Tag Archives: Xbox

Games Behind Glass Cases

My girlfriend and I took a trip to the V&A Museum of Childhood this weekend – it’s a fascinating place, and highly recommended if you live in London. There were tons of interesting exhibits, but the one that stood out for me was, of course, the video game display.

The Amstrad CPC at the Museum of Childhood.

The thing that immediately drew my eye was the Amstrad CPC. The whole display wasn’t that big, and there were only a few select consoles and computers, so it was nice to see the mighty Amstrad represented among the Playstations and Game Boys. It’s a shame Ian wasn’t there to share the moment with me really, I’m sure he would have been welling up.

It's like Space Invaders. But it's Invader from Space.

Another thing that drew my eye was ‘Invader from Space’, an early portable game that I remember playing for hours at a time when I was a child. Look kids! It’s a console that you can only play one game on! You can imagine my generation’s collective delight when the Game Boy was launched and we could – shock horror – play more than one game. Still, when the only game you can play is Space Invaders – sorry, Invader from Space – it’s not so bad.

I wonder what happened to Grandstand? Perhaps they went under after a massive lawsuit filed by Taito.

Ah, the Game Boy. Shame the box isn't the right way up.

Of course, the Game Boy was featured, and looking at it there behind glass with a little placard explaining what Tetris is for ten-year-olds, I suddenly felt very, very old. I miss my old Game Boy – it disappeared off into eBay some time ago, but seeing it again today had me hankering after a Tetris fix.

The Xbox at the Museum of Childhood.

It was interesting to see the original Xbox featured. Flick (my girlfriend) mentioned how old-fashioned it looks, and looking at it again, she’s definitely got a point. Even when it came out I thought it looked awful, and if anything it’s got worse with age. Interesting to see they displayed it with the later, smaller controller. When I told Flick the original controller was even bigger, she couldn’t believe it.

The last pic is of the Binatone TV Master, which I’ve never actually heard of before, but the Luger-style gun certainly caught my eye. Not sure you’d get away with that today.

And that’s about it. It was interesting to see these slices of my childhood locked away behind glass like priceless exhibits, and it made me wonder what subsequent generations will think of the consoles and computers we have today – I expect they’ll be laughing at the concept that you actually had to buy special equipment to play games on. And the idea that you have to buy more than one piece of equipment to play games made by different manufacturers will seem absolutely ludicrous.

Lewis

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The Games Clearout

I’m a terrible sucker for a bargain. I can’t resist snooping round charity shops on the off chance of finding a rare book or CD that I’ve always wanted, or scouring eBay in the hope of coming across some fantastic old game at a rock bottom price. The only trouble is, when it comes to games, I end up buying them quicker than I can finish them. My shelves are groaning under the weight of games I’ve snapped up for a pittance but have never got round to playing, and it’s got to the point where I can’t justify buying anything new until I’ve got rid of some of the ‘bargains’ that are gathering dust in the corner of the room.

So here we go, it’s time for a clearout. It’s raining outside and I’ve got the day off work, so the conditions are perfect for playing through some classic games and deciding which ones are destined for the local charity shop.

Metal Arms: Glitch in the System (Xbox, 2003)

8.40am – I bought this game about two years ago in a secondhand shop in Camden. I’d recently read an Edge magazine Time Extend feature on Metal Arms, so I picked it up with high expectations of the “randomness, lunacy, sadism, idiocy and comedy” promised by the review. Sadly though, the first one or two hours played like an extended tutorial, and the game ended up back on the shelf not long after I’d started playing it.

Coming back to it after all this time and picking up where I left off, it’s interesting that the very point I abandoned the game last time is the very point where the “chaos” promised by the review begins to emerge. The environments start to get a bit more interesting, the enemies get a bit more challenging and the weapons suddenly become more plentiful… but after an hour of playing the game still hasn’t grabbed me. There’s just something about it that’s not quite right – perhaps it’s the awkward, clunky controls or the frustrating level restarts. Whatever it is, Metal Arms becomes the first game to go into the charity shop bag.

Red Dead Revolver (Xbox, 2004)

9.32am – Next up is Red Dead Revolver, which I picked up for an absolute pittance (£1.50 I think) on eBay last year. I’d been reading about the upcoming Red Dead Redemption for Xbox 360, so I thought I’d give myself a taster of what’s to come by playing the prequel. The only thing is, as I found out later, Revolver is absolutely nothing like the critically lauded open-gameworld of Redemption. Whereas Redemption is a pure Rockstar game in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, Revolver is a weird hybrid that’s the result of the game being started by Capcom and finished by Rockstar San Diego.  The end product is a game with an identity crisis – it doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be an all-out third-person shooter or an RPG, and when playing I felt oddly disconnected with the character. I’d previously played through the first couple of hours of the game, and another 20 minute session today confirmed what I’d suspected – this is another one for the charity shop bag.

Jade Empire (Xbox, 2005)

10.02am – The reason I haven’t yet played Jade Empire (which I bought over 2 years ago in a charity shop) is the same reason I still haven’t read the 1,500-page novel A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for longer than I can remember. I know that once I get into them, I’ll enjoy them both immensely, but the thought of starting something so long and complicated is enough to put me off beginning at all. Sure enough, I’m sucked into Jade Empire immediately, and it’s immediately apparent that it shares plenty of characteristics with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, another BioWare game that I absolutely loved. It’s decided then: Jade Empire is a keeper, but I’m going to have to turn it off right now otherwise I’ll be playing it all day…

Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Operation Resurrection (PS2, 2003)

10.47am – My God, it’s amazing how much first-person shooters have moved on over the years. I didn’t realise just how many changes have overtaken the genre until I started playing Return to Castle Wolfenstein this morning: as soon as I spotted my first Nazi my initial instinct was to tap the X button to go into cover… but of course this game came out three years before Gears of War made a cover system standard fare for any FPS worth its salt. The result is that I’m standing toe to toe with a German soldier, tapping the fire button repeatedly until one of us falls down in a situation reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch. In fact, the game feels more like a cartoon than anything else (and not in a good way like XIII). Add in the utterly pathetic sound effects and you’ve got a game that’s destined for the charity shop pile a mere 25 minutes after it’s been turned on. Next!

Viewtiful Joe 2 (PS2, 2005)

11.23am – I bought this game last year at the same time as Return to Castle Wolfenstein – they were both part of a ‘4 games for £10’ promotion – but what a difference there is between the two. Whereas Wolfenstein felt positively archaic, Viewtiful Joe 2 feels fresh and modern, despite the fact that it’s five years old. I loved the original Viewtiful Joe, but I was worried that the sequel would just be a rehash of the previous game and, even worse, that the side-on beat ’em up format might seem a bit old hat in the brave new world of 2010. I shouldn’t have worried – the game is bursting with imagination and charm and I don’t want to put it down, but I still have a pile of games to get through and half the day’s gone already. Needless to say though, Viewtiful Joe 2 is a keeper.

Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy (PS2, 2004)

12.38pm – Like Metal Arms, I bought this game after reading a Time Extend feature about it in Edge (although annoyingly I can’t seem to find the feature online). Seeing as it was released just a year after Return to Castle Wolfenstein, I thought it might seem similarly dated, but it’s actually aged rather well. The graphics are pretty good, the controls work well (it even has a rudimentary cover system) and the mind powers add an interesting twist to the gameplay. The sci-fi nonsense plot is a little hokey, but it’s quite interesting and it romps along at a fair old pace. Not bad for a game that cost £2.50! Looks like we’ve got another keeper…

Yakuza (PS2, 2006)

2.39pm – After a break for lunch it’s back to the gaming coalface with Yakuza. I bought this game last year after hearing good things about the sequel, and I was impressed on my first go – until I had to save the game. One of my pet hates is games that will only let you save your progress at certain ridiculously far apart save points, and Yakuza is a prime offender in this category. It’s all very well having restrictive save points if you’re a teenager with hours of leisure time at your disposal, but having to sit through lengthy cut scenes and wander round various backstreets for 20 minutes before you can save your game quickly begins to grate if you’ve got limited time. And especially if your girlfriend is waiting by the door, tapping her foot and making remarks like, “We should have been at the restaurant half an hour ago, what on earth are you doing?”

Of all the games I’ve played today, Yakuza is perhaps the most instantly engrossing. It shares many similarities with Shenmue (one of my favourite Dreamcast games) and the attention to detail is brilliant. The Tokyo side streets look amazingly authentic – I used to live in Japan, and just wandering around the gameworld started making me feel nostalgic for the place, especially when I found out you can wander into a conbini and buy random Japanese drinks like Dekavita C and Natchan Orange. It’s just a shame about that damn stupid save system… If it had an autosave feature this game would be a definite keeper, but there was a point today where I was playing for 40 minutes with no opportunity to save, which is frankly ridiculous. I ended up playing Yakuza for far longer than I meant to, partly because of the save system and partly because I was really enjoying it, but sadly it’s one of those games that I doubt I’ll ever have the time or the patience to finish. It’s a shame, but this one’s for the charity shop.

Half-Life (PS2, 2001)

5.09pm – I missed Half-Life the first time around, but I bought the PS2 version after I finished playing through Half-Life 2 on the Xbox and wanted to know what happened in the first game. I got about three-quarters of the way through (to the Lambda Core level) before it became too frustrating and I gave up. Loading it up again now, I’m struck by just how primitive it looks – but then again, it did come out about ten years ago. Having said that, you can see how it completely revolutionized the first-person shooter genre, and the game excels in providing a sense of place and purpose rather than just a succession of bigger and badder enemies to gun down. The weapons are ingenious too, and ab0ut ten minutes into Lambda Core I come across the Gluon Gun, which introduces me to the joys of vaporising aliens in a maelstrom of blue light. Lovely.

Unfortunately, the frustrations I felt when first playing the game quickly resurface, and the game becomes a constant grind of creeping forward, saving, dying horribly, restarting, creeping forward, saving, dying again… you get the picture. It gets to the point where I really just can’t face crawling through the remaining five levels at this glacial pace, and I decide enough is enough. Half-Life, you may be brilliant, but it’s the charity shop for you.

And so I come to the end of a productive, sometimes frustrating, but mostly fun day. The charity shop bag is full, I’ve enjoyed the all-too-rare delight of having a day to myself to do nothing but play games, and there’s a satisfying gap on my games shelf… which leads to the question: what can I buy next?

Lewis

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Podcast 12: Best Ever Console Round 1

It begins. The already legendary 101 Video Games Best Ever Console Contest! Or Competition! Or Thing! To be honest we’ve not properly agreed on a title.

Anyway, listen as Lewis and Ian discuss, debate, argue, call each other names and play rock paper scissors stone through 12 rounds of red-hot console on console action. And if you think that sounds dirty and disgusting you should have been at the recording.

 

Lewis and Ian's debate over whether the Amstrad 6128k is better than the PS2 becomes heated.

 

Click below to listen directly through this site:

Or download and listen on your MP3 player of choice:

Podcast 12 Best Ever Console Round 1

OR subscribe to our podcasts through iTunes by clicking the link below:

WARNING – We do swear a bit in this podcast. The debates we had became very passionate and strident and we sadly couldn’t stop our language occasionally reflecting that. Plus we drunk quite a bit of beer and got a bit silly. Sorry.

We want to hear your thoughts (please let us know you listen and you like us, pleeeeease). Do you violently disagree with any of our judgements? If so, really? Violently? Just calm down, it’s only video games. But do tell us, we’d love to hear from you! As always the best comment wins a 101 Video Games pencil.*

* N.B. Still no pencils available.

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#60: Half-Life 2

Format: Xbox Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2005 Developer: Valve

You know a game is good when you just can’t stop thinking about it. Half-Life 2 was pretty much the only topic on my mind for the whole time I was playing it, and it preoccupied my thoughts for months and months afterwards. There’s just one word to describe it – amazing.

amazing: (adjective) causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing.

Half-Life 2 was amazing because it showed people that games could reach heights of entertainment, interaction and storytelling that just wouldn’t be possible in any other medium. The story has the slickness and polish of the best action films, but with the added benefit that you – as the voiceless Gordon Freeman – are the one who’s controlling it (or at least the game makes you feel as if you’re controlling it). Not only that, Half-Life 2 did a fantastic job of letting the environment do the storytelling, rather than relying on lengthy, potentially dull cut scenes. As you emerge into the devastated City 17, your first glimpse at the alien, impossibly tall monolith that towers above it gives you all the information you need to know in one glance.

The first appearance of the alien monolith. I think most of the screenshots here are from the PC version, but the Xbox version is much the same (although a little less pretty).

In my opinion, the game’s greatest triumph was its characters. The acting is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game, and the characters – particularly Alex – draw you into their story in a way that I’ve yet to see bettered. Half-Life 2 very deliberately avoids the use of cut scenes – you’re in control the whole time – and it’s a testament to the power of the story that I hung on every word the non-player characters uttered, rather than blithely ignoring them.

Shock horror! A computer game in which you actually care about the characters! So if Valve can do it, why can’t everyone else?

"Evenin'."

Then of course there’s the real-time physics. Who’d have thought physics would suddenly become so interesting? For years after Half-Life 2 was released, developers clamoured to stick new and improved physics engines in their games, all because some bright spark at Valve invented  something called the Gravity Gun.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as grabbing a nearby bin with the trusty old GG, carefully lining it up at a row of oncoming soldiers, then unleashing it with the force of a 1,000 Geoff Capes, knocking your enemies down like skittles. Finally, a worthy successor to the BFG as gaming’s Most Satisfying Weapon.

The walkers were deadly, but brilliant. Anyone remember The Tripods?

And I haven’t even mentioned the sound yet… The inhuman electronic gurgle of the enemy soldiers can be heard long before they’re seen, and it instantly puts you into a state of high awareness as you edge around corners. It’s a brilliant sound effect, carried over and improved from the original game, and whenever I think of Half-Life 2 it always pops into the back of my head. Even if I don’t want it to. Brr.

I think you might need a bigger gun...

I could go on all day about how amazing this game is, but I think I’ll end by saying that Half-Life 2 was way ahead of its time – it showed that engaging storytelling and intense action don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive concepts, and it set a benchmark of gaming excellence that, frankly, has yet to be reached by most of the games on the market today.

Now witness the genius of the Gravity Gun:

Lewis

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#31: Steel Battalion

Format: Xbox Genre: Mech Game* Released: 2003 Developer: Capcom

I saw the controller for this game before I knew anything else about it. I was doing work experience at CVG at the time, and a leaked internet photo of the extravagant twin joystick/pedal interface (see photo below) caused everyone in the office to gather round and gawp like idiots. Initially I thought it was some sort of joke, but an official press release from Capcom quickly followed – apparently they were serious about releasing a peripheral approximately half the size of the average Japanese living room**.

Steel_Battalion_Coverart

It’s obvious that the control system was dreamt up by some seriously nuts mech fanboys who wanted to take the mech game experience to its logical extreme – i.e. by recreating an actual mech cockpit***. But this is just what makes the game so appealing and refreshing – it’s fantastic to see someone coming up with such a frankly bonkers idea and then just running with it. I’d love to have seen the looks on the faces of the Capcom execs when the developers were pitching this idea, but huge kudos to the Capcom bigwigs for going with it – most companies would have run a mile when they found out how much the controller would cost. (The controller and game retailed for $200 in the US, and this was in the days before  expensive guitar and drum controllers were commonplace. Apparently the game broke even though, and they even made a sequel.)

steel battalion controller

The array of options on the controller is staggering – it features over 40 buttons, the most notorious of which was the ‘eject’ button, housed underneath a plastic cover on the top right of the console. If your mech (sorry, VT****) takes critical damage, the eject button starts flashing and you have only a few seconds to hit it before your VT explodes in a rain of fiery death. Failure to hit the button in time results in the death of your character and your save game being erased. Yep, there are no second chances in Steel Battalion – this game takes the notion of hardcore gaming to worrying extremes. I’m just surprised that the controller doesn’t give you electric shocks every time you get hit.

steel battalion screenshot 1

As you’d expect from the dazzlingly complicated array of buttons (you can read a full list of what they all do here), there’s a bit more to Steel Battalion than simple arcade-style shooting and dodging. The attention to detail is frankly ludicrous – there’s even a button that washes the camera on the front of the VT if it gets dirty during a fight (yes, that’s right, there’s a button for windscreen washers). Not to mention a fire extinguisher button and no less than 8 buttons that are used solely for starting up your VT (see video below).  Admittedly, going through all the rigmarole of pressing these various switches just to get your VT walking is quite entertaining the first time you do it, and adds to the experience enormously. However, I imagine that by the 50th time you play the game, this extended start-up sequence might start to lose some of its lustre… “Come on you bloody machine, start will you! I just want to shoot things!!!”

steel battalion screenshot 2

I say ‘I imagine’ because in fact I only ever played Steel Battalion once, at a friend’s house. (A friend with a very understanding wife who didn’t mind the fact that most of the living room had disappeared underneath shiny black plastic and flashing buttons. Having said that, he didn’t have it for very long, so maybe she put her foot down.)

“What?!”, I hear you cry, “How can you include a game that you only ever played once?!”

Well, I reply, for a number of reasons, chief of which is that this is my blog and I’ll do exactly what I like thank you very much. Hem hem. [Clears throat]

steel battalion screenshot 3

But more to the point, the whole ethos around this game probably gave me more enjoyment than my short time playing the game itself – from the buzz of excitement generated by the first pictures in the CVG office, right through to my friend excitedly telling me that he’d actually bought it. Laying my hands on that fantastically ridiculous controller for the first (and last) time was just the icing on the cake.

If you look at the shelves in any game shop you’ll see they’re heaving with ‘me too’ software – myriad copycat first-person shooters or film-licenced rubbish – so it’s good to know that there are some game companies out there with a bit of imagination and the conviction to try something new. Nice one Capcom.

Lewis

*I’ve listed this one as a ‘Mech Game’ – I was going to just put it down as ‘Action’ or ‘Vehicle Simulation’, but they’re such vague definitions as to be almost useless. I think mech games occupy a special genre of their own – a heady mix of cinematic action and unbelievably anal stat fiddling. See Armored Core For Answer for a recent example (incredibly, this is the thirteenth game in the Armored Core series – there must be a factory somewhere just churning them out).

**From an eBay listing of Steel Battalion:

I haven’t got the space for this – I only bought it a couple of days ago and my wife won’t let me keep it =(

I can just imagine the look on his wife’s face as he came through the door lugging a controller the size of a fridge. Priceless.

***I just found out that the controller was developed before they even started making the game (see here), which makes sense.

****Curiously, the two-legged metal behemoths are referred to as ‘Vertical Tanks’ or ‘VTs’ in the game rather than mechs.

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#19: Halo 2

Format: X-Box Genre: First-Person Shooter Released: 2004 Developer: Bungie

It was a tough call to choose which Halo to include here. I ruled out Halo 3 early on, simply because it didn’t have the same impact on me as the first two, even though it’s an excellent game. Halo 1 very nearly made it: I was blown away when I first played it at an X-Box launch event, and driving a jeep in co-op mode is right up there among gaming’s all time top moments. It’s sort of like taking a drive into the country with a friend, only the friend is in control of a gatling gun and keeps shouting at you for driving off cliffs.

halo-2-box-art

In the end though, Halo 2 was the clear winner, chiefly because of the enormous amount of fun I had playing it on local multiplayer. I don’t care what anyone says, playing games against people in your own living room will always be miles better than playing over the internet – the only downside being that you have to actually get the people there in the first place. Oh, and in the case of this game, a link cable, two massive TVs, two X-Boxes, two copies of Halo 2 and eight controllers.

halo 2 ghost

But, after weeks of careful planning, this was exactly what I managed to do in Japan back in June 2005, as documented on my blog An Englishman In Nyu-gun. It took some effort to get all the various bits together, especially in X-Box-starved Japan, but it was worth it – by the end of the evening my face hurt from grinning so much. Nothing really brings out the smiles quite like shooting your friend in the face with a rocket launcher.

Eight-player Halo 2, June 2005

Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to experience such a local eight-player gaming fest again. The sheer logistics involved in getting so many people and so much equipment together – not to mention the fact that most people I know don’t have the time they once did to dedicate their lives to the cause of video games – means that this event was probably a one-off. But gosh darn, what a night it was. 

halo 2 split screen tank

Special mention must go to the Zanzibar map with its alien ferris wheel (at least I presume that’s what it is), but my favourite map will always be Coagulation, which is based on the Blood Gulch map from the original Halo. The fact that it has two Banshees opens up the possibility for airborne chicken runs (first one to pull up loses), and its combination of wide open spaces, rocket launchers and sniper rifles makes for some highly entertaining skirmishes.

halo 2 jeep

The only downside of this map is the lack of energy sword – officially the most cheaty and frustrating (if you’re on the wrong end of it) yet hugely entertaining weapon in the whole game. Our gaming session that night was frequently punctuated by howls of frustration as some cheeky young cub went round dispatching all and sundry with said sword, only for the rest of us to unite in an almighty virtual bundle against the miscreant. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, etc. etc.. Although he’s just as likely to die by plasma rifle in this instance.

Damn, all this reminiscing has made me want to play it again. Anyone got a couple of X-Boxes and a bit of spare time?

(And a link cable, two massive TVs, two copies of Halo 2, eight controllers, an understanding wife, a babysitter, etc. etc.)

Lewis

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

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