Archive for January, 2016

Chronological Challenge – Spyro the Dragon

January 25, 2016 2 comments

Still pushing ahead on 1998, today we get to spend time with an old dragon friend. This is the first of a week of largely classic games that are still loved to this day, so enjoy!

Spyro The Dragon
Publisher: SCE/Universal Interactive Studios | Developer: Insomniac Games | Year: 1998
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: See how far I can get in a single sitting

Actual Outcome: Got up to Peace Keepers and did a couple of worlds before moving on

If proof were needed that the late 1990s were a time where 3D platformer collect-a-thons ruled the world, this is the third game in that genre I’ve played for 1998 alone. But does Spyro join Banjo-Kazooie in being a truly charming classic, or is it an also-ran like Gex?

Now, I know that merely asking that question is probably going to put a few of the more intense PlayStation kids into a fit of rage, so relax, I can safely say that Spyro the Dragon is on the Banjo end of the scale. In fact, it’s a little better. Read more…


Chronological Challenge – Metal Gear Solid

January 22, 2016 2 comments

And here’s your second review for the day, on schedule unlike the one you got earlier. This game’s also a bit obscure. Not sure if you’ve ever heard of it. I’ll be impressed if you have…

Metal Gear Solid
Publisher: Konami | Developer: KCEJ | Year: 1998 (Japanese release)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: See how far I can get in a single sitting

Actual Outcome: The game saw that I like Castlevania

With Hideo Kojima’s much-publicised departure from Konami due to the latter’s public meltdown, it’s easy to forget where it all began. Well, okay, pedants are going to point out that Metal Gear actually started in 1987 on the semi-obscure MSX2 computer (obscure in the West, at least), but it wasn’t until this game that Kojima’s franchise became a huge critical and commercial success worldwide.

And today, we revisit it. It’s hard not to go into this knowing exactly where the series and its creator ended up, but I’m going to try and ignore that and focus on the game itself. Read more…

Chronological Challenge – Future Cop LAPD

January 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Hello! So this was meant to go up yesterday, but I forgot to get it scheduled and posted, so you’re getting it today. You’ll also be getting the usual update at 5pm, so this isn’t a replacement. Rejoice!

Future Cop L.A.P.D.
Publisher: Electronic Arts | Developer: Electronic Arts | Year: 1998 (US release)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (PSN release)

Goal: Beat the game

Actual Outcome: All eight missions complete!

So, this is another weird game that seems a little out of nowhere and that people may not even remember. In fact, on release it only sold about 2,000 copies and the development team split up and went elsewhere. And to be fair, on the surface it doesn’t look like it has much going for it, and it was released along with…well, every game that’s about to pop up. Which is unfortunate because there is something here.

Why do I have this? Like many of these weird, obscure titles, I came across it through a demo disc at the time, although I never actually got it because of…well, every game that’s about to pop up. Again. However, I did pick it up on PSN because it was there and I figured, why not?

Read more…

Chronological Challenge – Heart of Darkness

January 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Hello! Here’s today’s review as we continue to push through the games of 1998. This is a game about a boy and his dog. Enjoy!

Heart of Darkness
Publisher: Ocean Software | Developer: Amazing Studio | Year: 1998
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Save Andy’s dog

Actual Outcome: Got to the heart of darkness but got stuck

Cinematic platformers are a strange breed. They’re games that test you and rely on trial and error in their challenges. Oddworld is a perfect example of this genre done right – it’s all charm and character in an interesting world that makes you want to push ahead, while the puzzles are a nice blend of challenging and frustrating.

Heart of Darkness is an example of how things can so easily go the other way. It offers up a very similar brand of trial-and-error 2D platforming with precise timing and a challenging level of difficulty. The problem is, Heart of Darkness neglects to make the challenge feel rewarding, and does very little to endear the player to it on the whole.

First of all, this is a game that’s heavy on FMVs and story, but despite this, the story is largely garbage. You are Andy, a small boy who is afraid of the dark (according to the manual, I think), who loves his dog, Whiskey. Then, for some reason, during an eclipse, Whiskey is kidnapped. Andy then goes home to his…techno-treehouse (?) and flies his homemade spaceship (?) into a strange, dark world full of creatures (???).

As you can tell, the first problem here is that nothing is ever explained. Why does Andy have his own spaceship? How did he know where to fly to get to this spooky world? Why did the eclipse lead to his dog being kidnapped? What on earth is happening? The entire opening movie that’s supposed to establish everything suffers from rushed pacing and dated and slightly terrifying animation that means by the end of it you’ve had a lot of things shoved in your face but you’re none the wiser about anything.

This feeling of confusion never goes away. Every FMV is rushed and fails to explain anything. There’s no world-building, no character development, and even when Andy gains some friends, we don’t learn anything about them that matters. It’s just a bunch of stuff, and it’s not clear why anyone should care.

Maybe the gameplay is an improvement? Sadly, it is not. This is about as luck-based as it gets. Firing weapons (when you have them) is difficult as enemies really love to instantly dodge everything you do, sometimes deaths are sprung on you in ways that you can’t predict in any way, and sometimes doing the same thing on the same challenge doesn’t always net the same result. This is a game that punishes you for playing it, and increases the punishment as you continue. This isn’t challenging, it’s torture.

Does the game have anything going for it? Yes, it looks rather nice outside any time human beings are animated in an FMV sequence. Lots of pretty and interesting backgrounds and the sprite work is really nice. It’s actually aged pretty well for a game from 1998. The animations are really good too…it’s just a shame that this is often at the expense of being able to be as precise as the game wants you to be.

Basically, this is a game that tests the limits of your patience while looking quite nice in the process, and…that’s about it. It’s largely a forgettable experience outside of the frustration.

Chronological Challenge – Colin McRae Rally

January 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Continuing our drive through 1998, today’s game is one that may be well-known to UK-based readers who owned a PS1 back in the day, but I don’t know how well-known the game is for those elsewhere. It’s a racing game, so if you’re not into that sort of thing, then…maybe tomorrow will be more interesting for you?

Colin McRae Rally
Publisher: Codemasters | Developer: Codemasters | Year: 1998 (EU release)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Complete Championship Mode

Actual Outcome: Completed Championship Mode in 3rd place, which was respectable

You might be able to tell that as a kid I loved racing games (for some reason), which is why you’ll be seeing quite a few here and there as we move through the late 90s. Colin McRae Rally was one I remember loving quite a lot, but does adult me share that love?

Like Gran Turismo, Colin McRae Rally sits on the simulation end of the racing game scale. After all, that name in the title isn’t some made-up character; McRae was a world-renowned Scottish rally driver who had won the World Rally Championship in the three consecutive years prior to this game’s release. As such, he consulted on the game to make sure it handled like real rally driving and he even gave a dour, half-interested voiceover to the Rally School training mode.

That said, while it’s a simulation, rally driving is a curious motorsport. Unlike other circuit-based motorsports, rally is all about flinging heavily-modified consumer cars around tiny tracks on rough terrain in the countryside. So while the game is a simulation, the nature of what it’s simulating makes the game feel like an arcade racer in many ways. And delightfully so.

What makes Colin McRae Rally so much fun is the fact that every course is different, and you constantly have to evolve your driving skills to match. There’s an emphasis on slipping and sliding around instead of the more measured, polite way of following the racing line you tend to see in circuit-based racers. This is messy, chaotic and exciting.

And there are a number of factors that help achieve that. For a start, you can feel the difference in terrain from course to course, and even within a course it’s noticeable as you skid off a gravel track and suddenly gain extra traction on tarmac. It makes every course feel unique and it provides an addictive challenge. Each race saw me constantly calculating how to best handle that location’s terrain and how to perfect my powersliding technique each time. There were no dull moments in Colin McRae Rally as a result.

As an example, while Australia caused me no problems because it was sandy gravel that allowed some fun sweeping slides around wide desert corners, it was followed by Sweden, where icy conditions put an emphasis on car control over speed. And then going from having no grip in Sweden to having all the grip in the tarmac-only Corsica course was a challenge to get used to. And then the UK chucks everything at you at once, so getting through that took a good few attempts to pass successfully.

Course design is memorable, as the public road settings give the scenery variety. Hell, there were times when I felt nostalgic for when I played it when I was younger. I found myself wondering when I was going to encounter the train tracks in Australia, and the British forests added a challenge to the gameplay as it became less obvious where the track would go next as its was just trees as far as the eye could see.

On top of this, tuning options are a lot more accessible than Gran Turismo’s, which you’ll remember I decried as confusing and impenetrable to newbies. Colin McRae Rally dumbs the options down to a set selection, and these are all labelled and explained clearly. It feels a lot more strategic and interesting, and it runs a lower risk of rendering your vehicle useless. Which is nice.

The only real complaint I have about Colin McRae Rally is in the sound design. While the engine noises are appropriately beefy, and the decision to swap out music for the necessary co-driver navigation instructions add to the experience, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the skidding sounds were very similar to those heard in Micro Machines. Certainly makes sense as they’re from the same developer, but applying cartoony skid noises to an otherwise serious sim can prove to be a little distracting. I’m not racing around a breakfast table trying not to drown in a bowl of milk, I’m trying to beat the late Mr McRae at his own game (literally).

Basically, Colin McRae Rally is a seriously good racing game for those who like speed and sliding but want a little more depth without going into Gran Turismo’s endless sea of options. It’s a balance of everything, and I’m not surprised that I loved it so much back in the day, because I still love it now. Easily one of the best racing games I’ve ever played.

Chronological Challenge – Kula World

January 18, 2016 Leave a comment

The challenge continues to roll on ahead through 1998, and “rolling on” is an apt description for today’s game. It’s a game about rolling. A lot.

Kula World / Roll Away
Publisher: SCE | Developer: Game Design Sweden AB | Year: 1998 (EU release)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (PSN release)

Goal: Attempt to find all the hidden fruit

Actual Outcome: Missed two bonus levels around level 60

Here’s the second weird puzzle game following on from Devil Dice. This is Kula World. It’s about a beach ball that defies gravity. You have to collect keys to advance in MC-Escher-style levels, and eating fruit unlocks bonus challenges. And that’s it. That’s the whole game. Yes.

I can’t remember how I came across this game. I’m sure I played a demo of it back in the day and was intrigued by it, and when I saw it on PSN later on, I picked it up so I could discover more of its weirdness. And here we are, trying to get 100% completion on it. Which requires eating all the fruit and completing the bonus levels, which involve lighting up cubes floating in a void formed from a mixture of a rave and a vomit factory. Look, don’t ask me, okay? Read more…

Chronological Challenge – Banjo-Kazooie

January 15, 2016 3 comments

Hello! Today we have another 3D platformer! Enjoy!

Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Rare | Year: 1998
Played on: Nintendo 64

Goal: Save Tooty from Grunty

Actual Outcome: Tooty saved

Rare today is not the Rare of the 1990s. Instead, the Rare of the 1990s is now called Playtonic and they’ve moved from Twycross to Derby. They’re also working on their first game, which they funded through Kickstarter and will be releasing by the end of 2016. This game, Yooka-Laylee, is an attempt to return to the games that made Rare such a beloved household name in the N64 days. Years of being forced to work on soulless Kinect Sports games had clearly sent them stir-crazy, and you can’t really blame them.

Full disclosure – I supported Yooka-Laylee. It’s the only crowdfunding campaign I’ve ever contributed to, in fact. And I did this despite the fact that I…uh…never played Banjo-Kazooie before. Whaaaaat?

I recognised that this was a grave error on my part. Despite Banjo-Kazooie being exactly the kind of game I would have played the hell out of on the N64, for some reason I never did. And since Rare’s acquisition by Microsoft, I’ve never been able to play any of its re-releases. But after supporting Yooka-Laylee and realising that, hey, I own an N64 again, I decided to pick it up on eBay and rectify this.

Naturally, my first point of comparison for this game was Super Mario 64. Same system, both published by Nintendo, both 3D collect-a-thon platformers. And while I stick by my (possibly controversial) opinion that Super Mario 64 has aged badly to the point of being borderline unplayable today, I am pleased to say that Banjo-Kazooie has not gone the same way.

There are many places where Banjo succeeds over Mario. The controls are much smoother, with the Bear & Bird being lovingly animated without sacrificing player control, unlike Mario’s wide turning circle and dazed head-shaking after an attack. The environments feel a little more alive than SM64’s rather flat locations, with lots of bouncy inhabitants, and googly eyes on basically everything. The camera system is also very tight and easy to manage, unlike Lakitu’s frequent freak-outs and insistence on avoiding Mario’s back at all costs. As a result, Banjo is the N64’s much more enjoyable 3D platformer.

It’s also the first N64 game in this challenge that I’ve not thought “man this has not aged well”. I don’t know what it is about the N64, but more often than not its games are just not as fun now. But Banjo doesn’t fit that description at all. I had a lot of fun with it, for all the reasons stated above, but there’s also the sound design, that gave this game such a wonderful character that I cannot fault it. Everyone speaks gibberish, but it’s delightful gibberish. It helps that the voices are subtitled with quirky dialogue that knows full well it’s a video game, and plays with the medium as much as it can. Every aspect of the game’s design has fun in mind.

However, while I enjoyed Banjo-Kazooie for the most part, there were still a couple of things that annoyed me. The first of these was the hub world, which was confusing to navigate and didn’t come with an in-game map, meaning a lot of the game was spent being lost. It didn’t help that some levels were tucked away in some obscure places (Clanker’s Cavern, I’m looking at you) and this stalled progression from time to time.

On top of that, I’m glad I wasn’t going for 100% completion, but even then this was still a problem due to trying to unlock Note Doors. Many collectibles reset themselves upon death or leaving a level, and this became a serious issue when attempting to collect notes in a level. A single mistake can leave you in the position of needing to gather everything a second time, and it feels a little too much like padding, just like the issues of the overworld. Jiggies don’t reset, thankfully, but if it was possible to do it for those, why do the Notes keep resetting? Why, Rare, why?

Another minor issue that reared its ugly head was in the final level, where you have to navigate a board game/quiz show hybrid that asks you questions about the game. While a fun idea, and forces you to really pay attention to the world around you, it’s the questions about baddie Grunty that I had a problem with. The answers to these questions were discovered by chatting to Grunty’s sister throughout the hubworld. It’s another example of awkward padding for no good reason, and pretty much required keeping a notebook at hand to keep track. The game’s failure to explain the importance early on meant that I struggled through the quiz a few times blindly and had to go on a mini-quest to discover the answers I needed.

But all of these things, while annoying, were not enough to dampen my enjoyment of the whole game. Banjo-Kazooie remains a fun, classic platformer with charming art and sound design. And now I’m glad that I funded Yooka-Laylee, because knowing that I’ll be getting to play another game in this style by the end of the year makes me very happy indeed.