My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

My Life With… V-Rally 3 – Game Boy Advance

When the Game Boy Advance SP arrived in 2003, I was a couple of years into the job at a Japanese electronics mega-corp that I’m still to escape, which has had me travelling the world on a far too regular basis. Now I still owned the original Gameboy, and a Gameboy Advance, and a vast collection of games for both, but in reality, they weren’t that portable, and for the latter, playing in anything less than the equivalent of midday summer sunshine was a major challenge.

The SP, with its tiny, travel-friendly folding shell and it’s backlight, and not to mention its awesome battery life, was an absolute game changer for the nerdy regular flyer! Whilst we’re only talking 15 years or so ago at the time of writing, air travel wasn’t anything like what it is now – your limited electronics (giant Archos MP3 player for me!) were forbidden for the best part of an hour that seemed like an eternity wherever you were going; there wasn’t the huge selection of films on tap like you get now on every long-haul flight – you rented a pair of headphones with a customised adaptor and watched whatever crap they were showing; and unless you carried half a library with you (which I often did), you didn’t want to blow the whole of your book on the journey there!

And that’s why I’ll always think of the SP as the beginning of flying in relative comfort, although Nintendo still haven’t solved the problem of being six-feet one inch in economy class… And more than any other, I’ll think of V-Rally 3 as the game that saw me through thousands and thousands of miles.

I’d actually picked up V-Rally 3 on release a year or so before I got my SP, and even without a nice backlight, this thing was really special. For starters, it looked absolutely stunning, especially in my preferred cockpit view; actually, that was probably the biggest draw for me – ever since playing Chequered Flag on the Spectrum, I’ve never wanted to drive a car I’m ten metres behind and three metres above! Everything is in full 3D, with detailed textures flying past you everywhere you look with never a hint of slowdown. I’d even go so far as to say this wasn’t that far off what you’d have expected on a full console at the time.

Once you get past the breathtaking visuals, it’s all about the handling of the car, and I’d maintain that this is still one of the best feeling rally games there was before or has been since; as I write this, I’m dipping in and out of Dirt Rally 3 on the Playstation 4, and as much as I want to enjoy its ultra-realistic driving experience more than a 15-year old game on an ancient handheld, I simply don’t! Once you’re in cockpit mode, it just feels like you’re chucking a real car across dirt, snow, sand, gravel, tarmac, up and down hills or over jumps. Everything behaves like you think it should, which again, when you consider it’s on this old tiny handheld, is some achievement! And if I’m making it sound like some stony-faced simulation (also see Dirt Rally 3), it definitely isn’t – for all it’s great physics, this definitely feels like an arcade racer.

The meat of V-Rally 3 is a career mode, where you sign up with a real car manufacturer and compete in a championship that spans different countries, from miserable Great Britain to an incredible looking Kenyan Savannah. You race across five stages in each race, with a chance to repair damage after every other race – especially important if you’re in cockpit view and the windscreen is covered in a load of cracks that appear one at a time with every bump, and ends up looking like an inpenetrable mass of spider webs that often spell game over! You can, should you wish, also modify the car set up, but in all the racing games I’ve ever played this has never appealed to me! I’m not sure how much difference that would make, but I’ve never had a problem getting through the first championship fairly comfortably, at which point you’re given a bunch of better teams to sign up with, and a bigger engine. The challenge does pick up a lot here, and winning this one does take some delicate finger work!

There’s also a time trial mode that I don’t think I’ve ever really bothered with (and again, you could apply the same to pretty much any other racing game I’ve ever played), and there’s a really cool mode where you’re forsaking the lonely regular rally experience and going head to head against other cars in a more traditional car race. However, playing it again now you’ll notice that collision physics have come a long way in the last 15 years, and wonder how you ever put up with being slowed down regardless of where your car was in relation to the one that it’s just made contact with!

It’s a tough call to say whether I’d take this over Mario Kart Super Circuit as the best GBA racer, so let’s just say this is the best rally game on the Gameboy, and probably my favourite rally game ever!

Bonus Post – Top Ten Games of 2017

I very rarely have the impulse to buy anything day one, and I’ve spent most of this year playing catch-up with stuff I’ve been given for birthdays or Christmas that I’d directed people to get for me at bargain prices – Wolfenstein The Old Blood, Doom (which was the only game that’s ever induced serious motion sickness in me then outstayed its welcome a bit but I finished it), Dishonored, Dirt 3 and the marvellous Trackmania Turbo were highlights. Lego Dimensions, particularly the Midway Retro Arcade level pack and all the old favourites of mine it included, has also been a mainstay, as has No Man’s Sky, which I’ve now pumped hundreds of hours into and it remained my go-to game until November when I decided I just didn’t want to play it any more. Special mention also to Super Mario Run which appeared right at the end of 2016 and I’ve continued to play throughout 2017. I also got a New Nintendo 2DS which opened up a whole new world of Nintendo games that I’d missed out on since the Game Boy Advance – Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Harvest Moon, Super Mario Tennis and much more…

1. Elevator Action

Seeing this appear out of the blue on the PlayStation Store new release list towards the end of November was a console generation highlight for me, only previously (almost) equalled by the same for Renegade a couple of years ago! Every time I play it I’m standing in front of an arcade cabinet in the cafe area of our local leisure centre in 1984, with the music from the Saturday morning roller disco in the background and a can of Dr Pepper from the only vending machine in town to stock it on the table beside me. It’s the arcade version of Elevator Action, released on PS4 as part of their Arcade Archives series, and by default is the best game released in 2017 on any platform.

2. Stardew Valley (PS4)

This is one of the most joyous gaming experiences I’ve ever had! It also gives me the chance, as someone living on a farm in the country with no intention of ever farming or even vaguely embracing country life, to experience all of that stuff from the comfort of my own living room! You just do whatever takes your fancy, whether it’s clearing some land, doing up some buildings, growing some crops, fishing, looking after your chickens, playing the arcade games in the village pub, mining, building a fence, beach combing, helping out villagers or just wandering about the place. Slow-paced, open-ended, great looking and wonderful – just like the life waiting right outside my front door if only it wasn’t so much hassle!

3. Pokemon Ultra Sun (3DS)

For this game I did get that rare impulse to buy day one! Pokemon Gold (see below) very recently introduced me to a series I’d missed out on for decades, but this brought me right up to date with a stunning handheld masterpiece. The world is brimming with life (including some great Pokemon), the story will cost you hours that you thought were minutes, and even the necessary grinding stays fun. So much gameplay here and I can’t recommend it enough. Especially if you’re still the sceptical non-player that I was until a couple of months ago.

4. Everybody’s Golf (PS4)

I’ve never really played as much Everybody’s Golf as I should have, given I’ve owned iterations on various platforms since the original Playstation release. I have made up for that a bit with the latest one though. It’s still instantly familiar, albeit with a PS4 sheen and all kinds of modern gaming depth, maintaining a very simple mechanic that makes it very easy for a quick nine holes to turn into ninety!

5. Pokemon Gold (3DS)

Okay, it’s another pure re-release (but definitely not the last one in this list), this time of an ancient GameBoy Colour game with no 21st century bells and whistles added, but it was my first ever Pokemon game, I’ve sunk dozens of hours into it and its fantastic immersive world hasn’t aged a day, so definitely deserves to be in the top half of this list. Check out a more detailed post I did on this here.

6. Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

Before you think it, it’s a remaster and not a re-release! But anyone, I’m playing by my rules here so anything that came out this year goes! This collects some of the more recent titles, updating them with incredibly fast moving and great looking graphics, but the core gameplay remains, meaning it’s still the best futuristic racer out there and was a joy to come back to.

7. Fire Emblem Heroes (iOS)

For a free-to-play game built around loot crates, this is an incredibly generous, very focussed tactical fighting game. Production values are off the charts; it’s accessible but deep; there’s some very saucy characters, and in my 30+ hours with the game I collected the strongest possible units and rinsed every mode in the game without ever feeling I was grinding for it; without ever spending a penny.

8. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (iOS)

This game is pointless. And that’s most of the reason I love it. I don’t care that it’s constantly (though completely unobtrusively) reminding me that I can spend money that I won’t spend. I’m quite happy waiting for stuff to appear that I can use to help out the animal people hanging around my campsite who give me money and materials to buy more stuff then wait for that to appear while I fish and catch bugs and rearrange things. The most casual, relaxing, mindless and fun waste of time I’ve played this year.

9. Resident Evil Biohazard

I’d have loved it if this didn’t have the word “Biohazard” in the title and been able to maintain the feeling of Texas Chainsaw inspired anxiousness that built up in the first few hours before the ooze started appearing. I’d also have appreciated it being a few hours shorter. But all the same it takes the series back to its horror roots, even including a nice nod to the dogs jumping through the windows in the original. It’s a lovely looking game, great attention to detail with surprisingly varied settings, and happily the puzzles aren’t too obscure, the inventory system isn’t too restrictive, and the save points aren’t too far apart.

10. Rogue Trooper Redux (PS4)

Some of the mechanics are creaking a bit by today’s standard, but this remaster (the last on this list I’m proud to announce) will bring a tear to the eye to anyone that’s not read Rogue Trooper since they were a kid in the 80’s! Okay, it’s not a patch on the Spectrum version that everyone’s forgotten ever existed first, but just to spend a few hours running and gunning across Nu-Earth and bringing back all those 2000A.D. memories makes it essential!

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!

Bonus Post – RIP Game Boy (1990 – 2017)

Bonus Post – RIP Game Boy (1990 – 2017)

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my Game Boy, bought at launch in September 1990 and serving me faithfully until the 11th May 2017. This photo was taken moments before it went to its final resting place. In the bin. 

Actually, it was pretty much ditched when the Game Boy Advance appeared in 2001, which in turn survived two years (together with the ridiculous light attachment that made it vaguely playable) until I picked up the Game Boy Advance SP. The latter is still regularly dragged out of the box it shares with a fortune’s worth of the old huge cartridges and the later more sensible form factor ones – not convinced the screen brightness is what it used to be though, even with the backlight on. 

I remember buying the original at a computer game exhibition as soon as it launched, though I’m not sure my memories 100% tie up. I had in my head that it was in London’s Wembley Arena, though a bit of detective work seems to suggest it was more likely ECES (European Computer Entertainment Show) at Earl’s Court, which took place in September 1990. Who knows. Who cares! Though if anyone can shed some light on it I’d be mildly interested. 

I do, however, vividly remember playing Super Mario Land on the train home. And, of course, the bundled classic Tetris. 

For a console I’ve always held in such high regard, I actually have a very modest collection of games for the original Game Boy. Which was a lot to do with its heyday coinciding with my poorest time at university. But the few games I had got well and truly played to death, despite some of them not exactly being of Tetris calibre! Here’s the list, in what I remember to be the order I got them in…

Tetris 

I posted this a while ago on the wonderful Cane and Rinse forum for what, at the time of writing, is their next but one podcast: “If I had to name the perfect game, I’d probably pick this. A timeless masterpiece that my words can’t do justice to. Three word review: Invaded my dreams!” 

And invade my dreams it did! Or more specifically, those moments before you fall asleep… Blocks falling, lines forming in your mind! This was probably one of the last games I’d consider myself truly great at – Match Day, IK+, Kick Off, WWF Smackdown and this were games I can say I mastered. 

By the way, if you’ve never listened to their podcast, do yourself a favour! Very intelligent, well-researched, in-depth, non-pretentious chat on a single game per episode. Fantastic group of guys and girls, and the first podcast I ever felt a compulsion to do a monthly Patreon donation for! 

Super Mario Land

Here’s a gaming confession… I’ve never truly loved a Mario game. Except maybe Crazy Kong on the VIC 20, which was a  knock-off and therefore didn’t even feature Mario (aka Jumpman). I’ve been playing Mario Run on the phone for six months solid, but that’s more addiction than love! It’s not to say this wasn’t a great game though – side-scrolling platformers have just never been my thing, and it’s perhaps testament to what a great example of this genre Mario Land is that I played it so much. 

Tennis

I’ve already written a lot of words on Tennis (and my early days with my Game Boy). As mentioned in that post, this is a game I put more hours into over a longer period of time than almost any other game I’ve owned. No fuss, simple presentation, perfect gameplay. The best tennis game on any platform ever!

WWF Superstars 

It’s incredible that autocorrect on my phone changed WWF to WWE! 

In retrospect, this was pretty basic. Five wrestlers (Macho Man, The Hulkster, DiBiase, Warrior and Mr Perfect), all with pretty much the same moves, and you simply had to beat the other four in a row to become champion. But it was so much fun, especially when you picked Savage or Warrior! As with many earlier games, this was one where you filled in the gaps and added your own complexity, creating storylines and feuds in your mind… where Savage always came out on top in the end!

Best of the Best: Championship Karate

I think I got this for my birthday in 1991. It arrived in the post while I was at lectures, needed a signature, and resulted in one of the few times I skipped lectures the following day to plod into Hatfield’s miserable town centre to pick it up.

Despite the title, I’m fairly sure this was a kick-boxing game! You trained at the gym then selected from a list of increasingly difficult fighters until you reached a championship fight. It was realistic, the AI was good enough that spamming buttons didn’t work, and once you’d reached the higher levels it was very fast and very tough! It took a while, but I got to the final tournament and that was probably the last time I played it. 

WWF Superstars 2

This time around you had six sports-entertainers (Hogan, Savage, The Mountie, Sid Justice, Undertaker, and Jake The Snake), but almost as importantly as finally being able to be The Undertaker on the go, there was a steel cage match! There were also (a few) more moves and more modes, including tag and one-on-one matches, so those imaginary feuds could really come to life! Winning the championship after beating down your opponent enough to get up and over the cage remains a classic gaming satisfaction!

Super Kick Off

As alluded to elsewhere on these pages, I once put together a list of my top 50 games. Kick Off came in at No. 2… I also mentioned my mastery of Kick Off just a minute ago… But you can be sure that neither of these facts have anything to do with the Game Boy version of this football gaming masterpiece! 

Believe me, I wanted to love this game so much; I’d being excited about (not for – I’m English) this arriving on the Game Boy more than any game since I’d heard Kung Fu Master was coming out on the Spectrum! Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as that shocker, but it definitely wasn’t the monochrome version of my greatest love on the Atari ST either! 

There was no excitement, little skill required, and everything was too big and up close. I remember playing it lying in bed at university for hours and hours in the hope that it would eventually click, but despite my best efforts to not admit money I didn’t have not being well spent, it never really did. 

Kung-Fu Master

I’ve also written about Kung-Fu Master extensively on these pages, but the Game Boy version was a very different game, written ground-up for the system. The principle is similar, as are the simple punch-kick controls (though you did have a backflip too), but rather than ascending a dojo like in the arcade game, your traversing varied levels, including dodgy cities and a great moving train, taking out goons and bosses with chainsaws and other heavy weaponry. 

Unlike the aforementioned Spectrum disaster of the same name, the controls are responsive and it all ends up being a really fun handheld brawler. 

Gauntlet 2

Gauntlet was one of my great loves on the Spectrum, but this was the first time I’d ever played a sequel. You’ve only got two characters, but otherwise everything has been squeezed into the Game Boy, including speech from the arcade version, which is a remarkable achievement. 

Masses of monsters, the maze-like dungeons, the chests, the keys… it’s all present and correct, and was far more detailed than the Spectrum ever managed with the original! This is one, like Tetris, Elevator Action (see below) and Tennis that I still love to play to this day. 

Elevator Action

I actually bought this one in 2010, having never realised that one of my all time favourite arcade games even existed on the Game Boy! Everything is intact, the graphics are detailed and full of character, and the duck and shoot gameplay feels just like it did when I first saw my next-door neighbour drop a 10p into it at a local sports centre many years earlier! Classic game and fantastic conversion – who’d have dreamt you’d be carrying this in your pocket when you were gulping Dr Pepper after the roller disco in 1983!

And that concludes my original Game Boy cartridge collection, which will now be consigned too protruding ridiculously from my SP as and when the mood takes me. Until next time…

My Life With… Tennis – Nintendo Gameboy

My Life With… Tennis – Nintendo Gameboy

When I picked up Tennis for the original Gameboy is a bit of a mystery, but it was certainly at the very beginning of my university life in late 1990. Buying the Gameboy itself as soon as it launched shortly before I arrived was probably just about dawning on me as an unnecessary extravagance. The money from my Saturday job collecting trolleys at Sainsbury’s was fast transitioning from being a great big lump of pocket money to a minimal living necessity. But in those early days of realising that life costs money, the very late arrival of my student grant, thanks to my Dad’s daily visits to the local council office, was another – albeit very short term – unreality check. And I reckon that’s when I decided I could stretch to a third game (Tetris and Super Mario Land being the other two I got at launch – more on those later), and picked up Tennis. 

Again, this would soon be seen as another extravagance once the costs of the mandatory course text books – heavy (in both senses) engineering tomes – started to mount up. In fact, thinking about it now, a couple of those at £40-50 each are second only to the Punch 1888 Almanac I bought more recently containing original Jack the Ripper material; now that really was an extravagance! Thank goodness my fledgling university social life was a slow burner at that point, with the role-playing and horror film clubs about as wild as it got… The lead singer of Robed in Desire was definitely still a distant nightmare! 

I reckon Tennis is one of five games I’ve put more hours into than any others – Destiny, Clash Royale, Elite and Kick Off spring to mind as the probable other four, though I’ve never counted. Surprisingsly. And like Kick Off alone, those hundreds of hours would be spread over many years; in fact, it was coming out for my deconstructed Wimbledon tournament every June well into the 2000’s!

The game’s no-fuss title pretty much sums up the game itself. It’s just tennis with no knobs on; the same match, four difficulty levels, over and over again. Presentation is simple (as is the sound), but the gameplay is perfect, and you’ll never have the same match twice thanks to a great AI, and consistent, playable physics that with practice bring a real sense of mastery to the various shot types. There’s great character in the graphics and animations, with a nicely detailed Mario as umpire.

I’ve tried tennis games on all sorts of platforms, and nothing’s ever held my attention like this did and continues to do – I might have retired from imaginary Wimbledon, but every time I get my trusty old Gameboy out I still can’t resist! Hang on, I’ve just remembered the one with Snoopy in the title, but that showdown can come later! 

See you next time. I think the arcade beckons…