Tag: retrogaming

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.

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?

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.

Tetris Effect: my favourite game on acid

That heading makes it sound like I enjoyed it. Spoiler: I did not.

Like most kids who grew up in the 90s, Tetris has long been one of my favourite games. I first played it on the Game Boy, then religiously on my Mega Drive (before you get excited, it’s a knock-off multicart). Its simple, tile-placing format makes it the perfect game for mindless achievement – since my childhood I’ve whiled away countless hours trying to beat the current world record holder (only 813,133 points off).

Tetris-Game Boy
Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy, 1989

So when I heard about Monstars Inc/Resonair’s Tetris Effect I was cautiously excited. Cautiously, because whenever there’s a reboot or remake of anything my standard response is disappointment. The art of revamping a treasured classic while retaining what made it so great is nigh on impossible.

It’s no surprise, then, that I’m not a fan. As I suspected, the snazzy effects are all too much. I didn’t really feel nostalgic in the warmest sense – it was more like back in the 90s someone had come along and set my TV on fire in the middle of my game (‘warm’ in the wrong sense).

Tetris-3
What Tetris piece?

Sure, the visuals and music are impressive, and there are some clever subtleties – such as the music matching your movements, which is reminiscent of other rhythmic games I’ve enjoyed (She Wants Me Dead). But the pumping, club-scene overlay is far too overwhelming and detracts so much from the game (especially on higher levels). The concept is supposedly inspired by the so-called Tetris effect (or Tetris syndrome), which I find a bit ironic given that ultimately you can’t see the blocks well enough to hallucinate them later. The ‘effects’ are more like side effects from a migraine.

Tetris-2
What eyesight?

I can hear people saying ‘that’s the point – it makes it a harder game!’ And I guess that’s key – the aim of Tetris Effect is quite different from classic Tetris. It’s not just about clearing lines and maintaining technique in faster-paced levels; it’s doing those things through a filter of increasingly trippy neon animations. Some of them are pretty, but it’s almost a bit cheap – I would prefer to see variations in the actual puzzle mechanics.

EuroGamer named Tetris Effect their 2018 Game of the Year, stating ‘It makes for the perfect drug’. Perhaps, then, I’m missing the point – it’s not about nostalgia, more about transporting the player to an ‘altered state’. While that works with games like Rez (also produced by Mizuguchi), I don’t think it blends well with what people recognise from the original game. That’s overcomplicating the classic premise of Tetris.

Sure enough, Eurogamer goes on to say ‘I don’t think gaming gets any purer than this’ – and this is my issue. It’s not ‘pure’ Tetris at all – it’s quite the opposite. Tetris was successful because it used a very basic concept of slotting tiles together against the clock – it didn’t need over-styling. Why overcomplicate a game that thrived on its simplicity?

Tetris-4
I guess that’s quite nice

I accept, begrudingly, that this opinion is probably what you’d expect from a stubborn, traditionalist gamer like me. It ain’t like it used to be, yada yada, suck on a Werther’s, grandma. I know. While I’m not a fan of remakes it’s good to see developers playing with dated concepts and refreshing old game mechanics, and I bet a lot of ‘modern’ gamers would enjoy this one.

And sure, my beloved Mega Drive Tetris had dinosaurs and stone henge among its backgrounds, which could be considered distractions in themselves, though they were static and didn’t make me swirly-eyed. It also didn’t cost the equivalent of £30.

I have only played the demo, so I can’t speak for the whole game. I’ve also heard good things about the VR version, if you like that kind of immersion (it won ‘Best VR/AR game’ at the 2018 Game Critics Awards).

From what I’ve seen so far, Tetris Effect has mostly met with positive reviews, particularly with critics – but I’ve seen mixed opinions from gamers themselves.

Have you played Tetris Effect? What did you think?

My 2018 in video games: a (short) review

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

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

The Cave (Double Fine, 2013)

TheCave-Monk

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

8/10

What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)

Edith-Finch

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

7/10

Maniac Mansion (LucasFilm, 1987)

Maniac-Mansion

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

7.5/10

Thomas Was Alone (Mike Bithell, 2012)

Thomas-Was-Alone

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

6.5/10

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

Midnight-Scenes

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

8/10

The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1990)

Monkey-Island

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

9/10

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

MI2

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

10/10

Inside (Playdead, 2016)

Inside

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

8/10

Little Nightmares (Tarsier Studios, 2017)

Little-Nightmares

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

7/10

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

Hidden-Folks

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

8/10

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

Postscript: my favourite video game music in 2018

First games on my first platforms

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

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

Amstrad IBM CPC (MS-DOS): Battle Chess

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

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

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

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

Sega Mega Drive II: The Lion King

The-Lion-King

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

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

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

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

Nintendo DSi: Bomberman Blitz

Bomberman

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

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

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

Playstation 4: CounterSpy

Counterspy

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

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

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

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

Android OS: She Wants Me Dead

SheWantsMeDead

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas musings

Toejam-santa

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

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

Making connections

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

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

Writing

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

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

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

So that’s it, really.

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

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