Tag Archives: retro

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.

Then and Now – UN Squadron

23 Feb

Then:

This was a special one, to me at least. I only managed to pick a copy up for myself in recent weeks, but UN Squadron was one of my favourite SNES games. I had to spend plenty of time in a friend’s house to play it, but it all seemed worthwhile when I was dropping bombs and blowing stealth fighters out of the sky. The game was fast and tough, but I adored it, from the variety of planes on offer, to the bombing run bonus stages, there was something in UN Squadron that spoke to me. It was a reflex test, bullets filling the screen and enemies on the ground as well as in the sky. After spending the early years of my gaming life playing the similarly themed Harrier Attack on the Amstrad CPC, this was like someone switching the lights on. From the monochromatic to the intensely colourful, the basic to the complex, UN Squadron was like playing something that flew in from the future, a glimpse of what I was missing before I finally owned a Super Nintendo of my own. UN Squadron returned to my life in secondary school, after I turned compute classes into gaming sessions by putting emulators onto the school PCs. A surprise hit, most of my class ended up playing UN Squadron over Mario, Street Fighter and the few other games I downloaded. Yes, this was a special one alright.

The bosses are large and detailed

Now:

I hadn’t really considered that UN Squadron could be bad, it’s one of those games that holds an appeal for me that I can never quantify, everyone has a few of these and it’s hard to be critical. I realise however, that I was playing the game in situations where it was guaranteed a level of appreciation it may not garner when played in isolation. In a friend’s house it had the advantage of being one of my few 16-bit experiences before I owned a console with that kind of power. In school it benefitted from a simpler control scheme that suited play from a keyboard, no wonder it beat out Mario for popularity. Extended play could be its downfall, could destroy my love for it. Its times like this I start to question revisiting old games in such a critical manner. I could just boot it up every once in a while and play it for 10 minutes, I’d never know if it might let me down. Of course, once I started playing UN Squadron again, it wasn’t a case of not wanting to stop, more a case of not being able to.

Developed by Capcom for the CPS arcade system originally, UN Squadron was known as Area 88 in Japan, based on a Manga of the same name. It first appeared in arcades in 1989, and made it to the SNES in 1991. With three playable characters, a range of weapons and 10 distinct levels, there was a lot to like about the game, but arcade games can often suffer in conversion to home console, and it was the Mega Drive, Street Fighter the exception, that offered the best home versions of the coin guzzlers. Of course, not every port was a failure, so there seems little point in judging in advance, yet a palpable sense of trepidation took hold when I first picked up the controller and re-enlisted to the squadron.

Bright, colourful graphics help make the game accessible

The first thing that stands out with UN Squadron is the music. After the classic Capcom sound plays (and the mind recalls Street Fighter almost instantaneously) the games music kicks in, and it has the same instant catchiness of the best 16-bit soundtracks. It’s infectious, both setting the scene as you choose a level and aircraft and elevating the spirit, drawing the player into the cartoon-like visuals of the character select screen. The character models are large, anime styled pilots, stereotypical now, but unique then. There’s the floppy haired Shin, the ubiquitous ‘Top Gun’ aping Mickey and the ever-present older man, who’s rugged, has seen it all before and yet still smiles through it all. After that comes the plane selection, limited to a single choice at first, but after playing a few levels and earning cash, the dynamic of choosing aircraft and weapons comes into play. There are various fighters, each more powerful than the last, and with every enemy shot down more money is earned, with which to buy more powerful craft. The special weapons though, also command your coin, and finding a balance between a better plane and the bombs, napalm, shells and missiles needed to complete a stage without losing a life adds a welcome element of strategy which, while shallow, gives Squadron a unique selling point other side scrollers lack.

Of course, gameplay is what matters, and all the money earning and weapon buying becomes a cheap gimmick if the actual meat of the game can’t provide a worthwhile experience. It becomes almost immediately apparent that this won’t be an easy game. After a first wave of harmless helicopters, suddenly tanks and anti-aircraft guns are littering the sky with flashing balls of death, as the same helicopters fly suicidally towards you. This isn’t quite bullet hell, but it’s not far off at times, and when, after exhausting a life or two making your plane that little bit more powerful (power ups are not lost after loss of a life, rather your plane gains levels of experience) and buying some extra special weapons, the first boss fills the screen and promptly knocks you out of the sky. One continue lost, and back to the drawing board. With only three continues available to finish the game, this is a massive challenge, ten levels deep. What keeps UN Squadron’s appeal though, is not the weapon and plane upgrading, but the fact that, like all the best side scrolling shooters, it’s never cheap.

There's plenty of variation in locales

There is not one death that is unavoidable, when a hit is taken, there are so many empty spaces on screen that could have been occupied by the player it seems like the next time will be easy. Often it is, until the next section that knocks you back. With each character offering different abilities, such as less time to recover from a hit, or faster levelling up of weapons, there is a character to suit your play style, and that helps immensely. I immediately chose the character who upgraded the main gun of their plane fastest, and could finish the first level with ease after a little practice. Future levels though made me wish I’d chosen the faster recovery, as I’d suddenly find myself besieged by bullets and enemies. Helpfully, levels can be tackled in different orders, and bonus levels help add to the cash available to get a better plane. This ability to take on a different level makes getting stuck less likely, and keeps things interesting.

With all the additional features UN Squadron brings to 2D shooting, it would be easy to forget the impressive gameplay, were it not so wonderfully crafted. Squadron has the perfect level of challenge, even for a beginner. It never, ever feels impossible, just very, very difficult, and yet each level is incredibly good fun, and with that ability to return after death with a better plane and more weapons, means that no effort is wasted. Without the cheapness of some similar games, which just have far too much going on, UN Squadron still manages to move along at a consistently frantic pace, allowing only just enough time to take a breath before each fresh wave of enemies. It’s relentless and absolutely addictive, just as a good shooter should be. I needn’t have worried about this one, it’s still special.

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.

Then and Now – Snake

16 Feb

Then:

I first owned a mobile phone in 1999, a Nokia 5110. It was fairly big by today’s standards, but it took the dropping, throwing and general abuse that something portable should, more than I can say for the delicate creature that lives in my pocket now. I’m not sure what made me want a mobile phone, I rarely used it for calls or texts, and buying credit remains something that permanently eludes me. There was one thing I liked about the phone though, and I liked it a lot – Snake. The game was perfect for a quick game on the bus, during lunch at school or any moment of downtime that didn’t allow access to something a little more advanced. Snake was ferociously addictive, a throwback to classic arcade high-score chasing, and having the high-score in Snake became a source of schoolyard pride. I played Snake a huge amount, and have never given another mobile phone based game more than a minute or two. The platform is simply awful for gaming. Controlling most things with a number pad is akin to trying to do calligraphy with a paint roller. Snake had it right though, it was simple and addictive, fun and challenging in equal measure, and made many journeys pass a lot quicker.

Brilliantly simple

Now:

Snake is a strange game to look back on. It seems a long time ago since I played it, despite it appearing towards the end of the PS1 era, a mere 11 years ago. The game was an update of a well-known formula, and had appeared in various forms on consoles and in arcades. Probably best known was the BBC Micro edition, also titled ‘Snake’. The mobile version was released to the public on Nokia phones in 1998 and was an instant hit. Nokia dominated the mobile phone market at the time, and their inclusion of Snake on their phones helped kick-start mobile gaming. Unfortunately this led to the ill-fated N-Gage for the Finnish firm, but with the iPhone growing in popularity, mobile gaming has reached new heights of success. This may never have happened, were it not for Snake. The game had most mobile phone users hooked and further versions were released on later Nokia models.

Success is one thing, but quality is quite another. Snake is an early example of what is a selection of games that were almost always awful. Mobile phone gaming was incredibly poorly implemented until touchscreen technology became the norm. How can a game which is one of the first of an utterly horrible genre still be good? Snake was only playable with the number pad of the phones it graced, and that system made almost every game absolutely impossible to control effectively. Add to that the tendency of mobile games to be slow and suffer from massive frame-rate issues (anyone who’s played scaled down conversions of PS2 games will attest to this) and you have a platform which simply cannot function as a gaming device. How on earth did Snake ever become so popular? It’s just a line moving around, trying not to crash into itself.

Proof positive that graphics aren't everything

The answer is simplicity. While other mobile games tried to emulate platform titles or other console staples, Snake stuck to the template of classic arcade games. Fun to try, simple to play and tough to master, it suited quick playing on the go. It also suited high-score attempts which went on for long periods. Mastery of Snake meant missed bus stops, appointments, classes and anything else on a schedule. It remains very, very difficult to put down. Like Centipede or others of their ilk, Snake seems easy. It should be reasonably possible to achieve a very high score, yet it isn’t at all. It’s easy to score in the region of 500, and then it becomes a challenge to even move, let alone collect the ‘food’ which appears on screen. The difficulty of getting further meant that it had a compulsive nature, and the exactness of scoring meant that getting a few more points was always a possibility. Like all classic simple games, Snake is astonishingly addictive. Coupled with the lack of options for other mobile games at the time, and the novelty of gaming without owning a portable console, Snake was the perfect model for success.

It remains the most enjoyable mobile game I’ve ever encountered, and is still extremely playable. It may be simple, and the controls are far from perfect, but they are fine for the task at hand. In fact, they’re better than fine, they work well. Snake is purpose-built and it shows in ways other mobile games never could. Adding a game like Snake to their mobile phones was an incredibly astute move by Nokia, and they deserve a lot of credit for supporting mobile gaming, despite their many subsequent mistakes. Snake remains the pinnacle of mobile gaming for me, it suits the platform, the controls are implemented well, the game is simple and addictive and most importantly, fun. It’s a thrill to play, to the point that I know someone who has held onto his dated Nokia and continued to play Snake on an almost daily basis. There is great longevity in simplicity, and Snake is a shining example of what can be achieved when all the facets of a system are taken into account, and a game built around that. A lot like the amazing 2D games of the Saturn, or the inventive puzzlers of the DS, Snake was chosen with the limitations of its system in mind, and so they never show. This, unfortunately, did not become the template for future gaming on mobile phones until the iPhone, and so mobile phone users were left without a decent replacement for Snake as technology advanced.

Then and Now – Golden Axe

24 Jan

Then:
Golden Axe was one of the true Mega Drive classics as far as my friends and I were concerned. We played this, along with Sonic 2 and Streets of Rage, constantly, arguing over who would play as the dwarf. I remember valiantly fighting my way through the forests and cliffsides, battling nightmarish monsters who were no match for my mighty axe. The fantasy world wasn’t a huge hook for me in most games, but in Golden Axe it filled me with awe and wonder thanks to the unique setting. The game just looked so different to usual side scrollers, which inevitably took place on the mean streets of generic cities. The graphics were great – large, detailed enemies took up plenty of on-screen space, and took a lot more punishment than the thugs Streets of Rage offered. The combat felt intense, and the characters had a weight to them that made them feel much more powerful than other game characters could. In essence, I was Conan the Barbarian, setting off on an epic adventure. Golden Axe was a treat for the imagination, bringing the settings of movies and books to life. It really felt like a world of its own, and that gave it a quality that drew me, and indeed countless others, in. This was a game that really stood out from the crowd. Plus I could ride a dragon and spit fire on enemies, how could it be bad?

Now:
I’m confused, I thought I was powerful, tall, strong, a mighty barbarian in an unjust world. But I’m a damn human-shaped tank. Golden Axe has aged poorly, it’s once gorgeous graphics now look dull and uninspiring. The fantasy world which fuelled my imagination was actually just my imagination. I know graphics have come a long, long way, but great art design is timeless. The art in Golden Axe is truly generic, full of fantasy clichés. The basic enemies repeat ad infinitum, with very occasional change. They come in different colours, and that’s about it. Of course, there are some other enemy types, but the amount of repetition is just ridiculous. The damage needed to knock each enemy down for good is also far too high. It’s not challenging either, just cheap, as you knock one enemy to his knees, attempt to finish him off, only to be blindsided by another generic mace-wielding grunt. I would have turned around, but doing so feels sluggish so it’s inevitably too late by the time I do. Getting to ride one of the beasts that pop up from time to time is far from fun either. I used to love getting on the turkey and wreaking havoc on enemies, but now when I manage to wrest one from the grasp of a buxom Amazonian, she, or another grunt, simply knocks me back off before I can get anywhere.

Maybe I’ve just lost my touch. It’s been a long time since I played Golden Axe for any extended period of time, but I can’t help feeling that I’ve killed a part of the child inside me. Going back to this game I expected to be as glowing as I was about Super Metroid, but I just can’t help hating it. Maybe I’m jaded. There was one level I loved more than any other way back when, it basically consisted of wooden platforms on the back of stone fish. I adored the concept, in fact I still do, but the execution is awful. Aside from the occasional fishy face at the bottom of the screen, it’s as generic as levels come. Brown on grey makes up the background, and the same boring enemies keep coming, and keep taking too long. Even the bosses from the first two levels are repeated, and this is level three. It just seems like laziness on the developer’s part, as does the length of time it takes to kill an enemy. I know I mentioned it already, but it really feels like they wanted to flesh out an incredibly short game by making it tedious.

I’m going to take a moment here and mention my most despised aspect of Golden Axe. The gameplay and graphics may disappoint, but the sound quite simply offends. From the hideous squeals when enemies die, to the pitiful sound as sword meets flesh, to the gentle thud of axe on skull. How this seemed like visceral, raw and brutal combat, even in 1990, bemuses me. The sound really detracts from the action, as the swing of a sword sounds robotic and digital. I can’t become immersed in a game when every time I do something, I’m reminded that I’m playing a game, not battling my way through a world of adventure. Nothing in Golden Axe draws me in, it’s just below par in every respect in comparison to similar titles. Streets of Rage has a superior, more intuitive combat system, Comix Zone boasts a wonderfully executed and gorgeous art design, and those are just two examples. I’m starting to wonder if Golden Axe gained popularity entirely because of its inclusion in the Mega Games compilation.

There is one aspect of Golden Axe that still holds some appeal. 2-player co-op. The same enemies which frustrate now fall faster and there are no back-attacks with a friend keeping you safe. Most of the cheapness is negated. The fact that each boss has a twin is no longer a source of incredible irritation, but a necessity. Fighting over who rides the dragon is still as bitter as ever, and rows will still break out when you’re unceremoniously booted from its saddle by player 2. The camp enemies and ridiculous female characters soon become a source of amusement, as the game takes on that novelty appeal that bad action movies have. In fact, Golden Axe has aged like the movie that so obviously inspired it, Conan: The Barbarian. It seemed great in its time, but now it’s fairly awful – yet with a few friends can become a huge amount of fun. If only to laugh at.

The RAGE – Retro Game Shop in Dublin

20 Jan

The R.A.G.E. – Record, Art and Game Emporium
16b Fade St.
Dublin 2

In what used to be road records on Dublin’s Fade Street, a new record store has opened, and it has a small section devoted to retro games. Considering Dublin’s only retro game shop has some of the biggest mark-ups I’ve ever encountered I expected little, but gave the place a chance nonetheless.

As I said, the games section is small (in case you’re interested, there’s a nice selection of vinyl from some really great bands, as well as tapes, cds as turntables) but there are plenty of titles packed in. No CD games present, except for one for the Mega CD. This is purely devoted to the finest of Nintendo and Sega’s early output. There were far more Mega Drive games than any others, but the smaller selections for NES, Master System, SNES and N64 were quite good, with many better known games for sale, instead of the usual shelf after shelf of FIFA variants. At a glance I spotted: Super Mario Kart, Sonic 1,2 and 3, Streets of Rage, Mario 64, Mega Man 2 and most of the best games for each console. The only games lacking were some of the older Mario titles and any Zelda, which is forgivable, they probably sold out on the opening day.

Behind the counter were boxed SNES, Mega Drive, Master System and Mega CD consoles, as well as plenty of pads and accessories for all the available consoles. The prices were also great for a bricks and mortar shop. Most games were €10 or less, with only a few boxed or rarer games above that price. Mario Kart was €15, but that was to be expected. I picked up F-Zero X for the N64 for €7, a boxed copy of Tetris and Dr. Mario for the SNES for €8 and an official SNES pad, amongst a few other things.

The staff are really friendly and helpful, which definitely encourages the customer to return. He told me the games are selling well and he plans to get more in, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you fancy starting a retro collection, or expanding one. The boxed consoles are €50, and unboxed €35, which is very reasonable for a shop, especially with the added bonus of having somewhere to return anything faulty to, and the option to test games out. There’s a full section of test consoles, so you can try before you buy, a very nice touch. They also put on small gigs and EP/album launches for local acts, so there’s plenty more to enjoy than games.

Best thing about the place though, I got a free carrier bag with a Mario mushroom logo on it (pic below). It’s the little things that make a shop great, especially independent places like that, and while it’s sad to see Road out of business, it’s good to see something else unique replace it.

If you want to visit, the address is 16b Fade St., Dublin 2
Or you can find the Rage on facebook here