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Top 100 Games – 91 – F-Zero X

14 Mar

F-Zero X
Year: 1998
Genre: Racing

Driving games are, by their nature, limited. They have little to offer in terms of longevity or variety and often, despite the best efforts of developers, can be disappointing. F-Zero X is different. The original SNES version was a good racer, fun and different and with a reasonably impressive sense of speed for the time. The N64 iteration blows it away in every possible way. There’s a lot of depth to F-Zero X in comparison with other racing games, and it’s not just in the huge amount of unlockables on offer. There’s a learning curve that’s more long than steep, with the game being simple enough for a beginner to enjoy, but mastering each track requires a huge investment of time and effort.

The single player game is where F-Zero X shines brightest. Featuring a similar concept to Mario Kart – three race series of varying degrees of difficulty, on top of a huge roster of racers. The game is customisable based on player preference. While only 6 vehicles are available at the beginning, there are 30 in total, and unlocking them all is quite a challenge. Each vehicle is unique, despite there being only three stats – Body, boost and grip. The acceleration and max speed must be balanced before each race as well, and can be tailored to suit each of the many tracks. It’s quite detailed, and finding the right vehicle for your style takes a bit of time, but once you do, you know – it just feels right. This is a game that wants to give the player an abundance of choice, and a lot of variation in how races are tackled.

The racers are weird and wonderful - from dnosaurs to robots

Variety is the greatest strength of F-Zero X. Each track is unique, with tubes, tunnels, jumps, chicanes and various other hazards to be dealt with. Choosing whether to muscle past opponents, aim for speed or play it safe is critical, but each approach can pay off. This is where the game is tough to master. It’s not too hard to win on easier difficulty levels, but when trying to unlock some of the game’s content, the races become a tremendous challenge. With 30 opponents all vying for victory, a rival seeking to knock you out of the race and constant environmental dangers, races come down to a balance between aggressively battling other racers, boosting and hoping the energy recharge is coming up. It’s very much risk-reward based, as boosting consumes energy and leave you vulnerable, creating an exciting and brilliantly realised racer. The influence on future titles like Burnout is clear in the incredible sense of speed and gameplay mechanics, but F-Zero X is an incredible title in its own right and one of the best racing games ever made.

Top 100 Games – 92 – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

5 Mar

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Year: 2003
Genre: RPG

Bioware’s efforts to make interaction and conversation an integral part of gameplay have set them apart from other mainstream developers. Their success has led to their acquisition by industry heavyweights EA and seen the Mass Effect franchise gain a huge following. After Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights they set the standard for cinematic storytelling with one of the best uses of a licence in video game history. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic tells a unique story within the expansive universe created by George Lucas, and allows players to follow the now well-known morality paths of good and evil. KOTOR manages to be one of very few games in which the black and white polarisation of choice is actually a positive, thanks to the source material. With users of ‘the force’ being basically Jedi or Sith, a fancy way of saying angelic or demonic, the system fits perfectly and clever use of both a deep conversation system and party-building would pave the way for the ambitious space opera, Mass Effect.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

KOTOR though, is the better game. Role-Playing-Games such as this rely on a dice-rolling element to combat and other interactions which are ultimately useless in Mass Effect, and to a lesser extent, Jade Empire. By giving the player total control over combat, stat building exists only to make battles slightly less of a slog, rather than to aid tactical gameplay. It’s not as deep as some similar games, but the fights are satisfying, as is the ability to customise a character. The most entertaining element being crafting a lightsaber, you can even carry two. The story is interesting, and while a little predictable, captures much of the adventurous spirit of the original movies, with a slightly darker edge. This is an extremely faithful effort, despite having an all-new cast and mostly new locations. The characters are well-voiced, and quite well-written, with homicidal droid HK-47 standing out in particular.

The conversation system is perhaps the most entertaining element of KOTOR. Bioware have become known for their ability to craft interesting interactions and this is where it really took off for them. The formula of KOTOR will be familiar to those who have only played the latest Mass Effect, such is its lasting appeal. Now a feature in most games of this type, the ability to choose responses based on level, morality and simple judgement, and their effect on a situation made KOTOR more interesting than the standard linear RPG. While some may criticise the dialogue for being too obviously good or bad, it plays nicely into the story. The level of choice is just enough to make what is essentially a linear, cinematic experience feel influenced by the player. That alone is a massive achievement, and one Bioware are yet to improve upon.

Top 100 Games – 93 – Pitfall

28 Feb

Pitfall
Year: 1982
Genre: Platform

The year is 1982, Argentina have invaded the Falklands, 700,000 people in New York protest proliferation of nuclear weapons (in person, not via twitter) and ‘Come on Eileen’ is the biggest hit of the year. This was sadly, not protested. 1982 was also the year that birthed the platform game. Before the global dominance, World of Warcraft and, unfortunately, Tony Hawk’s Ride, Activision were innovating with the seminal ‘Pitfall’. This was one of, if not the best, games on the Atari 2600 and paved the way for the brilliance of Super Mario, Sonic and almost every other 2D platform game that followed. Pitfall is an incredibly important piece of videogame history, signalling a shift from the score-attack gameplay (though a score system was still included) to motivation based on increasing challenge and variation in obstacles and enemies.

For the 2600, the graphics are incredibly impressive

To suggest that Pitfall is just a footnote in industry history would be to discredit it as a great game on its own merits. Creator David Crane hit upon the idea for a ‘running man’ in 1979 and by ’82 had successfully built a game which utilised that potential. The 2600 featured many, many single screen games, but Pitfall offered players a constantly changing environment in which hero Harry traversed a multitude of dangerous ‘pitfalls’. Snakes, crocodiles, scorpions, logs and quicksand all stood in the way of the player finding the treasures that lay hidden in the jungle. Graphics on the 2600 were far from spectacular, but Crane made the most of the technology at his disposal, creating not only one of the most impressive titles visually, but also one free of the stuttering, flashing sprites and bland backgrounds of other games.

What really separated Pitfall from its peers however, was the fact that it was an adventure. In the same way as Legend of Zelda and Elite rewrote the rulebook for what a game could be in terms of scope, Pitfall was a class above its contemporaries. The mere fact that the jungle Harry explored was varied is impressive for the 2600, but that first moment he jumps onto a vine and a swing across a murky swamp is enthralling. Suddenly the world fades away and is replaced by a mysterious jungle, filled with unknown danger and intrigue. The basic sound was enough to maintain the illusion and so one of the first genuine gaming adventures was created. Here was a game that finally offered a real escape into another world, as long as you had the imagination. With wonderful gameplay to back it up its legend was complete. Pitfall is a gaming pioneer, and while it is, like all 2600 games, dated, it still offers a fun and exciting gameplay experience.

Top 100 Games – 94 – Space Station Silicon Valley

27 Feb

Space Station Silicon Valley
Year: 1998
Genre: Platform/Puzzle

The minds at DMA Design were some of the most inventive and talented in the gaming industry. The studio became Rockstar North after the Grand Theft Auto series became immensely popular, but before then they produced this quirky and underrated gem. Featuring a thoroughly unusual plot in which a spaceship crashes into a bizarre space station populated by robotic animals. With the pilot of the ship incapacitated, it’s up to the microchip brain of his robot companion to save the day. If this sounds a little odd, then the gameplay will seem even more so. Evo, the aforementioned microchip, can jump between animals, taking them over and allowing the player to control them. This concept is not only brilliantly creative, but also perfectly suited to a game which is as unusual in its approach to plot and character design as to gameplay.

The humble 'dog with wheels' is one of the early animals available

Space Station Silicon Valley is ostensibly a platformer, but after a few levels it becomes abundantly clear that this is something altogether more taxing on the mind than Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie. With each animal having a unique set of attributes, each level becomes a case of finding the right tool for the job. If there’s a large jump to be made, a sheep can float across, but a mouse can speed boost up a ramp and over. Later levels see larger animals, and surviving long enough to even figure out what to do can be challenging. This is what makes the game great though, there’s a huge amount of reward to figuring out how to take down a bear or lion, as you gain their power. This sudden move up the food chain changes the way the game is played, and allows different approaches to the unique puzzles to be explored. It encourages the player to use their imagination and intellect to solve problems, and there are some genuinely tough levels to contend with.

On top of the great gameplay, there is a real sense of humour throughout the game. Each animal is ridiculous in its own way. The sheep are lovable balls of floating fluff, the penguins angry snowball throwing lunatics, and so on. DMA offer an experience full of charm and not quite lovable, but certainly appealing characters. It’s really not like any other platformer, offering a variety in gameplay rarely seen and a personality all its own. With the huge amount of Mario 64 imitators that hit the N64, this is one of the few that stood out and created its own identity, one that not only appeals in terms of its strangely crafted characters, but also in its perfectly executed core mechanic. DMA, and later Rockstar, have always been able to offer a unique slant on the gaming world, and this is some of their best work, up there with GTA for sheer creativity and intelligence, but without any of the controversy or violence.

Top 100 Games – 95 – Deadly Premonition

26 Feb

Deadly Premonition
Year: 2010
Genre: Horror/Adventure

Driving along a road outside a remote town in what appears to be north-west America, everything is almost painfully normal. The windscreen wipers gently push water to and fro, headlights illuminate the dull grey evening and an indicator softly ticks. Shattering this serenity is the quietly confident voice of protagonist Francis York Morgan. (Call him York, it’s what everybody calls him) He addresses ‘Zach’ yet his police cruiser is empty bar him, an odd beginning to what becomes ever stranger. York speaks of his love for B-movies, and reveals his interest in grisly murders in small town America to Zach. He enjoyed ‘Tremors’ and finds it quite funny that someone claimed aliens were the perpetrators of a vicious murder. He is impossibly compelling, weaving a bizarre narrative which holds a certain love for the mundane and average. Much like York, the game’s creator, Swery, appears to adore the minutiae of everyday life, and it is this attention to detail which makes Deadly Premonition so unfathomably brilliant.

The indicators and windscreen wipers are but a fragment of the detail on offer. The monologues are so interesting that arriving at the desired location is often a disappointment. This is a creator who wishes to know everything about his world. Each character is, while wholly unusual, very well-realised. There are so many minor characters and talking to each leads to new oddness with every moment. There may not be the complex dialogue trees of the likes of Mass Effect, but the script is delightful in its strangeness. York is the key. His presence elevates everything about Deadly Premonition, from the myriad conversations, to the cut-scenes telling us the games slow burning story, to the occasional outburst of hilarity. The atmosphere too, is bizarrely well put together. It’s in the astonishingly good music, which occasionally enters a scene where it has no place, to great effect. It’s also in the general design of the town. The graphics aren’t amazing, but each location, building and person is intriguing and memorable. The art design is far better than the technology here, and that should always be the case.

There are of course, flaws, the combat is repetitive and the game clock moves a little slowly, but to focus on them would be to miss the entire point of Deadly Premonition. It’s the ‘Lovely useless elements’ as Swery puts it, that make it so special. It’s clear that this is a real labour of love. With a fraction of the budget a high profile release gets, Deadly Premonition has managed to gain a large and loyal fan base. Some excellent fan sites already exist, such as Planet Redwood a great source for any and all information on the game. Swery seems a huge fan of B-movies, and in a sense, this is the first real B-game. A love letter to some other classics like Shenmue, GTA and Resident Evil, yet with a style and personality so much its own that there has never been anything quite matching what Deadly Premonition offers. A cult classic in the movie sense then, and a game likely to become more popular with time, as graphical constraints and occasionally questionable mechanics are ignored in favour of one of the most interesting, compelling and unique pieces of entertainment to grace game consoles.

Top 100 Games – 96 – Blast Corps

21 Feb

Blast Corps
Year: 1997
Genre: Puzzle

Rare became a household name during the latter days of the Super Nintendo’s lifespan after releasing hits like Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct. Their relationship with Nintendo over the previous years had been an odd one. Often Rare were willing to make lacklustre tie-ins, but the money they made presumably allowed them to create some inventive and interesting games, RC Pro-Am and Battletoads being some of the best. Now they are part of Microsoft’s pool of developers and continue to innovate with Kinect Sports. It was the N64 they’ll be remembered for though. During the lifespan of Nintendo’s last cartridge based console, Rare delivered a constant stream of quality games while others jumped ship to make games on CD. Even their sole tie-in, Goldeneye, was critically acclaimed and though now appears dated, it’s still beloved by most gamers of a certain age. Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini and Diddy Kong Racing, amongst others, cemented their reputation as the best developer, other than Nintendo themselves, for the console.

Their finest moment though, is a game that remains criminally overlooked. Blast Corps is one of the most creative, inventive and unique games ever made. Wildly imaginative, it makes the standard driving and shooting of their other games look pedestrian. Ditching the cutesy look of most of their N64 fare, Blast Corps still has a hugely appealing style. It’s colourful and cheerful, despite the extremely basic storyline being about a nuclear load-carrying truck about to crash and cause mass destruction. This bare-bones plot gave Rare free rein to make some extremely unique levels. Essentially, this is a puzzle game, but not in any traditional sense. It has more in common with Mech Warrior than Tetris, as well as pioneering destructive scenery before the likes of Red Faction were even conceived.

Wanton destruction is wonderfully cathartic

The gameplay has several different scenarios including driving, flying and some time trials, but the real joy is in the destruction levels. Given an ever-increasing set of bizarre vehicles, the player is tasked with clearing the way for the out-of-control truck. This is achieved by flying above buildings in a robot and crashing down upon them, rolling a robot into things, powersliding a truck, using the pneumatic sides of another to destroy things and many more besides. The sheer number of options available in terms of approaching each level is incredible, and there are medals to achieve based on time limits which add tremendous replay value. With a number of secrets to unlock, a globe dotted with missions for a map screen and some fiendishly clever puzzle elements, Blast Corps is like absolutely nothing else. While Rare imitated Mario 64 and Quake with aplomb, this was entirely their own creation, and it shows just how talented and creative the developers at Rare could be.

Top 100 Games – 97 – Super Meat Boy

18 Feb

Super Meat Boy
Year: 2010
Genre: Platformer

Team Meat’s creation, Super Meat Boy, has been described as the ‘Super Mario Bros.’ of its generation. It’s a platformer in the classic sense, 2D, primary colours (mostly red) and a simple plot. No secret has been made of its inspirations, but because of that SMB is even better, a nostalgia trip with modern twists and some fantastic graphical flourishes. The setting and characters are unique and mildly disturbing, yet somehow distinctly loveable. Villain Dr. Fetus kidnaps Meat Boy’s girlfriend Bandage Girl, and the stage is simply and effectively set for a romp through some bizarre locales.

The art design is brilliantly executed, with each world having a distinct personality. The hospital stood out in particular, with piles of syringes and medical waste on the ground, along with the SMB standard, meat grinder wheels, dotted around the levels. Occasionally breaking the tone for a level entirely in silhouette or a ‘retro’ styled level, the variety is just enough that the environments stay interesting. The detail is the best part though, while it’s hard to drag your eyes from Meat Boy himself thanks to the fast paced gameplay, the levels are wonderfully designed. Looking closely reveals details that you barely notice when charging through stages, and it only serves to make the game more appealing. The characters are cute, even Meat Boy slapping disgustingly against a wall and leaving a slick trail of blood is charming, in fact the game oozes a sort of horrible appeal. The end of level replays are a fantastic addition, and watching each attempt at once is a fine reward, especially when you realise the skill it took to guide Meat Boy to the end while all his clones died horribly.

It's not exactly... subtle

Playing SMB is an absolute treat. This is some of the best gameplay since the heyday of 2D graphics on the SNES and the graphical additions only make it better. It’s smooth to control, and impossibly precise. Jumping between meat grinders while avoiding a giant robot requires that kind of precision, but Team Meat really went above and beyond with their effort. Meat Boy moves with the kind of grace Mario could never muster. With traps and obstacles everywhere, the game looks like it should be taken slowly, but the times offered to be beaten are incredibly low. It’s all about the speedrun, and once the controls click (after the first level or two) there’s a level of artistry in the level design that is rarely seen. They are crafted make speed paramount, yet punish the slightest lapse in concentration. It’s a bit like Sonic mixed with Mario at 100mph. Gripping the controller tightly, staring intently at the screen, it’s almost Zen, until you die and hurl the unfortunate peripheral at the nearest wall. SMB is the best platformer in years, and one of the best ever, difficult, but never cheap. It’s a game for anyone who played Mario constantly in the past, and really, who didn’t?