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#64: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock

Format: Xbox 360 Genre: Rhythm Action Released: 2007 Developer: Neversoft

I had a very embarrassing moment a few months ago. My girlfriend came home unexpectedly and caught me stood on top of the sofa, throwing rock poses and windmilling my ‘rock arm’ like there was no tomorrow as I powered through ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath. Perhaps this would have been acceptable if I was playing a real guitar, but it’s definitely not cool if you’re playing a tiny plastic guitar with big multicoloured buttons. And if you’re wearing slippers.

Guitar Hero 3 box art Xbox 360

But hey, where’s the harm in indulging your rock fantasies every once in a while? Sure, a tiny part of your brain is telling you that you’re not really playing a face-melting solo to an audience of thousands, but a much larger, fun-loving part of your brain is screaming “OH MY GOD THIS IS AWESOME, YOU ROCK!!!” The same part of your brain might also prompt you stick out your tongue and waggle it like Gene Simmons or attempt to stage dive from the sofa.

All good clean fun I reckon – as long as no-one else is watching that is.

No prizes for guessing who this character is based on.

I’ve always preferred the Guitar Hero games to the Rock Band ones, probably because Rock Band takes itself a little too seriously in my opinion. As far as I’m concerned, the more ridiculous and over the top the Guitar Hero games get, the more I like them. Do I want to play as the Grim Reaper? Hell yeah! Do I want stage sets featuring fire-breathing dragons? You betcha! Do I want to go head to head with the devil in a guitar-solo battle for my very soul? Bring it on, Grandma!

Ahem, sorry, I seem to have come over a bit ‘gung-ho’ there all of a sudden… must be thinking about all this rock that’s doing it. I need a lie down and a cup of Earl Grey…

Judy 'Nine Inch' Nails.

[Sound of cup being replaced in saucer] OK I’m back. Now what was I saying? [Riffles through the index cards of memory while tapping a finger to his temple.] Lars Umlaut! That’s it! That’s what I wanted to talk about!

I’ll explain. There are a number of reasons why Guitar Hero III is considered the best in the series by many. One is the fantastic selection of tunes – one of the strongest line-ups across all five Guitar Hero games. Another is the excellent career mode, which gives you a real feeling of progression (something that was distinctly lacking in Guitar Hero: World Tour). But the thing that stands out for me is that Lars Umlaut is still defiantly fat.

Lars Umlaut - still defiantly fat.

For some reason, the designers stripped Lars of his belly in World Tour – something tantamount to criminal damage in my opinion. Where would rock be without fat guitarists? I mean, everyone loves a fat guitarist – almost as much as they love a fat drummer. Yet there’s poor old Lars in World Tour, shorn of his gut and pumped up with ridiculous arm muscles like some sort of Kiss He-Man. Where’s the justice? And to top it all, you can’t even make fat characters in World Tour. When did games get sizeist? There I was trying to create the ultimate custom drummer – Fat Phil – and the fattest I could make him was a little bit short of what I’d call ‘stocky’. Tch. I ask you, what is the world coming to?

Lewis

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

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Filed under 2007, Neversoft, Rhythm Action, Xbox 360

#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

#54: Pokémon Ruby

Format: Game Boy Advance Genre: RPG Developer: Game Freak/Nintendo Released: 2003

I was inspired to write this post after reading this comment by shush plz on game number 12, Doshin the Giant. Mr. plz rightly asserts that just because a game is accessible for all ages doesn’t make it a “kids’ game”, which leads me to my case in point: Pokémon Ruby.

I was initially put off playing the Pokémon games because of their “kiddie” credentials, but I eventually bought Pokémon Ruby on the recommendation of a friend. The cute graphics certainly suggest that Pokémon is “for kids”, but this is far from the truth – beneath the twee presentation there’s some rock-solid gameplay. Although the game is pretty easy to begin with, you soon find yourself engrossed in the complex resource management and micro-manipulation that’s essential for creating a champion herd of Pokémon.

HA! IN YOUR FACE, WURMPLE!!!

Oh, and did I mention that collecting Pokémon has roughly the same level of addictiveness as a packet of Jaffa Cakes dusted wth heroin? I initially approached the game with a heavy amount of cynicism with regards to the whole business of Pokémon collecting, but after a while you find yourself getting totally sucked in – all of a sudden, finding a new Pokémon acquires the same sense of excitement and achievement as passing your driving test while drunk, or unearthing an ancient chest full of dirty photos of Cleopatra.

Fishing has never been so much fun.

This game had me totally hooked – pretty much from the moment I picked it up I found that I was carrying my GBA everywhere, and I’d use every spare minute I had to search out some of the rarer specimens. Towards the end of my Pokémon marathon I recall a sobering moment – it was when I realised that I’d spent the best part of an hour traipsing around in the same patch of long grass in the hope of finding a particularly rare Pokémon, and it was about this time that I thought I’d really better stop playing this damn game and read a book or something instead.

Why walk when you can ride an uncontrollably fast bicycle?

That’s the trouble you see – although you can “complete” the game by defeating the final boss, you’ve never really finished it until you’ve collected all of the hundreds of Pokémon, but this involves a great deal of aimless wandering and random battles in the hope that one of the rarer beasts will pop up. At some point, for the sake of your own sanity, you have to just call it a day and admit to yourself that you’re never going to “catch ’em all”.

"We're gonna need a bigger boat."

I’m very tempted to get one of the new Pokémon games for the DS (Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl), but because there’s now a grand total of 480 Pokémon to collect, I’m worried that these games could finally push me over the edge (or at least put a massive dent in my reading time).

If you’ve yet to work out what the Pokémon phenomenon is all about, I thoroughly recommend you pick up one of the Pokémon games with all due haste – but just make sure you have plenty of spare time first.

Lewis

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Filed under 2003, Game Boy Advance, Game Freak, Nintendo, RPG

#53: Soul Calibur II

Format: GameCube Genre: Fighting Released: 2003 Developer: Namco

The Soul Calibur games are without doubt my favourite 3D fighting games, and I reckon Soul Calibur II – specifically the GameCube version – is the best of the lot. It certainly had the best guest character – Link from the Zelda series, who was perfectly suited to the hack and slash gameplay.

GameCube owners lucked out on the character front – the Xbox version had a rather disappointing Spawn as its special guest character, whereas the PS2 version had Heihachi from Tekken who, although certainly an impressive fighter, seemed to have been out of the office when the memo was sent round about packing a weapon in his overnight bag.

And it’s the weapons that elevate the Soul Calibur games above your average 3D fighter – from Kilik’s great big bludgeoning stick to Nightmare’s mahoosive sword, the various hack ‘n’ slashing tools added some fantastic variety to the fights.

Is that a bomb in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

The Soul Calibur series’ greatest innovation was the introduction of a ‘story mode’ for the single-player campaign. Most fighting games have pretty dull single-player modes that simply require you to fight your way through a set number of opponents in order to ‘beat’ the game [*yawn*]. Thankfully, someone at Namco realised this is a pretty tedious way of going about things, so they introduced a map that your character works his or her way across, with various extra missions and bonuses to unlock, along with an overarching story for each fighter. Some of the fights had special requirements that livened things up from the usual ‘hit your opponent in the face until they fall over’ rigmarole: one of the more interesting ones was a level in which you could only damage your foe by knocking them against a wall. Another one saw you poisoned at the start, causing your health to tick down gradually – the only way to restore it was to successfully hit your opponent (natch).

Good old Astaroth. Nice hat.

The money earned from the story mode let you ‘pimp’ your character with all sorts of improved weaponry – in a way, the whole thing was more like an RPG than a traditional fighting game. Some of the weapons were particularly brilliant – I remember Yoshimitsu’s ‘joke’ weapon was a shepherd’s crook that made bleating noises every time you hit your opponent.

The costumes were fantastic too. The levels of costume absurdity seemed to have risen steadily over the course of the series, culminating in Soul Calibur IV‘s  truly ludicrous range of fashion nightmares, but the more ridiculous the costumes get, the more I like them. Astaroth’s outfit’s in Soul Calibur II deserve a special mention – I was a big fan of his purple jester hat (see above), but he also had an even better one that looked like some sort of rubber mohican.

"Ta da! What do you mean you think the codpiece is too much?"

Generally the characters in Soul Calibur II were wonderfully designed and carefully balanced – and then there was Necrid.

No-one likes Necrid. I bet even Necrid probably doesn’t like Necrid. Not only does he look ridiculous, he’s a real pain to fight with too – his style is basically a very lazy mash-up of several other characters’ moves, none of which is very satisfying or interesting. The character was designed by Todd McFarlane (he of Spawn fame), and you kind of get the impression that the Japanese designers wanted his input in order to appeal more to Western audiences – perhaps they should have had more faith in their own talents. Thankfully, Necrid didn’t make it into the subsequent two games, and he exists now only as an embrassing blip in the series’ otherwise noble history.

Necrid - by far the least likeable character. Although he seems to be giving Yunsung a good old thrashing here.

If you get the chance, I heartily recommend tracking down the GameCube version of Soul Calibur II – not only is it blessed with probably the best single-player mode in the series, it also gives you the opportunity to lay the smack down on various golems and ninjas with a certain green-clad pointy-eared chap harbouring various bombs and boomerangs about his person. And surely that’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Lewis

Screenshots from http://www.firingsquad.com.

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Filed under 2003, Fighting, GameCube, Namco

#52: Wipeout 2097

Format: Playstation Genre: Racing Released: 1996 Developer: Psygnosis

This is a kind of an embarrassing thing to admit now, but when I first played Wipeout 2097 it seemed one of the most achingly cool things I had ever seen. But I bet many of you felt the same way when you first played it back in the heady days of 1996/97.

The original Wipeout game was a landmark release for the Playstation. It was the first non-Japanese game for the console. It was amazingly popular, going to number 1 in all format charts. Most importantly though, it was a game that was not for children. It was squarely aimed at an older, fashionable, ‘buying the latest Chemical Brothers album and clubbing at weekends’ audience. Wipeout was developed with that kind of person in mind. It was even promoted in nightclubs! Imagine!

Nowadays of course we’re used to video games aiming for such markets, but back then, along with Playstation’s whole marketing strategy, it felt like a breath of fresh idea and that video games were finally growing up. Wipeout 2097 stuck to the same formula. Of course in hindsight some of those ads and games now look painfully adolescent and end up looking faintly childish, but hey, in 1996 I was an adolescent and easily impressed.

In 1996 we were enjoying the height of Britpop, TFI Friday was allowing us to pretend we were hanging out in a showbiz pub with Danny Baker, we had a young, fashionable, handsome man called Tony Blair who was almost certainly going to be Prime Minister next year and the Playstation had established itself firmly as part of UK youth and popular culture, with Wipeout 2097 as the jewel in its trendy crown. If you wanted an image to symbolise the 90s, it would be a pre-election victory Tony Blair playing 2097 against Ginger Spice in her Union Jack dress, while Chris Evans and Liam Gallagher look on, downing pints.

The cars ran on blue future power.

It had a soundtrack featuring artists like Orbital, The Prodigy, Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers and many more. You could even pop the game CD into a normal player and just listen to the music. Gosh it was cool.

The game itself was pretty fun too. 2097 was a definite improvement on the first game. The cars handled so much better and there was a weight to the weapons and cars which didn’t really exist in the first one. The courses were crazier and graphics much more impressive. And you could actually destroy other racers. Hah!

Although 2097 was also available on the Sega Saturn and PC it was seen firmly as a Playstation game. Indeed 2097, along with many other games, showed the graphical limitations of the Saturn and helped to seal its tragic, but deserved, fate.

Even though I’m no longer a teenager, not so easily impressed and can recognise cynical marketing campaigns when I see them, there is still part of me that thinks you can’t get any more cooler than the beginning of a race in Wipeout 2097, Firestarter pounding on the sound track and the robot voice counting down the start ‘3… 2… 1… GO’.

Ian

A Wipeout 2097 t-shirt. No, I didn't own it. Even I wasn't that taken in by the marketing.

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Filed under 1996, Playstation, Psygnosis, Racing

#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

#49: Mortal Kombat II

Format: Super NES Genre: Fighting Released: 1993 Developer: Midway

[A swoosh of static gives way to an ‘insert disk’ icon, accompanied by two electronic bleeps. Rudimentary wireframe graphics flit over the screen as choral singing emanates from the television speakers, accompanied by a clanging industrial beat.  The wireframe shapes resolve into a kind of gothic throne, and as the music reaches a crescendo we zoom onto the face of the throne’s occupant – Patrick Moore. Suddenly there’s a crash of thunder, the screen whites out, and in the place of Patrick Moore’s sage visage is the word ‘GamesMaster’, with the ‘M’ picked out in florid gothic script.]

[Cut to the inside of what appears to be some kind of cathedral. Wild cheering erupts from the assembled audience as the camera swoops towards a figure dressed in a red sports jacket and crisply ironed white trousers. The look is topped off with floppy hair and Lennon glasses.]

Dominik Diamond: Hello, and welcome to GamesMaster.

[The excited cheering dies down and Dominik turns to camera 2, hands clasped earnestly.]

DD: And without further ado, let’s go over to GamesMaster to find out tonight’s challenge!

[The be-monocled face of the renowned astronomer and (supposed) games expert Patrick Moore fizzes into life on the screen, topped by some kind of metal cowl that looks like it was knocked up on an Amiga in someone’s lunch break.]

GamesMaster: Greetings! Tonight’s challenge is on the gore-fest Mortal Kombat II. The pugilists will have 1 minute to inflict as much damage as possible on their opponent. Extra points will be awarded for brutality!

DD: Thank you GamesMaster! So let’s meet tonight’s opponents – Jet from Gladiators and The Bloke From 2 Unlimited!

[Wild applause accompanied by industrial music. Jet and The Bloke From 2 Unlimited walk down the aisle of the church, escorted by two monks. Jet is wearing her Gladiators costume and looks slightly uncomfortable at being surrounded by an audience of leering 14-year-old nerds. I’d describe The Bloke From 2 Unlimited but no-one can actually remember what he  looks like. Let’s face it, he wasn’t the one you were looking at in the videos. The challengers take their seats. Dominik moves into what appears to be an altar and stands next to a man wearing a garish bandana and a hoodie.]

DD: And with me as always in the commentary box is Rad Toon from Mean Machines magazine. So Rad, can you give the contestants some advice?

Rad Toon: Well, what they’ve really got to focus on is moving their characters next to each other and pressing the punch or kick buttons. The real experts, like me, can use secret combinations of button presses to unleash what we in the industry call ‘special moves’, but perhaps we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

DD: And what about fatalities? Do you think we’ll see any of those today?

RT: [Looks confused] …what?

DD: OK, thanks Rad, let’s go over to the contestants. Jet, The Bloke From 2 Unlimited, you have 1 minute to pound your opponent into submission, starting… NOW!

[Wild cheering as the fight begins. The Bloke From 2 Unlimited is using Kung Lao and immediately unleashes a special move, flinging his razor-edged hat across the screen and causing Jet’s character, Scorpion, to spout fountains of blood. Jet looks down at her controller in confusion and starts pressing the A button repeatedly. The she laughs a bit – a rather self-aware laugh, as if she’s feeling suddenly awkward. She has clearly never played a computer game in her life.]

RT: Jet is using some classic Mortal Kombat tactics here, repeatedly pressing one button to create a flurry of fists that’s all but impossible to penetrate. But wait! She’s switched tactics! Now she’s making a stealthy retreat by running in the opposite direction from her opponent and just crouching in a corner… Ah, but The Bloke From 2 Unlimited has seen through the ruse and is just kicking her repeatedly… Jet’s trying a new tactic – she’s put down the controller and has starting doing her hair in an effort to confuse her opponent. But it hasn’t worked! The Bloke From 2 Unlimited is doing something with the controller… the screen’s gone dark… wait, what’s Kung Lao doing? Oh my God he’s sliced Scorpion in half! I didn’t know you could do… I mean, of course, the classic Kung Lao fatality, it’s what I always do when I play against my games expert friends. Who I always beat, by the way.

DD: Thanks Rad, now let’s go over to the contestants. Jet, what happened?

Jet: Did I lose? I thought I was the other one!

DD: And on that bombshell it’s time to go over to GamesMaster for the Consoltation Zone.

[Cut to a dodgy-looking CGI room. A short, rotund child with glasses materialises in front of the GamesMaster.]

Rotund Child: [Speaking with lisp] GamessssMaster, how do I get infinite lives on Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja on the Sssssuper NESSS?

[Before you can hear GamesMaster’s wisdom on the subject, a shout of “TEA’S READY!!!” echoes from the kitchen. You press the television off switch and GamesMaster’s Amiga-generated face shrinks to a white dot in the middle of the screen.]

Scorpion vs. President Baraka with classic ‘toasty’ fatality.

Dexter Fletcher-era Gamesmaster, featuring the actors from Mortal Kombat.

Lewis

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Filed under 1993, Fighting, Midway, Super NES