Mega Games Collection: Part I

MEGA GAMES 1

Upon inception in 1988, the Mega Drive (or Genesis in the US) had a somewhat muted response. While the graphical prowess was certainly a huge improvement over its predecessor, the Master System, Nintendo still attained a vice-like grip over the market with its third-party exclusivity (which bullied developers to make games specifically for Nintendo systems) and iconic gaming brands. In fact, Super Mario Bros. 3 still had a behemoth launch release despite its inferiority to Sega’s impressive specifications – Nintendo were still able convince consumers that it was worth waiting for their own successor. In fact, the Mega Drive seriously suffered due to a lack of killer software – Alex Kidd was their first real attempt at creating a flagship mascot for the system however there was no widespread appeal.

So it became apparent that Sega had to push the Mega Drive as a worthy alternative to their primary rival; to ensure that it appealed to older consumers in contrast to Nintendo’s family-oriented approach. After some pretty aggressive advertising campaigns and exclusivity deals with stores that refused to sell the product initially, Sega were able to gain traction – Sonic the Hedgehog most certainly contributed to this, but Sega’s overall ethos and game design proved radically different to what Nintendo were offering at the time. The Mega Drive was sleek, cool, rad, hip…any kind of typified 90’s hyperbole, really.

Enter the Mega Games Collection. Only released in Europe as a promotional pack-in deal with the console, the Mega Drive became a highly affordable piece of hardware that offered a number of great games from the get-go. While the Super Nintendo pushed bundles such as Street Fighter II: Turbo, Starfox (Starwing in EU) and Super Mario All-Stars, Sega offered accessible arcade conversions, not to mention a more adult-style of gameplay. Mega Games I was the beginning of Sega differentiating themselves from Nintendo and not emulating their distinctive brand of game design – the Mega Drive was its own beast and Sega capitalised on this, making the console almost impossible to ignore.

So, let’s begin. Mega Games I features the following games: Super Hang-On, World Cup Italia ’90 and Columns. This shall be reviewed in the aforementioned order.

Game One: Super Hang-On.

Zoom!

Zoom!

Oh, Super Hang-On. The quintessential Sega game. Much like OutRun that came before it, Hang-On sported psuedo-3D visuals that commonly penned the term ‘sprite scaling’. For its time, it looked far superior than anything found on its 8-bit brethren, the Master System, and naturally the NES – the game ran with a tile mapping technique that consistently traversed at the screen, giving the impression it was running in 3D space. While it didn’t feature polygonal sprites on screen, it proved that the Mega Drive was more than capable to emulate arcade ports and handle it nearly flawlessly. The soundtrack, much like OutRun, is also an integral part to the gameplay – ‘Winning Run’ is especially notable, with its fist-pumping tempo and anthemic hook. The game also plays like a dream, despite it being incredibly challenging in the later stages – this is indeed searingly frustrating but, like all well programmed games, it’s all because of a lack of concentration.

So you have no-one to blame but yourself. That’s the way of old-school gaming, eh? An absolute must for all arcade-racing aficionados.

Game Two: World Cup Italia ’90.

WORLD CUP

GOOOOAAALLL

Now here’s a game that hasn’t aged well. At all. While Super Hang-On was a technical showcase for the system, this ironically is held back by its ambition – in fact, football games were crudely primitive in the early 90’s due to hardware constraints, so the game sadly suffers with its limited camera view and finicky controls. But, thanks to its broad colour palette and the addition of a radar to help manage where players are, it’s still relatively playable albeit only in short bursts. It’s sorely lacking in game modes and other such content however, proving merely as a stepping stone amidst its contemporaries.

But the music? Damn. It’s still great.

Game Three: Columns

Sweaty palms, most definitely.

Sweaty palms, most definitely.

Rounding off possibly the most varied compilation of the Mega Games hits, Columns is a game that perhaps deserves a little more recognition. While Tetris has certainly proven to be a timeless classic with annual iterations still becoming widely available on various platforms, Sega’s own attempt at emulating this desired success is more than valiant. While not wholly original in concept and design, Columns delivers an admirable twist on the Tetris formula  – the player must correlate jewels the same colour in rows of three or more, be it horizontal, diagonal or vertical. There are also ‘magic jewel columns’ that eliminate one type of colour on screen, adding another layer of strategy to the gameplay. It’s definitely a little more varied, especially when considering how incredible battle mode is with a friend – but, alas, Tetris has more substance when it comes to overall delivery and mechanics.

It’s still great nonetheless…and scarily addictive. Watch yourself.

Verdict:

Mega Games I is a great start for newcomers and veterans alike – it offers three starkly differing gameplay experiences, each one catering to a desired demographic that Sega obviously wanted to capture at the time. While each game is somewhat limited in scope and longevity, they highlight the difference that Sega had over its competitors in 1989 – far superior sound and graphics design, an impressive frame rate and near-perfect arcade conversions. It’s definitely worth getting hold of – just try to appreciate the painfully archaic design of Italia ’90. It was impressive for its day, I swear…

Posted in Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Gaming Quickies – Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (Wii U)

Sonic?...I don't remember any Sonic...

Sonic?…I don’t remember any Sonic…

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Okay, so this was originally intended to be presented in a Vlog format…but in order to do that I would need an actual camcorder. So in the meantime, here’s an off the cuff, stream-of-conscience rant on Sega’s blockbuster bomb, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric.

———–

Let’s do a rundown on Sonic 2 for the Mega Drive, shall we? The pros: a refreshing lack of gimmicks, intricate, multi-layered level design and adrenaline fueled gameplay that gave Mario some serious, and admittedly, much needed competition. The cons? It set the bar so high that the transition into 3D became a seemingly impossible task, especially with Sega’s key mascot skipping an entire generation of consoles – namely the Sega Saturn.

So when a newly established gaming company attempts to tackle a series as prestigious and renowned as Sonic, chances are they would take aspects of what hardened fans crave and add their own little supersonic spin on it? Right? Well, you’re halfway there. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric certainly features aspects of what made Sonic distinctive in the early 90’s, but the reality is this: Sega should be ashamed of themselves for using their most revered brand and attaching it to a game that is quite simply an abhorrent display of all things vitriolic.

Sounds a little overdramatic, eh? Nope. Everything in this game is shambolic mess of strict deadlines, incompetent programming ability and half-baked ideas – not one moment is salvageable as the gameplay is consistently plagued with horrendous screen tearing, abysmal frame rate and barren open world hubs that offer absolutely nothing than waste your time. It’s a game that patronises and offends all at once.

You'll be back on track again, soon. I swear. I hope...

You’ll be back on track again, soon. I swear. I hope…

Yeah, there’s speed sections. Yup, there’s adventure fields in the style of Sonic Adventure. Oh, and there’s 2D segments filled with switch puzzles and boost pads. It’s all here, folks. But the primary issue is that not one of these core aspects work – they are just so painfully dull that it honestly makes Sonic ’06 look considerably superior in comparison. In fact, at least Sonic ’06 displayed some degree of vision and ambition – Sonic Boom looks like a game that no-one cared about from inception. And for long-running fans of the series, we deserve so much better.

Sega have had some serious misnomers in the past with the Sega CD, 32X and Saturn, abandoning their fanbase in the process by creating products that were destined to fail from the very beginning. Sonic Boom is worse than this. It could also be considered one of the worst things Sega have ever released as a company, a behemoth-sized statement in itself. Granted, the game may not be seen as ‘canon’ due to being in a separate universe…but this cannot be excused.

Save your money. Even if found in a bargain bin, stay well away. And Sega? Respect your consumer base next time, before it’s truly too late.

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Second Opinion Retrospective Review – Yoshi’s Story (Nintendo 64)

Colour...and more colour.

Colour…and more colour.

Yoshi’s Story arrived when the industry was undergoing an epiphany moment, a transformation of what people expected from gaming if you will. Amidst the sudden barrage of what was deemed ‘mature’, Sony and Sega were always able to convince players that their hardware offered a sleek and trendy alternative to Nintendo’s family-centric image – in fact, Nintendo’s stubborn approach to the gaming demographic is something that has undoubtedly hindered them over the years, especially when considering the aesthetic nature of the critically under appreciated ‘Gamecube’.

While the Nintendo 64 was home to some blood-ridden, blockbuster offerings such as Goldeneye, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil and, gob-smackingly, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Nintendo have always struggled to considered as a worthy competitor alongside Sony’s breakthrough hit, the Playstation. It can be argued that their idiosyncratic game design is certainly a unique selling point, especially in today’s over-saturated market, but this came at a time when Sony was not at all established in the industry – Nintendo were rapidly losing market share due to dated hardware, a tainted image with censorship and a somewhat questionable controller. Sony’s ‘cool-kid’ image finally began to win over a legion of new fans, with Nintendo refusing to buckle under industry expectation by focusing solely on their established franchises.

So, they stuck to their guns. The outcome of this was Yoshi’s Story, a game that many Sony and Sega fanboys would have outright torn to shreds upon release. The primitive colour palette, the obnoxious choir of squeals in the title sequence, the relentlessly joyous atmosphere – this was a game that was totally and utterly incomparable to Sony’s first party efforts at the time. But you know what? That’s the beauty of Nintendo, for better and for worse. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

Glub.

Glub.

Considered as a spiritual successor to the much-beloved Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island on the Super Nintendo, Yoshi’s Story is classic Nintendo design through and through – inventive level design, distinctive visuals and gameplay that would surely bring a smile to any stone-cold cynics’ face. Even if they’re desperately trying to hide it.

The story is your standard affair – the Super Happy Tree has been stolen and the Yoshi’s must retrieve it from the clutches of the evil (or perhaps misunderstood) Baby Bowser otherwise their lives will be destined to eternal gloom and turmoil. Okay, so it’s utterly incomprehensible but at least it sets up some form of motive – in fact, it’s refreshing not to see a princess being kidnapped this time around. Thanks for that Nintendo. Anywho, what the game lacks in credible storytelling is rectified with its accessible gameplay concept and quirky design aesthetic – Yoshi’s Story is nothing more than simple fun, for better and for worse.

The mechanics harken back to the Super Nintendo days albeit with a slight 2.5D twist. Certain obstacles, namely the roller wheels, require Yoshi to create momentum towards the screen, an ideal that many PSX and Saturn games were utilising at the time – just see Pandemonium and Klonoa and you’ll know what I mean. It’s a natural progression for the series as the patchwork-themed art direction truly works in the game’s favour – without the use of fully fledged 3D, Yoshi’s Story’s true calling card is cemented in its simplistic, 16-bit roots. In fact, despite it lacking in truely inspired level design, the game more than makes up for it in sheer, unadulterated charm.

Is that heart edible..?

Is that heart edible..?

The concept of the game sees players eating thirty pieces of fruit in each level – each garishly coloured Yoshi has a favourite variety which either boosts ‘happiness’ value (effectively to gain a high score) and/or garners a much needed health kick. This, sadly, is where the game’s heightened sense of consciousness for its younger audience becomes immediately apparent – instead of outright challenging the player by creating multi-textual levels that are featured in past Mario games, the gameplay comes to a grinding halt when thirty pieces of fruit are collected, allowing the player to access the next stage. While this may sound like an ideal way to experience each level, it also means that players can finish the game in well under an hour…and for its then-£49.99 price point, that is pretty unacceptable.

The game offers a wide array of hidden routes and sub-levels however, creating a different route with each playthrough – this was a design choice that Nintendo pushed with Lylat Wars (or Starfox 64 in the US). It certainly adds some much needed replayability, but the game lacks any real incentive to finish in its entirety due to some questionably pedestrian design choices – boss battles are embarrassingly redundant (with one that can be beaten in literally five seconds) and game itself struggles to emit any form of urgency. Admittedly, it’s a completely different style of game to its predecessor, but upon closer inspection the whole experience ends up feeling a little…average.

While it’s admirable that Yoshi’s Story deters from the typified 2D formula, especially with its non-linear level progression and lack of time limit, Yoshi’s Story is a game that lacks any real identity or punch – its ho-hum level design coupled with some truly woeful boss battles makes Yoshi’s foray into his own IP a somewhat underwhelming one. Saying that, the game still maintains that irresistible charm that is usually peppered throughout Ninty’s best work – just don’t expect the game to be any more than unremarkable.

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And thanks for reading! This was initially meant to be a quick review but ended up becoming a dissection of the games industry in the 90’s. My apologies. As a peace offering, please listen to this:

It hurts.

Posted in Nintendo 64, Retro, Review | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Weeky Pickups – Sega Saturn & More!

It’s been a somewhat adventurous week thus far…and it’s only Monday! Finally, after making the order more than a week ago, the latest addition to my ever-expanding retrospective collection is here: a boxed Sega Saturn complete with five games, three controllers…and no memory pack. Whoops.

Now...where to display it...

Now…where to display it…

For those unfamiliar, the Sega Saturn was Sega’s first official foray in CD-based console gaming. I say ‘official’ as the Mega CD was a brief, albeit costly experiment that leeched onto the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis – it was a failed addition to an otherwise near-perfect machine. The Saturn was an amalgam of the technology found in both the Mega CD and 32X, another failed peripheral for the Mega Drive that turned third parties away in droves. Sega’s reputation was starting to tarnish, especially with the Sony Playstation turning the heads of consumers and developers alike. Sadly, the Saturn was unable to pick up any widespread market share due to its internal processors being incredibly finicky for development teams, with 3D games looking inferior than the PSX despite it being a technically more sound machine.

It’s a great piece of kit in hindsight. The aforementioned five games all demonstrate the strengths and limitations of the hardware – Sega Rally and Virtua Fighter 2 prove that the two 3D processors, when fully utilised, can look smooth and detailed, despite the difficulty with polygon counts and draw distance on many of the games. Granted the Playstation had these issues also, however it required a lot of development time and energy for the Saturn to perform well, a massive drawback for the console. Panzer Dragoon and NiGHTS also prove that the Saturn was fully capable at showcasing 3D visuals, but at this point both Sony and Nintendo were enticing consumers with their much lower price point and a wider, more appealing range of games. In fact, Sonic was hardly present on the Saturn as Sonic Team were unable to produce a satisfactory transition into the third dimension – that was saved for the Sega Dreamcast. But that’s for another time.

So there’s an overwhelming number of games to play and collect for such a critically under appreciated console. The only real gripe I have is that memory expansion packs (which help boost in-game animations and also save your progress) are quite pricey, so for the time being games will have to be played on the fly. Much like the 16-bit era. Oh, nostalgia.

It's for Wii U. Because it says so.

It’s for Wii U. Because it says so.

I also happened to pick up Super Smash Bros for Wii U last week, a game that strangely has yet to fully entice me. It’s a technically proficient piece of software for sure, but the overall mechanics have always somewhat irked me – I have always preferred such games as Soul Calibur/Blade and Tekken as they allow a little more fluidity when interlinking combos and special moves. But that’s just my personal taste sadly! Multiplayer however is an absolute blast, more concrete proof that the Wii U is undoubtedly the party console of choice among its contemporaries.

And isn’t the Kirby Amiibo just so detestably adorable? It also looks strangely edible. Like a big pink marshmallow or something. Hmm.

Or perhaps a boiled sweet. Either way I might eat him.

Or perhaps a boiled sweet. Either way I might eat him.

Anywho, that’s it for this week! Daytona USA is also on its way, another game that struggles with the 3D capabilities of the Saturn due to being a launch title. However there was one USP that literally forced me to buy the game almost outright  – its soundtrack. Just…listen to it here:

No, you don’t need to thank me. It’s my job.

Posted in Amiibo, Nintendo, Retro, Sega, Sega Saturn, Weekly Pickups, Wii U | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Weekly Jams – Streets of Rage 3 (Yuzo Koshiro)

STREETS

Staying true to my constantly wavering resolutions for New Year, I have finally decided to up the proverbial ante and create some brand spanking new content. Weekly Jams is the culmination of my two biggest passions, music and videogames, lovingly merged all into one retro-ridden package. In fact, nostalgia plays a big part in these segments – the coming weeks will feature a lowdown of the very best compositions found in the vast medium of videogames, ranging from the very primitive to the wildly avant-garde. And who knows, this may also rekindle your enthusiasm for music in general, especially if one is suffering from writers block. Which is an existential, soul-searching crisis in itself, by the way. But that’s for another time.

Anywho, let’s kick this off with Yuzo Koshiro’s Sega Genesis/Mega Drive swansong effort, Streets of Rage 3. Widely renowned as ‘arguably the greatest game-music composer of the 16-bit age‘  by Nintendo Power (of all publications interestingly), Koshiro’s trailblazing composition style completely redefined the way musicians approached the Mega Drive’s limited sound chip. Shattering preconceptions of what the console could do, Koshiro had the ability to morph and change template ideas into fully fledged songs – in fact, many DJ’s still sample Koshiro’s work today, a testament to how influential his sound really was.

While Revenge of Shinobi certainly broke the mold with its vast array of electronic genres and subgenres, most notably breakbeat and electro, it was really until Streets of Rage where the technical prowess of his vision was being fully realised. Merging both the timeless sound of house and hip hop, the series was eventually defined for its ethereal soundtrack, citing it as an integral part of the gameplay. However, Koshiro’s ever-changing style proved to be starkly divisive upon the release of Streets of Rage 3, the supposed final game in the series – in fact, the abrasive nature of the soundtrack  was deemed a little too much for some, especially avid supporters of his previous work.

He means business. Don't look directly at him.

He means business. Don’t look directly at him.

Crazy Train‘ perfectly represents this with its brash, techno influences, a sound somewhat akin to Moby’s debut LP. This scattered amalgam of notes is somewhat atypical to a standard song in both melody and structure, subverting people’s expectations towards what video games were able to achieve and changing up the overall gameplay aesthetic – now the game seemed more fervent than ever, with the constantly unpredictable soundtrack making each stage more chaotic and turbulent. In fact, Streets of Rage 3 is considered the weakest in the series due to its monotonous level design and rehashed mechanics, but the high-octane techno beats transcend the uninspired gameplay into something a little more erratic and exciting.

Moon‘ is the game’s highlight, combining the melodic resonance of its predecessors with a heavily processed, bass-ridden beat. With its phaser-esque hook and sludgey, squelchy and brilliantly poisonous tempo, this is among Koshiro’s finest work – alongside ‘Slow Moon‘ and ‘Keep the Groovin” that is. The most fascinating aspect about his work is that it totally transforms the notion of a limited video game jingle – this is real music that is timeless in its composition and production. While Streets of Rage 3 is more indicative of the times compared to his past work, the sheer amount of layering and ideas behind each piece is far beyond what was expected in the industry – ‘Random Cross‘ is another groove-fueled jam that uses the established bricklaying technique popularised by bands such as Talking Heads. It truly makes the listener forget its assimilation with a level in a somewhat lackluster video game – it’s a beast of its own.

Streets of Rage 3 dangerously teeters on the realms of being generic and uninspired, but with Koshiro’s unique idiosyncrasies at the helm it becomes a little more salvageable. With incredible hooks found in songs such as ‘Moon’ and ‘Random Cross’, it can be considered his most experimental work to date in line with a mainstream product – it may be detested by some listeners, but this controversial decision only makes the soundtrack more admirable. It’s loud, abrasive and, at times, unlistenable. But hey, it’s all the better for it.

…But don’t blame me if your speakers blow. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Posted in Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega, Streets of Rage, Weekly Jams, Yuzo Koshiro | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top five games I stumbled across in 2014. That were thoroughly enjoyable might I add.

It's here! It's here!

It’s here! It’s here!

Okay, so consider this a slightly less orthodox top five of sorts – obviously when comparing this independently written blog to the likes of a mainstream website, you may feel somewhat disgruntled with the overall quality of this list. But alas, rather than giving a definitive rundown of what 2014 had to offer, this slyly worded little article actually offers a host of recommendations instead; this might not successfully represent 2014 as a whole, but dang, the upcoming highlights are sure worth your time and hard earned cash. So, in other words, skim through the list, buy them…then come back and read the rest, of course.

5. Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze – Wii U

Sumptuous.

Sumptuous.

After a somewhat disastrous 2013 for the Wii U in both hardware sales and software output, 2014 embarked a more promising proposition with the early release of the then-delayed Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze. Showcasing sumptuous 3D visuals on a two dimensional plain, Tropical Freeze was not only a love letter to Rareware’s once landmark series but a concoction of new ideas to help shape its own identity – the increasingly complex and twitch heavy gameplay is beautifully woven between some truly inspired level design, a feat that was accomplished with Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii. While it may seem like more of the same, and upon first glance it most certainly looks it, Retro Studio’s idiosyncratic nature starts shining through after a while – levels effortlessly transition into various genres and sub-genres alike, with boss battles never failing to excite or enthrall. Throw in a brilliantly ethereal soundtrack from one of gaming’s most critically underrated composers, David Wise, and you have a Wii U exclusive that plays on nostalgic, emotional resonance as well as presenting a new way to play.

It’s also hard as nails too. You’re welcome.

4. Shovel Knight – Wii U/3DS/PC

Can you dig it?

Can you dig it?

Another game that perfectly understands the marriage of both old-school gameplay mechanics and consistently riveting level design, Shovel Knight is a quite simply the finest indie title released in 2014. Exhuastingly inventive in almost every facet, each level has all the variety and complexity found in a classic Mega Man game. With a little sprinkling of DuckTales. Oh, and a cheeky smattering of Super Mario Bros. 3, too.

Yet it still feels new while looking, feeling and sounding so authentically 8-bit. The art design is timeless in its primitive form, while the soundtrack is comparable to the very games that influenced it; the overall package is spit-shined and polished to absolute perfection. There’s also a hub world that pays homage to Zelda II with its hilariously weak script and puns that are brilliantly self aware – Shovel Knight is a game that lovingly utilises its source material, runs with it and makes something that could actually be considered superior in almost every way. Fluid gameplay, thrilling boss battles and a surprisingly emotive story line, fans of NES-era gaming should pick this up without question.

And for the new generation? This is a perfect representation of the golden age of gaming in the 80’s. It’s also hard as nails too…wait are we starting a trend here?

3. Bayonetta 2 – Wii U

Flock off.

Wave Race 64. With angels and demons.

Nintendo really need a little more credit when it comes to their software output and overall position in the industry. Admittedly it’s been a difficult year for developers, with triple-A titles buckling under the weight of heavy expectation by critics and fans alike – many games have suffered from troubled launches due to tight scheduling and new hardware that requires more manpower than ever in order to match their initial vision. DriveClub, The Crew and Assassin’s Creed: Unity are to name but a few, with each game riddled with glitches and game-breaking bugs – this questions the credibility of many high profile publishers such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, companies which green light blatantly unfinished games just in time for the holiday boom.

Enter Bayonetta 2, a game that is quite simply programming perfection. 60 FPS at all times, preposterously fluid combat, sumptuous art direction and consistently thrilling set pieces, Platinum Games have finally created their magnum opus. Oh, and all without the need of DLC, in game micro-transactions and performance enhancing patches. Bayonetta 2 is a game that exudes creativity, a notion that is somewhat devoid in many Western games today (not to mention natively, also) – each boss encounter is a technicolour explosion of sheer, unbridled chaos, with players being able to take control of both Cereza’s arms and legs in combat. This is a wonderfully fresh take on the action genre as combos are constantly intertwined and connected, making the game both accessible to newcomers but seriously difficult to master.

It’s an amazing feat that really showcases what the Wii U can do in terms of technical prowess. It also highlights the difference between Nintendo and its contemporaries – ensuring that a game is completely finished upon inception. In short, Bayonetta 2 truly is the real deal and treats it customers with the most utmost respect – for that, both Platinum Games and Nintendo need to be commended. Now do yourself a favour and support the damn game so we’re guaranteed a sequel, eh?!

2. Phoenix Wright Trilogy – 3DS

YOOUUU THEREEE

YOOUUU THEREEE. Play my game!…please?

A compilation that has been somewhat overlooked, especially considering its timing in the midst of the holiday rush, this incredible series of games gives you so much bang for your buck…it kind of hurts. Playing out much like an interactive graphic novel, Phoenix Wright is a game that sees the aforementioned character act out as a defense attorney, unveiling the truth behind corrupt cases and presenting evidence in a courtroom scenario. On paper, that might sound a little too Inspector Morse for some, but the actual outcome plays out more like the finale of Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar more than anything. The dialogue is hysterical at times, with the chibi-style animation transcending the plot into the realms of utter ridiculousness – and much like a good book, it becomes nearly impossible to put down.

And yes, you may think placing a remastered collection in an ‘end of’ list is cheating a tad. But when it comes down to games that are in dire need of widespread recognition, you really cannot go wrong with this. In fact, especially at its current price, it comes under as one of the highest possible recommendations.

1. Mario Kart 8 – Wii U

MK8 2014

No silly caption here. Just buy it. Or else.

You may think that Second Opinion is a Nintendo-themed blog that focuses solely on the Kyoto-based giant’s successes. Heck, you may even think that my opinion on any other system is rendered moot when the entire duration of this article has been singing the company’s praises and nothing more. 2014 however is the year of Nintendo and Mario Kart 8 is perfectly indicative of this notion – not since Sega Rally Championship for the Sega Saturn has a racing game compelled me to keep coming back for just ‘one more go’. This is testament to the game’s masterful track design, varied character roster and flawless online functionality – Mario Kart 8 is, for a lack of better word, perfection.

Nothing more can really be said – this is the kind of big budget, high profile release the Wii U desperately craved and Mario Kart 8 delivered on all fronts. The item selection is more balanced, the physics have been tweaked, the highly touted zero-gravity mechanic adds far more strategy to the gameplay, the vehicle customisation feels fully fleshed out, the online mode is hassle free and reliable – it’s really just a little overwhelming at times. The DLC is also truly essential, offering more characters and tracks from other franchises – simply put, Mario Kart 8 is a vending machine filled with your favourite confectionery, and paradoxically you are never full from it.

So while 2013 was a pretty dismal year for Nintendo, the addition of an excellent E3 conference and consistently stellar games made 2014 a memorable year for the gaming giant. And thanks to the likes of Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Bayonetta 2, the Wii U is now a piece of hardware that can finally stand on its own.

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And there we have it! 2014 was a strange year for gaming in retrospect – games failing to deliver from a technical standpoint, indie gaming proving superior in the light of system selling ‘killer apps’, the overall quality of games not living up to increasingly high expectations – for some reason, the creative spark was missing in both western and Japanese markets. Of course, there were still plenty of quality releases, especially with the likes of The Vanish of Ethan Carter and Dark Souls II managing to impress in starkly contrasting ways.

But here’s hoping 2015 is a step in the right direction for the industry in terms of both quality control and genuine creativity. And here’s hoping that hoverboards and DeLorean’s are available by the end of March. It’s 2015, right?

Posted in 3DS, GOTY, Mario Kart 8, Nintendo, Wii U | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Top 5 Most Excruciatingly Difficult Games. That I have played, of course.

Okay, own up. Who has actually broken down into an inconsolable mess while playing a video game? Liars. Whether be it Heavy Rain for its emotional resonance or the universally maligned Amy for its inhumane atrocity, gaming has the capacity to irk some form of negative response out of the player. Difficult games are a split divide for many; it can either draw you back if the challenge is presented in increments or, in most cases, cause you to chew the controller in sheer, unadulterated rage.

Anyway, here are my top five most dastardly gaming experiences that shaped the way I would forever look at my favourite pastime. Please note – this is my dainty, insignificant little list and only represents the games I have played only. Enjoy!

Blinx: The Time Sweeper (Xbox)

Not so moewjestic.

Not so moewjestic.

A beleaguered mascot in every sense of the word, Blinx was Microsoft’s attempt at broadening their demographic with a title that was somewhat comparable to Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank and, naturally, Mario. The finished product however was anything but – featuring a then-innovative 4D mechanic which was only possible on the Xbox’s built in hard drive, players could pause, stop, rewind, fast forward and slow down the environment in real time. Conceptually ambitious in scope, Blinx unfortunately had its fair share of shortcomings; this has got to be one of the most unintentionally difficult platformers in recent memory. Firstly, the camera is wildly sporadic and had a frequent tendency to lock behind a wall or enemy, a common issue found with many of its contemporaries. The only real issue with this is that Blinx is precision gaming at its most infamous – one hit and you’re dead, unless you have a few spare hearts remaining. Another insufferable irk is that Blinx’s ammunition is in the form of everyday household items that is sucked up with his ‘Time Sweeper’ – this can become overwhelmingly sparse in times of dire need, not to mention killing every enemy is imperative to finishing the level.

And the boss battles? Not only are they finicky with its spongy controls and broken camera work, but the final boss actually has the ability to manipulate time at its disposal, completely bending the rules in the process. Blinx is undoubtedly one of the most unforgiving games in its genre, and while it may be deemed a cult classic to hardened original Xbox fans, its consistent barrage of flaws hinders an otherwise curious experience. Plus it’s brutally difficult. Obviously.

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor (Wii)

So pwetty.

So pwetty.

A subversive force in the typified nature of Wii games being developed at the time, Star Successor is a ‘shmup’ that shares similarities to Treasure’s previous titles, most notably Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun. But while those said titles follow an overhead camera mechanic, Sin and Punishment is an incredibly dynamic change of format – utilising a third person on-rails style of gameplay, Star Successor is twitch gaming at its most visceral.

Upon inception, it pulls no punches – waves of enemies seer through the screen with little time to react, bullets shower the environment with an impressive sense of scale – it’s a sensory overload while being visually striking simultaneously. As mentioned before, the formula offers a wide variety of combat styles, most notably melee combat, ground battles and classic 2D side scrolling levels that are akin to Gunstar Heroes. All of this allows the player to change up their strategy, not to mention force them if things become particularly heated. Boss battles are also wildly difficult, especially when the relentless transformations allow little to no time to replenish health or react.

It may sound infuriating, and times a little unforgiving, but Star Successor is a game that is perfectly crafted in almost every facet. Unlike the aforementioned title on the list, every mistake in undoubtedly your own, despite the screen being an unfathomable explosion of polygons and technicolour at times. An oft-overlooked gem in the notoriously mediocre Wii library, Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is a game absolutely worthy of your time. Just don’t let your Nan play it, for goodness sake.

Ninja Gaiden (Xbox)

ninjagaidenblack

Biff.

Okay, so while the original NES trilogy is considered as nearly impossible by many avid 2D aficionados, Ryu Hayabusa’s Xbox debut is equally as comparable in many respects. In fact, you know you’re in trouble if you can barely defeat the game’s first boss – the tone is set almost instantly, creating a split divide between gamers due to its harsh nature. Gamers are suplexed straight into the core fighting mechanics, a firm reminder of set pieces to come; defending and parrying is not only integral to the gameplay, but also suggests one of the game’s biggest assets: its lack of reliance on button bashing.

Ninja Gaiden is an action title about precision and skill. Beat ‘em up veterans need not apply – while it may somewhat function like Dead or Alive in terms of button layout, the overall aesthetic is fluid, free roaming and intensely chaotic. Multi-tasking is one of the key components that define Ninja Gaiden’s combat – The Aquaduct, a level that strikes fear into the hearts of gamers, is perfectly indicative of this. Boss battles require strategy and patience, which sounds like an actual Ninja ethos, but simultaneously require perfect timing and quick reactions. It’s an anomaly of all things unholy, but due to its near-flawless design, it’s also hugely rewarding.

Bayonetta certainly has taken a lot of inspiration from such a landmark release – non-linear level design, varied set pieces and wildly over the top gameplay mechanics have cemented Platinum Games’ wonderful homage to such a fantastic title, albeit being more flamboyant in tone. Ninja Gaiden is not only one of the greatest action titles of the noughties, it’s also one of the most teeth-grindingly difficult. But with gameplay this darn good, does it really matter?

Mega Man 9 (Wii)

Time to fight Dr. Wahwee

Time to fight Dr. Wahwee

Just check out some of the reaction videos on Youtube. That is the perfect indicator of what to expect from Capcom’s seminal throwback title. A gleefully nostalgic piece of work, Mega Man 9 is the culmination of the series’ achievements, lovingly condensed together and spat back out for a modern audience – the sprite based 8-bit visuals, wonderfully addictive soundtrack and utterly meticulous level design all translate perfectly after the missteps that were Mega Man 7 and Mega Man 8. Oh, and the difficulty is still in tact. In full force might I add.

Mega Man 9 is not only one of the best iterations in Capcom’s longest running series, but it is also undoubtedly the most hair-raising, nail-biting subversion of the senses. Precision jumping is an absolute necessity throughout as the level design allows little room for error – in fact, Mega Man 9 is a game that will punish you for being too careful and, paradoxically, too hasty. It is a game that rewards the player with multiple attempts; it eventually becomes muscle memory, but only after hard work and patience.

Mega Man games have always been notorious for their finales and Mega Man 9 is without question the most devastating medley of twitch-based obstacles, death-defying platforming and bullet-ridden boss battles the series has ever mustered; the latter is truly one of the most unforgiving aspects of the game, albeit can certainly be completed after some serious practice. The final four level stretch upon the build up to Dr. Wily is only outrageously difficult for one reason and one reason only – the inability to save or shop for items in between. It must be completed in a single playthrough so ensuring to saviour each life is one of life’s biggest understatements.

But damn, once completed, it can certainly be considered as a great gaming accomplishment. Mega Man 9 is a masterfully developed 2D platformer that is multi-faceted both technically and emotionally – it is an existential journey that forces you to search deep inside the core of your being and effectively makes you a stronger person in the long haul. A little too philosophical perhaps? Don’t be silly, this is Mega Man 9 we’re talking about here. Prepare to die.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)

Sorry Zelda, hunny. You're just not worth it.

Sorry Zelda, hunny. You’re just not worth it.

Words cannot fathom my utter disgust for Zelda II. It’s a crying shame as the core gameplay is wonderfully fluid, not to mention the inclusion of industry standard features such as an overworld, NPC’s and stat-based elements that allowed Link to level up in a similar vein to his RPG contemporaries.

But that’s where the fun ends as Zelda II is not only the black sheep of Nintendo’s deservedly prestigious series, but also the most relentlessly difficult to the point of being almost maniacal. In fact, my bewildered five year old self didn’t understand what was happening initially – the EXP system, the imperative use of magic, the constant respawning of enemies – it honestly became a game that would only occupy five minutes of my time. But as I began to comprehend the mechanics, it became increasingly apparent that Zelda II not only mercilessly punishes you for your mistakes, but seemingly laughs at your feeble attempts. In fact, scratch that, it DOES laugh at you – Ganon chortles an evil chortle at the game over screen.

Maybe I just need a little more practice? However with a game as punishing as Zelda II, there really is little incentive to go back despite the quality of the overall gameplay. Shigeru Miyamoto recently openly admitted to making ‘one bad game’ and many people have speculated it could be Zelda II. And two broken NES controllers later, I might have to agree with them.

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -

And there we have it! For those who feel that my choices are completely off-base, please leave your feedback in the comments section – sadly due to financial constraints I have yet to play the likes of Dark Souls and other infamous games that people deem impossibly hard. But hey, these are just my personal experiences of games that truly nearly gave me a nervous disposition. And a hernia.

Until next time…

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An Ode to Starfox

GO TEAM

GO TEAM

For some gaming franchises, the transition to another generation can be a daunting undertaking. From a 2D landscape into the polygon-fuelled world of the third dimension, some iconic characters have stumbled when compared to their contemporaries – Sonic the Hedgehog is a renowned example of this, with Sonic Team failing to successfully recapture the essence of what made a 2D Sonic title so playable upon inception.

Strangely, Starfox has been a mixed bag of experiments and half-baked concepts over the years, beginning life as a technical showcase that demonstrated the power of the Super Nintendo’s 3D FX chip while eventually turning into an in-house behemoth production for the Nintendo 64. After the critical and commercial success of Starfox 64 (known as Lylat Wars in Europe due to licensing issues), the prospect of a next generation Starfox title for the Nintendo Gamecube sounded incredible in its inevitability – the result was a Legend of Zelda clone, namely Starfox Adventures, and a Namco developed action-adventure hybrid known as Starfox Assault. While Starfox Command for the DS attempted to reign in on the experimentation, it still featured overbearing touch screen mechanics that became integral to the map-oriented gameplay – it truly seemed that Nintendo’s affection for pushing ideas forward have somewhat hindered a perfect formula.

Classic.

Classic.

Now, it’s unfair to say that the aforementioned games are poorly designed; they all have moments that worked and should be commended for trying to branch the Starfox universe into something more varied and grandiose. However the core gameplay mechanics are what defined the series – games like Metroid Prime and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were incredibly successful in sustaining that original feel while expanding the world simultaneously. Starfox has sadly delved into a amalgamation of different play styles – third person shooting mechanics, dungeon exploration, puzzle solving – it’s quite frankly a mess. Starfox Assault was a game that seemed intent on pushing the series forward, and while it seems admirable in retrospect, it ultimately falls short by a lack of focus.

And that’s the key issue that the Starfox series has suffered with over the generations – the lack of coherency in terms of mechanics, story and characters. Where Starfox 64 had a patriotic and gung-ho charm that helped drive the story, Starfox Adventures’ fictitious language and obnoxious voice acting took it one step back. Where the core gameplay was focused on set pieces and inventive brick-laying level design, other mechanics deterred from this foundation and included a Tamagotchi style pet in the name of Tricky or a non functional vehicular control scheme that makes on ground missions a real pain.

Broken.

Broken.

Starfox 3D is what many could ironically consider the rebirth of the series, despite being a remake of the legendary Starfox 64. The fact that it plays flawlessly after all these years suggests a game series that is in dire need of a resurrection – it encapsulates what made the original so thrilling with its new lick of paint and 3D slider-effect. In essence, what Nintendo needs to do is understand what made the game such a hit – the idea of heart-thumping boss battles and on rails obstacles with the power of the Wii U would be a fantastic addition to the series, not to mention online co-operative play and multiplayer. While Shigeru Miyamoto has been tinkering with the second screen integration for the Starfox tech demo for Wii U, it needs to be addressed that a blockbuster experience is really what the console needs, especially when games such as Bayonetta 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X are paving the way for action gaming on the system.

Zelda.

Zelda.

Over the years, Nintendo have been successful in morphing the format of certain games while keeping its charm and atmsophere. Starfox desperately needs to go back to its roots if it wants to maintain relevance in the company’s grand canon of franchises. A focus on characters, acting and set pieces are a must, with current generation standards such as online and co-operative play – all these features would be the push it needs. To take a step backwards and understand what made the game such a massive hit in the 90’s, Nintendo must reassess what works and what does not.

Slippy out!

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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (Wii U)

Yarrrr!

Yarrrr!

When it comes to truly shock inducing gaming controversies, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker certainly made quite a splash back in 2003. Coming straight out of what could be a 90’s renaissance Disney film (but with less musical numbers), Link’s new look created a cel-shaded wave of cynicism that failed to enlighten even the most hardened fan of Nintendo’s flagship series. In hindsight, however, The Wind Waker’s valiant shift in style and tone is as triumphant as Link delivering a mighty sword attack into Ganon’s ghastly face, and seeing it again in glorious HD has never been more at home in 2013.

It was a risk worth taking – a mantra that rings true with Nintendo as a company – as The Wind Waker has since become a highly touted fan favourite, offering an unprecedented level of humour, personality and swashbuckling high-sea adventuring. In fact, the inclusion of pirates alone is incentive enough for any angst-ridden naysayer – this is a game that will throw you into the vast blue and mercilessly taunt the player with its gigantic array of sub quests, goodies and treats. Like a great big Nintendo themed piñata.

Relax those arms, seriously.

Relax those arms, seriously.

Upon inception, it becomes increasingly apparent that Link’s technicolour world is a work of virtual art. Colours pop with intensity, character animations are inconceivably smooth, level design is cinematic in scope – at times it’s difficult to believe that The Wind Waker is a ten year old Gamecube game. The same can also be said about the controls – Link’s spectrum of moves and manoeuvres offer more in the way of precision and tactics compared to previous games in the series, with more combos and spin attacks than you can shake a master sword at. It’s incredibly satisfying and makes combat all the more enjoyable when faced off with an enemy that requires strategy. A word of warning: button mashers need not apply.

Interestingly, The Wind Waker is also the only Legend of Zelda title that offers fully fledged camera controls – while the Wii lacked a second analogue stick, the Wii U’s gamepad utilises this feature effortlessly, perfectly emulating the smooth overhead feel that made the Gamecube original so easy to manipulate. Couple this with a rousing musical score and you have a game that seems intent on making you weep with sheer unadulterated joy. All the while kicking some serious Ganon bottom, of course.

A damn hot selfie.

A damn hot selfie.

However, in typical Nintendo fashion, The Wind Waker offers far more than fancy technical prowess and flawlessly integrated controls. There are a detestably large number of innovations and tweaks that propel the game into legendary status, most notably the wind and sailing mechanic. As soon as Link commandeers his own boat, the entire game branches out into an overworld that is nothing short than epic. Wind is also a vital factor in both the world of Hyrule and puzzle solving in dungeons, forcing gamers to use physics and momentum to succeed – it’s a gameplay twist that never grows tiresome and seeing Link float through thermal currents Pilotwings style while using a leaf as a parachute is always a joyous delight.

While some have complained that the Gamecube original is overwrought and cumbersome in its approach to these mechanics, others have vehemently argued that exploring the vast ocean is what makes The Wind Waker the epitome of an ‘adventure’ game. Nintendo have addressed these qualms for the Wii U re-release however, effectively streamlining the overall experience with the gamepad by making the maps and inventory easily accessible on the second screen. It’s a noteworthy addition and requires no pause button but a mere flick of the finger. Miiverse is also brilliantly conceived throughout, allowing players to communicate by either sending messages in a bottle or, more importantly, the ability to send selfies in glorious new media fashion. It’s downright hilarious, especially when players are daring enough to send a Facebook style snap in the midst of a heated boss battle. It’s just a shame that Ganon and his minions aren’t particularly photogenic.

The Wind Waker is an important landmark for a number of reasons. It fearlessly altered the Zelda formula despite consistent backlash and remarkably, ten years later, it still stands as a timeless piece of work that transcends the medium into the realms of art. It is a game that constantly inspires and excites – every corner features something new, something intriguing, something so uniquely Nintendo that it becomes a daily task to refrain yourself from leaping into the television screen. No matter what generation we enter over the coming years, it will become an inevitability that The Wind Waker will never age. And like a fine wine, it will only improve in time.

Here’s to another ten years.

Rating: 10/10

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An Introduction…

The existential years of a post graduate, eh? The constant barrage of expectation, the sleepless night of formidable unknown, the sheer terror of rejection – this comes with the territory. However, while I have yet to create a clear focal point in the vast world of multimedia, there too also becomes a fresh starting point. Enter Second Opinion, my official foray into retrospective gaming, movies and all things musical.

So the purpose of such a blog, you ask? The idea of nostalgia has forever been a concept of intrigue – we are drawn to certain things due to being a reminder of past memories, however are we truly more cynical when we become older or is the mind more logical in its overall deconstruction?

Hopefully the philosophical nature of my intention will change the depth of a typified retrospective review – have we been looking through rose-tinted glasses with a warm filed glee all these years? Does it still hold up well today? It’s time to delve deep into our childhood psyche and see if your second opinion is still the same!

I sincerely hope you enjoy the upcoming content and, naturally, feedback would be greatly appreciated :)

Josh Gimblett – Head Writer for Second Opinion.

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