THE MINI SNES SAGA 2: EARTHBOUND REVIEW – “HARDLY DOWN TO EARTH”

INTRODUCTION

I know I hinted at Contra III last week, but I’m still working on Bloodborne DLC and I needed some sort of stress break. Maybe next time, though let’s be fair – maybe not. Probably not.

Instead, I finally carved another meaningful notch into the chipped, paint-flaking bedpost of my gaming knowledge. Earthbound was one of those titles I’d been hearing about for years, spoken about with the reverent tones of somebody discussing a religious event. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help but be a bit baffled by all this rumour, like hearing somebody talk about Bigfoot sightings. I know UnderTale raised the game’s profile in recent years by planting its flag firmly as one of Earthbound’s descendants, and the Mother series does stretch beyond this single game, but it was weird how all I’d heard was the rumour, you know? Almost no memorabilia, no posters, no sign of a wider continuity, none of the things you’d expect to see for a game that was so apparently legendary. Occasionally I’d get the equivalent of a silhouette amongst the trees, such as a cameo in Smash Bros. or a single, Earthbound-themed Amiibo (the second one of which shouldn’t count for much because even the Wii Fit Trainer got a bloody Amiibo), but I still felt I had no idea about what the game was.

Well, now I got my Mini SNES, I finally get to photo Bigfoot myself, so let’s see if people remember it too fondly, or whether they forgot about it too quick. Earthbound, that is, not Bigfoot.

 

STORY

“Oh, goodie, a chance to name my character and all the members of my team,” I thought as the game started. I ended up calling the hero by my own magnificent moniker, because that’s a cheap and easy way to provoke a bit of investment, but then I decided that if this was a role-playing game then I was going to roleplay, namely somebody characterised by poisonous levels of misanthropy. So when it came to labelling Lil’ Joel’s ragtag bunch o’ buddies and harrowed household pets, I named them Slave, Serf, Woman and Dog, not in reference to what I thought they might be called, but to how my absolute bastard of an avatar would be thinking of them. Though just to keep things interesting, those names weren’t assigned to the characters you think they would be.

And then just to make matters better, I got to pick out my character’s favourite food and hobby. Oh, Earthbound, you spoil me! Lil’ Joel’s psychotic tendencies meant a plate of congealed blood was his meal of choice, and what he liked to do in his spare time is best left unmentioned, though it kept the bodily fluids theme going admirably.

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I bet you didn’t think that Grimer could let itself go even more.

So the rough plot starts thusly: whatever your name, you play a small boy in a baseball cap living in small-town America (oh, sorry – I mean small-town Eagleland), who wakes up in the middle of the night when a meteorite lands on the next hill over, and right away I worked out something very peculiar about Earthbound that seems to give it an identity all of its own – it’s genuinely creepy in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, yet doesn’t feel totally intentional, and now I shall have to explain why.

It all comes down to a matter of not feeling quite real enough. The town of Onett feels a little too American, a little overly-emblematic of what it’s supposed to represent, but at the same time doesn’t quite seem to understand the particulars and keeps getting small but important details wrong. It’s almost like being in a sequel to The Stepford Wives, one in which the androids seem to have replaced all the townsfolk except for you and a couple of other people. Sure, everything will seem normal, but then your loving mother will give you a vacant smile and say “Sure thing, sweetie, why not go out sneaking past armed police barriers at two in the morning to find a burning meteorite we don’t know anything about? And better bring your sister’s baseball bat in case you have to defend yourself from the increasingly aggressive townsfolk. Boy, I do love drinking this Ovaltine.” Or look to a scene later on, when you ask the local police chief if you can get past a barricade, whereupon he takes you into a backroom and sets five burly cops on you just to see if you can handle yourself.

Thanks, Officer Crazy. You’re the only one we can depend on to Protect and Serve (me my own teeth).

And when it’s not being weird it’s being downright Lynchian, such as one early scene where your next-door neighbours coldly tell you that your parents have borrowed so much money off them that they’re going bankrupt as a result, and I felt myself squirming uncomfortably as though I’d just found out something that I wasn’t supposed to. It certainly makes the fact that dad just wired me twenty bucks feel a bit awkward, though I’d be buggered if I was going to give it back at that point.

I’ll say now that none of this is bad, far from it. Earthbound’s combination of twee, childish innocence and subtle darker themes is pulled off in a way I’ve rarely seen before, mainly by ensuring that the nasty stuff is kept infrequent and to the background, and as a result it feels like the central group of kids never really understands its significance.

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Er… Hooray?

But the point is we go to see the meteorite, whereupon a bumblebee from the future shows up and tells us that ten years from now the world will be destroyed by a monster named Giygas, and the fact that everybody is getting more and more aggressive is a hint of what’s to come. In order to stop this, you have to go and collect eight funky beats from around the world that’ll apparently mellow out the Lovecraftian horror to the point where he’s just content to groove back to the 8th Dimension without destroying anything. That’s the theory at least, except even though I haven’t beaten the game yet I still get the feeling we might have to personally rap Giygas on the knuckles before this is all over. Call me paranoid, but it’s just this hunch I have.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

I’m sorry to harp on about this, but even here it’s creepy! Whereas last week Megaman X had a whole style and aesthetic to call its own, Earthbound just feels peculiar. Environments look perfectly fine in the forty-five degree perspective, but the characters feel like they’re a few pixels too small for all the detail that the artists want to cram in, and consequently they look distorted and bizarre, such as the people who have three-quarters of their head taken up by a gurning, red-lipped mouth. Hindsight counts for a lot, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the years since Earthbound, it’s to draw character models with neutral expressions, because the audience can impose emotion over the top of that without too much mental strain. But when somebody with aggressive intentions and a fixed smile is advancing on you, it’s scarier than the rednecks in Resident Evil 7. Things improve immeasurably when you go into combat and the sprites have more space to breath, but there’s still elements that feel peculiar and a bit unnerving.

It’s given an extra layer of WTF by the fact that the whole thing feels like it was made by adults channeling the ideas of children, with mixed success. The visuals certainly look like pixel-art recreations of a kid’s drawings, which would certainly explain away all the misaligned facial features and the occasional wonky perspective. And even when it looks good, it has the style of a cartoon, right down to the extraneous features added on that makes it look like something from a Saturday morning show. I’ve no idea why the crows all wear sunglasses or what makes a pogo stick a formidable weapon in the hands of a gang member, but that’s playground logic for you. The day it stands up to proper questioning is the day it stops being what makes it special.

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Ah, the creepy circus at nighttime. What could go murderous? Wrong! I meant wrong. I definitely meant to say… Well, let’s just forget about it for now.

GAMEPLAY

So I walked out of momma’s house with my bat and baseball cap equipped, and immediately saw a little sprite of a snake wriggling towards me. One human/serpent collision later, and I was presented with a battle screen and what appeared to be the usual kind of turn-based combat we’ve all come to expect from early RPGs.

What makes this combat unique is a certain amount of nuance and a pleasantly laissez-faire approach to the whole thing. Taking damage doesn’t immediately take a chunk off your health bar, instead it ticks downwards over a period of time and can be alleviated by ending the fight quickly. Or if you’re up against a weak enemy, there’s an auto-fight button that allows you to slap at the guy in front of you, and reflexively use your healing power when you get into serious trouble. And best of all, if you’re attacked by an enemy so piddlingly pathetic that there’s no challenge whatsoever, Earthbound doesn’t even bother to let the fight start. The enemy automatically dies and you get the measly experience reward and items without having to lift a finger.

This last one is a brilliant idea and one which I really wish had become standard practice in the decades since. Yes, turn-based combat can be fun when done properly (I’ve been playing a lot of Darkest Dungeon over the last few months and so should you), but being set upon by enemies who can’t provide challenge isn’t anything more than busywork. Taking them out of the equation is like having an option in Pokémon Blue that stops you getting abused by cave-dwelling Zubats or all those bloody Tentacool.

(And yes, I know there were repels on sale in every shop you found, but that’s the game just selling you a solution to a problem it created, so shush yo’ mowf.)

But here’s the thing – these are all good ideas for the turn-based combat, but the core combat itself is just sort of… basic. It’s certainly serviceable and given a bit of spice by being quite challenging, but all the stuff above is only methods of alleviating the problems that come with this kind of gameplay. What they aren’t is a unique selling point that captures the imagination or adds a new layer of tactics to the gameplay, like XCOM’s base management, Steamworld: Heist’s ricochet mechanics, or Civilisation’s oddly nuke-happy Mahatma.

And again, I know what everybody’s going to say: the game was invented in the 90’s before the time when turn-based combat had become quite so standardised, and can’t be blamed for being part of the phase that caused that standardisation later; much in the way that you can’t blame Tolkien for every other fantasy writer stealing elements from Lord of the Rings.

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Hello, Mr. Saturn. Is it off to work you go?

And I certainly don’t think less of Earthbound for that fact, but this isn’t the 90’s anymore, and I’m more interested in seeing how these games hold up, especially considering that Nintendo is still charging money for them. The best thing Earthbound has to a defining USP is the fact that you can bring multiple characters into battle, but even then this wasn’t especially new and doesn’t really shake up the gameplay in the way you’d hope.

And while I’m getting comfortable complaining, the game is rather poor at telling things to you that could be very important. Remember earlier how I mentioned that my in-game Pa had wired me twenty bucks? Well, I presumed the way to make more money was to scavenge items from defeated enemies and flog them at the drugstore, because nobody had had told me any different and this was all I had to go on. But this turned out to be a very slow and unreliable method of saving up, because not all enemies drop items and when they do they’re usually not worth squat, as you’d expect for a stale cookie that’s had two previous owners (ew).

But I persevered until I’d scraped together about forty bucks, and went to stick my handful of crumpled bills in the ATM for safe-keeping. So it was only then that I realised that Dad had given me five hundred dollars and neglected to mention it. What?! No wonder the neighbours are bankrupt if we’ve borrowed enough cash to pay Joel Jr. several grand per week! And consequently when I went to buy all the best weapons and armour with my new wealth, my stats made me feel over-levelled, because I’d spent the last two hours kicking snakes to death for handfuls of spare change, not realising that my father was also try to play the role of my sugar daddy (again, ew).

 

CONCLUSION

Looking back over the review, I wonder why I like Earthbound as much as I honestly do, because I’m not entirely sure what it’s done to deserve it. I remember playing it and enjoying it, but now I feel hard-pressed to justify that. If the gameplay was a bit unimaginative, the visuals were janky and they weren’t telling me stuff I need to know, then what on Earth was I getting out of the experience?

It might be because of the difficulty, which became startlingly well-balanced for tension once I got over the initial up-down bump in the road caused by Dad holding out on me. Or it might be because of the item and power rewards, which are varied and palpable and motivate you to keep playing.

Or it might just because of how weird it all is. Yeah, I think that might be it. Even now I’m not entirely sure how much of Earthbound’s surreal, slightly uncomfortable atmosphere is intentional, but I don’t think it really matters, because it’s there regardless and certainly makes it feel different to anything else I’ve played.

In fact, nearly everything that’s wrong with this game is somehow made to work for it, turning the errors and lapses in style into a style all of its own, like a demented, flea-bitten puppy with several chunks taken out of its ears (shout-out to the mysterious dog who wandered over to my table at that moment to inadvertently provide inspiration for that simile, who’s a good boy?). It feels like the kids who starred in the game were the ones making it, and luckily they just happened to be very talented.

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I wanna see the bloody car crash! I wanna see!

So Earthbound gets a recommendation, but I think it’s worth discussing exactly what we can learn from a game that has created this enduring legacy despite everything wrong with it. being viewed poorly by critics at the time, and being the only game in the Mother trilogy to get a Western release, so unconvinced were Nintendo by its ability to stand on its own merits. In this era where the main industry is falling to more rampant homogenisation than ever and companies are stumbling over each other to cram in more brown-haired white guys and sodding loot boxes, how much goodwill does it really buy you? I don’t mean financial success, but how many places in people’s personal Top Ten Lists? How much ‘twoo wuv,’ to quote The Princess Bride?

It’s a tricky question, because being enjoyable isn’t actually synonymous with being memorable, or even interesting. Take Overwatch, for example. Overwatch is fun to play and I wouldn’t ever claim otherwise, but everything unique about it was hammered into the ground in order to force it to be as marketable as possible, with one of the most tedious superhero plots I’ve ever heard (and I’ve read Youngblood) and the vast majority of its characters reduced to maybe two basic ideas at most, and as a result there’s nothing there that has me thinking about it when the match is over. It’s filler, it’s fast food, it’s Modern Family.

By contrast, I can think of some heavily flawed but fascinating games that I would recommend in a heartbeat, and that stay in my thoughts far longer than Blizzard’s polished perpetual profit machine. Sunless Sea, for example. Or Bioshock Infinite. Or Quadrilateral Cowboy, Elite: Dangerous, Papers Please, and, for that matter, Earthbound.

 


8.5/10 

If Calvin and Hobbes made a video game, I suspect it might be a lot like this. Immature, clumsy, patchwork and downright surreal at times, it all somehow comes together and becomes something very special for it. Play it if you get the chance, because you probably won’t find this sort of thing anywhere else.

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THE MINI SNES SAGA 1: MEGAMAN X REVIEW – “X-CITING, X-TREME, X-CRUTIATING”

INTRODUCTION

So recently I was fortunate enough to acquire one of those oh-so-unreasonably-rare Mini SNES’s, mainly through a combination of insomnia, cosmic good fortune and the kind of reflexes more commonly associated with professional gunfighters, only a lot less useful/cool.

And it provided me with an interesting opportunity both to see how Nintendo’s back catalogue holds up over twenty years later, but also to see what I missed from the decade that I was born in, the dark era documented in tattered scraps of persevered history as the Nineties. Sure, I remember playing video games as early as four years old, but even by then it was 1998 and the SNES was dutifully making way for the approach of the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation (not to mention whatever the hell Sega was putting out, I think it might’ve been the Saturn).

So most of what I know about the SNES had to be retroactively hunted down in the years hence. I’d played a few of the Mini SNES library before – I not sure you can call yourself a gamer without playing Street Fighter II at least once, and I still consider Super Mario World to be one of the best platformers of all time – but I hadn’t tried all of them, and the one I went to first was something that had slipped me until now: Megaman X. As a matter of fact, I’d never even played a Megaman game before, but certain infamous box covers had led me to believe it concerned the adventures of a wonky, middle-aged man dancing in the middle of a Dubai firefight. Time to see if I was on the money.

 

STORY

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on in Megaman X, because I’m not convinced the game itself is entirely sure. To begin with there’s a rather prolonged Star Wars text crawl that dumps a ton of information on you, most of which I glazed over and forgot within minutes. I was genuinely trying to pay attention and I can usually swallow some of this stuff, but it’s a mish-mash of uninteresting science-fiction ideas on a glaringly ugly background without any humour or pictures to lighten it up.

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“Take that, Mecha-Moleman! My 80’s hair compels you to return to whence you came!”

At some point you’ve seen something like it, either in games or film. IN THE YEAR 20XX MANKIND HAS CREATED WORKING ROBOT SLAVES THAT CAN THINK AND FEEL AND FOR SOME REASON HAVE A LOT OF WEAPONRY AND NO OFF-SWITCH AND THEY MIGHT GO EVIL, AND APPARENTLY ASIMOV’S LAWS OF ROBOTICS ARE PROGRAMMED IN, BUT THEY’RE MORE LIKE PLAINTIVE SUGGESTIONS THAN ANYTHING REALLY CONCRETE, SO I GUESS THE PROGRAMMERS BUGGERED THAT UP ROYAL, AND I’VE MADE THIS NEW ROBOT CALLED “X” THAT NEEDS THIRTY YEARS OF HAVING HIS BALL-BEARINGS TWIDDLED BEFORE HE’S PROPERLY FUNCTIONAL AND NOT EVIL, SO SOMEBODY SET THE TIMER PLEASE SO WE CAN HAVE HIM BLOW STUFF UP WHEN HE’S DONE.

I found this whole concept slightly weird, and more than a little nonsensical, even getting past the robotics and sci-fi laser fighting. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to create artificial, autonomous life that is sentient and can make choices is a perfectly serviceable premise, but I’m not sure it’s much of a choice if “X” has to spend three decades having all the nastiness wired out of his robot brain. You go to all the trouble of building an AI with self-determination, and your first instinct is to try and undo that? And why are they being mass-produced when they could all potentially decide NOT to do whatever we want them to, and just become an enormous problem to be dealt with? Oh, guess what’s happened now.

Whatever, I leapt into the game proper, and then became even more confused, especially when I started going on the internet for clarification. The first thing we get is a rather nifty tutorial stage with X running along a highway blasting robots, but the Wiki page went on about the ruins of a research lab and the enemies being called “Mavericks,” a name which I don’t think I saw anywhere in the game whatsoever. I’m guessing this is all found in a wider continuity from cartoons and manga that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot barge pole on the end of another, longer barge pole. I ain’t reading “Baby’s First Philip K. Dick,” no matter how confused I get.

So I’ll stick to the stuff I did comprehend, like the first mission. X leaps into the fray and bounces through several highways laying waste to various robo-thugs, but then has the bad sense to leap into a supposed-to-lose boss fight with a guy named Sigma, who looks like Shovel Knight got dragged into the Marvel 2099 continuity. Sigma promptly pounds X into the floor and is about to permanently send him to the big blue error screen in the sky, whereupon some ostentatious git named Zero leaps in to save him with the power of his blonde ponytail and 80’s fashion sense. Sigma flees back to his fortress and Zero says, “Blimey, you arsed this up. Maybe we should meet again when you don’t suck quite so much and have another go at this, hmm?”

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X chooses his next target for destruction, much like Agent 47 would…

And that’s the storytelling engine, such as it is. X goes around defeating robot bosses and scavenging their parts to add more weapons onto himself, and one thing I actually really like is that you can tackle the bosses in whatever order you want, which feels like the “X has a choice” concept actually coming into gameplay in some fashion, so good work there. Admittedly the bosses aren’t narratively developed in the slightest beyond an animal theme and some incidental height/weight stats (including the bewildering news that the ten-foot tall metal elephant somehow only weighs seven hundred pounds), but I still want to beat them, because I want to eat their processors from their crumpled chassis, and gain their courage and strength for myself. Besides, once I’m done I’ll get to beat up Sigma properly and show up Zero to be the ponce he is, though spoiler alert: that hair-swishing bastard will still find some way to hog the spotlight, whatever it takes.

 

AUDIOVISUAL DESIGN

Call me a sucker for well-crafted pixel art, but I really liked how Megaman X looks, with a few X-ceptions. It’s bright and vibrant and colourful in that way that most SNES games are, though at times becomes a bit too much and gets into that slightly garish level that feels like it’s taking the top layer of skin off your pupils (which presumably would be your eyelids).

But this feeling was generally quite rare, and in most cases each location has a good colour scheme that doesn’t feel overly obtrusive, though the artist might’ve eased up on the use of gunmetal colouring. When even the trees have cybernetic parts hanging off them, you might want to ease up a tad on the concept.

That being said, I’m not as enthused about the music, though it’s not bad by any means. As a matter of fact, I went back to listen to it afterwards, and it’s actually fairly solid, if a little unmemorable in that “can’t really hum it” sort of way. But I never really noticed it in-game, for two reasons. First of all, the crazy-stupid difficulty means I’m diverting all the brainpower I have just to keep blasting bots, so there’s nothing left for the music appreciation club, and secondly it’s that X’s charge attack generates a horrible, high-pitched whine that makes me want to turn the volume down and obscures the music anyway. Between combat sections there’s no reason not to have your blaster charged and ready to fire, but you have to deal with the noise of a mosquito in an echo chamber as a result.

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By the power of Greyskull!

Overall Megaman X does come across as rather good-looking even now, sleek and detailed in a way that some artists still struggle to match. In comparison to the games of its time, some of which could barely create an aesthetic tone to begin with, it’s nearly a Da Vinci painting, achieving things the likes of which other titles couldn’t conceive of without limitless ambition and a couple of hallucinogenics.

 

GAMEPLAY

If you’ve played Megaman before, you know the core of what to expect. It’s a 2D platformer in which you are a little bionic Boy Blue who’s had one arm turned into a giant death cannon, because Doctor Light is many things but he never approved of masturbation. You’re teleported into a mission to do what you always do in platformers: keep running to the right and don’t stop until somebody puts you back into the map screen. If something gets in your way, you blast it, and if it drops something that isn’t rapidly flashing red, you pick it up. This particular instalment ups the ante by adding optional powers and the ability to wall-jump from the start, which certainly helps with exploration, but it’s a shame that everything that made Megaman X feel unique at the time has been copied and recopied to death by thousands of other games in the decades since then, sort of like what happened with fantasy books and Lord of the Rings.

But you know what was really stupid of me? The other game I was playing this week was Bloodborne. Jesus, I do myself no favours. I’d get squashed by Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos, and think “this is getting to me, I’ll play some Megaman to cool off.” Then I’d get pummelled into the dirt by that sodding chameleon and think “God damn it, I’ll go and relax with some Bloodborne.” It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking a lot of caffeine, or I think my heart would’ve physically torn itself from my chest in abject rage and frustration.

Yes, Megaman X is hard, and whilst I’m normally OK with that, there are bits of it that come across a bit cheap. Actually, a lot cheap, and that bird boss is somehow the least of it. I think it’s the movement speed that provides the biggest problem. Fighting regular enemies is usually fine, but most of the bosses seem to have been designed for a protagonist about thirty percent faster than X, and with a bit more manoeuvrability; not to mention that they have the agonising tactic of backing you against a wall and forcing you to take damage again as you push through them to escape. And god help you if you decided to play Percy Penguin’s Icy Igloos after all the other levels, because without the dash ability you get there, you’ll really struggle against all those nimble bastards who will try and sit on you if you stop for even a second.

But the idea of armour mods is innately a very cool one. You always get a new weapon at the end of every level, but actual modifications to your core armour and abilities are optional unlockables, hidden throughout certain levels. Some of these are boring (a contextual ability to smash the right kind of brick with your head, snore) but some are a lot more exciting, like the power to charge up your main weapon even more and fire the Curly Purple DNA Helix of Death, which’ll instantly destroy anything that doesn’t get its own theme music. One armour mod even halves all the damage you take, which seems a bit much, especially considering that it’s very, very easy to miss most of these. I hope you’re not scaling the challenge on the assumption that I have all these trinkets, Capcom, because that’s one hell of an assumption to make when you’re hiding the Master Blaster behind an entirely unintuitive path that demands a fiddly pixel-perfect trick jump using an ability the player probably doesn’t have yet, you bastards.

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Take THIS, Lonesome George!

And oddly enough and in contrast to common sense, the difficulty actually goes down as you progress. All the levels, potentially consumed in any order, therefore have to provide the same level of challenge, so whilst they do start off hard eventually you’ll get lucky and come out with a new weapon. Then it’s a matter of finding which of the bosses is vulnerable to that weapon (there’s always one) and finishing him off. Now you have two new weapons, and things are really starting to snowball now. By the time I was picking off the remnants of Sigma’s henchmen, I was just hanging on the edge of a wall and firing homing rockets at anywhere there was room for them. The last level against Sigma himself ramps up the challenge again (partly by being longer than one of those desert super-marathons, and about as physically draining), but it’s still easier than those early missions that’ll slap you around like they’re being paid to do so.

 

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, Megaman X is still good, which is something it should be proud of. It’s certainly aged better than one might’ve hoped, and I think part of the reason for that is the conspicuous absence of the very kind of story I was dreading. The game almost seems to know that its narrative is the most eye-rolling kind of hokum, and as a result I think there’s about a dozen text boxes over the course of the entire thing. Maybe that was the point of the plot dump at the beginning, getting it out of the way so we can enjoy some running-shooting-jumping action.

Because it is enjoyable, and that’s easier to explain. Despite being difficult, the fact you can pick your levels from the start means you’re never stuck in one place, because you can say “sod this” and go kill somebody else halfway across the world. And whilst the core gameplay is almost too simple, the game knows how to drag every scrap of potential out of it that it can, testing the player’s reflexes, strategy and skill all at once and not relenting until you’ve really earnt your robo-killer badge.

So Megaman X is a really solid game both then and now, a little less unique and certainly not world-changing anymore, but neither is The Three Stooges and I won’t tire of eye-poking and nose-tweaking any time soon.

And now I’m done, I’m going to cool my frayed nerves by playing something less challenging. Hmm, how about this… Contra III?

 


8/10 

Megaman X remains a favourite of the era today, and it’s not hard to see why. Now a bit less special but still designed incredibly solidly, the game justifies its teeth-grinding difficulty with a sense of freedom and advancement that’s not easily found in a 2D platformer.

INDIANA JONES AND THE EMPEROR’S TOMB REVIEW – “WORLD’S GREATEST HAT RETRIEVAL SIMULATOR”

You know, it’s games like this which remind me why I like my job, which I’m sure is an opening statement that’ll endear me to nobody. I know that getting paid to play games and write about them sounds about as gruelling as licking the back of your teeth, but anything can lose appeal given time and a sense of obligation. Getting hired to perform creative and passionate lovemaking with the finalists of a Miss America contest on a daily basis would probably be pretty sweet to begin with too, but after six months you’ll have an unavoidable sense of ennui that can only be matched in intensity by the third-degree friction burns on your genitals. Such is life.

But it’s little moments of delighted surprise like this one that help remind me that games are still supposed to be fun, which is easy to forget when you’re only thinking about publishing schedules and what jokes might put you in court for libel. And sure, there’s occasionally a cruel, vengeful glee that can come from writing poison at a game that wasted your brain cells, but that’s still dependent on you playing something crappy beforehand. Remember, you still have to get bitten by the dog before you can enjoy kicking it up the arse in return.

But this here is a really good game that I just want to rant about, partly because it has personal significance to me and partly because it’s pretty damn good. Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb was a PS2 game from 2003 that actually manages to trump the first three Uncharted games in terms of quality. It might trump Nathan Drake’s fourth adventure as well, but I haven’t played that one yet, and I ain’t going to comment on the standards of games I haven’t played, not until IGN are happy to send me a monthly paycheck.

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Indy’s adventure for a lost Chinese gemstone goes relatively unremembered when compared to The Fate of Atlantis or The Infernal Machine.

See, I played The Emperor’s Tomb back when it came out, when I was just a nine-year old kid with a big love for Harrison Ford’s adventuring archaeologist. I had all the films on VHS, I had toys based around excavating worthless plastic trinkets from blocks of clay, and I even got my own bullwhip, which I was very dismayed to learn could NOT be used to wrap around protrusions like a makeshift grappling hook. But my love for all things Indy hung around, so when I saw a few days ago that IJATET was available on Good Old Games and for less money than the average pair of underpants, I double-checked that my threadbare Y-fronts were in no danger of turning into O-fronts during the next week and promptly snapped up this classic, curious to see if it still held up after nearly a decade and a half.

To go into more detail, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is an action-adventure game by LucasArts for the PS2, one that was basically trying take back everything that Lara Croft had co-opted. A world-trekking, swashbuckling, treasure-hunting, Nazi-punching, whip-cracking adventure, in which Indiana Jones is tasked by the Chinese government to find the “Heart of the Dragon,” a mythical black pearl from the Qin dynasty that has the same kind of ancient, vaguely nebulous magic that the Ark of the Covenant would approve of. Needless to say that the Third Reich have also got an interest in having a power level of over nine thousand, so now it’s a race against time as Indy must find the key that’ll open the tomb and allow him to take the pearl himself, either before either Hitler’s goons or a villainous Chinese Triad leader can get their hands on it.

On the surface it certainly sounds like an Indiana Jones plot, and that’s probably the greatest strength of The Emperor’s Tomb – it feels like we’re playing through a hypothetical fifth movie of the franchise, a film that just never made it to the silver screen.

Oh sorry, am I supposed to say it’s the hypothetical fourth movie? I forgot, it’s impossible to refer to this series without making some silly token reference to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being crap. Yeah, welcome to Nerd Culture 101, people. Do you also want me to mention how Aquaman has useless powers, which he doesn’t, or how “Vader” is German for father, which it isn’t?

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In combat every punch feels like it has real weight behind it, and the improvised, unplanned way fights tend to go make them feel wonderfully authentic.

But that’s boring to dwell on when there’s tasty, tasty violence to be discussed. One of the reasons that I feel confident in saying that The Emperor’s Tomb is superior to anything Uncharted could throw at you is that the combat engine is far better than the cover-based tedium that Nathan Drake seems to believe passes as a genuine gunfight. Instead, there’s something wonderfully scrappy and brutal about the way the fighting works here. The world is full of objects that can be picked up and used to clobber your way out of a situation, from a sturdy table leg to a ceremonial spear, and the always-accessible whip allows you to yank the enemy’s weapon out of their own hands for you to pinch, a technique that never fails to be impishly satisfying. And if there’s nothing solid to hit the villains with, you could always just draw your revolver or settle it with your own two fists.

It really is a testament to what a bit of careful character animation can offer to an experience. Indy fights exactly like how he should – like the underdog, using every means possible to overcome whatever forces are stacked against him, and consequently the game is all too happy for you to punch enemies in the balls or kick them when they’re lying down. Another wonderful little detail is that your hat can be knocked off your head if you’re struck in the right way, and you have to manually retrieve it yourself if you don’t want to keep looking at Doctor Jones’ PS2-era Lego man hair. There’s no mechanical reason why you need to get it and you can go on without it just fine, but the trope of retrieving his Fedora after a dangerous escape or fight sequence is such a staple of the series that it’s wonderful to see it become an organic part of the world.

The whole game is careful to keep the movies’ jubilant tone throughout, right to the point where you could understandably accuse it of perhaps not being as creative as it could’ve been. Every level practically has an equivalent moment in the films that you can draw a direct link to, and not just because the game is doing the classic scene transition of drawing red lines on a sepia-tone atlas. You start the story off in a trap-filled jungle temple a la Raiders, then there’s a scene with a rain-soaked Nazi castle straight from The Last Crusade, followed swiftly by some more Raiders when Herr Jackboot brings us to a bustling market city in the desert, then we go stealing from the Temple of Doom for a skirmish in a Chinese city, before we finally bounce back to Raiders one more time for an assault on the secret island base in a Nazi uniform, and we’re not even in act three of the story yet.

I’ll also say that the voice acting is a little dubious. Late actor David Esch has the unenviably tricky task of trying to recreate Harrison Ford’s dry monotone, and I’ll confess that he did a good enough job to make me wonder at first whether it really might be Han Solo in the driver’s seat. But the big problem is that he can’t keep the tone convincing whenever he has to show genuine panic or surprise. Indy’s disinterested cry of “whoa” when a giant crocodile shows up is about as convincing as two children in a tall coat, and the other voice actors can only aspire to that level. The chap playing Von Beck (the one-eyed, blonde-haired, scar-faced, monologuing leader of the Nazis, totes serious) is clearly putting more ham in his performance than the average ploughman’s lunch, a fact made all the more startling by the knowledge that the fella has been in cultural landmarks like Frozen, 24, Lost, and one of my favourite animated shows, The Critic. Though considering he played a European stereotype in that show too, maybe it’s not too hard to see the connection.

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Indy’s adventure leads him from Ceylon, to Prague, then to Istanbul, Shanghai and a dozen other locales – and yet none of it feels especially new.

But I can’t stay pissy at the voice acting for too long, because I’m still riding the high that comes with hearing a faithful adaptation of the original John Williams Raiders’ March over the top of some daring action sequence. I’d leap out of cover, gunning down goons before bringing out the bullwhip and knocking back an enemy with a vicious sting of woven leather. Then before you could say “it belongs in a museum,” I’d snare Fritz’s back-up goon with a swing of said whip and yank him in close for a solid punch to the jaw, cutting off his yells of “schnell, schell, die amerikaner,” and all the while grinning as the theme music bombastically pays tribute. It’s so enthralling that you want to punch the air and just shout out the words “hell, yeah!

But those are moments for combat, and smacking around the Hitler Youth is only half the game, and the other half is puzzles, traps and platforming. And I’ll even give credit to some of the puzzle design, it does have clever elements involved – at least when it’s not cartoonishly easy to decipher. The early stages of the game really do treat you like an idiot, going into a cutscene whenever you enter a new location and having the camera carefully pan over to the solution before you even know that a puzzle is coming up in the first place. With retrospect I’m a little disappointed not see some equivalent of the third movie’s Grail Diary popping up to play around with (another thing that Uncharted and Tomb Raider pinched from the series), but instead we do have competent, though generally unremarkable puzzles that don’t stick with you for very long, connected by climbing around and the occasional secret item hidden behind a waterfall, because there is ALWAYS a secret item hidden behind a waterfall in video games.

I actually managed to beat The Emperor’s Tomb within a couple of days, and this surprised me, eventually coming across as both longer and shorter than I thought. Like I said, the game is choc-a-block-full of colourful locations and backdrops, taking every opportunity it can to yank us to a new location halfway across the globe, but I’ll confess that you’ve had all your A-Grade material once you get past the section at Nazi headquarters. That’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s still twenty-five percent of the campaign to go. It’s not bad, by any means, it’s just… Lesser.

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Any action-adventure game eventually give you a turret section, and The Emperor’s Tomb is no exception to that rule, including at least three moments where you get rooted to the floor and shoot at enemies who are foolish enough to come within a two mile radius.

Frankly, it’s hard to say why it loses steam after that point. Perhaps it’s because Indy gets a weird spinning blade weapon that makes combat less interesting than just slugging dudes. Perhaps it’s because the environments become more enclosed and claustrophobic after that, consequently losing all the wanderlust and majesty you’d hope for in a world-trekking game. Actually, it might just be that the checkpoint system and camera controls are both clearly in league with the Krauts and out to get you, and the last act of the game won’t let you forget it.

I’m not kidding here when I say that this might be the biggest failing of the game overall, something that takes The Emperor’s Tomb down from true greatness to just being really solid. I’d punch my way through a horde of Chinese ghost zombies, swing across a ravine full of hungry crocodiles, duck and weave between the jets of fire shooting out of the walls, at which point the camera would suddenly lurch awkwardly as I tried to do a precision jump between pillars, leaving me suspended in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote. One stream of profanity and a respawn screen later, and I’d find myself back at the entrance of the dungeon with the last fifteen minutes of progress lost to time.

But I suppose it is good for building tension and the desperate urge not to get killed. Trying to out-swim giant crocodiles has honestly never been so nerve-wracking when any of them could appear at any time to go all Lake Placid on your ass, coming with the terrifying knowledge that a couple of errors on your behalf could lose you progress equal to an episode of Frasier. And speaking of which, that Kraken in Istanbul can go and shove a trident up its bum (or whatever else it’s got instead), what with the way it constantly shoots jellyfish minions at you and scores an instant kill if you get in the same postcode as one of its tendrils, but you still need to get close to plant explosives that’ll turn him into calamari, yet the explosives always have more of a range on them than you’d think and can kill you weirdly easily and RAAAAAAAAAAAARRGH DAMN IT.

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The world design generally has good character and atmosphere to it, even if the technical quality wasn’t even impressive back in the mid-2000s.

The more I think about this game, the more I wonder why I like it so much. It certainly has things that are wrong with it – I haven’t even gone into the rail-shooter sequence on the rickshaw – but I think the errors only gall me so much because they distract from the core gameplay, which certainly kicks ass and does so in a series of attractive settings, all backed up by a rocking soundtrack. I guess if I was pushed for one more comment I’d admit that the graphics weren’t especially impressive, even back for 2003, but if you’re willing to shell out on a game that’s nearly fifteen years old then you’re probably not expecting something that’ll tax your computer hardware for that perfect photorealism.

But the other thing that I like about Indiana Jones is that the titular character is still pretty unique, even to this day. Yeah, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake stole the basic idea of looting artefacts for themselves, leaning harder on tiger-fighting and nineties snark respectively, but Indy was always something a bit different than that: a lovable grouch with understandable motives. He’s a little bit cynical and a little bit sceptical, rolling his eyes at every amateur who passes his way and that inevitably gets killed by their own ignorance. Yet at the same time he’s always filled with childish glee at every new discovery and piece of history that unfurls before him, exactly the kind of contradictory character you’d expect from a man who spends half his time in a University library and the other half trying to disable ancient Aztec home security systems.

It’s obvious that I’m going to finish by recommending this game, but I’ll also make an impassioned plea to whatever Disney-brand Overlords that now keep LucasArts as one of their many hoarded trophies, displayed on some mahogany plaque just before Marvel movies and the Muppets. You guys like money, right? Of course you do, that’s why you keep making live-action adaptions of your old movies that do the fashionable post-modern thing of pissing all over the originals. Well, if you want money, make a new Indiana Jones game, a really good one. Not an adaptation of the old films, we’ve seen those before and they already exist via the Lego games. No, make a bouncy, rollicking jamboree of an adventure that could fit anywhere in the original trilogy, where Indy has to punch villains, escape traps, grab treasure and make an exciting escape at the end of it all. The name brand will get you a whole heap of sales to begin with, and the formula does work on both a narrative and gameplay level.

Think about, is all I’m saying. Iron Man has to run out of marketable new suit designs eventually, right?


8/10

A legitimate lost treasure whose strengths have held up very well over time, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb is a curious time capsule that pushes past its flaws by doing exactly what you’d want it to do – feel like an Indiana Jones film. Combat is punchy (pun not intended), puzzles are decent and hearing the whip-crack echo out over the Raider’s March is still a nostalgia trip to rival any globe-trotting adventurer.

PLUMBERS DON’T WEAR TIES REVIEW – 2 YEAR ANNIVERSARY & 100th ARTICLE SPECIAL

I don’t know what the universe wants from me any more. I really don’t. Every time I try a game that I think is the worst one ever, reality at large gives a cackle of malevolent glee and spits out something far more awful. I remember playing Tales Of Zestiria a while back and thinking I had reached the pinnacle of what was, paradoxically, the lowest point that gaming had to offer. How naïve I was! Since then there’s been a ton of crappy mobile games, the Steam Early Access garbage, the games that ended up technically broken or flat-out non-functional, and all the tedious franchise maintenance gruel that comes with a billion dollar budget and ten cents worth of good ideas. Then most of those would be topped by my attempt to play more than twenty minutes of E.T. without my head falling off, which would in turn be peaked by the actual revolted anger I felt when enduring Duke Nukem Forever.

But you know what? DNF is still a game in the most technical sense. It achieves that function, however imperfectly. On the other hand, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is… Well, I don’t honestly know. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, this thing beggars belief and probably buggers beggars for good measure, so confusing and abhorrent everything about it manages to be. Within five minutes of starting it up my jaw was hanging open, within ten minutes my eye was twitching dangerously, and within the first quarter of an hour I had run to the kitchen cabinet to find any sort of alcohol or cleaning fluid with which I could chemically numb the experience. After the forty-five minutes it took to beat this thing, I was in the foetal position in my chair, eyes wide and staring into the middle distance.

I’m genuinely worried that I’ve irreparably damaged my ability to critique games by playing this thing. I’m concerned that now I’ll be grading all others on a curve so steep that it looks like a mobius strip. I’ll be playing Dog Punching Simulator 2017 and thinking deliriously to myself “well, at least it’s not PDWT! Give that sucker a ten out of ten!”

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You ask for context, but I can give none – this game confuses me as much as it confuses you.

Some explanation is clearly in order. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is a sort of early interactive narrative from 1993; a surreal, erotic comedy (and I use those last two words quite wrongly) that feels like what a Telltale game would’ve been if it had been made on a computer with half the processing power of a typewriter, crafted with assets ripped inexpertly from leftover surveillance tapes, and all strung together by a writer with a rolled-up copy of Playboy lodged several inches deep in his forehead.

I’d always known about this thing by reputation, but by all accounts the game had been lost to time and to the uncaring march of technology… And then that changed a few months ago, when some noble fool committed to the cause of archiving gaming history found a working copy and made a functional port for modern computers, putting it online for the world to…

Well, not enjoy, but at least acknowledge. Preserving culture is certainly an admirable sentiment and one I’d normally be fully in favour of, but a big part of archeology is knowing what relics to put in a museum and which ones to throw back in the dirt, lest they pop open and melt your face off. And Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties does make me feel like how the Nazis must’ve felt at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark – screaming in agony and begging for forgiveness from a callous, uncaring god.

Our epic odyssey starts with two characters so utterly boring and bland that I can barely remember that they exist even while looking at them. Turns out that Dick and Jane are each being pressured by their respective parent to pump out a couple of kids with a suitable breeding partner… At which point the whole story goes off the rails so hard that the buffet car is now orbiting Jupiter next to the monolith. So suddenly there’s a naked shower sequence! And then there’s a live audience cheering, though there was no suggestion of one up until now! Then there’s the most generic music in existence, looping over and over! Then there’s a narrator introduced fifteen minutes in, wearing the rooster mask from Hotline Miami and sitting next to a Benjamin Franklin statue, which is followed by a goofy slasher sequence over a girl in her underwear, which in turn precedes the introduction of a second narrator in a karate uniform! We’re two thirds of the way through the plot at this point, and somehow both nothing and everything has happened!

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Baffling and poorly photographed pictures run in a frenetic, hideous slideshow, whilst the audience is forced to listen to some of the worst dialogue ever written laid over the top.

“Disconnected” doesn’t do it justice. Trying to link the various ideas displayed in Plumbers makes me feel like a a conspiracy nut stringing together blurry photos of the JFK assassination and Bigfoot sightings on his apartment wall. It leaves your head spinning, but there is something darkly fascinating about witnessing such narrative anarchy. The subject matter and story direction changes with the wind, ricocheting from idea to idea like a fly trapped in a glass box and resulting a story so chaotic that you’re liable to end up feeling seasick. I thought I was numb at this point to poor characterisation and crappy writing, but I actually ended up screaming the words “what am I watching?!” at the screen, multiple times in the first half hour.

So you see my problem here, right? My ability to critique a game is dependent on there actually being a game to critique, not a set of unrelated images, words and sounds that plays like a damaged PowerPoint Presentation, designed by a lunatic with a fetish for blondes and bad photography. I feel like I’m staring down into an abyss with no visible bottom, but I have news for you all – the abyss doesn’t stare back into you. That would be poetic in some manner, and poetry requires at least a third of a functioning brain, something that was not available of the set of PDWT.

Now I have calmed down somewhat, let me try and explain “the gameplay” of this thing in detail. You’re presented with a slideshow of images that will be vaguely connected if you’re lucky, with a combination of sounds and narration playing over the top in an attempt to contextualise them and generate some sort of story. By the way, this audio design includes some of the most wooden voice acting and dreadful dialogue I’ve heard from… Well, ANYTHING, and I still remember seeing teenage couples trying to flirt with each other. Then, roughly every ten minutes or so, three text boxes using ugly font on a monochromatic background will pop up so you can choose one of them, and each one leads to a different slideshow with the same problems as before – or maybe even worse.

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Your choices of where the story goes are short, but certainly not sweet. The flavour left in my mouth was more along the lines of “burnt ash and failure.”

How do you know which text box to pick, by the way? God fucking knows! The game – and sometimes the characters themselves – will berate you every time you pick the wrong one, but the correct answer seems to be arbitrary to the point of being best deciphered with a set of tarot cards. The overall goal is to bring Mr. PornStar Plumber, Esq. and Ms. Hooters’ Employee Of The Year ’87 together in a healthy relationship, or at least what this game considers to be a healthy relationship, which is less “Casablanca” and more akin to “Debbie Does Dallas.” But when I failed to set them up early on and the male lead ended up dating a gay criminal, I actually cheered. Not because I was rooting for them to get together – I wasn’t, that’s more investment in this saga than any sane person could maintain – but because it led to a GAME OVER screen and gave me the opportunity to get a refill of rum that would help ease the pain of my second attempt. Why couldn’t I get my booze earlier? Well, clearly installing a pause menu or a save/load option was a bit more than the budget could handle, so once you start the story going you’ve basically stuck for the next hour watching it play out.

It’s also a blisteringly sexist game, but that practically goes without saying with a premise like this. Our female lead spends the first few scenes staggering around uselessly in a shirt that shows enough cleavage to embarrass Elvira (and with far less charisma and self-awareness than Cassandra Peterson ever showed), before that shirt is removed from her entirely as she runs through the streets screaming like a damaged kettle. Even when the narrator is replaced by a female one, she is later shot to death by the original using a Nerf Gun. I’ll say it again – what the hell am I watching? And more importantly, when in god’s name can I stop?!

By the way, if you leap into this expecting at least some sort of erotic thrill, then you’re completely out of luck and then some. I will give Plumbers the most minor credit, in that male and female nudity are given equal presence in the “sexy” scenes. I suppose that shows some sort of misguided attempt to include everybody equally in this train wreck, but it’s pointless trying to get people invested in this game for any reason beyond Stockholm Syndrome. The nudity is so tame that I’d believe this game was rated twelve before I believed it was rated eighteen, with the occasional infrequent shot of somebody’s backside and at one point a poorly-photographed nipple, which probably wasn’t even much to gasp about in 1993. I can’t understand how they got this element wrong, of all things. Making porn should not be difficult, you just drop two or more people on top of each other and play some bass guitar in the background! Somehow, in some way, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties screwed that up too!

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You know you’re onto something terrible when the cast looks less interested in being there than you do.

At the end of the day, the question is this: can PDWT provoke enough “so bad it’s funny” amusement to justify the effort required to hunt it down? Um… Well, I never really laughed playing it, but I’ll admit to being impressed by the amount of paint that would’ve presumably had to be huffed so as to inspire the scriptwriters. Maybe you could hunt down a recording on YouTube just to witness this mess firsthand, but for the love of God, if some time traveller offers you a copy of this thing and asks for actual money in return, punch them in the nose for that insult.

I’ll finish by saying what you’ve already worked out, loud and clear. Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties is the worst game I’ve ever played, bar none. It is a mindfuck of epic proportions, to the point where viewing it with hallucinogenic drugs in your system would probably normalise it by degrees. This erotic comedy game isn’t erotic, isn’t funny, and isn’t even a game. It’s just a stark, staring look into the horror of the human soul, that little void within all of us where we hide those terrible thoughts and urges that we dare not let loose – and standing there in the middle of it all is a man in a chicken mask and a gold bow tie.

So it is with great humility that I bestow upon Plumbers the worst scores I am capable of offering – two thumbs down, one hundred percent rotten, five Piers Morgans out of five, and yes, the holy grail of holy crap – a zero out of ten. There is nothing in this thing that works on any level, as the whole game just ends up being insulting, baffling, or terrifying. Should I ever commit suicide, the associated note will be written on the back of the game’s box, and will be over in five words.

“Can you really blame me?”


0/10

The worst game I’ve ever played at time of writing, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties appears to have made just about every poor decision a game’s creators could make. My eyes, my soul and my hard drive have been forever tainted, and the only time I felt anything positive for this game was the stab of envy that occurred when I saw how easily and how efficiently the file was deleted afterwards.


 

Oh, and happy two-year anniversary/one hundredth article, by-the-by. Huge thanks to everybody for enjoying my work and suffering alongside me all this time. Even when there’s crud like this, it’s still more fun than I’d ever admit, and you guys make it worth it.

TOP TEN GAMES OF 2016

Blimey, what a rubbish year 2016 was! Thoroughly awful, and I didn’t even care about that stupid gorilla, though the internet isn’t going to let me forget about it any time soon. Never pay attention to all the crap that’s online, bunch of self-obsessed jackasses that-

Oh. Uh, forget that last bit.

Regardless, the time has come to rustle up the notable games of the previous year and shoot all those with broken legs, bad eyes or a sub-standard smell until only the good ones are left. Fire on my command.


10. Steamworld: Heist: “A rather sweet and memorable IOS game, Steamworld: Heist combines a good difficulty curve and surprising amount of content in a 2D turn-based strategy game, all with lovable (if slightly flat) characters.”

9. Pokémon: Sun and Pokémon: Moon: “Though it still pales in comparison to the greats of the series (I still hold that the Mystery Dungeon games are better than any of the core franchise), Pokémon Sun and Moon were smart enough to advance the Pocket Monsters concept after the appalling double-act that was Generation X/Y, followed by the turgid Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby. Adding a fresh layer of personality and making some steps in advancing the core concept, Sun and Moon should represent the first steps in a long path back to greatness.”

8. XCOM 2: “Every time I play XCOM 2, I feel the review I gave it was too generous, too upbeat, too mired in the initial hype that surrounded it… But that doesn’t change the fact that I keep coming back to it and lost nearly a hundred hours to the damn thing. It’s not as good as the original, but that can’t stop it being good in the first place – and it definitely is.”

7. Orwell: “Compelling and intelligent (if a little on-the-nose and unsubtle with the name), Orwell provides the dystopian surveillance-state we’ve all seen a hundred times in sci-fi, then tells you to keep it running smoothly from behind a computer screen. The restrictive linearity of the game is a problem, but there’s something darkly potent about certain scenes, and there are moments when it becomes terribly creepy. And that’s because you’re terribly creepy, you privacy-invading perv.”

6. Overwatch: “I can’t win when it comes to this entry, because half the people who see this will be outraged it’s on this list at all, and the other half will be staggered it isn’t at number one. And to that I say: Overwatch is fun, but it’s only fun. It’s not transcendental, it’s not the video game messiah, it’s just a very solid set of mechanics that don’t really have much structure or meaningful narrative behind them, not to mention that there’s no character on the roster who makes my eyes light up at the thought of playing. But as I said, Overwatch is fun – and that’s something we shouldn’t ignore.”

5. Bioshock Remastered: “Yes, I’m putting a simple remake on the list, because replaying the first Bioshock after so many years was one of the best times I’ve had in 2016 (despite the occasional technical fuck-up). But honestly, it was only those errors that prevented it from being higher on the list in the first place. Still superb after so long, Bioshock overcomes its flaws by being smarter than the vast majority of games could ever hope to be – though that shouldn’t stop them trying.”

4. Furi: “There were a few top-notch indie games out this year (not including those that were lost in boob physics and misplaced overambition) but Furi provided a lasting experience that brought all who played it to the edge of sanity, just from the sheer rage it triggered in us. And though the extreme difficulty can come across as obnoxious when you’re wading into a boss fight on Take Thirty-Seven, it’s hard to stay away for very long.”

3. Dark Souls 3: “I think we can safely make an assumption at this point – if there was a From Software title released during the year, it will be somewhere on this list. Dark Souls 3 sidestepped the sense of aimlessness that the previous sequel struggled with, and formed a unique nostalgia for the franchise’s existence that felt like a fitting conclusion. I’m happy to wave goodbye to my beloved sadist, knowing that it had a good life and ended with the right kind of closure.”

2. Quadrilateral Cowboy: “This one might’ve been polarising if more people had heard of it in the first place. Speak about the most recent odyssey of flatpack characters from Blendo Games to your friends, and they’ll probably give you a blank look. “Quantumnul what?” Regardless, doing what Watch_Dogs and so many others failed to do; Quadrilateral Cowboy actually makes hacking feel real and tangible, not to mention fundamentally interesting. There’s not even a single pipe-and-water game the whole way through!”

1. Doom: “I said it would be good when it was shown at E3 last year, and lo’, was it so. Throwing all restraint and self-control out of the window, Id Software have made a worthy follow-up to the originals that, like Wolfenstein before it, feels like a loving homage to the classics whilst modernising it in all the right ways. Just don’t play it on any computer with less processing power than Deep Thought.”


That’s the second year this site’s been running, and I’ll say again what I forced out between gritted teeth last year– thank you all for your continued support. No, I really mean it. Your obvious good taste and kindness means that I can hold off on starting up “Project Q” for yet another year, and we can certainly all be thankful for that.

THE FAILURE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.

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Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.

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Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.

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Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.

FIREWATCH REVIEW

Walking simulators are always slightly odd, aren’t they? To my mind they feel eerily reminiscent of the old point-and-click adventure games, only without the pointing and clicking, which ironically was usually the worst bit of point-and-click adventure games. You didn’t spend two hours bumbling around Monkey Island trying to work out how to combine some aspect of the landscape with a packet of breath mints and a dented spade for your own enjoyment. There was always way too much trial and error to get any pleasure from it all, not to mention that the LucasArts and Sierra games treated logic and common sense like something that was only weighing them down.

No, you put up with all this rubbish because you got the reward of story and dialogue at the other end, with the possible addition of a pixelated set of breasts if you were playing Leisure Suit Larry, you loser. But walking simulators – sorry, interactive narratives – seem to have just cut out the middle-man, edging ever closer to that fine line which separates a video game from just being a DVD with a really detailed menu screen.

Whatever. It seems that large, open-ended maps with somebody talking in your ear is now a genre in its own right, and whether that genre lives or dies depends on the conversation skills of the ear-dwellers who accompany you. The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide were solid because of their writing, but in these games if there’s any time that somebody isn’t talking at you, it all becomes increasingly dull, mainly because you have less power to affect useful change than the average horse. Check out Proteus for an example of that experience, one that’s like being suffocated to death with a particularly vibrant pillow.

So the pressure was on Firewatch to pull its finger out and really show all those bigwigs and AAA jocks from the football team how good narratives are done. Not that those jocks could give a festering ham slice for the quality of their own stories, having multiplayer and gameplay to fall back on; but I suppose we work with achievable goals or else we go mad, right? Hell, that’s why I’m giving up smiling next year.

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“This is Rubber Duck to Feather Duster. Come in, Feather Duster… And what are you wearing, by the way?”

And for what it’s worth, Firewatch’s story is good… Mostly. We begin with an effective introduction sequence that details the life and loves of Henry, a middle-aged, bearded everyman that grows guilty and panicked in the wake of a tragedy he feels he can do nothing about, and literally flees into the woods to escape, signing up to become a lookout in a national park for several months. And within ten minutes he’s started a weirdly personal relationship with Delilah, another lookout who he never actually meets, but maintains near-permanent radio contact with as the game goes on.

What I like about Firewatch is that it’s fairly coy about its intentions for the whole first act. Several story threads sprout like beanstalks almost immediately, and it’s difficult to guess whether you’re going to experience horror, comedy, drama or what-have-you. Which doesn’t mean that the story is indecisive, only that it’s so humanly chaotic that it really does feel like it could conceivably go anywhere.

But for those who want some indication of what to expect, you’re basically in for a character drama, which then starts to lean towards a psychological thriller in the second half. And both of these work pretty well. Henry and Delilah are both compelling, likeable characters with good chemistry between them, and the game’s main mechanic of rewarding exploration with more dialogue is pulled off superbly, purely because it’s nice to hear them bounce off each other in yet another light-hearted conversation that clearly has more significance than either of them would like to admit. The first act (and most of the second) is basically the story of their blossoming friendship, and this means that we have a very firm grasp of their characters when the thriller plotline rolls around, and as thriller plots go, it’s a goodie. I won’t spoil, but Henry makes a discovery that throws all his time there into doubt and suspicion, whilst a mysterious third party toys with them from the shadows. It’s pretty killer stuff, and the further I got into the mystery, the more I was hooked. It even gets genuinely intimidating at times, stumbling through a dark forest when you know that there are probably eyes trained on you – but god knows where from, or who’s watching.

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Well, at least Jack Torrance lasted longer at the Overlook this year.

“But Joel,” I hear you ask, “if Firewatch does all these things right, then why did you preface your Pulitzer-worthy analysis by saying that it was ‘mostly’ good?”

Well, person who just offered that question to a computer screen, I’m glad you asked. Partly because we now know you’re unstable and can avoid you at parties, lest you strike up a chat with the television, but also because it leads into my primary criticism of this ‘ere game.

For Firewatch, having really grabbed my attention for most of the main story, then turns around and craps itself in the last forty-five minutes. The thriller plotline, having been all onions and gravy so far, is then required to deliver an explanation for the mystery in order that we may bring this saga to a satisfactory close. Sad to say that onions and gravy don’t last for ever, and we’re left with dry bread to chew on until the curtains fall.

For the mystery’s conclusion has all the impact of a dead bee falling into a swimming pool, as the writers picked out the flattest, least interesting answer and just offered it up to us without any real panache. I won’t say it doesn’t make sense in context, but it feels unworthy of the set-up and doesn’t appear to have any real weight. Hell, even if it turned out that Q from Star Trek had been screwing with us the whole time, it would’ve made for interesting conversation, despite being bonkers. But we don’t get that here, just something that feels small, cheap, easy and unremarkable. And though the absence of other people is good for setting up the atmosphere early on, in those last sequences you can feel the game straining for reasons to keep you isolated.

Look, I don’t want to make suppositions about projects that I wasn’t involved with. Who knows what happens between that first pitch and final result, right? For that reason, I’d never say that Firewatch is a game that had the first two acts written in a burst of excited inspiration, before the writers then realised that they had no idea what it was all building up to. I wouldn’t say that, I don’t know what the truth of the matter is…

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It looks like I took a wrong turn on the way to Albuquerque! Neheheheheh!

…But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that were the case. And now I’m on this well-trodden path of negative thought, it’s also worth acknowledging that the park itself starts to get a little dull to walk through after a while. It’s certainly very beautiful, with a slightly stylised look that promotes bright colours and changes naturally between environments without ever feeling like we’ve just jumped between two Minecraft biomes, but the park is smaller than it seems and ends up becoming less explorative and more of a commute. Using the map and compass to find your way around is a rather nice feature, though. I suppose that’s more gameplay than most of these interactive narratives will usually offer.

Do I recommend Firewatch? I suppose I do, yes. It’s only a few hours and doesn’t offer much in terms of replayability, but the first two acts are strong enough to be a real guide on how to do these kinds of games well, even if the ending evokes the image of somebody using up all their inspiration too soon and having to weakly bring the whole thing to some sort of technical conclusion. I hear there’s something you can take for that, but if you find yourself still writing after four hours than you may want to book an appointment with an editor.


 

7.5/10

Firewatch aims higher than most walking simulators, with a deeply-personal story that organically expands into a larger mystery with intriguing stakes, but then decides it’s not as brave as it thought it was and throws out a paper-thin ending to mollify the audience. That said, three-quarters of the story is more than solid, and the environments are nicely designed, if a little too small.