Category Archives: Gaming

Am I the Only One Who Remembers… Blinky’s Scary School

In the spirit (awful pun intended) of Hallowe’en, I thought I’d pen this missive about a game most people probably won’t remember: Blinky’s Scary School. A budget title for the C64 and other formats released by Zeppelin Games in 1990, Blinky was never destined for greatness, but perhaps deserves a little bit more recognition than it now has.

Blinky's Scary School
Blinky and the cauldron he will use to cause chaos and disruption throughout the realm. Well, the flick-screen castle at any rate.

The eponymous Blinky is a ghost undergoing his final exam at Scary School. The school’s curriculum seems to require a practical exam to finish the course, as Blinky is tasked with causing a fright to Hamish McTavish, current denizen of Drumtrochie Castle. Blinky has one night to accomplish his task, otherwise he’ll have to wait one hundred years for his next chance to resit the exam. Seems rather harsh to me, but presumably none of this is properly regulated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

At first sight it’s easy to dismiss Blinky’s Scary School as a Dizzy wannabe, especially since the main character sprite looks so similar (even down to the red boots). In actuality, the style of the game is different. There is some light puzzle-solving and object collection, but this is more of a very, very light Metroidvania title, albeit minus any of the RPG elements. Blinky collects objects to create potions that grant him a handful of extra powers, such as being able to transform into a bubble and move underwater, allowing him to get to previously inaccessible areas. There’s a lot of platforming involved too, and many more nefarious beasties lurking around the castle than you’d find in your typical Dizzy title.

Graphically the game is neat, although nothing to write home about. The C64 version at least stands above the Dizzy games in that it makes better use of the hardware. It’s a flick-screen adventure, but movement between screens is nice and fluid. Blinky himself is remarkably expressive for a collection of 8-bit pixels, and the animation (where it exists) is neat. If anything, Blinky is too cute. How on Earth he’s meant to terrify anybody when he looks so adorable I’ve no idea. You’re more likely to want to pick him up and give him cuddles than you are scream at the top of your lungs and frenetically Google the nearest exorcist. He also doesn’t look anything in-game like he appears on the cover. The boxart shows what appears to be a picture of Casper the Friendly Ghost drawn by someone coming down from several days of heady drug use. Somewhere in the transition between the box and the game itself he appears to have lost all his limbs and discarded his red nose.

Blinky features many of the problems that early games (particularly budget releases) are known for. There are deaths caused by elements that can only be known about through trial and error, enemy sprites that are unavoidable due to their appearance at the edges of screens, jumps requiring pixel-precision, and more. Still, this is all par for the course given the era it comes from and everything is livable with.

Blinky's Scary School
In scenes of sheer horror, Blinky can use toilets to teleport throughout the castle. No explanation of how this works is forthcoming.

I always felt that Zeppelin wanted Blinky to become a mascot for the company and the presence of a sequel – Titanic Blink– seems to confirm that a little. Sadly I don’t think either title ever performed as well as the company hoped, either critically or financially. Reviews at the time were pretty average, I seem to recall. A shame, really, as with a little most investment of time and imagination it could have been a decent series. Still, if Bubsy the sodding Bobcat can come back from obscurity maybe it isn’t too late…

If you happen upon it via emulator or similar, Blinky’s Scary School is worth a play. It’s a diverting little game that won’t take you long to finish; I remember completing it as a kid, so it can’t be that difficult, and a ‘longplay’ of the game on YouTube sees someone polishing it off in about fifteen minutes. It won’t change your life, but it might just raise a smile.

[Pictures courtesy of MobyGames].

On… Dragon Quest Heroes

Even if you didn’t know a thing about the Dragon Quest series, and wouldn’t know a JRPG if it hit you in the face with an amnesiac spiky-haired protagonist, Dragon Quest Heroes gives away its Japanese origins with its unwieldy subtitle: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below. It does make sense and has a bit of a poetic charm to it, but it may as well scream ‘I’m a Japanese video game!’ when you open the box.

Dragon Quest Heroes 1
The king spends half the game laughing at things that just aren’t funny.

Heroes is, like Hyrule Warriors before it (and the forthcoming – at the time of writing – Fire Emblem Warriors), a retooling of the Dynasty Warriors games. This is a series that is based around epic battles with hordes of enemies, overpowered attacks, multiple player characters and much mashing of the square button. If that sounds a bit reductive then, well, perhaps that’s because at its heart Dragon Quest Heroes is a very simple game. If you come into this expecting an RPG like The Witcher 3 then you’re going to be disappointed. Which would be a shame since, actually, DQH is pretty damned good.

Although it’s hard to say why.

It certainly isn’t the story. The plotline is serviceable enough, but is filled one-note characters and features a villain so pantomime-esque that he actually has a sinister curly moustache. You never feel any actual tension as it’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen throughout, and the story is obviously there to provide an excuse for the action. It’s fortunate, then, that the actual playing of the game is great fun. The gameplay loop centres around venturing forth into multiple levels and, basically, kicking the crap out of anything that moves. This turns out to be amazing fun.

Controls are straightforward and fluid, with some customisation to allow for a more strategic mode as opposed to the standard button-mashing layout. No matter which you opt for, there’s plenty of special moves to choose from over the multiple characters both available initially and unlockable as the game progresses. These range from standard versions of Dragon Quest staples such as Sizzle or Crack, to Final Fantasy limit break style attacks that see you do such things as transform into dragons, cast energy vortexes or summon sabrecats to attack your enemies.

Dragon Quest Heroes - 2
See? Here he goes again. I never managed to work out what he was laughing at.

The character roster consists of a selection of characters from mainline DQ titles along with some original characters. There are two main player characters, one male, one female. Whilst you can play as both throughout, you choose at the start your primary character and it’s from their perspective that you experience the game (though if you choose to play as Luceus rather than Aurora, you’ve basically stumped for the most annoying character). The main characters play pretty much the same bar some cosmetic differences, but there’s plenty of variety in the other characters. You have tanks such as Doric, ranged warriors such as Bianca, and magic wielders such as Nerys. The game doesn’t force you to play in a particular way so you can adjust your team of four to suit your play style (though arguably some characters are more overpowered than others).

The game looks lovely, too. The Akira Toriyama design motifs of the series are made to look beautiful on the PS4, with beautifully animated character models and special effects that, whilst they do get a bit tired after the hundredth viewing, never cease to impress. Aurally the game provides a treat for fans of the series, with various remixes of familiar tunes along with some decent original compositions. Voice-acting is pretty terrible, although I can’t help feeling that the DQ scripts are best read quietly in your own head anyway.

DQH isn’t without flaws, of course. Aside from the aforementioned storyline, the major problem is the pacing. The main plot funnels you along a pretty linear path and, whilst there are lots of sub-quests, these are all pretty inconsequential until just before the final battle when you get swamped with a heap of character-based side stories (some of which I couldn’t actually get to complete). This really is quite poor as, by that point, I was pretty much ready to finish the game, but felt that I should do the character stories. Sadly they don’t really add up to much or provide much in the way of insight into the characters, and as such they just feel like unnecessary padding.

The mission variety is slim as well, and there are just far too many ‘tower defence’ type quests where you have to stop hordes of enemies from attacking structures or NPCs with health-bars that are too small. These quickly become frustrating, especially when guarding a character who keeps deciding to throw themselves at enemies. Thankfully the game isn’t too difficult, particularly if you do a bit of side-content to keep your character level up, so you shouldn’t find yourself having to repeatedly fight the same battles again and again. Towards the end-game these ‘protect the idiot’ style missions really do become the gaming equivalent of someone scraping their nails across a blackboard, though, and you begin to loathe the prospect of playing another one.

I haven’t played a proper Dynasty Warriors game, but have seen enough of them and played the likes of Hyrule Warriors to know that Dragon Quest Heroes seems to remove a bit of the strategy from the formula. This is very much an action RPG, with that ‘action’ italicised, embolded, underlined and put inside <blink> tags. You do have to consider the placement of monster minions (friendly creatures you can summon to your side) and how you move around the battlefield, but by and large it’s all about the fighting.

And sometimes, that simplicity is a good thing.

Dragon Quest Heroes isn’t the kind of game that will change your life. It is, however, fun to play and an extremely diverting use of your time.

On… The Last of Us (and Left Behind)

Warning: Some spoilers for The Last of Us and its DLC Left Behind below!

A mere three years after buying it, I’ve finally got around to completing The Last of Us. Since its original PS3 release in 2014, this has widely been held up as a masterpiece of a video game; a high-water-mark in interactive storytelling. So, what did I think of it? Well…

In short, this title deserves all the praise it gets. I’ve been playing video games for longer than I care to remember, and never have I seen such a brilliantly-realised story and group of characters. Set in a United States ravaged by a fungal infection that turns people into zombies in all but name, The Last of Us rises above the somewhat pulpy background and shows us a world not so much dying as gone beyond the control of man. This is a harsh world, filled with people who have had their humanity stripped from them by circumstance and the need to survive. Everything feeds into this, from the visceral combat that is miles away from its Hollywood-style counterpart in developer Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, to the brutality of the art direction.

You never feel comfortable in the world of The Last of Us. Even in quieter moments, there is a sense that there is some horror behind the next corner. This isn’t a game reliant on jump scares or ghastly monsters to instil disquiet; this is much more about controlled atmosphere and wonderful pacing.

“You know, Ellie, we really are the last of us.”

Really, it’s the characters that bring The Last of Us to life. The burgeoning relationship between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, is so believable and coupled with so much emotional investment that you find yourself oddly distraught in those moments when you fall to a group of infected. Who will look after Ellie now? Thankfully, we don’t have to worry too much as game overs just restart you at the last checkpoint.

Joel isn’t a typical hero. In fact, without spoiling too much of the storyline, he isn’t really a hero at all. He’s a man haunted by his past and shaped into a blunt instrument by the world around him. As a father, it’s easy to identify with the pain he goes through and the choices he makes, leading you to question your own morality.

Ellie, 14 years old at the start, is probably the most wonderfully realised character in any video game to this point. She has known no world other than the post-epidemic one, but yet still sees things with the hope and optimism of youth. The game is really about her journey, even though the majority of the playtime is with Joel, both in a physical sense and an emotional one. Her reactions to the world, in cut-scenes and during gameplay, are so believable that sometimes it’s difficult to remember that she’s only an interactive, scripted character. She seems so real at times, and as a player you develop a palpable need to protect her. I defy anyone not to feel even the slightest of lip quivers the first time Joel calls her ‘baby girl’.

I went into The Last of Us expecting this to be a better story than a game. Whilst there’s no doubt that the narrative would work as a movie (given some appropriate trimming) or TV series, what Naughty Dog have managed to do is take advantage of the immersion you can only get with a video game to help raise The Last of Us above the level of an interactive film. By taking part in the events of the game, you truly feel involved in what’s happening, despite the fact that this isn’t an open-ended RPG with moral choices. The game is linear, but never really feels it. There’s a lot of being funneled down different corridors (in the literal and metaphorical senses) but, for the most part, you never feel confined.

I have to admit that it isn’t always an enjoyable game. This isn’t a title you can relax or unwind with, and the events that occur within it are emotionally exhausting at times. The world is a nasty one, punctuated by only a few moments of sunlight, and the people within it are often brutal. It’s telling, really, that for a game ostensibly featuring ‘zombies’, the real enemies come in the form of normal people. So, no, don’t go into this expecting an easy time of it; I also mean that in a gameplay sense, as even on lower difficulty settings this can be a tough game.

Look at how realistic that water is. Look at it!

Left Behind, bundled with the game in the remastered version I played, is a companion DLC that both fills in a gap in the main storyline and also provides something of a prequel to Ellie’s story in it. I won’t go into this too much, except to say that it is fantastic. In many ways, this might be better than the main game, though it can’t really be played in isolation. The running length is quite short: I completed it in around two hours. This is perfect, however; it really benefits from playing in a single sitting. The story it tells has no less impact than that of the main game, even though it does it in a fraction of the time. By focusing on a younger Ellie as well, it also allows you to explore the world more through the eyes of a young adult and, as such, has in places a lighter tone that contrasts well with the main storyline. The only slight criticism you could throw at it is that the relatively few combat sections feel just a bit forced. I’m not sure that they were needed, though I can understand why it was felt that they probably should be included.

The Last of Us, then, is magnificent. Not, perhaps, a game that you would find yourself replaying often, but one that I imagine will resonate in the mind for a long time to come.

Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… Through the Trap Door (C64)

Having being playing games for longer than I care to remember, I’ve been unfortunate to play some really, really shit ones. Particularly back in the C64 era, there was some real crappy titles that were released. Things like The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space MutantsSanta’s Christmas Caper and Boot Camp (AKA Combat School) stick out for me, but the one game that always comes to mind when thinking of the utterly worst game I’ve ever played is Through the Trap Door.

Oh no, where’s Boney gone! Do we stage a rescue or go and find a better game instead?

For those too young to remember, The Trap Door was a stop-motion animated series voiced by Willie Rushton and featuring an amorphous blue blob named Berk. He was the resident dogsbody in an un-named castle, working for the never-seen-Thing Upstairs, who was constantly hungry and bellowing. Aided by the disembodied skull Boney and the spider Drutt, the series followed Berk’s attempts to placate his master whilst trying to remember (and usually failing) to keep the titular trap-door closed, lest one of the many terrifying monsters from below should escape. Which they usually did.

Two 8-bit games were released based on the series. The first – simply named The Trap Door – was published in 1986 by Piranha Software. Written by Don Priestly and featuring his trademark ‘giant sprite’ style, The Trap Door was actually a pretty good adventure game. A little slow, perhaps – particularly in its C64 conversion – but entertaining and very reminiscent of the TV series. Most games of the time based on TV shows bore very little resemblance to their subject matter (*cough* Thundercats *cough*), but The Trap Door did make you feel like you were playing an episode.

Two years later, the sequel – Through the Trap Door – was published. It was shit.

Part of me just wants to end there, but I feel I should elucidate a bit. The concept behind Through the Trap Door was actually a pretty good one. Who amongst we children who watched the show back in the now rather dim and distant past didn’t at one point wonder what exactly was beneath that trap door? The story (such as it was) saw Boney being kidnapped by some skeletal-bat-thing and taken beneath the trap door for some no-doubt nefarious purpose. It is thus up to Bert and Drutt to venture forth and rescue their friend from the clutches of the aforementioned skeletal-bat-thing that I don’t think had a name.

And it’s here where the problems start. Mainly because this is where the game starts.

A giant green bat-thing, a yellow frog-thing that’s supposed to be a spider and a white key-thing that is, for some unexplained reason, hovering high in the air.

The biggest issue I have with the game are the controls. As total mismatches between game style and control schemes go, I don’t think there is a better example than this. Bert controls exactly as he did in the first game – slow and clumsily. This wasn’t as much of a problem in the original Trap Door as that was more of a puzzle adventure game, where careful consideration was crucial. Through the Trap Door is much more of standard platformer, with a few puzzle elements scattered throughout. There’s a lot of avoiding enemies and make pixel-perfect jumps, and the big, fat (though admittedly nicely animated) Berk sprite just isn’t up to it. Controlling him feels constantly like you’re trying to convince a reluctant hippopotamus to climb some stairs.

But Berk is a dream to play as in comparison to Drutt. The little gray spider is here (again, as in the first game) reimagined as a yellow blob that looks more like a frog than anything else. He moves faster than Berk but – and here’s the rub – he is constantly moving by himself, normally to chase down one of the worms that frequently appear on the screen. Even when you’re controlling him, he has a mind of his own, and one that seems to have a predilection for falling down giant pits. Which is rather unfortunate, really, as what seems to below the trap-door are a lot of pits, along with terrible collision detection. I’ve seen people complaining about the annoyances caused by Trico in last year’s The Last Guardian but trust me, he has nothing on Drutt. Play as him for longer than six seconds and you’ll want to smash the keyboard to smithereens. But don’t, kids.

Controls aside, the other main problem with Through the Trap Door is just that it’s so damned hard. To clarify that a bit, I’m not complaining here about the difficulty itself – a lot of good games are hard – but with this game the toughness comes through the fault of the game rather than purposeful design and the need to acquire a particular skill-set that you build up over the course of playing. Through the Trap Door is hard because of the awful controls and the fact that it’s so utterly obtuse. I never made it past about the fourth screen, but having watched a complete playthrough on YouTube I can say that there is just no way I would have been able to figure out some of the puzzles as a kid, even assuming I’d had the patience to make it all the way through (which I haven’t even now).

You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to get Drutt to stop on this ledge without either running off-screen or leaping into the pit.

Perhaps worst of all the crimes the game commits, though, is how it squanders its premise and how utterly disappointing it is. Some games are never going to amount to much; at no point was infamous Atari title ET: The Extra-Terrestrial ever going to be anything other than a steaming pile of dung. There are chinks of light here that suggest this could have been more. The graphics, simplistic backgrounds aside, are crisp and well-animated. The game is, for the time, reasonably sizable. But it’s all for naught, as all the bad things get in the way. You’ll never appreciate the graphics because you’re be too busy swearing at the screen as Drutt starts running to the left even though you’re telling him to go right. You’ll never see most of the game has to offer because your frustrations will stop you from making it too far.

Yes, Through the Trap Door is, on reflection, the worst game I’ve ever played.

Probably.

[Thanks to MobyGames for the cover image for this blog. I couldn’t get the loading screen to appear in my emulated version… Taken from http://www.mobygames.com/game/c64/through-the-trap-door/screenshots/gameShotId,276794/ .]

I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today Without… Frontier: Elite II

Back in the dark age of computer games, when having a ‘multi-screen adventure’ was something to shout about on the back of a cassette tape inlay, along came a game called Elite that changed peoples’ perceptions of the possible. It’s hard to understand the impact the game had at the time, but if you just look at the influence it still has some thirty-odd years later, you might begin to grasp its significance.

Okay, okay: it doesn’t look great these days but you had to be there. I have no idea who Len is, incidentally.

I did play the original Elite (I had a copy on the NES, of all things) but it’s the sequel, Frontier, that I remember most fondly. Released in 1992 on the PC, ST and Amiga, Frontier basically took everything that was great about the original – the freedom, the expansive Universe – and dialed it up to eleven. Freed from the memory constraints of 8-bit computers, author David Braben created in Frontier a game that featured a singular open world (well, galaxy technically) long before the likes of Grand Theft Auto came along and popularised the concept.

You could travel to Earth, Barnard’s Star, Arcturus and thousands upon thousands more places that I can’t remember the names of, on a map intricately plotted based on real observations of the Milky Way. Apparently, anyway: I’m too stupid and ignorant to know if they were lying.

What really made Frontier stand out for me was the setting. Like many of the ‘big-box’ titles of the time, Frontier came with an extensive manual and also a copy of ‘Stories of Life on the Frontier’, a separate collection of short stories that provided some insights into the game’s world, particularly the conflict between the two galactic superpowers of the Federation and the Empire. Throughout the game you could choose to ally yourself with either faction (or both, if you wanted to be a double-crossing sneaky sneakster), completing missions for them that would raise a rank with them that was separate to your ‘Elite rating’ that gives the series its name. Higher faction ranks resulted in more dangerous missions which would reap higher monetary rewards. A bit like real-life, really, but with more lasers.

In truth, there wasn’t actually that much to do in Frontier. There were lots of missions available through the bulletin boards of the game’s various space stations and planetary bases, but the variety of these was limited to a few different types, such as ferrying passengers, delivering packages or assassinations. This didn’t matter, though: it seemed that there was a universe of possibilities through your TV screen. The procedural generation Frontier employed (again, long before the term was in common use) was clever enough to allow you to suspend your disbelief, and make it feel that everything was hand-crafted. If you’re interested in the technicalities of it all, go and look at jongware.com who have some great articles exploring it.

Bulletin boards were always full of missions and images of ugly people in strange hats.

The Amiga version that I played is, like many early 3D games, almost next to unplayable now for the modern palate. The graphics, which at the time seemed revolutionary, now look so abstract with their lack of texture mapping and horrendous jagged edges that its like being in an explosion at a geometry factory. On the hardware I played it on as well, the frame-rate can plummet in planetary locations to figures you could count on one hand, if not one finger. Space combat – honestly, never Frontier’s strongest aspect – now feels barely controllable.

None of this really matters, I guess: Frontier was amazing at the time and helped cement my love of science-fiction. I distinctly remember reading and re-reading the manuals and fiction book, buildinmg up a world in my mind. This was a game designed in some ways for the teenager, with free time coming out of their pimples. I’m not sure, even if it looked and controlled better, that I’d have the patience to play this nowadays. Frontier and – I assume – its successors such as the modern Elite: Dangerous – are games that reward a time investment that I just couldn’t commit to now.

For a time, though, Frontier was to me the greatest game ever made. Well, maybe apart from Super Mario Bros. 3. And that intro sequence will stay with me forever. I haven’t got my own video of it, so here’s one by YouTuber Trypsonite:

Note: All images in this post are from MobyGames.

Am I the Only One Who Remembers… DreamWeb

As a grizzled old man, I’m fortunate enough to remember the early days of video gaming, and looking across the gamult of its history, you can see easily a pattern that represents the growth of a man. From the early infantile days of Pong to the modern age, which in some ways seems like an early 30-year-old, clinging on to the last strands of youth. As with most things, if you look hard enough you can see the metaphor.

Lying firmly in the awkward adolescent phase is DreamWeb. The game tries so hard to be edgy it lacerates itself. As if to prove just how goddamn adult it is, the original game came packaged with a ‘Diary of a Madman’ book providing some backstory to the game, written in an authentic crazy-man scrawl font. You can tell it gets crazier towards the end as the font gets bigger AND THE AUTHOR STARTS WRITING IN CAPITALS, A PRACTICE LEFT SOLELY TO THE MENTALLY UNBALANCED. The game features violence, gore, swearing and even a sex scene.

Yes, a sex scene. In a 1994 video game. It is precisely as titilating as you would imagine.

Which is odd, because in the cutscene before the DreamWeb was shown to be circular. Time to go back to Geometry 101, red-cloak-wearing-dude.

DreamWeb tries so, so hard to be cool that, in doing so, it forgets it has to be a video game as well. In my pre-blog research I’ve seen DreamWeb described as ‘one of the greatest cyberpunk games ever made’. It isn’t. It barely manages to be one of the greatest games called ‘DreamWeb.’

Eden is your improbably-named girlfriend who really could do better for herself than a bartender who thinks he’s the ‘Deliverer’.

The gameplay consists of scanning your mouse over the fairly samey-looking overhead dystopia, using the games magnifier to find pixel-wide interactive areas. There are puzzles to solve and people to talk to, of course. You play the part of Ryan Cantrememberhissecondname, who is either a mentally unhinged psychopath or the one chosen by the mystical eponymous DreamWeb to save the world. Which, of course, he just happens to do be brutally murdering several people. Apparently they going to commit some heinous event at some point, or something. It’s hard to care, to be honest. There’s some interest to be had at the start in plotting the initial assassinations, but you’re stuck on a very linear path and there’s no scope for improvisation. This is an adventure game, ultimately, and you do what it tells you to. By the time you reach the latter stages of the game, everything seems so rushed that you half suspect the developers got a bit bored with it all too.

The problem with dystopian near-future worlds is that they can be very difficult to get right without appearing trite or unbelievable. DreamWeb doesn’t, to be fair to it, fall into this trap, but the unfortunately the world it presents just has no soul. Even with the decently-written ‘Diary of a Madman’ backstory taken into account (which obviously you shouldn’t, because it’s not in the game), it’s not fleshed out enough for you to care about the detail. But then, there isn’t an air of intrigue or mystery about it either. The characters are mostly anonymous or, particularly in the case of the protagonist, hard to care about. There was never a sequel, and I can’t imagine than many would to revisit this world.

She’s probably wondering if she’ll ever get a job in a better game.

Today, DreamWeb is pretty much forgotten. If it is remembered at all, it’s because of the sex scene – a first for a ‘mainstream’ game at the time. I seem to recall that, when it was released, that was pretty much the main selling point too. Nowadays it seems remarkably tame; nothing more than a shuffle of fleshy-coloured pixels.

If you’re after a retro steampunk adventure, seek out the likes of Beneath a Steel Sky or Westwood’s brilliant 1997 Blade Runner game instead. Leave DreamWeb where it belongs: in the broom closet of forgotten games.

 

Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… C64 Thundercats

If you were a child of the ’80s like myself, you will remember Thundercats. Ohboyohboyohboy, Thundercats was fantastic. It had everything you could want in a cartoon series: action, cool characters, a brilliantly scary bad guy, Cheetara (although perhaps only later was that quite so appealing). And, of course, it had that theme tune. For these who can’t remember, this is how every episode of Thundercats started off:


I mean, honestly. Everything about that (well, apart from Snarf) just screams excitement, adventure and other cool things. Even now just watching it makes me tingle weirdly inside, and not just from the sight of Cheetara doing all those gymnastics.

Thundercats was pretty massive in the 80s; perhaps not up to the popularity levels of Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but certainly there weren’t many kids who hadn’t watched it or owned some of the toys. And, of course, in the 1980s where there was a successful cartoon series and toy line, there was also a home computer platformer.

To give it it’s due, for the standards of the time this wasn’t an awful game, it was just – in the context of the show – utterly, utterly disappointing. Just go and watch that intro sequence again. Go on, I’ll wait for you. Now watch this:


I mean, honestly. It’s just shit, isn’t it? How disappointed would a 10-year-old boy be having rushed back from the shops tape in hand, to sit around waiting for the game to load for 30 minutes only to be confronted with this? Well, as one of those 10-year-old boys (at the time. Not now, obviously) I can tell you: very.

The game, released by Elite Software is a clumsy mess of a title, with stupidly high difficulty, frustrating controls and an utter lack of purpose. There’s a bit of variety with some of the glider sections, but these are so difficult to control and play they make those infamous tunnel bits in Battletoads seem forgiving in comparison. In the quick emulated replay I did for this post, I couldn’t get far enough to get to one of these bits, but luckily the nice people over at MobyGames haven’t lost all of the muscle memory they accrued for the title, so there’s a screenshot below. Looks great, doesn’t it? No. No is the answer.

He’ll be dead in approximately five seconds.

It’s only whilst writing this that, having stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry for the game, I discovered that this was never meant to actually be a Thundercats title, but is actually a hastily-reskinned game called Samurai Dawn. This goes some way to explaining why it just isn’t very Thundercats-y, some graphical motifs aside.

Ultimately, Thundercats is not a very good computer game. Okay, okay: this was 1987 and standards were different then and, perhaps, nothing could really come close to the expectations I had from the cartoon. But still, the license deserved better. And still does, really. A quick Google suggests that the only other released game based on the franchise is a 2012 Nintendo DS game, which takes its cues from the prematurely-cancelled 2011 cartoon reboot (which, incidentally, if you haven’t watched then you should: it’s great) and, apparently, is also shit. Jaga will be turning in his grave.

On… Mass Effect Andromeda

Let’s get this out of the way from the start: the facial animations haven’t bothered me in the slightest. Okay, okay, character models seemed more detailed in the likes of The Witcher 3 but, a ‘dead eyes’ problem aside, Mass Effect Andromeda is perfectly serviceable in this regard. It could be better, yes, but it’s nowhere near as bad as some people might make you think.

So, anyway, with that out of the way, let’s talk Andromeda. As a huge fan of the previous games in the series I was awaiting this with breath so baited I could have used it to catch perch. Am I disappointed, like many people seem to be? No. Yes. No. Maybe. Look, it’s complicated. Maybe the best way to look at Andromeda is to consider not what it is, but what it isn’t.

Just give me a car and a a desert, and I’ll give you a lot of ‘wheeeee’s and some tyre-tracks.

Andromeda isn’t Mass Effect 4. Well, I mean, it is, obviously, but it also isn’t. The fictional universe is very much Mass Effect but the story doesn’t follow on from the ending of ME3. Rather, this follows a separate story of a group of humans, turians, salarians, asari and krogan who have decided that the Milky Way is a bit too cramped for them, and thus decided to bugger off to the nearby-in-galactic-terms-but-not-exactly-next-door Andromeda galaxy. After six hundred years of cryogenic sleep, the hardy (and some not-so-hardy) pioneers awake to find that their long-range scans seem to have been about as accurate as a ten-day weather forecast, and crash headlong into a weird wibbly-wobbly space thingy that someone had inconveniently parked in their way.

This is much more a game about exploration and discovery, and as a result perhaps lacks the focus of the original trilogy with it’s more obvious threat and narrative drive. This, I think, is likely to turn a few people off but, for more, I found it a refreshing change of pace from the original titles.

Andromeda also isn’t an open-world game. This is no Skyrim or The Witcher 3 with vast open areas to explore and do as you wish. The game very much takes its cues from Bioware’s last major release, Dragon Age Inquisition, with its multitude of large-ish open areas with multiple quests. Some of the quests are interesting and provide a decent back-story, but, it must be said, a few too many of them revert to the MMORPG form of ‘go here, press a button, go there, press the button again, repeat eight times until the quest progress bar is full’. Compared to the likes of The Witcher 3 or even, to a lesser extent, Fallout 4 the side-quests can be pretty weak.

The game suffers a little bit from a lack of places to explore. Whether it’s just because I haven’t reached the appropriate point in the game yet (though given that I’m 20-odd hours into it that seems unlikely), but whilst there is a big number of worlds that can be visited in the not-quite-as-good-as-the-Normandy-but-still-pretty-cool-Tempest, the majority of these cannot be explored on foot. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not for the fact that the whole emphasis of the game is on exploration and finding a new home, yet you find yourself restricted by a set of rules hidden behind the scenes. Why is it I can land on this frozen planet but not this other one? The answer, probably, is just because a map exists for one and not the other. I realise it would have been incredibly difficult to implement, but just from the perspective of the game as a whole, procedural-generation of planets allowing them to be explorable, even if there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done there, would have improved the game massively.

See that mountain in the distance? You can’t go there.

Finally, Andromeda also isn’t a fully-tested game. Even in the patch version 1.05 that landed (at time of writing) yesterday, there are still issues. Most annoying for me, playing on PS4 Pro, are the occasionally-strobing menu backgrounds and the almost-five-minute waiting times when loading a save that took place whilst in the Nomad all-terrain-vehicle. I’ve not yet encountered anything that fundamentally breaks the game, nor had any crashes, but I can’t help feeling that another two weeks in the oven would have benefited the title.

Still, even after all that, Mass Effect Andromeda is a very good game. The combat is the best it’s ever been, even if the more ‘open’ nature of the game means that there are fewer set-piece combat moments where everything has been tuned to work together. Ryder is a likeable protagonist, with a more fleshed-out background than Shepard had in the original trilogy. I’ve not played enough of the game yet to fully comment on the storyline, but of what I have played I’ve found it decent enough and, as mentioned earlier, a good thematic change from the previous games.

TL;DR: If you liked Mass Effects 1-3 you will like this. You might not love it, and it certainly isn’t as good as it’s predecessors, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

On… Final Fantasy XV

The last time I had a new, main-entry Final Fantasy game was when my daughter was born. Almost seven years later, FFXV has come along following a development process that sounds so painful that it makes me gladder than ever that I’m not in the games industry.

At this point I haven’t completed FFXV yet but, at some 40-odd hours in, I feel sufficiently armed to provide a bit of an assessment of it. And, just to give some context to the whole thing (and because the last time I wrote something about a Final Fantasy game I almost got lynched), let’s be clear that I’ve got a pretty good history with the series: I’ve played almost every main entry from FFIII to XV, can tell my chocobos from my moogles, and own enough related merchandise that I could probably be considered a ‘fan-boy’. That said, I hated FFXIII when it came out and, though my opinions have changed somewhat since then, I do feel that at some point the series has lost its way. There was a sense of magic and fun about an entry like FFIX that somehow seems to have been lost.

I was hopeful going into FFXV that it might mark a return to form. After 40 hours, do I think it does? Well…

First things first: the game has obviously been a labour of love for the development team, who have poured their hearts and souls into this; that much is obvious. What’s also unfortunately obvious is that, despite the game’s lengthy incubation period, it probably just needed a few months or another year more in the oven. Some things are blatantly unfinished: the story is a jumble of plot-holes, with pivotal events happening off-screen and mentioned only in passing. Major characters get little or no character development, committing actions that seemingly have no motivation behind them. The open-world is large but mostly barren, and strewn with invisible walls that make navigating it an inconsistently frustrating experience. Sub-quests are plentiful, but rarely become much more involved than the standard formula of ‘go-here-do-this-come-back’. In that sense they’re very similar to those of Xenoblade Chronicles, though at least that title had the good grace to remove the necessity to return back to the quest giver for a reward.

For all this, though, FFXV is an experience that should not be missed if you have any kind of interest in the series. There are some wonderful facets to it: the combat system is frenetic and fun (if slightly shallower than it initially seems); the world is amazingly detailed; and there are just so many little touches throughout the title that it will bury its way into your heart.

Crucially, it’s the central relationship between the four main characters that defines the game. You play as Prince Noctis, and you begin with a retinue of three other characters: Ignis; Prompto; and Gladiolus. Unlike previous FF titles, this remains pretty much the extent of your party for the entire game. Whilst at first this seems a bit disappointing, the camaraderie you build up with the others means that you legitimately care for them.

Well, except for Gladiolus. He’s just an arse.

In many ways FFXV is frustrating, because it’s obvious it could have been so much more. There are so many weird decisions made during its development that sometimes you just sit back and wonder what they were thinking about. Who, for instance, thought it was a good idea to have the majority of travel in the game take place during unskippable car journeys that take literal minutes of real-time? Who decided there shouldn’t be an option to ‘wait’ and rush through the day-night cycle when so many quests and monster hunts are only possible at certain times? Who decided those bloody frog-catching quests were a good idea?

FFXV is a work of artistic genius, and, like all such things, has idiosyncrasies that are mitigated by the brilliance elsewhere. It could have been a better game, but as it stands it is a great experience.

On… Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for Deux Ex: Mankind Divided.

Adam Jensen, antagonist of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this it’s sequel, is cool. He looks cool, what with his black trench coat, carbon-fibre death arms and beard so pointy you could cut glass with it. He sounds cool, too, with his delivery drier than the surface of Mars. In fact, he’s probably a bit too cool for his own good, as he often comes across as more an impartial observer of humanity than someone invested in it.

Maybe that’s deliberate: a comment perhaps on how Jensen, augmented with so many cybernetic implants that he’s got more physically in common with a toaster than you or I, has had a portion of his humanity taken away. Or perhaps it’s a way of providing players with a cipher that doesn’t attempt to stamp too much personality onto proceedings.

Whatever the reasoning (if there is one), Jensen’s attitude highlights one of the main problems with Mankind Divided, which otherwise does so much to fix the problems of Human Revolution and emphasise what it did right. On the positive side, this is a game that excels in providing player agency and freedom to make progress the way you want to. Pretty much every scenario in the game has multiple routes to completion. The more gung-ho of us can rattle through the levels obliterating opponents with a mixture of gunfire and augment-enhanced melee, whilst those more inclined to a sneaky-sneakster approach can hide in air vents, surprising enemies with a whack to the head or a tranquiliser dart between the eyes. Where Mankind Divided really shines is not just with the sheer number of options available, but how easily you can shift your strategy as scenarios change. Whilst the AI isn’t always wholly convincing, it does a decent job and the gameplay is the most emergent I’ve seen since Metal Gear Solid V. This is no Assassin’s Creed with it’s multiple black-and-white fail-states.

You can tell it's a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.
You can tell it’s a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.

Presentation-wise, MD is also top-notch. The central hub city – Prague – is a beautifully rendered environment, with differing day-and-night states, complete with fantastic lighting effects. Several of the other levels also contain vistas that are worth just sitting back and looking at for a good few minutes. Character models are an improvement on Human Revolution, if still not quite first-class, and the various interface elements of the game are clean, crisp and with a consistent design motif.

Where Mankind Divided falls down is with its plot and the disconnect between game and narrative. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ is one of those terms that gamers like to bandy about a lot, mainly because it sounds quite intelligent, and is often applied to titles such as Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s Hollywood-hero aesthetic in cut-scenes fails to mesh convincingly with his crazed-gun-man approach to combat encounters. Here the problem is that Deus Ex provides a world that is realistic, but where the actions of most players won’t be. My first instinct, for instance, when leaving Jensen’s apartment at the beginning of the game was to try and break into everyone else’s rooms in the building. Entering the top-secret Interpol headquarters, before going to my mission objective I preferred to wander around hacking people’s computers whilst they stood about ten feet away. Of course, you can argue that these were my play choices, but by allowing you the freedom to do these things and effectively incentivising them with XP rewards and consumables, the game is pushing you towards actions that don’t sit well with the narrative.

The plot also doesn’t really go anywhere. It starts off quite strong, with Jensen thrown into the middle of a conspiracy and then a terrorist attack, but following this it takes a while to get going again and then, when it does, it pretty much ends without much of a coda. I came away with the distinct feeling that I was missing not just the final chapter, but a whole volume. Perhaps this will come in DLC, though I can’t help but think the amount of story remaining really requires a whole new game.

Much has been made elsewhere of the political overtones of the game, in particular the segregation the narrative presents between augmented and ‘natural’ humans. This didn’t overly bother me, though at times it did seem to be laid on a little thick. Possibly the worst crime the game commits with regards to this is that it doesn’t provide a great deal of commentary to it; arguably this is down to the game’s primary aim to offer you as much agency as possible, but it does still come across as a bit empty.

Despite these nagging issues with the narrative, this is still most definitely a game worth playing. The sheer number of ways to play compensate somewhat for the relatively short length, and the top-notch presentation demonstrate that this is a game that’s had a lot of money spent on it.

Plus, Adam Jensen’s beard is cool.

Great Jensen's beard!
Great Jensen’s beard!