Category Archives: Platform

#78: Psychonauts

Format: Xbox Genre: Platform/Adventure Released: 2006 Developer: Double Fine Productions

The other day I was looking back through the games I’ve covered so far on the blog, and it dawned on me that I have a very odd taste in games. Loads of people have been asking me when I’m going to cover classics like Sonic the Hedgehog and Sensible Soccer, but to be honest I’m more interested in writing about oddities like Doshin the Giant and Emergency Call Ambulance.

That’s partly because odd games are a bit easier to write about of course. One of the most difficult posts to write so far was the one on Super Mario Kart – it’s clearly a fantastic game that had to be included on the blog, but how do you write something new and interesting about a game that everyone already knows everything about? I ended up going with the whole ‘which version of Mario Kart is the best’ angle, but I think I rewrote the whole post about three times before I was reasonably assured that it wasn’t incredibly boring.

Zapping a psychic censor. With your mind.

But the main reason that I tend to pick odd games to write about is that I genuinely like them. Give me the choice between playing Katamari Damacy and Halo 3, and Katamari would win hands down. That’s not to say I don’t like the Halo games of course,  but in the end they’re just a more refined version of a genre that’s been around for nearly 20 years, whereas there’s just nothing like Katamari Damacy out there (except for its sequels of course).

But it’s not just originality that attracts me – a good story is a plus too. I’m not one of those people who just keeps playing the same games again and again (I’m looking at you Ian) – I generally just play through a game once and then move onto something else. But the game has to make me want to see what’s around the next corner to keep me playing, and story is a big part of that.

Inside the mind of a milkman with delusional paranoia.

Dark Sector is a good example of a game that doesn’t quite get it right – the story is all over the place, to the point where the game would probably have been better off without a story at all (watching the developers painstakingly try to explain why some young man has ended up with an organic, psychically controlled throwing blade for an arm is excruciating at times). Not only that, the limited story available is delivered through incredibly dull, poorly scripted cut scenes that actually leave you even more confused about what the hell is going on rather than illuminating the finer details of the hackneyed plot (which mostly centres around the usual mad scientist/femme fatale/betrayed friend gubbins). Thankfully, the game was saved from utter mediocrity by the small spark of originality that is the glaive – the amusement to be had from lopping people’s heads off from a distance was just about enough to keep me playing to the end.

Playing Risk inside the brain of a little chap with a Napoleon complex.

The wonderful Psychonauts, on the other hand, has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to originality and story. In fact, it almost goes too far in the opposite direction – basic things, like the controls (which are ridiculously floaty), seem to have been added in almost as an afterthought, such is the focus on telling the sublimely ridiculous story. I won’t go into the details of the plot here (you can read the Wikipedia entry for that), suffice to say that at one point you get trapped inside the mind of a giant mutated lungfish and lay waste to an imaginary city – populated by tiny little mutated lungfish.

Graphically too, the game is exploding with imagination, and the stylised characters and landscapes are totally unlike anything I’ve seen before in a game (think The Nightmare Before Christmas, but set in a psychic summer camp). Not only that, in a welcome change from the norm, the voice acting is absolutely fantastic, and the deadpan one-liners often had me (genuinely) laughing out loud.

Are those faces in the clouds? Brr.

Most importantly, the game kept me playing not because I was trying to collect 100 of this, that and the other, or because I was desperately trying to get some obscure, yet utterly meaningless ‘Achievement’ – I kept playing just because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Which is the way all games should be.

Here’s a taster of the first batch of cut scenes to whet your appetite:

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.psychonauts.com)

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Filed under 2006, Adventure, Double Fine Productions, Platform, Xbox

#71: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Platform/Adventure Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has been on my list of  ‘games to do’ since we started this blog, but seeing as the Prince of Persia film is coming out this week, now seems like a good time to cover it. By the way, doesn’t that film look absolutely terrible from the trailers? I don’t want to judge it before I see it, but I’d raise a quizzical eyebrow if it turned out to be a cinematic classic. Call me a cynic, but I’ve a feeling it will follow in the manured footsteps of  the many, many other video-game-to-film disasters – and seeing the dread name ‘Jerry Bruckheimer’ on the credits seals the deal.

I should mention at this point that I absolutely hated the original 1989 Prince of Persia game, despite its fancy rotoscoped animation – it was without doubt one of the most unerringly difficult and unendingly frustrating games I’ve ever played. I couldn’t see the point in creating such amazingly fluid animation when most of the gameplay involved creeping along at a snail’s pace while scanning the screen for barely visible traps. Then dying in said traps and starting all over again. And again. And again.

Thankfully Ubisoft picked up on this when they developed Sands of Time – not only was the game much more fluid, the addition of an ability to rewind time meant that frustrating level restarts (almost) became a thing of the past.

The rewind ability was a fantastic touch – it’s a shame it hasn’t been used more often. Who wants to click through various ‘Game Over’ screens when they die in a game? Surely it makes much more sense just to rewind back to the point at which you know you made a mistake and carry on playing. And another bonus of the rewind system is that it encourages you to experiment a little more – there’s nothing more frustrating than attempting a jump that you reckon you’ll just about make, then plummeting to your death because you were a few pixels short of a ledge (Tomb Raider, I’m looking at you). But in Sands of Time you’re free to experiment with impunity, and the game’s all the more fun because of it.

However, Sands of Time‘s biggest draw was its fluidity – Lara Croft suddenly looked like a creaky octogenarian when the acrobatic Prince arrived on the scene. The ‘wall run’ move – running along a vertical wall to clear a chasm – is one of the most satisfying inventions in videogame history, and not only does it look impressive, it’s incredibly easy to perform. The same is true of most of the game’s moves – from running up the body of an opponent and deftly flipping over his head to scampering up ledges like a monkey on uppers – and the excellent controls give you a sense of empowerment and connection with the main character that’s sadly lacking in most games.

It’s a shame the ‘Mystical Arabia’ look was all but abandoned for the subsequent two installments, which adopted a dark aesthetic that tarnished the feel somewhat, but I liked the cel-shaded 2008 reboot, even if it didn’t quite match up to Sands of Time. But regardless of the quality of the sequels, it’s interesting to see how the controls and animation of Sands of Time went on to be so influential (the wall run has since turned up in games from Assassin’s Creed to Mirror’s Edge – click here for a complete list). I wonder whether the film will prove to be so successful…

Lewis

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Filed under 2003, Adventure, Platform, Playstation 2, Ubisoft

#65: Tomb Raider

Format: Playstation Genre: Platform/Third Person Shooter Released: 1996 Developer: Core Design

I’ve just finished playing Tomb Raider: Underworld, so now seems like a good time to look back on the first Tomb Raider game – arguably the best one in the series, possibly only surpassed by the tenth anniversary remake.

The tragic curse of the Tomb Raider games is that the more they try to introduce innovations, the further they get from the magic that made the first game so brilliant, yet at the same time the developers are constantly criticised for not being innovative enough. The second title in the series saw the introduction of vehicles – sections that were throwaway at best – and if we fast forward to the Tomb Raider: Legend reboot, Lara has evolved into some sort of homicidal maniac, gunning down wave after wave of bad guys like a female version of The Punisher. Thankfully, they’ve redressed the balance a bit with Underworld, which focuses more on puzzles than gunplay, but it’ll be interesting to see where the series goes next.

Looking back, the one thing that stands out in my memory when I think about the first game is the all-pervasive feeling of loneliness – something that gradually became lost as the series started introducing more and more bad guys to butcher. The first game managed to capture a feeling that you really were exploring a long-lost ruin or a never-before-explored jungle valley, and on the rare occasions when the native wildlife did spring out and attack, it was a genuine surprise after what seemed like hours spent on your own. The unexpected emergence of a fully grown T-rex has to count as one of gaming’s all-time greatest moments – it was so genuinely unexpected I almost fell off my chair.

The sense of scale was something else that really stood out – along with Mario 64, Tomb Raider was one of the first games to really use 3D environments to their fullest. I remember the feeling of emerging into one of the game’s regularly interspersed ‘wow rooms’ – gigantic caverns with intricate pathways and stunning visuals. Clambering up an enormous underground sphinx was a particular highlight, as was the unexpected delight of finding a pair of submachine guns on top of its head.

Last, but definitely not least, I have to mention the fantastic music. Music’s emerged as a bit of a theme for the last few posts (e.g. see XIII), and a big part of the Tomb Raider experience is the billow of scene-setting orchestral music that wafts from the speakers as you stumble across one of the aforementioned ‘wow rooms’. The absence of music for much of the game really adds to the feeling of isolation, so when it kicks in as you emerge into a long-forgotten pyramid it really packs a punch. There are very few pieces of memorable game music, but the Tomb Raider theme is right up there with the Super Mario Bros. music and the theme tune from Halo in terms of sticking in your head like a wad of musical brain gum.

On the downside I seem to remember that some levels used to drive me utterly mad, and the spacing of save points wasn’t exactly forgiving… often I’d be caught hurling abuse at the seemingly inept Lara for stumbling off a platform like some sort of drunk, then I’d immediately feel guilty for sending her to her death as soon as I heard that wince-inducing scream and crack of broken bones as her prone body connected with the cavern floor below. Still, no matter how many times this cycle was repeated, I’d always end up coming back for more… And it was worth finishing the game to see that giant monkey-thing with no legs at the end – I still have no idea what all that was about.

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.mobygames.com)

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Filed under 1996, Core Design, Platform, Playstation, Third Person Shooter

#59: Battletoads

Format: NES Genre: Fighting/Platform Released: 1991 Developer: Rare

Battletoads was one of my favourite games on the NES, second only to Super Mario Bros. 3, although I have to admit my recollections of how it actually played are hazy at best.

I read through a few internet reviews before I started writing this post, and almost all of them mentioned how incredibly difficult Battletoads was – something that I don’t remember at all. That either means I’m an amazingly skilled gamer or my memory isn’t up to much –  I’m guessing it’s the latter. Most reviewers bewailed the teeth-grinding difficulty of the hover bike bit on level three, and after watching a clip of the level on YouTube (see below), painful memories of thrown joypads and screamed curse words gradually began to float towards the murky surface of my brain pool. Obviously Battletoads caused so much trauma to my poor teenaged brain that the delicate organ has suppressed all memories associated with it.

Punching out the robots let you use their legs as a weapon.

There's nothing more satisfying than beating up cartoon enemies with bits of other cartoon enemies.

Battletoads was obviously a thinly veiled attempt to cash in on the mania surrounding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at the time, and I seem to remember a whole crop of these rip-offs emerging during the nineties (anyone remember Street Sharks?). I never really ‘got’ the Turtles though – even as a ten-year-old I thought they were one of the stupidest ideas I’d ever seen, and my position hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. Having said that, the Turtles video games were generally pretty good (my favourite was the original Game Boy one) – but Battletoads was in a league of its own.

"It's too orangey for crows." Not sure how the Kia Ora crows ended up in Battletoads.

"It's too orangey for crows." There was no explanation as to why the Kia Ora crows made an appearance, nor what they had against anthropomorphic toads.

One of Battletoads‘ best features was its sense of humour – something that its po-faced beat ’em up cousin Double Dragon lacked. All the cartoon violence staples were there – the character’s foot turned into a giant comedy boot to give enemies a final kick off the screen, and some enemies could be pounded into the ground, leaving only their heads showing. It was like watching Tom & Jerry but with ‘attitood’.

Comedy-violence fans rejoice! The first appearance of the Big Boot.

These comedy-violence tropes were just one example of the imagination that really set this game apart, but the variety of gameplay styles was another. The second level saw the gameplay change completely as you abseiled down some sort of multicoloured mine shaft, and then of course it all changed again on the third level with the introduction of the infamous hover bikes. My favourite bit was probably the end of level one, which saw you face off against a giant robot boss, but from the robot’s point of view – a fantastic idea that I don’t think has been used since (please correct me if I’m wrong). Skip to the end of the video below to see what I mean.

Oh, and did I mention that Battletoads looked utterly amazing at a time when most 8-bit games made do with monochromatic backgrounds and barely functional animation? No? Well consider it mentioned.

The insanely hard hover bike bit on level three – one mistake and you were sent back to the beginning.

Lewis

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Filed under 1991, Fighting, NES, Platform, Rare

#55: Conker’s Bad Fur Day

Format: Nintendo 64 Genre: Platform Released: 2001 Developer: Rare

Probably my favourite comedy series of all time is Spaced: not only is it very, very funny, you also get the impression that it was almost as much fun to make as it is to watch. Likewise with Conker’s Bad Fur Day – when you’re playing it you can almost see the developers chuckling to each other as they write the song lyrics for ‘The Great Mighty Poo’ or concoct a risque love story between a deadbeat bee and a busty sunflower.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day was one of the final games to be released for the Nintendo 64, and there’s a palpable last-day-of-term feel about the whole thing. On the game’s release in April 2001, no-one was really paying much attention to the N64 anymore – at the time it was regarded as a sort of  living fossil that encapsulated outdated ideas of what a console should be like. Its clunky, expensive cartridges seemed utterly out of touch with the Playstation generation, and by 2001 it was getting difficult to even find N64 games in the shops – my local Game store had reduced its N64 stock to just three paltry shelves on the end of an aisle.

Kerching!

All attention was focused on the brand new ‘sixth generation‘ systems – Sega had launched the Dreamcast back in 1999, Sony had unleashed the Playstation 2 (currently the best-selling games console of all time) in 2000  and Microsoft was planning the release of the Xbox by the end of 2001. Nintendo too was busy preparing for the launch of the GameCube, and seemed to be paying little attention to its current ‘lame duck’ console as it served out the end of its term (just 12 games were released for the N64 in 2001). In other words, the conditions were perfect for a game to be sneaked out that went against all of the notions of what a ‘traditional’, family-friendly N64 platform game was supposed to be like.

There was a fair old amount of swearing in the game, but the developers stopped short of the 'f' word.

The character of Conker the Squirrel had previously appeared in Conker’s Pocket Tales for the Game Boy Color, an unremittingly cute, kiddie-friendly platformer with some sort of twee plot about finding your girlfriend’s lost birthday presents. The N64 version – titled Twelve Tales: Conker 64 – was set to be in the same vein, but at some point during the game’s development, the programmers had a drastic change of heart. Possibly, they watched an episode of South Park and thought “Ooh, let’s do that.” Whatever happened, the result was a game that endeared itself to smutty-minded teenagers worldwide  – if they could find it in the shops that is.

Kids, look away now...

The humour in the game is undeniably puerile, with an emphasis on toilet jokes throughout, but most of the gags hit the mark, and parts of the game are laugh-out-loud funny. There’s also a bit more to it than you might think – film references abound, and as well as obvious nods to Alien, there’s a lovely Clockwork Orange pastiche near the beginning.

Importantly, the game buried beneath all the nob gags is pretty darn solid too. It borrows a lot from Rare’s excellent Banjo-Kazooie, and the graphics and sound effects are easily some of the best produced for the N64. In fact, the amount of speech in the game is truly staggering considering the limitations of the cartridge format.

Beats me kid, beats me.

If you missed this game the first time around, I’d highly recommend procuring a copy of it if you still have a working N64 (although due to its rarity, be prepared to shell out £50 for a boxed copy with instructions). Alternatively, you could try the Xbox remake Conker: Live & Reloaded, but be warned that it was heavily censored – who’d have thought, what with their reputation for producing consoles littered with bloody first-person shooters, that Microsoft would end up being more prudish than Nintendo?

Now brace yourself… for your pleasure and delight, it’s The Great Mighty Poo (not for those of a sensitive disposition):

And as an added bonus, here’s the infamous ‘pollination’ scene (listen out for the Withnail & I reference):

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.gamefaqs.com)

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Filed under 2001, Nintendo 64, Platform, Rare

#51: Super Mario Galaxy

Format: Wii Genre: Platform Released: 2007 Developer: Nintendo

Yep, it’s Mario again, making his triumphal third appearance on 101 Video Games (after cropping up in Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Kart). I’m a big fan of the Mario games (who isn’t?), and Super Mario Galaxy is, in my opinion, the finest Mario game ever made.

There was a lot riding on the Wii incarnation of Mario – many people felt Nintendo had dropped the ball somewhat with Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube, so Galaxy was Nintendo’s chance to restore Mario’s reputation. The trouble with Sunshine was that it didn’t really feel like a Mario game – partly because of the holiday location and partly because of the unnecessary introduction of the FLUDD backpack. It was telling that the most enjoyable levels in Sunshine were those which disposed of the backpack entirely and relied instead on good-old-fashioned, Mario 64-style platforming. So what would Nintendo come up with for Galaxy? More innovations? Or the return to old-school platforming that the fans craved?

Well, a bit of both actually. The actual platforming in Galaxy goes right back to Mario 64 for its inspiration – the triple jump, long jump and ground pound are all present and correct, and the whole feel is much more reminiscent of the game’s noble N64 forebear than its slightly awkward GameCube cousin. However, although the basic platforming mechanic is the same, in all other areas the game is totally chock-full of new and innovative ideas, and it’s such a big leap forward for the series that it makes you wonder where on earth Nintendo will be able to take Mario next.

One of my favourite gaming moments of all time is the first level of Mario Galaxy. Circling around the tiny planetoids and firing yourself into space with the star cannons is brilliant fun – it put a big ol’ grin on my face that pretty much stayed there for the entire time I played the game (and for sometime afterwards, too). And the fantastic ideas just keep coming – levels where the gravity keeps reversing, a galaxy made out of children’s toys, a bumblebee suit that lets you fly… there’s more imagination in one level of Mario Galaxy than in most entire games.

Of course, there are one or two minor niggles. The ‘rabbit catching’ section right at the very beginning is a little irritating – and surprisingly hard. In fact, when I was showing the game to a friend, I actually had to catch the rabbit for them because they found it too difficult – not a good sign considering Mario is meant to be accessible to everyone. Conversely, quite a large portion of the game is almost too easy; although having said that, some of the last few levels are devilishly difficult (see the article I wrote for Terminal Gamer here).

These are minor gripes though – Super Mario Galaxy is without doubt one of the finest games I’ve ever played, and certainly reason enough to buy a Wii if you haven’t done so already. I hardly ever play through a game again once I’ve finished it, but on completing Galaxy my first instinct was to go right back to the beginning and play it all through again… and it’s even better the second time around.

Some highlights from the game:

The wonderful first level:

Lewis

(Screenshots from www.ign.com.)

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Filed under 2007, Nintendo, Platform, Wii

#10: Super Mario Bros. 3

Format: NES Genre: Platform Released: 1990 Developer: Nintendo

Well of course Mario had to find his way onto the list somewhere.

super-mario-bros-3-box

Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the best selling video games of all time*, and with good reason – I can’t think of many games that managed to steal away my spare time so effectively and ruthlessly over such a long period. In fact, I think I could safely say that this is the first game that I was ‘addicted’ to: my sister and I could become utterly transfixed by it for hours, only stirring to take on sustenance and perform essential ablutions.

As a sequel, it surpasses the previous two games in every respect, not least graphically. I mean, compare this:

008_smb3_screenshot1

with a screenshot from the original Super Mario Bros.:

super-mario-bros-1

and I’m sure you’ll agree there was a huge improvement all round.

Another innovation was the map screen. Gone was the old spectre of linear game progression – now you could choose the route you took through the game (well, to a limited extent anyway). Further innovations included the raccoon suit, which enabled Mario to fly (obviously) and added a certain verticality to the level designs. This was just one of the many guises Mario adopted though – my favourite was the level where he climbs into a sort of green clockwork sock, which allows him to cross spikes.

Yes, that’s right, a green clockwork sock. If there’s one thing Mario 3 isn’t short of, it’s imagination.

009_smb3_screenshot

I think my favourite part of the whole game was World 4 – Giant World, where everything was huge (natch). A simple concept yes, but there was something endearing about jumping on giant Goombas and battering walls with enormous Koopa shells.

011_smb3_screenshot

Then there were the flying ship levels that cropped up throughout the game, culminating in a giant flying ship at the end and an army of wooden ‘tanks’ – more examples of the nuggets of imagination that flew out of this game like money flying out of an Icelandic bank.

003_smb3_screenshot

However, there was one big problem with Super Mario 3 – the lack of a save game. This was rectified in the version released as part of the Super Mario All Stars game on the Super NES, but in the original, once you turned off the console, that was it. In a game as complex and huge as this one, it was heart-breaking to flick that OFF switch and know that next time you played you’d have to start all over from the beginning.

This meant that it was almost impossible to complete the game, unless you used the ‘warp whistles’ to skip several worlds. I remember that once my sister and I tried to finish the game in its entirety – we played for hours, taking it in turns to finish each level, but we still ran out of lives before we reached the end.

I think this kind of sado-masochistic gameplay is indicative of the ethos of many games at the time – it was almost accepted by gamers and game designers alike that the player would be punished for failing, but that they would keep coming back for more anyway. Of course, the lack of a save game was partly due to technical reasons – the NES console had no save memory of its own, so cartridges had to be built with ‘battery back-up’ in order for a save function to be included, and many publishers sought to avoid including this costly extra in their games. Even so, you’d think Nintendo might have wanted to push the boat out a bit for this particular game – I mean, considering it was one of the best-selling games of all time, you’d think they could at least afford to include one little battery in the cart.

solar-jetman-box1

There were other ways around the save game problem too. Many games, such as Solar Jetman, used a password system to let you skip to the last level you played with approximately the same amount of lives that you finished with. Of course, it meant having to carefully keep various lists of passwords on scrappy bits of paper – lists that were often prone to being ‘tidied’ by overzealous mothers – but it was better than having to start at the beginning every time.

It’s very different nowadays of course, and even the idea of a game that you can’t save seems faintly ridiculous. More than that though, the ethos of game design has moved away from punishing the player to constantly rewarding him or her. Even the concept of ‘lives’ is becoming old hat; ‘lives’ were originally implemented into arcade games to limit the amount of time the player could use the machine before inserting more money, but this makes no sense for console games. Indeed, many games, such as the new Prince of Persia, have now abandoned the concept of ‘dying’ completely, and seem no worse because of it.

super-mario-galaxy

This is something that the designers of Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii) seem to have realised – the player is showered with so many extra lives that the whole concept of even having ‘lives’ seems pointless. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next Mario game does away with the idea of lives altogether.

Anyway, despite the possible overtones of sado-masochism (see above), Super Mario Bros. 3 was, and still is, a delight to play. Click on the video below to see the first level in action and I guarantee your eyes will glaze over with nostalgia as soon as you hear the first bar of that music…

Lewis

* SMB3 sold 18 million copies, being surpassed only by the original Pokémon games. Technically, the original Super Mario Bros. is actually the best selling game of all time, but since it was given away free with the NES, it doesn’t really count. Hey, them’s the rules.

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Filed under 1990, NES, Nintendo, Platform