Author: PiecesOfKate

Pendemic – a creative outlet in a time of crisis

A few days ago I stumbled on Pendemic (geddit?), a project bringing writers together during the coronavirus outbreak. Anyone can submit a piece, with genres ranging from poetry and short stories to essays, creative non-fiction and letters. You don’t have to be a published writer.

It’s a great idea for a collaboration and there are some great reads – among my favourites are Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Balls, Rules for a Plague Year and 2020: Error Message.

Naturally I’ve written my own piece, Musings During a Pandemic. I went for a comedic approach, as I often do during times like these. Sure, the coronavirus isn’t funny, but without humour I’d go insane.

If you’re of the writery type, why not submit something? It’s mostly poetry on there at the moment, so help fill up the other categories!

Pendemic is a way for us all to share our experiences, it’s a tool and a refuge, not a literary magazine for ordinary times but a journal for an exceptional one – so all voices will be included: we’re not showcasing literary talent but writing this pandemic out – you are all welcome.

– from the Pendemic website

Pendemic was formed by Joy Redmond, Liz Quirke, Niall McArdle and Ruth McKee.

On a related note, I hope you’re all keeping safe and well during these not-so-brilliant times.

Does ‘The Curse of Monkey Island’ let the franchise down?

The Curse of Monkey Island opening screen

I’ve had a lot of people ask me if it’s worth playing the third instalment of the Monkey Island series, and it’s a question I asked myself, too.

When I played The Secret of Monkey Island for the first time a few years ago, I loved it. The humour was really something else, the puzzles were challenging but well-designed, and the story captivating. I was even more blown away by Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. It made such an impression on me that I sat gazing at the end credits in sheer elation. There aren’t many games that do that for me.

While it was natural to continue my swashbuckling in The Curse of Monkey Island, I was reluctant. Released six years after MI2, it’s something of a departure from the first two games; the art style is more cartoonish, there’s a coin interface in place of the verbs; and most importantly, it was developed under a different team. No Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman or Tim Schafer.

The Curse of Monkey Island cartoon graphics

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not that much of a snob that I turn my nose up because my heroes are absent from the taskforce, but the perfectly balanced writing and design from that trio is hard to beat.

And don’t forget I’m coming to this 22 years later. By now Gilbert is an established veteran of the genre, and there’s a bit of a community coldness towards ‘non-canon’ Monkey Island – fuelled more so by the loss of the Monkey Island rights and Disney’s refusal to give them back. (No petitions please, we’ve been over this.) I imagine Curse wasn’t so tainted back in 1998.

Anyway, I went in with an open mind.

Cartoon vs pixel art

At first I was like, eugh, this is so ‘Disneyed up’ (even before they got their hands on the IP). Facial expressions are dreamy and goggle-eyed, there are giant swirls of colour in the backgrounds, and everything looks like it’s made out of rubber. It made me miss the dark, moody hues of the first Monkey Island.

The Curse of Monkey Island Elaine
Oh hey, Belle.
Secret of Monkey Island lookout
That’s better.

LeChuck’s Revenge is a bit brighter, and perhaps closer to the colour palette of Curse, but still, the latter feels flat and lacking depth. But it’s a more modern time, and it makes sense to update graphics from the pixel-heavy artwork of the earlier games – and while I didn’t play them until adulthood, there’s probably still a bit of ‘faux nostalgia’ factoring into my critique.

And that’s not to say I didn’t warm to the artwork as I got further through it. While my least favourite are the close-ups character profiles, there are some really beautiful wide shots.

The Curse of Monkey Island town

Coin interface vs verbs

Again, these kinds of changes are necessary to move forward. In the Space Quest games I hated the transition from the (supposed) freedom of the text parser to a coin setup, but here it works quite well. It’s much less intrusive, only appearing when I want to investigate something, and it’s more mouse-friendly.

One thing I found is that it’s not always obvious when an action changes (such as when  ‘talk’ becomes ‘taste’), but hey, that’s all part of the puzzle. I actually grew to really appreciate little subtleties in the game like this.

In this example, the object I was looking at changed its label after Guybrush inspects it more thoroughly. Genius.

The Curse of Monkey Island - authentic native maskThe Curse of Monkey Island - product of LuxembourgThe Curse of Monkey Island - semi-authentic native mask

Nice touches

There are other nice touches throughout, such as the town clock that keeps real time. It took me a little while to notice, but again that’s the beauty.

Something I didn’t expect to match the earlier games is the humour, but there are some really smart moments where the game pokes fun at itself and the genre, continuing the sharp satire from MI1 and 2. There are some stellar moments of pointed realism.

Curse of Monkey Island - cryptCurse of Monkey Island - crypt 2

Curse of Monkey Island - crypt 3
MIC DROP.

Unintuitive puzzles

Unfortunately, the puzzle construction is where the game really fell down for me, and perhaps is what makes it less popular among LucasArts fans than its predecessors.

A memorable example is the gold tooth puzzle. I won’t go into too much detail and risk spoilers, but if you’ve played it already you know what I’m talking about.

I knew I needed the gold tooth from Blondebeard’s mouth, and that I had a jawbreaker in my inventory. So far, so good. The next bit with the gum made sense, and off we go. Until–

Curse of Monkey Island - gold tooth Blondebeard

The next bit took me ages to figure out. I tried using everything in my inventory, in all sorts of imaginative ways, ultimately brute forcing each item and combination and still didn’t get anywhere. In the end I think I consulted the Universal Hint System to solve it.

I appreciate puzzles are a bit subjective; your approach will likely depend on an array of things, from your native language and vocabulary, capacity for remembering seemingly unimportant bits of dialogue, random events and of course your general puzzle-solving experience. It’s always a gamble for game designers to put themselves in the mind of the player given that not everyone thinks the same way about a problem.

I should note that I was playing on ‘Mega Monkey’ difficulty. In the easier mode, Guybrush can walk out of the shop with the tooth without being summoned back by Blondebeard, and the second part of the solution isn’t necessary. This makes me wonder if the convoluted second part was just bolted on to satisfy the Mega Monkey contingent; it might’ve been better to rethink the puzzle as a whole.

There are other puzzles like this (getting out of the snake; getting the map; accessing the crypt), and it was only once I got to part three that they seemed to be better thought out and more logical (without being ‘easy’). Having played the first two games the puzzles here just feel awkward and cobbled together.

Lack of polish

This awkwardness extends to the plot, too. The story development in Curse feels more disjointed than the first two games. It’s all a bit piecemeal, and just not as well held together. There’s a long stretch between most of the chapters and scenery changes, which gets a bit dull and frustrating, and I just didn’t get the same sense of fulfilment and completeness that I did with Secret and LeChuck’s Revenge.

As for the ending, I found it weak and anticlimactic, especially compared to MI2. Sure, the ending of LeChuck’s Revenge is controversial, but at least that means it’s interesting!

So should I play it?

Despite my whinging, I’d say yes, if you’ve played the first two then it’s worth it. Even if you end up agreeing with the cons I’ve drawn on above, there’s some great humour to be had, some of the puzzles are fun and challenging in the right ways, and it goes some way to tickling those nostalgia sensors.

As for Escape and Tales, that’s for another time…

Roger Wilco: The Character That Defines Musings of a Nitpicking Girl

This is a great collaboration. Read my piece and others to come throughout the year!

Normal Happenings

JAN 6 MUSIC

We could not find a more appropriate theme if we tried! This original composition captures the essence of the Space Quest series perfectly, with both whimsy and quite horror. Or, perhaps we’re looking too deeply into what is simply a beautiful spacey jam. Either way, we hope you enjoy!

We’re pairing 8-bit music thematically, rather than based entirely on series. You can find this track and more Tater-Tot Tunes on YouTube! Also, we can confirm that, because this tater-tot has eyes, it reads these entries!


INTRODUCTION

Normal Happenings is proud to present The Characters That Define Us, a year long collaboration of 52+ incredible bloggers! We’re so thankful for the positive reception of the first piece, and we know you’ll love this entry by Kate from Musings of a Nitpicking Girl just as much.

In her about section, Kate claims to be a nitpicker, meaning she’s “a person who…

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Christmas musings 2019

Populous snow level
One year I will make this as a Christmas cake

Ho ho ho and a bottle of grog.

This time last year I was pretty grumpy. Some personal things really weren’t going my way, and I was a bit lost. Thankfully, through some miracle, things are better now. But before I get on to that, here’s a run-down of my gaming and blogging shenanigans in 2019. (If I can write it before Christmas is over, what with this frustratingly sticky keyboard. There we go – moaning resumed.)

Gaming

My gaming tally is atrocious compared to 2018. It turns out I’ve completed a grand total of *drum roll* three games in a whole year (Unforeseen Incidents, Doom and 198X). That’s frankly rather embarrassing. Where did the time go?

I have, however, added a new genre to my favourites – old school FPS. Doom really opened my eyes to the fact that shooting at things can be hella fun, and doesn’t have to involve traipsing round huge landscapes or having a degree in weaponry. Don’t get me wrong – my enjoyment of FPS games is limited to the early 90s so it’s a small window, but a window all the same.

Blogging

I like to think my lack of gaming can be attributed to my increase in blogging. I’ve written around the same number of posts this year, but they’ve been much deeper and more focused. My stats are way better and that’s rewarding.

Something that hasn’t changed is that I’ve had a lot of fun interacting with the gaming community on WordPress and Twitter. Perhaps for that reason I’ve steered away from writing for other sites lately. I get so much more engagement through my own blog posts and I can make sure my stuff gets out there, instead of watching it go to waste.

Thanks so much to all my followers and readers for your support this year – it really means a lot!

Monkey-moment

Some personal news

So what’s the reason Kate has hung up her Scrooge breeches and ditched the sour face?

Mr Kate and I are finally welcoming not one, but two new members to our home of nerdery and geekdom, as it turns out I’m expecting twins next year. Holy moly! We’ve known for a while now but I still can’t believe it. Without getting too personal we’ve had a pretty awful four years trying to start a family, and it really is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. We’re (cautiously) over the moon 🙂

So fix Guybrush a grog, put up the tree and pop a Santa hat on Doomguy, because I’m determined to enjoy Christmas this year.

(But will someone please get me a new keyboard?)

Four games I’d like to finish but probably never will

In a lot of ways I consider myself a completionist, but there are still some games I never got round to finishing for one reason or another. I’d like to take a moment for the ones that got away.

The Witness (2016)

screeenshot from The Witness video game
Although I didn’t finish it, The Witness remains one of my favourite games of all time

I loved this game so much. It’s one of the few open-world games I’ve enjoyed playing. I’ve never been a fan of games that require me to wander around for ages encountering things that may or may not be useful. Don’t get me wrong – I like a nicely drawn backdrop and mystical scenery, but I also want to be actively engaged and solving puzzles.

Thankfully, The Witness combines both these things. The island on which you find yourself is incredible.  There are mysterious structures dotted around beautiful vibrant nature. You can be walking through a multicoloured field and out of nowhere emerges a platform with ropes and pulleys, a tantalising maze or a curious group of trees that seem to form a pattern.

The perfect subtlety between what is just nice artwork and what might be another puzzle waiting to be solved is what makes it. It’s serene and exciting all at the same time.

Why didn’t I finish it?

You know, with this one I got really quite far. I must have been near the end (I won’t say how I know this – spoilers!) and yet I lost interest. At this point in the game I was searching for those final pieces of the puzzle to no avail. I didn’t want to cheat, nor could I ask for help.

And I guess this is where the downside of open-world games comes into play; non-linear gameplay makes it difficult – if not impossible – to ask for hints. IGN provides a good walkthrough that details the different puzzles in different areas, but to suddenly view the game in such a structured, compartmentalised way seemed to do it a disservice. Plus I’d got so far on my own that it seemed a shame.

Obduction (2016)

screenshot from Obduction video game
Nice scenery, now show me the puzzles

Conversely, Obduction was a stark reminder of why I generally don’t enjoy open-world games.

I’d heard a lot of good things about Myst, and then spotted Obduction in the Steam sale. It sounded great on paper – a first-person puzzle-solving adventure following the story of a person transported to an alien world that looks just like home. While it wasn’t my usual style, it looked interesting and hey, I enjoyed The Witness.

Unfortunately, I was stumped and frustrated right from the get-go. Where am I supposed to go? What are these train tracks and levers that appear to do nothing? Where’s everybody else? When will the puzzles start?

Why didn’t I finish it?

This was a little too open world for me. I couldn’t figure out where to start, and I got fed up with wandering around. Puzzle elements weren’t really highlighted in any way, and it was all a bit too, erm… mystical. The scenery is gorgeous, but after so long tracing and retracing my paths it didn’t matter.

Checking back through some walkthroughs and reviews, it’s likely I became too impatient too quickly. People have even compared it to The Witness and The Talos Principle (which I also loved), but for me it didn’t cut it. I don’t want ‘slowly unfolding origami’ as one reviewer put it; I need to feel like I’m making progress.

Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988)

screenshot of Zak McKracken video game
‘Insert cashcard for airport transit’

I was excited about exploring another of LucasArts’ adventure masterpieces, and Zak didn’t disappoint. Great artwork, great puzzles and some of the best wit I’ve seen in an adventure game (see above). Oh, and the killer intro. Zak had all the classic point-and-click nuances and I was hooked. It’s certainly one of those I’m most sad about not finishing.

Why didn’t I finish it?

Hey Zak, it’s me, not you.

I think this is another example of my slight aversion to the non-linear nature of some games. Yes, I know I’m an adventure gamer and that is usually how they work, but this one just had too many variables for my poor little brain: darting between different locations; switching between characters; and the knowledge that I could flunk the game by running out of money or making an unredeemable mistake early on (which I did, when I took off from Mars too soon, doh).

If it was a case of one of those elements, I could cope. But trying to save at different points just ended up very confusing because a lot of the time I couldn’t remember what I had and hadn’t done, and in which playthrough of the game (given I had to restart a few times). Like The Witness, this also made it hard to ask for help.

It’s a shame – looking back at websites and screenshots of the game does make me want to give it another go. Maybe next year I need to reign in my doggedness in the face of a small hint or cheat. I’ve found a list of all the dead ends (not actually that many) that I could prepare for, which would help.

Populous (1989)

screenshot from Populous video game
It may look peaceful now, but you wait

Populous was great, and highly addictive. Even if you didn’t have a God complex (and especially if you did) there was no greater feeling than playing the omnipotent deity over swards of teeny tiny land-dwellers. Building your territories and impatiently watching your mana increase until you could hit that armageddon button was an investment worth making. During less patient moments an earthquake or volcano was almost as satisfying.

It was something quite innovative back in 1989 and became one of the best-selling PC games of all time. The world editors allowed players to design their own landscapes, making it even more fun and dishing out more of that sadistic control.

Why didn’t I finish it?

Seriously, do you know anyone who’s finished Populous? There are 500 levels. It’s like listening to all five Tool albums back to back. Howlongtobeat.com says the main story takes an average of 13 hours to complete, but bear in mind that back in the day you couldn’t save your game, and while the likes of GOG.com make it easier today, I like to play a game in the tough ole way it was intended (Here she goes again).

The four pillars of giving up

So taking these four examples, the reasons for my abandonment appear to be stubbornness (The Witness), boredom (Obduction), brain freeze (Zak) and intimidation (Populous). There are other examples too, such as shoddy mechanics, unclear objectives and simply being distracted by something more fun.

What games do you wish you had finished? What are your abandonment traits?

Is nostalgia necessary to enjoy old games?

I love replaying old games from my childhood, but recently I’ve checked out a few that I’ve never played before. This got me thinking – is it better to play old games with the benefit of nostalgia, or can they be appreciated just as much as a first-time discovery?

The power of nostalgia

Captain-Comic-DOS

Everyone knows how strong that tether of nostalgia is. The games we played as a kid will always be tied to the things we had going on at the time, and they help us remember that. It’s a comforting, cosy context. Even games that we played during bad times seem to soften that sadness (it’s unlikely we loaded up the Mega Drive in order to feel worse). Replaying those games takes us right back to the rose-tinted past – and you can’t recreate an association like that.

Nostalgia helps us bond, too. Hey, who remembers Populous? You played that too? Now we’re getting all the feels from the past, and validation from the present. There’s a whole community out there revelling in these memories together. The advent of emulators has helped that too, making it possible to replay pretty much any title from any platform.

Discovering an old game fresh

But what about playing one of those games for the first time? Can it be as enjoyable, or do veteran players have it better? Is their experience somehow richer for having been there and done that at the time?

To look at some examples of my own, I’ll start with The Secret of Monkey Island. What with it being such a highly acclaimed, genre-defining game of its time, from the minute I hit the load screen I couldn’t shake the feeling that my experience was going to be more diluted compared with those had by players at the time. It was years since its release in 1990, and I knew so much about it already that I found it hard to view it fresh. There’s just so much lore, so many gags and famous puzzles that do the rounds on blogs, forums and social media, that it’s impossible to avoid.

And that poses a big obstacle – the more prominent the game, the harder it is to experience it organically for the first time. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it – far from it – but I was constantly mindful of the fact I was retreading a well-worn path.

So let’s take a lesser-known game instead, like Maniac Mansion. Even older as a 1987 release, with simpler graphics, and free of the notoriety had by Monkey Island, I felt more like I was coming to a ‘new’ game when I played it. I was unaware of most of the puzzle chains, and I was unfamiliar with games involving multiple playable characters (unless you count The Cave and Thimbleweed Park, which are more recent).

Maniac Mansion

Importantly, Maniac Mansion felt very much like a game I would have played at the time, had I been aware of it. The graphic style is close to that of Space Quest II – released the same year, and the game that started my love affair with adventures. I felt myself slip back to that era; I played it with my 12-year-old hat on. In that respect, I consumed it with a mixture of modern appreciation and ‘pseudo’ nostalgia – I might not have known that specific title back then, but I can appreciate it in the context of other games I played.

Gaming evolution

Naturally, an advantage of playing a game on release is appreciating how it fits into gaming history; seeing how the mechanics, graphics and genre elements are improved and built upon. That’s something that’s difficult to ‘feel’ playing something retrospectively.

Half-Life (1998) turned out not to be one of my favourites – I found it slow and just didn’t enjoy it. A lot of Half-Life‘s acclaim comes from its contribution to the FPS genre, considered pioneering in terms of graphics, gameplay and story. Which leaves me wondering if, had I played it at the time, I might’ve appreciated it on that level at least, even if I didn’t enjoy the game itself so much. Doom was much the same, but because I enjoyed it, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t properly appreciate it for its innovation.

I don’t think technical advancement is everything, but it was pretty important back when video games were constantly evolving in complexity and accessibility. Noticeable improvements in things like graphics and gameplay definitely enhances the experience, and that gets lost in the context of today when the leaps in technology aren’t quite so big.

Then vs now

There are certainly benefits to playing an old game for the first time now. I’m older, and (supposedly) wiser, with more gaming experience and better skills (cough), and less likely to get stuck or fed up.

What’s more, in my 90s household, the lack of the internet and its helpful hints and walkthroughs meant I didn’t have a hope in crap of ever finishing some of those games – especially the ruthless likes of Space Quest. There were helplines and such, but woe betide me if I added that to the phone bill.

There’s also now a virtual world where we can share those experiences and thoughts with other players – whether you’re a veteran or newbie to that game. And a number of those games are more readily accessible today than they were at the time, thanks to distribution sites like Steam and GOG.

Space Quest on Steam

But nostalgia becomes more meaningful as we get older and the world gets shittier. Nothing can replicate the memories of discovering a game when it came out, and how pure and innocent the world seemed. Those memories are cemented forever, and no amount of first-time playing can provide the same feelings as remembering when you were right there, solving that puzzle or completing that level with dizzy childhood glee.

Future nostalgia

Nostalgia requires time and, who knows, perhaps in ten years I’ll be as nostalgic about playing Doom for the first time in 2019 as I am now about playing Space Quest in 1987. We have our childhood memories of playing some great games, but we’re still making the adult ones.

I for one can’t wait to be that old lady bleating on to the unsuspecting young masses – at which point the very concept of computer games may be entirely different, or no longer exist at all.

I played Half-Life for the first time… and didn’t enjoy it

opening screen of Half-Life

Back in May, I played a first person shooter for the first time. I chose Doom (1993) and instantly, unexpectedly, fell in love.

So it seemed a good idea to try another one. I had a few in mind, but decided to put it to a vote on Twitter.

I was pretty pleased that Half-Life won: it has such a major reputation in gaming history; it seemed a natural next step in the advancement of FPS gameplay and graphics; and I’m a big fan of Portal, which is set in the same universe.

While I’d intentionally not read up on any of the games too much, I was aware of Half-Life’s true 3D environment and correspondingly more complex controls, and that was my downfall. So to those of you who voted for Half-Life – I’m sorry, I tried!

I’d still like to do a little retrospective on my Half-Life experience, as it wasn’t all bad, and I owe you that, right?

Half-Life tutorial

Now I know I’ve said before that I don’t like tutorials, but this is only my second FPS and it’s a big learning curve on Doom! I like that this one is framed as an induction sesh in the training facility. As well as learning how to play, it gives it a nice introduction to the feel of the game.

Half-Life environment

These walkways are really reminiscent of Portal, especially with the earlier voiceover. I can totally see how that game built on Half-Life.

Half-Life jumps

Wouldn’t it be nice if people were transparent in real life? London wouldn’t seem to crowded.

She wants me to jump over those barrel-like structures. Right-o, I manage that one fine.

Half-Life jump-crouch

Now this is where it gets trickier: the cursed jump-crouch. I mean, that’s barely executable in real life, is it? We’d just go get a ladder. Nevertheless, I manage to clumsily manipulate my fingers to run and jump without smacking my head (Space-Control-Up).

I got on fine with pushing things…

Half-Life push

…breaking things…

Half-Life break

…cockroaches…!

Half-Life cockroach

…and shooting things…

Half-Life shooting

I graduated!

Half_Life beginning

Good morning, and welcome to the Black Mesa Transit System. This automated train is provided for the security and convenience of the Black Mesa Research Facility personnel.

I love the idea of a transit ride to get to the facility. It’s a great introduction and lets you look around as you arrive at this curious place.

Another reason I looked forward to playing Half-Life was the promise of a story, to give the action context and a purpose. Doom is great, but it’s nice to have a bit of a foundation.

Half-Life underground

And this is just beautiful. I feel like I’m in a modern mine cart, travelling underground to somewhere mysterious and secluded. The journey towards the facility while still being able to walk around the carriage and look at different things outside is a really nice contrast. It’s as revealing as a cut scene, but with some tangibility since you still have control of the character.

Half-Life Gordon

Aha, I was wondering what my name was. I think I look more like a Russ. Or Leonard.

Half-Life spider

What’s that?!

Half-Life black mesa

I’ve arrived at the Black Mesa Research Facility. Where are the doughnuts?

Half-Life old man

Maybe Larry David knows.

After a bit of a wander (and a brief microwave explosion that may or may not have been my fault) I end up here. Intriguing…

Half-Life containers

I finally find the test chamber I’m told to go to.

Half-Life central room

I’m given instructions over a tannoy to start the experiment. I follow those steps, and then…

Half-Life explosion

Yeah this can’t be good!

Half-Life prehistoric

WHAT. Did I just flash back to prehistoric times?! After a fairly docile start, this game suddenly has my attention.

Half-Life demons

SOMEONE CALL DOOMGUY!

Half-Life post experiment

Everything has seemingly returned to normal now, except that the test chamber is destroyed. I guess I’ll get out of here…

Half-Life old man dead

Uh-oh, Larry David don’t look so good.

Half-Life chaos

These guys aren’t going to be much help!

At this point I stopped taking screenshots, because everything got a bit fiddly. Yes, even just jumping over debris. And especially ladders, which no matter how hard I tried, I would leap at and subsequently fall all the way down, resulting in diminished health, if not my death. This just added to my mounting frustration with the controls.

I did manage to kill a few headcrabs. Taking things out is fine – it’s the movement and navigation I struggled with.

I appreciate I’m not a seasoned FPS player, and maybe that’s the problem. Doom was fine because it only ever required a mouse to move/shoot, and keys to strafe and run. This feels much more strategic; there’s more required than just running, dodging and shooting – and I thought that would be a positive thing, especially because I’m an adventure gamer and used to nice narratives and puzzle-solving. But for someone who’s still trying to master a leap in the mechanics, it just interrupted the game. I got to the point where I was taken out of the atmosphere and story because I had to concentrate so hard to control the character.

And in some ways, it is a bit slow. The unravelling concept had me immersed at first, but then I started to switch off a bit. I left it for a few days but didn’t really feel much inclination to get back to it. I toyed with forcing myself to pick it up again. I wanted to give it a proper chance, but I also don’t want to waste valuable gaming hours on something I’m simply not enjoying.

Sorry, Half-Life.

I really wanted things to work between you and I. It’s not you, it’s me. You did nothing wrong, and you should be played by those who appreciate you. I hope we can still be friends?

198X: a side of Bombay potato

Yep, still running with these curry ratings. I’ve ranked this one Bombay potato because while the main component (tasty spuds) of the game is fantastic, there isn’t much narrative (sauce) holding it together. It’s a side dish because, as it turns out, this isn’t the full game (more on that later).

198X

198X (Hi-Bit Studios) follows the story of Kid, a lost soul trying to escape adolescence by retreating to the world of arcade games. Every time Kid masters a game, Kid grows stronger.

You might have noticed by the awkwardness of that sentence that I’m avoiding giving Kid a gender – that’s because it’s not explicit in the game or any promotional material I’ve read. Presumably it’s intentional – so let’s honour that.

The game is essentially a sequence of five classic arcade games: Beating Heart, a smooth beat ’em up à la Streets of Rage; Out of the Void, a calamitous space shoot-em-up; The Runaway racing game; Shadowplay, an autoscroller featuring a slashy ninja cat (my favourite); and finally Kill Screen, a dungeon-crawler RPG.

Screenshot of 198X Beating heart level

I like that there are no tutorials or hints – we’re plunged right into the first one and expected to make our way, much like we did in the days of yore. Each one is a refreshing change of genre, and I really admire the ambitious development behind that idea. It’s bold, and it’s what put the game on my radar in the first place.

Screenshot of 198X The Runaway

However, putting that many genres into one game poses an obvious problem; not everyone is going to enjoy all of them and I wonder if that might alienate some players since you can’t progress without completing them all. For example, I’m not so familiar with dungeon crawler games. I ended up getting help with that part, which was a shame, particularly as it ended up being the final part (again, more on that later).

A weak story

These mini-game challenges are all loosely held together by cutscenes that advance the narrative. Except they don’t, really, and that’s my issue with this game. The arcade sequences are fun, but the parts in between just don’t cut it. The story isn’t developed enough to hold it together – I’m fed a tiny morsel of teenage grump, and then it’s on to the next arcade segment. As a result I don’t find myself caring about Kid or wanting to know what will happen to them.

Screenshot of 198X Kid and mom

What little is there is never fully fleshed out – Kid’s a teenager navigating the difficulties of adolescence, and what’s new? We’re not told specifically what Kid is struggling with – it’s just a pre-packed, clichéd setup that feels a bit lazy. Sure, I found escapism in games too, but are we meant to think a few stints in the arcade has solved Kid’s problems?

As a result, it just feels like I’m playing a compilation of remastered old games that don’t have any context apart from my own, subjective nostalgia. It’s a shame, because it starts out really strong.

Enthralling music and beautiful, animated pixel art

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all bad, because it isn’t, and it will naturally depend on your expectations (mine were high).

The music, scored by Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage and soon to be Streets of Rage 4), is one of the best things about it. It’s like I’ve gone back in time and someone has polished those old sounds to make them ultra-pristine. Each piece complements the different genres perfectly.

Screenshot of 198X kid on bed

The other thing that struck me is the use of pixel art in the cut scenes. I’ve played a lot of games with great pixel art recently, but it’s mostly static. In 198X there’s so much detail in the movement, and it really ramps up the atmosphere. The use of light and colour is mesmerising and if you’re a fan of cyberpunk, you’ll love this style.

Screenshot of 198X house and cat

The abrupt ‘ending’ (spoiler-free)

Abrupt, and in my case, completely unexpected.

I didn’t realise this was an episodic game. When I first added it to my Steam wishlist there was no mention of it. At the time of writing, there still isn’t on the Playstation version. A quick scan through some of the other reviews suggests I’m not the only one, either.

At two hours’ gameplay it’s pretty short regardless, but had I been aware of a sequel I might’ve been a little less shocked when, after a bit of narrative plonked after Kill Screen, it sharply braked to a stop. There’s no indication of when the next part will be released, how many parts there will be, or what the cost is. And on that note, £13.99 (15.30 euros) seems steep, and there’s very little replayability past what you could get from an emulator or classics compilation.

Granted, it’s probably worse for those who have been following the game for a while. I already knew a lot about the style, concept and gameplay so none of that was a surprise, but I didn’t know about the decision to make it episodic. If however you came to it fresh, you’d likely be wowed by the setup and probably aware that it’s not the full game.

I can only assume all the time and energy put into the arcade games (which I appreciate would’ve been a lot) meant there was less time to fully develop the plot. The arcade games are so refined and fun to play, the pixel art and music are some of the best I’ve experienced, but the supporting narrative just falls flat.

Screenshot of 198X night sky

6/10

The first instalment of 198X is available on Steam, GOG, Playstation 4, and coming soon to Nintendo Switch and Xbox One.

Retro goodness at That’s Not Current

Thats Not Current logo

If I ever go quiet on the blog front, it’s usually because I’m working on something for That’s Not Current. It’s an awesome, growing compendium of articles and features harking back to great times in gaming, TV, film and comics – if you thrive on nostalgia, this is your ball pit.

Here are some of their latest articles to wet your whistle:

Call for new writers

Psst, they’re also looking for new blood. If you’re like me, you might relish the opportunity to reach people who like the same stuff. Or maybe you’re a blogger wanting to expand your skills by writing more feature-led pieces. Maybe you’ve had an article up your sleeve waiting to be unleashed on the masses, but your blog isn’t quite the right platform.

I love having a second arena to publish my work – where else would I get to lament the X-Files revival, geek out over the best gaming maps and get a bit controversial about Krusty’s Super Fun House?

Find out more about writing for That’s Not Current, or email Phil Hayton at philiphaytonmail@gmail.com (please let him know you came from here – it makes me look good).

This isn’t a sponsored post, by the way – nor was I held at gunpoint to promote TNC. They’re just a great bunch and I wanted to give them some airtime.

Is Twitter really that bad, or have I just not had my shitstorm moment?

Demon-gentleman

Lately I’ve heard a lot of people saying things like, ‘I need to get off Twitter, but I can’t.’ Or, ‘I’ve been really good and not gone on Twitter for a week.’ Or ‘@%£$ you, Twitter, you big pile of horse crap!’

Personally, I like Twitter, so comments like this strike oddly upon my ears. I’ve never felt the need to ‘wean’ myself off it, or take a break for reasons other than to go on holiday or meet a deadline. I know plenty of others who have used it for a long time and feel the same. Still, lately there’s a real sense that people find Twitter abhorrent and conversely addictive, like a bad habit they can’t shake.

I definitely identified with that feeling when I left Facebook. At first, I found it useful for sharing photos and keeping in touch, but grew to loathe how it encourages people to self-obsess, brag and compete with everyone else. It’s like a wily witch luring you in with features like ‘my story’ that only urge people to talk about themselves. It’s so ripe for comparing people to one another, and that can be very dangerous, especially when things aren’t so great on your side of the fence. Humans don’t cope well with that kind of psychology.

Twitter vs Facebook

When I discovered Twitter, I thought, hey, here’s somewhere I can bond with other like-minded people on the subjects I find interesting like gaming, writing and general geekery. It’s not a soap opera about who’s changed hair colour, having their fifteenth baby or hint-whinging about something or other (‘can’t say, hun’). Don’t get me wrong – I’m obviously keen to know how my friends are and what’s going on with them, but I would much rather do that in person. I’ve lost count of how many people have said, ‘Oh didn’t you know? I put it on Facebook’.

If anything, Twitter fills a void in my ‘real life’, providing a space to chat about gaming and other things my friends just aren’t into. What’s more, there are few other platforms (except maybe Discord or Kickstarter) where I can engage with devs and other inspiring people who are happy to open themselves up to fans. I can stay up to date with important announcements about games, gigs and news that’s relevant to me. I can promote stuff like my blog and the websites I write for, knowing I’m hitting the right audiences and not boring family and friends who might not give a banana about the complexities of the monkey wrench puzzle.

Politics!

When I have seen people come to blows, it’s usually over differing opinions on the state of the world, or conflicting morals or behaviour. Quite rightly, people have a lot to say on the big issues, how they’re directly or indirectly affected by the decisions of our leaders (and voters, cough), new laws, environmental crises, and so on. I haven’t come up against that yet, but I tend to stay out of those sorts of conversations, so maybe that’s why.

Trolls!

I get this. Some imbeciles exist on Twitter solely to prod people until they get a rise. It’s even worse if you’re blue-ticked. I’ve been trolled a bit and while it was pretty short-lived, I can see how it might make you want to run away, arms flailing. It’s easy enough to block and ignore, but if fame makes you an attractive prospect for the trolling breed, I guess there’s ultimately no escaping it.

Addiction!

I’m all too aware of how social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other online platforms can quickly become all-consuming and so addictive that I catch myself checking timelines and then picking up my phone again a second later. I’m aware of the sudden joy that pings my endorphin receptors whenever that like or retweet symbol pops up (and the sadness when it conflates 20 likes into one). It’s human nature to crave that validation. What worries me is that I don’t remember always needing it – not until I started getting it. It may not be as bad as Facebook, but Twitter instills neediness too.

Tempting fate

Of course I’ll probably have my shitstorm moment now, ending with me rage quitting in a haze of disappointing realisation.

I believe your overall experience and enjoyment of Twitter comes down to how you use it, and who you interact with – but there is a shelf life. All social media has the potential to become wholly overbearing, hateful and addictive, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before I experience that first hand.

I was all set to publish this, then a tweet about my Doom blog post unexpectedly took off (thanks John Romero). So now I’d like to add a new category…

Twitter fatigue

It’s all fun and excitement when a tweet gets a lot of attention; even better when people interact and there are some nice exchanges. In my specific case, it was great seeing how a game has influenced so many in different ways, and how people are united by that. And on a personal level, people were reading my stuff and enjoying it. For those first few hours or so I felt great.

Then something weird happened. I started feeling uneasy, and I wanted to remove myself from all the activity hitting my feed. I wanted the notifications to stop.

I guess part of that was the exhaustion that comes from trying to acknowledge and reply to (almost) everybody, but it was also a mental thing. I felt foggy-headed and overwhelmed. Even while the pings were still coming in, I was going through a bit of a comedown, like after a caffeine high, or the end of a holiday.

And this is following only a minor event – it must be ten times that for people when something goes viral. If you’re in the public eye I suppose it’s something you get used to, but perhaps then it becomes meaningless, and ultimately tiresome. For the rest of us, those moments are rare and short-lived, but that’s not to say they don’t make us feel part of a community or even inspire us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t.

I’m curious to revisit this post in a year or so. Will I have closed my Twitter account? Gone incognito? Switched to something else instead? Will Twitter itself be shut down over a mass controversy? Place your bets.