My annual list here is supposed to be screaming next-gen this year, but after much deliberation that helped me make up my mind I wanted an Xbox over PS5, it also made me realise I wanted Game Pass and not a new machine. Enter my 13-year old son wanting to replace his Xbox One with a fancy new gaming PC for Christmas, as well as no actual next-gen games for Series X yet anyway, and here we are! Still pains me not having a launch-day PlayStation for the first time in its history though…
As much as my game of the year for 2020 did affect and continues to affect me – and has made the very unusual leap for anything new into my top 25 games of all time – it’s not the best! Or even second best! It took me a while, but finally properly playing Silent Hill this summer led me immediately to Silent Hill 2 on PS2. Then several times more! Wow, what a game. I wrote loads of words about it here so won’t dwell. Then I got to the last game in the Resident Evil series I’d never played, Resident Evil 4 on GameCube. Given its reputation I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to that either, but I got to the point where I wasn’t playing it to avoid finishing it! Absolute masterpiece!
But let’s now turn our attention to the masterpieces of 2020…
1. In Other Waters (Switch) A very long time ago, a game called Submarine Commander on the Commodore VIC-20 was busy becoming one of my favourite games ever; it offered a claustrophobic and tense underwater experience that still holds up today. The first time I saw In Other Waters, I immediately knew it was going to do the same, with its beautifully refined and descriptive – but not dissimilar – user interface that almost immediately becomes second nature, and completely drives the wonderful story, as well as your imagination. Intuitive, engaging, nerve wracking and, despite it’s visual simplicity, I found it stunningly atmospheric. Just like some of those great old VIC-20 games!
2. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (Switch) I was massively excited when Bloodstained 2 was announced, then decided to voice my opinion on it costing more on Switch (my preferred platform so I could play on TV and handheld) than PS4 by not buying it on any platform for months… The protest finally ended with a Switch sale, and it was worth the wait. It may even have been worth the original price! The gameplay is so tight, it looks and sounds glorious, and it’s up there with the best of Castlevania! It’s comfortable and familiar – to the point you know exactly which walls are going to be holding secrets before you hit them – but brings its own identity with the ingenious character swapping, and offers loads to keep playing past the first credits for, especially something you really won’t see coming! Awesome.
3. Streets of Rage 4 (Switch) Completely faithful to the series from what I’ve played, but also completely modern feeling and looking, and a fantastic beat ‘em up in its own right. So many things I love… some of the chaotic mass brawls that feel just like a Bruce Lee movie; finding the secret retro areas (and some old friends); just how 80’s the brilliantly styled (and massive variety of) hand-drawn art all looks; and, of course, the soundtrack isn’t bad either! Not much can top the massively concentrated fun on offer here, and with everything else on offer on top of the story mode, we definitely have a keeper to come back to for many years to come!
4. Star Wars: Squadrons (PS4) No game is ever likely to come close to the thrill of sitting down in that jaw-dropping Star Wars arcade cabinet for the first time at a funfair in Bedford almost forty years ago, but this wasn’t far off! The story offers non-stop spectacular sprawling set pieces across fifteen missions, and it’s non-stop nerdgasm the whole way through. There’s multiplayer all-sorts if that’s your bag too. If you ever wanted to fly something out of Star Wars, this is as good as it gets.
5. Animal Crossing – New Horizons (Switch) I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. I also rarely ever play a game for over 50 hours, but I’d done that in two weeks and we’re now well over 500, and whilst I might have bought it physically so I could sell it on at the usual Nintendo tiny loss price, there’s still not much chance of that yet! It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, it makes the mundane as addictive as crack, and on the Switch it looks and sounds and plays incredible. A timeless formula that couldn’t have been timed better.
6. Super Mario Bros Game & Watch Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch was just about my first gaming love, and almost four decades later this wonderfully and accurately recreated piece of tech (and packaging!) celebrates not only that age of wonder, but also 35 years of Super Mario Bros, which remains more than perfectly playable, and perfectly suited to this pocket platform. The sequel, the of original Game & Watch game Ball, the Easter eggs, and, of course, the unique digital alarm clock combine to make this an absolutely priceless piece of nostalgia.
7. Carrion (Xbox One) You play the bad guy and this game makes sure you know it! This is how a Predator (and maybe other types of predator) feels, with every decaying Lovecraftian tooth and eyeball and tentacle feeling like a flawless extension of your fingers on the controller as you effortlessly glide around then tear your prey apart. The horrific semi-pixel art Metroidvania-styled design is perfectly complemented by the incredible sound design, which is made all the more disturbing when you realise the sound has all gone! A beautiful, terrible thing.
8. Manic Miner 2020 – Special Edition (ZX Spectrum) Can you believe that in the year of our lord 2020AD, we have no less than three new Miner Willy games (that I’m aware of at least) out on the ZX Spectrum? I’ve not played Manic Panic, but I have played a lot of a four decades late to the party port of my favourite VIC-20 game, The Perils of Willy, and whilst it fully deserves to be here too, it’s harder to justify as new even if it is a joy to play! This one was at least a new take, dedicated to all essential workers keeping things moving in lockdown, and is actually a cut-down riff on the original, featuring what you know and love, but in mirrored caverns. As you’d expect, it’s hard as nails, but the smile will never leave your face! Platforming perfection. Always.
9. Wallachia – Reign of Dracula (Switch) A loving homage to Castlevania that plays like Contra, complete with zero concession to anyone that isn’t prepared to play hard and old-school! But like Contra, with practice you realise it’s fair, and you will improve to the point that it’s beatable over time. And like Castlevania, it oozes gothic atmosphere, with darkly stylish visuals and a whopping soundtrack.
10. Hotshot Racing (Xbox One) Brilliantly retro-stylised and very slick arcade racer that controls like a dream once you get it, and has such a sense of speed! There’s elements of Out Run, Daytona 360, Virtua Racer and Sega Rally all present and correct, and whilst it’s unlikely that anything is ever going to reach any of those heady heights again, if you’re a fan then this loving, living tribute is going to appeal.
There’s loads of game series I’ve had a quick go on at some point, but for whatever reason didn’t grab me until many years later, when they really did grab me and then some as I lapped up everything about them! Castlevania and Mega Man are the two prime suspects, but there’s also big hitters like 2D and 3D Mario and Zelda, and then there’s stuff like Road Rash and Splatterhouse and TwinBee and… I almost forgot my newly beloved Silent Hill! For all of these I’ve dived headfirst into pretty much every entry on every system (one way or another), and pretty much played through every one of them to completion (or at least to death) too, all in a relatively very short space of time.
But there’s only one series I can think of that all of this also applies to, but until relatively recently I’d genuinely never even heard of. And that would psychedelic Defender-ish shooter Fantasy Zone!
That’s not to say it had never been in my line of sight. When the Mean Machines section of Computer & Video games was still only a couple of pages at the back of the magazine, and covering stuff like the Sega Master System which realistically I was never going to own, I just don’t think I would have paid it much attention. In my defence in this case though, it was easy to miss! The May 1988 issue had a very odd mass Sega review section, and it’s odd because just as it’s explaining Fantasy Zone’s shop mechanic (we’ll return there). arcade game. That’s thrown you, but it’s actually exactly what the review does! The words “arcade game” suddenly appear after a full stop, then after another full stop they’re busy explaining team selection in World Soccer! Which is a shame because they’re definitely about to big up Fantasy Zone in their missing conclusion! Instead we’re just left with some scores in series! Nines across the board for graphics, sound, playability and overall is some good going! For comparison, the other four games (yes, four games – no wonder it got cocked-up!) in this single review didn’t fare quite as well… scrolling beat ‘em up Kung Fu Kid did alright with all eights. They loved playing World Soccer, with only graphics and sound trailing Fantasy Zone – and that’s exactly how it should be for pretty much all games ever! Teddy Boy is some kind of platform shoot and collect thing, and was deemed fairly average with sixes and sevens. Then there’s a little game called Double Dragon – which actually had its own separate review but shared the score box – with eights for everything except slightly average sound.
Couple of interesting points on what they’re saying about Fantasy Zone before they’re so rudely cut off… They start by saying that despite it being a “beaut” they’d seen the game “die a death” at The Crystal Rooms in Leicester Square. Now, if this is the place I’m thinking of, it was a very old-school casino in London that just did slot machines and bingo. Possibly why it died a death there? Anyway, what’s fun about it is that unlike most swanky London casinos the only dress code was that your clothes didn’t obscure the security cameras!
The other thing they call out is the “VERY” unusual colourful backdrop and aliens. And I love that because that is precisely what didn’t grab me in the small screenshot that accompanied the review back in May 1988, but very much did grab me in May 2017 when I first fired up the Sega 3D Classics Collection on 3DS that I’d just received for my birthday that month. As I’ve written about here, when the compilation first appeared at the end of 2016, I started getting the urge for the arcade version of Power Drift in the palm of my hand! My old favourite Thunder Blade was a real added bonus too, and I was fond of Puyo Puyo, but not especially fond of Sonic and Altered Beast, and I had no idea what these Galaxy Force and Maze Hunter and all-sorts of Fantasy Zone games were!
You’re getting the remade Fantasy Zone II and the Master System version in the standard game carousel, but there’s also a not very well hidden bonus game to find too! You just need to click the Extras button on the main game select screen, and from there it’s easy to spot the very obvious Fantasy Zone themed icon in the bottom left, where you’ve got the Master System version of the original too.
Before things get too confusing, it’s worth a quick history lesson (which admittedly may well confuse things even more)! The original Japanese arcade version of Fantasy Zone arrived there in 1986. It ran on an arcade board called System-16, which will be important in a sec! It then got the home version on Master System we’ve already looked at, and it would soon also end up on NES, MSX, PC-Engine, and Sharp X68000. The NES one is interesting because it was a Sunsoft Japan-only release originally, then an unlicensed (crappier) version was published by Tengen in the West in 1989. For completeness, Fantasy Zone Gear appeared on Sega Game Gear in 1991 and a Sega Saturn version also appeared in 1997, and then it was completely remade for PlayStation 2 using polygons rather than sprites, and had some Space Harrier styled stages where you were playing from behind. Mobile versions would follow in the early 2000’s, before Virtual Console and similar releases followed a few years later. The latest version I have is the stacked Sega Ages release on Nintendo Switch, though I’m still not convinced about the controls on there – neither method feels perfect.
In a bit of a reversal of the normal way of things, the sequel, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, appeared first on the Master System in 1987 and then got an arcade port, as well as versions for NES (strangely sub-titled The Teardrop of Opa-Opa) and MSX. The Master System version is probably the best-looking game on the system (although Road Rash might also have a shout), but conversely, the problem with doing things this way around is the arcade version looked worse than its predecessor; around two decades later this would finally be remedied! Fast-forward to 2008, and Sega released the Sega Ages Vol. 33 Fantasy Zone Complete Collection for PlayStation 2. And I really wish I could still get hold of a copy! It included Fantasy Zone, Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, Fantasy Zone Gear, enhanced NES version (and secret inclusion) Fantasy Zone Neo Classic, paddle-controller shooter Galactic Protector (starring Opa Opa) and… Fantasy Zone II DX, and now we’re finally getting close to the point!
As we’ve noted, the arcade sequel came arse about face, but what if it had been developed originally on the System-16 arcade hardware rather than the Master System? That’s where wonder-retro developers M2 were coming from with DX. Their CEO, Naoki Horii, played a lot of the Master System game but always yearned for an original arcade version, so they took the System-16 board, added a little bit more memory to it, and came up with what was dubbed the DX version to avoid confusion with the1987 arcade version (which I’m still wondering if I’m doing here)! We’ll eventually come back to what it does differently, but for now we’re finally going to arrive at the game we’re supposed to be talking about here, because it was then re-released with even more extra features on Nintendo 3DS in Japan in 2014, then globally as 3D Fantasy Zone II W the following year. Which by my reckoning is what ended up on my Sega 3D Classics compilation!
My own journey to what turned into an absolute adoration of this version of Fantasy Zone II took quite a lot longer to develop though, and encompassed only marginally lower levels of adoration across various other Fantasy Zones on the way! In fact, after dabbling with everything on this compilation when I got it, I didn’t pay much attention to any of it again for the best part of four years, when once again the lure of Power Drift came calling! But that short time dabbling with it had lit a spark. I don’t think it was even the new and special version of Fantasy Zone II that did it either; it was that very original secret Master System version, and then things started to spiral all over the place…
I was messing around with emulating old games on Raspberry Pi around this time, and for the first time ever I was starting to appreciate the NES (and what a whirlwind journey that would turn into in a very short space of time on all sorts of systems with all those games we started with here)! And in doing so, I came across a dodgy US version of a game I was now finally familiar with on Master System called Fantasy Zone… big mistake – you want to stick with the Japanese version that doesn’t look all jerky and washed out! A short time after that, I picked up the handheld PocketGo after my Game Boy Advance SP backlight died, and that turned out to be very good at Game Gear games, and Fantasy Zone Gear turned out to be a very good Game Gear game! It would be messing around with emulation on a hacked PlayStation Classic (one of the best consoles ever in this dubious form!) in the middle of 2019 where my love for the series really started picking up steam though. I’ve been emulating stuff for decades, but this thing made it easy to emulate everything in one place, and it turns out an original PlayStation controller is a great universal controller too! By now I was looking out for Fantasy Zone as one of the first ports of call on any “new” system, and I was giving the Master System a lot of attention for the first time (where the Road Rash obsession I now have also started), and that’s where the sequel originally started getting under my skin – far more than it had on the 3DS first time around. And the PC-Engine version, and the Mega Drive’s Super Fantasy Zone, but they both deserve their own mention…
On any given day, I could easily justify to myself why any of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, Mega Drive Super Fantasy Zone and PC-Engine Fantasy Zone are not only my favourite games in the series, but one of my favourite games of all time! I really think it’s just the way the 3DS circle-pad feels with this game that generally wins out, but as I’m writing this, I was playing the PC-Engine version ten minutes ago (during half time of a not very exciting Leeds versus Arsenal game) and thinking maybe I’ve got that wrong. And if I’d fired up Super Fantasy Zone instead, probably the same outcome!
My brother-in-law and his wife very kindly got me a Mega Drive Mini for Christmas 2019, and of course I spent a couple of weeks playing everything, but then for a good four or five first months of 2020 it became my Super Fantasy Zone and Road Rash II (best game on the system!) machine. This is the perfect next-gen version of the original, with great graphics, great colours and the most joyful music you’ll ever hear in a video game! As well as some quality of life gameplay enhancements and more upgrades, there’s also new bosses, and I reckon it’s all a bit quicker and a bit harder too.
In June 2020, the new PC-Engine Mini finally hit the COVID-stricken virtual shelves, and this time my own wife had equally kindly preordered one for my birthday in May. And what a moment having my own piece of proper PC-Engine hardware after all those years of lusting after it was – the gaming equivalent of hooking up with Winona Ryder, though my wife is unlikely to have so readily sorted that out for me! First thing I played? Splatterhouse! But since then, that wonderful version of Fantasy Zone has become my gaming comfort food; me playing it earlier is no coincidence – I watch an awful lot of football and I play this in an awful lot of half-times!
Football-related circumstances then bring us full-circle back to the 3DS version. As I said ages ago, it started once again with the lure of Power Drift on the Sega 3D Classics Collection, when my son’s academy season finally restarted after the first COVID-related lockdown. All training is behind closed doors, meaning three lots of two hours worth of hanging around in a car park every week, which the 3DS is obviously the perfect antidote to! I beat every set of tracks on Power Drift in a week and a half (though to this day I haven’t really stopped playing it yet), and then we got serious with 3D Fantasy Zone II W… I think! That history lesson definitely confused me at the very least!
Now might be a good time to talk about the game itself! This is absolutely everything that was great about the original game and the sequel – the freely-scrolling tough but not brutal alien and base and boss shooting action; all of the main mechanics, from the ability to shoot and bomb on separate buttons, to the timed weapon and engine shop where you upgrade your ship using money collected from what you’ve shot. And of course, the absolutely glorious, colourful, whimsical aesthetic; and not forgetting that most joyful soundtrack ever!
We have loads on top of the original game though! Firstly, we’ve got late eighties arcade-quality graphics, and they’re imaginative and detailed and smooth (especially when compared back-to-back with the Master System original on there), and they’re just full of so much character. And although I’m not a fan, you’ve got stereoscopic 3D effects to blow you away here too. The flow of the game itself is a reimagining of the Master System game and subsequent conversions too, with some highlights (enemies, environments, music…) lifted but a lot of it new, and there’s even bits of the first arcade game here too. And you can even dial down the difficulty if you like; it’s your conscience!
One of the biggest changes, though, is the level design – every stage has parallel dimensions, the regular Bright Side and the higher reward but harder Dark Side. You can warp between the two where warp-zones appear behind some of the beaten bases, and if you take out a base in the Bright Side, it’s also gone in the Dark Side and vice versa. If you happen to be in the Dark Side when you take out the final base on a level, you’re going to get the same boss too, but with much harder attack patterns. There is a predictably bonkers story about your sentient craft, Opa-Opa, and the myriad cash-spewing invaders you’ll come across in each diverse stage, and you can start on any of the stages you’ve already beaten to progress the story a bit more easily, though your scores will suffer as a result.
The cash you collect is persistent, so you can also withdraw a bit of that when you start to give you a literal boost. However, I did find myself always sticking to an absolutely essential engine boost, twin bombs and an occasional laser weapon to make later stage bases a bit quicker to take down, and this is all very buyable from what you’ll make in any given run. If you die, or the very short timer on the weapons runs out, you are back to square one, so having a bit of cash, but also being a bit frugal and not buying a crazy engine (that you’ll also struggle to control unless you’re using it all the time – which you won’t be). There’s also secret weapons in secret shops that you just need to make sure you’re paying attention to find, and depending on what you’ve bought and how much of the Dark Side you’ve experienced, there’s apparently three endings, though I’ve only seen one so far! Actually, the end-game is the only place I’d make any real criticism because there’s a boss-rush before you get anywhere near, and I hate boss-rushes! Finally, there’s a completely separate endless survival mode where you’re playing as Upa-Upa, Opa-Opa’s brother, fighting his way through Link Loop Land. And it’s another absolutely amazing Fantasy Zone in its own right!
Long before I ever played Defender, I absolutely loved Andes Attack, a masterful Jeff Minter llama-based take on the game for the VIC-20. It’s fast and colourful, it’s old-school tough, and it’s as addictive as hell. And I still like it more than Defender! Fantasy Zone II on 3DS isn’t Defender, but the mechanics are not that far off, and I reckon how it looks probably isn’t far off how my imagination was filling in the gaps that my eyes weren’t seeing back in 1983 or whenever I first played Andes Attack!
The Fantasy Zone games I’ve talked about here are all unique and beautiful in their own way, but I think – at the time of writing at least – that Fantasy Zone II for 3DS is the most unique and beautiful of them all! The only thing that would improve it is if you could play it on a big screen, but still using that perfectly suited 3DS circle-pad. And that’s admittedly a bit of an ask! As would be being able to play that version for hours at a time in my car, so I’ll just count myself fortunate that the best version of the game is also perfectly suited to handheld. So far I reckon I’ve played it that way for around twenty hours, then at least the same again at home… I can’t get enough of it! And now I say that, I’m also slightly concerned that such a concentrated amount of time played might be swaying my opinions on this version over the Mega Drive and PC-Engine games that I’ve also come to love so dearly in only a slightly less concentrated period of time! On the other hand, all this love is probably all a bit cumulative from lapping up the series very late, but with all the enthusiasm and joy I’d have no doubt felt if I’d paid a bit more attention to that section in the back of a magazine in May of 1988… Just enjoy them all!
As a closing treat, you might have spotted that the issue of C&VG in question had a free badge on the cover. I think I’ve still got it, pinned to the old notice board it was stuck on the day I bought it!
Here’s some more pure self-indulgence just because I can’t resist a list, so feel free to go and do something less boring instead! My recent examination of Elite versus Perils of Willy (here) – as well as passing the 500 hour mark in Animal Crossing on Switch – got me thinking about what games I’ve put the most time into over the decades. There’s no question about the first two, both running into thousands and thousands of hours: 1. Kick Off on Atari ST 2. Elite on Atari ST
Kick Off is my second favourite game of all time. I can’t imagine the hours I spent either playing against my brothers or in the complex single player leagues and cups I invented where every player had a name long before that kind of thing was a thing. We turned it into far more than a top-down football game, and it extended the life of my Atari ST into the late nineties, way beyond when the first PlayStation should have consigned it into the loft.
Elite is also well within my top ten games ever, and unusually for me, that opinion is not exclusive to me either! Early experiences of the space-trading sim on the BBC astounded then fascinated me, but this version absolutely captivated me. A game that never knew there were limits from the outset, and equally there were no limits to playing it, pretty much forever.
Building out my top ten, I’ve got some other contenders that immediately spring to mind in no particular order yet: – Pro Evolution Soccer 4 on PS2 – Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 on PSP – Destiny on PS4 – No Man’s Sky on PS4 – New Star Soccer on iOS – Animal Crossing New Horizons on Switch – Football Manager on C64 on Pocket PC – Tetris on Game Boy
Thinking out loud, I reckon Pro Evo on PSP then Tetris then Pro Evo on PS2 make up the top five. The only actual point of reference (at 500 hours) is Animal Crossing, and I’m going with that next, followed by Destiny and No Man’s Sky. To round out the top ten we’re going pre-smartphone, emulated Football Manager, and its spiritual descendant (and on actual smartphone) New Star Soccer.
My wife used to go nuts about my PSP always being in my hand every evening, but actually I think it was the fact I only ever played Pro Evo that annoyed her! It was full season after full season on there, even though it was about as predictable as old-school Scottish Premier League, with only a couple of teams ever in the reckoning! Actually, in a strange twist of fate about seven years later, my top goal scorer’s son and my son would become best friends in real life!
I am very familiar with the Tetris Effect. Not the game (for motion sickness reasons), but the phenomenon. I was playing Tetris every waking and non-waking hour like it or not! I loved my Game Boy, and Tetris never stopped being an integral part of its joy, through my sixth form years, university and buying at least three houses!
PS2 Pro Evo was the first to rekindle that Kick Off experience, and now everything looked just like on Match of the Day, and like on PSP later, I didn’t need to keep score for my league and cup fixes. And that Master League was just awesome – no matter how good you got, it always seemed to come down to the wire between you and one or two rivals!
I very rarely buy a game day one, but I knew that with Animal Crossing New Horizons I’d be getting incredible enjoyment and incredible value from whatever the asking price. In under two weeks I’d played more than 50 hours, and we’re now over ten times that. It’s the ultimate in gaming escapism, making the mundane as addictive as crack!
Destiny might have delivered less than it promised in the eyes of many, but not me! The shooting is as good as it’s ever got in any game, but the continuous search for upgrade materials through a continuous search for whatever was going on in that time and place you were in provided exactly the same addictive quality as Animal Crossing; it’s a different type of mundane, but you still can’t stop! Until you move to the country and have terrible internet…
Given what I’ve said about Elite, it’s no surprise that infinite space-trading discovery adventure No Man’s Sky rounds out my top ten, and it’s a game where tinkering eventually killed it for me. I was so happy with this game when it came out – unlike the rest of the world – and the first few major updates added loads to the experience that maybe should have been there previously. But the updates kept coming, and still keep coming to this day. And the one that made my sprawling moon base end up floating in the air and completely inaccessible was the beginning of a sadly quick ending.
Football Manager was one of the first games I played on my friend Paul’s Spectrum, then played it endlessly when I got my own, but it was on that forgotten pre-smartphone gadget the Pocket PC is where I spent the most time on this. It was great for emulating the C64, and this game was great for emulation. And it’s another that used to drive my wife crazy for all the aforementioned reasons!
Moving from football manager to player, New Star Soccer on iOS is one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played, to the point that in the end I knew I had a problem and had to go cold turkey! Unfortunately (or fortunately, for my sanity) it’s now a great example of a premium game destroyed by free-to-play mechanics. As well as excessive tinkering. Again.
I’m mostly happy with my top ten, but there’s also a few wildcards that I’m struggling to quantify versus the others; I just have a hunch that they might also be up there too! – Snoopy Tennis Game & Watch – Alto’s Adventure on iOS – V-Rally 3 on Game Boy Advance – Game Dev Story on iOS
Snoopy Tennis was ubiquitous in my hands in the first half of the eighties until I got my VIC-20. Likewise in the early 2000’s, I was travelling loads and always had V-Rally on the go on my GBA, and have barely taken a break from playing it since. And by 2015 I was travelling insane miles all over the world, and Alto was my plane and hotel time-killer… Until it was almost usurped by its successor in 2018 then along came Sega Ages Out Run on Switch a year later! Game Dev Story on iPhone figures here somewhere too, but in a much more concentrated time period – I went completely nuts on that for a couple of months when it came out; also one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played!
As an aside, I can probably pick out my longest narrative-driven play-throughs without too much thought, and because they weren’t long ago I even know the timings: 1. The Witcher 3 + some DLC on PS4 – 95 hours 2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Switch – 90 hours 3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – 80 hours
None of my long games list or my wildcards are much of a surprise to me. Unsurprisingly! But what I’d never thought about before was how many of these are football-related! I know your typical FIFA player is probably out-playing anything on my feeble list here every single year, but I don’t play stuff like that. Apart from the 50% of these games seemingly being stuff like that of sorts!
Wow. This wasn’t supposed to turn into an identity crisis! And let’s not even go to why a 48-year old man is spending 500 hours playing Animal Crossing in under six months… But ignoring all of that, I’m okay with representing on Atari ST with my two big hitters, and Kick Off is still my second favourite game of all time and Elite is still in my top ten, and that’s pretty cool, so let’s just stop there where everything is good with the world!
I can’t put my finger on the lure of Secret of Mana in 2020 to someone who’s really not into old JRPG’s (and definitely not into new ones), and has absolutely zero nostalgia for it from 1993, but since I got my SNES Classic Mini a few years ago I’ve always fancied trying it out!
Secret of Mana was originally intended for the Nintendo PlayStation before that all went south, then ended up being crammed into a SNES cartridge with a quick and dirty English localisation. The bits that didn’t fit (or weren’t just left out) would evolve into Chrono Trigger – a game I have played, but only enough to know its not for me, and therefore have zero nostalgia for that either!
It might be the art style that got me with Secret of Mana. It’s an absolutely stunning example of 16-bit pixel art, and I’m a big fan of that, whether original or contemporary. There’s many times where you’ll enter a new kind of forest or desert or village, see some nice glistening snow effects as you walk through seasons, or just find a room in a castle full of stained-glass windows, and you’ll have this sense of wonder, like you’re being transported right back to the early nineties when it was as new and astounding as grunge music or that scene in Basic Instinct also was! And the variety of environments is so huge that this will happen over and over again! There’s this big sense of the characters actually being an active ingredient in those environments too – the animation is simple in modern parlance, but combined with the distinctive pixel-art character (playable or otherwise) designs, you feel like they’re there!
The first few hours ease you in gently, teasing you with things like magic that you’re not quite sure how it works yet, but you’re also not worrying about it too much yet either. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward story of an unknowingly messianic boy finding a sword in a pond and triggering the apocalypse. More or less! The plot never becomes anything special, but it will keep you on your toes and interested enough to see where it goes next. From the moment you’re kicked out of your village into the really big wide world, you’re happily wandering to where you’re being told to wander, fighting monsters and exploring a bit on the way. You’re soon joined by a girl and a sprite who’s stories gradually intertwine with your own. And of course, this being an action-RPG, everywhere you all go and everything you all do is chipping away at reaching the next level, getting new equipment and skills, and other action-RPG busywork .
Actually, for the first few hours it all reminded me more of SNES Legend of Zelda than any other RPG I’ve played. Then I think I was 5-6 hours in when the first hint of proper RPG grind arrived with a giant tiger boss. Up until then the regular monsters and bosses had been a cinch, and progression had been fairly linear and just happened, but now this thing was leaping around and generally battering my fledgling party. I eventually got through it, but despite not being a huge fan, I’ve played enough RPG’s over the years to know the signs… I really wasn’t high enough level for that scrap! And that put me right off playing any more – for over a week, I was done with Secret of Mana! And not with any sense of disappointment or ill-feeling towards it; I just felt I’d satisfied my original curiosity and I’d had good value out of its inclusion on my SNES Classic Mini, but I didn’t want to spend hours fighting the same monsters over and over just so I could progress an ultimately forgettable story. As I said though, I’m a sucker for this art style, and there I was looking at my SNES Classic Mini over a week later, thinking I was just past a boss so I could just have a look and see how much further I can get without going nuts on grinding…
Things then went pretty smoothly for the next 15 hours or so, but then that familiar nagging feeling that the boss I’d just struggled past was too high level for me appeared again. I was too far in this time though! But also by this point, that wasn’t a turn off – as I switched off for the night, I could think of no better way to spend the following evening than finding somewhere that conveniently spawned decent level monsters and just grinding out experience. Weird. Turning into some kind of fantasy RPG nerd before my very own eyes! Keep in mind that I’m still not quite there yet though, so to anyone that is, everything I’m saying from now onwards probably sounds like normal gameplay, but we’re talking about someone that generally likes ploughing through a game, not stopping to take in the scenery over an over before moving on! And also goes for the weapon that’s immediate and in-hand rather than something called Earth Slide that’s buried somewhere in a menu called Gnome…
Over the course of the next 5 hours or so, the importance of the magic that – with the exception of some healing spells – you kind of ignored before now comes to the fore, and following closely behind, the importance of being able to regenerate it! You’ll have been carrying stuff like faerie walnuts around this whole time without giving them much thought, but now this magic you’ve learnt that you need for another boss takes far more magic points than you can really afford to use. And when you’ve got past that boss, you need another kind of magic for the next one, and there’s no visiting an inn for a nice kip between these ones! Faerie walnut time, lots of times!
By this point though, you’re going to be thinking you’re on the home stretch. The story is starting to wind itself up towards a climax, and you’re running out of slots on your little inventory rings for more types of magic, and you’ve got some crazy expensive armour, and all your weapons have been upgraded to death. And in theory that is absolutely the case! But what you now need to realise is that your character levels might be getting towards a decent level, but your magic levels as a whole and for each individual magic type aren’t, and we’ve got a whole new level of grinding to do!
Around 30 hours in and you realise that the story was indeed stating to wind itself up a while ago, but the last few levels are just sprawling boss rushes. A good measure of how ready you are for these is how easily you can beat the monsters between them; when you realise you can’t, you’re back to grinding again – same monsters over and over! For some context, your characters after all that time are going to be around level 50. They need to be closer to 60, and there’s no story to distract you from the numbers this time. Then for the final level they’ll need to be closer to 70. Then there’s this magic stuff – all of these bosses are susceptible to a certain kind of magic, but it needs to be high level. And in the case of some of them on the penultimate couple of levels, it’s going to be magic you’ve had no real use for yet, so you’re starting this particular grind from scratch. Also note we’re talking about loads of bosses on each level! As said, you’re done with the story now, and are literally spending hours fighting the highest level monsters you can access, levelling up characters and a certain type of magic, then heading off to replenish your supplies, have a rest at an inn, then doing it over and over again!
And by this point, it’s all just to crawl towards a stamina-draining (in more ways than one) final boss battle and the game over credits that you’ve now spent so long getting to that there’s no going back! But also by this point, none of this is really a chore; in fact, you now know its just delaying the hole in your life that this is going to leave when its over, and that makes it fine! Which I’m still finding to be a very disturbing new behaviour in me!
I’ve mentioned the graphics, but the game design is also equally worthy of praise. While you’re wondering what those magic rings and other RPG trimmings in you character menus are all about for a good portion of the game, eventually everything becomes completely second nature and intuitive. The combat feels great, and before too long you’re effortlessly chucking magic about with your more traditional violence. Same for just finding your way around – when this vast world first opens up to you, you’ll be clueless for hours about where stuff is – even with the map – but by the end it’s like the back of your hand. Interestingly though, even after all this time finishing the game there’s still stuff in the menus I’ve not had any cause to open and find out what it does, magic I have tried, and places on the map I’ve had no inkling to try and land on! The soundtrack deserves a mention too – it is very 16-bit, and while I didn’t experience it at the time, you can tell exactly what a sonic treat this would have seemed back in 1993. It’s grand and complex and perfectly fitting; this would have been as good as video game music (as well as impactful sound in general) got back then.
Technically it’s definitely not perfect! There’s loads of bugs to be found, with characters getting stuck on things that aren’t there, walking through things that are there, crashes and game freezes and things like that which are definitely mitigated by being able to save more regularly than was originally intended with the SNES Classic Minis save-state functions. What that doesn’t mitigate, though, is your party’s dodgy AI! You’re only ever in control of one character, and can switch between the three of them easily with a press of Select. But the ones you’re not in control of will often drive you crazy! You can set them to act to be all guns blazing or stay away or many variants in-between, but in reality the other characters in your party are following you about. Or at least trying to! You’ll be forever backtracking so they can follow you down some stairs or around a tree or whatever, and even then they’ll still end up getting stuck again on the way until they’ve precisely retraced your steps. But even worse than this is that it still happens when they’re dead and haven’t been revived yet – they’re supposed to be a ghost at this point but still get stuck on every bit of scenery! They’ll also regularly ruin any combat strategy you have in mind… Three sleeping goblins? Now, I’m even less of a stealth fan than I am an RPG fan, but I do know that you take them out one at a time while they’re still asleep. But not these guys – if you’re in sword swinging distance, then you’re game for a scrap! Same if you’re just trying to get through somewhere without a fight – if they get close to a monster, they won’t be able to resist. And unless they’re right on your tail, there’s no way the game’s allowing you into the next area!
But for a game of its ambition in its time, all of this is forgivable. In the end I had a great time with Secret of Mana, though it didn’t have quite the impact on me I thought it might once I got properly hooked. As I write, just after finally finishing it, there is definitely a void where it was, but I think that’s as much from the amount I played in a short space of time than any compulsion to keep playing. That said, I definitely developed a disturbing compulsion for its grind; just less of one than I’d find in Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing, for example, mainly because they’ve had decades to work on perfecting it! And for that reason I doubt I’ll be back now I’ve seen everything it has to offer, or even give it that much thought again in future, but I’m glad I can finally tick it off the list!
Ever since I put together my list of favourite sights in all of gaming, a few weeks ago at the time of writing, I’ve been giving more favourite sights in other games a bit of thought, and we’re definitely in a position now where we can add some more to the list and make up a top ten!
You can read about the original top five here, but just to recap…
1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run 2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47 3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum 4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run 5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship
I struggled a bit to get far beyond a top five previously, but did give a single honourable mention to Super Castlevania IV’s ghost and glitter and gold level, also known as Stage IX, also known as The Treasury, so it’s only fair that we start right there at our new number six favourite sight in all of gaming!
I could probably make up another top ten only using sights from Super Castlevania IV on SNES! And actually, before I came up with Stage IX, my initial thought was climbing the famous Castlevania steps up to the final boss with the moon behind the castle. Absolutely stunning, and in every Castlevania this sight is an indicator that your’ve nearly made it! If I had to choose any game world to live in, it’s this one (or maybe Silent Hill… more later)! I absolutely adore the unique gothic art-style, the sumptuous colours and the sheer imagination. The game has already put you through the ringer by the time you get to Stage IX, but seeing this unique environment compared to everything you’ve been through before is like a reset, refreshing you for the last push! The ghosts that float up all around the screen are harmless but remind you that in Castlevania, all that glitters – and there’s a lot here that does – might not always be gold. What is gold, though, is this little tip – jump on any treasure chest in this level 256 times and you’ll be rewarded with a big meat to boost your health. It’s all just glorious, unique in the game, and you’re welcome!
If I ever do a list about gaming music, that level in Castlevania might figure too (though it might have some competition from Symphony of the Night), but what would definitely figure – and probably right at the top of the list – would be Commando on the Commodore 64. And that’s where we heading now in our favourite sights list too! This is a mid-eighties vertically-scrolling run and gun arcade conversion, where your commando (who is more Rambo than Commando) is shooting up the enemy, chucking grenades and freeing hostages. When it first came out, like many kids on many games of the time, I spent most of my time in the first stage. And that didn’t matter, of course! And at the end of that first stage, you’re clearing out a few last soldiers as you reach a huge set of double-gates. As you get close, they spring open and all hell breaks loose as masses of enemy soldiers rush you all at once. You’d start off getting into a good position to spray them down with bullets from the side, then it was a case of just never stop moving, and should one of the enemies come face-to-face with your rifle, take them out! If you’re lucky you won’t get killed by the last guy left – which seemed to be what happened most times – and you’ll run through the gates into stage two. But if you don’t, no worries, because every time you get there you’ll get that same sense of anticipation and exhileration as those gates swing spring apart and all those guys break through!
Before we move on, I’m going to quickly mention the advert for Commando too. Obviously, the advert for Barbarian was the greatest gaming advert of all time ever, closely followed by its sequel. But, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s pretend there’s no adverts featuring Page Three stunner Maria Whittaker wearing a couple of scraps of metal… As dire as that world might be, the Commando advert – complete with what appears to be a hand-painted screenshot – is definitely one my favourite gaming adverts.
I’m not sure I can write many more words about Silent Hill 2 than I did already here! I think it’s the greatest horror game of all time, which I’d also say about its predecessor if this didn’t exist! The original Silent Hill was probably as famous for its fog as its sequel is for Pyramid Head, but this was mostly there to hide graphical limitations of the original PlayStation; it just happened to create an incredible atmosphere while it did it! The second game, on the PlayStation 2, didn’t have those limitations, but it did have fog… the absolute best fog in any game to this day! At the very start of the game, you notice wisps of fog swirling around you, and then you begin your descent, and then the fog starts to envelope you. And when you’re moving down towards the town and slowly become completely surrounded by this brilliant, multi-greyed, almost living and breathing entity, you suddenly realise that you’re really back in Silent Hill. And that’s a wonderful realisation in a wonderful moment!
In 2020, Star Wars: Squadrons came very close to the thrill of flying an X-Wing, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, something else came even closer! When you sat down in the sit-down Star Wars arcade cabinet in 1983, you were Luke Skywalker climbing into the cockpit of an X-Wing. And you’d never seen graphics like this before – you were in a 3D colour vector dogfight approaching the Death Star, then you were navigating your way across the surface of the Death Star, and then, in one of the most exhilerating moments you’ll ever come across in the history of gaming, you dropped down into the trench! You’re being shot at from side-mounted cannons and you’re avoiding beams up and down and in the middle, and it all feels wonderfully claustrophobic and so dangerous, until that moment of absolute panic when you need to fire your proton torpedo down the exhaust port. “Great shot kid, that was one in a million” then rings out as the Death Star explodes and you start all over again with the difficulty ramped up. Never before did a few coloured lines spark so much imagination!
We’re closing out our top ten with a game that took the giant leap into filling-in those coloured lines, and not only that, but doing something else you’d never seen the like of in a game before… especially a racing game! I have absolutely no recollection of Hard Drivin’ in any arcade, but it was a huge deal when the conversions hit in 1990, and the undisputed highlight of Christmas that year was the Atari ST version (more on that here)! Even though I’d never played it before, like everyone else that played it, I knew exactly what I was looking out for the very first time I loaded it up. Go up the hill from the start, do a right towards the Stunt course, take the bridge (again and again until you realise the speed limit signs at the side of the road aren’t just there for decoration), one more right, and there it is in all it’s majesty – the legendary loop-the-loop! I still think it’s a technical marvel every time I play it, and I still every time I go around it I still wonder quite how I did it! And there you were thinking I was going to say the cow that moos when you run into it!
As we had an honourable mention in our previous top five, which is now our number six, before I summarise the full top ten I just want to award a replacement honourable mention! I struggled to not include this, but if I had included it, I’d have struggled to decide exactly what I was not going to include, or, indeed, what from this game I would! Before stuff like Halo (RIP) or Uncharted or Tetris or various Marios became system sellers on their respective consoles, a game called Defender of the Crown was exactly that on the Atari ST. I don’t think there was ever a graphical leap between computer or console generations like that one. One minute you’re prodding monochrome ghosts in Scooby Doo on the Spectrum, and the next you’re looking at this jaw-dropping vista with the most realistic medieval castle you’ve ever seen recreated on anything!
I’m also awarding another honourable mention because if the first instalment had one, then surely this one deserves one too? This time we’re talking about the arcade version of Gradius II, known as Vulcan Venture outside of Japan. I’ve dabbled with Gradius and its offshoots (such as Salamander, also known as Life Force) for years, and I’m equally terrible at all of them, but fortunately this sight comes midway through the first level, so even I get to have a gander! This is a 1988 side-scrolling power-up shooter, and you’re quickly dodging these stunning suns that fire-breathing fire serpents occasionally slither out of. Then at one point you’re surrounded by three of these fiery planets and it just looks terrifyingly beautiful. If only I could get past the flaming boss at the end of the level, because who knows what incredible sights lie ahead?
Finally, unless I think of anything else that urgently needs to be included in the next five minutes (like stage one of 3D Fantasy Zone II W, or a mass of ghosts in Gauntlet, or the cemetery in Resident Evil 4, for example), I’m going to further preview what’s potentially already turned into the inevitable top fifteen! It would be be here right now – and in all probability be a lot more than something after the honourable mentions too – except I reckon there’s a better version of it waiting in the arcade game, and that’s the wonderful scene from Stage V of Splatterhouse on PC-Engine with the flying scarecrow pumpkin skeleton thing and it’s bony zombie army. I’ve just never got that far in the arcade game, but there’s a challenge for me one fine day…
In the meantime, let’s just run down our all new top then!
1. The road opening out in the first stage of arcade Out Run 2. The sunset background in level two of arcade P-47 3. Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle’s second screen on ZX Spectrum 4. The sunset background in level two of PC Engine Victory Run 5. Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2 third stage pirate ship 6. Super Castlevania IV ghost and glitter and gold level (Stage IX) 7. Gates opening at the end of C64 Commando first stage 8. When the fog engulfs you at the start of Silent Hill 2 on PS2 9. Dropping into the trench in Star Wars arcade (sit-down) 10. The loop-the-loop in Atari ST Hard Drivin’
As a final aside, when I was playing Star Wars again recently to get some screenshots, I noticed something that I’ve never noticed before in all these years! After you’ve done you’re business in the trench, check out the Death Star just before it explodes… May the Force be with you!
There once was (and still is) an experimental alternative rock band called Butthole Surfers, and their influence can be heard all over the place even if their music isn’t so much, from Nirvana to Marilyn Manson. Back in 1993, I had one of their albums, Independent Worm Saloon, on cassette, until my brother borrowed it to play in his Mini. Unfortunately his Mini got nicked that day and several weeks later was discovered deep in the River Ouse just outside Bedford, and whilst the cassette did eventually find its way back to me after the car was recovered, it had seen better days and would never be played again! Before that, in 1987, Butthole Surfers released the delightfully named Locust Abortion Technician album, and the opening track of that was called Sweat Loaf. It started with a sample of a boy asking his dad what does regret mean? His dad replies, “Well son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done. And by the way, if you see your mum (mom) this weekend, would you be sure and tell her Satan! Satan! Satan!” And yes, I could have got with the far more well-known early nineties Orbital dancefloor-filler Satan, which sampled the Buttholes, but I don’t have any good stories about Orbital!
Anyway, since then, I’ve always thought that’s a pretty good philosophy. I also like the one about never regretting something (or someone) that made you smile. Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and we often have little control over our cognitive or emotional responses. In most cases there’s also no undo button, although in my case, just £14 for a legit copy of Elite on Atari ST would actually go some way towards undoing what was previously my only standout regret in gaming! That said, I’ll never be able to buy back the time spent that the lady who worked where my grandma was a cleaner and very kindly and very illicitly photocopied the mega manual for me over a period of days so I could answer the security question when the game loads. She did get a box of chocolates for her troubles after my mum found out what had gone on though! Anyway, aside from that, from day one I’ve always felt a bit dirty about what turned into thousands of hours on my number nine favourite game of all time all being done off a copied disk, care of my school-friend Thomas! And despite my little slogans, I have regretted never buying a legit copy – even now, as I write this in full knowledge of the low entry cost!
At the time of writing, the rediscovery and subsequent reinstallation of my Atari ST as a permanent feature in my study has made all those years of regret over Elite a bit redundant though… There’s a bigger crime, you see! Those thousands of hours in Elite make it my second most-played game of all time, but on trying to remember how to fire up an Atari ST (and subsequently ordering new TV cables to make it viewable), I pressed the stiff old disk eject button and came to the terrible realisation that the game I’d played more than any other, including Elite – and also my number two favourite game of all time – was also pirated! Kick Off + Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is what the fading pencilled text on the 3.5″ floppy said. I think it spent so long in my machine during the second half of its very long life, and then its even longer hibernation, that I’d completely blanked it being dodgy. And now my foul deeds are more than doubled and we have a total of even more several thousand hours of gaming that I’ve never paid a penny for; it’s like The Gasman episode of Bottom, where Ritchie and Eddie are siphoning off Mr Rottweiler next-door’s gas and eating his sausages and cakes and pickled eggs and stuff! That all said, this newly discovered heist didn’t involve retrospectively bribing anyone to photocopy manuals, so by my reckoning I can make my greatest crime against gaming 100% right for under a tenner on Ebay, meaning all in we have a life without regret for about £25 should I ever feel the need! And yes, I know the developer will never see that money, but I’ll be spending it all the same!
The next little mystery is where this copy of Kick Off (or Kick Off: Extra Time to be precise) came from. Most of my ill-gotten Atari ST gains were from the aforementioned school-friend Thomas, but neither him nor his cronies would have ever bought a copy of a football game – way too distant from Dungeons & Dragons! Ghouls ‘n Ghosts isn’t giving me much of a clue either, apart from dating it from the end of 1989 onwards! The other stuff written on the disk also isn’t helping much – Disktool (ahem!) then “(Hi Res Emulator)” and “Acize (Norm)” appear to be lost to the mists of time. And it’s all in my handwriting, meaning I probably copied it, though it can only have been from another copy because until I was looking up stuff just now, I don’t think I’d ever laid eyes on the boxes for ST Kick Off or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. By the way, I’m not going into it here, but that version of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is superb! You can’t get turned into an old man, and the incredible rain effects in the arcade version are definitely toned down here, but otherwise it’s a great way to run about in your pants chucking daggers at some great-looking undead, as they mercilessly and brutally team you how to play the old-school way!
I’m reaching the conclusion that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was probably the reason behind this disk, and that might also be the case for whoever I got it from. I was a huge fan of its predecessor, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, on both Spectrum and C64 (see here), but that’s not to say that I didn’t have some pedigree in football games too! I’m not sure the double-bat version of Pong that called itself Football (and also Hockey!) on the Interstate 1160 console (or similar) is ever really considered in the annals of football games, but the dreadful Artic Computing World Cup Football on the Spectrum – which I think is the first proper football game I played, back in 1984 – certainly would be. It was Match Day on the Spectrum that became my first football love though! That also came out in 1984, but it would be a couple of years later that I became surely one of the best players in the world when I had my own Spectrum, and I think I got it on the They Sold a Million 2 compilation. Playing it today, it runs a bit slow to say the least, but it’s an incredible piece of football game history, with ground-breaking proper football features like throw ins, corners and even dribbling, all on a side-on but kind of isometric proper pitch! The player sprites looked like proper players too, even if they were lifted straight out of BurgerTime-inspired platformer Bear Bovver! My next love was the sequel, Match Day II, but in its 128K guise of International Match Day, which added more players, more directions of control, and – for the first time in a football game – deflections and a shot power gauge… Which was a bit dodgy and often resulted in a back heel!
Aside from these (and not counting the wonderful Football Manager – another game in my top few most hours spent in gaming ever titles), I enjoyed player-sim Footballer of the Year, and dabbled with the Emlyn Hughes and MicroProse Soccer games, plus budget stinker Advanced Soccer Simulator, and I think there was a five-a-side budget game too, but nothing ever really topped my affection for Match Day and its sequel on the Spectrum. Around the time I bought my ST, I’m not sure if I wasn’t really in the market for football games, or if there just wasn’t a lot around. I definitely picked up Football Manager 2 early on, with its wonderful realistic 3D match highlights, and I played it to death. And at some point I was given a copy (real, not pirate!) of MicroProse Soccer, but I’ve a feeling that was post- Kick Off, meaning it never got much of a look in. Same with the later Manchester United game – it was really good, and definitely an historic stepping stone between something like Match Day and what we now know as FIFA or PES style, but it wasn’t Kick Off… Even Kick Off 2 wasn’t Kick Off, but we’ll come back to that! Aside from that, and back to the earlier days of having an ST, I remember some Peter Beardsley, Kenny Dalglish and Gazza games making their way to 16-bit, and the Footballer of the Year sequel, but certainly nothing memorable.
Thinking about it, maybe nothing else is memorable when you consider the arrival of Kick Off in the summer of 1989! “Best computer game ever” said Amiga User International. “Probably the best sports game ever” said The Games Machine. And so on. My own beloved Computer & Video Games magazine lauded its realism, if not its graphical thrills, and called it the best ST footie game yet… But as we’ve already discovered, that’s not such high praise, and the 84% it scored also possibly wasn’t the high praise that demanded I rush out and get a copy when there was stuff like Dungeon Master (more here), Defender of the Crown and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to grab my attention… If not necessarily my cash!
All that said, we’ve now established that I was something of a connoisseur of football games by this point (far more than I could say I am now!), and by whatever means, the second I eventually clicked “2” for Kick Off rather than “1” for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Pompey Pirates’ dodgy disk splash screen, a new chapter in my life in gaming began, and it was one that would span the end of my school years, the whole of my university life, my first job and most of the next-generation PlayStation’s life, right up to buying my first flat and moving in with my then-girlfriend and then wife almost a decade later, when my ST got put in a box for several decades!
Where Match Day and its sequel were ground-breaking in bringing real aspects of football into a video game, as C&VG noted, Kick Off was ground-breaking for bringing realism. And a lot of that realism was down to the ball not sticking to a player’s feet, though Kick Off can’t actually take credit for that. Back in 1985, Nintendo released NES stinker Soccer, which did exactly the same thing, though that would have gone well under the radar of most of my brethren in the UK particularly, where the console never really got much of a look in, and anything that didn’t have a Mario in it certainly didn’t! NES Soccer reminds a bit of Artic’s aforementioned stinker, but is more formless, slower, and moving a defender makes the keeper mirror his movement! Reviewed alright though, with C&VG only scoring it 1% less than Kick Off! It’s also worth mentioning Sensible Soccer here – another dearly beloved 16-bit footballer, and as far as I know is very similar to Kick Off in all but the ball sticking to your foot.
Everything in Kick Off is top down. You’ve got a full size pitch, scrolling in all directions, with everything properly proportioned. There’s a scanner showing player positions, and all the players have their own abilities, based on pace, accuracy, stamina and aggression. I’m not sure if this was a first, but the referees had their own style too, dishing out yellow and red cards, awarding penalties and adding injury time, with all the “accuracy” of a real-life referee! A single button and your joystick were all you needed to dribble, pass, shoot, chip, head and tackle. The goalie did his own thing until he had the ball, which was the cause of all kinds of blaming and shaming when you lost a game! There’s five difficulty levels, from International to Sunday League, and a great feature is being able to test yourself against higher level teams (where you being Sunday League versus International will eventually become the default). Otherwise, it’s a fast-paced, realistic game of football!
Kick Off was always about how it played more than how it looked, and no one was ever blown away by screenshots on adverts! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in the looks department though. Despite their size and the angle you’re seeing them from, the players have a lot of character, and there’s just enough detail in the model and its animation to make you feel like you’re in complete control of the ball and the part of the player’s body that it’s in contact with. Otherwise, the pitch does its job with a nice sense of scale and everything moves on it at just the right speed – fast! The game comes alive in the sound department though, with dynamic crowd noise especially creating real atmosphere, bringing to life a stadium that you’ll quickly forget isn’t even there!
I should also mention the Extra Time bit of Kick Off: Extra Time. This was a data disk with four new playing surfaces – wet, soggy, hard and artificial – that affected ball physics and player pace and stamina, plus wind effects, more tactics, more types of goal kicks, more player attributes, more league options and 20 unique referees. What might be called a sequel today! I’m not sure of the exact release date for this, but it must have been very quick after the original game launched.
The main source of joy in Kick Off is the controls, and how they allow you to interact with the ball, which in itself is a joy as it responds to ground and air friction. The manual referred to the controls as “instinctive” and picking it up again now, I can’t think of a better word. Yes, there might be some muscle memory at play, but a beginner could still pick this up and enjoy it. Then, over time, the pioneering nature of Kick Off’s ball not sticking to a player’s foot comes to the fore, with endless possibilities for heading, trapping, spinning and turning, switching feet, passing and shooting and volleying; and not to mention running onto the ball too, or – when you know exactly where each teammate is going to be – letting them run onto a perfectly timed, perfectly delivered pass too. With skill you can put together the most intricate, free-flowing and sometimes outrageous passes, dribbles, crosses and shots, and there’s no doubt that this freedom is behind the compulsion to keep playing. You never know what’s next, just like the real thing! This all works when the opposition are in possession too, allowing for controlled tackling and tactical delaying like never seen before, but yeah, there’s no denying that Kick Off’s wild slide tackles are another joy!
As well as single player, multiplayer and various practice modes, there’s a league competition. I don’t think until I was playing it again a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing that I even realised that this mode was there, let alone trying it out! Which I’m now struggling to find a reason for, except that I was too busy with my own competitions! To spice single player things up, I took Arsenal and England and applied my Kick Off team to their matches. We matched Arsenal’s league, European, FA Cup and League Cup campaigns, as well as every competitive or friendly England match, as well as European Cup and World Cup, all in real time, and all noted down in dozens of pocket notebooks! If they went out of a competition we just carried in with the team that knocked them out, then maybe the team that knocked them out too. Some serious attention to detail and serious work needed to stay on top of it! Eventually we won everything, but not all the time. The FA Cup was a particular hoodoo, and between 1991 and 1996 we never even reached the semi-finals. Eventually, in 1997, everything came right. Real-life winners Chelsea (but Arsenal for these purposes) were playing Middlesbrough in the final. My aforementioned then-girlfriend and now-wife and me were on our first holiday together in Luxor, Egypt while the actual FA Cup Final happened, so I had to delay the Kick Off version by a couple of weeks. It was worth the wait, with a 5-0 win!
On top of years’ worth of mirroring actual football competitions, every player in my team had a name, from David Seaman in goal to Roberto Baggio wherever he fancied playing. Same team regardless of domestic or international – my fantasy game, my rules! And every player was rated at the end of each match, and had their goal tally recorded, and imaginary awards were given at the end of every season! Andy Cole and Ian Wright were generally the top goal scorers, but Marco Van Basten was usually voted best player on the planet. My brother Phil’s team all had names too, and we spent hours and hours and hundreds or thousands of matches playing against each other for bragging rights that lasted until the next final whistle, relentlessly abusing each other’s players (by name), and often resorting to local bedroom football hooliganism when the ref made an outrageous decision or there was a particularly vicious slide tackle that could have put an end to your player of the year!
Kick Off wasn’t just a great game, but it also absolutely nailed a love and understanding of football and all the reasons why people are so passionate about it. It got the tension, the unpredictability and all of the excitement just right, and on top of that it absolutely nailed how it feels to play, win and lose. And in providing everything you needed to make you keep coming back for thousands of hours, there was still enough missing in terms of player names and team licensing (that would later win or lose the football game wars) to make you use your imagination and create your own football fantasies, which prolonged its life even more… Filling in the blanks, just like all the great 8-bit games of any genre had done just a very short time – but also what was also a video gaming lifetime – before. And that’s why its no surprise that Kick Off is the game I’ve played more than any other, and is unlikely to ever be replaced as my second favourite game of all time.
Of course, Amiga User’s “best computer game ever” was always going to get a sequel, but before Kick Off 2 arrived, we had Player Manager in 1990, which used the Kick Off match engine to power a football management sim where you played as a single player in the team. And apparently it was very good! The same year, the sequel proper brought a more tactical game and more tactical player movement, as well as slightly enhanced ball physics. There were complex league and cup competitions, loads of distinctive refs and some kit editing and other stuff. There were a load of expansion disks too. But there was also after-touch, and this ruined the game for me. Apparently you could turn it off, though I didn’t know at the time (and I don’t even have the excuse of no instructions this time having actually bought it)! Anyway, it let you change the direction of the ball in flight, and over time you could just use it all the time to become unstoppable, and that just became frustrating, especially against other human players doing the same thing. I know everyone else loves it, but I was just still so in love with the first game that the after-touch thing is possibly just glossing over that I wasn’t ready for it to be for me!
Also not for me was Super Kick Off on the Gameboy. You could only see a tiny bit of the pitch, and if you weren’t close to any pitch markings you had no idea where you were, and more importantly where anyone else was. The players were just too small and moved too quickly to have any degree of ball control with too. This was a bigger disappointment for me than not clicking with Kick Off 2. Partially because by the time it came out there was a lot less disposable money available to student me, but also because I was desperate to love it – can you imagine carrying your almost favourite game ever around in your hand?
I don’t know much about Kick Off 3, 96, 97, 98, 2002 or the unreleased 2004, except that they didn’t make much of a splash, but I did pick up the 2016 Kick Off Revival on PS4, from original Kick Off mastermind Dino Dini. It was elected second worst game of 2016 on Metacritic, and accused of being the worst football game ever made by Vice. You can pretty much copy and paste my disappointment from the Game Boy version here, except that after decades apart I tried even harder to love it! I even studied the series of post-launch screenshots of spreadsheets that told you how to kick the ball. And I’m not exaggerating – look them up! But they did me no good…
And you know what, having parted with a load of money on three sequels that disappointed me enormously in one way or another, I’m feeling a whole lot better now about that regret thing. And I’m going to send that regret right back to Elite. And Elite photocopy lady!
Very prominent screenshots from another system were something I became accustomed to when I had a VIC-20, but by the time I’d had a Spectrum +2 for a while I’d get a bit suspicious when what were clearly C64 screenshots were plastered all over the box. In the case of 4×4 Offroad Racing, you can kind of see why they did it though!
That said, back in the November 1988 issue of Computer & Video Games, their 47% review of that version ended with an update, saying that US Gold were unhappy with the C64 release, and the Spectrum and Amstrad versions would contain “vast improvements” when they eventually arrived.
Maybe they spent all their time on vast improvements on the Amstrad version, because let’s be clear, the only reason we’re here is the Spectrum version stinks! Sinclair User gave it 40% and Crash were slightly more impressed, awarding 42%. I think they were both generous to say the least, with their main concerns being loads of loading, and its attempts to mix some racing strategy with arcade racing falling flat and doing neither in any interesting way.
I do have that copy of C&VG, though my own recent history with this was simply coming across a very garish Spectrum screenshot on social media and being intrigued. And here we are! I’m not going to review it, but I would like to give you a commentary of my first (and last) impressions if you’ll allow!
After a decent loading screen, you’re straight into a very uninspiring list of the four “toughest, roughest” course locations and a helpful description of the terrain you can expect in brackets next to it. From what I can tell, that terrain is exactly the same regardless of the description, apart from either one or both colours you get on the screen (you read that right) changing…
1. Baja (Rough Desert). Yellow and red monochrome. 2. Death Valley (Desert). Same as rough desert but yellow and black. 3. Georgia (Mud & Hills). Same as rough desert and desert but green and black. 4. Michigan (Winter). Same as rough desert, desert and mud & hills but white and blue.
And everything in every course is genuinely those same two colours – car, road, background, obstacles, other racers…
After some more loading (and it won’t stop there) it’s time to choose your utility vehicle. There’s several, there’s lots of stats about each, and again, it’s all very uninspiring and won’t make the slightest difference to anything!
You are then a guy that looks like a darts player from the eighties wandering about outside some shops. He’s wearing some strange high-heeled shoes. You can walk into the Custom Shop to buy a bumper and something else I couldn’t work out the identity of. Then you can walk to the Auto Mart to buy extra fuel, springs and stuff like that. All of this is like a bad version of Ghostbusters. Eventually you work out that you then need to walk right to the right edge of the screen (rather than walk to your new car which is parked outside the shops) and press fire to race. This bit looks a bit like a bad Everyone’s a Wally game, and is utterly pointless. Even the next multi-load is more interesting!
Finally we’re at whatever race we chose ages ago. Winter is blue and white and is the only one you’ll have any recollection of choosing. Your car looks like it was programmed in BASIC.
Once you’re underway, you’ll notice there’s no car physics in evidence. Driving feels like moving a slider left and right. Which is precisely what you’re doing and there’s no attempt to disguise it. I think a lot of racing games move the track rather than the car, and this might be a very good example of why that trick exists!
The sound doesn’t help with any potential suspension of disbelief. You’ll find the garish monochrome graphics are perfectly complemented by completely monotone engine sounds regardless of the high or low gear you’re in. Every race is just never-ending drone!
In every course, the main obstacle is the cactus in the middle of the track every few seconds. If you hit the cactus you explode. That’s why you have three lives in a racing game in case you were wondering. You also get potholes or piles of stones or exploding blades of grass or something to avoid (like a rubbish Buggy Boy), and there’s more obstacles on the track than other racers.
There’s a lot of hills and valleys in this game. These are signified by a line on the road then the screen violently shifting, and most of the car disappearing off the top of bottom of the screen.
You also get a lot of rivers – and sometimes something slightly wider than a river – on your courses. Now, I was always impressed reading about the scale of some of the American rivers that the old pioneers used to struggle to cross on their way west, but some of these here are seemingly more ocean than river. Anyway, often when you drive through a river on any level you get stuck, and unless you’re prepared to slowly waggle the joystick left and right and up at the same time for several minutes (assuming there is a shore in sight which isn’t always the case), you’re better off just shutting down and loading the whole game again. Or just playing something else! And I’ve no idea how I worked that out or persevered in doing it once I did during my very short playtime!
The road sometimes forks like Out Run. I’m not sure if it means anything, but it’s a bit of variety I suppose. Similarly, but of more concern in a racing game, is whether or not your race position means anything. It was, admittedly, the last thing on my mind until I noticed it for the first time on the Ghostbusters-like screen you also get when something goes wrong. I’m also not sure what triggers that – your damage indicators are something else that seem meaningless most of the time. Anyway, whatever that most important problem is, now you’re here you can try and fix it (which seems possible by clicking random icons whether you bought the right gear in the Everyone’s a Wally stage or not).
Back to your race position, I didn’t notice it anywhere else, but as I said, like many things in this game I’m not sure it means anything anyway! The courses are so long and monotonous that you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of one, let alone worry about where you came. And all of the opponents are as non-descript and seemingly as uninterested as you are, so what does it matter which one comes first! It’s like those scenes in The Matrix with all the same people fighting each other. Everyone wins or no one wins or no one cares. Actually the only winner here is the cactus. Cacti. Steer clear!
On paper this isn’t a million miles away from Victory Run on PC-Engine. For a system not known for its great racers, this is a great racer. In fact, it’s a toss up between Victory Run and Pac-Land for my favourite game on the system. Anyway, if you like the sound of this and fancy a bit of spare part management in your racing, you’re far better off admiring a garish screenshot of Spectrum 4×4 on social media then going there instead!
Back in October 1984, as was usual, I was avidly flicking through a friend’s new issue of Computer & Video Games magazine. A couple of months later I’d be starting an almost decade-long collection of my own, but for now reading it second-hand was just fine because devouring almost every word together was part of the fun!
And I very much remember this issue for one reason – there was a kind of review feature on the Amstrad CPC, which had come out in April that year, and there was screenshot of a ghost in front of a castle that I thought I could program on my Commodore VIC-20, so I duly borrowed the magazine and if I remember right I actually did it, though any evidence is long since gone!
Flicking through it again more recently, exactly 36 years later in fact, just past the CPC ghost castle and the feature review of Avalon on the Spectrum (a game I still can’t get excited about), a couple of reviews jumped right out at me from the very same page. I’m sure that 12-year old me took them in at the very least, and one of them might have even influenced a purchase I’d be making a few months down the line, but I’d certainly have had no concept of the significance of these games to me as a 48-year old with his utterly nerdy but highly curated (and very extensive) list of his favourite games of all time!
The first of those games was Perils of Willy for the VIC-20 (+16K Expanded). You’re Willy of Miner Willy from Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy fame over on the Spectrum, and you’re in for a brutal platformer as you travel home from a boozy night out, collecting musical notes that are hanging in the air and avoiding manic geese and stuff on the way. There’s no doubt it’s still my favourite game on the VIC-20, and overall it sits at seventeen in my all time favourite games list! I’ve written a load on this here, and also on the 2020 Spectrum port here.
What I’ve not written about elsewhere (yet) is the other game that jumped out at me. This one is also a bit special to me and – possibly more-so than Perils of Willy – is a bit special to lots of other people too… Elite for the BBC B computer! I think it was my friend Thomas that had a BBC, and assuming it was I remember watching him play Elite a couple of years later, fascinated by the enormous scale and scope of it all. And it was definitely him that years later copied it for me on the Atari ST, and lent me the 64 page manual that was then illicitly photocopied so I could answer the “first word on page x” security question every time you loaded it up! It is also definitely that wonderful version of the original limitless space-trading adventure that sits at number nine in my favourite games of all time list!
My lovingly curated favourite games list now numbers 200, and as I look at it now I can see the final game on there is Southern Belle on the Spectrum (which I covered here), and now I’m thinking that can’t be right so will no doubt be spending hours poring over it again later! There’s no way I like Tai-Pan at 199 more than Southern Belle. Outrageous! And to give it some context, that’s two hundred out of thousands of games played since the seventies. Super Mario Bros. didn’t make the cut. Ocarina of time is there but doesn’t crack the first hundred. My list isn’t a normal list and it’s certainly not easy to get into!
Which makes those two games, reviewed on a single page in the November 1984 issue of Computer & Video Games magazine, very special to me indeed, but how did they fare with them?
Perils of Willy is alright by C&VG! They’re impressed by faithful transition of the Willy character from the Spectrum, and seem to like the gameplay set-up because it let’s them make willy jokes. They talk about the enemy dogs and balloons, though I think they do underplay quite how nasty these things are. This really is a tough-as-nails old-school platformer, even by 1984 standards; though having just been playing Hunchback on the Spectrum as I write this, it certainly wasn’t the only one! They conclude by saying it’s not as good as Manic Miner or Jet Set Willy (but I don’t see either of them on my list!), but it is one of the best “climbing” games they have seen on the VIC-20. I like how descriptive reviewers used to get before “platforming” became a generic term, which can’t of been much after this?
Anyway, here’s the scores they awarded Perils of Willy: Graphics 7 Sound 8 Value 7 Playability 7
Elite next, and let’s keep in mind, this might be number nine in my list, but has regularly topped proper best game ever lists for decades! I absolutely love how this review starts… “Put simply, Elite is a flight simulation game for people who can’t normally get to grips with flight simulations.” I also love that almost 50% of what in retrospect might be deemed one of the most important games they ever reviewed is dedicated to the manual, the reference card with commands on it and the 48-page novel you also get in the box. They gush over the graphics, and rightly so, as this was some pioneering 3D going on here, right on the BBC B! One of the BBC computer designers, Sophie Wilson, once called Elite “the game that couldn’t have been written” and C&VG also point out its complexity – possibly the most complex game ever produced on any system. Quaintly, they also mention the ability to save the game because “it’s going to take some time to complete the mission.” I’m assuming they hadn’t “completed” it when they wrote the review! Then in a final bizarre twist, they invite readers to submit their high scores to them…
Here’s the scores they awarded Elite: Graphics 10 Sound 5 Value 7 Playability 7
As a quick scores on the doors, Elite wins outright on graphics, Perils of Willy sounds better, they both offer exactly the same amount of value for your pocket money, and they are both equally good to play. Where to begin…
No discussion needed about graphics. Perils of Willy is a 2D climbing game on the VIC-20. Its dogs and geese are among the best looking on the system, and there’s some nice animation going on in the balloons. I’ve also always loved the way certain sections of floor fall away from under you as you walk over them. But they’re not the best graphics on the machine – Jetpac and Skramble spring to mind at definite 8 out of 10’s – but I reckon for the end of 1984 and a bit too much sprite flickering, that 7 is about right. Equally, 10 is about right for Elite! The wireframe 3D models flicker a little, but apart from that just look at it now and everything still moves so smoothly, and that hyperspace jump is still a treat! There’s also loads going on in your cockpit, with the dual radar and no less than fourteen different indicators surrounding it. And 3D like this back in 1984 was just jaw-dropping. Incredible stuff!
Sound is a little more interesting! Elite’s sound is functional and nothing more. There’s not a great deal going on when you’re not shooting stuff and 5 out of 10 might be a point or so on the low side in my view, but is in the right ballpark. Over on Perils of Willy, we’ve got 8 out of 10… And I can only assume that’s for sheer amount of sound rather than quality!!! If I remember correctly, there’s a quite jarring death sound that is perfectly apt, and a beep when you collect a musical note. That’s your sound effects. But on top of those is a non-stop loop of the first 8-9 seconds of a VIC-20 – with its three pulse wave and one white noise generators – rendition of the opening of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. And it will drive you completely nuts! Actually, play it enough and you desensitise, but it really is a piece of work on your ears!
With the benefit of 2020 vision, if I was reviewing these games I’d be giving them both 10 out of 10 for value! As I write I’ve just gone over 500 hours in Animal Crossing, but Elite – together possibly exclusively with Kick Off – would be in the several thousands. Granted that’s the Atari ST version, but I don’t think it would have been much different if I’d owned a BBC back in 1984. No one is playing thousands of hours of any Willy game, but there’s no doubt I got my £5.95’s worth out of it! It was the first and possibly only game I ever left a computer secretly running for days for because, unlike Elite, you couldn’t save it and I wanted to get the most out of my infinite lives poke! But also unlike Elite, I still play Perils of Willy regularly today! Back to C&VG’s scores though, in the eyes of a normal person I reckon Elite is being a little harshly scored here. But I’m also not sure they got what Elite actually was when they were reviewing it – that review really doesn’t stink of greatest game of all time material!
Finally, we have nice subjective playability. I’ve always read that as how good something is to play. And I don’t think you can really compare how good a platformer is to play versus a space-trading sim, but again, I’ve got to veer on the opinion that Elite is being hard done by here – as said just now, 7 out of 10 for anything does not scream best (or even ninth best) game ever! I’m wondering now if the fact that Elite was so ground-breaking had a negative effect on some of these early reviews; that people just didn’t get it, or alternatively couldn’t quite comprehend the vastness and complexity of what they had in their hands because they’d simply never seen anything like it before. It didn’t just define the space-trading with a bit of combat sim genre, but also defined a lot about video game design full stop. As the only reference point for gameplay in any context in this review, the playability score surely has to be as much higher as it can be! Subjectively speaking of course… Oh yeah, while we’re being subjective, 7 out of 10 also stinks for Perils of Willy!
In summary, I actually love that my old VIC-20 favourite Perils of Willy is scoring on par with Elite in my favourite old computer games magazine! But before we say goodnight, let’s quickly see how other games reviewed in the same issue stack up against one (two!) of the greatest games of all time!
As mentioned before, wizardy adventure Avalon on the Spectrum is this month’s marquee game, and apart from graphics it’s beating Elite significantly on every front. As an aside, I remember being really impressed by how this looked on the Commodore 64 when it was reviewed, but the Spectrum version just never did it for me. Maybe I need to pull myself together and give it a proper go now I have a proper yardstick for how good it is! American election sim Election Trail on C64 is next, and whilst they conclude by saying it’s not a game you’d buy for its entertainment value, it’s still out-scoring Elite on playability! As is the Spectrum port of one of my Atari 2600 favourites, Enduro. Falcon Patrol 2 on C64 wins out on everything except graphics, as does Pi in ‘Ere on the Spectrum, which looks a bit like Boulderdash but I can’t say I’ve ever really paid much attention to! The reviews are getting more brief now as we move down the pecking order of C&VG excitement, but Spectrum Piromania, Terrahawks and decent Manic Miner-a-like Frank n Stein, as well as BBC Crawler, are also outperforming Elite on all but graphics. Now a bit more colour on the page again, and Bird Mother and Gumshoe on C64 are trouncing all over Elite and even coming close on graphics with 9 out of 10 each. Same for the full-page (and fully deserved) spread on Pyjamarama, which is in all honesty the first recognisable game for most that we’ve covered here in a while! The Wally (not Willy) games on the Spectrum were always lookers, and that deserves its 9 out of 10 for everything except sound, which only got 8. Next we’ve got Activision classic Zenji on the C64! It’s a maze game that looks like something on an old Atari machine, and despite being “all in all a fairly dull game” is still more playable than Elite. And Perils of Willy!
Moving into the special section they’ve got this month for MSX games, which strangely has its own scoring system, we can still easily conclude that Comic Bakery is better than Elite on all fronts except a narrow miss on graphics. And finally, also on MSX, we have classic Konami penguin ice-skater Antarctic! Again, not too hard to draw a conclusion… Additive quality 10 Lasting appeal 8 Graphics 10 Overall 10
Keep in mind that even though lasting appeal is all that’s stopping it being the perfect game, it’s still out-lasting the thousands of hours worth of gameplay available in Elite and the decades of challenge in Perils of Willy! In the words of the reviewer, “I recommend this family game to anyone who has an MSX computer. It’ll be remembered as a classic.” And I want you to remember that the next time anyone tells you Elite is the greatest game of all time!
The greatest thrill for me in Out Run is when the road opens out into a majestic six lane coastal highway, just a few seconds into the very first stage. In fact, that moment is my favourite sight in all of gaming (which you can read about here).
The Game Gear version doesn’t do that. In fact, it takes a while before you even realise it’s a coastal highway at all, let alone anything more than a two lane one! For better or worse, this version is its own thing. No lazy Master System port for Out Run (although no one would have complained), and for all the compromises made as a result to get it inside this old Sega handheld, it’s exactly the port you need if you have one!
I love Out Run (even more to read on that here), and for someone who’s generally rubbish at games, I’m still pretty good at it; I think I’ve seen every inch of every track that the arcade version and several others have to offer. What I’d never done is play the Game Gear version, and despite my brother owning one in the early nineties, I don’t think Out Run on there even registered with me. In fact, it took Sega’s 30th anniversary of the Game Gear Japan-only Game Gear Micro – released mere days ago at the time of writing in October 2020 – for me to notice it at all.
Now, there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m going to own one – if not all four – of these bonkers tiny machines (and magnifying glass if you buy the lot) at some point in the near future. At the Japanese Yen equivalent of $50 plus exorbitant shipping costs, these things come in four colours with four games on each colour. The black one (my inevitable starting point!) includes Sonic the Hedgehog, Puyo Puyo 2, Out Run and Royal Stone. The red one comes with Revelations: The Demon Slayer, Shin Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible Special, The GG Shinobi and Columns (which I did play a lot of on my brother’s original Game Gear). Blue has got Sonic Chaos, Gunstar Heroes, Sylvan Tale and Baku Baku Animal. And finally yellow is a bit more specialist for the non-Japanese speaker, coming with the text-heavy Shining Force Gaiden: Ensei – Jashin no Kuni he, Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya, Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict and (I hope I’m pronouncing this right) Nazopuyo Aruru no Ru. And they all come with a literally postage stamp-sized 1.15 inch, 240 x 180 screen!
About an hour ago as I write this, I was just touching up my epic on Silent Hill 2 (which you can read here, assuming that like me, you are also in the future by now). That was a game where I showed similar levels of self-restraint to those I’m increasingly struggling to contain right now! From the moment the credits rolled on the first game, just a few months ago (long story that I won’t repeat here), I spent six weeks waiting for it to go for sub-£20 on eBay, which is the price I’d justified to myself I needed to pay. Likewise, I thought that sooner or later either I’ll turn up in Japan again or they’ll turn up here, and all I really want to do is play a new version of Out Run anyway, so why not just get the Game Gear version of Out Run for the time being? Most sensible!
Despite the compromises, which we’ll jump into shortly, the premise of Game Gear Out Run is a familiar and authentic one. You’re choosing your music then cruising down branching routes from behind your Ferrari with your girlfriend in tow (in the seat next to you, not literally). The start line in the palm trees is classic Out Run, and although what then follows is cut-down a bit, and the tracks have their own identity in the main, it all stays completely recognisable throughout!
That music is also completely recognisable – no compromises here! In fact, what you get are some of the best versions of Out Run’s iconic soundtrack tunes that you’re ever going to hear, and I’m not just talking about on conversions either! And it’s all here, with your choice of Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze and Splash Wave waiting for you before every race. These versions are just so complete and so joyful, and I really can’t imagine that anything else coming out of a Game Gear speaker has ever bettered them!
In terms of difficulty, there’s various things at play to balance it out when you’re comparing with the original. Firstly, you’re completing four stages of your choice rather than five, so it’s shorter. There’s also less traffic, which makes getting around a bit easier than the arcade version, but with track space limited to two lanes throughout, and a shorter draw-distance – especially over hills – you’re going to be slowing down a lot more, or just hitting things, with similar frequency. And time to complete each stage is not generous! In the arcade version, if you’ve got your foot down in the main, you can get away with a crash or a couple of spin-outs and still rack up enough extra seconds from the first couple of stages to reach the end. Not so here, where reaching the end of each stage seems to be down to the wire from the outset, and even without any mishaps in the first few stages, you’re going to be lucky to reach the end.
But Out Run isn’t about reaching the end (which I’m now qualified to say having reached all the ends)! It’s about a glamorous thrill-ride in a fast car through exotic locales and then doing it all over again. And whilst it might take a while to see the end of any of these routes, you’re going to get your money’s worth out of every game and most likely see a couple of stages at least right out of the box. The tracks are missing all the beach huts and stone arches and cliffs of the original, but what’s there is flying by at a very smooth, very fast pace. And the developers really went out of their way to give the Game Gear its own experience, with every track offering something unique. You might start in familiar territory – even if it does take the sea a while to make an appearance – but you’ll soon be bombing around glorious desert sunsets (which you’ll see I do have a bit of a fetish about in my gaming sights thing here), Egyptian pyramids and something like Las Vegas to name just a few favourites. Incidentally, you can also race single stages against single computer opponents on a choice of tracks from the home screen, though it’s not much of a challenge. If you’re up for the challenge of connecting a friend’s Game Gear in the 2020’s, that mode might offer more of a gaming challenge too!
Throughout approximately eight hours of play time with this over the past couple of weeks, there was one thing I’d never had any expectations to find in this version of Out Run, and that was exhilaration. For decades, the main draw of the arcade machine was the exhilaration of the first stage. I never forgot it. And then in 2019, with the release of the Sega Ages version on Nintendo Switch, I discovered another moment that may have even surpassed that, in the final stage of route D, where you went up then down and into a bend at full speed, surrounded by traffic and lines of trees leaning over the road that simply took my breath away. There are occasions in Stunt Car Racer on Atari ST (more here) that maybe come close, but I can’t think of any other more exhilarating moment in all of gaming than that. And yes, that does, of course, include the Game Gear version, but it did still manage to surprise me. I was playing through to the end of every route, and I think it was the second last (right, right, left at the forks), on the final stage of the route, where we got into some serious undulations around corners with a bunch of traffic, and I’m in the dark and completely absorbed, and I got that thrill, completely unexpected and wonderfully out of nowhere!
I can take the arcade version with me wherever I go on the Switch, so I’m not sure I’ll be all over the Game Gear version like I’ll always be all over that one, but it truly surprised me. It’s not the same, and that’s fine, because it still manages to feel like Out Run (and most definitely sounds like Out Run), and that alone makes it an awful lot of fun and just a marvellous achievement! Worth another £45 plus shipping from Amazon Japan??? Watch this space…
I gave the original Silent Hill a raw deal. Bought on launch day whenever that was in 1999, and – judging by my fairly meagre collection of games for the system – may have the honour of being the last game I ever bought for the original PlayStation. But not only did it take me over 21 years to finally complete, thanks to my recent play-through at the time of writing, I probably got 15 minutes into it first time around! And after that first 15 minutes (which, in my defence, I probably saw several times!), it went into a box with an old Babycham ashtray, some pin-badges from the mid-90’s (including a really nice Alice in Chains one), the first two Resident Evils and some old magazines. And over time, that box moved from my parent’s loft then three different garages until I thought “I wonder what’s in there” and fancied another go in the strange days of summer 2020!
And I feel worse about that than for the first two Resident Evil games, which also got similar treatment until recently, because I can take or leave them and their pre-rendered spooky stylings, but I absolutely adore Silent Hill! Something clicked big-time when I actually gave it a chance, and I properly rinsed it, getting one of the better endings just because I didn’t want to leave that wonderful fog-drenched, blood-drenched horror town.
Actually, as another side note, I’m playing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 on Switch at the moment and I’m having exactly the same feelings there – I’ve now seen the credits three times but there’s one ending I’ve not seen yet, so I’m back in again. And whilst twice in two months might signify some new phase in my middle-aged gaming life, I can’t think of any other games I’ve ever done that with before now!
Back to Silent Hill, and unlike many of the PS1’s 3D vistas, I reckon age works in the original game’s favour too, and all that fog and darkness that was there by design to disguise hardware limitations now combines with the pixellation of decades of screen evolution, and general graphical clunkiness by today’s standards, to create a new contemporary atmosphere all of its own. And for all the fantastic story in the first game, where you’re looking for your missing adopted daughter through exploration and puzzle solving, and for all the literal otherworldliness and gore and monstrosity, and the cults and rituals and symbolism and never-ending nerve-wracking tension, the real star of the show is that atmosphere in that town. Its tourist days might be behind it but I’d still visit!
“The name of that town is Silent Hill. Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town’s former inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent. The town is centered around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town. And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when “things” that should not naturally exist appear.” Not my words, but a near-enough translation from the Japanese-only Lost Memories: Silent Hill Chronicle that was on the back of their Silent Hill 3 official game guide in 2003.
I still can’t believe quite how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d mostly ignored since 1999. I’ve been back several times since first finishing it, sometimes only to hang around that first 15 minutes or so because there’s something I just find strangely comfortable in Silent Hill, and whenever my mind wanders, it often wanders there! Something definitely came out of Silent Hill with me the first time I left, but of course, we don’t need to leave it there because as you might have worked out by now, it got a sequel (and then some, but maybe let’s not go there…)! And from the minute I saw the credits for the first time, I then spent six weeks being incredibly restrained and incredibly patient on eBay until it appeared at a reasonable price for PlayStation 2!
And when Silent Hill 2 finally arrived I was also left not believing how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d never given the time of day to whatsoever since it first came out at the end of 2001 because it’s the first game cranked up to eleven! But it’s so much more than one louder too, to the point that I’m actually feeling quite intimidated talking about it. Weird, maybe or maybe not… It’s an intimidating and disturbing game way beneath the fog and the sirens and the surface-level horrors, which is something subsequent sequels (and let’s not forget the movies!) seemed to forget from what I can tell. You come out feeling dirty, like you’ve witnessed something you shouldn’t have but didn’t want to stop witnessing, and still don’t even after you’re done. Unless you get the dog ending, and then all bets are off! At this point I’ll state I’m not going to avoid spoilers, and will give my view on what I think I’ve seen, but I’ll also not go out of my way to spoil too many individual plot points here, so you can look that little piece of insanity (and possibly the greatest video game ending of all time) up for yourself. And regardless of the ending you get – and there are several, including some that demand multiple completions on one save – you’re going to come away wondering what it was you’ve just witnessed, and long after the fact maybe looking at things that happened in a different lights. But even right after the fact, as soon as you get back to the title screen after the credits, you’ll probably even look at what’s on there again and start wondering…
I’ll get into the story a bit, but I’d also like to start with some commentary of the opening scenes, because I’d like to give some indication of how quickly the game also affected me too. And that will also give me an excuse to restart the game for the fourth time in one less month than that! And that will also give me an excuse to talk about toilets, because that’s where we’re starting our story, with the most beautifully-shot row of urinals I’ve ever seen in a game as your character reminisces about his dead wife, Mary, asking her if she can really be in this town? You’re playing James Sunderland, and he’s stopped off for a slash on arrival at the outskirts of Silent Hill to look for her after she sent him a letter saying she’s waiting for him in their “special place.” Which is complicated by her having died from an terrible long-term illness three years beforehand. Anyway, despite the interesting Hebrew graffiti on the wall, it turns out their special place isn’t this toilet, she’s not here, and he’s got a bit of exploring to do! After trying to clear his head for a bit outside the toilets, you’re in control and within a couple of minutes a huge grin is going to descend onto your mush as you realise you are really back in Silent Hill, but with the shackles of the original hardware a thing of the past, this is now Silent Hill to the max!
Leaving the toilets and that huge draw-distance panoramic view of the lake with not a hint of technical fog behind, you’re quickly descending into… fog! Actually, beneath your viewpoint up on the observation deck you’ve already noticed the fog swirling around the treetops, but it’s proper fog, and as you start your journey you notice wisps of it all around you, accompanied by an ominous single-chord synth drone. And I don’t think wisps of fog in a game have ever been bettered, nor the descent into ever thickening fog, hiding whatever creature is making those occasional dog-like sounds, and what might have been something falling or breaking or maybe it was footsteps? You can’t see it, but it’s close… And you keep going down and down further into the fog and that ominous synth sound starts to vary a bit and a well emerges. There’s something inside, and you touch it and the screen turns red… And it turns out to be a save point! And you keep going, down into the fog, through the gates that sound like a metal bin-lid being dropped on the floor when they open, and into the graveyard. And even though it won’t be the first time you hear it, it’s in here that you’re probably going to really notice the legendary Silent Hill 2 voice-acting for the first time!
And then you’re continuing your descent through the fog as everything you remember about Silent Hill gradually emerges in front of you. But this time – just like the fog – it’s “proper” Silent Hill like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s beautiful! The textures on the pavement and the wooden telephone poles and the chain-link metal fences, and the attention to detail in things like signs or posters or stickers on dirty shop windows, and the kerbs and drain covers and bloodstains on the ground… And that fog is still so cool and so real this time with its own dynamic textures and shades of grey! And by now those ominous sound effects are really doing a job on you too! You’re touching everything (except, perhaps, dirty urinals) because everything looks like it’s there to be touched, and you realise all the roads aren’t half a mile wide like in the first game anymore, and you’re trying to get your bearings, and then in the midst of all this tension that’s been building up in you for the last twenty minutes, is that finally something unnatural shuffling around in the fog ahead of you? And so it really begins!
Many years after Silent Hill 2, we got P.T. (Playable Teaser) from Kojima Productions, and of course it turned out to be teasing something called Silent Hills. “Tease” is one way of putting it, I suppose! It was creepy-looking and very realistic, and years after it was pulled from the PlayStation Store (along with any hope for Silent Hills), people still fawn over it. But for me, it was horror by numbers, like a Paranormal Activity movie; horror for people that don’t like horror; the horror Nickelback! Or in gaming terms, Resident Evil trying to be Silent Hill! Both Silent Hill and its sequel are different because they’re not about what you’ve seen shuffling around in the fog, but what you might have seen, or what you think you saw, and where that might be leading you next. A really good recent (relatively) movie example of this is The Conjuring II, with scares you might not even notice first or second time around! The Blair Witch Project is completely built on that premise too, or going back further when inspiring your imagination was a bit like the use of fog in the first Silent Hill, there’s The Haunting (the 1963 version which is not to be confused with the later Liam Neeson dull-fest!) or, going back even further, Dead of Night. That all said, to its credit P.T. did have a ghost right behind you the whole time that no one knew was there for years which is pretty cool!
Before long that thing you followed into the fog turns into a familiar progression through exploring unsettling environments all over the Silent Hill map, which is going to become your best friend, just like in the first game. And when you can’t read it for whatever reason you’re going to panic just like in the first game too! It’s not only essential because the town is so big, but it’s also going to mark out places you’ve been or haven’t been able to get into yet, give you clues and generally tell you where you should go next. When you’re outside, the glorious, realistic, scare-inducing-not-technical-reasons fog is ever-present, but inside the apartments, hotels and restaurants, prisons, strip-clubs and bowling alleys everywhere is often dark, and your waist-height flashlight is going to build its own atmosphere of uncertainty and claustrophobia, complemented by all those incidental details peeking into the torchlight that spell decay and murder and sickness on every floor, wall or piece of furniture in every building you visit. Lovingly crafted bloodstains on the walls, trampled wheelchairs, rotten bed-frames and stinking blankets, the general detritus of abandonment, and holes in the wall that you’re just willing the game not to ask you to put your hand into!
And of course there’s a hospital, and of course there’s the Otherworld, the very personal nightmare parallel or non-parallel reality or non-reality! This alternate dimension takes the previous oppressiveness of wherever it springs up and multiplies it by a hundred, where those bloodstains are not details any more, but entire walls, with floors piled with rotten meat and corpses, and rusty chains and cages and general nastiness. On subsequent visits there’ll be fire and burnt-up horrors too; and a freezing, bloody slaughterhouse; and something draped in scarred, decaying flesh in a room draped in scarred decaying flesh that’s moving and pulsating and as soon as you work it out will probably be more disturbing than anything else you’ll see in rest of the game. And these reflect that personal nature of the Otherworld depending on who you’re with when it appears, and what’s made them so messed up that they can create this version of hell. Then there’s the water. Always some water around… And the darkness is now pitch blackness.
A very long time ago, back in the graveyard, I mentioned the legendary voice acting in Silent Hill 2! That’s when you met Angela, who’s looking for her missing mother and warns you that there’s something very wrong with the town. Taken out of context, and, admittedly, the first couple of times you come across any of the conversational cut-scenes, you’re going to find the voice-acting jarring. On one hand I can forgive it a bit – these were the pioneer days of this kind of thing! But on the other, by today’s standards, it’s comical, to the point it was all re-recorded in 2012 for the PlayStation 3 HD Collection. But you do also get used to it, and you stop noticing it as it becomes normal to you, and you’ll soon forget it as a possible detraction – in fact, the strange pacing and sometimes primary school nativity play delivery could even be argued to add something other-worldly to these personal… No, we’ll come back to that! But the HD Collection voice-acting stinks even worse – nothing other-worldy here, just weird and a bit disrespectful!
One thing you’ll never get used to is the amount of vomiting that’s going on the first time you meet Eddie Dombrowski, hunched over a disgusting toilet after he’s found a corpse in a disgusting fridge in a disgusting apartment. And the vomiting goes on and on and on! The gluttonous, paranoid Eddie has been bullied to hell all his life to the point that he’s killed a dog and shot a footballer in the knee for revenge reasons, and as defensive as he is about the corpses piling up around him, he’s come to Silent Hill to reach breaking point. “From now on, if anyone makes fun of me I’ll kill them. At least a corpse is more useless than I am.”
As there’s only a couple more characters, and because they’re, well, you’ll see, we’ll quickly cover the other people you meet on your travels through Silent Hill 2. Back to Angela, after the initial warning shot in the graveyard, our next meetings start to expose one of the most tragic characters you will ever come across in any form of media, let alone in video games. Lifelong abuse by her alcoholic father and her brother, which is justified as being deserved by her mother, culminated in her slitting her father’s throat, then spiralled into all kinds of guilt, zero self-worth and suidicidal depression, which promises both the escape and the punishment she also now feels she deserves. She’s left disgusted at herself by both her actions and those of her abusers. And eventually, after sharing her Otherworld for the last time, we’re left to assume that she finally found peace. And let’s remind ourselves, all of this in a 2001 video game. Good on you for being so bold so long ago, Konami!
Just when you think you’re making some progress in the game’s first building, along comes a little girl and puts a stop to it! This is Laura, an eight-year old orphan who’s also somehow found her way to Silent Hill to look for her friend from a time she spent in hospital, Mary – yes, your dead wife Mary – though she doesn’t know she’s dead yet. You’ll meet up with her all over Silent Hill, alone and with some of the other characters, and all the time you’re wondering how? And how? And how…
Finally, still relatively early in the game when you’ve made it through the apartments where you’ve met the others, you make it to Rosewater Park and there you meet Maria. Maria is a slutted-up version of Mary. She looks and sounds just like her, but the hair and clothes are like a fantasy Mary to James, and he doesn’t know whether to be scared or attracted, and is generally confused from hereon in! Maria end ups being both guardian angel and antagonist, and also ends up very dead several times!
At which point it’s probably an idea to talk about the other inhabitants of Silent Hill – the monsters! There’s clearly sexual overtones pretty much everywhere you look here, with possibly the least messed up being the bubble head nurses, with legs and cleavage everywhere, mangled oversized heads and epileptic movements. The Flesh Lips are masses of meat attached to a cage-like bed, complete with what appear to be vaginal lips mouthing animal abuse above the hanging legs that are going to strangle you. The mannequins are headless and armless dummies with two sets of legs (one for walking, one for killing) in some kind of putrid skin ensemble that covers the joins! Then there’s insects and a various humanoids that are all skin and sinew but with too many or too few of any given appendage. But then we get to the really nasty stuff. Abstract Daddy comes in both boss then lesser form at various points, and seems to be a combination of two figures on a bed frame wrapped in a covering of skin, intertwined to represent both rape and suffocation, highlighting that this is potentially James’ perception of Angela’s Otherworld rather than being a part of it. Maybe?
And then there’s Red Pyramid Thing. Also known as Pyramid Head, who’s undoubtably become the Silent Hill poster boy thorughout the series’ lifetime since! He’s a human-like giant in a bloodstained butcher’s apron with a huge triangular helmet, echoing an ancient executioner with his knife that seems to be a mega version of the knife Angela is waving about just before you meet him for the first time! But unlike her knife, we’re in one hit kill territory with this thing. You can actually find this knife later on and use it yourself, but it’s way too cumbersome to bring out in anything other than special boss occasions! You’ll meet him (and his friend) (and his spear) a few times, several of which are going to start with you wondering if Konami would really go as far as making him do what you think you just saw him doing when you turned up. I think the answer is yes… Maria’s also not coming out of these encounters well, again, several times.
If it’s alright with you I’m going to leave out the final boss and move onto gameplay. Everything is kind of fixed camera plus, where you’ve got the advantages of the set piece coming from the best possible angle, but you can also manually move the camera around in most situations, and where you can’t, you’re not going to pay a price for something cheap coming out of the fog at you! A lot of what you’re doing is classic survival horror – go here, fetch that, find the key for this, look into this dark hole and hope it doesn’t look back at you, etc. Combined with the aforementioned map, which is the first thing you need to seek – usually on a wall or a reception desk or similar – every time you enter a new area, you’re going to be following what are in the main logical clues to what are in the main logical puzzles.
Now, I’m not a big one for puzzles in games that aren’t puzzle games, but I actually found myself really enjoying a lot of these, to the point that in the one I’m going to describe in a minute, I didn’t want to backtrack between rooms one final time because I knew I was going to solve it! A lot of it is simple stuff, just relying on your sense of exploration to find the answers – need a safe combination? Then check the blocked toilet upstairs in the place that you thought you couldn’t get into because the door was locked because the wallet in there might have it written on a note! What’s really cool here is that there’s four puzzle difficulty levels when you start the game, though having only ever done them on normal I’m not entirely sure how that works – I think the hard version of the toilet wallet puzzle, for example, used Roman numerals for the combination, and for stuff like riddles are more complex the higher the difficulty.
The puzzle I wanted to mention is called Hanged Man. You come across a room with six bodies with a note on each face telling you of each persons’ crime – kidnapping, arson, murder, etc. You’re then going to a second room with six nooses hanging from the ceiling where the bodies were in the first room. Near the door is a poem on the wall, and you need to work out from that poem which man is innocent, then go and tug on his noose; get it right and there’s a key waiting for you in the first room. My poem documented a bunch of crimes (as well as graphic detail about the hangings that followed), including one where three houses were burnt down and the sheriff just arrested a stranger in the town for it because he was a stranger. So there’s your innocent man. And yes, in this puzzle there are four different poems depending on your puzzle difficulty, and I really can’t fault that commitment to the cause because they’re actually pretty good poems too!
You can also set the combat difficulty at the start of the game. Combat is rarely the strong point of any survival horror game, and here it’s just functional! As well as Pyramid Head’s big chopper, you’ve got the standard handgun, shotgun, plank of wood, lump of metal, etc. You can strafe and spin 180 degrees, and apart from bosses generally avoid combat altogether by just running in most cases. The boss battles are relatively straightforward, and just need plenty of decent ammo in reserve and a bit of patience. As said, functional but certainly not offensive in any way!
We’ve talked about the PS2-stunning graphics a few times, and how everything combines to create this incredible atmosphere, but that atmosphere only works because of the sound design that we’ve only briefly touch upon so far. And yes, we are currently pretending the voice-acting is not part of that sound design! The ambient sound is everywhere and it’s incredible. There are times when some kind of animal noise or possibly human scream or moan seems to be being carried across the fog from miles away, where you can’t see it. Attention to detail isn’t spared here either, like with different footsteps on grass and concrete and broken glass; the things you barely notice but contribute immeasurably when you are creating atmosphere. I’m fairly sure a lot of the sound effects are random too, and combined with periods of silence, create an incredibly unsettling audio experence to go with the unsettling Cronenburg-esque visuals and unsettling everything else!
Before we get somewhere near the end, quick mention of the Theme of Laura. I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m not really fussed by it – melancholy melody with a strong beat, meaning it sounds like a Cure b-side idea that didn’t make the cut. It’s fine and does the job, but Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack isn’t something I listen to in my spare time.
Now let’s move on to my very amateur conclusion about what’s going on. Whatever happened to the town of Silent Hill for it to end up like it is, it’s now a pull for messed up people with messed-up pasts, and is populated by their own very personal monsters. The question is, are the other people you come across in Silent Hill there because they’re messed up like you, or because you are? Like the monsters, I reckon the town made them just for you… Eddie eventually represents James’ disgust at killing a human, charatecterised by his remorse after the meat-locker encounter. Maria is the dying wife manifested as the perfect wife she couldn’t be, back to mentally punish James forever through witnessing recurrent violent deaths at the hands of Pyramid Head, who, like most of the game’s other monsters, is a manifestation of James’ repressed but increasingly violent sexuality coming from years of sexual frustration at the hands of disease. Angela is James’ acceptance that he deserves what he’s going through, of his guilt and not being worthy to live anymore, albeit in reverse as the abused and not the abuser – her father, your wife, just different sides of the same coin; the guilt is the same. And then there’s Laura. She’s not so messed-up and so the town isn’t dangerous to her; she’s not seeing what “everyone else” is seeing. She’s James’ guide towards the truth – if she hadn’t kicked that key away from him in the early game, where would he have gone next? So I think that unlike the other characters you meet, she is real and is in Silent Hill to find her friend – your dead wife – just like you are, but without the horrors of the past to cloud (fog) the way to the end-game… The guilt of being a sexually deviant murderer that demands punishment at your own hands is a horror that is yours alone.
And would you believe I got there without ever once actually spelling out that naughty thing you did, though I’m sure I might as well have by now! I’m mostly happy with my conclusion so far, but I’m still not sure about the sexual deviance thing – it’s clearly there, from the relatively innocent (keep telling yourself that!) manifestation of your sexy nurse fantasies shuffling about the place, to the women as sex-object mannequins, to the more disturbing symbolism of the Abstract Daddy and the more blatant actions of Pyramid Head; as well, of course, as in the characterisation of the dreadfully abused Angela and overly-sexualised Maria. Is that whole messed-up psycho-sexual mess really all borne of not getting your leg over for a few months? Not for me to say, and like what we think we might have witnessed with Pyramid Head and what he was actually doing to the mannequins, I can’t really be sure. Maybe James has always been a sexual deviant and when his wife couldn’t be party to that anymore he went over the edge on that front. But without getting too stereotypical, as a frequent visitor to Japan, I am now probably in the realms of over-thinking this point!
There’s one more small conflict I’ve got over one of the endings I’ve seen. I’m not going into each of the endings here, but I’ve got a theory about James and dead Mary ending up at the bottom of the lake in a car; the lake you were looking at while you were next to your car at the start of the game. I can buy into that he simply came to Silent Hill to kill himself in their “special place” but here’s the conflict. I initially considered this as happening at the end of the game, but what if it happened before you started?
That aside, I think we can conclude that you are the monster and you are the horror in Silent Hill 2! And with that concluded, I can also conclude that in my view, Silent Hill 2 is without doubt the greatest horror game of all time. It’s also potentially one of the greatest pieces of horror art of any kind of all time – now there’s a list I need to create, with this and M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies all right near the top! And whether you’re talking about the story, the metaphors and symbolism, the dark places it creates or the dark places it goes to, the soundtrack or the atmosphere… it’s also probably one of the most important video games of all time too. And the voice-acting really isn’t as bad as people say!