Archive

Archive for June, 2016

Chronological Challenge Reviews – Driver / Dino Crisis

June 22, 2016 1 comment

It’s review day again, and it’s time to take a look at two games from 1999 that history has often put in a backseat when compared to series with greater legacies. It’s an unintentional connection, but it works.

Enjoy!

Driver
Publisher: GT Interactive | Developer: Reflections | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Beat all missions

Actual Outcome: Got to the penultimate mission and just could not get past it

When it comes to crime-related driving games, the name that always springs to mind is Grand Theft Auto, which is a multi-billion success story, as we all know. But back in the 90s, it was still a sprite-based top-down affair that had more in common with Micro Machines on the visual side than the HD spectacle of today.

Read more…

Advertisements

Chronological Challenges Reviews – Ape Escape / MGS: Special Missions

June 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Hello! This week’s reviews are a day late because E3 has messed up all my schedules! Hooray!

Anyway, here are two more 1999 games! Enjoy!

Ape Escape
Publisher: SCE | Developer: SCE Japan Studio | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS2 (original PS1 disc)

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

Actual Outcome: I think I got to the Ice Age before quitting

The late 90s was dominated by Pokémon. By the tail end of the decade, it was hard to enter a shop or watch TV or do anything without Pikachu’s stupid adorable face staring back out at you. Kids around the world were addicted to the concept that that had to catch ‘em all. And in fact, catching ‘em all quickly became a theme for companies who weren’t Nintendo.

Sony never adopted the ‘mon phenomenon, but they did make a game about catching ‘em all. Namely, catching all them monkeys. Because monkeys are inherently funny, apparently.

Tenuous cultural links aside, Ape Escape is also well-remembered for being the first game in PlayStation history to make it mandatory to play with a DualShock. The game was physically unplayable on an old-fashioned digital controller, and you had to fork out for Sony’s fancy analog sticks instead. Which was a good move, as now I don’t think anyone could do without sticks for controlling their games these days.

So how was this first fully-analogue PlayStation title then? Pretty good, actually. Ape Escape is a 3D platformer where you play a small boy named Spike who has to catch monkeys in a big transdimensional net. You travel through time. You get a bunch of gadgets that allow you to spank monkeys. It’s pretty neat.

In terms of gameplay, Ape Escape is hard to fault. You wander through a series of small levels solving puzzles and exploring, looking for the escaped monkeys you’re trying to round up. Catching them involves a number of factors from solving puzzles, pulling the monkeys out of hiding places, sneaking up on the deadly ones and bonking them to knock them out long enough that they don’t evade the net. There’s a surprising amount of variety on offer here, and the game is excellent at keeping you on your toes.

The game can feel a little awkward to control today, however. While it may have been a pioneer in dual-stick controls, its control scheme doesn’t follow the standards that modern games follow. The left stick controls Spike, sure, but the right stick isn’t in charge of camera, it’s in charge of attacking. Jumping is on a weird shoulder button, the face buttons are all weapon selection (akin to Zelda’s use of the C-buttons), and when you’re as used to modern control schemes as I am, it can be a little disorienting. This is less a fault with the game’s design, however, and more evidence of its age.

On the whole, Ape Escape is fun, but a little unremarkable. The small levels, the sometimes overly cutesy aesthetic and the terrible voice acting (except Specter, who’s fantastic), all combine to take this from being amazing to a somewhat average game with some clever puzzle design. That’s not to say it’s bad, in fact it’s on the very good end of the 3D platformer scale, but it’s just not got much in the way of standout moments until near the end of the game.

Ape Escape is an interesting bit of video game history that’s still worth playing today, even if it does leave you feeling a little underwhelmed over some of its design choices.

Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions
Publisher: Konami | Developer: KCET | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (PSN release)

Goal: Clear all missions

Actual Outcome: Cleared many missions, ended up somewhere in the 80% range before I struggled with the remaining missions

Metal Gear Solid: Special Missions, also known as VR Missions or Integral, is a weird beast. It was an add-on for the original Metal Gear Solid, with some copies standing alone while others required data from the original MGS disc to run (or in the case of the PSN release, a pointless bit of menu-fiddling). It’s basically the original game’s training mode extended to a significantly larger selection of missions, and…that’s about it.

For those who are unaware, Metal Gear Solid had a “VR Training” mode, which was a way to guide players into the experience of playing the game. As Snake, you completed a series of short missions that relied on your stealth skills to complete, all in the setting of a series of glowing blocks floating in a techno-void. Special Missions takes this by giving you even more mission types, including weapon training, quirky puzzle missions, bizarre murder mysteries and even a small number of missions where you play as the iconic Cyborg Ninja .

It’s an interesting experience, I’ll give it that. Using the same engine as the original game, Special Missions is as fluid and easy to control as the main game. Snake stalks around in a top-down view and you can crouch, choke and punch as always. If you liked how the original game played and want to play more, then Special Missions is literally more of that.

There are also some genuinely interesting missions here. The murder mysteries are ludicrous and simplistic, but they provide some great entertainment, especially in the final mission which has you exploring an office and examining pretty much everything results in a dramatic camera angle and the iconic “!” noise. The ninja missions are a fun variation when you finally unlock them, although in these post-Rising days, it feels a tad limited and stiff (and begins to explain why Kojima shipped Rising off to Platinum instead of making it himself). Many of the puzzle and special missions are intriguing brain teasers that I highly approve of.

But there’s always a nagging sense that this is an obvious placeholder. If this had been in the original game as a full VR Training mode, it would have been a delicious cherry on an already amazing cake, but as a standalone product it feels limited and somewhat hollow. Unlike MGS, which tied its weird sense of humour and stealth mechanics together with a twisting and turning storyline, this is just a series of disjointed missions that don’t feel like they have a wider purpose beyond “here’s more MGS until we finish the actual sequel on upcoming hardware”.

It also stands to get very repetitive very quickly. While the Mystery, Special and Puzzle modes are genuinely interesting, getting to them takes a while as you play through a series of incredibly samey stealth and weapon levels, of which there always seems to be too many. What’s worse is you have to play all of these twice – once as a “Practice” and then once in a real Time Attack – which does little to help the repetitive, hollow feeling of the overall package.

But it’s not a bad package, just a limited one. If you liked Metal Gear Solid, it’s a great way to extend your time with it, but hardly measures up to the real thing.

E3 2016 Reactions

June 14, 2016 1 comment

Hello! Here are my slightly unordered thoughts on everything seen at the E3 press conferences this year. Except the PC Gaming Show because I wasn’t able to watch that one.

Let’s start with EA! Read more…

Categories: Uncategorized

Chronological Challenge: Pokemon Snap / Rollcage

June 8, 2016 Leave a comment

Hello! Another week, another double bill of games from my endless challenge to play every game I own in order of release.

This week, we move into March 1999, where we have two games about travelling around in a vehicle that couldn’t be more different. They’re also both pretty good.

Pokémon Snap
Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: HAL Laboratory | Year: 1999
Original System: Nintendo 64
Played on: Wii Virtual Console

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

Actual Outcome: Played around in every level a little

Pokémon Snap is an unusual game. Hopping off the back of the huge international success of the Pokémon franchise (which has so far been absent from the challenge due to me no longer owning my Game Boy and the 3DS releases coming out too late), this game took the concept of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” and decided that the words “on film” needed to be added to the end.

This is a photography sim, with the entire purpose to snap pictures of every Pokémon you can, and get them all on their best side. You achieve this by badgering them with food, music and gas bombs, and sometimes they’ll do cute poses and actions that Professor Oak thinks are WONDERFUL. Oh, and Pikachu is naturally a camera whore who shows up in every level to hog the limelight. But you expected nothing less, I’m sure.

And wow, this game is still as fun as it was back in the day. It’s such a sedentary game, but also an incredibly tense one. There’s no threat of being eaten by a Charizard, but there is a threat of snapping one too far or too close, or Magikarp disappearing into the water too quickly, or Haunter not showing up on camera properly because goddammit why do you have to be awkward and show up as a floating orb until the film is developed?!

There’s a fierce addictiveness to getting Professor Oak’s approval. And he’s a picky man. A perfectly centred shot of Jigglypuff singing a jolly tune is all well and good, but if it’s too small, it’s right in the trash. Just love me, Oak. Tell me I’m WONDERFUL.

It also helps that Pokémon Snap is so polished in its presentation. Despite its age, it hasn’t lost any of the charm and cuteness that got me hooked in 2000, and I almost felt sad to move on with the challenge and actually finish games I’ve never finished, unlike this which I obsessively played until I got the most WONDERFUL shot of Mew in the world.

It’s a quirky unique game that thoroughly deserves a Wii U sequel that uses the Gamepad but probably won’t get one now with all the NX stuff on the horizon. In conclusion, I think it should be obvious that I think Pokémon Snap is WONDERFUL.

Rollcage
Publisher: Psygnosis | Developer: Attention to Detail | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Win the Leagues

Actual Outcome: Came out top on the Leagues

Rollcage

Rollcage is one of the PS1’s lesser-known racing titles, yet it’s seemingly beloved by everyone who did play it. I remembered enjoying this back in the day, but it had been way too long and I couldn’t remember too many specifics about it or even how well I’d done at playing it.

Rollcage is basically WipEout on wheels. You drive incredibly fast futuristic vehicles around twisty tracks and fire weapons at each other to the beats of a pounding club soundtrack. Where Rollcage differs, however, is that the vehicles have wheels with immense grip, and they’re large enough that a car can be flipped on its roof and it can carry straight on without issue.

And it is a BLAST. The sense of speed is impressive, and not just by PS1 standards. The cars are nippy little buggers, and there are constant efforts to push that speed higher through boost pads on the track, turbo powerups, or best of all, riding explosions like the coolest motherfucker in the land. As well as speed, the game encourages destruction, and some weapons actively target the scenery instead of other racers. You can drop buildings or explosive space billboards on your opponents then ride through like nothing happened. You can fire a missile as you pass a power plant, blowing it up in your wake and leaving debris for opponents on your tail to deal with.

There are some moments of frustration as your opponents aggressively hurl missiles around and hinder your progress as much as you hinder theirs, and at times this threaten to spoil the fun of the whole experience. But even listing this as a flaw now, I struggle to say more than that. It’s a minor frustration, and one of those that improves as you play more. You get used to how the handling works, how best to steer out of danger, and where the shortcuts are. What’s more, for every loss, the game just makes you want to try again and again because of how much fun the whole experience is.

Because that’s the key thing to take away from this. Every aspect of Rollcage was designed with fun in mind, and fun it is. This is one of the most enjoyable racing games ever made, and it’s a shame it’s not as well-remembered as it should be.

Chronological Challenge Reviews: Final Fantasy VIII / Gex 3

June 1, 2016 1 comment

Hello! Welcome to this week’s edition of Chronological Challenge Reviews, where we continue into 1999 with two very different games. Enjoy!

The first is Final Fantasy VIII, which took me months to get through as I spent most of my time playing cards, and Gex: Deep Cover Gecko, which took me less time because…well, you’ll see.

Also, in a complete coincidence, the companies who made these two games eventually merged and now make modern Tomb Raider games. Let that sink in for a second.

Final Fantasy VIII
Publisher: Square Co. | Developer: Squaresoft | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS2 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Get all GFs, all cards, all ultimate weapons, defeat Omega Weapon and beat Ultimecia

Actual Outcome: Level 100 Squall stabs sorceress in the face after brutally murdering her pet Omega Weapon

Opinion: I have an interesting relationship with Final Fantasy VIII. At the time of its release, I was not too keen on the idea of turn-based RPGs, and when the Official UK PlayStation Magazine went on and on about how great this game would be, I scoffed. That said, the message got through, and when they released a special edition of the magazine with a playable demo, I decided to pick up and find out what all the fuss was about.

I ended up getting FF7 a few months later because I enjoyed that demo so much I wanted to see what I’d previously missed.

But FF8 stuck with me a little more than FF7 for some reason. Maybe because it’s the Final Fantasy that got me into Final Fantasy. Maybe because of its weird, seemingly nonsensical storyline. Maybe it’s because the battle mechanics were fairly easy to get to grips with for someone as clueless about stats as I was at the time. Whatever the reason, coming back to FF8 for the challenge was like returning to an old childhood home where it turned out all my current friends grew up together and I’d completely forgotten.

This is an interesting entry in the series. It’s the point where Square started seriously deviating from a lot of the core aspects of what makes a game a Final Fantasy game. It dropped Job Classes. You couldn’t equip armour. It was even more futuristic than its predecessor. The Junction system was a bit of a departure that focused heavily on summons. It was…weird.

And yes, it’s an easily exploitable combat system. There are ways to game the system to get yourself high-level magic on disc 1 and increase your strength to an absurd degree that early-game enemies are crushed beneath your mighty toes with ease. By the end of the game you can become such a powerhouse that the final boss barely poses a threat. And once you have Aura and access to the Holy War item, then you’re basically unstoppable.

Sure, the story is a weird amalgamation of sci-fi tropes and political drama, focusing on child soldiers and sorceresses and monsters from the moon. It’s a story that on first glance makes no sense and is making it up as it goes along. A story that some people dislike so much they decided that the final three-quarters of the game are a dying dream that explains away all the weird moon logic.

But I genuinely, unironically love FF8. I can’t fault it. And it’s not just nostalgia goggles. I’ve just finished playing it (I mean that, it took me the first three months of this year to beat), and it’s every bit as weird and quirky as I remember it, but I love it for all of that. You cannot accuse FF8 of being unimaginative. You cannot accuse it of being derivative. And, surprisingly, the more I look at it, the more I realise just how good FF8’s story actually is. I intend to bring back Losing the Plot at some point to discuss this further, but replaying it with hindsight has opened my eyes to a bunch of stuff I never considered before. Unlike a certain other sci-fi themed Final Fantasy game I won’t name but has the number thirteen in it, this is a plot that makes more sense the more you look at it. It has an internal logic and it sticks with it at all times.

I actually like the Junction system despite (or perhaps because of) its easy exploits. It’s a fairly fluid, easy to manage system that didn’t make me feel overly anxious about making the “wrong” decision like in other RPGs’ skill and stat management. The lack of explicit levels for enemies mean that grinding has largely been removed (GF abilities excluded), and progress never feels artificially hindered by a sudden leap in enemy levels (flashbacks of Shining Force incoming).

And I liked the world and the characters (except Zell). The world was an interesting blend of familiar modern things and fanciful future fantasy things, and the party was filled with likeable teens (except Zell).

What I’m saying is that Final Fantasy 8 is probably one of my favourite Final Fantasy games. Probably not THE favourite, as it’s far too weird for that, but it holds a place in my heart, and it’ll most likely stay there forever.

Gex: Deep Cover Gecko
Publisher: Eidos Interactive | Developer: Crystal Dynamics | Year: 1999
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

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

Actual Outcome: I don’t even remember now

Earlier this year, I went to MCM Comic Con Birmingham and met two of the main cast of British sci-fi comedy series, Red Dwarf – Robert Llewellyn, who played neurotic robot servant Kryten, and Danny John-Jules, who played a stupid yet fashionable creature known as The Cat. They were lovely guys, with Llewellyn clearly pleased that someone wanted to hear about his written work, and John-Jules being the chilliest motherfucker in the world.

I bring this up because what I am about to say is especially difficult now I’ve met the guy and deemed him to be a thoroughly nice gent I’d be happy to go to a pub with. But Gex: Deep Cover Gecko is a fundamentally worse game than its predecessor, and a big part of this lies in the UK voice, changed from Leslie Phillips to…Danny John-Jules.

Every flaw that plagued Gex 3D is still present in Deep Cover Gecko, with the unfunny ever-repeating jokes now looking dated and cringeworthy, the level design being rather uninspired, and the camera system being an uncontrollable mess of a thing.

But things are made worse in the fact Gex’s voice is so much more annoying this time. Delivered in the same voice as The Cat on Red Dwarf, Gex reels off yet more pop culture references but coming off much less sophisticated than Phillips, and seemingly repeating his jokes a lot more often than before. The fairy tale level, in particular, has exactly two lines of jokes. Yes, two. It’s hard not to notice when you hear them looped forever.

But then nothing else has improved. The camera is still awkward, the levels are still largely built on a single idea – “LOL POP CULTURE REFERENCES” – and the hub world is even more of a nightmare to navigate now.

Oh, and there’s a Playboy model in a key role because we’re marketing this to horny teenage boys now. And yes, it’s about as awkward as you’d expect a grown woman flirting with a CGI lizard to be.

Gex: Deep Cover Gecko elicits the same reaction from me as its predecessor – why is this still in my collection? It’s dated, it’s bland, and much better 3D platformers exist from the same time period.