My Life With… Pokemon Gold (Nintendo Game Boy Colour / 3DS)

My Life With… Pokemon Gold (Nintendo Game Boy Colour / 3DS)

At this point you may well be expecting me to transport you back to the early 2000’s, which may have marked my time living in London or the start of my time back in my hometown of Bedford. I’d probably be engaged, having just proposed in the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But actually, don’t expect that. Not happening this time, although by coincidence I was listening to The Smashing Pumpkin’s Machina / The Machines of God when I bought Pokemon Gold, as I might have been doing had I owned a Game Boy Colour and had the slightest interest in Pokemon the best part of two decades ago!

So as far as this post is concerned, Pokemon Gold was released for the Nintendo 3DS in September 2017, just a few weeks prior to the time of writing this. Which is a real benefit as I can remember exactly what was going on when I was playing it for a change!

The New Nintendo 2DS is my first Nintendo handheld since the Game Boy Advance SP. I’d had my eye on it since its announcement – nice price point, no crappy 3D gimmick, and it was properly portable, unlike its non-New predecessor. And what a games library! But since the aforementioned weirdo engagement is now a wife and family and a very old house in the country, by necessity I bided my time until I happened to check a bank rewards account balance for the first time in two years and realised my household direct debits had netted me £250 in available cash, so I decided the time was right!

It’s a lovely, well built machine. Everything feels solid, possibly with the exception of the hinges for the top screen at full extension, which give it a slight wobble. With access to everything ever made for the DS as well as the 3DS, there’s a good 12+ years of games I’ve missed out on, plus everything on the e-shop and Virtual Console from the older Nintendo hardware. Which I also missed out on. With the obvious caveat that all of this comes at Nintendo pricing…

How about Pokemon? As I said, zero interest ever, but with the e-shop also comes demos, and I downloaded all sorts that I knew I might be into – Mario Golf World Tour, Castlevania Mirror of Fate, Resident Evil Revelations, Monster Hunter Stories, Super Smash Bros, Dead or Alive Dimensions… But also stuff I’d obviously heard of but never had any interest in, like various Fire Emblems, Tomodachi Life, Poochy and Yoshi’s Wooly World, Hey! Pikmin, etc. And the first one I actually tried, Pokemon Sun and Moon Special Demo Version. (I did also buy Mario Tennis Open, a given based on my history with Game Boy Tennis, and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; like Pokemon, I’ve never played a Zelda game).

Pokemon Sun and Moon Special Demo Version introduces you to a couple of characters, some city exploration and a trial involving photographing Pokemon in a dungeon, after which you’re free to explore a limited area. And that’s all it took to open my eyes!

Very shortly after that, when the Game Boy Colour Pokemon Gold and Silver appeared on the Nintendo e-shop at just £8.99, I had no hesitation jumping in whilst laying on my hotel room bed in Munich where I was with work, and within minutes realised that the early night I’d planned was going to be a long one!

The premise is massively simple – become the best Pokemon trainer in the top-down, classic JRPG world. This simplicity reflects in the gameplay as you wander from initial task to task, then city to city, capturing, training, fighting, puzzling, levelling up and evolving your growing collection of Pokemon, and managing your growing inventory of stuff and skills. But from the outset, you quickly start to realise the enormous depth to the game, and the enormous strategy to be employed in making progress.

As you travel the world, progress is charted through defeating the Gym boss in each city. With all the distractions on the way between cities, from Pokemon hiding in long grass or characters you meet on the way and challenges they put your way, to exploration of caves and dungeons, by the time you reach the next city your Pokemon collection should be in fairly good shape to take on these bosses, though after three or four it starts getting tougher. Beat the boss and you’re rewarded with badges that allow you to use Pokemon skills you’ve acquired on the way as and when you please, like cutting down trees that previously blocked your path or surfing on water Pokemon across lakes and seas to make further progress!

Every Pokemon has its own unique set of strengths and offensive, defensive and special skills that come into play, and there’s over 250 of them running wild waiting for you to find and catch them. Some of these are much rarer than others – they might only come out at night (with day and night in real-time) or in a certain cave on a certain day, or you might only be able to encounter them if you’ve come across the right fishing rod and you’re using it in the right lake. As said before, enormous depth and so much to do outside of Gym battles to become the greatest. In fact, after dozens of hours of play I’ve got an enormous list of things and places to come back to as and when I’m equipped to do so – there’s literally no end in sight, which is fantastic as this has become my go-to game whenever my fingers have nothing more grown-up on the go!

Strangely in retrospect, until just now I’ve never really considered how the game looks and sounds – it’s a Game Boy Colour game, so clearly it has a certain look, but even 20 years on it’s perfect for now. Everything is dynamic and colourful, every character is full of personality, and the battles play out with effective animations when you pull off a move. One really nice touch as you progress is your radio, which you can dial in to your own favourite stations when you get to the radio tower in one of the bigger cities if you win a quiz there, although admittedly the sound hasn’t aged as well as the graphics. But there’s so many other nice touches which I can quite believe you’ll never see, which is what really makes this game a staggering achievement.

I don’t often pre-order games, but at the time of writing Pokemon Ultra Sun and Moon is only a couple of weeks away and my experience with Pokemon Gold has me completely sold – I need this day one!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Life With… Kane – ZX Spectrum

Like everyone else of a certain age, my memories of Saturday afternoon TV in the late 70’s up to the mid 80’s obviously start with sitting with your grandmother while she made roll-ups watching ITV’s World of Sport wrestling, then some time after the football results there was The Muppets and The Incredible Hulk, or later The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Knightrider (all of which are likely to get individual goings-over in later posts so I’ll leave it there for now). Were Airwolf and Streethawk in those late afternoon slots too? One of the reasons for doing this blog is to get all of this down before I get too senile and forget more important things like that! Anyway, you get the picture – the golden age of TV, despite there only being three channels to choose from.

My Saturday afternoons were spent with my two brothers at my Grandma’s house – she didn’t smoke roll-ups; Benson & Hedges if I remember right, and this was probably the period when she was vowing to give up if a packet of fags ever reached a Pound! We spent a lot of the time between classic TV programmes outside, climbing trees, seeing how many neighbouring garden’s fences we could chuck stuff across, fighting, and all the other good stuff kids used to be allowed to do. But even in those glorious times, sometimes the weather got too grotty, and you’d have a choice on TV of guessing which horse would win on the racing, an ancient musical starring Mario Lanza, or a black and white western like My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; High Noon or Red River. To the boy from the 70’s, nothing was more glamorous than seeing the white man slaughtering the evil Apaches. Except maybe shooting Germans. We all had a cowboy outfit, a sheriff’s badge and a collection of cap pistols and rifles. For those of us fortunate enough to holiday in Great Yarmouth, there was the Wild West show where the sheriff and his posse had a real-life shootout with a band of outlaws in what I remember to be an entire frontier town recreated on the Norfolk coast. And in 1986, Mastertronic gave us Kane on the Commodore 64!

I played this a few times on my friend Steven’s Commodore, but don’t have much recollection of that version beyond frustration from never getting far enough to ride horses like did on the second stage, but it must have made an impact because when I later got my Spectrum+2, it was the first game I went out and bought. Although the familiarity in a bewildering mass of titles available compared to the now meagre pickings for my VIC20, combined with £1.99 price tag, may also have been a factor! With a bit of practice, I soon worked out the secrets of that first stage, and soon realised I was in cowboy heaven, and some thirty years later Kane would work its way into my top twenty games of all time when I started compiling that list that inspired what you’re reading now.

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In Kane, you’re a cowboy doing different cowboy stuff over four stages. The first stage sees you in front of a colourful Red Indian village surroumded by some even more colourful (clash inducing) mountains, armed with a bow and arrow. It was all about lining up a crosshair just in front of some birds and timing your shot to hit their undersides as they flew at different heights from left to right. The higher the bird, the more time you had to allow for the arrow to get there, less as it got closer and flew twice as fast. Kill enough, and you’re on to stage two, but if you didn’t kill a few more than enough you were still screwed because the amount dead dictated how many lives you carried on with – lives traded for lives with the injuns or something. Clever. Then you got to ride your horse across the arid western prairie, jumping over some rocks and bushes for what seemed like forever, especially if you’d missed a few birds earlier. This was all about timing again, because it was all too easy for your horse’s back foot caught on an obstacle and get thrown off if you were a fraction out, especially on the dreaded double-rocks! Or if you were on a keyboard, missing the jump completely. Eventually you got to the Wild West town for stage three, a fantastic shootout where the outlaws appeared from behind barrels, wagons, in windows or through the saloon doors, and you had a second or two to get your revolver’s sight on them and get them before they got you. Kill enough and it’s back onto your trusty steed as you sped along the side of a runaway express train to slam the brakes on.  And if you thought that the imaginatively titled “Horse Ride 1.” stage required superhuman timing, then you were in for a treat on Horse Ride 2. with some cruelly positioned rocks and cacti and stuff! Get to the front before the timer runs out and you get to start the whole game all over again!

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I love the presentation of this game, despite there being minimal sound of any kind, and some of the most garish colours the Spectrum ever produced! And there may have been four stages, but in reality this meant not much more than four different screens. But what screens they were! You got a bit of every western ever made in them, and they all did a great job of telling your brain that you were The Duke in all his finest roles! The character design was simple but with some great animation, especially the horse accelerating from a canter to a gallop.

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Apart from Horse Ride 2. it wasn’t the most challenging game once you’d played it a few times and worked out the timing, but every stage was satisfying in its own way, and you made your own challenges as you went round the loop again and again after saving all the train passengers, trying to kill every bird, clear every jump or shoot every baddie. Endless cowboy fun. Literally!

As much as I’d adore Red Dead Redemption many years later for finally bringing all those childhood cowboy fantasies virtually to life, it was no Kane. One of the best £1.99’s I’ve ever spent… But not quite the best. Stay tuned!

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Life With… Joe Blade – ZX Spectrum

My Catholic school education across three schools in Bedford always involved a bus journey, and starting upper school in September 1985 took the bus journey right across town (and seemingly through most of its streets) into uncharted territory to me, far north of the river. The bus stop specified on my free bus-pass was ten minutes’ walk away, but over time us paupers from the south of the river realised that the drivers were happy with a flash of the card and probably wouldn’t notice if we started going rogue and getting off the bus in the town centre and changing to a more direct one that stopped right near my house. And for the most part, it worked, though there was the double-jeopardy of the mythical inspector getting on which provided an ever constant fear!

Then there was the additional thrill of sprinting across town from one bus to the next to not miss the first one home (otherwise there was little point in the whole exercise). But as we became more experienced in being teenagers, that sprint became a leisurely stroll via our favourite shops, namely WHSmith to see if the new Computer & Video Games or Smash Hits was out, a newsagent that was the first to stock Cherry Coke, and a tiny independent games shop in the newly opened Boulevards shopping arcade that had the biggest VIC-20 section I’d ever seen! Which in a very roundabout way brings me to the point that at this time, a lot of what you bought was solely down to judging a book / record / game (I don’t think anything else to buy existed then) by its cover.

On one of these trips, on a Friday afternoon towards the end of the VIC-20’s life when magazine coverage had all but dried up, I was completely seduced by a cops and robbers game that I can’t for the life of me remember the name of, but had some huge, impressive sprites on the back of its box that I just couldn’t resist but had no money to buy. And I’ve a horrible feeling it was full price… The following morning, with funds in place, I convinced my Dad to drive me into town, then drive around while I ran in to the shop and bought it. I’m not sure if I feel worse today for making him do that or wasting what was probably several weeks of pocket money on that button-mashing turd – you played the big on-screen robber on the run from the big on-screen cop and just waggled the joystick left and right as fast as you could until your hands hurt too much and he caught you. Game over.

But sometimes judging a game by its cover worked out fine, and there’s no greater example of this than Joe Blade. I don’t think there was a lot of life left in my favourite games shop (or the too-exotic-for-Bedford Boulevards shopping arcade) when 1987 came, but once again seeing those screenshots – on a budget title no less – meant must-buy.

Joe Blade was monochrome Spectrum graphics in all their colour clash-free glory – big, detailed black sprites and environments on garish yellow, purple, green, turquoise, etc. backgrounds that made complete sense providing you didn’t think about them too much! And the sprites were so big and detailed that you could easily have mistake the distinctly moustachioed Joe for Charles Bronson hoofing Germans all about the place, even at cassette box size!

Actually, they turned out not to be Germans but the minions of the evil mastermind Crax Bloodfinger, who’s kidnapped a load of world leaders that you need to rescue. But they did look enough like German soldiers to give it the distinction of being one of the first games banned there! Once you’re in his lair, you run about the flip-screen complex shooting up the non-SS goons, collecting stuff like ammo, keys to open cell doors, food and booze for health, disguises that give you temporary immunity and bombs that you need to prime in a letter-rearranging mini-game. Once you’ve sorted all the bombs and come across the six hostages, it’s time to escape from where you began.

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The gameplay was a lot like Dan Dare (see my post on that HERE) though probably a bit less frantic in terms of gunplay (especially as you didn’t get shot by the armed enemy but lost health on contact), but those cell keys were not easy to come by and that complex was complex, so a bit of mapping on some graph paper you’d nicked from your classroom stationary cupboard was essential! Whilst the box screenshots did do some justice to the wonderfully evocative (not World War 2) scenery and humorous touches such as the goon-like prisoners and sleeping hostages slumped on the floor with their arms casually behind their heads, what they couldn’t do justice to was the superbly smooth animation, and on my +2 at least you also had the benefit of some decent sound from the 128K version.

I don’t think I ever defused all the bombs or rescued all six world leaders, or even completed my map, but as was often the case with games at the time, it wasn’t about reaching the destination, but having a total blast over and over again without caring if you ever got there. Joe Blade is up there with the best of the original budget games ever released (the untouchable Feud excluded of course), and was more stylish and playable than most full priced games at the time.

Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

Bonus Post – Steve Blower Imagine Software Art Uncovered

I didn’t realise at the time, but those glorious old Commodore VIC-20 cassette covers, that were often the primary reason for buying a game (unless you were seduced by some misleading C64 screenshots on the back), were actually real pieces of art by real artists! Maybe it was all those logos and stuff all over them…

One such artist was Steve Blower, of Imagine and then Ocean. I was recently pointed towards some very special versions of some of his cover art by Mark R. Jones (@MarkRJones1970) who was himself a bit of an artistic legend at Ocean! They’re special because there’s no logos and stuff all over them. It’s the original uncommercialised real deal. 

And one of them is of the very game that inspired the name of my blog (separate post later I’m sure), Arcadia! Enjoy…

Interestingly, once he’d moved to Ocean, he also came up with some cover art that was cut out of C&VG and stuck on my bedroom wall, and as a super-fan should have been very special to me. But it’s a game I’ve neither owned nor even played, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I’ll try and remedy that in a future bonus post – FGTH played and reviewed for the first time, right here, right now. Because Frankie Says so! Even so, I think I’ve probably missed out on the live version of Relax. 

You can catch up with Steve Blower on Twitter, @wsteveb. 

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

My Life With… Hard Drivin’ – Atari ST

Just take a look at this for a second…

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Yes, it’s a loop. And in 1989, that was a complete groundbreaker. It’s why you had to own this game – the ultimate show off to your mates title; they’d simply never seen anything like it. It was seeing Virtua Racing on my brother’s MegaDrive all over again. But there was more! The more-or-less filled 3D vector graphics, cars and trucks [slightly inexplicably] on the track in both directions, the Dukes of Hazzard style bridge jump, the instant replay, and the cow! Take out the cow by the farmhouse [located at the side of the race track] and you got a beautifully sampled, realistic MOO! And the realism didn’t stop with the cow – the car drove like a real car, and I should know because I’d just turned 17 and started driving lessons! Which was great, but temporarily spelt an end to the riches from my Saturday job at Sainsbury’s that had funded my ST and its burgeoning games collection up to that point.

A year into my role there, and I was specialising in collecting trolleys. I was the master! I knew all the hiding places around Bedford town centre – the car parks, the alley ways, where the bins were at the back of Iceland… I could get ten of them into a car park lift at once. I could push fifty of them in a massive train like a supermarket Rubber Duck out of Convoy. Nothing annoyed the shopper more than no trolleys, so once the supervisors picked up on my brilliance, there was no more stacking shelves or till duty. especially as the old mechanical tills I knew had transitioned to electronic ones that were clearly beyond me once I’d missed the training. This afforded such freedom too, being paid to hang out on the top of a car park surveying the impressive Bedford skyline with a can of Dr Pepper and a Boost bar, putting a bet on the Grand National, buying tickets for a Simple Minds concert, or – wait for it! – taking part in a police identity parade and earning an extra precious tenner for the driving lesson fund! And in retrospect, fortunately not getting collared in the process!

I’d pass my test, first time, after 15 lessons, which I’m sure owed no small debt to Hard Drivin’. As I said, this game felt realistic, which I think had a lot to do with the mouse controls (a first for me) – they felt great once you got used to them, offering far more control than my days with a keyboard on Chequered Flag or Out Run with a QuickShot II on the Spectrum. It was also easier to pull off a deliberate skid (also maybe a first?) which meant faster lap times and meant slightly more forgiving cornering, especially on the speed track when a decent time rewarded you with the challenge of the Phantom Photon ghost racer (another first?) on the stunt track .

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Like collecting trolleys, the stunt track was where the glamour was at. And specifically, being upside down on the loop. In 1989, there was no thrill ride outside of the corkscrew roller coaster at Alton Towers that was like it. If you could stay on the loop, take the banked corners, pull off the jumps, avoid the trucks (that wouldn’t look out of place in Crossy Road with all those straight lines) and resist the urge to hear the MOO, beating the exotically named Phantom Photon would result in the Phantom Photon taking on the ghost of your ride in the next race, which you could even save to disk, providing endless challenge despite there only being two tracks.

This game looked and sounded like a stunner, moving at pace with great attention to detail – the cracked windscreen when you crashed, the engine sound, the skidding noise, the manual gear shifting from a separate joystick, but mostly the cow! And the replay was worth every crash, switching to a fully 3D rendering of your final moments.

A gorgeous,  groundbreaking 3D masterpiece at the time, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find something to match that precarious feeling half way around the loop wondering if you’ll make it around or just drop off!

 

 

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

During the course of writing this blog, my original Gameboy sadly gave up the ghost (RIP Game Boy), but I’ve also really got back into my Game Boy Advance – Mario Kart: Super Circuit, Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfing, V-Rally 3… 

I’d forgotten how great that machine is, so I got a real kick when I take across this today!

Gamerboy is a great piece of art by Mike Stafleu and captures the time of the Game Boy’s launch perfectly! See more of his stuff here.

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

My Life With… Tomy Demon Driver

Now we’re going right back into my early gaming days! The first video game I remember playing was Tennis (Pong) on something with a wooden box my uncle bought in the late 70’s – we knew it was a special occasion when we were allowed into “the parlour” on our weekly Friday night visit to my Grandma and Grandad’s small mid-terrace house to see it! It had two paddles, a lightgun, and you flicked a switch to cycle between tennis, football (Pong with two bats) and a couple of games where you shot a square moving around the screen, providing you had the gun pressed against the TV! No idea what it was. A Telstar maybe? Some knock off? 

What I do remember is that it was also the first game I owned when we got our own Interstate 1160 console soon after, with exactly the same set up. And a garish orange box that I think still sits in my Dad’s loft. 

That would have been around 1978 when I was six years old. The same time that Space Invaders appeared. I don’t have any recollection of arcade games back then, and having a game like that at home was still science fiction, although in reality my Grandstand Invader From Space game was only a couple of Christmasses away!

But what I did have was my Tomy Demon Driver tabletop electronic game, which brought you “all the thrills & spills of Formula 1” right there in your hands!

To a six year old, you can only imagine how realistic this was – the steering wheel was the highlight, making it just like driving a real car. You had three gears too, that sped you up and slowed you down as you raced along the plastic film track filled with other racing cars to avoid as you racked up laps on the counter. Crash and it was game over, but a new game was only a firm push on the Start / Reset button away. 

It’s hard for anyone that wasn’t that age at that time to imagine not just how much fun this game was, but what a big deal it was. We’d flicked balls into plastic pockets, rolled balls into holes and, more recently, pumped balls submerged in watery cases into hoops and stuff, and let’s not forget Pocketeers (definitely worth a separate post!), but this was a whole different level with batteries and everything! A real taste of things that were, in retrospect, to come very soon, but were then still beyond our wildest dreams. 

And almost forty years on, with an engineering degree behind me, I still can’t work out how they pulled off the collision detection. Two films? Holes in one? The mind boggles to this day!