Game Review: Cyber Shadow on Xbox One

Game Review: Cyber Shadow on Xbox One

I’m not sure I’ll ever both love and hate any game as much as I did 2017’s jaw-droppingly stylish platform adventure Hollow Knight… 50 hours splattered with vicious difficulty spikes, filthy checkpointing and regular loss of everything that constantly had my blood boiling, with two rage-deletes before it kept pulling me back to finish it! Yacht Games’ Shovel Knight did come close though, offering a more focussed but equally polished, equally brutal take on the genre. And here they are again with Cyber Shadow, which sits somewhere in the middle in terms of gameplay experience, and comes even closer in terms of love / hate ratio! This time they’re publishing though, with indie dev Mechanical Head Studios the true sadists behind this genius nearly-NES side-scrolling cyberpunk platformer.

Creator Aarne Hunziker, who actually did pretty much everything here apart from the music, described the game as combining “the level design principles of Mario, the skills and action of Ninja Gaiden, the enemy designs of Contra and the dark visual aesthetic of Batman.” I definitely picked up the Ninja Gaiden vibe from the outset, not just from the ninja you’re leaping about killing stuff as, but also the very slick, almost cinematic way the gameplay feels. I’d also say there’s a strong whiff of Mega Man, especially in the way you progress into boss fights, and Super Metroid, both aesthetically and with some of the backtracking you can do later that makes further progress (marginally!) easier.

The plot begins perfectly lightweight and off-the-wall, with your cyborg ninja exploring the far-distant future of Mekacity to rescue his fallen clan, whose mystical powers are being harvested by nasty synthetic lifeforms. That translates to you fighting your way through ten chapters of varied sci-fi environments in and around the city as the story of the mad scientist, his robot army and your place in everything evolves into something a little more complex, and for better or worse, a lot more so than you’d find in Mega Man!

You start off basic, with your techno-ninja running, jumping and slashing, but as you progress you’ll start to discover and evolve regular genre tropes such as dashes, wall-slides and double-jumps, as well as health and secondary weapon or power lifespan upgrades. The latter are also unlocked as you progress, with a basic shuriken for longer-range combat then being enhanced with additional properties, and also being supplemented by special abilities such as energy bolts or an upward slash that fires poweful flame attacks; these are obtained and selected at most of the checkpoints you come across, in exchange for cash you’ve found on the way, and generally offer something useful for the next section or boss. As a reminder of the game’s cruelty though, take three hits with one of these equipped and you’re losing it!

Speaking of checkpoints and cruelty, once you get to about chapter four, you’re going to die and die and die again before you see the next one! As you might have worked out by now, whether you love it or hate it or both, this game only hates you! As everything naturally gets trickier the further you go, you’re also going to start to see things like robot enemies positioned exactly where you need to be landing, then between you and your landing point there’ll be an electric pit with a floating platform you need to recharge your double-jump on in the middle, but it’s covered in spikes except down one side! And that’s not enough because here come the robot spiders or a beam that’s going to trigger all sorts of homing destruction or just a wave of instant death! If it was just one such obstacle that you need to learn to get perfect at overcoming (because imperfection means instant death) that would be one thing, but increasingly there’s going to be screen after screen of them between you and the next checkpoint. But the most frustrating thing is that even when you know there’s no room for any error, you also always know it’s beatable if you try it enough times!

I think there were two points in the whole game that this frustration got me to the point of quitting though… The first was a huge mechanical dragon boss that you could start to predict fairly quickly, but killing floating robots so they turned into platforms you could use to launch enough attacks from while avoiding the dragon and the electrified water below added a whole new level of challenge. In retrospect, it was just a brilliant piece of punishing boss design, and by the time you’ve worked it out, practiced it to the point of being able to beat it and accepted you just need to be extremely patient with it, you’re going to beat it without losing any energy at all. The final boss turned out to be very similar, albeit with three stages, and the third being a bit more punishing and unpredictable, so you need a few planets to align before eventually beating it!

There were a couple of overly long, crazy difficult platforming sections too, the second of which really had me thinking life’s too short even though it was actually the approach to the final boss! The main problem I had with this one was a reliance on a clumsy pogo-to-double-jump mechanic once you got past a cruel, sprawling platforming ascent that reminded me of the awful sandcrawler section in SNES Super Star Wars! Over several evenings I was able to navigate this part unscathed (or it wasn’t worth continuing anyway), then you emerge into a multi-section ascent involving what is the only imprecise mechanic in an overall very precise experience. It was just horrendous, especially when you finally got within touching distance, only for some otherwise easy robot enemy to take your last bar of health – which, of course, is precisely why it was there! And because the checkpoint was a good ten minutes back, and you know perfectly well it might take another ten attempts before you get close again, it was just soul-destroying! That said, I’ve never felt such relief in a game as when I eventually landed on that checkpoint!

Apart from this though, the difficulty never felt unfair – it was just letting you know you weren’t good enough yet! And new abilities and power-ups generally gave you the crutch you needed to overcome the relentless introduction of new forms of sadism that never stopped right up to that final stage of the final chapter. In the main, checkpoints were just about right too; I was particularly appreciative of how they allowed you to jump straight back into boss fights (something Hollow Knight didn’t do so well). I used that last checkpoint, right before the final boss, so many times over the course of a weekend, though by that point, having got there at all, I was doing it a few goes at a time then having a break and coming back later when I’d cooled down a bit, taking time after each session to also appreciate the visible progress as you cracked the first stage, then the second, then worked out how to do it without taking too much damage so you had a fair shot at the third and final stage. And that final stage, in the game’s final twist of the knife, would have been a tough nut to crack without the other two!

Brutal difficulty is certainly not the only place that Cyber Shadow looks to the NES for inspiration. Graphically, this is the NES game of your dreams! It’s authentic, but it’s like any technical limitations have been removed, so it’s full of NES colour, full of detail and full of stuff that can kill you! I really loved the way it used big black spaces with muted highlights and shadows to invoke a very oppressive atmosphere at points too, and when you notice all that parallax scrolling, or the 8-bit rain coming down on top of it all, it just looks gorgeous! Pretty much the same can be said for Enrique Martin’s cyber-synth soundtrack too, which was noticeably sometimes the only saving grace at some of the game’s more bleak difficulty spikes!

I really loved Cyber Shadow, but I did really hate it too! And I reckon that’s what it was aiming for. I don’t think it’s going to rank as one of my favourite games ever (like Hollow Knight did), but finishing this on Xbox One certainly left me feeling that I’m not as bad at games as I often say I am, and over the course of thirteen hours and almost 1100 deaths I had a wonderful, very NES at its very best time! I know it’s only the first day of March as I write this, and I’ve not given Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Resurrection more than an hour or so yet (because there’s only so much punishment you can take at any one time!), but without doubt the most engaging and simply the best thing – old or new – that I’ve played in 2021 so far!

Game Review: Wonderful Dizzy on ZX Spectrum

Game Review: Wonderful Dizzy on ZX Spectrum

When Dizzy arrived on the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad in 1987, there was no absolutely no reason not to buy it! The screenshots looked great, it was reviewing well, it was by the incredible BMX (and other) Simulator people Codemasters, and it only cost £1.99! The little egg felt great to control too, with his unique somersault jump a joy as you made your way around his puzzle-platform adventure. Before long though, the novelty wore off for me, and it became the founding member of an exclusive little club that would later also welcome Silent Hill and the first two Resident Evils, that it would take me decades to actually get, then finally really, really appreciate! Of course, on the surface you may wonder what this cartoon egg on the Spectrum has with these heavyweights of original PlayStation survival horror, but the secret to success in all of them is finding stuff and doing something with it; you won’t get far just jumping about or shooting dead things in the face. And for for me at any point up to my mid-forties, the latter is where I found most of my enjoyment in games!

Several decades later, this left me with all kinds of catching up to do (now mostly done!), and there we were at the end of 2020 when no fewer than two new official Dizzy games appeared! A very quick note on the first, a new version of 1989’s Pac-a-like, Fast Food Dizzy, which at that time was the third Dizzy game, but was actually called Fast Food rather than Fast Food Dizzy! Anyway, the new one is definitely called Fast Food Dizzy, and was released on the Nintendo Switch to showcase the FUZE games coding tool, where it’s not only free but the code is also fully editable. And if that’s not your bag, you can also buy it as part of the FUZE Player, which comes at a crazy price that makes the original Dizzy look expensive, together with no less than nineteen other FUZE-developed games and more to download for free! It plays like a very good Pac-Man clone with a few ideas of its own across its ten levels, it’s very polished, and is a lot of fun too!

A month later, a few days before Christmas, the second new Dizzy game arrived – Wonderful Dizzy. Now, this one’s been hanging around for a while and I think was originally supposed to be released as a Kickstarter stretch goal for the Spectrum Next in 2018, but that ended up being the collaborative effort and also wonderful Crystal Kingdom Dizzy. Wonderful Dizzy never went away though, and finishing it became a labour of love for original Dizzy developers (and gaming legends) The Oliver Twins, who not only eventually went on to fully design it themselves then get it made by their Crystal Kingdom friends, but also decided to  give it away free on their website, where you can either download the 128K Spectrum file and play it one way or another, or just take option two and play it right there in your browser!

Wonderful Dizzy is based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the children’s book by L Frank Baum that was interpreted as a reasonable movie if you’re under ten years old called The Wizard of Oz in 1939, then various other dreadful things since. And having said that, I look forward to the wrath of Johnny Depp’s Twitter defence league – I kid you not, go on there and post something derogatory about his even more dreadful Sweeney Todd and see what happens!!! Anyway, in Wonderful Dizzy, you’re the kind of Dorothy but in egg form, and as a fierce wind approaches, you and your pet Fluffle, Pogie, take cover in your house, but that gets torn out of the ground, chucked around in the wind then lands on the Wicked Witch of the East, one of four witches that rule the magical land of Oz where you’ve ended up. The West one isn’t happy and runs off with Pogie, so you need to rescue it and find a way home. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can probably help with that, and you’re going to be platforming and puzzling your way around Oz and his Emerald City, coming across familiar scarecrows, lions and tin men on the way – all in egg-form, of course!

This translates to classic Dizzy – discovering the map, finding clues, finding the items that relate to those clues, and gradually unravelling the story through all the other characters you meet. Even for someone like me that used to shun the merest hint of a puzzle, none of these are especially taxing – think Resident Evil 3 more than Monkey Island! The biggest puzzle is probably remembering where you might have seen something that you’ve just been told about, or then working out how to juggle your three-item inventory, meaning leaving stuff you’ve found already all over the place and remembering that too! As well as finding and using the items that progress the story, you’re going to be collecting coins too, and these are going to become important… So important that later on, you might spend nearly as long finding the one you’ve missed as playing through the rest of the game!!!

Unlike some (or maybe all?) of the earlier Dizzy games, the map is three-dimensional, so you’re not only going left and right, but into and out of the screen too. From your starting point in Munchkin Village, you’ve got the Red Brick Road to the left that’s going to lead to five – about half – of the areas in the game, then its better known Yellow sibling leads to the rest in the other direction. Actually, your very first puzzles are going to be finding stuff around Munchkin Village and using them to open the gates to the two roads. As well as Emerald City, you’re going to be exploring various castles and palaces, woods and fields, caves and harbours and various other buildings and structures. These are all multi-screen affairs, with a surprising amount of verticality in a lot of them too that is going to test your platforming skills. Dizzy himself controls better than ever, and for all that extended somersaulting animation every time you jump, you’re going to feel a surprising amount of precision to everything. Screw up a jump and fall too far and you’ll eventually end up a bit Humpty Dumpty though! There’s also a few enemies out to do you damage too, but you’ve got three lives, and fruit to replenish your health is relatively abundant (until you’re near the end and you’ve used it all up); it’s all just about the right level of challenge.

Speaking of better than ever, I can’t not talk about how Wonderful Dizzy looks for any longer! Off the top of my head, if we’re talking best-looking games on the Spectrum, you’ve got Trap Door, Exolon, R-Type, maybe Head Over Heels, definitely either of the first two screens in Olli & Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle… And now we have to add Wonderful Dizzy to that list – it really is that good, to the point that when I first saw it, I assumed it was actually a Spectrum Next game, but no, it’s proper unsullied 128K Spectrum. It even embraces the colour clash, which is one of many knowing nods to old-school gaming you’ll come across! The amount of detail in every aspect of every screen is incredible, as is the way Dizzy moves around the world – not only in his animation, but also the way he physically belongs in it, and I really don’t want to be specific here because these deserve to be noticed fresh!

Sound effects are typically functional for the Spectrum, but I like the way they’re sparsely used, usually alerting you to something. There’s also a nice subtle sound when you jump, which I like a lot more than the continuous classic Spectrum footsteps you got in the original game! The looping music sounds great without being anything groundbreaking – it’s not massively memorable, but equally isn’t going to annoy you for the duration.

That duration for me was about four hours, including about thirty minutes looking for the final coin, as well as thirty minutes or so having a go and working it out when I downloaded it. I reckon if you went back and did it again (or aren’t as rubbish at games as me), you could at least half that once you know the lay of the land. And I enjoyed every minute of that, done in two sessions during a single day. It really is a joy to play, and even if you’re like my former-self and not massively into Dizzy or this style of game or survival horror, if you’ve ever played on a Spectrum you just need to have a go and see it in action! And at free of charge, there’s even less reason to not see it in action than its ancestor all those years ago!

You can play or download Wonderful Dizzy right here.

Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Book Review: The Games That Weren’t by Frank Gasking

Towards the end of of 1985, adverts started appearing in my Computer & Video Games magazines for “the first ever computer cartoon” – Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And to a massive Scooby Doo fan like me, it was incredible! They were clearly Spectrum screenshots on there, but they definitely looked like nothing else, except maybe what a Spectrum port of something like Dragon’s Lair might look like… which, the following year, we’d find out was more or less the case!

Anyway, as 1985 became 1986, previews started appearing that hinted at an interactive story involving a spooky Scottish castle belonging to Shaggy’s aunt, presented as cartoon action sequences that you directed to solve the mystery. And yes, it really was like a laser-disc game crammed into a 48K Spectrum! As the months passed, the big double-page, full colour adverts kept coming, but no sign of any game, then in March 1986, in an Elite preview exclusive, C&VG said “despite what you’ve read in other magazines, Elite still plans to release its computer cartoon adventure, Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery for the 48K Spectrum,” but towards the end of the article also says that it won’t be in the “heavily advertised” form because there wasn’t enough memory left to make it playable! And, of course, what we eventually got at the end of 1986 was the fantastic, but utterly brutal Scooby Doo, an arcade-platformer take on Kung-Fu Master, with some of my favourite graphics ever on the Spectrum!

As much as I love what we finally got, I still look at the original advert and wonder what could have been… And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling 48K of memory! If only Sir Clive had come up with 128K a bit sooner it might all be different, but that’s the tale of my very first encounter with a game that weren’t. Wasn’t!

Fast forward to Christmas 2021, and I received a wonderful new book called The Games That Weren’t, written by Frank Gasking and published by my favourite retro-gaming book peddlars Bitmap Books, who are responsible for all kinds of equally wonderful stuff on my bulging bookshelves, but nothing that bulges quite as much as this 644-page hardback behemoth!

As someone that writes about games from time to time, I think I’m qualified to say that everything about this puts me to shame! The first thing you notice, the very first time you flick through it, is that it’s clearly an absolute labour of love, much like Frank’s website of the same name that he started way back in the nineties to document and find lost and unreleased games across many platforms. The next thing you notice is that it’s visually stunning – even more so than Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery! And then you realise that it’s so much more than that…

As games industry legend David Crane tells us in the foreword, this is all about games that never quite reached the game-playing public. Going all the way back to 1975 and up to 2015, the book covers 80 games that weren’t, and they weren’t for myriad reasons that all get unravelled here – flawed game design, internal politics, over-ambition, poor hardware sales, high cartridge costs or cabinet costs, failed field tests, expired licenses, not being able to fit a computer cartoon into 48K… Actually, I should say that Scooby Doo in the Castle Mystery didn’t make the cut here (which gives me hope that it still might arrive one day!), but some of the tales around these unreleased games are definitely mysteries worthy of Scooby and the gang!

Having spent some time in my stack of old game magazines just get my head around enough of the Scooby Doo story to mention it here, I can really empathise with Frank’s decades-long obsession with investigating these mysteries – that 30 minutes putting together a timeline from first advert to previews, doubts, cancellations then something else emerging in its place was really fascinating! But where I’ve just included a picture of an old copy of C&VG, every game covered in The Games That Weren’t includes a load of development assets, screenshots, photos and artistic impressions – all reproduced in the very highest quality and sometimes for the first time – to illustrate the wonderfully in-depth analysis on each game.

Before we analyse that analysis, let’s quickly mention a few of those games to give us a bit of context, as well as what is probably my favourite thing about the book, which is not only discovering stuff you didn’t know existed, but discovering stuff you would have actually bought, and even seeing screenshots of it! And that’s why we’ll start with Elite on the Nintendo Game Boy, which got to prototype stage then the deal with Ocean fell through and consigned it to history; another nice feature is that for each game it tells you if it’s available to play or not… And apparently this one is, so definitely expect more from me on that in the future! We all know about Elite, but there’s an awful lot more that you probably won’t know anything about, such as Death Pit, Dick Special, Eye of the Moon, Virtua Hamster(!), Spitfire Fury and Starring Charlie Chaplin to name but a few. There’s unreleased sequels like Heart of Yesod, Star Fox 2 and, er, Gazza 2. There’s all kinds of film licenses that (possibly thankfully) never saw the light of day like The Terminator, Lethal Weapon and Waterworld, as well as other licenses like Daffy Duck and Tony Hawk’s Shred Session. And then there’s the versions of games you probably do know but never made it, like Rescue on Fractalus! or Bubble Bobble, Ridge Racer or The Last Ninja…

As I write this, the last game I played before I went to bed last night was Arcade Archives Frogger on Nintendo Switch, so I reckon that Frogger 2: Swampy’s Revenge on Nintendo 64 is the perfect place to talk about the actual meat of the game analysis you’re getting here! It starts with a title screen summarising the reason it weren’t – cartridge costs in this case – then the year it weren’t (2000), the developer, the platform and whether or not it’s available to play. Then we get some background history – why Frogger epitomises 1980s arcades, the aim of the game, its reception and its ports. Then we get into what happened next; in the case of Frogger, it obviously never stopped being released on different platforms, but there was a Hasbro remake developed by Millenium Interactive in 1997 that leads us directly into the non-sequel. When Hasbro wanted a sequel, Millenium weren’t available to do it, so they approached Interactive Studios. We then hear from Philip Oliver, and then the project’s technical manager, Matt Cloy, who talks about the team and how they set about developing the game for the Nintendo 64. We get right into the development kits and all the juicy technical details here, right from the horse’s mouth, as well as some great detail on the process of developing then moving on from the earliest designs.

This turned into very much a 3D game, in stark contrast to the overhead 2D original, with complex geometries and some wild-sounding environments that weren’t too far removed from Super Mario Galaxy, years ahead of its time. But Hasbro didn’t like it! Need something more traditional, more 2D, more like Frogger. So then we hear about how it was all stripped back, the action became more immediate to the player, and a story was introduced involving Swampy the Crocodile being jealous of Frogger’s fame and fortune! At this point we start getting some really nice detail about how the game actually played as levels took shape and started to be tested and tweaked, and then there’s some substitutions made in the team to bring on some experience and make sure the game was brought home as planned.

And then it was all brought down with a bang! Hasbro got cold feet on increasing cartridge production costs and lead times, and the prospect of any profit was becoming risky, so at 70% complete, the Nintendo 64 version was canned. Now we jump to the PlayStation, PC, Dreamcast and Game Boy Colour versions that did eventually make it into the wild, reviewed okay, but never really had a chance to sell properly because after a year Konami said they wanted it removed from sale because the licence had expired! Now we get into the fun part of years then passing, glitchy prototypes sneaking out into the hands of collectors, and later builds appearing that featured things like placeholder sounds from other games and Pac-Man styled frogspawn collecting that would never have made the final cut. Finally, we get to what happened next, where we are now with availability of the various unfinished states online, and how the developers feel about the project in retrospect. And as we’ve already discussed, all those written words are supported by some beautiful visuals, in this case a full-page unpublished advert for the game including the Nintendo 64 logo at the top, and a selection of half-page, well-curated (and well-defined) screenshots that serve perfectly well to bring the game to life. It really is an incredibly polished package, and that’s all for just one of the eighty games!

Now, not every game gets the thousands of words of research and interviews that Frogger 2 gets – though an awful lot of them do – but regardless, you can see the care, attention and passion that’s gone into every single feature on every single game. And all of this this is complemented by five purpose-built “Hardware That Wasn’t” blueprint features and a load of interviews with the likes of the aforementioned David Crane, Jeff Minter, the Oliver Twins, Matthew Smith, Geoff Crammond and many other industry big-hitters, plus an honourable mentions section on loads of other games, all in chronological order, that you can find out more about digitally.

As I flick through the book to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, I’m so tempted just to keep going here! I happened to stop on Solar Jetman, where a wonderful Commodore 64 loading screen capture caught my eye; then Spitfire Fury, which would have been amazing to play on our school’s A-level Technology class’ exclusive Archimides; or maybe my brother would have bought Rolling Thunder for his Atari Lynx; and don’t get me started on Gauntlet for Ninendo DS!!! I just love this book! And it’s not only the quality of the written content that’s to love, but the hardcore hardback binding, the weight of the glossy paper, the definition on the mass of pictures, the bookmark ribbon, the generous font size for our ageing eyes… And of course, the real stars of the show are all these games that we never got to love, finally getting some of the recognition they deserve.

I hope in some way this also gives Frank Gasking and Bitmap Books some of the recognition they deserve too! Congratulations to all involved – you’ve come up with a masterpiece!

You’ll find The Games That Weren’t right here at Bitmap Books.

Game Review: Intrepid – The Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality

Game Review: Intrepid – The Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality

A couple of weeks ago at the time of writing, I picked up the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, which included a staggering 1,741 video games, RPG’s, sountracks, development assets and a few other bits of content from 1,391 creators, all for as little as $5. I doubt there’s ever been better value in the name of a good cause or otherwise, with a retail worth of over $9,500, and it’s been a massive success, raising almost $8.2million as I speak!

There’s a few big indie headline-grabbers included, with things like Overland, Night in the Woods, Celeste and the wonderful Minit to name just a handful, but the real joy I’ve had so far is browsing through the rest of the content, deciding on a few priorities, and discovering some really cool stuff on the way… Far more enjoyable than actually playing anything!

Despite that, it is nice to feel you’ve actually made some progress into a giant heap of stuff like this, and that came when I accidentally started a browser-based choose-your-own-adventure called American Election, then spent a bit over an hour playing through it. Very simple, nothing revolutionary, but well written and engaging. With that quick win out of the way, I also couldn’t resist jumping straight into Wampus – an actual NES game in actual .nes file – when I came across it. It’s a very linear take on the original Zelda, nothing too taxing and is over in an hour and a half, but it’s a nice time.

With games that play in your internet browser, it’s often just as easy to click Run Game as it is to read a description, and that’s what I nonchalantly then did with a game called Intrepid. “You are an intrepid explorer hunting for artifacts. Can you survive?” This was developed by Jambudd for the March 2018 Archeology Bitsy Jam, with Bitsy being a simple HTML 5 game and world editor, and archeology being the theme for that month’s game jam.

And this one properly caught me by surprise! I’m still not sure how such a tiny, 1-bit browser game can be quite so affecting, but a week on from finally getting the ending I wanted, I can’t stop thinking about it! From how a two-colour opening scene can be quite so descriptive of your enviroment and convey such atmosphere, to its commentary on colonialism that dictates the “good” ending, I was really blown away by this!

In the space of four of the most basic-looking but perfectly beautiful screens you’ll ever come across, and over the course of less than a minute of gameplay, you’re finding a cave in the desert, inching your way across a rickety bridge, climbing to reach an artifact, then getting out of there, Indiana Jones style.

And there’s multiple ways of doing that, most of which end in your demise, but think long and hard about what you’re doing (and I did, over days!) and things might work out a bit better! 

The minimal look, complemented by equally minimal text that gives you literally just enough to make progress one way or another, does a wonderful job of inspiring your imagination – as was so often the case in the early 8-bit days – and as a result comes across as far more atmospheric than the sum of its parts. And it all combines to keep nagging at you until work what you should be doing!

The bundle might be over, but if you missed out you can still check out Intrepid here. And I can’t recommend doing that enough!

Before I go, another quick couple of recommendations to help you to tick off some more games in the bundle if you did manage to pick it up… First up is a surprisingly powerful browser-based text adventure called Masks, about being in a university under siege by riot police. It’s inspired by last year’s Hong Kong protests, but seems equally relevant as I write now. It takes just minutes, though you’ll probably want to play again a few times, and it’s very unique in that genre as far as I’m aware, but regardless is just very impressive.

There’s a few other game-jam type browser games there that are definitely a look too, but I don’t want to spoil your browsing fun, so I’ll just close with recommending you check out I’m Bored, Let’s Explore (Ruins). It’s another quick, simple treat with a lovely art style, so check it out and don’t forget that small is occasionally beautiful!

Apple Arcade on Trial – Part 3 (The Verdict)

Apple Arcade on Trial – Part 3 (The Verdict)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 2

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 1

Apple Arcade on Trial: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Dr. Mario World First Impressions

Game Review: Dr. Mario World First Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Minit on Nintendo Switch

Game Review: Minit on Nintendo Switch

The minute that Minit was announced, my interest was piqued. It looked like Downwell – a big mobile and PS4 favourite of mine – had crashed an old NES RPG party. Around its launch on PS4 however, my new Nintendo Switch became all-consuming and as it looked like a perfect fit, I avoided buying my long-awaited Minit in the hope it would appear one day on there. Just a few (dreadfully hot and sunny) months later, the start of August 2018 brought that day.

The premise is unique – your weird dolpin-thing hero is alive for 60 seconds. Then you die. Within this constraint, you’re dumped into a Zelda-esque black and white 8-bit pixel-art styled world with no introduction, but once you’ve got the lie of the little bit of land around you, you’re soon doing simple quests, solving puzzles and killing monsters, and crucially exploring a little it further and teasing what might come in your next life.

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Sounds stressful, but it really works! What you need to do to progress your story quickly clicks, and without realising it you’re planning out your next 60 second life as you carry out the next set of activities in this one, and thus the story unfolds with 60 seconds becoming a mechanic rather than a frustrating constraint. A very clever rogue-lite system means that 60 seconds is literally just enough to do what you need to do and work out what to do with your next minute having done all that. The progression through the story, the puzzles and the world is very intuitive, and again, literally just enough that you don’t need a map.

I love the art style, and the character and atmosphere it manages to generate despite its simplicity; and the sense of claustrophobia it creates in many areas, with very little visible inside the enveloping blackness, but which actually encourages exploration. There’s really nice attention to detail too – the little wisps of smoke coming from chimneys, washing swaying on the line and insects doing their thing all add life to what is a very sparse 8-bit styled world. Similarly sparse, simple sound effects layer to add to the sense of atmosphere depending on where you are – the seagulls crying over the sound of waves as you approach the lighthouse or an ominous fire-like crackle with some confused sounding dolphin noises occasionally kicking in when you come across the Secret Temple. And all of this regularly and organically interrupted by the game’s ear worm chip-tune soundtrack.

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It took me exactly three hours to get through the story, but it told me I’m only at 51% “collectibles” which is a term I’d consider loosely – we’re not talking Riddler trophies in Batman here; more likely finding the last coin, the last heart, a few octopus tentacles(!) and some items I haven’t found yet that I think might trigger a couple more side quests I’ve noticed on my travels but don’t seem to have the right gear to access yet. There’s also the mysterious haunted house that I’m certainly missing something in! And I definitely plan on carrying on with that, and have a go at new game plus which limits your life to 40 seconds.

I can’t recommend this enough if you’re into old school Zelda-type games or just fancy a gradually evolving puzzle experience in a beautifully simple pixel-art world.

Game Review: Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS

Game Review: Ghouls ’n Ghosts on iOS

This is something I wrote in 2017 that started for someone else then fell between the cracks, but having just found it again I didn’t want it to go to waste…

My history with the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins is indelibly etched on my mind, from the second in the summer of 1987 that I bought it for £1.99 at a service station on the M4, on the way back from a holiday camp in Dorset, possibly Pontins; although the only real memory I have of the camp itself was its shop, which had a fantastic array of pop badges, where I got a fantastic reflective Adam Ant badge that I still wear to this day! Back at the service station, two games jumped out at me from a bargain games rack (which must have been an eighties service station thing) that I’d heard about in C&VG magazine, but like most games, didn’t have the money to buy on release. For completeness, the second game was Southern Belle, which, apart from the London to Brighton speed run mode, never really got a look in for quite some time once we got back home to my Spectrum! That conversion of Ghosts ’n Goblins was all I was interested in that hot and sticky afternoon, and in time would become one of my favourite games ever, despite never getting very far!

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Ghouls ‘n Ghosts admittedly made less of an impression – maybe because by the time I’d picked it up on the Atari ST, I’d been playing platformers for the best part of ten years, and the ST offered so many newer things in gaming to me – Hard Drivin’s 3D replays and mooing cows, Defender of the Crown’s cinematography, Carrier Command’s vehicular variety, Speedball’s sporting violence, etc. But for all the familiarity of the genre by now, it was still lots more of Ghosts ’n Goblins in every way, especially when you consider that I was coming from the dumbed-down Spectrum version! The graphics were beautifully detailed and drawn (and without a hint of colour clash!), the soundtrack was one of the best on the ST to date, and the simplistic, hard as nails gameplay was on another level. Which meant not getting very far all over again!

There was one thing missing though, which it took me the best part of another twenty years to realise… There were no dirty great virtual buttons all over the TV screen! Fast forward to 2017, and Capcom have finally solved that huge (literally) omission with the release of Ghouls ’n Ghosts for iOS!

Ghouls ’n Ghosts arrived onto iOS a few months after its predecessor, which was released earlier in 2017 together with mobile versions of 1942 and Commando; two more games that are among my favourites of all time! They’re all pretty much arcade-perfect versions, which blows me away every time I load any of them up – we’ve come a long way since Snake on phones, and even further since the Spectrum!

Unfortunately, the few months between releases weren’t spent on the dirty great elephant in the room that all of these versions occupy – the controls. Now, I play a lot of games on iOS and I’ve got absolutely no problem with touch controls, virtual buttons, swipe controls, etc. but these are something else! And rather than trying to optimise them for Ghouls ’n Ghosts after all the “constructive criticism” they can’t have missed for the other releases, Capcom have simply offered the same wealth of bizarre alternatives…

Type A gives you left and right arrows, two slightly misaligned (but massive so it doesn’t really matter) up and do wn buttons, and on the other side massive attack and jump buttons, all with convenient icons in case you can’t read the massive words on them. Type B offers two massive up and down arrows with invisible left and right between them, and massive attack and jump as before. Type C gives you invisible up, down, left and right and the standard massive jump and attack. Then there’s virtual controls, which give you a more normal looking directional control that should be the best of the lot but I’m still strangely drawn to Type A as my preferred method.

The good news is that if still can’t decide on the method that suits you best, rather than connect a bluetooth controller, Capcom wants to save you all that messing around with pairing and connecting, and gives you the choice of Normal or Compact control modes! If you’re taking advantage of the arcade experience on an iPad’s big, lovely screen, the Compact method might be the more user-friendly option unless you have giant hands, as the Normal mode spreads the action to all four corners of the screen for you. In their unplayable defence, they are a bit smaller in this mode. This really is a new level in touchscreen design!

But what about the game hiding beneath the massive controls? I’m pleased to report it’s definitely Ghouls ’n Ghosts in all its gorgeous, brutal glory! Every element of the original side-scrolling, medieval-shooting arcade platformer is intact – the stunning, crisp, atmospheric graphics; the Phantom of the Opera on a chip-tune organ soundtrack; the oddly high-pitched sound effects; and, of course, the mystifying amount of fun to be had from a game so horrendously difficult!

That difficulty isn’t helped by the controls, and it takes quite a lot of playing before you stop mashing the wrong buttons in panic when you’re surrounded by grim reapers and a swooping vulture! But when I faced similar problems with Commando (or Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando in case you’re struggling to find it by its Western name), having this on my phone and tablet meant too much to me to let the controls beat me – the game did a good enough job of that by itself! Just find the least offensive control method and persevere, and there’s the same endless enjoyment you had taking Arthur through hordes of undead, demonic stuff that you experienced in the eighties!

A new casual mode is offered if things get too tough. You get more lives, a double jump, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but it is a bit easier – possibly less enemies – though it all still seems pretty frantic to me! Regardless of the mode you choose, you’ve still got all those lovely touches that made this game stand out all those years ago – losing your suit of armour on the first hit and playing in your pants; the magician popping out of a chest and turning you into a defenceless duck; the grim reapers peeking out from behind trees; and I want to give a special mention to the wind effects, should you ever get out of the graveyard, which hinder your progress but reward you with the most stunning trees getting blown about that you’ve ever seen in a game, and they really pop on an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro screen!

Many will find the control issues a game breaker, but every time I get frustrated with them I just think of myself thirty years ago and wonder what that fifteen year old would have thought about not only carrying a version of this around in his pocket, but carrying around the arcade version in his pocket… That had cost him less than half the price of a Mastertronic game… Then I hit that virtual start button again!

Before I leave you, one closing word on the controls. If you think these are bad, just check out Sega’s new port to mobile of Phantasy Star II, released just a week ago at the time of [original] writing. At least Capcom had the forethought to show you most of the action, but if you have any interest at all in the story behind this text heavy, creaking RPG, you might want to find a different way to play it!