Postscript: favourite video game music in 2018

The games I’ve played this year have introduced me to some great music. Here are my three favourite pieces, and why they stood out.

Maniac Mansion (DOS) – main theme (Chris Grigg and David Lawrence)

When I first heard this I was (aptly) blown away. It’s bold, exciting and pretty admirable for its time. The layering works brilliantly, building up from a basic signature tune to a really epic piece. Just when you think it’s done, that shrill refrain kicks in (0:41), perfectly timed with the chainsaw.

The rawness of the DOS version will always be my favourite rendition. The other versions are just over-produced for my liking (especially you, Nintendo).

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (SE) – Dinky Island jungle (Peter McConnell)

This is just so beautiful. I was fully engrossed in the game but when I entered the jungle area the music stopped me in my tracks. The gentle, zen-like notes breeze in softly, then some bird tweets are sprinkled over the top. So very subtly, the main theme creeps in just enough to remind you what game you’re playing, without breaking the mood.

It’s also so well placed. After the pelting action of LeChuck’s Fortress in the chapter before, the nice, calming return to nature is just perfect.

Unforeseen Incidents – hotel lobby (Tristan Berger)

In a similar way, the music in this scene takes a gentle, soulful turn. It’s very Twin Peaks, and likely a homage in keeping with other elements of the game (especially the setting). I’ve chosen a scene with the TV playing – while those sounds slightly overlap the music, I really like the neon glow it adds. The whole scene is beautifully low-lit and mysterious.

Similar to the jungle in Monkey Island, it serves as a bit of down time from the main action in the game, and the music really complements that.

What video game music have you enjoyed this year?

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My 2018 in video games: a (short) review

I played a lot of video games this year. I’m not even sure how I’ve fitted them in. This probably means there’s something much more important I forgot to do.

Anyway, here’s a rundown. Sometimes reviews like this can get a bit rambly, so I’ve restricted myself to five descriptive words or phrases per game. This will be interesting.

The Cave (Double Fine, 2013)

TheCave-Monk

Expertly interwoven, multifaceted, well-built, colourful characters, smooth gameplay.

8/10

What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)

Edith-Finch

Clever mechanics, engaging, sensible length, nice visuals, weak story.

7/10

Maniac Mansion (LucasFilm, 1987)

Maniac-Mansion

Classic adventuring, tricky puzzles, dark humour, fantastic theme music, mean dead-ends.

7.5/10

Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell, 2012)

Thomas-Was-Alone

Quirky, stripped back, insecure cuboids, relaxing, nice puzzles.

6.5/10

Midnight Scenes: Highway and The Goodbye Note (Octavi Navarro, 2018)

Midnight-Scenes

Moody noir, eerie, bitesize fun, simple puzzles, beautiful art.

8/10

The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1990)

Monkey-Island

Laugh-out-loud humour, genius puzzles, no-die safety, great unfolding, must-play classic.

9/10

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (LucasArts, 1991)

MI2

Wet-myself humour, self-referential, ahead of its time, brilliant score, brave ending.

10/10

Inside (Playdead, 2016)

Inside

Dark humour, mysteriously dystopian, gory puzzles, oozing atmosphere, flat ending.

8/10

Little Nightmares (Tarsier Studios, 2017)

Little-Nightmares

Other-worldly horror, amazing graphics, great monsters, pulse-racing, slightly frustrating.

7/10

Hidden Folks (Adriaan de Jongh, Sylvain Tegroeg, 2017)

Hidden-Folks

Charming, light-hearted, amusing sounds, creative, mindless fun.

8/10

A great mixture, and I enjoyed every one of them. I’m looking forward to what games 2019 brings!

Postscript: my favourite video game music in 2018

First games on my first platforms

Over at I Played the Game! Rob wrote a great piece about the first games he played on new consoles. I thought that was a rad idea and he suggested readers write their own, so here we go.

I’m including desktops and handhelds, otherwise this would be very short.

Amstrad IBM CPC (MS-DOS): Battle Chess

Ah, sweet DOS. Nothing beats punching those command lines on the keyboard (until you’re punched back with Abort, Retry, Fail?)

I got my Amstrad for Christmas in the 1980s. I wanted a Mega Drive, but my parents went for something ‘educational’. On Christmas Eve, once I was tucked up in bed my parents retrieved the computer from its hiding place and had a sneaky game of Battle Chess in the living room. They loved it.

On Christmas Day when I opened my gift they relayed their excitement and I was quite intrigued. That’s undoubtedly why Battle Chess was the first game I played on my Amstrad, choosing it over the other preloaded ones (delaying my love affair with Prince of Persia). And they were right – the game was genius. I wasn’t great at chess, but I loved watching the animated characters battle it out in exceedingly graphic, bloody confrontations. Everything about it is so dark – the bishop has a blade concealed in his staff, for goodness sake!

I think my favourite kill is a queen attacking a pawn. When she zaps his spear he turns and looks at the player as if to say, ‘what the hell?!’

Sega Mega Drive II: The Lion King

The-Lion-King

My continuing pleas for a console were answered (thanks ma and pa!) and now I had the best of both worlds.

At the time the Mega Drive II shipped with Disney’s The Lion King, so naturally I played that first. Not quite the gritty ruthlessness of Battle Chess, but a fun platformer with some really nice graphics.

I remember finding it enjoyable but tricky to master. Moving from keyboard to controller, I guess my fingers were taking a lesson in dexterity. But the range of eye-catching levels and accompanying music tracks were great. Luckily I knew the cheat code so I could sample all of them (Right, A, A, B, Start!) I bought lots of other Disney games after that, including Fantasia, Aladdin, The Jungle Book and World of Illusion.

Since I played The Lion King, every cat I’ve owned has been subjected to a Lion King Lift. Everything the light touches… is our kingdom.

Nintendo DSi: Bomberman Blitz

Bomberman

I had my Mega Drive for a long time – I even took it to uni. So jumping ahead about 15 years(!) my next console was the Nintendo DSi. I always thought the ‘i’ stood for ‘interactive’ because it came with WiFi. I’ve literally just discovered it represents an individual person and also the camera’s ‘eyes’. Okay.

While I’m a Sega girl at heart, there were some good games on this fun little handheld. I jumped at the chance to revisit the classic arcade franchise, Bomberman. Kind of like Pacman with less contact and more strategy, I liked the challenge of trying to outwit your opponents using a range of special tactical items like the remote control bomb, power bomb and pierce bomb. Another bonus was that in this version, if you died you could commandeer a cart on the sidelines and zip up and down throwing bombs into the arena. Revenge from the grave.

I liked the ability to ‘build’ your own game and experiment with different custom parameters, such as setting the number of CPUs and their skill level, enabling and disabling certain power-ups and choosing from a range of level designs.

Playstation 4: CounterSpy

Counterspy

I’m cheating again, because this isn’t my console per se. It’s my husband’s.

But I had to give this mention because it introduced me to CounterSpy.  I’m not normally a fan of stealth games, but I fell in love with the artwork and feel of this one. Set in a cold war scenario with a Bond-worthy soundtrack and jagged, retro graphics, your objective is to stealthily take down spies and collect enemy plans before aborting the weapon launch at the end of each level. Get spotted, and an alarm will sound and you’ve got to get out of there!

This game did strange things to me mentally. I became quite on-edge, and the failed patience and intense nervousness I felt in the game started seeping into my real life, and in the end I had to stop playing it for the sake of my loved ones. But it was fun while it lasted. Maybe I’ll give it another shot one day, on my own, from a bunker somewhere in the hills, far away from humanity.

Interestingly, I’ve just discovered that Dynamighty (the indie team behind CounterSpy) was founded by John Elliot and David Nottingham, who previously worked at LucasArts.

Android OS: She Wants Me Dead

SheWantsMeDead

Remember that time you stepped on my tail? Elbowed me out bed?

I’ve included a mobile game because again, I rarely play them, but the premise for She Wants Me Dead was absolutely right up my street – your cat wants bloody, gruesome revenge.

I’d never played a rhythm game before, and this one really grabbed my attention. The atmospheric, noir visuals are mesmerising, on a par with games like Limbo and Little Nightmares. The splash of red when a sharp object slices you contrasts nicely with the colourless backgrounds, giving it an artsy, Sin City feel.

The gameplay is pretty unique – in order to defeat the multitude of gory traps set by your cat, you must time your movements with the music. This makes for really nice, smooth gameplay (if you get it right!) and that lovely, eerie juxtaposition of sinister action overlaid with a lighthearted ditty.

I think that wraps it up. That was a nice trip down Memory Lane!

So to continue to pay it forward: what were your first games?

Christmas musings

Toejam-santa

These days, I’m a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas. I don’t mean I stop being kind and refuse to give money to charity; more that I dislike the general consensus that it’s a time for celebration and reflection. That doesn’t work so well when the past year (and the year before that, and the one before that) hasn’t been great. Realising the hopeful Me of December 2017 is still in the same rut a year later is pretty galling.

But I do want to muse on the good things, even if they have been few and far between (bah humbug!)

Making connections

I love my husband, our home and our two cats. I love my family and friends. But I’ve always needed more than that to feel like a whole person in my own right. In the last few years I’ve made some great connections online – be it brief but fun exchanges on Twitter, or the longer-term friendships I’ve made through forums and other online spaces.

I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with my love for retrogaming and interacting with people who share that love. It’s amazing to see what a retrogaming community there is out there. A whole new world has opened up and given me a great life side-project to keep me balanced and happy. I know people will come and go, but that’s par for the course.

Writing

Incidentally, social media has got me back into writing. Who’d have thought it?

I used to write all the time, but in my adult years I’ve really struggled with motivation. It turns out blogging and writing articles about old games, films and TV shows is a respectable public activity. Not only have I found a new medium for writing, but it’s even better. It’s taught me I don’t have to shut myself in a room and churn out the next great novel – I can just write about the things I enjoy.

I’m been very lucky on that front, and feel forever grateful to the people who have helped me onto the train and encouraged me to stay there. In turn, I’ve discovered some great writers and bloggers whose content I really enjoy. Social media can be used for good! (But Facebook can sod off.)

So that’s it, really.

I’m going to make an effort to enjoy Christmas Day as just that – a day – not for what it ‘represents’. For the overeating, booze and spending quality time with family and friends. For the retrogaming, film-watching, trivia and long walks.

I hope you have a happy Christmas, in whatever way that means to you.

Are mindless games just a guilty pleasure?

When I first encountered Tetris I thought it was a complex, highly tactical game. I took it very seriously.

Years later, it’s my go-to pleasure when I need to unwind. It’s enough to keep my brain occupied without inducing a migraine. I can play it with such little thought, mindlessly slotting in blocks while simultaneously warbling along to music or contemplating my next snack.

tetris-mega-drive
Tetris (Mega Drive) (the best version – I mean, check out those backgrounds)

There are now a multitude of pocket games at our disposal – Bejeweled, Candy Crush, Zookeeper Battle – and consumers have lapped them up. So there’s no doubt about how popular they are – but why? Are we just that restless? Have we become so fidgety that instead of reading a book we need to constantly swipe colours on a screen? Are we hopeless 21st century addicts?

That’s probably part of it, but I like to think it runs deeper. It’s natural that our minds need to switch off after a hard day just as much as our bodies do. Even if it’s just a trashy mobile game, the immersion snatches me out of the daily grind and makes me relax. It’s a reassuring habit, letting my brain know we’re on the way home to warmth, food and comfort (and possibly more gaming).

And then there’s the sense of achievement when you beat your previous time trial or secure a level-up. Sure, it’s minimal and pretty superficial, but it’s cheap satisfaction. When I hear the ping of clearing four lines, it’s music to my ears and I am happy. I am one step closer to sinking into a deep slumber. And that’s important – it can be hard to shake off that wired feeling after work and truly detach, so filling the time with harmless, low-risk entertainment helps make that transition.

Beyond the therapeutic benefits, smart people even say these games go some way to improving brain function in the long term. You’re probably reading about the Tetris effect now, but don’t worry – that only means you’ve reached a higher plane of intelligence.

So no, you shouldn’t feel guilty for playing cheap binge games. Your brain needs them. And we can’t be playing epic, triple-A masterpieces all the time (or Monkey Island, in my case) – that’s what weekends are for.

Can we talk about the monkey wrench puzzle?

I’m currently playing Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. It’s great – the humour is spot on and I love how the world completely opens up after the first few challenges. It’s even possible that I’m enjoying it more than the first one.

A few days ago I reached the infamous monkey wrench puzzle. I’ve long been aware of this part of the game and the controversy over its difficulty, but it’s only through playing it myself and seeing it first-hand that I’ve come to appreciate just how obscure it is.

Monkey Island 2 spoilers ahead!

The puzzle

On Phatt Island, our protagonist Guybrush reaches the top of a waterfall where there is a pump. Presumably, Guybrush needs to turn it off to stop the waterfall, so he can cross to other side.

However the pump doesn’t turn. Further interaction offers no clues. There is seemingly nothing else in the area that would help, nor does my inventory contain any relevant items.

The solution

Guybrush must go to the Bloody Lip bar on Scabb Island where he will find Jojo the monkey playing the piano. There is a metronome ticking. He must place the banana from his inventory onto the metronome in order to mesmerise Jojo and ‘freeze’ him in his current position. Jojo can then be picked up and added to the inventory.

Guybrush can now go back to the waterfall and use the monkey to turn the pump.

Monkey Island 2 Special Edition_ LeChuck's Revenge 08_10_2018 18_11_17

The joke

The reasoning behind this puzzle is that Jojo has been turned into – drum roll – a monkey wrench.

There are two reasons why this doesn’t work well.

It relies on the player knowing what a ‘monkey wrench’ is

n. An adjustable spanner with large jaws that has its adjusting screw located in the jaw that is fixed. (English Oxford Dictionary)

As a Brit, we don’t use this term a lot. I vaguely know what a ‘monkey wrench’ is, but unless you’re a tradesman who uses one all the time, we would just say ‘spanner’ or, at the most, ‘wrench’. I believe this is the case for most countries outside of the US (where the term was invented). Even if a wrench or spanner enters your mind, you’re unlikely to think, specifically, ‘monkey wrench’. And in some languages, ‘monkey wrench’ isn’t even a thing.

It relies on the player knowing the puzzle is a metaphor

If you relayed this puzzle to a group of people in the same way as you might tell a joke, they would likely find it clever and amusing. The idea itself is a great play on words.

The problem is, in the context of an adventure game where the player doesn’t have the benefit of knowing the answer, getting there is very difficult. If you think about the thought processes involved, most people would begin thinking, ‘I need to turn this pump. I probably need a tool to do that.’ But how many would then think, ‘I need a monkey wrench. There’s a monkey in the bar that I could turn into a wrench shape by placing this banana on the metronome!’

Okay, so some might, and I salute you. But back in the day, before internet walkthroughs, my guess is that most people finished this puzzle by trial and error. Or, they already had the monkey in their inventory and just thought to try it (great if that works, but it’s not a brilliant puzzle if you don’t know what the connection is).

Even now, there are numerous comments on Steam and other forums from people baffled by the logic even after they’ve solved it.

‘Nuff said

Being a big LucasArts fan I’m not having a dig at the developers here. I just thought it would be an interesting topic to explore given all I’ve heard about it, and having reached that part of the game myself for the first time.

I guess for the most part it comes down to language differences. Oh look – that means I stayed on topic!