Bonus Post – Top Ten Games of 2017

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

1. Elevator Action

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

2. Stardew Valley (PS4)

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

3. Pokemon Ultra Sun (3DS)

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

4. Everybody’s Golf (PS4)

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

5. Pokemon Gold (3DS)

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

6. Wipeout Omega Collection (PS4)

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

7. Fire Emblem Heroes (iOS)

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

8. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (iOS)

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

9. Resident Evil Biohazard

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

10. Rogue Trooper Redux (PS4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

Bonus Post – Gamerboy Art

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

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

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

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

My Life With… California Games – Atari Lynx

In this post I think we’re going all the way back to the June 1991. It’s my brother Phil’s 17th birthday and he’s just unwrapped an Atari Lynx. I’m back from my first year of university, having spent what seemed like weeks in a sweltering sports hall doing exams in mechanics and other awful engineering things. In a few months I’d be off to France for my second year – a decision that confounds me to this day – but in the meantime a huge summer break beckoned, reunited with my school friends, exploring Southern Comfort, being either on or off (I’ve lost track which at that point in time) with the flame-haired Irish girl my former best friend and I had both fallen for on the same night the previous year, and collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s… Which funded, alongside the aforementioned exotic things, seeing Guns ‘n Roses at Wembley, complete with an expletive-tastic Skid Row and the UK premier of Nine Inch Nails. 

That summer had its moments, one way or another (mostly another, the closer I got to leaving for France), and this was very much reflected in my experience with Phil’s Lynx. On one hand, he’s only got the Gameboy killer! I’d not even had it a year, and here’s this all singing and dancing powerhouse with its huge screen running arcade quality graphics. On the other, it came with California Games!

Several years earlier, I’d spent dozens of hours playing Winter Games on my friend Steven’s Commodore 128 and on our Spectrum +2. Not only was this a successor, but it came with all the glamour of The Beach Boys, CHiPs and the hottie in a bikini on roller skates on the cover!

Speaking of which, despite the Lynx being a powerhouse, there was a bit of compromise. Only four of the six events appeared here, sacrificing frisbee and said skater hottie rolling provocatively down a path next to a road. I don’t think we were missing out on too much, and if I remember right she appeared on the scoreboard screen so you could still get your kicks there!

But what you did get was BMX, half-pipe, footbag and the big one, surfing! Actually, they could have compromised on all the events as long as surfing was there. The waves felt like waves, and the controls responded perfectly to them. It looked the part as well – the blue sky, the realistic spray as the wave closed in, and the blond surfer dude just out there having fun in the warm California sun. 

BMX felt very similar, with flipping off the top of waves replaced by flipping and jumping and spinning your way around a great-looking BMX track. Half-pipe, situated right in front of the Hollywood sign, wasn’t quite as responsive, but you eventually got the hang of it and then it could really feel good – big air and big turns could rack up serious points once you puzzled out how to get a bit of speed up. Footbag was a less extreme affair, but you could still get a lot of satisfaction out of putting together a long and varied combo with some carefully timed nudges to the joypad. 

Very recently I played the Atari 2600 version of this, on the portable I got last Christmas (2016). That is a remarkable achievement, with easily the best graphics on the system, and its own version of Louie Louie! It’s very playable, can handle up to eight players, and the footbag feels great. Definitely worth seeking out to see Atari’s original powerhouse in all its glory!

California Games stayed close to my heart for far longer than the Lynx could ever hope to; in fact, Blue Lightning is the only other game I remember playing on it! But even California Games, as much as I love playing it on various systems to this day, can’t hold a flame to my Gameboy. Also known as Lynx killer!

See you next time, but let’s finish with a reminder of America’s greatest cultural export…

My Life With… Tennis – Nintendo Gameboy

My Life With… Tennis – Nintendo Gameboy

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

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

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

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

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

See you next time. I think the arcade beckons…