Archive for June, 2012

Microsoft Fury³

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Microsoft Fury³

Does anyone remember the Microsoft Home software suite? I remember the brand first surfacing shortly after we had purchased our first PC, loaded with Windows 95. It essentially boiled down to a collection of educational, productivity, and entertainment programmes, typically with an emphasis towards younger users. Microsoft Encarta (now all but a distant memory) was originally released under this sub-title, as was the very first Microsoft Flight Simulator. There was also another, flight-focused, game released around the same time that has left an enduring impression on me – Microsoft Fury³.

If the game itself sounds completely unfamiliar, then there’s a good chance that it’s developers – Terminal Reality – will evoke the same feelings. Some of their most recently released titles include the two BloodRayne games, Kinect Star Wars and Ghostbusters: The Video Game, titles that have been received, critically and commercially, rather lukewarmly. Back in 1995, however, the developers had already released their first commercial title on DOS, Terminal Velocity, in the same year as Fury3, so firm expectations had yet to be formulated in what direction the developers would take next.

This direction, as became apparent, seemed be very fixed, as Fury³ would appear to bear many similarities to Terminal Velocity, in gameplay terms and setting. I have never played this game, so cannot comment on the veracity of this view, but this would explain the very short space of time between both games release (a very paltry 3 months, in game development time).

None of this can be easily discerned by just playing Fury³ in its entirety, as its setting, story and gameplay appears to be very polished. Set within futuristic, sci-fi setting, players assume the role of a Councillor for a race known as the Terrans. This human-esque race were responsible for creating a new type of soldier during a conflict known as the IP Wars – the Bions. With the war over, the Bions become too powerful for the Terrans to control and, following an attempt to purge them completely, they retreat to the planet  Fury³ in order to plan their attack against their creators. The Terrans next move is simplistically Machiavellian: send the Councillor to attack and destroy the Bions. In order to achieve this, the player follow’s a fairly linear course through 8 distinct planets in their journey towards Fury3 with diverse locales inspired by Earth, Mars, underwater and even ancient Egypt, ready to be explored. A huge arsenal of weaponry can be unleashed against the Bion forces and players are given the freedom to either complete the set objectives, or explore each stage for hidden bonuses or secret tunnels.

Each world has three stages, typically with at least one boss for each world. Whilst the bosses themselves appear diverse and different, the procedures for successfully defeating them – disable each one of their shield generators and then shooting the living bejesus out of them – does became somewhat repetitive as you work your way through the game. So to do mission objectives, which typically involve the destruction of set targets and successfully manoeuvring to a checkpoint. The game perhaps could of benefitted from a more diverse set of objectives, to better complement the continually diverse environments that the player comes across.

Some considerable effort has gone into the game’s backstory and setting, with intelligence reports at the start of each world providing the necessary flavour and detail to add towards the experience. The in-game cinematic’s as well, for the time, were also pretty impressive. This was back when any 3D game was a wonder to behold, irrespective of how primitive or basic it looked. As a young child, growing up on a healthy diet of 2D platforming games, to bear witness to such a glorious vision of the future of video gaming on the PC was enough to take me to even higher levels of infantile excitement.

This was also one of the first games on Windows that I remember having joypad and joystick support. Being able to play the game with a joystick (Microsoft recommends the Microsoft SideWinder range of controllers for optimal user experience!) was something of a novelty and really helped to increase the immersion factor. This was an edge that the PC had for a long-time over the conventional home consoles, in that there was support for a diverse range of different input devices for gaming. Nintendo and others attempted to try and emulate this, by realising controllers such as the Super Scope, but it strikes me that these never had the desired impact. This was either due to the cost of the devices themselves, or the very limited library of games that the device would support.

As I have been writing this, and replaying it for the purposes of this review, conflicting views have begun to enter my head: whereas I have incredibly fond memories of playing this game and completing it, playing it today does not hold quite the same magic as I would have expected it to. This is probably due to some of the reasons I have already highlighted: linearity, repetitiveness and, for those who may have played Terminal Velocity, a feeling of ‘been there, done that’. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the game is absolutely terrible by a modern perspective, but would not place the game high on the list of most-recommended games for Windows 95. If you can somehow track down a copy of the game and manage to successfully run it on a newer operating system, then there is perhaps some fun to be had with this now largely obscure title. So long as you like tunnels. Lots of tunnels.

Pokémon Trading Card Game

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG)

The headmaster has called us all together outside the classroom. A tense moment;  all eyes twitching nervously, an uneasy calm in the air. The headmaster, usually a kindly and genial man, is adamant that the person responsible step forward and admit to the crime. No one moves an inch. He sighs deeply, and delivers his verdict:

‘Fine. Then I’ll guess we’ll have to ban them from school. No one is allowed to bring them in, or they will be confiscated.’

‘But sir…!’

‘Awww, but why…’

Deaf ears, and a sharp reprimand before being frogmarched back into class. Looking back now, I can’t help but ask myself ‘All of this trouble for a stupid yellow fox?’

Ok, I’ll retract that last statement and say unequivocally that I am a huge fan of the Pokemon game series to this day. And I do love that ‘stupid yellow fox’, or Pikachu as he is more widely known. But whoever conceived the idea of the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TGC) is a very evil person, who unleashed a torrent of shit onto unsuspecting school playgrounds across the globe.

It was through the TGC that I first discovered Pokémon, when they first hit my school’s playground at some point in either 1996 or 7. It was one of many of the different ‘fads’ that came and went in the school playground, along with Tazo’s, Tamagotchi’s, yo-yo’s(!)…the list is endless but, suffice to say, your social status at school was decided by how big your parents wallets were in order to pay for all this crap.

This was at the height of the Pokémon craze that had already swept its way through Japan and the U.S.A., and had now stopped off on its roundabout tour of Europe to the north of England. The TCG was essentially an off-shoot version of the original Game Boy games, and allowed intrepid Pokémon trainers who owned them to enact their own Magic: The Gathering-esque battles, with the aid of support and energy cards.

Here’s the thing though: I don’t actually know how the game is played (which is why my Magic: The Gathering link might be tenuous, at best), since none of us actually ever played the game as set out in the official rule book. Nor do I remember doing anything other than openly flaunt them to everyone else. I remember someone figured out their own version of the game, in which the loser would forfeit their card on defeat, but we all quickly cottoned on to the inherent dangers of this. Some people did trade their card’s, sure, but it was more a case of owning them as being the important factor, and the ability to pull your deck out of your pocket and rattle off the names of all of your monsters, like a boss. Man, we were cool.

I remember being suckered in quite easily (Baaaaa!), and the day I got my first set of cards. If I remember correctly, it was the 2 player starter set (illustrated above) and a couple of booster packs that I got in the end. The cards themselves were pretty cool, it has to be said: all these different monsters, with attacks like ‘Razor Leaf’ and ‘Thundershock’, with these intricately drawn pictures of each one. How could a kid not be drawn in by it? Kudos to Nintendo for nailing their market down and exploiting the hell out if.

But the real aspiration of any wannabe Pokémon master was to get hold a shiny card. That was the point where you ascended from lowly school boy status to god of all the playground. I remember, shortly after the first Pokémon movie was released in the cinemas, the ‘chosen few’ whose parents had endured the hell of taking their son or daughter to the cinema (and to sit through what must of been the most 90 mind-boggling minutes of their lives) could claim to own the limited edition Mewtwo movie card. At the time, this was quite a new and exciting thing: actually getting something extra when you went to the cinema, and not just anything, but an awesome Mewtwo monster. It probably goes without saying that those who had that card never put their card up for forfeit in a ‘battle’.

Like all good (Fnar!) things, it had to come to an end. I forget the exact details, but someone left their deck of cards in their school-bag and came back after lunch to find that they had all been taken, possibly by someone whose parents hadn’t caved into peer pressure. Naturally, the teachers got involved and the rest, they say, is history.

This is why we were dragged out of the classroom one day by the headmaster, and told that we weren’t allowed to bring the cards into school ever again. A decision that, in the long run, worked out better for everyone. Irrespective of all this, however, I still twitch every time I see Pokémon card today, and quietly hope there is a small place in hell for these abominations to rot for eternity.

(Image courtesy of bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net)

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings

Friday, June 15th, 2012

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings

I’ve always loved history. Scratch beneath the surface, and there is a multitude of exciting, interesting and diverse peoples and events in the past that can easily best any current blockbuster film. Any cultural medium that uses this as a basis, therefore, is one that I eagerly look forward to and relish in.

Age of Empires II therefore acts as the perfect meeting ground of my two passions, learning about the past and playing video games. From the moment I installed a demo version of the game, I was hooked. Although it only included a paltry amount of the full experience (the tutorial ‘William Wallace’ campaign and a playable scenario), there was something about it that made you want to just replay it over and over again. The start of a passionate love affair, indeed.

Developers Ensemble (who, sadly, are now defunct) had already, by the time of the game’s release in 1999, built an impressive Real Time Strategy (RTS) reputation with the release of their first game, Age of Empires, which is still hailed as one of the grandaddies of the genre. I was too young to remember playing the game when I was younger, and only briefly played it later on in my teens. Suffice to say, at the time it can be said to have been both visually impressive and engaging to make it stand out amongst its competitors. The pressure was on to deliver a game that was worthy of the legacy.

The game is set during the Middle-ages, in the tumultuous period following the fall (or ‘transformation’, if you are more inclined to that view) of the Roman Empire in the west. Taking the helm of one of the major factions in Europe, the Middle-East or even the Far-East, the ultimate objective for the player remains simple, but potentially complex in its execution. Players begin in the ‘Dark Ages’ with a few villagers and a town centre. From there, you must build your civilisation, advance your technology through different ages and deploy armies to fend off and defeat your foes. With a diverse range of units and technologies available to each specific faction and the built-in random map generator, the game’s replay-ability factor is through the roof.

One aspect of the game I really enjoyed was each faction’s unique wonder, based on actual real-word buildings. For example, the Britons had St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Goths could construct the Mausoleum of Theodoric I. Typically, whenever I would play, I would attempt to win the game by constructing and holding onto one of these unique buildings for a set period – especially when the AI enemies were being relentless in their attacks!

I owe a lot to this game, particularly when it comes to my bank of useless historical trivia that I save for choice moments. With story campaigns featuring significant historical figures such as Jeanne D’Arc, Frederick Barbarossa (or Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire) and Genghis Khan, players gain an opportunity to learn a loose chronology of some of the more significant events, battles and exploits of these important figures, and the peoples and countries they championed.

But by far the most exciting part of the game was the in-built scenario editor. Through this, players could construct their own unique maps and scenarios, taking full advantage of the tools used by the developers to construct the story campaigns. Such a broad and open canvas was a wonder to behold for a ten year old at the time, and I remember slogging away many hours attempting to construct my own scenarios. In particular, I remember a Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of TIme map that I spent many hours attempting to make as detailed as possible (albeit severely lacking in the professional elements of the story campaigns).

Looking back though, the game was hard. Especially the story campaigns, which I remember became more and more complex in terms of objectives, and in the number of enemies arrayed against you. To my shame, I distinctly recall using cheats (naughty, naughty) often when things would invariably go against me. The only way to truly succeed in this game is too constantly juggle your villagers (so they can produce resources to…), unit training and research (…purchase the units needed for…) and armies (…the units that would ultimately help win the game for you), something which I was woefully inept at doing.

It is surprising how well the game has aged. I picked up and re-played it recently, and can say with ease that it holds up to more recent, graphically advanced but poorly executed, RTS’s (coughSupreme Commander 2cough). And it operates within a comfortable middle-ground between the more intensive RTS games such as Starcraft and the less combat-orientated strategy games such as Civilization. Which is probably the reason why, when I was younger, I had such an affinity with it; from the moment I popped in the disc and let fly with the Mongols against the Byzantines and Britons on an Archipelago random map, I was hooked. History – or at least, my own twisted version of it – could come alive, in the most exciting and engaging way possible.

(Image courtesy of ageofempires.wikia.com)

‘Century Skyway’ (6597) Lego Set

Friday, June 8th, 2012

‘Century Skyway’ (6597) Lego Set

It’s coming up to Christmas. You’re 5 years old. You know it’s there, under the tree. That big box, nicely wrapped, just begging to be opened. And, on Christmas Day, the unwrapping doesn’t disappoint as you frantically rip open to layers to reveal your first, proper Lego set, the Century Skyway. Aeroplane? Check. Suitcases? You betcha. Communication tower? Hell yeah. This is the real deal. None of that Lego Duplo shit. That’s just a baby’s toy. You’re all grown up now, and you’re ready to play with the real toys, and this is just the icing on the cake.

I’m guessing today that Lego is becoming increasingly a rarity when it comes to kid’s Christmas lists. And that makes me quite sad, as even today I can’t resist the allure and pull of some of the more impressive Lego sets available today whenever I see them in the shops. Still, with games like Minecraft where you can build a world with unlimited resources, all from the comfort of your home computer, why would you bother shelling out hundreds of pounds for assorted lego sets and then sit down and build the damn things with your hands. What a drag.

Still, I’ll always have fond memories of my very first lego set, the Century Skyway set. Released in 1994 under the Lego System moniker, it was one of the most impressive and largest Airport theme set produced by the company thus far. With a commercial aeroplane, two helicopters, and all the trappings and features of your favourite inter-city airport, I remember many a fun days spent with this (except at the points where I accidentally threw the aeroplane on top of my wardrobe!).

The plane was the best bit. Once fully constructed, you could open up the passenger seating with ease, pack up the luggage, and commence Flight 101 to the Cat’s Bed. It had wheels, jet engines, the whole shebang. And at the time, it genuinely felt like one of the greatest toys ever made. It’s also a great toy to play with your friends as well, with each person taking command of the individual flying vehicles and letting imagination take hold. And who can deny the sweet fact that you sat there and built this amazing thing, all by yourself?

And I think that’s one of the things that made the whole experience so rewarding: the fact that you were the one who built it. You’d open up the box, get out the instruction booklet and spend half a morning arranging all the pieces perfectly. Or, to hell with the instruction book, and experiment instead – the instruction booklet even gave you some examples of alternate setups that you could attempt, giving you the courage to explore new possibilities. The (Lego) world was your oyster.

The spell could be ruined though. Lego, unfortunately, shares the same pitfalls as a Jigsaw: if you just happen to lose one tiny, important piece, then the whole world can come crashing down in an instant. And, by my own admission, I was never the kid who meticulously ensured that every piece was always accounted for so, naturally, pieces were lost over the years. A frustrating feeling, and one of the major drawbacks of these sets.

Still, looking back at the time, and even now, these were the best. Video games had not yet reached the stage where believable worlds and total immersion could be achieved, so toys like these were the next best things growing up. And probably a lot more productive and, dare I say it, educational when compared to jumping on Goomba’s as an italian plumber; despite this being, I’m sure you agree, an important life lesson for anyone.

It’s for this reason that I’ve made a pledge to myself: if I ever have kids myself, I’ll be buying them a Lego set when they’re old enough. And, hopefully, I can experience with them some of the fond memories of one the best Lego sets ever released.

(Image courtesy of lego.wikia.com)

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country (1994) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) helped to cement Rare’s (known then as Rareware) reputation as one of the premier first-party developers for Nintendo. This is despite the fact that Donkey Kong’s creator – Shigeru Miyamoto – is purported to have said ‘that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good’. An unfair comment perhaps, given that the game owes a lot to Miyamoto’s own Super Mario franchise, in terms of platform gameplay, world select screens and boss fights, and Miyamoto himself later withdrew the remark, citing development pressures surrounding Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. 

I remember having nothing but good memories of DKC, and spent a great deal of time as a child attempting to beat the game. Although it was frustrating in certain regards (the saving system meant you could potentially lose significant progress if you lost too many lives), I remember it as being one of the most graphically advanced looking game in the entire SNES library, and helped to establish Donkey Kong as one of heavy-hitting characters of the Super Nintendo era, alongside Mario, Link and Samus.

A sequel was therefore not entirely unexpected, and was duly delivered in 1995 in the form of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest. The evil crocodile villain, King K. Rool, having been defeated by Donkey and Diddy Kong in the first game is back, but with a vengeance. He kidnaps Donkey Kong and demands the Kong’s secret banana horde in exchange for him (cause, y’know, crocodiles can’t get enough of bananas…). Not wanting to displease the anticipating players, I would imagine, Diddy teams up with his cousin/girlfriend/long lost twin sister, Dixie Kong, to help rescue Donkey from Crocodile Island.

I get the impression that the developers may have gone on a major Treasure Island binge prior to making the game, as this is quite possibly the most pirate-y game on the SNES: the Kremlins have peg-legs, King K. Rool is now Kaptain K.Rool, sporting a blunderbuss and full pirate attire (sadly, however, lacking the Jack Sparrow appeal). While this does help to add a layer of distinctive onto the game, when compared to its prequel, I can’t help but look back now and laugh at the extreme levels in which this is deployed.

Little changes with regards to gameplay – players can once again expect to traverse a wide array of differing platforming stages, in diverse environments, collecting bananas, extra lives (manifested as balloons in the shape of Diddy Kong). The ‘tag-team’ format of the first game returns, although this time player’s will have to suffice with simply Diddy Kong and Dixie, with Dixie’s special pony-tail float ability being a major help when overcoming certain obstacles. Players can also once again take advantage of a number of animal buddies, such as Rambi the Rhino or Enguarde the Swordfish, to help overcome obstacles. World Map’s make a welcome return, as do a number of different bosses that the player will have to overcome, before eventually facing the the Kaptain himself in a showdown that would put Dr. Robotnik to shame. The game will feel very familiar to those who have played the first game, but packs enough of its own new content to make it distinctively enjoyable for the player.

The music is simply amazing, with David Wise’s, Rare’s in-house composer, returning to fine form after his sterling effort in DKC, with compositions that match the surroundings and often add another layer of enjoyment onto gameplay. For example, in one level, the player has to traverse a galley as Rattly the snake. The music used, an upbeat and catchy version of the DKC’s final boss theme, really suits the mood as you jump constantly across the level. I also like the level completion ‘riff’s – depending on which character you use to beat the level, you’ll be treated to funky tune, courtesy of the Kong in question – a beatbox tune from Diddy and an ace guitar riff from Dixie. I realise this probably sounds naff by today’s standards, but theres a certain mid 90’s cheese to it that I really enjoy.

One of the things that still strikes me as being the most noteworthy aspect of the game is the bonus levels. DKC had these aplenty, but DKC 2 takes it the next level. Upon successful completion of the ‘Bonus Barrels’, players receive a special KremKoin (badum-tisch). Collecting enough of these will allow players to travel to the ‘Lost World’ and eventually unlock the secret final boss and ending. This is the first time as a child I remember a game having such an incentive in place, and really does help stretch the experience just that little bit further.

So much could of gone wrong with this game, but for a sequel it is surprisingly fresh, and expands upon the original significantly enough to make it stand out on its own. Alongside the first game, and the eventual third game in the series, Donkey Kong Country 3: DIxie’s Kong’s Double Trouble, it stands out as one of gamings greatest, albeit rather poorly named, trilogies, and a true testament of the capabilities of the SNES.

(Image courtesy of donkeykong.wikia.com)