Super Mario 3D All-Stars is classic Nintendo…

…in more ways than one (I’ll get to that in a little bit).

So, my first post in a long while is a reaction of sorts. Yeah, I’m not exactly thrilled about it either but hey, at least it’s encouraged me to get posting again. That aside, Nintendo have decided to celebrate Mario’s thirty-fifth anniversary with some new products and I’m going to give my unrequested take on the main feature of this celebration. I’m sure nobody cares, but, then again, I don’t particularly care that nobody cares. Here we are and here it is…

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Death by Degrees [Playstation 2]

Year: 2005 // Developer: Namco // Publisher: Namco // Also On: N/A

THE LEGEND OF TEKKEN’S FIRST LADY BEGINS HERE, the back of Death by Degrees‘ box proudly claims. And why not? Nina Williams was/is one of Tekken‘s most popular mainstays, and there was no reason why an action-based spin-off shouldn’t work when the Tekken team had previously ventured outside of the standard 1-v-1 fighting with the Tekken Force modes. Unfortunately, Nina’s solo adventure received poor to (at best) lukewarm review scores on release, and I even recall seeing Death by Degrees in a countdown of worst games for the PS2. I disagreed with these scores vehemently back in the day and, after revisiting the game in 2020, I can honestly say that I still enjoy this game.

Is it a misunderstood gem? No. There are loads of things about Death by Degrees that piss me off and were rightly criticised in period, but I feel that the good outweighs the crappy to enough of a degree (get it?) that I feel motivated to defend Namco’s Tekken spin-off.

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Well THAT was epic

If you read my recent post regarding my thoughts on Yakuza 6, you might have been under the impression that I was speaking about the game from the perspective of somebody who’d actually completed it. Well, confession time: I hadn’t. But I have now. And what an ending it was too.

But this was more than just the conclusion of yet another Yakuza game: this was the finale of Kiryu Kazuma’s story – an epic, and emotional story that spanned seven main series entries, over a decade of Yakuza/Ryu Ga Gotoku releases (the first being the PS2 original which hit Japan in 2005), and an in-game timeline that began in the late 80’s with Yakuza 0. It’s fair to say that Kiryu went through a lot during that time. He’s been embroiled in countless Yakuza conflicts and shadow games involving corrupt officials, lost countless friends and loved ones to said conflicts, and been shot, stabbed and beaten more times than I’ve had hot dinners.

The Yakuza series has always been OTT, with characters that can survive a highly unrealistic quota of explosions and bullets, but there came a point where Kiryu’s tale simply became far-fetched, so I can understand why Sega decided that it was time to retire the Dragon of Dojima. Nevertheless, I wasn’t particularly happy about said decision when Kiryu and his allies have become much-loved staples of my personal gaming landscape. So this Yakuza 6 ending NEEDED to be pretty good.

[Spoilers ahead, obviously]

Continue reading “Well THAT was epic”

Review: Koloomn (PSP)

koloomn-1Platform(s): PSP (Reviewed), Arcade (as ‘Kollon’)
Year: 2006 (Europe)
Developer: MagicPot
Publisher: 505 Gamestreet (Europe)
Genre: Puzzle

The PSP, like any other respectable handheld, has no shortage of puzzle games. It’s also no stranger to block-based puzzlers, as the mighty Lumines can testify. But, also like any respectable handheld, the PSP hosted enough puzzle games that some inevitably got forgotten. Take MagicPot’s Koloomn for example: a block-based puzzle game that is just as addictive as any other.

Originally released as an arcade game called Kollon in Japan, Koloomn found a more natural home on Sony’s debut handheld in 2005. The Western PSP translation of Kollon is, in fact, an enhanced edition of an earlier Japan-only PSP port of the arcade game. Confused? Well, to muddy the waters just a little more, North America received the game under another name: Ultimate Block Party. Being completely unbiased, I have to say that I prefer the ‘Koloomn’ name and the box art we received here in Europe. It just looks more Japanese.

Does any of this nerdy, anorak stuff matter though? Absolutely not. All that matters is that Koloomn/Ultimate Block Party/Kollon is a cracking puzzle game.

Stack ’em up(wards)

Unlike many other block-based puzzlers, the blocks in Koloomn rise up from the bottom of the screen but the aim is still the same: to prevent the advancing ranks of blocks from touching the top of the play area OR, in multi-player/versus, to brick up your opponent’s screen. Blocks are cleared by forming links of four of the same colour. So far, so simple.

You re-position the blocks with a square 2×2 cursor, rotating them about until you can place four matching ones together. You are relatively free when it comes to shuffling the blocks about, moving them all around the play area by rotating them out of rows/columns into adjacent ones. That’s the basics. You’ll need to think bigger however if you want to create large combos or put an opponent under pressure.

Y’see, a group of four matching blocks is just the minimum requirement. Any number of blocks can be chained beyond that provided that the colours match. A formation takes a few seconds to disappear and, in that time, you can rotate other matching blocks to join said formation. Get smart – and quick on the controls – and you can link up multiple clusters on the playing field to clear a fat amount of blocks all at once. This is called a ‘Pop’ and, proving that size sometimes DOES matter, the bigger the Pop, the better. You can also forcibly advance the blocks with a press of the ‘R’ button and flirt with danger by filling the screen to give you more blocks to play with.

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Additionally – as per Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity – the vacuum left behind by eliminated blocks causes everything above to tumble south and fill the void(s), potentially linking up for more Pops. These are called ‘Chains’. Chains are vital for earning big points and making ‘magic’ blocks appear. Arrow blocks, for example, will turn every other block in the arrow’s direction into the same colour and eliminate them. Tactical positioning of arrow blocks can really help clear the screen when the pressure is on.

Bomb blocks turn all adjacent blocks into the same colour for an easy, instant nine-block Pop at the bare minimum. Then there are the Wave blocks that eradicate all blocks of the same colour, no matter where they are on the screen. You’ll only get one of these for making a chain of four though, so you you’ll need to be very good or (more likely) incredibly lucky.

Block Party

Multi-player is – as you’d expect – a frantic exercise in managing your own ever-filling play area whilst also dishing out the pain to your opponent. There are several different attacks or temporary status effects that you can hit your opponent with and BE the victim of such as being lumbered with inverted controls (ugh…), having giant blocks dropped onto the field or having the size of the cursor increased, severely hampering precision.

One glaring problem with playing Koloomn in 2020 is that this all-important multi-player aspect is obviously dead, unless you have seriously cool friends who still play multi-player PSP games. So that’s about three people worldwide, then. Sarcasm aside, there are at least Arcade and Campaign modes (confusingly hidden in the Multi-Play menu…) where you can play against the CPU and still enjoy the competitive side of the game. These two modes are pretty much the same with the only differences being that Campaign forces you to play as the main character, Kollon, and you have some humourous cut-scenes before each round.

Single player mode is your standard solo play where you attempt to survive for as long as possible, each successive level increasing the speed that the blocks rise up from the screen’s bottom.

That’s pretty much it. The game does at least store your high scores and rankings but there’s precious little to do once you remove the multi-player side of Koloomn and that’s the game’s only real weakness.

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You can’t help but be won over by the presentation, however. Koloomn has a really bright and bouncy cartoon aesthetic that I immediately fell in love with. From the comic-book style menus to the chibi characters with their bold outlines, it’s attractive stuff. The characters are nicely animated and full of personality and a humurous, playful vibe permeates everything. Even the blocks are smiling! The music is upbeat and dangerously catchy too. This isn’t necessarily the sort of game that you would think began life in an arcade cabinet but then again, I can totally picture the lively characters, vibrant colours and jaunty music being perfectly at home in a buzzing Japanese Game Centre.

Conclusion

Yes, Koloomn is lacking in content and, yes, it might have disappointed as a full-price release back in its day for that very same reason but that’s kind of missing the point. After all, Tetris didn’t have a whole lot going on but it still managed to charm a generation without being criticised for a lack of value. No, the value in Koloomn – as with Tetris – is in its addictive nature. It’s one of those puzzle games that’s easy to understand but takes some playing with to get proficient at. Once you’ve had some practice, however, Koloomn becomes like any other good puzzle game and hooks you with that ruthlessly effective “just one more go…” drug. Once that’s happened, you will only need the few modes to have a whole lot of fun. The fact that it looks fantastic and costs next-to-nothing to pick up today are just added bonuses.

Capcom Home Arcade Thoughts

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By now, you’ve probably seen the trailer and reviews for this thing but I’m going to talk about it anyway. I love retro/classic games and I adore Capcom’s back catalogue so a product like this should either be in my hands already, or on my Christmas wishlist. But it isn’t and here’s why.

What is Capcom Home Arcade?

Essentially, the Capcom Home Arcade is a premium version of the tried-and-tested retro-themed plug ‘n play devices. This one means business though. The device features a pair of arcade-style controls for starters, and competition-spec sticks/buttons from Sanwa. Here it is from the horse’s mouth a.k.a. the official site:

“Featuring a pair of competition class Sanwa JLF-TP-8YT sticks with 8-way GT-Y directional gates and OBSF buttons for the finest precision, response times and durability.”

So this isn’t something that’s going to fall apart and break after a few hammerings. Sanwa are, after all, a well-known and respected brand in the arcade stick field.

The device has the (pretty much now standard) HDMI-out connection and also wi-fi connectivity for uploading high scores.

As for the games, you are once again assured of quality. These are original CPS1 and CPS2 arcade ROMs running on a licensed (not without controversy…) version of the emulator, Final Burn Alpha, so you won’t be getting the kind of shady emulation associated with cheaper retro handhelds or plug ‘n plays from the likes of Blaze.

So as far as the actual quality and execution of the hardware goes, I cannot fault the Capcom Home Arcade.

What are the games?

The device comes with sixteen pre-installed arcade titles:

  • 1944: The Loop Master
  • Alien Vs Predator
  • Armored Warriors
  • Capcom Sports Club
  • Captain Commando
  • Cyberbots: Fullmetal Madness
  • Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors
  • Eco Fighters
  • Final Fight
  • Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
  • Gigawing
  • Mega Man: The Power Battle
  • Progear
  • Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting
  • Strider
  • Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo

So what’s wrong with it, then?

So…solid hardware, a decent line-up of games and sound emulation; should be a great product then, right? Well, I would never ask anybody to take my viewpoint as the gospel (because this is just my opinion after all) but, in my eyes, the Capcom Home Arcade is FAR from deserving of a “shut up and take my money!” meme.

For starters, this thing is ugly as sin. Look, I get where they were going with the design, and I’m not saying that it won’t appeal to anybody, but this just looks a bit tacky. The non-symmetrical, oddly-shaped form isn’t pleasing to my eye. It’s like the next Playstation being a giant Sony logo – who would take that seriously? I would have much preferred a traditional-shaped arcade stick decorated with some original artwork from an artist associated with Capcom such as Kinu Nishimura, Bengus or Akiman.

capcomarcade-2

But the physical shape of the Capcom Home Arcade is the least of the problems.

The roster of games is, admittedly, far from awful. These types of products are usually loaded up with the same games over and over again rather than the juicy, rarely re-released titles that fans of the company involved are constantly clamouring for. So credit must be handed to Capcom for including the likes of Alien Vs Predator, Gigawing and Armored Warriors. They also avoided two other pitfalls: wasting slots with sequels and wasting slots on a slew of Street Fighter II revisions.

That said, I have to wonder why they went for the Hyper Fighting version of SFII rather than Super Turbo, or why they chose the original Darkstalkers over the much expanded sequels. On the whole though, these are petty moans when many of these games have never been ported to home systems. In fact, almost all of these aren’t available on the likes of PSN, XBLA or Nintendo’s E-Shop at the time of writing.

avp-1
I’d honestly given up on ever seeing AvP re-released. Shame that you have to pay £200 for the privilege…

There are even two trump cards in the pack: Alien Vs Predator and Progear. The former is one of the all-time greats in the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre and has never received a home conversion (the SNES version is the same in name only), something that fans had long written off as ever happening due to licensing issues with the characters. As for Progear, this is a CAVE-developed bullet-hell shooter that has also never been released outside of obscure, mobile ports for old phones.

Did I say the line-up of games is “far from awful”? I should take that back because it’s actually bloody good once you realise that you can’t just go and (legally) download them from PSN or XBLA for a few quid.

So…what IS wrong with it?

That price.

The Capcom Home Arcade retails for £200 and that is BIG money for a plug ‘n play, no matter how good it is. You ARE getting solid build quality and an interesting collection of games to play but it’s just too much in my opinion, and that isn’t me being a tight-arse git who wants everything for nothing.

For starters, you have to be a fairly hardcore gamer to pay that much money for sixteen games, and those sorts of gamers have been playing un-converted arcade games for years on dedicated emulator-based arcade cabs. Many committed retro-heads even have the original CPS1 and CPS2 boards for these games and play them via JAMMA-compatible SuperGun devices.

Then there is MAME. Yes, it isn’t technically legal but, again, most people haven’t been waiting 20+ years for Capcom to re-license Alien Vs Predator. When a game is THAT good, you just emulate it, as you would with the other titles that have never received home conversions. Yes, we would ALL (myself included) like to play and own everything legally but it simply isn’t possible when certain games don’t get re-released. We have our virtual collection of arcade cabinets on our computers and MAME does a damn good job of emulating them by this point.

DSC_0497
Never forget about these beauties or their bigger home console sisters.

And if MAME is too dodgy for you, several of these games were included in the various Capcom Classics compilations for PS2/Xbox/PSP which are readily available on the second-hand market. Additionally, Final Fight, Armored Warriors and Captain Commando were not long ago included in the Capcom Beat ’em Up Bundle along with four other games. This is still available on PSN for £15.99.

And it’s highly unlikely that casual gamers, younger gamers or those new to Capcom’s back catalogue will want to drop £200 on this.

The fact is, you are so much better off by obtaining what you can via the aforementioned, existing compilations and just emulating the rest. The quality of the Capcom Home Arcade and its games cannot be disputed but why do yourself out of money? If this was a £100 or less then I would endorse a purchase immediately, even if the device IS butt-ugly.

Capcom would have been better off dumping these games on a disc or lumping them together as a digital compilation. Heck, release them individually on PSN, XBLA and the E-Shop. Start a new line of retro re-releases under some sort of fancy banner, perhaps. I have to assume that more money goes into Capcom’s pocket by doing it this way. Certainly, they are attempting to cash-in on the Christmas rush when more unsuspecting punters – partners of gamers for example – are likely to pay the £200. Nothing says “I love you” at Christmas when a long suffering partner presents you with a thoughtful and expensive gaming item, after all.

What I SHOULD be doing is celebrating and going nuts over Alien Vs Predator finally being shown the light of day again but, instead, I’m sitting here in disbelief having seen that £200 price tag and the naff aesthetics of the Capcom Home Arcade. If it bombs and stores are forced to slash prices by 50% or more to get rid of them then I will probably buy one but I have a feeling that these won’t be that mass-produced. The Capcom zealots will probably buy them anyway, no matter the price.

Street Fighter V: My Final Verdict (Super Ultra Turbo Dash Edition)

Almost two months ago, I decided to give Street Fighter V a second chance after ditching the pre-Arcade Edition version some time ago on the grounds that I just didn’t like what Capcom had done with it. I chronicled my thoughts, justifications and rants (mostly just me moaning, then…) in a dedicated post which you can read here, if you missed it. I signed off with an intelligent cheap “Meh” meme and these words…

…I still don’t really feel anything when I’m playing. It’s a solid game but that’s all. There’s a certain magic that I feel whenever I play Alpha 3 or Third Strike for example but not here. As with my first tour of Street Fighter V, I feel that there is a good game suffocating beneath all that F2P and online-biased structure.

But I carried on playing and thought I may as well share my final verdict now that I’ve played the expanded Arcade Edition.

And, well, it’s a good job that I’m feeling hungry because there’s a plate of humble pie in front of me.

Yes, that means I enjoyed SFV.

There – I’ve said it.

HP-1
[Image Source]
That doesn’t mean that the game is completely off the hook though. I still rank it below the other Street Fighter games (with the exception of the EX spin-offs), including Street Fighter IV, which in itself polarised opinion amongst the fanbase. To recap the things I didn’t and still don’t appreciate:

  • Being charged for everything, including simple colour swaps (seriously?)
  • The silly amount of in-game currencies, fortune tickets and all that BS; basically the smoke and mirrors that attempt (and fail) to disguise that SFV is an F2P game where you will simply end up paying real money for stuff.
  • The shift in focus to the online/tourney scene. Understandable but a definite thumbs-down from me.
  • The hack-job censorship applied to characters like Cammy and Mika…because we can’t scare the kiddies now, can we? Screw that shit.

And there’s a new one for the list that I hadn’t included before because I needed more time with the updated version of the game; the new characters. I’m assuming that Capcom has run out of ideas because the brand-new characters are just crap in my humble opinion. I’m not necessarily talking about their play style; more their look and inspiration. There’s ‘G’ who looks like lanky riff on Uncle Sam for starters. I thought it was a joke to begin with. At least his theme is cool.

Falke and Ed are just…whatever…more ‘tragic’ Shadaloo experiments. Abigail is Hugo on steroids and Zeku is Guy’s master from Street Fighter Alpha 2 but still not very interesting (why not just give us Guy?). His link to the Strider clan is a neat move on Capcom’s part but I still struggle to care about the guy (no pun intended). Then there is Necalli. Does anybody give a shit about this bloke or his story? I suppose somebody must…somewhere.

Finally, I really, really fucking hate Kage. Talk about lazy! I suppose his design is supposed to be ‘epic’ but really, it’s just yet another Evil Ryu with familiar moves. You know, I like Shoto characters, with Akuma being one of my go-to Street Fighter favourites, but I think I’ve had enough of all these new ones. Aside from the powered-up ‘Shin’ versions, there has also been various versions of Evil Ryu, a Super-Saiyan Akuma by the name of Oni, Violent Ken and now Kage. Just stop

Kage-1
Horns, fangs and a few more red flames…is this really the BEST you could do, Capcom? I worry for Street Fighter VI…

I’m undecided on Menat. She seems to have become popular enough but, eh…she’s just a new version of Rose, isn’t she?

The only new characters I’ve warmed to on any level are Laura and Kolin, though you could argue that the latter isn’t technically a new character since she was Gill’s assistant in SFIII, albeit non-playable.

ALL of that aside, I have enjoyed playing Street Fighter V. The Arcade mode has to take the lion’s share of the credit here because it finally allows me to do what I wanted to do in the first place – just have a few run-throughs with my favourite characters in the same format as Street Fighters of old. Prior to this mode’s addition, I was stuck playing Survival in the offline mode and while that was okay, it wasn’t really the same given the different rules. Arcade gives me – a non-online player – something to do and it has been an absolute godsend.

I enjoy getting good as my favourite characters and adjusting the CPU difficulty to suit but I know I’m not good enough to take it online. I’m just not that serious about fighting games anyway, and never have been. While the gameplay ‘feel’ is damn important, I’m more about the characters, design and art direction when it comes to fighting games. If all of that is spot-on, then I’ll get a lot out of a game.

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Recently, I have been playing as Karin which has been fun. [Image Source]
With that said, I know I’m in a minority so I DO understand that I’m not Capcom’s priority or target audience anymore. My refusal to go online, for example, would probably render a lot of my complaints irrelevant in the eyes of many and I get that – I truly do. Nonetheless, I’m still a paying customer and long-time veteran supporter of the Street Fighter franchise so i’m going to give my opinion, no matter what it’s worth.

In summary, I’m not in love with Street Fighter V, but I have found myself losing more time to the game than I’d expected. I like how the game plays and the aesthetics are pleasing enough to my eyes. The game is now back in ‘rotation’ on my gaming playlist and that’s not something I could have imagined myself saying earlier in the year when the box was sitting, forgotten, on my shelf.

Moral of the story: don’t rule out giving games a second chance.

CEX really stinks

It’s very rare these days that I will make the effort to visit a physical brick ‘n mortar videogame retailer. I won’t go into the reasons in this post because I think there is potential for a follow-up post dedicated solely to the decline of videogame stores. If I DO decide that I want to shop for games outside of the internet however, then there aren’t many options available here in the UK. First up, I don’t know of any independent game stores in my town (or the surrounding towns for that matter). So that leaves me with either GAME or CEX.

GAME is the most well-known videogame retailer in the UK and I can honestly say that I have no love for the company or the shopping experience there. GAME absorbed the (much cooler) Gamestation brand then binned it altogether when the group almost collapsed several years ago. That was strike one. Strike two is awarded for the sterile store interiors that dedicate half of their space to gaming merch, trading cards and Amiibo-style toys/figures. GAME also receive a third strike from me for how it’s all about the new shit. They used to keep retro games and pre-owned software from previous generations around for quite a while for example but it gets eliminated sharpish these days. This is all understandable from a marketing point of view of course but it does mean that I often leave a GAME store with nothing to show for my visit. If you are a mommy and just want to buy the latest Call of Duty or FIFA for little Timmy’s Xbox One then GAME is perfect. For gamers with a more niche and varied taste that doesn’t necessary depend on cutting-edge hardware, it’s not so interesting.

cexlogo-1

CEX on the other hand carry a wider variety of used videogame stock. They have cabinets of retro games/consoles as well as shelf space for the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube generation and everything that has happened since. So it should be the perfect antidote to GAME…right? Well, not really.

Now, I don’t know if CEX operate anywhere outside of the UK (I have heard that Australia have CEX?) in which case, y’all might be wondering just what the hell I’m talking about. Familiarity with the brand doesn’t matter in this instance though because I’m going to list all of the reasons why CEX is such a horrible shop to peruse and these reasons should resonate with everybody.

The stores stink

A CEX isn’t a CEX without some sort of nasty, nose-wrinkling odour permeating the interior of the store. The strange thing is that every CEX – no matter where you are in the country – smells terrible. Imagine a stale, sweaty, hot fragrance sometimes infused with undertones of shit and that’s what a typical CEX smells like. Honestly, it’s enough to make you evacuate the place after just a few minutes. Bleugh.

The other customers

I’m not sitting here and acting all elitist as if I’m a member of a superior master race but I certainly don’t believe that I’m “just as bad” as the typical CEX customer. Whether it’s shifty-looking individuals eyeing up used smartphones in the glass cabinets or snotty, rude kids clogging up the aisles, your fellow CEX customer isn’t a pleasant sight. Then there are “those” shoppers…the huge blokes with unkept long/afro hair wearing oversized camo-pattern jackets and enormous backpacks, taking up all of the space. Finally, the last time I visited a CEX, some guy pushed past behind me and the lingering smell of pure shit that he left in his wake forced me to leave at once. The smell was so bad that I wanted to gag. True story.

The prices

A double-edged sword this one. Sometimes, you will find a game in CEX that is so underpriced that you break into a huge grin once you’ve successfully purchased it and left the shop. One such instance occured when my sister found a Professor Layton title for the DS marked up at £6 back when each game was averaging £20 used due to their popularity. These are rare occasions however. Anything retro or from the PS2 generation is often priced according to the higher end of the “what it sells for on ebay” scale. Yeah, you won’t exactly be getting ripped-off but it’s no bargain either, especially when the manuals are often missing or the cases dirty. The proper retro stuff in the “high end” glass cabinets are the worst offenders though. You will find cardboard-boxed games in beaten-to-hell condition for the top-end price that you’d expect to pay on ebay for a copy in nice shape. Consoles are often overpriced and in filthy, scratched-up conditions as well. Also, CEX’s definition of “mint condition” is best described as ‘loose’. If “mint” means a battered-up case and missing instructions then I’d hate to know what a “bad” condition game looks like…

The condition of the stock

If you are after games that look as if they have been shat on or unearthered from a Jurassic-era bog then CEX’s shelves may have what you seek. DVD-style cases that look as if dogs have chewed on them are another common sight. Will such horrible items come with bargain-bin prices though? LOL – get out of here with that common-sense thinking!

Trade-in hypocrisy

The biggest mystery surrounding games in such despicable states (as described above) is this: how did they come to be a part of CEX’s inventory in the first place? “Well, maybe they are super loose on condition when trading in”, you might be thinking. Funny that because anybody I know who has traded games in at CEX will tell the same story: they scrutinise the condition of discs and reject badly scratched games or dirty items. This is how it SHOULD be as it is in the interests of the consumer AND the business to have good condition stock on the shelves. It is a mind-boggling contradiction then when you see games on their shelves that are only fit for the bin. Attempt to make any sense of this and you will likely look like

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Lack of professionalism

Look, I know that CEX is just a crappy retail job that probably pays low and will therefore not attract professionals. That said, the CEX staff often don’t inspire any confidence at all. I have dealt with polite and decent guys/gals in a CEX before but often, the people behind the counter are dopey, lazy and more interested in continuing private conversations than serving you promptly and professionally. I don’t need to see a college kid flirting with the pretty emo/goth/punk girl to his right. I don’t want to see staff spinning my games around casually or bitching loudly when they can’t find a disc or can’t pronounce the name (if it’s something Japanese and weird). And why do they work with battered-up laptops instead of proper till systems? Why are the card machines hidden under the counter like a guilty secret?

So that’s why I really don’t like shopping with CEX. If my standards seem too high then please, feel free to berate me in the comments section below…

Review – Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy [Playstation 4]

DSC_0395Earlier this year, I played, completed and reviewed the rather wonderful Spyro Reignited Trilogy. The remastered collection of one of my favourite series’ of games wasn’t perfect (largely due to unwelcome glitches) but it made me smile no end and really, that’s what gaming is all about. It wasn’t the first modern remaster of a beloved Playstation platforming series though; that accolade goes to the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy – the commercial success of which can likely be thanked for Spyro’s adventures receiving a makeover. I actually received both collections for Christmas last year but made a beeline for Spyro as those games were my favourites. Now, I’ve had the chance to unwrap, play and complete Crash’s remasters so here is my review of the N Sane Trilogy.

A sympathetic makeover

In my review of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, I had this to say about the overall makeover of the original games:

My overall feeling is that Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a totally authentic and – more importantly – sympathetic remake. Everything from the level layouts to the word-for-word script is as I remember it. The individuality between games has also been retained i.e. the designs of the treasure chests, the shapes of the gems and the extra life systems. Immediately, there is nothing on a basic level to offend the traditionalists who demand the most minimal of changes…

The same is true here for Crash. Everything is as you remember – it just looks a hell of a lot better. The beauty of the original Crash Bandicoot and Spyro games is that, while their worlds were crafted from (then) cutting-edge polygons and 3D tech, it was done in a cartoon-like, exaggerated style. So while those games are clearly aged when viewed through a modern filter, they are still perfectly acceptable today. Pop the original discs into your Playstation or download the digital versions from the Playstation store and you won’t be offended by horrible textures or laughable “realism” because those original games were inadvertently future-proofed by not chasing realism. The visuals are still sharp, the games still move smoothly and the music remains timeless.

With that in mind, I was sceptical about what the remasters could achieve. After all, there are plenty of other Playstation games that I think would absolutely benefit from ground-up remasters because the originals are just difficult to deal with after several decades of videogame evolution and refinement. Crash on the other hand didn’t really need much in my opinion. That said, the N Sane Trilogy manages to impress regardless. We have realistic textures now, much more dynamic special effects and nice, detailed touches such as Crash actually having proper fur. All of this is achieved without taking away any of the original games’ cartoon appeal.

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It’s as you remember, just furrier and, er…plantier. Wumpa fruit looking good enough to eat though!

Audio-wise, the music has been updated too but again, it’s very subtle, a testament to how good the original soundtrack was. I think I prefer the original but only because I’ve played the Playstation originals so much that I miss some of the minute details (the more pronounced clanking sounds in the sewer levels for example). Overall though, it’s an on-point mix that I can’t grumble about.

As with Spyro, the individual games and level layouts themselves remain utterly unchanged which pleased this crusty veteran gamer. There were only a few small additions that I noticed. You can now switch between Crash and his sister Coco for example. I didn’t detect any difference between the two Bandicoots but it’s a nice surface-level update. Coco was, after all, only originally playable in specific levels in Crash Warped. You also receive useful hints on the loading screens to point you in the direction of the bonus gems and secrets. Some may call this “dumbing down” but many of the secrets in the Crash games were pretty obtuse and even I couldn’t remember how to reach some of the coloured gems.

“A smashing blast from the past!”

One thing that the N Sane Trilogy successfully reminded me of was how challenging the first game in the series was. This is where it all began and so Crash’s reportoire of abilities is restricted to just jumping and spinning, severely minimising the amount of tricks that the player can use to negotiate the levels. This is proper old-school platforming that demands pin-point accuracy, respect for hazards and practiced timing. A lot of so-called “hardcore” gamers like to scoff at the 32-bit Playstation era and proffer the elitist opinion that this was where games got too easy and while I cannot argue with the crushing brutality of the preceeding 8 and 16-bit eras, Crash’s debut is no walk in the park and Activision did nothing to soften the punches with this remaster.

The later castle-themed levels for example play out in a 2D style and feature a gauntlet of moving platforms, staircases that collapse into ramps (requiring perfect timing) and moving enemies that must be used as platforms. Then there is the natural hazard of the into-the-screen, forward-facing platforming that often makes it difficult to safely land Crash when jumping between platforms. Yes, you have Crash’s shadow as guidance but even then, it can be challenging to guage the relative height of other platforms. This is a recurring quirk of the Crash Bandicoot games that never really goes away throughout the series and is something that you simply have to get used to.

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You will learn to hate those stairs. [Source – Youtube]
Going for the 100% completion is also much harder here than in the sequels. To earn the bonus clear gem, you must destroy all crates within a level. This much is common between all three games. What makes this objective harder in the first Crash game however is that you must perform this feat without dying even once. You need that perfect run which can require multiple restarts as well as trial-and-error mastering of a level. I had expected Activision to nix this for the remasters but they didn’t, much to their credit. It provokes frustration and sweaty-handed, tense gaming on the more challenging levels but that challenge is what we all want from our games, right? My main nemesis when going for the 100% completion was the “Fumbling in the dark” level which must have taken me three-quarters of an hour of constant re-tries to nail. That feeling upon finally hitting that perfect run though? Priceless.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is my favourite of the trilogy and this has always been so. The game remained challenging and laden with secrets but lost that brutal edge that the original game sported. For example, you can now collect the clear gem for smashing all crates without worrying about dying in the process. Crash also has some new moves such as the belly flop, crouch-jump and the uber-useful slide. Sliding then jumping allows Crash to fly further forwards for those trickier leaps of faith. You can also slide, jump then spin, a combo that requires lightning-fast inputs but launches Crash even further.

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Being able to play as Coco is a nice addition, even if she doesn’t bring any unique abilities to the game. [Source – Youtube]
Crash 2 is the perfect balance. The player will be challenged to achieve the 100% but it is nowhere near as demanding to do as the first game. Crash’s new moves give him enhanced mobility, the music is possibly the best of the series and the game saw the debut of memorable level designs such as the jetpack segments and riding the adorable polar bear.

For many gamers though, Crash Bandicoot Warped is their favourite. The game follows a similar hub-world structure to Crash 2 but this time, the levels center on real-world themes including medievil/fantasy, the Great Wall of China and Egyptian tombs. Underwater levels make their debut as do jet ski and aeroplane missions. The overall sense I get from Warped is that the traditional platforming challenge is traded off to a degree in favour of visually impressive set pieces. Here again, we have parallels with the evolution of the Spyro franchise which gradually reduced the difficulty in favour of side-missions and unique mini-games.

That’s not to say that Warped is a weak sequel – far fom it. It is undeniably the easiest of the trilogy to beat however. This is largely down to the fact that Crash gained even more special abilities and by the time you have them all, Crash is operating in Super Saiyan territory. If you had all of these abilities in the first two games for example, there would be no challenge at all. There is now an enhanced belly-flop that can destroy nearby crates with a shockwave. You can also keep pressing the spin button to fly a great distance through the air, dramatically reducing the threat posed by pits and ground-based hazards.

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Crash has the moves in Warped. [Source]
The number one offender however is the Fruit Bazooka. Once you have this, the game becomes a cakewalk. Crash can stand still and take aim at distant enemies with this weapon and eliminate all threats without ever having to get near them. Crates can be shot for easy collection as can TNT and nitro crates, removing those hazards from Crash’s path as well. Did I mention that the ammo is also unlimited? This weapon is just absolute overkill in my opinion and I still don’t know why Naughty Dog thought it was a good idea in the first place. Granted, the Fruit Bazooka is a welcome friend when you are chasing the 100% but it also feels like you are cheesing the game.

Warped is nonetheless a great game and was a great way for Naughty Dog to sign off from the franchise (CTR not withstanding) back in the day. The set pieces and variety in gameplay keep things interesting and at the end of the day, it is fun which is what matters.

Conclusions

Like the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, these Crash Bandicoot remasters are a warm, welcoming nostalgia trip. They will raise a smile and take your mind back to the late 90’s, a time where life was – possibly – simpler and the future was teeming with possibilities. Gaming was simpler back then too but despite the aged formula, the Crash Bandicoot series has stood the test of time. Clever platforming design, an unmistakable visual direction and loveable characters are the key. The N Sane Trilogy brings it all back for gamers old and new without stepping on Naughty Dog’s toes and altering their work. In short, this is the perfect example of an ideal remaster.

(Not so) Special Edition

One of E3 2019’s biggest stories was the new footage of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Expo-goers seemed to love what they saw and much frenzied fanboy whooping and cheering ensued. Hitting the videogame news outlets a little more quietly was the information on several special/collector’s editions that will be available when the game releases in 2020. The most premium of these editions will include a statue of Cloud astride his Hardy-Daytona motorcycle and be available exclusively available at Square’s online store. It’s also going to be very expensive. If you want the details then I suggest you check out Strange Girl Gaming’s blog since that’s where I learnt about it.

FFVII-1st-1

But I’m not here to talk about this particular special edition specifically. This pricey collector’s piece is simply the inspiration that I’ve needed so that I might collate my thoughts on special editions in general and put my opinion out there. You see, in the past, I would have been all over a product like the FFVII 1st Class Edition and making sure that I slapped that pre-order down before it was too late. Times have changed however because the 2019 version of me doesn’t lust after collector’s editions anymore.

In fact, I think the majority of them are just garbage. There; I’ve said it.

The market for special editions wasn’t always this way of course but you have to cast your mind back to a time when special editions were the exception rather than the rule. Younger readers amongst you might not remember but most games prior to the PS3/360 generation only shipped as standard copies. Special editions were unusual and the ‘special’ in the designation actually meant something. They were actually limited (today’s “limited” editions have pretty big print runs in comparison), difficult to find and came with bonus items that actually had some thought and money put into them.

There were two examples that immediately sprang to mind when I first started thinking about the evolution of special editions and how the older examples were simply much better. The first was The Last Ninja 2 on the Commodore 64. Here, the special set came with a real shuriken (imagine that being permitted now!) and a wearable ninja mask/hood. The other was the Ecco the Dolphin boxset for Sega’s Mega Drive. Manufactured in tiny quantities, proceeds from the sale went towards a real dolphin in the London Aquarium that had been named ‘Ecco’ as part of the tie-up.

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[Source: ebay]
But somewhere along the line, publishers realised that they could charge a small premium on top of the standard RRP of a game by placing the regular game case within a flimsy card outer sleeve and including a non-comprehensive artbook and sometimes a soundtrack CD (again, non-comprehensive and usually more of a sampler CD). JRPG’s were the first genre to frequently receive this treatment in the PS2 era and while nobody can deny the appeal of some nice extras, the problem for me was that if you enjoyed the art of the game THAT much, then there would usually be a ‘complete’ artbook available to buy from Japan which included ALL of the concept art. Likewise, a complete version of the soundtrack would be available in a standalone CD set.

The trend wasn’t so bad when confined solely to JRPG’s though. After all, JRPG players are more likely to be collectors in general so a pretty boxset that offered a little more than the usual retail release was a welcome option. But then the concept spread to pretty much every other genre and by the time of the PS3/360 era, seemingly every game had a special/collector’s/limited edition. Steelbook editions became a widespread trend as did packing games into oversized boxes with massive figurines or statues. Some games had multiple special edition variants exclusive to different retailers and then came the ‘Day One’ editions of games which usually included a voucher with some free DLC on it (did you feel ‘special’ buying those ones?). I seem to remember one of the Call of Duty games going a step further and shipping with a ‘Day Zero’ special edition.

Ar Tonelico 2 SE
The JRPG side of the PS2’s library regularly featured boxsets like this Ar Tonelico II special edition of mine that I recently sold.

The reasoning for all of this was actually quite simple. Videogame publishers were losing money thanks to the a) the pre-owned market b) retailers slashing prices within a week or two of a game’s release in order to be ultra-competitive with their rivals and c) the ignorant, entitled consumer expectation that they should receive incredible gaming experiences and pay nothing for them. Eliminating manuals, reaping extra revenue through DLC and selling season passes were methods employed to recoup some of the profits they were losing. Exploiting the materialistic magpie in us was another.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, the contents of the special editions would cost more to produce in the first place so the publishers wouldn’t make that much money on them.” It’s a fair point until you consider that a great chunk of these collector’s editions were packed with cheap tat that really wouldn’t have cost that much to manufacture. Outer boxes were flimsy for example. Many steelbooks were produced from cheap tin, as evidenced by how many older ones are rusty or corroded at this point in time. And the bundled statues were cheap, low quality efforts that paled in comparison to dedicated releases from specialised figurine/toy outfits, trading on their eye-catching size rather than finish.

And as I touched on earlier, the vast majority of these so-called premium variants were not as limited as many believed. Some were still readily available from major retailers months after release with heavily discounted price tags to encourage buyers to take these hunks of plasticky shit off the hands of stores. The Duke Nukem Forever ‘Balls of Steel’ edition for example was far cheaper than the RRP of the standard game in no time at all. I too got burnt when I bought the special set for Driver San Francisco, only to discover that the bundled Dodge Challenger model was nowhere near as good as I’d expected. Worse still, it launched for around £60 before tanking to the £20 territory.

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Looked impressive but rapidly lost all value. [Source: Youtube]
Whichever way you choose to analyse the market for special editions, there is only one truth as far as I am concerned. That truth is that publishers saturated the market with this crap and forged a paradox where something ‘special’ isn’t actually ‘special’ anymore. Take billionaires for example: we see them as extraordinary people with masses of cash that lead the kind of lives we can only fantasise about (unless you, valued reader, are a billionaire too in which case I feel a little honoured by your presence on my blog!) but if everybody was suddenly to become a billionaire then none of us would be extraordinary. In fact, we all be extremely average and ordinary. Boring, even. It’s a similar thing that has happened to special editions.

To put it another way, you EXPECT there to be a some form of limited/special/collector’s/ultimate/Day One/Day Zero/steelbook/exclusive (delete as applicable…) variant of any new release these days. There’s no surprise anymore; no value. We all could have safely bet next month’s paycheck on Square unveiling a lavish special edition for the Final Fantasy VII Remake but the odds on such a bet would have been incredibly low because we’d all win that wager.

I very rarely show interest in special editions anymore. Partly because of what I’ve discussed so far in this post but there are other reasons too. Storage space is one. These big boxsets take up a lot of room and when you are buying a lot of special editions, that space is eaten up rather quickly. They also cost a lot of money and investing both space and money into piles of cardboard and plastic that is often never used or displayed (just stored in boxes, cupboards or attics for the sake of ‘having’ it) is not something I see much logic in doing. For me it is just straight-up materialism and I am personally attempting to move away from materialistic personal values. I want a more minimalist, rooted approach to life where I own a few things but not excessive amounts of products that don’t enhance my life.

You might be wondering if there was a specific tipping point or collector’s edition that broke the camel’s back and you’d be correct in asking that question. For me, it was the Soulcalibur VI collector’s edition on the PS4. I was hyped for this game and pleased to say that the end product surpassed all expectations I had – SCVI is fantastic. Unfortunately, that hype led to me pre-ordering the collector’s edition which I consider to be one of my biggest wastes of money.

The big draw was the large Sophitia figure that takes up most of the box. Sophie is my favourite character in the series and so I was enticed by the prospect of owning a decent model of the Greek warrioress. Unfortunately, the actual figure felt cheap and unimpressive once I had her in my hands (I’m sure the real thing – if Sophitia wasn’t just polygons and code – would be less disappointing!). If I’m being generous, it was extremely average and not something I was happy with.

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Looks good from a distance and in pictures but up close, I wasn’t impressed. [Source]
To add salt to the wound, I then discovered that we’d been utterly shafted here in Europe by Bandai Namco. Our soundtrack was a download voucher rather than physical as in the North American version of the collector’s edition. Also, we didn’t receive the artbook or steel case. The Euro version of the SCVI CE felt like a cheap, watered-down imitation of the American counterpart. Worse still, the pre-order price for this (incomplete) edition was £130. At the time of writing this article, that translates to $163.41 which is an utter joke when you consider that the US equivalent launched for $149.99…for MORE extras.

Right now, the Euro version of the CE is still available from Amazon for just under £80. So…it’s still in stock and cheaper than it was when idiots like me pre-ordered the fucking thing. Thus proving my earlier observations that CE’s are over-priced, undesirable and nowhere near as exclusive as made out.

All I had to show for my purchase in the end was the game and bundled season pass (which has proved to be great in fairness). I struggled to sell the figure, soundtrack voucher and box on ebay for more than £25 so had to take a massive loss on the chin and learn a valuable lesson. I won’t be buying any more special editions in a hurry, that’s for sure.

What is your opinion on special editions? I’d love to read your comments/thoughts on the subject.

My E3 2019 thoughts

e319-2I’m fairly confident that the internet doesn’t need any more opinion on this year’s E3 but look here for a moment: I need to put out some quick ‘n dirty content to stop this blog from completely flat-lining. If it hasn’t already, that is (I’ll let you guys be the judge of that). On a positive side, I don’t plan on boring you with in-depth E3 2019 analysis or any attempt at “complete” coverage. What this is going to be is my thoughts in quick-fire format.

But quickly, before I get into that, I’ll just give my brief thoughts on the event overall. Personally speaking, E3 hasn’t made me feel moist for some time now. A lot of what is big in gaming at the moment doesn’t really appeal to me. Nor does the push for more power and better graphics because I’m satisfied with what we have now when it comes to the aesthetics. Lastly, I have so many games still lingering in my “to play” pile that I don’t really need anything else so unless a game strikes me as “essential”, I won’t add it to my wishlist.

With that said, let me jump into those quick-fire thoughts on some stuff I saw…

Blair Witch Project

This one came out of nowhere and despite what I’ve just said about not being interested in hyper-realism, I was very impressed by the trailer. Blair Witch Project looks creepy as fuck and I would certainly be interested in experiencing the final product.

A new Xbox console

A new Xbox is coming next year and promises to be uber-powerful. At first I was like, “really? already?”. Then I checked the dates and was horrified to see that the Xbox One was released in 2013! Where has that time gone? The XBO and PS4 still feel new to me but I guess Project Scarlett will arrive at the end of its predecessor’s 6-7 year lifespan which is consistent with previous console life cycles. One thing I WILL say however is that I’m positive that the Xbox One, PS4 and their beefed-up X/Pro versions were touted as hardware that would last longer at retail and thus save consumers from having to keep buying new consoles. Perhaps I’m mis-remembering though. In any case, I’m really not interested in more raw power so I couldn’t care less about a new Xbox and the inevitable PS5 that will surely be announced in due course.

Marvel’s Avengers

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Just…no. This is like some sort of bootleg Avengers thing. Black Widow looks like a guy in drag. [Source]
So there’s an Avengers game which isn’t surprising given the current popularity of Marvel’s superhero franchises and the Avengers movies. Ironically though, this game doesn’t look to be linked to the MCU despite looking eerily similar. The gameplay looks okay but nothing outstanding. And can somebody tell me why Black Widow looks like a man? One to try when it’s in the bargain bins methinks.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

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I know she’s just a bunch of polygons and code but damn, Aeris is cute. Aeris’ eyes > Tifa’s boobs. Tell me I’m wrong.

The first part has finally been confirmed for 2020. Honest opinion: it looks better than it did before but I’m still not sold on the action-based gameplay. Also, I think they shrank Tifa’s boobs a little bit. Because progressiveness and all that boring jazz.

Link’s Awakening

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How awesome does this look? Genuine Switch envy right here, folks.

One thing that E3 2019 proved to me was that the Switch is now a very appealling console with lots of great exclusives on the horizon. The super-charming remake of the Gameboy’s Link’s Awakening is one such game. I had great fun playing the ‘DX’ version on my Gameboy Colour back in the 90’s so I would be down for this.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

I should be hyped for this because Fire Emblem WAS one of my favourite series’. Times have changed though and now all I see is the waifu content and anime tropes so I find it hard to want to be a part of the FE fanbase these days. What I need to do is try some of the other games that came after Fates (the games that killed my interest in FE) and see if my cynicism can be put to rest.

No More Heroes III

A Switch-seller for me that WILL be awesome by default. I don’t even need to see any more footage or gameplay to confirm this theory.

Panzer Dragoon

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I didn’t ever expect this to happen. Any chance of Saga next, Sega? [Source]
I loved Panzer Dragoon on the Sega Saturn so a remake was both surprising and welcome. I don’t necessarily condone excessive remakes over original games but nobody can deny that 3D games on the Saturn haven’t aged well. And that’s a shame when Panzer Dragoon has such beautiful world design so this is one instance where I will grant a free pass to a remake.

More Resident Evil ports…

This time it’s 5 and 6 to the Switch. My opinion on these? Just stop already. Enough with the ports of older Resident Evil games.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

I missed the first two games back in the PS2 era because I was busy playing other stuff but by all accounts, the Ultimate Alliance games were solid action efforts and I know that fans have been shouting for a third one for some time. Also receives bonus plus points from me for NOT being influenced by the MCU.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2

It’s happening. I still haven’t finished the original though due to getting sidetracked by random exploration so I need to get that sorted at some point. I sequel that is set to follow the same formula took me by surprise but I’m not complaining.

Mai and Kula in Dead or Alive 6

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It must be her winning smile… [Source: knowyourmeme.com]
No, I still haven’t bought into DOA6 but I liked these two character reveals. Kula has long been one of my favourite characters in KOF and so I’m looking forward to seeing her fighting style and breezy personality in DOA-vision. Mai was no real surprise having already successfully integrated herself in DOA5 but I’m a sucker for Ms. Shiranui’s charms (you can read that how you like).

Those are my brief thoughts on things shown at E3 2019. I’m sure I’ve missed lots of trailers and announcements but you’ll never find me watching the live streams of videogame events or sinking my time into those mammoth recap videos on Youtube. There’s actual gaming to be done you know.

Let me know what you thought and whether you agree or disagree with any of my verdicts.