Category: Gaming

Four games to play when you don’t have much time (and one wildcard)

The Supper: sadistic speciality on a plate

Octavi Navarro | Steam

Love a top-down view.

I’ve long been a big fan of Octavi’s pixel art and, more recently, his adventure games. The eerie feels in his earlier games reeled me in (Midnight Scenes, The Librarian), and while The Supper is a different vibe, it doesn’t disappoint. This one swaps the chiaroscuro for rich colour and less subtle animation, but both those things complement the pixel style just as well.

Look at those gorgeous reds.

Described as ‘bite-size’ in the introduction and a little bit hand-holdy at first, I wasn’t sure I’d like it as much – but as the game progressed I loved the development into a gory, dark point-and-click. In fact it combines two of my favourite pastimes – cooking and the macabre.

I urge you to join Ms Appleton as she cooks up a feast for her customers, guided by a mysterious disembodied voice. That’s all I’m going to say in terms of the plot. Zzzzzp. It also worth noting that I was unexpectedly moved by the ending – something few pixel artists can achieve of me!

Delores: a blast from the park-a-boo

Terrible Toybox | Steam, GOG, Xbox One, PS4, Android/iOS, Switch

Cheese!

You don’t have to be a fan of Thimbleweed Park to enjoy this one, but it helps. I was pleasantly surprised to hear news of a spin-off from the 2017 game developed by LucasArts alumni. Then stoked to hear it was about Delores. And humbled it was being offered FREE to cheer up fans during shitty times.

It’s essentially a ‘complete the checklist’ minigame, initially conceived as a prototype for Ron Gilbert’s new engine; you play as Delores, now a journalist working for Nickel News, tasked with taking snaps of various objects and occurrences around Thimbleweed Park. It cleverly utilises ‘found art’ from Thimbleweed Park (so don’t expect a whole new game) and is broken up into six tidy segments – there’s no ability to save, but once you’ve completed a set of tasks you’re rewarded with a new set.

Tick! Tick! Tick! Ooh a speck of dust…

This was right up my street for a short game. I’m a slightly OCD completionist so I took great joy in looking for the solutions and ticking off those lists. It’s not too taxing but provides enough challenges to be satisfying (and highly addictive in my case!) The tasks are creative, and polished with the same dry humour we saw in Thimbleweed Park.

And that lovely soundtrack is back, mmm.

Kill Yourself: dark humour done right

Gugames | Steam

This dude’s unlucky.

Some might be put off by the main objective (right there, in its naked glory in the title) but hey, if we can’t look death in the face, let’s vicariously find the most inventive ways to achieve it. In all seriousness, I’ve faced some dark times and I still really like this game – the humour is very tongue-in-cheek, and the cartoon style provides enough detachment for me. The design is pretty no-frills but I like that – nice chunky pixels (noticing a pattern?) and a refreshingly straightforward point-and-click interface.

Damn.

The aim is to find all the different ways to top yourself, by combining and manipulating objects and features of the house, in classic adventure game style. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy game, though – there are some really great, challenging puzzles, some of which require very lateral thinking. After solving a handful, new rooms are revealed with more puzzles.

The mechanics are nothing new but it’s the concept that’s so original. A daring move from the developer but one that pays off. I’m fed up with all these ‘nice’ games – I’d like to see more dark and uncomfortable topics, provided they’re done right.

So if you fancy something a little different, I highly recommend this. There are 30 different endings – so you better get on it!

Among Us: trust no1

InnerSloth | Steam, Android/iOS, Switch (Xbox soon)

Best selection of hats in a game, ever.

This one has really done the rounds, so you’ve probably heard of it. I played it as a way to stay in touch with friends during the pand-ovid-ona and it did not disappoint. The game places you and 3-9 other players on board a spaceship, where one player is an intruder set on taking you out, one by one. Think virtual Murder in the Dark (not that it’s ever actual murder in the dark… oh you know what I mean).

Each crewmate has a list of tasks to complete around the ship (which themselves are quite fun!); the objective is to complete all of these, or expose the intruder before everyone is killed. If you’re the intruder, you get to stealthily murder each player (and sabotage things on the ship, which is less fun) while pretending to carry out your duties. Whenever a dead body is discovered, everyone can have a chat and vote on who they think is the culprit (with the imposter playing along, which can make for some amusing revelations at the end).

It’s brilliantly suited to mobile gaming, and the potential for cunning and flabbergastery is endless.

Green: I saw Blue kill Red in the engine room! It’s him!’
*everyone votes Blue*
GREEN WAS THE IMPOSTER.

I’ll certainly never trust my friends again.

WILDCARD: Rubik’s Cube

Okay, not a video game, but this is what happens when you watch The Speed Cubers on Netflix. (I’ve moved on to chess now, obviously.)

I haven’t touched one of these for five years or so, but it didn’t take long to remember how bloomin’ addictive those little coloured squares can be. It’s more than just a fidget spinner though – there are methods and mechanics to learn to get you to that final, tidy block. I don’t normally enjoy cheating (yes, that would be ‘cheating’ to me) but it’s actually fun understanding how the intricacies of the puzzle work.

My favourite thing about it is its portability. You can play anywhere – on the couch, in the bath, on the loo (what?) and it looks nice on the shelf. I’ve just remembered that a friend once dressed as a Rubik’s Cube for a hen do (slightly less practical).

Of course, it takes time and finger flexing to master the complete process, and none of us (that I’m aware) are about to star in The Speed Cubers 2. But it’s simple, classic fun from the good old days – and you don’t need a computer!

Musings on the word ‘geek’

A ‘geek’ used to describe someone unfashionably intelligent, or ‘un-cool’ – not far off the definition of ‘nerd’. Bullies used to say it at my school as a jibe – a kind of amalgamation of ‘teacher’s pet’ and ‘loner’. Whoever it was aimed at, it was always a negative and offensive way to describe them.

More recently, being a geek simply means being knowledgeable or very interested in a certain subject – be it a type of technology, film series, book franchise – usually at quite an in-depth level. Though still a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s shed its unfavourable connotations and even gone so far as becoming a term of endearment. Gone are the days when ‘computer enthusiast’ conjured an image of a mysterious underworld where only the nerdiest, weirdest spectacled beings sit in dark rooms and sniffle at the keyboard. It’s now cool to be into things like programming, for example – especially since the growth of digital media and video games. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with those?

So, great, the weirdos are now understood and have a respected place in society, and everyone can move on and be happy. But I can’t help feel this is one of those occasions where negative culture ricochets too far in the opposite direction. The word ‘geek’ is flung around so much that its become a bit meaningless. Far from the original definition, now everyone who has a slight interest in something slightly niche is one. And today it’s cool to be a geek. So many people are self-proclaimed geeks, proud of their niche interest and expertise.

I guess there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that – and for the record I don’t mind being referred to as one, in the right context. But I liked it when it was more of a rarity. It was a more subtle time. These days people like to label themselves, and let’s face it, sometimes it’s inaccurate. Suddenly playing mahjong or watching Game of Thrones makes you a geek. If you have a really in-depth knowledge of the history of mahjong, or say, the different types of wood used in GoT scenery, then sure, but just being a fan of something does not a geek make.

Not to quash the progress we’ve made in equality, but whenever I see someone declaring themselves as a ‘geeky girl’ it kind of makes me cringe. For a start, it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, matter that you’re female. You can be a geek regardless of your gender. You don’t need to specify, and by doing so it sounds like you’re making a point of the fact that you’re a girl, like that’s somehow unexpected, or a novelty. It’s not; it’s 2020.

Another phrase that had me involuntarily lifting my pelvic floor last year: ‘CALLING ALL NERDS AND NERDETTES!’ Why? Why quantify it with a gender? Why is there a distinction – can’t we all just be ‘nerds’? It’s all a bit cutesy and patronising. Women have spent a long time getting people to call them ‘actors’, ‘waiters’ and ‘tie fighters’ (sorry, ‘firefighters’).

I’ve slightly digressed from my original point which is that ‘geek’ is becoming a little overused. It’s like a lot of cultural changes – the fun part is the transition, when people begin taking ownership of a derogative word and it slowly transforms into a positive one. “He’s a bit of a geek.” “There’s nothing wrong with being a geek! He’s really smart.” It’s really great when that happens. It means people’s attitudes are changing for the better, and we’re moving forward.

So isn’t it a bit of a redundant term now? I’m hoping that in time it won’t be used at all, and people will happily refer to one another’s specific interests instead. But there are always new terms cropping up to single people out, and so the process repeats, and the whole thing will come full circle and someone else will be writing a blog post about how irritating it all is.

I’m crap at Battle Chess, but I don’t care

Battle Chess DOS

I’m not great at chess, but I needed a game to play in between looking after our newborn twins, you know, for a bit of sanity. I thought chess would be good because we could take moves in between feeding, burping and cuddling. And looking after the babies (ba-doom-TSH).

Then I thought, I’m a bit crap at chess though, so I could do with a practice before I go up against my husband who is significantly less crap at it. And what better way to do that than to revisit the delight that is Battle Chess (Interplay Productions, 1988).

Romancing the stoneman

I first played the MS-DOS version of Battle Chess on my PC when I was about 12. Suddenly, a game I’d always thought of as dull and difficult became fun and stimulating – not to mention deliciously dark, which is what made this version of the classic so enticing. The fight-to-the-death animations – and accompanying PC speaker sound effects – puts this version of computer chess way ahead of the others.

The different personalities of the character pieces show through in even the smallest movements; the castle (or rook) turning into a brick-formed brute is a stroke of genius.

I lost the first game. I blame my crush on the castleman.

Who gives a duck?

My favourite story behind Battle Chess, whether it’s true or not, is the one concerning the developer and the duck (Diane, note that title for my next children’s book). Wary of executive approval, he added a small illustration of a duck to the queen piece, to give his bosses something to critique instead of taking out something he actually liked and worked hard on. Sure enough, they removed the duck and approved everything else. A ‘duck’ is now a common term for including something superfluous as ‘bait’ to be taken out.

I lost the second game. I blame daydreaming about that duck.

The Thinker

One of my favourite things about Battle Chess is the idle animation, characterised by Rodin’s The Thinker sitting on a PC.

I lost the third game. I blame thinking about The Thinker.

Give it a few more knights*

*I’m sorry.

So it’s going to be a while before I’m ready to play an actual physical game of chess. But that’s okay as there are apparently 30,000+ opening sequences to play through. On the upside, maybe by that time someone would have made a version based on characters in The X-Files.

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…

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.

Five games that gave me Tetris Syndrome

Tetris Syndrome is the result of repeating an action to the point that you start to act out or hallucinate the motions in real life – like piecing Tetris blocks together. It’s not limited to gaming, though that’s where the idea comes from.

Tetris Syndrome is also known as Tetris Effect, but that now means something else in our gaming world.

1. Tetris

tetris-mega-drive

No surprise there.

I regularly envisage things slotting together when I’m out and about – brick walls, high-rise buildings, people in my yoga class. It’s ingrained from years of playing Tetris, though it’s even worse when I’ve just been playing it. Sometimes I involuntarily fit blocks together in my mind as I’m drifting off to sleep, or just waking up.

On the plus side, it’s very useful for packing for holiday, cramming useless items into tiny cupboards and stacking the dishwasher. That sounds facetious, but I really do believe it helps. How can it not? It’s not like all those years of rotating shapes was a complete waste of time. Is it? IS IT?

2. The Witness

D7ezL3pXoAAD4-W

Seriously, I really did draw a mental beam of light down my cat’s arm.

Anyone who’s extensively played The Witness will know that a large part of the game is spent trying to draw light beams from anything that remotely resembles a circle with a path under it. It means your brain is trained to look for this pattern everywhere – and it doesn’t take long before that extends into real life.

Cats, shower heads, fried eggs, zebra crossings… I’m surrounded!

Finding these pathways is kind of a side mission in the game, and as such the player is only partly engaged with the idea as they go about solving the main puzzles. I think that’s quite key – it easily becomes a subconscious pattern-seeking compulsion because it sits in the back of your mind, even when you stop playing.

3. Thimbleweed Park

Thimbleweed Park speck of dust

In Thimbleweed Park you can pick up tiny specks of dust while exploring the kooky town. It’s also an achievement to collect all of them, so that was me addicted from the outset. The fact that I’ve spent so much time playing it means I am now cursed to spot a tiny pixel of dust wherever I go.

Sometimes this is actual dust when I’ve been lax on the cleaning, so not all bad.

There’s also an achievement for not collecting any specks of dust, which I dutifully fulfilled. I think that merely enhanced the syndrome, since you still have to notice them to avoid picking them up.

4. Doom

Doom 1993

I’ve been playing Doom a lot lately (you haven’t noticed?)

This is really quite embarrassing, but I’ve found myself strafing around the house a few times. Yeah. Picture that for a moment.

If I go through a narrow doorway and I’m looking for someone (human/feline), an apparently innate instinct makes me flinch to the side when I see them. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been trying really hard to improve my strategy in Doom instead of relying on my weapons. Particularly when it came to that cyberdemon – I think that was when I was at the peak of my household strafing.

Who knows, it could come in handy one day?

5. The ‘undo’ shortcut (okay, four games)

command-z

This is a super weird one. You know Command-z (Control-z on Windows)? At my last job when I used InDesign extensively, ‘undo’ was a useful shortcut. I’d use it all the time. I like to think I was meticulous rather than constantly making mistakes, but that’s beside the point.

Around the time of a really heavy workload I’d catch myself thinking I could undo my actions away from the computer. So I’d put something in the cupboard at home and then think, no wait I still need that, UNDO. Or I’d turn the TV over then want to turn it back again. UNDO. It was a very weird point in my life. It was extremely subtle and I only just caught myself doing it, and would then think, what the… what am I DOING?!

Of course, it would be pretty handy having an undo button in life. Though if everyone did, it could get messy.

Am I worried?

No, not really. I quite like these little intricacies of our brains. It means there’s a lot of complex stuff going on in there – and a lot of it subliminal. There’s evidence that programmers who develop Tetris Syndrome get better at coding. Our brains are learning these patterns in case we want to use them again.

And when you’re (still) trying to beat the world Tetris record, that can be handy.

Have you been affected by Tetris Syndrome? I can’t provide a Helpline, but I would like to hear about it in the comments.

What happens when an adventure gamer plays a first-person shooter?

I like to think I’m open-minded about different genres, but really I’m an adventure gamer at heart. I enjoy following stories, collecting things and solving puzzles. Anything that involves firing bullets just doesn’t appeal to me – I’m not talking about the odd kill, but where the main strategy is to blast everyone to bits.

However when it comes to food, I’ll try pretty much anything – and that mostly ends well. So I’m going to apply this same logic to gaming – the classic shooter is a category that’s eluded me for a while, and it’s about time I addressed that.

Doom_cover_art

I didn’t need long to decide which game would be best suited to pop my FPS cherry. Doom (1993) is the absolute natural choice – a trailblazer in the world of first-person shooters with its 3D graphics, multiplayer network and endless opportunity for mods. It has such a reputation among my peers – and it’s deliciously old-school.

Doom-quote

id Software was also responsible for Commander Keen, one of my favourite DOS games as a child. And, you know, since Doomguy is Billy Blaze’s son and all. So I hopped onto Steam and parted with the teensy sum of £3.99 (€4-ish) and only 28MB of storage (another reason why old games are great).

I’ve got my beer. I’ve got my volume up.

Here we go.

Image of Doom title screen

This looks delightfully classic. There’s my ammo, health, arms, armour (sorry, I can’t not put a ‘U’ in that), and various ammo counters.

And there’s a tiny, enraged Doomguy head, ready to FIGHT!

Image of Doom episode selection screen

Episode selection time. I’m opting for the first, in the hope that if it all goes tits-up I can hide among the bodies.

Image of Doom skill level selection screen

Choose your skill level. Well obviously I’m going for the easiest. Don’t raise your eyebrow at me Doomguy! This ain’t no Keen!

Image of first level of Doom
‘The pool is currently closed.’

It seems that some of my enemies have been killed for me already, which is nice. At first I thought that was a concession because I’m playing on the lowest difficulty, but apparently it’s the same regardless. On that note I’m loving the graphics – from my observations of modern FPS games I can totally see how Doom laid down the concept. I really like the music too. It’s spurring me on. Grr!

What I would’ve liked is a bit of story at the beginning. Sure, I don’t have the boxed version which probably had some lore in it. But on-screen would be nice, too. I don’t really know why I’m here – just that I’m in a nightmarish maze world, fighting zombie soldiers and pink monsters. I like to have a clear objective (I guess that comes from adventure gaming too).

But it’s nice how everything is contained – unlike the more modern fighting games which just seem endless and open-ended. This is quite arcade-like, which suits me.

Image of collecting health in Doom
On reflection, I should’ve screengrabbed the actual health

I’ve picked up some health. I guess that’s mostly intended for the harder levels when you’d need it after killing the guys that are pre-killed for me here. I’m a bit OCD about collecting everything, even if unnecessary. That might be my downfall.

Oh hey, my health status went up though, so maybe not so unnecessary. Perhaps this is hyper strength, like steroids (don’t look down, Doomguy). I suppose that means I’ll have more health to spare when I get a battering. I got some armour, too. The little helmets remind me of the TV show, Knightmare.

I’m using the classic controls, by the way. So the arrow cursors to move around, Ctrl to fire, Spacebar to open doors. It’s how I would’ve played it in the day. I could opt to override that with an XBox controller, but I won’t just yet. It’s nice and simple – not many keys to remember, and no double joints required. It’s running through DOSBox (via Steam).

Image of armour suit in Doom
ArmoUr

That looks useful! A neon green military vest. This puts my armour up to 100%, nice. A big boost like that is usually indicative of an imminent challenge, and I’m right.

Heeeeere’s Johnny!

Image of first enemy on easy level of Doom

The enemies are quite difficult to spot in some parts of the game, even when they’re ahead as opposed to behind you or to the side. There’s a bit of warning before they get too close though, and yes, okay, to get to the point that first kill was very satisfying. Is it too late to backtrack on my abhorrence of weapon-based games?

A couple of hours later…

I’m loving this game. The levels after that really open up, and I found myself really getting into it. I mean, really immersed in a way that I perhaps wouldn’t be with an adventure game. In a classic point-and-click where you’re exploring, meeting characters and scouring for inventory items it’s a much more laid-back experience. In a FPS you’re required to be focussed and alert the whole time, in case an imp or demon comes bumbling out of nowhere. There’s no time to admire some Caribbean scenery or amusing dialogue – it’s thrash or be thrashed.

Image from Doom showing Hangar level finish

And I can completely see how games like Doom are so addictive. I now understand my husband’s reluctance to be nourished and watered when in the midst of a killing spree. It’s much harder to find a stopping point than in a story-based adventure. There are few moments where it feels right to abandon a mission, apart from at the end of a level.

The progression feels really nice, too. It’s pretty easy at the start, but gradually increases in complexity with more weapon options, varying enemies and more labyrinthine environments (I’m too embarrassed to say how long I was floundering about in the Computer Station).

Image of the Computer Station map in Doom
The Computer Station level map

Everyone loves a good Help menu

I had a slight panic when I realised I didn’t know how to switch weapons then, hey, here’s a handy screen! In the days of yore we didn’t need any of your fancy tutorials, but a Help screen like this is actually pretty useful. It also showed me that there’s a map (not that it helped me in my Computer Station stumbling – some people just can’t navigate for crap).

Image of Doom Help screen

In terms of fun factor, my favourite weapon has to be the chainsaw. It’s not that practical since you can’t use it from afar, but it’s so delightfully gory. Speaking in 2018 at the WAD conference (Doom’s Development: A Year of Madness), Romero remembers that they had a chainsaw in the studio, borrowed from Tom Hall’s girlfriend, to use as a reference for the art.

Doom-quote 2

I love that. They simply made a chainsaw look like a chainsaw. It’s that simplicity that I love, and what I think is so appealing about the game. There are no complex side missions or things to piece together – just stages to progress through.

I guess the complexity at the time – for both the creators and players – was in the 3D format. Along with Wolfenstein 3D it cemented the 3D shooter genre for decades to come, and it’s still thriving. It’s so easy to overlook given how far game design has come since, but at the time it was pioneering.

It’s almost ironic that my preconceptions about not liking games like Doom probably came from what I’ve seen of modern FPS games like Far Cry – open-world, lifelike, heavy duty gaming that is far too epic for my tastes. It seems all I had to do was look to the past, to the origins of the FPS to find one that I’d enjoy. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up playing through the whole evolution until I become a fan of the modern varieties.

The gosh-darn-it verdict

So, I’m pleasantly surprised. In playing Doom I’ve made an unlikely addition to my list of treasured DOS games. I’m still playing while I write this up. Afterwards I might try my hand at Wolfenstein and Half-Life. I’d also like to sample some of the many Doom mods that are out there.

Adventure games will always be top of my list, but it’s fun exploring genres that are outside of my comfort zone – especially when they contain an important piece of gaming history.

And hell, it’s nice to find a chainsaw that can actually be used.