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Monthly Archives: December 2011

7-Up | Christmas Gaming

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Flick through the seasonal copy of Empire and the pages teem with seasonal blockbusters and cinematic yarns about snow and the joys that this time of year brings. If I asked you to rattle off a list of ten, neigh a score, of Christmas related films then I doubt you would struggle for no longer than it takes for the more senior of your relatives to polish off a bottle of Tesco’s Finest sherry.

Switch out “film” for “game” however and I think you’ll struggle. Easy fare such as “Home Alone: the Game” is banned, and so you’re left with anything than may involve a glimpse of St. Nick or throwing in a smattering of snow. A much reduced field.

Before you ponder for too long though and I spoil your Christmas mood, let me take a stab.

1. Christmas NiGHTS

A favourite of my other-half, NiGHTS was one of the few games to take advantage of the Saturn’s oft forgotten analogue pad. Players would control characters as they flew as though Peter Pan through many vivid worlds, flying through hoops and collecting stars. It was a very freeing experience.

Christmas NiGHTS itself was a pseudo follow up; a promotional game released for a limited time during the run up to Christmas 1996 only. Despite such a small run it still became a cult classic packed with extra features that were unique to this sampler. Levels and UI would change depending on the Saturn’s internal clock, with snow covering the ground and Santa outfits on all the main characters if played on the day itself.

2. Christmas Lemmings

Right, we’re on a roll. Gawd bless Psygnosis and their love of blatant seasonal tie-ins.

As with NiGHTS, these started as a pair of very short demos of the original Lemmings back at the start of the 90s. Sensing there was something, the following two years saw the release of full Christmas editions of the suicidal puzzlers. Gone was the green hair and blue smocks and in their place Father Christmas hats and coats.

3. Banjo Kazooie

Though not uncommon for platformers to have elemental levels, Banjo’s snowy Freezeezy Peak went a festive step further. Enter Boggy’s Igloo and there you’ll find his three ungrateful offspring complaining that their dad hasn’t shown up with their Christmas presents. The brats only cheer up when you go and bring them their gifts, caring little that you had to save Boggy from choking to death on a Jiggy in the process!

4. Clay Fighter 63 1/3

In this comical, N64 beat-em-up, you’ll find the anti-Santa. Grossly overweight and dressed in nothing but his beard and a loincloth, this evil clone is intent on conquering the North Pole and ridding the world of his goody-two-shoes namesake.

He’s surprisingly spry as he leaps about the screen and in doing so makes you ponder quite a different fate for the Coca Cola adverts if he’d been around a few decades back.

5. James Pond 2

Released on no fewer than 14 different platforms since its original 1991 launch, Mr Pond has been thwarting Dr. Maybe’s attempts at ruining Christmas for two whole decades. After defeating his nemesis in his original outing, our fishy friend has chased the evil doctor to the North Pole, where’s he’s hidden in Father Christmas’ workshop with the elves as hostages.

Not content with his pun on Britain’s greatest secret agent, this is where James also receives a cyborg body upgrade to aid his infiltration into the fatman’s grotto. Call it a thinly veiled excuse to subtitle the release: RoboCod.

6. Animal Crossing

The original Animal Crossing was something on a masterpiece; constantly enticing you to keep the village clean, expand your house, and general keep the mafia racoons off you back. As holidays loomed however, the neighbourhood took on a different atmosphere.

There was a sense of excitement in the air as the ground would first frost and then become covered in snow, flakes falling as you wandered through the orange groves. Snowballs could be rolled into snowmen and come Christmas Eve Jingle the reindeer would appear, handing out presents to all he met.

7. Max Payne

The white of the snowstorm that persists throughout Max’s tale fits perfectly with the film noir style. It sits in such contrast with the dark surroundings that many of the storytelling graphic novel panels have more than a passing resemblance to Sin City, adding to the bleakness.

Admittedly, Max Payne is not strictly set at Christmas, but the snow has always bound it to the time year so tightly for me. In fact, thinking back, I almost felt that the joy of everyone else at that time of year, between Christmas and New Year’s, was at such a contrast to Max’s own experience that it must have been an intentional choice.

Artemis | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

I am weary of typing these words. Each syllable is a confession to the nerd that lives inside me; the nerd that shies away from the everyday world – and not just due to the brightness of that fiery ball in the sky. This tale is one of sinking deep into a special world, one that I thankfully returned from but where others are lost forever.

Yet I sense I am amongst friends and so feel comfortable sharing the events that unfolded last Friday; although I may still omit my dalliance with the rubber ears.

Artemis is a bridge simulator. Not the kind that involves spanning rivers or load bearing beams, but more the Star Trek variety. Artemis grants you control of a space ship and sets you on a journey across the galaxy as you explore nebulae, service remote space stations and fight off those who seek to do harm to man’s deep space interests.

Unlike more traditional space games such as Elite or the recent Star Trek Online, Artemis offers a twist on proceedings. Rather than fly solo, you need friends to help you pilot the ship; across a local network each crewmember’s PC is turned into the workstation of a bridge officer. Taking their post, each will assume control over Comms, Engineering, Weapons, Science and the Helm, and together you will split infinitives where no man has split before.

Each station’s role is unique and crucial to the successful completion of the mission. Helm naturally is charged with manoeuvres, whilst Science and Weapons assess the local tactical situation and shoot torpedoes at it respectively. With their fingers in their ears listening to the many broadcasts that are zipping around the blackness, Comms are your route to communicate with the wider universe, whereas Engineering is tasked with balancing the power requirements of the other four stations equipment. Each station is an extremely focused element of a larger whole, containing a very concentrated but well laid out interface allowing each bridge officer to have everything they need to perform their duties at their finger tips.

However, each role is completely isolated from one another: Engineering has no concept where Helm is steering, with Weapons similarly unaware of what Science’s scans are showing. What ties all stations together is the Captain. He has no direct controls of his own, instead he is granted a tactical view that allows him an overview of proceedings and a method by which to orchestrate his crew. He can call up views from his officers, take in the crew’s reports, issue commands and generally leave his hands completely free for the cup of tea his rank grants him.

This unique concept wholly relies on cooperation between all parties. There are no individual winners here and so the linchpin is the Captain. They must ascertain the mission and any relevant information from each station before issuing a series of orders that could either send the ship into a dust cloud in the name of exploration or put them all on a series of evasive manoeuvres that will save their necks.

Simple descriptions do not do justice to what is possible here, in the very same way that telling someone to “just strum that and press that” cannot relay the magic of Rock Band. Though not quite on that level, the element of team play is a strongly compelling and the facet that makes Artemis stronger than the sum of its parts. With a good group of friends and the right setup, kitchens can turn into voyages into deep space where all eyes turn to the Captain’s main display to see whether that last gasp salvo of laser fire was enough to turn the boarders away.

In any game like this, combat is all the most thrilling part, and the one where all stations come together, shouting out reports as repair crews are dispatched throughout the ship and Comms hastily negotiates with the brigands abroad. With the right Captain and attitude the tension and, dare I say, role playing is easy to escalate and seduce players in to otherwise quite a rudimentary game.

Away from the thrill of outflanking, the imbalance of certain stations becomes all too obvious. Helm is always guaranteed to be called into action but all others can find themselves with moderately barren spells as the ship slips from encounter to encounter. Engineering can quite happily keep itself busy twiddling dials and pushing coolants to the engines even without the instruction of a superior, but if there’s nothing to shoot or talk to then Weapons and Comms can at times feel like makeweights.

With a very adaptable setup though, content to fill the universe with space stations and baddies, it is possible to address these concerns should a team wish to persevere. Missions also vary to a degree, and with the ability to play community created storylines there is definite extensibility.

Of course, it could have all the bells and whistles on it that you could ask for but the limitations of it being a.) a Star Trek simulator and b.) requiring a LAN to reap most from it are bound to fell many’s interest. Artemis however is a great alternative, even palette cleanser, for LAN parties that are so often stocked with shooters and RTSs. It may not rival Battlefield when it comes to looks or gameplay, but I can guarantee that the actual experience of successfully manning a spaceship with those you’re normally used to fragging is something you will not find anywhere else.

7 /10

7-Up: Best GameCube Games

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

It’s not just the Xbox that’s ten-years-old…

How many consoles have a handle? You’ll probably find that list begins and ends with Nintendo’s much maligned box, but it summed up the attitude of the platform. It was quirky, trying to recapture the spirit of gaming that Nintendo always sought to share. That, however, mattered little as it languished in third place in its generation behind both the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox. The “hardcore” had come to play and had muscled out the fun-loving ‘Cube.

Whatever the wider world thought (it was outsold 7:1 by PlayStation 2) I loved it, as it offered some of the finest multiplayer experiences of any console of any generation. The simple inclusion of four-ports on the front invited frivolities and boy did its catalogue deliver. And even when the party had ended, it had solo experiences that were unique to my Wavebird.

Oh, the Wavebird. Still one of my favourite pads to this day, and the first wireless one that felt wholly reliable. I can still remember seeing how far down the corridor at work we could get the thing to function. About 16m in the end. Shame it was only a 20” CRT telly and Luigi was a dot on the horizon.

7. Monkey Ball

The pinnacle of the series. Yes, it was a slow downwards spiral after the first release, one that combined a challenging yet fair single-player with a collection of mini-games that were arguable strong enough to be released on their own.

Balancing the simians in their spheres was taken straight from the classic marble labyrinths of old, but elevated by a collection of lovable characters and inventive locations. Better than that though were monkey bowling, monkey target and monkey fight. Anything with monkeys. Each one would literally suck players from around the house and deposit them in front of the telly. There we would sit hour after hour trying to land the simians on the tiniest of targets or curl them to score the perfect game

6. Resident Evil 4

The reinvention that saved the series. After sticking with seemingly antiquated controls for so long, this is the one that brought RE into the modern era. The plot and setting were equally refreshing and welcome.

Its decision to skip off into a strange village inhabited with folk whose head had a tendency to erupt into something from the Little Shop of Horrors was a departure from the dark mansions and cities of before. This new setting was however delivered with beautiful clarity through clever use of pre-rendered backgrounds, making it one of the best looking games of its generation on any platform.

5. Eternal Darkness

A launch title that so often gets overlooked from the team that have since brought you Too Human.

Most remembered for its ability to screw with your mind, it taunted you with blue screens of death, save game corruption and a host of other dastardly twists. This extra level of emersion brought you far more into the experience than simply controlling the on screen protagonists, a feat rarely even attempted since.

4. Wario Ware

Although now a staple on every Nintendo platform, I rate the GameCube version as the pinnacle of the series. The simplicity of the games combined with the absurdity of the tasks at hand make Warioware an absolute hoot to be played in company.

Multiplayer turns into games within games as balancing turtles, blowing up balloons and even playing an extraterrestrial version of Othello all work themselves in and around the microgames.

3. Luigi’s Mansion

With no Mario at launch, the chubster’s lanky brother took the lead. I fondly remember Luigi’s Mansion being an exploration title first and a game second. Nervously trundling about the haunted house, torch in hand and vacuum on back, each room would open up a new Easter Egg.

There’s also a cynical part of me that still thinks of it as a technical demo, showing off lighting and physics on the new console that just happened to do well. With a sequel coming out soon however I care little about the reasons behind it, I just know I love it.

2. Animal Crossing

Why live in the real world when you could make friends, take up hobbies and get yourself a mortgage in a virtual world? Broken down into its component parts, it’s still hard to see why Animal Crossing works, but that didn’t stop my wife and I becoming hooked for months on end. We’d get up early to check out the bargains at Nook’s, go fossil hunting on alternate days so neither one of us felt left out, and evenings would ebb by casting a fishing line from the beach.

From all the options available, the ‘Cube version is also the best for me. With a house each it meant we could share and enjoy the world in our own little way, decorating as we see fit. Newer versions forced us to share a cottage, and I have enough of that in real life.

1. Donkey Konga

This is where the modern music genre began: put aside your plastic guitars and lay down your Sing Star mics, what could be better than clapping and bongoing your way through Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

I will never forget one lunchtime at work when a dozen of us took over a meeting room and had a Bong-off. Twelve grown men tapping (somewhat) in time to everything from remixed versions of the Mario tune to Supergrass’ Richard III. It was a sight to behold.