As much as I’ve enjoyed dabbling with the series for years, I’d never actually made a serious attempt at any version of Splatterhouse until my PC-Engine Mini came along in June 2020. It was the very first game I fired-up on there, and to date is the only thing I’ve finished on there, though Fantasy Zone has certainly taken more of a beating! Anyway, PC-Engine Splatterhouse is a fantastic version that looks and feels perfectly at home there. Marvellous game!
It took me a few months of chipping away to get to the end, after which I planned an assault on the original arcade game, then the Mega Drive versions of II and III. And all along, I wasn’t even aware of anything of the sort on NES! Actually, it took a podcast I was listening to mentioning a “troubling” hooded figure in the NES game to make me pay attention and look it up. Now, I’m not the person to find anything offensive, but I can only imagine that the source of their offence was the innocent Satanist boss character who was something mistaken for something more racist…
Back to Splatterhouse, it’s an arcade beat ‘em up from Namco in 1988 that’s wonderfully heavy on the gore. It follows a couple (named as Rick and Jennifer in the later home versions) who get split up in a haunted mansion, where she gets possessed by monsters and he gets possessed by a Jason Vorhees mask. Then he goes on a side-scrolling squelchy, bloody rampage to save her. Which doesn’t really sound like your typical NES-fodder, so enter Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, a very weird, cutely deformed Japan-only take on the arcade game that arrived on NES in 1989. Welcome to Devil Town…
The clues are there that this is probably a prequel, though it’s not hugely clear and not hugely important! Jennifer is mourning the death of Rick at his grave, he gets resurrected Vorhees-style (complete with mask, but not sure why this time) by a bolt of lighting, and all is well until The Great Pumpkin King – who happens to be buried in the grave next to him – gets sparked back into life by a second bolt of lighting and kidnaps her! A scrap across seven stage ensues, and if you manage to take him out at the end you’ll be informed by the game’s director that this would make a great movie. And then Rick takes off the mask and it comes to life through spooky powers, no doubt for future adventures.
Where Splatterhouse-proper is just a very simple, violent plod from left to right, there’s a bit more platforming involved in the chopping heads up with your axe here. But there’s not a lot more to the gameplay than that – it’s certainly fun, but it’s no Mario and it’s not really Splatterhouse either. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Kid Dracula, and what that is to Castlevania – a cartoon parody that still manages to cram in a bit of horror behind the laughs.
I must admit I was hoping for a bit more to the laughs as well, but that was entirely down to the game setting some high expectations early on! The first level is in a graveyard (and a very fine one at that, like a more populated version of the C64 Ghosts ‘n Goblins one), and towards the end you’ll come across Dracula emerging from under the ground to what sounds like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then four green gooey zombie monsters appear, the disco lights start, and they do an extended Thriller routine. And it’s really good! There are a good few fun bits that follow, with the black mass and the Alien scene standing out for me, but they never really reach those heights.
Something else that never reaches any great heights are the boss fights, which is absolutely fine by me! They are all perfectly pitched, where it’s going to take you a few goes to get to work them out, but once you’ve spotted the pattern you won’t be taking any damage – much like the in some of mainline Splatterhouse games, which aside from the violence and gore is a definite attraction to no-like-boss me. Speaking of damage, it’s handled in a interesting, almost RPG-like way, where every enemy you kill is racking up points for you. Get to fifty points and it’s permanently adding some health to your bar. However, if you die and use the between-stage password to carry on from where you left off, you’ll be starting with your basic health again which makes the game a lot harder, but again, it’s still very beatable, which is great!
There’s no doubt that the deformed art style is one of the main pulls here. It might be cute, but it still manages to pull off the monstrous, albeit usually in a very unrealistic Nintendo way. But the various environs are as creepy (and sometimes just plain dark) as you like, and they often look stunning – sometimes as good as it gets on the NES, with some really rich, vibrant colour palettes that are as full of character as the characters! There’s a semi-hidden Egyptian level that has the best large-scale use of gold colours you’ll ever see on a NES too! You’ve got some really cool monster design throughout, paying homage to the arcade game, but also referencing horror film and pop-culture all over the place – The Fly boss was another favourite! And everything animates so smoothly, with some very nice multi-layered scrolling for the time. It’s a looker without any doubt! Sounds alright too – the spot effects aren’t groundbreaking, but the chip tunes are perfectly positioned, and as multi-layered as the scrolling!
After getting a little down on the gameplay, talking about all of that has really brought home why I wanted to talk about the game in the first place! If you want a great platformer, there’s loads to choose from on NES. If you want over-the-top arcade horror, you’ve got the original Splatterhouse and it’s various sequels and remakes. But if you want the cutest upside-down cross you’ll ever see, you’ve got the Wanpaku Graffiti variant on NES!
There are very scientific reasons about why I can remember not only every second of Live Aid, but also where I was sitting when Status Quo came on, for example. Same for what I was eating for breakfast (toast) when the Mary Rose was pulled up, or what music was playing (1999 by Prince – see here for more on that) the first time I played Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. It’s a bit like those ghost theories about high-impact things being imprinted on places, but more real and that place is your brain, not the creepy underground boiler room in your middle school that I had forgotten all about until just now… But while that works for high-impact, I am wondering why I also remember what I was wearing (blue La Coste tracksuit) when I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits from the record section downstairs in Boots in Bedford in about 1984. And also why I don’t remember almost anything about what was an hotly anticipated, but in retrospect horrendous sounding, annual church trip to Great Yarmouth that was in full annual swing around the same time. Incidentally, I also have very few memories of why I bought Queen’s Greatest Hits as I’ve never been a fan!
Anyway, I’ve mentioned the church trip before, and playing Mini Munchman on the bus on the way there one year, and the arcade by the big funfair with the giant outside where we were dropped off and picked up that had a Track & Field machine. And on top of that, I vaguely remember thinking that one of the rollercoasters there seemed really rickety as we were going around it one time, but generally, I was thinking my only memories of what we actually did there revolved around that arcade. Now, a apart from a section in Computer & Video Games mag, an arcade was a once-per-year novelty in itself – so kind of makes sense according to our theory – and we’d be in it as soon as we arrived, then be hanging around in it with no money left to play anything anymore for a bit before we left. But coming back to memory, apart from “arcade” and exactly where the Track & Field machine was, in the far back-right corner, I really don’t remember anything else about what else was inside it either… At least until one year something new appeared, around the corner and about five machines to the right of Track & Field, that immediately demanded your full attention and pocket full of 10p’s!
Look it at it today, and it’s probably hard to imagine why Pac-Land might have that impact on a passer-by, but try passing-by this on the way to Track & Field in 1984 or 85, when you’re getting a double-whammy of not only seeing the Pac-Man in a new perspective, but a whole new side-scrolling perspective on gaming too!
Let’s get into the first new perspective, and its cartoon inspiration. As much as I’m a huge fan of Hanna-Barbera’s 1960’s and 70’s output, when it comes to the 1980’s it’s all about Pac-Man: The Animated series, which first aired in 1982 and ran for 21 episodes and a couple of specials until then end of 1984. And that makes it the first cartoon ever based on a video game! It was always going to be a hit with me because it was shown as part of my absolute school summer holiday favourite, Rat on the Road, the Roland Rat [Superstar] show that came on at the end of TV:AM! Which gives us a probable first airing date here of summer 1983. Interesting fact about this is that Roland Rat’s appearance then boosted the ailing breakfast show’s viewer numbers from around 100,000 to 1.8 million. Yeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh, Rat-fans!
Back to Pac, you’ve got Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man (known as Pepper for some reason) and Baby Pac (in his only speaking role!), and they live in Pac-Village in a place called Pac-Land, of course! Actually, as we’re going far deeper into Pac-lore than I ever intended, what about the older Pac-kid, Jr. Pac-Man? I get that his love antics with Blinky’s daughter might have been problematic to the storyline, but it’s like he never existed! As some compensation, you do get Super-Pac in the second season! The plotline in most episodes is Pac-Man protecting the village and its power pellets from his familiar ghost foes (and Sue from Ms. Pac-Man) and their evil uncle, The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron… And let me tell you something, if I ever decided to change my name, I would change it to The Ghost Wizard of Mezmeron!
The hugely vibrant look of the show was ported wholesale to the arcade game, as was the iconic music that looped throughout, which you could sniff out in an arcade like a pig sniffing out truffles; in an audio kind of way! The detailed character designs, complete with hats and hair – not to mention their super-smooth animation style – were also a big feature of the game. Pac-Man alone had 24 different frame patterns, where one or two was the norm at the time. As a[nother] side note, something that didn’t come from the cartoon, but by coincidence is relevant here, are the controls – they came from Track & Field, using buttons instead of a joystick, which allowed for those lovely springboard long jumping bits that will always be my favourite part of the game!
And this brings us to that second new perspective. Super Mario Bros. might spring to mind when you think of side-scrolling platformers, and rightly so because it pretty much set the template for anything else that followed it, but Pac-Land was doing the power-upped walking and running and jumping bidirectional horizontal scrolling thing a good year beforehand. It was far more influential than it gets credit for, but seeing it moving in an arcade was seeing that cartoon brought to life, from left to right and sometimes back again, and at the time that was very probably something you’d never seen the like of before!
Back to playing the game, each of the levels is a multi-stage journey to Fairy Land to get a lost fairy home, rewarding you with some super boots that will make your journey back through the level to your family a bit easier. You’ll be going through towns, forests, deserts then castles, and each stage ends with Break Time at the church on the hill where you’ll be awarded bonus points for your jumping performance as you come to a stop (preceding Mario and his flagpole), and I can’t emphasise how welcome that Break Time sign is on some of the more frantic stages! That said, it’s worth saying that things never really gets that frantic, which I think is why I appreciated the arcade game so much – good value for money for the casual player was as important as anything!
Obviously, there’s the ghosts that are constantly on your tail, driving buses at you, chucking stuff at you out of planes and allsorts more to hinder your progress. Then there’s enviromental obstacles like the aforementioned springboard, quicksand, ropey wooden bridges with spinning logs, fire hydrants and other water-based hazards ready to spray you down and take you down. But as well as the boots and sporadic power pills that do exactly what you expect them to do, there’s also a bunch of hidden stuff that will help you out. For example, turn around and push the right fire hydrant in certain stages and you’ll get a hat that will stop you being harmed by dangers from above. There’s also hidden fruit behind certain jumps (something else it preceded Mario with) and even a Galaxian flagship worth loads of points!
And the whole thing comes together to be such a joy to play! On the arcade machine, you’re going to get your 10p’s worth out of the first couple of stages for the visuals alone – the transitions from one distinct stage to another are just wonderful, and no matter how far you go, everything will soon become reassuringly familiar, and after each Break Time you’ll be fondly entering the next bit… before you realise that at some point things got a bit hard and you’re starting again!
In the grand scheme of things, whilst it had the biggest impact on me, the arcade machine is the version I played the least. That’s not unusual for me, having had infrequent access to arcade machines back then, but what is unusual is that I might have played a lot on more different versions of Pac-Land than any other game I can think of. It came out on nearly everything, and somehow I’ve spent a lot of time with it on nearly everything!
As was often the case, the Spectrum was the first version I really spent a lot of time on. Strangely though, the Spectrum version did come out about four years after the fact in 1988, along with CPC, MSX and Atari ST versions, and then the C64 version arrived even later. The Spectrum conversion gets a bad rap – it’s got weird colours and Pac-Man has a funny nose and it doesn’t scroll (meaning you need to remember that falling log is right after the next screen-flip!), but its genuinely only latterly that I’ve had those thoughts! It was and still is a very competent port with nearly everything else present and correct, and as was also often the case, it was Pac-Land in your house, on your Spectrum, and that’s all you needed for it to be fun! In terms of reviews at the time, I do remember it getting a bit of a hammering though. If it had come out in 1985 it might have fared better, but we’re not only years after the original (which was decades in eighties home computing terms!), we’re also years after the new Super Mario yardstick.
The version I’ve played most seriously on – not quite finishing it but not being far off – is the PC-Engine conversion from 1990, though actually playing it was much more recent. As much as I’d love it to be a part of the mostly beautifully curated library on my PC-Engine Mini, it’s not, but another machine in my collection does a very good impression of a PC-Engine and plays whatever game you care to throw at it right with no fuss, right through an HDMI cable! Much like the Spectrum conversion of Pac-Land, the PlayStation Classic is very unfairly maligned; at least when it has a USB stick with a certain emulator suite stuck on it! For me this is the ultimate conversion of Pac-Land. I know I’m going from almost 40-year memories, but this is exactly how the arcade version looked, sounded and played. In the last couple of years I’ve played dozens of hours, having a couple of games at least once a week. And that’s a beautiful thing to be able to do!
Trying its best to be as beautiful is the Commodore 64 version, and as a contemporary conversion for an 8-bit machine, you couldn’t expect any more. I’ve been playing this on the C64 Mini for a few years at the time of writing. The colours are a little muted, there’s only 16 levels (I think in common with most if not all other 8-bit conversions) and you can’t jump on top of some of the enemies so a touch from below is death here, but the soundtrack is classic C64! And it scrolls! It’s also a bit easier than the other versions so getting to the end of this one is very achievable.
I’ve not played a huge amount of the Amstrad CPC version – actually, when I finally got around to emulating a CPC for the very first time in 2019 (also on the PlayStation Classic, albeit a bit more fiddly to do than the PC Engine), it was the first thing I fired up and has been about the only thing I’ve regularly gone back to! It’s a real mish-mash of the other two 8-bit versions here, and would be on a par with the C64 version if it hadn’t inherited the Spectrum’s lack of scrolling!
Jumping back to around 1990, and the Atari ST version was a whole fantastic different matter. When I made the jump from Spectrum +2 to Atari ST, I very distinctly remember this being one of the games – together with Star Wars and Operation Wolf – that announced that arcade conversions were finally that mythical arcade-perfect we’d been hearing about for years! In retrospect it stuttered a bit in places, and was lacking parallax scrolling, but do you think that mattered coming from the Spectrum version? This was the holy grail of Pac-Land conversions to that point!
My brother was also a big fan of Pac-Land in the Great Yarmouth arcade, and he also owned a Lynx! And a couple of years later again, Pac-Land on there was also a fantastic conversion. I’d say in some stages it’s even more vibrant than the arcade version, with very faithful graphics, sound and gameplay. And let’s not forget, that’s a contemporary conversion in your hand, which the Atari Lynx was very good at! It moves at pace but the scrolling is a little off when it’s got big stuff like buildings to move along the screen (though I’ll take this over flip-screening and even the ST suffered from this). It’s checkpointing seemed a bit broken too – die in the forest and restart in halfway through the town, for example! It’s main crime though – and I’ll say “apparently” because I’m not the target audience for stuff like this – is that it has no ending! Just keeps going, I assume replaying the same levels over and over. No complaints from me about this version at all though. Still massively impressive!
Moving forwards half a decade again, and the original PlayStation was being peppered with loads of original arcade game version compilations covering loads of ancient stuff, and Namco was front and centre with no less than six of them! Pac-Land finally appeared in 1997 on Volume 4, drawing a short straw I think, being packaged with lesser known games in the West like Ordyne, Assault, The Return of Ishtar and Genpei Toma Den… Where’s Metrocross, Pac-Mania and Dragon Spirit??? (For information, coming a year later in Volume 5). But now we finally have the real holy grail of the actual arcade version in your home. And now I’m sitting here wondering why I spend so much time playing the PC-Engine version when the actual original is also sitting on exactly the same machine… Having just fired it up again, one thing is for sure – all that PC-Engine practice has made me really, really good at the arcade version now!
Most recently, we come to Namco Museum Archives Volume 2 on Nintendo Switch, which along with a favourite version of classic vertical shooter Xevious (Super Xevious) and loads of other NES goodies, we also have the NES conversion of Pac-Land. Firstly, it takes some getting used to, because as far as I can work out, unlike the PC-Engine version that allows you to press Select to switch from default “button” controls to regular “lever” controls, this one only seems to have button controls. And they take a bit of getting used to because you’re walking and running and changing direction on your right hand, and jumping with a directional button on the left. It’s also very minimal looking, Pac-Man is tiny on the screen, and it suffers from a bit of slowdown despite there being very little detail in the characters or backgrounds. There’s a few bits missing too, including the fairy screen – you get a Fairy Land sign like for Break Time instead – and also no super boots for your return trip. And like the Lynx version, I think it loops after 16 levels. I’m not doing a great job of selling it, but despite all of that, give it a chance and it plays absolutely fine, sounds lovely, and is a great version to have if you’re out and about with your Switch!
And that’s a whole lot of Pac-Land, one of my top five favourite arcade games (we’ll cover that another time), same on PC-Engine, and probably true on a lot of other systems too! Now do yourself a favour and dig up that cartoon!
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!
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’sstarting to feel like it in free to play mechanics too – there’sdefinitely timers ticking inthe latest area and hearts readyto restrict my play time!
The idea isthat you need to get rid ofcoloured viruses by matching two or more of them withyour colouredcapsule, which you slide up the screen and let it go on its way once you’vegot it positioned.There’s a single player campaignand versus mode where youcanplay your friends (maybe…), which unlocks when you’veplayed enough of the campaign.Andthat’sabout where paid gems and heartsand 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 haveunlocked this, I’veplayed a random and it’s fun, but it looks like my Nintendo account friends can’t be accessed (or if they can, Idon’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 withone I’ve had several lost connection error codes appear, and game freezesappearing too during normal gameplay.Hopefullythat can be patched out like it was on Super Mario Run.
Despite the negative tone, I do enjoy a match-three, andI’menjoyingthis so far… but I enjoy Dr. Mario on the NES an awful lot more, and I’d muchratherbeplayingthat timeless classic on my phone!
This year my SNES Classic Mini was finally joined by its previously impossible to buy NES sibling, plus a C64 Mini and almost a PlayStation Classic – I cancelled the day before it was shipped, not because of the controversial games list, but it just sounded like the finished article was very bare-bones and the emulation was crap. On the ones I hadn’t cancelled, I’ve loved pretty much everything on them more than anything that will ever be released again. On a similar note, I also love most of the old NES stuff that came with the Switch online service – especially the wonderful Tecmo Bowl, Balloon Fight and Mighty Bomb Jack. And on another similar note, I’ve loved playing a ton of the Switch Arcade Archives releases of Donkey Kong and 10-Yard fight, as well as ACA NEOGEO Super Sidekicks 3, and the fabulous Megadrive and SNK collections. And with a Switch now in my possession, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Golf Story from last year, and of course, Breath of the Wild, which I sandwiched between Ocarina of Time and the original Legend of Zelda (which I played on two different platforms almost in parallel).
Hovering just outside this list would be the Williams packs on Pinball FX, featuring some of the best tables ever produced; last-gen racing powerhouse Burnout Paradise Remastered on PS4; Castlevania Requiem (if I’d played a enough of either game included in time); and a game I’ve seriously been waiting 25 years to play, Night Trap on the Switch, which might not be the most mechanically-varied game ever, but was a technical marvel at the time and is still a fun romp today. I’m sure that had I played it yet, Red Dead Redemption 2 would be somewhere around the top, but finally playing and completing Mad Max just before it was released only confirmed I’m a bit done with open worlds at the moment, and I’ve more than enough to keep me going until they finish patching it and the price drops. And I’d have loved to have Tetris Effect on here, but after fifteen minutes of my first game on the beta, the motion sickness began…
As always, the rule here is if it’s been released for the first time on a platform this year, it’s fair game…
1 Gris (Switch)
The very last game I bought in 2018 (at time of writing on Christmas Eve at least). If you ever wanted to convince a non-gamer that gaming is an art form, you’d show them this, because it really is a wonderful piece of art in anyone’s language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen (and probably heard) anything quite as stunning as this on any platform, and maybe aside from Journey, anything as powerful. It’s a dream to play, and a dream to experience as it becomes more and more beautiful as you progress, and subtly more complex. A genuine gaming masterpiece.
2 Minit (Switch)
I avoided buying Minit when it came out on other platforms in the hope it would appear on Switch one day, which seemed like the right place for it, and that day came but a few horrendously hot months later. Bizarre premise of your hero living for only sixty seconds in an old-school Zelda-esque black and white pixel art rogue-lite world, doing simple quests, solving puzzles and killing monsters. Sixty seconds at a time. But it really works! It begins with almost no context or instruction, but you soon work out how things work to progress your story, planning out your next sixty second life as you carry out the next set of activities for this one. Fantastic game, very different, and perfect on the Switch. And when you’re done with the story, there’s a couple more hours picking up the stuff you probably missed then new game plus where sixty becomes forty. Future cult classic!
3 Moonlighter (Switch)
That wonderful Stardew Valley vibe where minutes are actually hours. But with more fighting. Moonlighter is a greeat rogue-like by night, and shopkeeper-sim by day, where you kill for booty to sell to buy armour, weapons, upgrades, better shop stuff and things to liven up your town so you can access new dungeons with better booty. Fantastic to play day or night.
4 Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! (Switch)
I searched Tokyo in 40 degree heat and 90% humidity for this bundled with the physical drum controller. I failed, but not long after it was all announced for European release and everything was well in the world again. I can’t remember the last time I had a stupid grin on my face playing a game, but there’s little here not to smile about, from the real drum you play along to a huge, bizarre playlist with, to the completely bonkers visual feast that could only come out of Japan happening on the screen. The ultimate party game, even if you’re the only one invited.
5 Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)
I never played Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Colour or Advance, so don’t lament the depth of their story modes apparently missing here. I did, however, sink dozens, if not hundreds of hours into Tennis (featuring Mario as umpire) on the original Game Boy. Jump into an online tournament on Mario Tennis Aces on the Switch, and that’s what you’ve got, dialled up to eleven with trick shots, specials, bullet-time and more, and all against real other people. There’s depth here too – after a few hours you start to notice little things that stack up to make all the difference; you work out how to properly use the trick shot or the blue glow around the ball or the star that sometimes appears on the ground or a dozen other minor things; and then you start winning one in five matches, then one in three, then two, and you’re reaching (and occasionally winning) tournament finals… Stunning looking game, polished to hell, full of character, and utterly addictive. Who cares about story modes (which is actually pretty enjoyable too)!
6 Hollow Knight (Switch)
Specifically here for the first 30 hours, then another 15 hours after 36 hours, then a few more after 53 hours. I absolutely hated everything in between and deleted the game twice in disgust at two bosses I just couldn’t beat. Until I did. Very few games over the last almost forty years have hooked me like this gorgeous looking, vast metroidvania did – even when it was gone, it kept dragging me back. 80% love, 20% pure hatred, and probably the best £7.99 I ever spent on a game.
7 Alto’s Odyssey (iOS)
I’ve played the original Alto’s Adventure more than any other game on mobile (or tablet in my case). It’s the perfect, premium mobile game, and has been my go-to time-passer across thousands and thousands of miles on plane journeys over the last few years. Alto’s Odyssey swaps snowboards for sandboards, but is more of the same, and then some. The new desert backdrop is stunning, and the day/night cycles, variable weather – especially the storms – and multiple biomes to explore make for some outstanding eye-candy. And the one-touch, backflipping gameplay remains as challenging, skilful and perfect as ever.
8 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch)
Old-school Castlevania in all but name with some really clever character-switching mechanics, atmospheric old-school graphics and sound that make me want to live in it, and plenty to explore and go back to when you’re able. In the five hours or so to complete first time, it gets progressively more tricky, but aside from a few frustrating sections (generally involving moving platforms in the late game), it’s all do-able after a few attempts and some experimentation with the characters, even on veteran mode. My only gripe is the checkpointing on the double final boss battle – going back to the very start is a real pain while you’re dying over and over again to learn how to beat the second part! Once you’re finally done, definitely worth playing the newly unlocked nightmare mode to explore those places you couldn’t before you had the right characters available. Great game with a lot of retro-love oozing out of it.
9 Mega Man Legacy Collection (Switch)
Much like Zelda, I’d never played a Mega Man game before this year, and now I’ve played and finished three of them; 2, 1 and 3, in that order. I’m particularly proud of finishing Mega Man 2, over a period of months, as I completely avoided all the quality of life enhancements like rewind and save in-progress that come with this wonderfully presented collection of games 1-6 in the series. It’s not just the games though, most of which are bonafide hardcore classics; those enhancements, the mass of settings options and the museum of art that accompanies every game make it one of the best compilations I’ve seen. And it’s the reason why Mega Man 11 is missing – I’ve played the demo dozens of times and it’s awesome, and would certainly deserve to be here in place of this from what I’ve seen, but I’m going to be busy with games 4-6, as well as the Mega Man X game on the SNES Classic Mini, for some time yet!
10 Owlboy (Switch)
There’s still pixel-art everywhere this year, but this really is a marvellous lesson in pixel-art design, and a great Metroidvania game to boot. The sky islands you navigate in this vertical platformer are diverse and stunning. Controlling your owl boy feels great. The evolution of the game mechanics works brilliantly as you meet new partners in crime. And those characters are ones you really care about as you make your way through the thought provoking story. Another brilliant Switch indie.
Much like Nintendo as a whole in the 1980’s (after Game & Watch at least), the Nintendo Entertainment System completely passed me by. When it launched in Europe, I was still fairly new to the ZX Spectrum, and when it was time to move on from there, I don’t remember ever even considering any console – it was just a choice between Amiga (boo) and Atari ST (yay)! Super Mario Land on the Game Boy would be the first time I’d touched anything Nintendo since Snoopy Tennis, and whilst everyone knew of Mario, I’d certainly never heard of Yoshi or Kirby, and definitely not Zelda or Link!
Over decades of gaming, of course I became more aware of the Zelda games, but was never compelled to try one on the Game Boy and its successors, the GameCube or my son’s Wii. Then when I got a 3DS in 2017, Ocarina of Time was dirt cheap and knowing its reputation, bought it with the console. Then didn’t touch it… Fast-forward to May 2018, a Switch for my birthday, as well as a copy of Breath of the Wild , which I also didn’t touch for months, but I had an excuse this time!
I decided I couldn’t start Breath of the Wild until I’d played one of the classic Zelda games, to have an appreciation of where it was coming from. By this time, I actually had a choice – as well as Ocarina of Time, I now had a NES Classic Mini too, which also offered the original The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. As I’d not really heard anyone over the years hyping up the NES games, and obviously everyone hypes up Ocarina of Time all the time, I went there first. And it was great, and I finished it (which took the entire summer), but it didn’t say greatest game of all time to me. I fired up Breath of the Wild the very same evening I finished Ocarina of Time, and over the 90+ hours it took me to finish it, it did blow me away. I was very glad I’d played Ocarina of Time first because it gave it context and also heightened the spectacle of this new masterpiece; now we’re getting closer to that greatest game of all time tag!
September 2018, and where do we go from here? By now, I’ve gone from couldn’t care less about Zelda to fanboy in the space of a few months, and I wanted more, so of course we go back to the beginning. And by now I have a choice of where to play it, with the launch of the Switch online service and its library of NES classics (and that dreadful football (soccer) game). I decided it deserved to be played with a proper controller though, so went for the NES Classic version. Initially at least…
Originally released in 1986 in Japan and 1987 elsewhere, you play Link, a young man out for some action-adventure who needs to find eight bits of the broken Triforce of Wisdom spread all over what must have seemed like a massive monster-filled Hyrule at the time, then confront the evil Ganon and rescue the kidnapped Princess Zelda. Then do it all again, should the urge take you, in a harder and remixed second quest.
I was aware that this game didn’t exactly hold your hand when your adventure begins; you start with nothing, and I knew about people spending hours burning bushes, bombing rocky outcrops and prodding statues just to find basic equipment before you even think about finding bits of Triforce. I’d also read an extremely useful tip – read the manual! In particular, it pointed to a map you find in there, apparently included because Nintendo of America decided it was all a bit too much…
Look really closely, and you can see question marks – at least you know where the bushes are worth burning! Eventually, suitably equipped with the start of what will be a veritable arsenal of powerful gear and life hearts by the time you’re done, you’ll come across a dungeon. Things are a bit more straightforward with the dungeons, where you’ll find a map, a compass, sometimes some equipment like a raft or whistle or magic rod, which will be essential for getting to or completing later dungeons, and then a boss between you and your bit of Triforce. Collect all the bits from the eight dungeons, then there’s one more dungeon hiding the big bad boss man and Princess Zelda.
As you get more powerful, the challenge ramps up, but all the time the focus is on exploring every aspect of the 128 screens of Hyrule and its dungeons, which is hugely rewarding when your patience finally pays off. The monsters that inhabit the dungeons do become more challenging too, and by the time you’re at the sixth or seventh, you’ll be tearing your hair out trying to dispatch a screen full of teleporting undead wizards or knights you can only attack from the side then getting out of there with enough health to make it worthwhile carrying on. None of this more so than in the final Ganon dungeon, which is a beast by the standards of 30 years ago or of today. Thank goodness for the modern convenience of easy saves and restarts on the NES Classic and the Switch…
I almost forgot the Switch. Somewhere around dungeon two, I’d completely fallen in love with this game and kept thinking how cool it would be to have this ready to go anytime and anywhere on the Switch. But by now I was thinking even more that the right way to play it was on a NES controller, as well as the fact that if I finished it on the NES Classic it would have made buying it worthwhile in itself. Then I had the brainwave of catching up to where I was on the NES Classic on the Switch, and playing every dungeon on there as soon as I’d finished it on the NES Classic. Which is what I did to the end, at which point I decided I could dabble in the second quest on the Switch whenever I feel like it.
The Legend of Zelda is an an incredible piece of games design today, and I can only imagine the impact it had on anyone that had the patience to get to the first dungeon back in 1986/7. The remarkably atmospheric 8-bit world completely immerses you – through the distinct looking forests, deserts, coastlines and lakes as you traverse Hyrule; through the menagerie of different monsters and characters you come across; through the wonderful music and now-iconic sounds; and through the vast and ingenious world and dungeon design. Truly epic, and for me, one of the greatest games of all time.