, as well as most of Studio Ghibli's amazing films, but only in recent years have 'visual novels' come to my attention. As I've been discovering, these are basically a cross between manga and anime - the story is most often played out in the form of a succession of static images or very short, simple animated sequences with accompanying dialogue, sometimes spoken but usually just on-screen text. Every now and then you get a choice of things to say which then affect the direction of the story and your relationships with the other characters.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

PC Engine Platform Games #4

Makai Prince Dorabocchan (1990)
By: Red Company / NAXAT Soft Genre: Platform Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: NEC PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16
Also Available For: Nothing

Despite their recent resurgence in popularity, there still aren't too many vampires in the vast world of video games. The most famous ones can probably be found in the many Castlevania games but this little-known title features another. He's called Dorabo and, although only a child, his lineage can be assumed to be grand within blood-sucking circles judging by the game's title which translates as 'Son of Dracula'. There aren't too many vampiric happenings in his game though, which is a typical side-viewed, scrolling platformer spread over five fairly long stages. Dorabo's job, surprisingly for a vampire, is to rid these lands of the evil demons which now populate them and to strike down their leader. However, he doesn't do this by biting them or slashing them with his claws or anything like that - aside from having fangs he seems more like a sorcerer's apprentice or something to me.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Currently Playing...

Ninja Gaiden by Tecmo (2004) - Xbox

As was gloriously revealed last week I recently became the owner of a spiffing green Xbox thanks to my beloved wife and, prior to leaving for our New Year holiday (on the way to the airport, in fact), I bought this very game with which to try out my new console when we returned. It's been sat in the glove box of our car in the freezing airport car park for two weeks but, upon returning to the UK I ate a pizza, then got some sleep, but my next priority was... to slash stuff up ninja stylee!

Like the earlier platformy games to bear the name, you take on the role of master ninja, Ryu Hayabusa, who is slightly miffed to discover that his clan has been slaughtered by the evil Vigoor Empire. He of course vows revenge which, unlike the earlier games, takes the form of a 3D action adventure. The quest for vengeance begins in a mountain pass where it's immediately apparent that Ryu is somewhat more agile than before. As well as a sword to swish around, he can fling shurikens, adopt a blocking stance, unleash a special attack, and, as you would expect of such a character, he can also perform all manner of leaps and acrobatic tricks.