Saturday, 17 November 2012

Everybody Loves Lists: 28 Years, 28 Games - Part One

The last list I did, which you can read here, was lauded as the finest list known to man and ended all debate on the subject of intro movies. So I am making another foray into the world of listmaking, hoping once more to bring harmony where there is discord.

Today is my birthday. 28 years ago I entered this world, looked around, and did the only sensible thing, which was to burst into tears. Today's list, therefore, is a list of the years I've been alive for, and the most significant game (to me) that was released each year. Part one, below the jump, are the games that had the biggest impression on me for the first 12 years of my life.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Funky Smugglers - Thoughts

Airport security, by all accounts, can be a somewhat dehumanizing experience. You can't take liquids through checkpoints, you have to take your shoes off to show you don't have a stiletto knife stashed between your toes, and if you look like you might be a bit suspicious you're likely to have a prolonged and intimate experience with a rubber glove. But at least we don't have to pass through an X-ray scanner and have our belongings wrenched away from us by an unseen hand.

Funky Smugglers, the new Android and iOS game from 11 Bit Studios, gives you the chance to BE that unseen hand. As passengers pass through the X-ray screen, contraband items they've stashed upon their persons show up in red. Your task is to flick those items away before they board the plane, to ensure that no-one can attempt to hijack a plane with a pair of scissors. As more passengers pass through, the speed at which they move increases, and the difficulty ramps up.

For a while this seems like a perfectly simple and fairly basic game - flick red item until too fast to flick red item any more. But some score-attack games have mechanics that are not intially apparent, which once discovered make the game blossom like a cherry tree. Ikaruga's colour-chaining, Tony Hawk's manuals and reverts, and Joe Danger's wheelies are all fine examples. Funky Smugglers' secret weapon is tossing (fnar fnar). You can only hold onto contraband items for a limited amount of time, as shown by the ring that appears as you touch them and rapidly disappears. By quickly tapping them again, you can toss the items and thereby reset the timer, and thus open up the possiblities for ridiculous multipliers and high scores you could not have dreamed of previously. This feedback loop is absurdly compelling, and ultimately what hooked me - each time I felt I needed to keep tossing those items, bump that multiplier up, just get one more fix of the voiceover saying "ULTIMATE COMBO, BRO!" (This may be the first, and only, time I have enjoyed a videogame referring to me as '"bro")

The game has several other tricks up its sleeve to compel you into playing just one more game. If you're connected to the itnernet you can throw your weight behind team battles - the player base is split into two teams and any points you earn go towards a team total. How the mighty Vaders lost to the Donalds is a mystery I shall take to my grave. At any one time you have 3 additional missions to complete - challenges such as throwing so many items to the top or sides of the screen, or getting X amount of points with tossing - that reward you with coins, which you can spend on a variety of cosmetic upgrades. Most of these, such as new textures for your X-ray scanner, or new items for your passengers, are largely inconsequential, although buying the 2 additional music tracks should be mandatory, as each of the three songs in Funky Smugglers are utterly superb. If you can't be arsed to play for the coins you can purchase them with real money, which sat uneasily with me at first. I'm not a big fan of in-app purchases in paid games, but these are largely unintrusive, bypass the trap of pay-to-win, and frankly the core game was addictive enough that earning the coins through diligent security checks was quite enough.

All in all, Funky Smugglers is one of the finest timewasters I've found on Android, and one of the few score-attack games that has me itching to beat my own scores. The many little hooks that the game lays will get under your skin, and create a compelling experience that is fun for just a quick game or a ridiculously intense, swearing-filled marathon. Airport security never felt so good.

Funky Smugglers is out now for Android and iOS.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Great Arseholes of Gaming: Tom Nook

Welcome back to Great Arseholes of Gaming, our regular sideways glance at the videogame characters you'd rather not make full eye contact with. Today, a police transcript delivered to me anonymously reveals corruption and organised crime in the otherwise idyllic surroundings of Animal Crossing, the cute and fluffy town sim from Nintendo.


SB: OK, this is the interview with [REDACTED], interview begins at 1517. Detectives Sonny Bonds and Cole Phelps in attendance. You want a coffee before we start?

X: No.

SB: Alright, [REDACTED], tell us in your own words how you first came to reside in the village of Pimpton.

X: I was living in Nottingham, this would have been around 2002, I think. I sees an advert for something called 'Animal Crossing'. Sez that you could get a house in this little village, meet new people, hang around and explore, that kind of thing. I was a little bored, so I went for it. A change is as good as a rest, you know?


SB: Easy, Phelps.

CP: Sorry.

SB: Please, continue.

X: So I'm start up, and I'm on the train. This cat comes up to me, sez am I movin' out to Pimpton? I sez yeah, she sez you got anywhere to live? I sez no, and she sez she's got a pal, name of Nook, runs the store in Pimpton, he's got a few empty houses there. She calls him on the phone, sets up a meet. When I'm sayin' all this now it seems so goddamned obvious it's a scam. But I was just a kid! Seventeen years old, wet behind the ears, only ever played first-person shooters and beat-em-ups before... How was I to know?

SB: And so Tom Nook met you at the train station?

X: Yeah. Little raccoon looking guy, furry nose. And he's wearin' an apron and nothin' else. Middle of town, middle of the day, and he's half-naked, and he knows it, and he don't care. I should have known right there was something fishy about this guy.

SB: How was that first meeting with Tom Nook?

X: Oh, it was great. Too great. He's laughing, he's friendly, he's generous. Says I can have the house no problem. Takes me to see it. And it looks beautiful from the outside, real Norman fuckin' Rockwell, know what I mean? Then he stings me. Sez the place is gonna cost me 19900 bells, and I only got 1000.

CP: Bells?

SB: The local currency.

X: So he sez "Tell you what. You can come work in my store and pay off the debt." I'm broke, and I need a roof over my head, so I agree to it. He gives me the keys to the house and tells me to meet him at his store. And I get inside the house, and its like a fuckin' prison cell. Dingy, stone walls, all that shit. So now I'm basically in Nook's pocket.

SB: What was the nature of your work for Nook?

X: First time I get there he gets me to plant some flowers and shit. That's fine, but then he tells me he's going to 'hold' my wages to make up the debt! No walkin' around money, no percentages, nothing. Then he tells me to go meet everyone in town. So I go around, and that's when it starts to fall into place. Nook OWNS this goddamned town. Owns everything and everyone in it. All of them, gibberin' on about how great he is, how generous he is. All of them with this scared look in their eye like they don't dare cross him. I meet the mayor...

SB: That would be Mayor Tortimer, the tortoise?

X: Yeah, that's him, corrupt old bastard. He's in Nook's pocket too! That raccoon bastard sent me on a tour of the town so's I could see that it was all his, so's I'd understand I was his too. Freaked me out. But now I'm in deep with him too... What was I supposed to do?

CP: What did you do?

X: What could I do? I kept my mouth shut. I worked. I watched Nook growin' fat offa my labours. I'm workin', and livin' in a dank dive, and he's keepin' my wages and livin' large. He even gives his store a makeover! Can you believe that? The lowlife! Spendin' money that was rightfully mine on a new goddamned storefront for his lair!

SB: Did he ever threaten you?

X: Well, not...[PAUSE] One time... One time it got too much, out busting my ads in the woods, pickin' flowers... I was so mad, I just turned off the console, didn't save like Nook always told me to. When I turned it back on... there was this mole...

SB: Mole?

X: He said his name was Mr Resetti. It was obvious Nook had sent him. He... he scared me. He threatened me, told me I HAD to save, if I knew what was good for me... Jesus, I'm gettin' antsy just thinkin' about him.

CP: I gotta be honest with you, [REDACTED], I'm not sure any of this would be enough for a conviction...

X: No, now hold on, it gets crazier. I'm back in Nottingham, and I see a friend of mine. He's got 'Animal Crossing' too, says I should come visit his town, Woodtown, sometime. So I takes my memory card to him and I pays his town a visit. And he tells me that when he was first on the train, some cat had come up to him and put him in touch with Nook too!

SB: The same cat you met on the train to Pimpton?

X: The same goddamned cat! Same "hey, here's a house, now you're in debt" deal! So I gets to his town, and it looks the same as mine, different villagers but similar. And there, in the middle of town, is TOM FUCKIN' NOOK HIMSELF. Another town, another big-ass store. Don't you see? He's runnin' a slave trade! Pickin' up kids offa trains who don't know no better and workin' em half to death to line his own pockets! He's runnin' this scam EVERYWHERE! He's a monster! He's worse than Al Capone!

CP: Why didn't you go to the police in Pimpton? Isn't there a police station there? Run Officer Copper?

X: Ain't you been listenin' to a word I've said? NOOK OWNS PIMPTON. Copper is just as much into Nook as every other poor schmuck in that town. No way am I goin' to him! My life wouldn't be worth two bells! You guys gotta help me!

SB: I need to speak to my partner for a moment, [REDACTED]. Let's take a short break. Interview suspended at 1543.




X: Hey... Hey, wheres the guys I was speakin' to before?

?: They're indisposed. I'm here to talk to you about your debt. Mr Nook does not look kindly on those who reject his generosity. Now let's just...


Top image by pickassoreborn

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Curiosity - Thoughts

Peter Molyneux, the mad prophet of videogames, has released something unexpected, bold and daring - an HD remake of MS Paint.

For those who don't know of Peter, he was the driving force behind Bullfrog, the dev giants that were responsible for some of the finest games of the 90's (Theme Park, Theme Hospital, Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate). After Bullfrog were acquired and slowly digested by EA, Molyneux founded Lionhead, who were responsible for the almost-masterpiece Black and White before being swallowed by Microsoft and concentrating on the Fable series, two of which were great, finished games.

Now Molyneux is free, working with tiny studio 22 Cans to pursue his two great passions - making thought-provoking games, and making absurd, outlandish, overreaching promises about those games that can never possibly hope to be achieved. The big pitch about this one - clumsily entitled 'Curiosity: What's Inside The Cube' - is that one person will find something "life-changing" inside the cube. Unfortunately, I am writing about this long after all the good jokes about what may be inside the cube have been taken (a quantum cat, Gwyneth Paltrow's head, the Lament Configuration, etc). In future I shall endeavor to be faster, or at least better.

Before this enigmatic ultimate prize, however, comes the game itself. Each layer of the main cube (hereafter called the Hypercube in honour of a film that barely anyone has seen) is made up of billions of cubelets. Players tap on these and they disappear in a tinkle of chimes and pixels. If you are the lucky person to take out the final cubelet on the final layer of Hypercube, you win (something)! I downloaded it and booted it up. From my time with the game so far, I would hazard a guess that what is inside the cube is a fucking error message.

I know 22 Cans are but a tiny studio, and they have a mammoth task managing such a massive undertaking as maintaining a persistant online hypercube totally live, but it was (and at the time of writing, still is) frustrating not to be able to access this thing due to slow servers. You would think that Molyneux would have had some idea of the limits of the 22 Cans server infrastructure and limited his ambitions somewhat (although if you know anything about Molyneux you know that limiting his ambition is not in his programming).

When you do finally get into the cube, you zoom into one facet of the Hypercube and start tapping those cubelets. You tap and tap and tap and tap. You tap more than Fred Astaire installing a row of kitchen sinks. There are chaining mechanics that reward you for sustained tapping. You can log into facebook and howl your tapping prowess at your friends. You can compare your tapping with their tapping. You can buy upgrades to really take your tapping to the next level. Other than that?

Not a lot. It's possible to tap well enough to sculpt an image into the cube. As with any creative endeavor, penises are a popular choice. I have limited art skills, but I would have been remiss, dear reader, if I did not at least try. I would have been failing the possibilities that Curiosity provides, I would have been failing the spirit of citizen journalism, I would have been failing both you and I.

But that's all down to tapping. You might be able to create a nice recreation of a Bosch triptych, but it will take a shitload of tapping. There isn't enough here, despite the chaining mechanics and grand promises and whispered threats of more to come, to justify what boils down to a tapping-based Skinner Box with dodgy connectivity.

I was online when the first layer of Cubelets was annihilated, when the second layer was tantalizing close. "Less than half a percent to go!" I tapped a few cubes. And a few more. Then a bright white light, and a noise. Then a connection error. When I got back in, there was the cube. Get tapping, it seemed to say.

I tapped on my 'home' button.

Curiosity: What's Inside The Cube is out now on Android and iOS, and is free.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Everybody Loves Lists: The 5 Best Intro Movies of ALL TIME

Lists! They are the bread and butter of videogaming websites - easy to put together, full of exciting controversy, and guaranteed linkbait. And so I am leaping into the fray, with a short list of some of my favourite intro videos in gaming. This list will doubtless cement my reputation as a titan of games blogging, and will be hailed and revered as The Definitive List. All other opinions will henceforth be rendered null and void

Please note, the intros in this list are all non-interactive. Anything that involves any form of player interaction (the bathysphere descent in Bioshock, for example) has been disqualified, and placed in a holding cell for use in future lists.

Final Fight (Arcade, 1989)

Not too long ago, we here in the larger metropolises (metropoli?) of the UK got to vote on whether we wanted elected mayors to run our cities. Most cities said no, on the grounds that one bloody Boris Johnson is quite enough, thanks. If there had been any evidence that the mayors we'd receive would be anything like Mike Haggar, though, there'd have been landslides all over this sceptred isle. As mayor of Metro City, former street fighter Haggar promised to smash crime and then super-suplex it too. Crime, naturally, was unhappy about this, and took action to protect itself. The intro to Capcom's side-scrolling beat-em-up is a fine, economical depiction of the catalyst to lots of men being punched a lot. Bonus points for the absurdly brief appearance of Cody and Guy (playable characters, although you only picked one of them if the other player had already taken Haggar) and the abrupt ending, which all but screams "PUT SOME MONEY IN AND STEP UP, KID!"

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube, 2003)

The art style of Wind Waker horrified many when it was revealed. Nintendo had previously shown footage at E3 of a realistic looking high-resolution Link, and the vibrant cel-shading of Wind Waker was nothing like that. "It looks like a kid's cartoon!" cried people without the self-awareness to realise they were talking about a videogame about an elf-boy with a magic sword. Wind Waker is still a visual treat, lush and inviting, even if the fishing for treasure shards got old very fast. The intro is a rundown of the 'legend' of the Hero of Time, shown as a tapestry with a gorgeous, mournful flute and harpsichord accompaniment. For newcomers, its a nice way to ease yourself into the legend of the Legend of Zelda. And for the old timers, it's a chance for your heart to soar as a triumphant fiddle picks up the second most iconic piece of music ever to come out of Nintendo.

Deus Ex (PC, 2000)

I could bang on about Deus Ex for an eternity (and I will, don't you worry). When it came out in 2000 it was the herald of the future of gaming, and it is a sad and scathing indictment of the artform that twelve years later it still is. It's only recently that the potential that Deus Ex showed us is being built on, with games like Dishonored standing on the giant shoulders of Ion Storm's dystopian cyberpunk conspiracy masterpiece. The intro is so good because it establishes the murky tone that runs through the game, and lays out much of the story without clueing you in to what that story is. It's just two men talking, and the occasional look at the wider world. But there is a wealth of detail laid out by the conversation between Bob Page and (future Great Arsehole of Gaming) Walton Simons, pieces of the puzzle laid out many hours before they'll fall into place. This is one of the rare intros that actually gets better on the second playthrough, when the full extent of their grand plan can be savoured. And if you are still yet to experience your first playthrough of this game, what the hell are you still doing here? GET ON IT NOW.

Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube, 2002)

There's nothing clever about this one. It's just a load of characters posing before they have a big old fight. Nintendo's oddball beat-em-up, in which a load of iconic Nintendo characters... erm... have a big old fight, is tons of barmy fun, and the intro fully reflects that. Each character is given their moment in the spotlight, before moving on to the next at breakneck speed. And they look great too - the image of Sheikh looking up at the sky mirrored by a starlit Zelda, the herd of multicoloured stampeding Yoshis (Yoshii?), Captain Falcon ramming his rivals off the road. They're all shown in their natural habitat, doing what they do best before facing off against each other. In fact, I have only one problem with this intro - it doesn't make it clear enough that FOX IS A CHEAT CHARACTER FOR CHEATING BASTARDS. KIRBY 4 LIFE!!!!!!!1!

Sam and Max Hit The Road (PC, 1993)

Sam and Max marked the first fully-voiced Lucasarts point-and-click adventure, and the intro shows that off beautifully, as well as the contrasting personalities of the freelance police. The laconic Sam and maniacal Max crash through a wall to save a woman being held hostage by a mad scientist. Except they aren't there to save her - they're there because they went the wrong way, and only stay so that Max can indulge himself in ultraviolence. The intro and credits contain everything that made Sam and Max so beloved: quickfire screwball dialogue, a dash of metahumour and copious amounts of violence meted out by a psychotic rabbit.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Great Arseholes of Gaming: Wario

Welcome back to Great Arseholes of Gaming, where we pay homage to the greatest douchebags to inhabit virtual space. Today, we discuss the nightmarish mirror image of one of gaming's most beloved icons - and Wario.

You know him just by his silhouette. His jaunty hat. His bushy and magisterial moustache. His goofy, incompetent brother. His laugh, my God, his laugh. He's a titan of modern gaming with a love of coins and a firm grasp of any role he turns his begloved hand to.

But every thesis has its antithesis. Every jolly yin needs a hateful yang. And cometh the hour, cometh the man - a twisted, venal parody of the familiar. The cartoony smile contorted into a vulpine grin. The love of coins magnified to an all-consuming greed. His laugh. My God, HIS LAUGH.

Yes, I am of course referring to Wario and his nightmarish doppelganger - Bobby Kotick.

Wario has appeared in a ton of Nintendo games, starting with Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins in 1992 for the mighty Gameboy. He's occasionally starred in his own games, such as the excellent Wario World for the GameCube, which was developed by the godlike geniuses at Treasure Video Games. For the most part, he's become a staple of party games, appearing in all Mario Kart games since the N64 edition. On the GameCube edition, Mario Kart: Double Dash, I used to deliberately finish in 4th place or worse just so I could hear his enraged wail of "I lost... to a bunch of losers!" (this is definitely why I used to regularly lose, there is NO OTHER REASON) But my favourite Wario titles, the ones that best capture his anarchic spirit, the ones that brought my friends and I hours of laughter, the ones that are the most damned fun, are all his: Warioware.

The Warioware series is one of the finest party game franchises I have ever experienced (the Wii version, Smooth Moves, was excellent, as was Touched! for the DS, but there is a special place in my heart for the GameCube masterpiece Warioware Inc.). It throws 5 second microgames at you, no explanation or context save for a single verb, and delirious button-bashing ensues. It has its roots in Bishi-Bashi Special, a slice of pure mentalism for the PS1, but pared down to the purest form of chaos and therefore much more approachable. The Warioware microgames are games that anyone can play, and fail at, and laugh at. There are other microgame collections that have tried to bottle Wario's anarchic lightning, but only the deranged McPixel comes close.

The story of Warioware is utterly irrelevant to the game itself, and is much more a framing device for the cavalcade of microgames that are being thrown at your eyes and brain. Wario, always looking out to make a fast coin, has set up a videogame development studio. He is dismayed, however, to discover that making games is hard. To that end, he throws all the half-finished ideas and fragments of games he can scrape together into one Frankengame - Warioware. As the series progressed, Wario did the same thing over and over again, raking in coin after coin for iterations of the same thing. This symbolises everything about Wario's personality: his laziness, his greed, his contempt for anyone who is not Wario.

Bobby Kotick, like any good parody, is an exaggerated version of Wario and his backstory. There are some minor differences - Wario began a development studio, whilst Kotick is CEO of a publisher, the fictional 'Activision'. This subtle difference is a crucial one - it allows the Kotick character license to spread his greed across multiple studios and franchises. Whereas Wario was happy to slap together games from entertaining microgames, Kotick's laziness and greed means that the games he has a hand in don't even need to be entertaining, such as the recent '007: Legends' (just imagine if such a threadbare hotchpotch of a game were actually released!). Wario's happiness to iterate the same game over and over is taken to its logical conclusion in Kotick, who's insane 'annualisation' policy means he is happy to release the same game over and over again, albeit with slightly different graphics, in order to satiate his all-consuming lust for coins.

Ultimately, as a character, Kotick is nowhere near as iconic as the mustachioed maniac he is based on. Whilst, as stated above, a good parody is all about exaggeration, Kotick's greed and contempt for gamers are stretched to such absurd extremes that he is revealed as a pure cartoon character, too obviously an invention with nowhere near the depth of a well-rounded human like Wario. It's a shame that this is the case - if he were more believable, an appearance by Kotick might raise a smile, rather than a sigh.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

DLC Quest - Thoughts

Satire. It's bloody tough to do properly, but is truly transcendent when it works. Animal Farm. The Thick of It. Idiocracy. Brasseye. Private Eye. The Onion. Bear V Shark. The Daily Mail (which I assume is satire for the sake of my own mental wellbeing).

You will note that none of the above are videogames. There are plenty of very funny games, no doubt. The Monkey Island games, Portals 1 & 2, and McPixel are just a few examples. There are funny games that parody genres or popular videogame tropes - Cthulhu Saves The World and Half-Minute Hero lovingly poke fun at the conventions of JRPGs. But satire? Satire is a tough form of humour to pull off, as it necessarily involves a degree of scorn and moralizing, which is hard to express through game design. And satirising the state of the game industry is harder still, as the games industry and actual games are hard to mesh. Far easier to throw in some jokes and the odd reference to Aeris or E.T. the Atari game.

DLC Quest is a bona fide satire. It is a game that bristles with anger over the state of microtransactions and downloadable content and expresses this frustration in a witty, entertaining way. Not only that, but it never sacrifices fun for funnies - this is a game that never forgets it is a game, and that games should be fun to play even if they have an angry, funny message to impart.

DLC Quest tasks you with rescuing a princess from a bad dude, which you accomplish through some platforming action and coin-collecting. So far, so rote. The kicker is that at the start, there is no music, there are no character animations. You cannot even move backwards. You have to buy these features in 'DLC packs' from shopkeepers (please note that you pay for these with in-game coins. This game is not asking for real money - that would make it a hypocrite). You can go without purchasing some things - you could go through the whole game without buying the music (don't, though, as the soundtrack by Ozzed is one of the finest chiptune delights in recent memory). As the game goes on, however, it becomes impossible to progress without trawling for coins and buying DLC. Critical features such as a double-jump and access to further areas is withheld from all those who won't pay. This is satire in the finest Juvenalian sense.

With DLC an increasingly prevalent and worrisome feature on the videogame landscape, its nice to see this addressed in a funny yet concerned fashion. Aside from largely useless and often tacky cosmetic DLC ("give us a fiver and you can put your character in a sexy outfit!") there are more troubling depths that are being plumbed. Just in the. last few weeks we've seen the release of a James Bond game where the final mission - described as 'critical' by the publishers - will only be available as a downloadable extra after the release of the Skyfall film. The Prince of Persia 'reboot' from a few years ago had an 'epilogue' that had to be paid for on top of the main game and downloaded so. you could actually finish the story. Pay and pay and pay again, if you want to see how this all ends. That's the world we modern gamers inhabit, that's the world we're being foolish enough to embrace, that's the world DLC Quest is barking a hollow laugh at.

This could all be a bit heavy-handed, but the game is fun and breezy, with the platforming feeling pleasantly solid and the controls just as tight as they need to be. There are a sprinkling of nice gags that mock some of the gamier aspects of RPGs - my favourite being an NPC with a litany of side-quests that your character has no time to do and no interest in doing. The 'awardments' work as both a smart parody of in-game achievements and as a substitute for them to satisfy obsessive-compulsive cheevo hunters.

So, is it worth your time and money? FIND OUT IN THE FORTHCOMING "CRITICAL FINISH" DLC PACK!
  • ONLY $5/£3/400MSP!
DLC Quest is out now on Xbox Live Indie Games, and is on Steam Greenlight. Give it a thumbs up.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Now and Then: Doom

Father/son bonding varies from family to family. Some fathers take their sons to the the park to play football. Some fathers take their sons fishing. Some fathers take their sons bowling. My father and I went to Hell.

Back in 1994 we had a 486 PC. It was noisy and cranky and bigger than some Scottish villages I've been to. It didn't have a CD-ROM drive, only having truck with floppies, and we had a great deal of freeware and shareware games that came free with PC magazines of the time. Rescue Rover (an early id software game based on saving a dog from robots by using mirrors) was a perennial favourite, as was a game about collecting letters to spell words whose name escapes me. Our longtime favourite was The Catacomb Abyss, a proto-FPS where you were a wizard shooting fireballs out of your hands at zombies and demons that looked like they were made of bad jam. You were hunting down an evil bastard of a Necromancer called Nemesis who was insanely overpowered and ugly to boot. There was lots of key hunting and blasting secret doors and being condescendingly told that "you should use your cure potions wisely" after you had been ganked by some flying bastard.

Well I wish you'd told me that before this nasty sod murdered me.

The game we didn't have, and really wanted, was the next rung up on the evolutionary ladder from the Catacomb Abyss. We wanted Doom.

Doom was everywhere at the time, exploding onto computers all over the world in big gory blobs. The only problem for us was that it was everywhere on CD-ROM, which our poor primitive device could not use. It would have looked at a CD with incomprehension, a baffled look on its monitor, and then probably have pitched a fit that would mean my dad spending a week combing through the accursed AUTOEXEC.BAT file.

We knew the game could be purchased on floppy disk, but in the dark days before Amazon a manual trawl was required. We tried every computer hardware and software shop in Nottingham looking for a copy of Ultimate Doom (Doom + a new campaign, Thy Flesh Consumed) on floppy disk, all to no avail. We even went to Mansfield, of all places, to see if we could hunt it down (important note - don't go to Mansfield for any reason). Eventually we stopped in Beatties, a shop that mainly sold model trains and planes but stocked a few videogames too, on the offchance that they could help us out. They did not disappoint, and Ultimate Doom descended upon the Barker household.

At the time, we played as a team. My dad was at the helm, moving and shooting, and I was on navigation, remembering where we had been and not been, and giving advice that veered between useless ("Shoot him, dad! Shoot him!") and critical ("You can't use a rocket launcher at close range, dad, that's why we're dead."). As I was but 10 years old at the time, I would have been useless at the controls, but that didn't stop me from pouring scorn on my dad's abilities everytime a demon chewed our face off or everytime my dad pulled "the rocket pistol trick" (see previous parentheses).

We developed our own vocabulary for the fiendish monstrosities of The Pit that were lined up against us. Cacodemons became known as "Wobblyjobs". Barons of Hell were formally and respectfully referred to as "His Baronialness". The hulking Cyberdemon was known to us as "AAAAAAAAARGHRUNAWAYRUNAWAYRUNRUNRUN".

This guy... This is not my kind of guy.

One of the best aspects of Doom was the mood - adrenaline-drenched panic, a twitchy paranoia that made you desperately fearful of what lay around the next corner whilst still encouraging you to forge ahead at near-breakneck pace. That mood was what took hold whenever you would see a room that was pitch-black save for a solitary spotlit chaingun. You knew it was booby-trapped. You knew that whatever was breathing heavily was in the dark, watching you with demonic blood-red eyes. You knew the second you touched it the room would suddenly transform into a cross between an HP Lovecraft short story and Glasgow on a Saturday night. You knew, and were afraid, and exhilarated, and did it anyway. And my dad and I did it together.

I think it may have been these experiences that instilled in me a love of co-op gaming. My favourite shooter of the last few years is Left 4 Dead 2, and I love it because you're working with the other players rather than just trying to mercilessly teabag them. Perhaps it's because in a co-operative game your successes and failures are shared - the narrative you construct is at once personal enough for you to own it and social enough for those playing alongside you to own it too.

I will probably be going to spend christmas with my dad. I think I'll take my 360 and a second controller. Doom and Doom 2 both have permanent residence on the hard drive, and the gates of Hell are waiting to be kicked in once again. I know he won't be particularly comfortable with a twin-stick control scheme, but that's ok. I'm a great navigator.

His Baronialness' hospitality awaits you. He can wait for a long, long time.

Halloween Costume Ideas - Sexy Videogame Horrors

Halloween, that night when the souls of the damned and unspeakable eldritch horrors walk the earth and threaten to egg your house if you don't give them any Chupa-Chups, is almost upon us. And you are doubtless thinking "what costume could I wear that demonstrates my love of gaming, my respect for the ghoulish and macabre, and the necessity of making any Halloween costume unnecessarily sexy?" Do not deny it. This is what you are thinking. It is DOUBTLESS.

Fortunately I am here to help! I have compiled a list of potential costumes that occupy the intersection of videogames, sexiness and unspeakable horror from beyond the veil of human understanding. Use these as a springboard to inspiration, and have a fun, sexy, nightmarish Halloween!

  • Sexy Cacodemon
  • Slutty Pyramid Head
  • Naughty King Boo
  • Sexy Los Ganados
  • Erotic Necromorph
  • Slutty Outer God Yog-Shoggoth

Also, for the love of God, download and play Costume Quest, the Halloween-based RPG from Tim Schaefer's unimpeachable Double Fine studios. It's a bit slight, but more than makes up for it with lashings of charm, humour and inventive design. The perfect game to play whilst turning off all the lights to convince those bastard trick-or-treaters that you aren't home, damn it, YOU AREN'T HOME.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Great Arseholes of Gaming: Allistair Tenpenny

Welcome back to Great Arseholes of Gaming, our regular reassessment of the most infamous gits in videogames. Today, the crazed, despotic plutocrat who inspired the popular cartoon baddie 'Mitt Romney'.

When the post-apocalyptic FPS/RPG Fallout 3 was released, my then housemate bought a copy and we shared a savegame, for a time. We completed the tutorials together, headed out into the wasteland as one. We battled through the burned-out husk of Springvale school together, passing the controller each time our face got blown off by an angry raider. We strode into the small settlement of Megaton together, and got to know the town and it's colourful denizens together. And then came The Great Schism.

For those that don't know, Megaton is so named because at the centre of it lies a bloody great big nuclear bomb. It's still active, ready to go off at any moment, which is obviously something of a concern for the town's saner inhabitants. You are tasked by the no-nonsense sheriff with disarming the bomb, and this seems eminently sensible. There is, however, another option. A shadowy man named Mr Burke offers you substantial compensation and new fancy lodgings if you arm the bomb with a remote detonator and then meet him at a place called Tenpenny Tower.

In any game that has a binary moral choice system, my first playthrough will usually be as a good guy. My first Commander Shepard was a full-on paragon, my first JC Denton was a polite boy scout. I turned down Mr X's offer to join his evil syndicate of denim-clad hooligans in Streets of Rage. My housemate was the same, and thought the choice was clear.

But I was intrigued. Was this game really going to let you wipe the first town you encountered off the map? Was it really going to let me vapourise Sheriff Simms, and the sweet natured shopkeep Moira Brown, and the kooky old patriot Nathaniel Vargas? Not to mention the children in the town. Was it actually encouraging me to commit an atrocity?

And so the savegame was split. My housemate went his way, I went mine. He disarmed the bomb, was hailed a hero, and went on with his quest to find Liam Neeson, aka your in-game dad. I, on the other hand, became Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Many in-game weeks later I would return to Megaton to find a smoking, irradiated crater, a fresh blight on an already ruined world. Moira Brown, the only survivor, was now a hideously deformed ghoul. This once bustling little town was now an inaccessible graveyard. A permanent, visceral reminder of the choice I had made. But that was later on, after I'd met Allistair Tenpenny, my sinister benefactor, instigator of mass murder and Great Arsehole of Gaming.

Tenpenny had seized control of one of the few highrise buildings still standing in the ruins of Northern Maryland and turned it into Tenpenny Tower, a gated community built around the twin principles of monied prejudice and heavily-armed guards. It was an oasis of civility in the D.C. wasteland, a throwback to the old world with all the privilege and hatred and xenophobia that world had nurtured. It was my new home.

The problem with destroying Megaton was that I had turned my only lead to finding Liam Neeson into a pile of radioactive ash. I was rudderless, adrift with no purpose. So I walked the northern expanse of the wasteland, and emulated the only man I had seen make anything of himself in this godforsaken place - Allistair Tenpenny, the man who had seen what he wanted and taken it, who had imposed his will on a blank slate of a world and carved a part of it into his own wizened image.
I got into the slave trade in a big way. Strangers who crossed my path were brainwashed and sold to the slavers of Paradise Falls for handsome profit. I helped the corrupt autocratic leader of the Republic of Dave retain his iron grip on power. I found of town of terrified adolescents in desparate need of aid and left them to fend for themselves. I reaved my way across the world, taking what I could, what I felt I deserved. I grew wealthy through slavery and murder. I made my choices.

The chief guard at Tenpenny Tower told me of a group of ghouls who desired residence in the tower. The current tenants were disgusted by the idea of sharing their slice of heaven with some dirty, ugly outsiders. I found the ghouls and murdered them. All of them. Methodically. Remorselessly. I made my choice. When it was done I went up to the top of the tower to speak with Tenpenny himself, to let him know the service I had done for him. I found him on his balcony with a high-powered sniper rifle, taking potshots down at the wasteland below. I asked him what he was doing, what was he shooting at?

"Wasteland safari... Whatever I like, dear boy. Whatever I like."

And in that moment, everything crystallized. I had made a monster into my idol. All of the views I despised in the real world - might makes right, the rich and powerful have the right to exploit anything and everything at the expense of anyone else - had seduced me, and were now represented by this old plutocrat randomly firing at innocent bystanders without remorse or hesitation simply because he could. I had made my choices, easy choices for easy wealth, and my choices had made me more like Tenpenny than I could bear.

In a well-designed game, virtual actions and virtual choices provoke real-world emotional responses. Your character in Fallout 3 is not a pre-defined character that you direct and influence, like Commander Shepard or JC Denton. Your character is YOU. You are the sum of the choices you make, and the consequences of those choices belongs to you, and you to them. I have Allistair Tenpenny to thank for teaching me that. I killed him, then and there, and resolved to be better. I would help others, I would do good deeds, and I would hope that the choices I now made could in some way atone for the choices I had made before.

It wasn't quite enough, though. When I finally found Liam Neeson, he was pissed.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Plague Inc. - Thoughts

It started in India. By the time anyone noticed that it even existed it had infected over 2 billion people. Insomnia is no reason to bother the doctor, surely? But soon it was more than just sleeplessness, it was fever, vomiting... and worse. By the time everyone had realised just how bad it was, it was too late. Bodies in the streets. Martial law. Closed airports. I think some scientists in Greenland are still working on a cure, but all of our research ceased when the government finally collapsed under the weight of 40 million corpses. I heard on the shortwave that the last American died yesterday. Now the few of us that are left here wait for the end. God help me, I haven't slept in 4 days.

Plague Inc is a very pleasant unpleasantness.

This is the first game from Ndemic Creations, in which you play the part of a pathogen, and your objective is to merrily spread to all the peoples of the world, and then make them dead.

Play takes place on a map of Earth, where you press on a country to drop Patient Zero and watch as they (presumably) wander around touching people without washing their hands. As more and more people succumb to your germy creation, the infected areas bloom into a deep, biohazardy crimson. Boats and planes crisscross the world, possibly taking your infection with it. There is a real grim satisfaction in seeing the first little red plane jet from A to B, dragging behind it a red trail, spreading your custom pathogen to pastures new.

As more and more people become infected, you earn DNA points, which you use to evolve and mutate your disease in new and exciting ways. You'll need to make yourself more lethal if you want to achieve your goal of wiping out those pesky fleshbags. But it's here that Plague Inc reveals itself as a deeper strategy game than it appears at first glance.

As your disease gets more dangerous symptoms, more countries will notice it and work towards a cure. You can delay this with other upgrades, but those humans are a tenacious bunch. Finding and keeping a balance between infecting more folks and not being cured is a real stressful delight. I can't tell you how pleased I was when I managed to wipe out humanity with them just days away from discovering a cure. Distressingly pleased, in fact.

Different kinds of pathogen unlock each time you successfully bring about the end of mankind. Fungal spores, for instance, spread very slowly, and thus demand more evolutions of your transmission methods. The bioweapon is utterly lethal, so much so that the challenge comes from spreading faster than your hosts can drop dead.

Some will doubtless find that the subject matter makes them a little queasy, and that it is in poor taste to have a game where you must wipe out all humanity. To those people, I would respectfully point to Medal of Honor: Foreignerfighter and other games of its ilk, and say that at least Plague Inc does it's mass murder thing memorably and intelligently. Just look at those graphs(Plague Inc has excellent graphs)!

Plague Inc has achieved something that very few mobile games have done for me - making me want to keep playing it after I'm done on the bus or in the coffeeshop or waiting for my parole officer or whatever. If you let it, it gets under your skin and into your head like... well, like a virus.

Plague Inc is out now for Android (and iOS, if you can stand to put up with awful software like iTunes)

Lost Lost Humanity

So, if you follow gaming news, or games journalists on Twitter, or have had to listen to me talk in the last 24 hours, you'll know all about the GMA hashtag fiasco. For those that don't know, because they have misaligned priorities or social lives, a brief recap.

The Games Media Awards, an industry event where games PRs and journalists give each other awards and hugs, happened last week. At the awards, a competition was run - retweet a promotional hashtag and win a PS3. Many games journalists did so, retweeting a promotional hashtag on their personal Twitter feeds to people who folllow them for their opinions on games, for personal gain. Astonishingly, not everyone can see that this can been viewed as somewhat ethically compromising.

Fortunately, there are games journalists who did see that, and were prepared to call it out as such. John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun was one. He was met with scorn and mockery for complaining, and told to "get off his pedestal". Frankly, I'd rather be on the pedestal than in my own filth.

Rab Florence was another. His column Lost Humanity for Eurogamer was as brilliant as his work on Consolevania and VideoGaiden. Go and read them, if you haven't already. It's a heady mix of experimentation and searing comment, equal parts scorn and passion for games, games media and the wider industry.

And now it's gone.

His column on the GMA affair drew the threat of legal action from someone who was named in the article. I'm not sure how libellous directly quoting someone can be, but that's by the by. Rab will no longer be writing the column.

Acres of words have already been written on the rights and wrongs of everyone involved in this affair, from the journalists who first tweeted the offending hashtag to Florence himself for his naming and shaming. My opinions in this regard are probably fairly obvious.

But for me, the saddest part about this whole affair is that now we have lost one of the best written, most outspoken and forward thinking columns on gaming anywhere, by anyone. Maybe we didn't deserve it.

Great Arseholes of Gaming: Falco Lombardi

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Great Arseholes of Gaming, where we celebrate the biggest wankers ever to grace our magical playboxes. Today, we look at a large pheasant who flies a spaceship and spends his time insulting a fox.

Falco Lombardi has a chip on his shoulder. This is more or less his only characteristic. According to his official biography, he was a 'gang member' who went on to join Star Fox, a semi-elite squadron of animal space privateers. Clearly Falco would rather be back on the mean streets gang-bangin', given how much he whinges about everything.

In the Star Fox games that count (Star Fox, Star Fox 64 aka Lylat Wars, NO OTHERS) you play as Fox McCloud, who is a fox. I will definitely be naming my firstborn child Human. Fox is the leader of Star Fox, a band of pilots for hire who are definitely the cuddliest mercenaries I can think of. As Fox, you go on a variety of missions in your Arwing (an X-Wing in all but copyright specifics) and blast away at any nasty thing that crosses your path. Your 3 wingmen accompany you, offering you aid and agitation in severely unequal measure.

Falco is a hotshot pilot who thinks he should be the leader of the pack. He hates Fox. I mean, really hates him. And as you control Fox, that means he hates you. I suppose since he is a pheasant and Fox is a fox, this may be a racial thing. Or perhaps Falco's gang roots jibe with Fox's clean-cut fox image. Either way, Falco has a clear distaste for you that is expressed constantly.

Anything you do, anything at all, is enough to earn Falco's scorn. If you accidentally shoot Falco, he goes mental. "HEY, EINSTEIN! I'M ON YOUR SIDE!', he bellows, never explaining how he is aware of a physicist who lives in a different galaxy. Anger at friendly fire is, of course, understandable. But Falco is just as perturbed if you save his life. "GEE, I'VE BEEN SAVED BY FOX! HOW SWELL!", he spits, his voice dripping with avian sarcasm. 

At first, you might be confused. Why would Fox hire someone who lives only to hurl insults at him? Granted, he's a pretty talented pilot, but you would think that there would be other animal pilots with sunnier dispositions out there. But when you take a closer look at the other squad members, Fox's reasoning becomes somewhat clearer.

Much has been written on the all-encompassing awfulness of Slippy Toad, the youngest and punch-needingest member of Star Fox. He's annoying. He's useless. He's only in the team because his mum and Fox's mum are friends. All these things are true. Peppy Hare, on the other hand, is useful. He gives you gameplay tips. He gives you encouragement. He starts memes. But there's something else Peppy does. He constantly brings up your dead father.

According to the backstory, Peppy was a member of James McCloud's original Star Fox crew. He was there when James was betrayed and killed. And brother, he is going to go on and on and on about it.

"Your father would be proud."
"You're becoming more like your father, Fox."
"Hey, Fox, remember your dead father?"
"Do a barrel roll (like your father, who is dead, would have done, if he were still alive, which he is not)!"

He is relentless in reminding you that your father is dead. It is depressing. And in this, we reach the truth, the dark heart of Fox McCloud.

Fox is, of course, deeply depressed. He is filled to the brim with self-loathing, consumed by suicidal self-hatred. Why else would he accept such an obvious suicide mission as the one to take on Andros? Why else would his crew consist of a hateful bird, an incompetent frog, and a rabbit who constantly reminds him of his father's sacrifice, and therefore implicitly his own inadequacy?

Falco Lombardi has a chip on his shoulder. And his boss wouldn't want it any other way.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

POTUSCOM: Executive Asskickers

The man, now crouched behind the nearest car, desperately tried to pull his thoughts together into something coherent. Just an hour ago he had been at his desk, steeped in routine and normality, working on the database and wondering whether his wife could be convinced to take his turn cooking tonight. Now, he was hiding in the car park, teetering on the verge of hysterical panic, desperately trying not to recall the terrified look on his manager's face as the alien creature had eviscerated him with its glistening mandibles.

As you probably already know, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a remake/reimagining/remix of the 1994 classic strategy game for masochists. The game has garnered rave reviews from everyone except those who for some bizarre reason thought Time Units were a fun mechanic. It's a fine game, and if there's any justice it should show devs and the public that turn-based strategy is still viable, and even transcendent, on consoles.

My first playthrough of XCOM taught me not to name my soldiers after friends and family. I learned this lesson after seeing my sister get blown to pieces by a Muton Elite, and finding myself on my feet shrieking "SHE'S GOT TWO CHILDREN, YOU FUCKING MONSTERS!" at my television.

He had bolted soon after that, staying just long enough to see his manager's ruined body spring up in a sickening parody of life and begin shambling towards another of his terrified colleagues. Now he was in the car park, pressed against the cold metal of a Vauxhall Astra, fighting to shut out the screams and guttural groans coming from the building he had spent most of his working life in. He knew he should run, knew he HAD to run, but terror had acquired control of his body and rooted him to the spot. As he was feverishly attempting to clear his mind, trying to muster up enough sense to run as far and fast as possible, the alien creature scuttled from around the corner, up to the car, and fixed him hungrily with cold, unknowable compound eyes.

The creature stared at him, mandibles clicking, and he stared dumbly back. He whimpered pathetically, closed his eyes, and thought of his wife.

The excellent writer and RPG curmudgeon Rowan Kaiser named his squad members after Game of Thrones characters, due to the decent male/female ratio and the fact that ASOIAF characters die constantly. I decided to go a different way - to channel the spirit of the pantheon of US presidents.

The blast snapped his eyes open. The creature was making a hideous sound, pitched somewhere between a scream and a metal blade dragging across stone. It's abdomen was leaking an olive-green fluid through a gaping hole that had not been there seconds before. A second blast boomed, and the head of the creature disappeared in a green mist. As the lifeless body hit the floor, the soldier behind him was revealed. He was smiling, an easy smile that softened his sharp cheekbones and aristocratic features. His bright red armour made his slicked back white hair seems all the whiter. The shotgun in his hand was still smoking, as was the cigarette in the elegant cigarette holder that was clenched between his teeth.

"Hello sir, name's Franklin. We're here to help. You need to get over to our Skyranger over there. They'll get you to safety."

The rules, then: I'm playing on classic difficulty, where 'classic' is a euphemism for 'fucking hard'. As the US presidents thus far have been of a distinct XY persuasion, any female soldiers get dismissed on the spot (don't blame me, blame centuries of systemic oppression). Presidents will be called up in order of amusing nicknames I can think up for them, rather than chronological order. The game end either when the alien menace has been vanquished, or once all 44 presidents have been given death over liberty.

At present, the squad is reeling from the death of Major George 'O.G.' Washington, the assault specialist who had been with the team since its inception, and who died the way he would have wanted - mauled by a Muton berserker whilst protecting the lives of the men under his command.

With Washington in eternal repose, leadership of the team falls to the shotgun-wielding, no-nonsense assault class Lt. Abraham 'Emancipator' Lincoln. The core squad is composed of support troops Sgt. Richard 'Tricky' Nixon & Lt. Harry 'Bomber' Truman, heavy weapons expert Sgt. Theodore 'Big Stick' Roosevelt, and crack shot sniper Sgt. Martin 'Camper' Van Buren. Several rookie presidents are on hand, with more come if and when the unthinkable happens.

Can the alien forces be thwarted by a collection of rich, mostly white men? Only time will tell.

The man rose to his feet and stumbled a few steps towards the vast aircraft that was idling in the middle of the road. He turned to the soldier.

"Those... those things..."

"We'll handle them, sir. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself."



Welcome to my blog. I've not done this blogging malarkey before, but I have a lot of crackpot opinions about videogames and keeping them all to myself is becoming tiresome. I'm going to be posting all manner of thoughts, reminiscences, opinions, reviews and other assorted nonsense. I'll try to post something new everyday, as this is as much an exercise in writing discipline as it is an excuse to howl half-formed thoughts into the intervoid. Some kind of regular structure may happen at some point, but for now I'll just be putting up stuff as it occurs to me. I hope you'll join me, or at the very least refrain from making direct threats against me.

Coming up soon: why Gears of War makes me feel like a glass elephant, the trials and tribulations of the Presidential XCOM squad, and the journey of a boy and his father into Hell.

And finally, a picture of one of my idols:

See you in another castle!