Bonus Post… Apple Arcade on Trial – Part 3 (The Verdict)

Bonus Post… Apple Arcade on Trial – Part 3 (The Verdict)

Closing out my trial month with Apple Arcade, a bunch more games to talk about in the order I’ve played them. Be sure to read about more in part one (here) and part two (here).

Apple Arcade has already become a perfect fit for compact, narrative puzzlers, but unfortunately Where Cards Fall missed on a couple of these points for me. The block puzzle mechanics work well in the isometric environments, but after several hours without much variety they wear thin before the end. This isn’t helped by the story presented between puzzles… it’s effectively visual, but I had no idea what was going on, so that didn’t even take several hours to get old! Worth a download until you’ve had your fill, but be warned, it’s a serious battery killer!

I think Mind Symphony is supposed to be a zen-like rhythm-action game, and it’s got all of the tools except for the small matter of the rhythm-timed screen taps not bearing any relation to either audio or visual prompts. This leads to a less than zen-like experience. Hope it gets fixed because it currently stinks.

Haven’t played many auto-runners since the glory days of mobile gaming, but that’s what EarthNight is. Running on the back of space dragons, collecting loot and power-ups, and avoiding / killing / bouncing on monsters until you get to the dragon’s head, which you then have to repeatedly stab until it’s dead. It’s fun for a while but I felt I’d experienced enough of what it had to offer after my first 45 minute session.

Mutazione sucked me in a lot more than I thought it would. Fairly linear point-and-click that’s heavy on conversation and a bit of music-based gardening! The art style is great, as is the sound design and the aforementioned music, and like most games of this ilk, it’s ideally suited to a touchscreen. The main character might be a bit irritating to any non-millennials, but stick with it and there’s a very dark, compelling, mature story to be found here over a good few hours of gameplay.

There’s a simple and brilliant mechanic behind the wonderfully presented PAC-MAN Party Royale. Unfortunately the opposite is true of the terrible matchmaking that Nintendo would be proud of in this four-player battle royale, which is further compounded by how barebones and (literally) pointless the experience is. You either create a party, which involves sending three friends a Game Center code in a way of your choosing outside of the game, or join a party by inputting a code that you’ve been sent by some means that isn’t the game. Should you have three such friends that you’ve pre-arranged a play time with and they manage to connect, there doesn’t seem to be any reward for winning – not even a score record – but you just start again. You can play bots for the same experience if you haven’t pre-arranged to have three Game Center friends playing, and as the only way you’ll realistically play it for the time being, only serves to heighten the disappointment at how good this could have been. Interestingly, at the time of writing, a couple of days after it was released in a further wave of Apple Arcade releases, it’s no longer on the App Store. Just like it’s no longer on my iPad!

Get past the first couple of checkpoints, and Stela becomes a thoughtful and deeply atmospheric puzzle / stealth platform-runner. The environments are among the best looking you’ll see this year on any platform, in no small part thanks to the incredible lighting effects, and the sound is very successful in adding tension to them. It’s not especially well explained why you’re running from what you’re running from, and it can be a bit trial-and-error, especially at the start, but overall a very worthwhile experience.

Agent Intercept casts you as a spy in a transforming car auto-chasing after baddies on roads, off-road and in water, picking up homing missiles and other boosts to do them in with. It’s a great looking game with suitably spy-type music, but gameplay is pretty shallow and rarely feels like you’ve got a lot of control over most of the action on the screen. And when I say gameplay, don’t expect too much… there seems to be a total of three missions available, lasting maybe fifteen minutes total, but each has what seems to be ten hour wait timer before you can start the next one. Given the Apple Arcade business model, all of this seems bizarre. The most half-baked game I’ve come across here so far.

I initially dismissed Neo Cab as too heavy on the narrative and not enough on the gameplay for me, but heard good things about it and gave it a whirl (which I would never have done for its mid-price Nintendo Switch incarnation). It’s a real looker, set in a neon cyberpunk future where you play the last human taxi driver whilst simultaneously trying to make a connection with your customers through dialogue choices. If you’re into talking simulators, it works great!

And that rounds off my month of free trial. I’ve still got a bunch of stuff installed that I wanted to play as priorities but just haven’t got to yet, including Inmost, Sneaky Sasquatch, Dead End Job, The Enchanted World and Spaceland. I’m still playing Super Impossible Road and two of my top ten games of the year so far (which I didn’t see coming) in Bleak Sword and Speed Demons. Then I’ve picked out this list of stuff that I want to get to next: Dear Reader, Fledgling Heroes, Rayman Mini, Atone, Dodo Peak, Things That Go Bump, Explottens and Patterned. And whatever else drops in the meantime.

Which all means Apple Arcade is way too cheap not to carry on with!

Bonus Post – Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 2

Bonus Post – Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 2

This is part two of my journey (part one here) through Apple Arcade’s month-long free trial, with the games I played in the order I played them…

For most people there’s probably not a lot to not like about the stylised undersea exploration of Shinsekai Into the Depths. Unfortunately I’m rarely most people, and there wasn’t much I did like – the art style, the gameplay, the premise (or lack of), the progression… All completely unjustifiably so, but sometimes some people don’t like some stuff. There’s clearly a decent game there if that’s your bag though, so try it and you’ll probably like it!

Lifeslide starts as a beautiful, zen-like game involving flying a paper aeroplane through the different stages of life, and it really feels great on a proper controller. But a couple of levels in you get to infancy, and I can’t get past it. I’ve tried over and over because I really loved the start and thought I’d love the rest… definitely not zen-like anymore, but I think it still should be. A quick Google search says I’m not the only one too. Something not right in a game that could easily be so right!

Speed Demons is a gorgeous top down racer with huge nods to both Spy Hunter and Super Sprint that feels absolutely fantastic to play on the touchscreen, less so on a PS4 controller. Split into loads of chapters, each with Burnout-style challenges from simple races against Speed Demons to takedowns and escapes, all taking place on a packed, neon-infused motorway. Not much to it but who cares when it’s this much fun!

I’d not come across Possessions until I read an Apple Arcade hidden gems article, where none of the others were exactly hidden. It’s a single-sitting, very easy-going perspective puzzler, superfluously chronicling the life of a family and the life of their house. Despite almost no challenge, the core mechanic is very relaxing and the art style and music work well. Completing the short story unlocks an augmented reality mode that seems even more superfluous than the story that held my attention for seconds. I don’t think I’d pay for it standalone but worth a download and play-through on here.

At this point I went back to The Pinball Wizard, which I’d previously enjoyed then binned off for its frustrating checkpointing. More on that here! There was something very compelling about it though, and I had to go back and finish it! It never gets less frustrating, and you’re still doing the same levels over and over until you’ve levelled it enough to push through, but it’s a lot of fun. If you’re after a rogue-lite / pinball crossover, you could do a lot worse!

What the Golf? kind of plays like a golf game, but sometimes it’s also Super Mario or a football match or a BMX ride or a planetary gravity simulation or ten-pin bowling with a Persian rug instead of a ball, or just about anything else that might involve moving an object from one place to another, meaning it’s not really a golf game at all. As well as huge variety across a huge number of levels, it’s also genuinely funny, and constantly surprises with its inventiveness and cultural awareness over hours of gameplay. Another must-download from Apple Arcade, and another real justification for the asking price.

Four games dropped a couple of weeks after Apple Arcade launched, three of which I didn’t really fancy, but Redout: Space Assault looked cool if nothing else. It’s a partially on-rails space shooter in the Starfox mould that definitely benefits from using a controller. Great feeling of speed and control of your ship as you tear around incredibly bold and highly populated space environments shooting stuff through probably more missions than you’ll need before repetition kicks in. Fun while it lasts though!

I wouldn’t say I’m a massive fan of Impossible Road, but I’ve been playing it occasionally for years and in that time it survived many memory-saving app clear outs on various iPads. Super Impossible Road might be a reason to get rid though. It’s more of the same frustrating but addictive high speed ball-down-ramp gameplay, but seems more structured and is definitely less minimalist. Nice to play on a controller too.

Single-button two-player is probably the way to get the most out of Cricket Through the Ages, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had in single player that goes from the bizarre to the dark and back again in the hour or so you’ll get out of all the different game modes presented by its strange, not quite cricket through the ages campaign.

Pilgrim was another of the four second wave of Apple Arcade games, and despite the lovingly hand-drawn art style, I was initially put off by its apparent point-and-click, deck building gameplay – two genres I’m not a fan of. A podcast review convinced me there was more than meets the eye though (and no deck building), and what I found was about 90 minutes of intriguing, wordless narrative strung together partly by logic and partly by experimentation. And if more point-and-clicks delivered like this I might be more of a fan.

One more part to follow in this series, where we’ll find out whether I go all in with Apple Arcade at the end of my free trial month.

Bonus Post – Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 1

Bonus Post – Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 1

A week or so into my free month-long trial with Apple Arcade, and I’ve tried a bunch of games, all on iPad. Aside from my current Mario Kart obsession, I don’t really play much on the phone anymore, and as much as I’d like to be playing some of these on Mac, it ain’t there yet. But the performance and screen on my 2018 Pro isn’t exactly a compromise, so here’s the the games I fancied trying first in the order I played them…

I was going to buy Sayonara Wild Hearts on Switch, but it’s here, and free because I’ll be long since done with it (for all the right reasons) before my Apple Arcade trial is up. It feels great on a PS4 controller (thanks iOS 13), is absolutely gorgeous and is as slick as hell for its short lifetime. Brilliant advert for the service.

Frogger in Toy Town and Chu Chu Rocket Universe were clearly meant to be free-to-play originally. And like most games of that type, the novelty wears off very quickly. Interesting that this still happens even without gems, adverts,cool-down timers, etc. though. Stick to the original source material and you’ll have a lot more fun!

Bleak Sword is a dark fantasy joy! Great super-minimalist (bleak) art style that still manages to invoke real atmosphere, and it controls simply and beautifully on a PS4 controller. Very addictive, and the equally minimalist RPG style has a wonderful flow to it. Unlike its influence Dark Souls, I was hooked within ten minutes and it then very quickly turned into one of my favourite games of the year so far!

Get beyond the cringeworthy narration (none more so than the English-voiced lady who uses the word “gotten” which there is no need for!), and Assemble With Care is an easy-going puzzle game that’s like a less sinister The Room. Ideal to play through in a single sitting (which I did), it makes perfect use of a touchscreen and you might even learn something about how your favourite retro tech works!

Grindstone is a colour matching fantasy puzzler that is fine but I played stuff like this to death in the early days of mobile gaming and it turns out I’m not ready for more yet! Seems like a solid title though, and great to see one of these that isn’t free-to-play.

I can’t get to grips with Exit the Gungeon, in almost exactly the same way I couldn’t with Celeste. The controls are just wired different to my brain, regardless of what buttons they’re mapped to. Shame, because like Celeste, I really want to like this because I know it’s probably really good!

I do like a pinball game, but The Pinball Wizard also feels like it has free-to-play roots. Despite an interesting RPG / rogue-lite concept, I’d had my fill after 20 minutes – given how cheap some deaths can be, playing the same few levels over and over because the checkpointing is unnecessarily harsh (as it’s now not free-to-play and doesn’t need you to just keep feeding it money, jewels, etc.) makes it get old even quicker than it might. Shame, but I since I deleted it I can’t help but feel I’m doing it a disservice, so it’s now been reinstalled and I’ll be back (in part two).

Skate City is another very slick game. Highly stylised side-scrolling skateboarder that is part Olli Olli, part Shaun White (Wii game) and part Alto’s Adventure. Easy to control with a touchscreen (not tried with controller yet), and loads of challenge to each of the various areas. Definite keeper.

And that’s part one. I’m so impressed with this so far and I’m only scratching the surface. Will it be worth a fiver a month when my free trial is over though? Find out in part two!

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

My Life With… Jetpac (VIC-20)

When I started thinking about Jetpac on the VIC-20 recently, a couple of questions immediately came to mind: Where does it fit in my top VIC-20 games? And because I kind of already knew it wasn’t going to figure quite as highly as it maybe should… Where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Coming back to the first question, this one is easy thanks to my big nerd list of my favourite games of all time ever.

  1. The Perils of Willy
  2. Andes Attack
  3. Jetpac
  4. Omega Race
  5. Submarine Commander

The Perils of Willy (read more here) will always be my favourite VIC-20 game, but this was the first time I’d thought about a top five, and genuinely didn’t know most of what was going to follow when I went through my big list looking for VIC-20 games from top to bottom. Andes Attack, Jeff Minter’s llama-focussed Defender clone, was a surprise in second place – without thinking much I actually thought I was going to see Submarine Commander there! But thinking much about it, it’s probably right in my mind. As is Omega Race in fifth place, and our subject here, Jetpac, in third. I don’t like that Pinball Wizard (read more here) isn’t there though! But taking away the all important nostalgia factor, we come to the second question – where does it fit in the top VIC-20 games?

Even through my rose-tinted spectacles, I can look at my list and say that The Perils of Willy [maybe!] isn’t the best game on the VIC-20, though I won’t hear any argument that it isn’t up there somewhere!!! But seriously, looking at my list here for the first time, extracted like this as my VIC-20 top five, the first thing that came to mind was hang on, why isn’t Jetpac in first place? Instinctively, surely there’s no better game on the platform from a technical viewpoint, or aesthetically, or in terms of gameplay or longevity? From my top five, maybe Submarine Commander is an equivalent technical marvel, but I reluctantly concede that its gameplay has a more niche appeal. Omega Race also needs to be in there as an almost flawless conversion of the incredible playable – and re-playable – twist on Asteroids arcade game. Add a few other titles I’m familiar with, and after far more personal deliberation that was probably necessary, we have this:

  1. Jetpac
  2. Omega Race
  3. Gorf
  4. Jump Jet
  5. Pirate Cove

We’ll get into Jetpac (finally) in a minute. In second and third place, I could easily switch positions between Omega Race and another incredible arcade conversion feat in Gorf, a multi-level spin on Space Invaders that included screen effects like I’d never seen before, not to mention the biggest enemy I’d ever seen with the Flag Ship appearing every four levels! Then we have Jump Jet (read more here), which is a Harrier flight-sim that at the time I got it was surely as good as flight sims would ever get! I could argue that A.C.E. (Air Combat Emulator) – coincidentally another flight-sim – should be in this spot too, but that was even harder than this was, and its plane couldn’t take off vertically from an aircraft carrier! It never made me air-sick like its box said it might either… Then we have Pirate Cove, part of that incredibly immersive VIC-20 text-based adventure series (almost any of which could really be here instead if you prefer) by Scott Adams where you “Go North” or “Use Mongoose” (to kill a snake if I remember right)! And if I also remember right, the first game I ever finished, not long after the mongoose incident!

List complete, and there we have it. Jetpac is officially the best game ever on the VIC-20! We should find out why.

Jetpac was released by Ultimate in 1983, but I’m fairly certain I got this after Christmas in 1984; it definitely needed an 8K expansion so it wouldn’t have been much earlier than that. Without doubt it was the screenshots on an advert or review I’d seen in C&VG or Commodore User, or on the back of the box, that attracted me to it, and amazingly they were probably even VIC-20 screenshots and not, as was usually the case, nefariously hijacked from a C64 version (which in this case never actually appeared). They could have come from the Spectrum version, but any VIC owner could proudly say that even if they did, you’d struggle to tell the difference. In fact, this was especially true because the VIC-20 version had colour clash that any Spectrum owner would have been proud of!

You play as Jetman, though bit like Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong, I don’t remember ever knowing him as Jetman – he was just an astronaut with a jet-pack and a blaster who had crashed on a planet far, far away and had to rebuild his rocket from the bits strewn about the place then fuel it up and start making his way home. All of this happens on a single wraparound screen, with three rocket parts that had to be dropped on top of each other in order, which you’d find lying on the ground or on mid-air ledges, whilst fending off the planet’s fauna that randomly flies around the place impeding your quest. Once you’ve put the rocket back together, fuel starts dropping out of the sky, also randomly landing around the screen, together with bonus jewels and stuff, which you collect and drop onto your rocket until it’s full up. Then you walk back into the rocket, it takes off and you start collecting fuel on the next planet, which is a similar screen but with a whole new set of meanies to attend to.

The game loops around a set of four levels, after which you’ve obviously crashed again and need to rebuild the rocket from scratch, which makes for the perfect setting for the game’s score-chasing intentions. This simplicity is what makes the game great – this gameplay loop is without fault, and it sits in the company of Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, etc. as timeless games that play just as well today, still offering endless challenge and replayability.

The sound is very functional and of its time, but the aforementioned graphics are absolutely outstanding, and unlike most VIC games stand up just as well today, with big bold sprites for the main character and the various enemies, and this incredible sense of scale as the rocket is put back together. And when you eventually fill it up with enough fuel, that sense of exhilaration as it takes of and exits the screen is still there today too! The planet design, in contrast, couldn’t be more basic, with three platforms suspended over blackness – there’s not even any ground at the bottom of the screen! But you won’t even notice that when you’re frantically trying to create a path through a kind of large-scale bullet-hell array of fast-paced aliens, either by shooting or dodging or sheer fluke as you panic your way around to get to a rocket part or fuel drop or tasty morsel. And I say you won’t even notice it because for all the hours I’ve spent playing this over decades, I didn’t either until just now! There’s a lovely subtle flame effect from your jet-pack, which moves as you change direction, and from the rocket too as it flies up the screen; the aliens have their own explosion animation too, and I really like that this happens when they crash into a platform as well as when you shoot them. Aside from a bit of flicker, you really have to pinch yourself and say yes, this really is happening on a VIC-20!

And all of this is why Jetpac sits at the top of the pile for the VIC-20, even if it’s not actually as good as The Perils of Willy in my opinion!

I’ve never played any of the Jetman sequels, and have steered clear of the overly restyled XBOX title Jetpac Refuelled, but did eventually play the Spectrum version of Jetpac in 2018, when the Rare Replay collection went backwards compatible on XBOX One. You’ve got more screen space to play in and it’s the same fantastic, timeless game that the VIC-20 offered, but it doesn’t seem quite as fast and frantic, so I’m sticking with the VIC as having the superior version despite only having half the levels of the Spectrum version. And saying that is even more incredible when you come back to what a technical achievement it is that it’s on there at all, when it’s not such a technical marvel on the Spectrum; and when you consider the pedigree of Ultimate’s other games on the Spectrum. Really incredible!

Bonus Post – A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

Bonus Post – A Note on the Game Boy in the Konami Anniversary Collections

They might not have the profile of some of the other games in these wonderful compilations, but the Game Boy is well represented in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection with both The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge included. And then we have Operation C, where C, of course, stands for Contra in the Contra Anniversary Collection.

I’m going to skip over The Castlevania Adventure because I recently covered it in a bit more detail here. Instead, we’ll take a very quick look at the other two, which I’ve also played all the way through on Nintendo Switch.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is both a technical spectacle and an excellent game, and a perfect companion to Adventure. By this point the developers properly knew how to get the most out of the handheld hardware, so it looks even more wonderfully atmospheric, runs smoothly and sounds even more like a Castlevania game than its predecessor, despite the same limitations.

It’s pretty quick to get through the linear levels, which you can play most of the way through in any order, though the final boss fight is a bugger! You genuinely have to memorise every single move it’s going to make and every pixel on each of the on-screen platforms that you need to be positioned on for each move to counter it. Not to mention the untold experimentation to work out some of them. This is a real shock after the relative simplicity of getting that far, but it is a great feeling when you finally beat it.

Operation C was the first Contra game I jumped into from that collection – having dabbled with them all as a complete newcomer to the series, it seemed a bit easier than the rest, and as you can tell, I’m easily impressed when it comes to the Game Boy!

The classic run and gun design is all present in a compact form, but it did leave me struggling a bit until I tweaked the controls to be like Mega Man, then I sailed through the first area. I was then amazed that the second switched to top-down shooting like Ikari Warriors – not having any history with Contra beyond remembering a few screenshots and trying several first levels, I didn’t see that coming!

I think there were five gradually more bonkers stages in the end, including another top-down level with organic backgrounds and giant insects running about like something from Xenon 2! Some really cool jungle stages too in the classic Contra mould – just like Castlevania(s) on the Game Boy, the developers worked wonders with the monochrome visuals to generate just the right atmosphere.

Whether side-scrolling or top-down, none of the levels took more than a few goes to get through (apart from the first until I changed the buttons around), and the bosses were fairly easy until the (almost) last one, and that was also fairly straightforward once you worked out its couple of attack patterns. Which is how I like my bosses, and overall how I like my games!

Bonus Post – Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Bonus Post – Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Dr Mario World has landed a day early. I’ve played through the first 25 stages, and it’s definitely more Candy Crush than Dr Mario so far in gameplay terms, and it’s starting to feel like it in free to play mechanics too – there’s definitely timers ticking in the latest area and hearts ready to restrict my play time!

The idea is that you need to get rid of coloured viruses by matching two or more of them with your coloured capsule, which you slide up the screen and let it go on its way once you’ve got it positioned. There’s a single player campaign and versus mode where you can play your friends (maybe…), which unlocks when you’ve played enough of the campaign. And that’s about where paid gems and hearts and stuff came into play too.

It looks and sounds as great as you’d expect, and it’s a perfectly fine example of the match-three mobile puzzler, with skills and items and even a choice of doctor and assistant characters. Now and again it feels like Dr Mario (even when you’re Dr. Bowser). But only now and again unfortunately.

In theory the multiplayer does give it something extra, but this is Nintendo we’re talking about! I have unlocked this, I’ve played a random and it’s fun, but it looks like my Nintendo account friends can’t be accessed (or if they can, I don’t know how), and looking for Facebook friends is just giving error messages. Speaking of which, you’d better have a decent connection all the time – even with one I’ve had several lost connection error codes appear, and game freezes appearing too during normal gameplay. Hopefully that can be patched out like it was on Super Mario Run.

Despite the negative tone, I do enjoy a match-three, and I’m enjoying this so far… but I enjoy Dr. Mario on the NES an awful lot more, and I’d much rather be playing that timeless classic on my phone!

Bonus Post – In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

Bonus Post – In Defence of The Castlevania Adventure

I think Game Boy Castlevania Adventure gets a bum rap. Then again, I think that about Pit Fighter and the Spectrum version of Out Run too! (You can find out why here). Anyway, I remember being hugely impressed with it on the original hardware, and in retrospect, considering how early in the Game Boy’s life it came out, it really was an achievement. I’ve also just really enjoyed playing through it again in the Konami Castlevania Anniversary Collection on Switch…

The idea is that you make your way through four stages (or dark dungeons, torture chambers and vampire crypts as the description goes) of Dracula’s lair. After that, you enter what is called “the “dead” of night” to quote it exactly, to face off against Count Dracula and his multiple personalities. All with your “mystic” whip and mindful wits to sort you out.

A lot of the criticism I’ve seen of late relates to its inclusion on the aforementioned collection, on the basis of it being dull and poorly designed compared to the excellent sequel – also present – which renders it redundant, and no doubt taking the place of a GBA game or Symphony or whatever the missing favourite of the person criticising it is. I do get it, and wouldn’t have complained about an Aria of Sorrow or something being on here instead, or even the Game Boy Kid Dracula; actually, having just finished the NES version, I’d have really liked that! But I don’t think that makes it a bad game.

Admittedly the first stage is a bit sedate, but there’s some really challenging platforming, races against time and boss fights later on. Took me a few goes to remember how the end bit works, but the rest felt comfortably familiar, and more importantly, as fun as I remember. It looks really good too – very clean, very atmospheric, and it’s very clear where you need to be to make some of the more precise jumps that are called for later. It sounds like a Castlevania game too. And I for one am glad I got to play through it again on the collection!

Now I just need that Arcade Archives Pit Fighter release. Get talking to Atari, Hamster people!