Shenmue Laid The Foundation For Today’s Games

The Shenmue III train is still very much moving and, for those who have been awaiting its arrival, it’s a joy. Gee, has it really been that long? It’s enough to make one feel old.

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But the passion of the Shenmue fanbase is justified. For those who grew up playing the game and its sequel, they were more than just your average video games. They were an experience. Excuse the cliché, but that’s really the only way to describe it. While the main crux of the plot – young martial artist Ryo Hazuki is on a quest to avenge the death of his father, who died at the hands of Lan Di – is rather rudimentary in nature, the game’s exploration of East Asian culture was not. The game was the first to create a free-roaming, realistic depiction of Yokosuka, Japan and a number of areas in Hong Kong in the first and second games respectively.

How Shenmue Laid The Foundation For Today’s Games

So much painstaking detail had gone into the environments, each packed with hundreds of non-player characters, creating a truly immersive atmosphere. Before these games came along, there had never been in-game environments like these. What made things feel a little more real and down-to-earth was the fact there was a lack of reliable ‘fast travel’ methods (although options to fast-travel to certain locations was included at certain points in the sequel) and you were forced to ask various non-player characters where to go instead of relying on a minimap and indicator. In some instances, kind passers-by would actually lead you to your destination. A small detail perhaps, but it added up to the realistic world all the same.

There can be no doubt that the world of Shenmue led to the creation of such open-world sandbox-style hits such as Grand Theft Auto, although even games such as these have failed to achieve the same realism and detail that the Shenmue games achieved.

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But when it came to the realistic world, one cannot neglect to mention Shenmue‘s weather and time system. Nowadays, with the myriad of open-world adventure games out there, day-and-night cycles and weather systems are often taken for granted, but back in 1999, when the original game was released, it was something incredible and never-before-seen in a video game. A geeky fact is that the algorithmically-generated weather in the game was developed in accordance with the meteorological records of Yokosuka in 1986 (the year in which the first game’s story is set). But just as there are day-and-night cycles and weather systems, the games were among the first to implement scripted daily routines for non-player characters.

The most obvious examples of this being put into practice in modern games are, of course, the Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles by Bethesda Softworks. But the level of detail in Shenmue was stunning. Characters might leave their houses in the morning to head to the park and then head to the stores – and when it was raining, they’d remember to carry their umbrellas. They weren’t just mindless NPCs given a random walking pattern – they felt real and part of the game’s world.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the Shenmue games – the first, in particular – was discovering hidden dialogue and scenes just by being in the right place at the right time. It could be a scene with a fellow martial artist who teaches you a new fighting move or just a scene that further enhances the relationship between Ryo and another character. Either way, it felt satisfying, because, like real life, if you missed the opportunity to find those moments, they were gone for good. For ardent fans of the game, it just gave them another excuse to replay the game and find out what they missed.

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But while Shenmue‘s exploration is often heralded, its competence in mish-mashing various genres was what also made it great. During the course of the story within each of the two games, when Ryo encountered an enemy, the game would switch into a battle mode. Based on the Virtua Fighter fighting system, it was a great deal of fun due to the range of moves available and genuinely making you feel like a badass martial artist.

As has already been mentioned, Ryo could further expand his arsenal of fighting moves when encountering certain friendly NPCs or during the course of the game’s narrative. Trying out new moves on your foes offered that undeniable childlike “Woah, cool” sentiment. And when the games weren’t having you explore detailed locales and punching thugs’ faces, it was having the player engage in the famous (or ‘infamous’, depending on the person) Quick-Time Events, which have since become a common trope in video games. It allowed the player to actually take part in the games’ various action-packed scenes rather than being a mere spectator.

These QTEs were a true test of the player’s reactions, with many of said scenes often involving Ryo running along a set path and dodging people and objects in populated city streets. Perhaps what was most rewarding about these sections was that failing or succeeding them would often change the story slightly (although, in some cases, failure would result in the conventional ‘Game Over’ and force the player to retry). This is particularly evident in the second game especially. When a thieving kid steals your bag, you are sent to chase him. If the player succeeds in tapping in the correct button prompts at the right time, they will keep up with the thugs and thereby, immediately find their bag. However, a series of incorrect or poorly-timed button presses result in the player losing the kid and having to ask about town for his whereabouts and find him themselves.

Although not always implemented in this manner, QTEs have since been featured in such popular games as Resident Evil 4 and God of War. While it was classic games like Dragons’ Lair that originally introduced such a feature, it was Shenmue that introduced them in their modern cinematic form and it was the games’ creator, Yu Suzuki, who coined the term ‘Quick-Time Event’.

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Looking back at the Shenmue games, it’s amazing to see how well they have held up since their release in 1999 and 2001 respectively. The in-depth realisation of Asian culture, the impressive animation and the mixture of different gameplay styles were truly ahead of their time. Therefore, it’s just as impressive to see how these elements have been utilised in games that came out after Shenmue‘s glory days. Given that Yu Suzuki’s fan-funded (and long-awaited) Shenmue III is due out in 2018, it’ll be even more interesting to see what the game has learned from the sandbox-style video games of present and recent times.

Since the game will be playing on significantly more advanced hardware than the Dreamcast, in the form of the PS4, it will be amazing to see how such an incredible experience as Shenmue will be upgraded on it. Regardless, it will be utilising elements of gameplay that the series itself introduced to the mainstream gaming market. The games, therefore, should be remembered for doing so.

What are your thoughts on the Shenmue games? Will you be playing Shenmue III when it’s finally released? Discuss in the comments below.

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Discworld Noir

Past Blast: Discworld Noir [1999] – Pratchettean Comedic Fantasy

The 90’s were something of a golden age for the Graphic Point-and-Click Adventure.

From the likes of Revolution Software’s Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword to LucasArts’ Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and The Curse of Monkey Island, many who grew up playing these narrative-heavy, puzzle-solving games look back on this era fondly.

Indeed, reflecting on such an era makes one lament how relatively unpopular the genre is nowadays. There are many theories surrounding the genre’s downfall – the rise of DOOM and the fast-paced action game was more fun and more instantly rewarding than the slow-paced, puzzle-solving brain-scratchers that were Point-and-Clicks, some say.

Or, perhaps, the genre simply suffered from overexposure – after all, a ton of Adventure Games were released during the 90’s and many were predictable and samey in their game mechanics (point cursor here, collect an item, combine with this item, talk to character here) that the genre merely became stale.

Heck, a great deal of Point-and-Click adventures used LucasArts’ SCUMM engine in their games so maybe it’s no wonder if that was the case.

Discworld Noir

Past Blast: Discworld Noir

Thus, when Discworld Noir was released in 1999, it’s no surprise the game fell under the radar for most people. It was at this point that far more fast-paced and insta-rewarding 3D polygonal platform and shooting games were ruling the gaming roost on such platforms as the PC and Sony PlayStation.

In addition, the publisher was folding just as the game was being released, meaning it received little to no promotion. This is a shame – because many missed out on what is arguably one of the funniest and inventive narrative-driven video games in existence.

Based on the late author Terry Pratchett’s comical fantasy universe, The Discworld, Discworld Noir mixed traditional character archetypes and themes from 1930’s film noir with Pratchett’s strange and humorous world to create a unique take on both of these things respectively.

Add to the mix gameplay based around a notebook and clues (and smells – more on that later) as well as the occasional object puzzle and you got yourself a success – if not the most obvious one.

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The game’s story centres around the adventures of the Discworld’s first and only Private Detective, Lewton (a seeming nod to famous 1940’s film producer, Val Lewton) who, in traditional Noir fashion, has a fateful meeting with a femme fatale, Carlotta von Uberwald.

Asking Lewton to investigate the disappearance of her lover, Mundy, this sets the fledgeling Private Eye on a long case that will take him all over Ankh-Morpork, the Disc’s greatest city, in a plot that thickens by the hour.

In fact, it would be accurate to say that, out of the three Discworld video games developed by Perfect Entertainment, it is the most in-depth and engaging in terms of its narrative, with a few plot twists and interesting characters along the way that keep things fresh and interesting.

Whereas the original Discworld and its sequel, Discworld II: Missing Presumed…!? reflected the quirky and light-hearted tone of Pratchett’s earlier work with obvious fantasy parodies and even nods towards the absurdities of game design, Discworld Noir captures the relatively mature tone of Pratchett’s later work, especially from the ‘Watch’ novels.

Gone are the two-dimensional, zany cartoon visuals of the first two games – in their place are realistic 3D pre-rendered graphics that create a darker atmosphere. Indeed, the whole game takes place during night.

This is a different Discworld game, for sure – but it’s in these differences that the game truly shines.

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The crux of the gameplay revolves around visiting locations from the game’s overworld map (the city of Ankh-Morpork which appears in most of the novels), interacting with characters in these locations and asking them questions to proceed the case.

The player asks these questions through a simple menu of dialogue choices but more frequently through the use of Lewton’s notebook. When Lewton hears important information or potential leads, he will automatically note it down in his notebook.

The presentation of the notebook is satisfying, with players able to freely flick through the pages and choose a subject to grill the character with by simply clicking it. Often, the path forward is illuminated by thinking about what subjects to ask the character about and in what order.

Part of the way into the game, Lewton obtains the ability to switch into a werewolf and out again at will – this allows him to track different scents and smells that can help with his investigations.

This, again, adds another dynamic to the gameplay, encouraging the player to use their brains and think about the various tools in their arsenal that can be used to crack a puzzle or situation.

It makes that moment when you do figure out a puzzle all the more satisfying. Where traditional object puzzles are concerned, many players will find relief in that they are relatively sparse, particularly in regards to the previous two games which were notorious for their overuse of this mechanic.

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The presentation in Discworld Noir is visually impressive, and especially so given this is a video game released in 1999. From the music (the main theme of which employs old-style sombre saxophones) to the dark brooding setting, the game beautifully exudes the atmosphere of 1940’s film Noir.

Like with many games of its era, it utilises pre-rendered backgrounds for its various locations and characters, giving it a significant edge which wouldn’t have been achieved had the developers decided to use 3D polygonal graphics.

In fact, the only 3D polygonal character in the game is Lewton himself. Admittedly, some of the pre-rendered character animations can look a bit robotic and unnatural sometimes – and especially so, compared to the exuberance of today’s graphical technology.

Regardless, it works and doesn’t detract from the game. What does help is the game’s high-quality voice acting – which is even more impressive when you realise that four actors are providing the voices to over seventy different characters.

The stars include Irish comedian Rob Brydon (who masterfully provides Lewton’s ‘hard-boiled dialogue’ among other voices), Kate Robbins, Robert Llewellyn and Nigel Planer.

All four of these extraordinary talents are experienced UK comedy actors and it shows. The delivery of the dialogue is great, the voices varied and wonderfully executed and the comedic timing is on point.

Each character is uniquely brought to life and, with a game that revolves around character and dialogue, it’s good that they got that right.

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But ultimately, Perfect Entertainment got a lot of things right with Discworld Noir.

It’s one of those rare gems that will not only appeal to a niche audience (fans of Terry Pratchett) but also to those who enjoy adventures games in general – particularly if you like your fantasy with a twist.

The fact that the game flew underneath the radar during the time of its release is simply criminal. It’s so unique in its premise – mixing Pratchettean comedic fantasy with film Noir themes – and its plot so deep and engaging that it is undoubtedly worth playing today.

While players have experienced considerable difficulty making the game work on newer versions of Windows, you can find a workable solution on lead game designer Chris Bateman’s blog. Trust me when I say it’s worth the effort.

Grandia Past Blast [PSone] – Charm and Brilliance

The Sony PlayStation (or the PSone in its later slim, white iteration) was home to some of the biggest and best JRPGs in gaming. From the likes of the unforgettable Final Fantasy VII to Star Ocean: The Second Story to Suikoden II, Sony’s first console rivalled the Super Nintendo in terms of diverse and epic JRPGs. In this Past Blast, we’re focusing on one of the more charming and vibrant releases in the genre during the PSone’s lifespan. This release is Grandia.

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Grandia Past Blast [PSone]

Grandia was developed by Game Arts, a company previously famous for their Lunar series, the last of which had been released on the oft-forgotten Sega Mega-CD system in 1994 in Japan. Development began shortly after Lunar: Eternal Blue had been completed, taking a total of two years to finish. Although the game was initially going to be released for the Sega Mega-CD, it was eventually decided to be released on Sega’s next-gen console at the time, the Saturn in 1997. It was welcomed with large amounts of praise from fans and critics alike during its initial release in Japan but, despite a fan campaign as well as massive import sales, it wasn’t released in the West. It wasn’t until the game journeyed to Sony’s magic grey box two years later in 1999 that it was given an official English localization. And for many players, this is where their experience of Game Arts’ classic began. So, what exactly is so good about it?

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Well, firstly, there is the charm and character of the game which is not only apparent in its colourful, anime-esque presentation, but also in the shoes of its protagonists. The story follows the escapades of fourteen-year-old Justin, a wannabe adventurer, and his sidekick and childhood friend, eight-year-old Sue, as they travel the game’s world searching for the lost kingdom of the mysterious long-forgotten Icarian race, Alent. This consequently has them lock horns with a private army known as the Garlyle Forces, whose evil leader is looking to seize the secrets of the Icarians himself and use them to take over the world. As is evident, the story isn’t exactly groundbreaking – the game clearly has younger players in mind, after all – but it works.

Even the characters are admittedly not all that original, fulfilling specific archetypes down to a tee, but they’re so well-written (and many of them so well-developed over the course of the game’s narrative) that you are unlikely to care. The energetic, impulsive Justin’s rapport with the relatively level-headed but humorous Sue provides much of the game’s charm, especially in the opening chapters of the game. Even then, many of the later characters such as master swordsman, Gadwin, who acts as a mentor to the younger characters provide a lot of personality to the game, not to mention the teenage adventuress, Feena, with whom Justin develops a budding romance. Their personalities are further amplified by the emotive character portraits that appear during dialogue as well as the game’s impressive range of character animations. In fact, the range of animations – particularly during in-game scenes – are so large and varied, that it makes one think that maybe all games with sprite-based characters should be like for this.

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Another area where Grandia is strong is its in-game world. Unlike many of its contemporaries in the genre, Grandia doesn’t use pre-rendered backgrounds for its locations, instead opting to use fully 3D polygonal areas. While this does mean that the areas have a very jagged look about them (and especially noticeable in today’s climate where games are held to a much higher graphical standard), the game’s bright and vibrant colour palette, as well as the variety in location assets, nonetheless make it a joy to explore.

From lively towns to derelict temples to maze-like jungles, the game has it all, with an atmosphere aided by its great music. Now, while the game’s music is something of a mixed bag – shifting between inspired, catchy tunes and atmospheric dungeon music to rather lacklustre bongo drum loops for some of its outside areas – when the music gets good, it gets really good. This is particularly evident during some of the game’s important scenes which employ sweeping emotional strings during key emotional moments and a riveting orchestral score as its main theme. It’s a shame that the game’s soundtrack couldn’t have been completely orchestral, although this is perhaps a result of the limitations of the PlayStation’s disc space.

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Luckily though, plenty of disc space was left for battles that are fun and engaging in equal measure. In an interesting twist, the game combines elements from both turn-based and real-time battle systems. During a battle, both the party and their enemies must wait until their icon reaches the midway point of the ‘IP’ bar before they can make an action. When an enemy or player is attacked, this usually means that their icon’s journey to the midpoint of the IP bar is momentarily postponed thus giving an opportunity for the player or enemy to reach their midway point before the other and gain an advantage. If the player manages to attack the enemy while they are planning an attack or spell, they will ‘cancel’ that enemy’s action – naturally, the same applies vice versa.

As can be expected from a JRPG, there is a wide range of special attacks and magic spells for the characters to learn and exploit. In the case of the special moves, these are (mostly) unique to each character and, interestingly, are linked to the player’s use of magic. By consistently using their magic (bought at town shops using special ‘mana eggs’ found in the field or dungeons), party members not only upgrade the vigour and effect of their spells but also their stats and their repertoire of special moves. Similar effects can be achieved through the continued use of different weapons. The nature of this is that it encourages players to switch between different kinds of weapons and to keep using different kinds of spells, working out which spell works most effectively on which kind of enemy. In addition, the prospect of more punishing special moves gives the player more reason to utilise their magic.

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The real magic, however, is in the game as a whole. Combining vibrant, colourful locations with brilliant characters, a fun battle system and intriguing lore, Grandia is well-worth a look, even in this day and age. There is a reason, after all, why it is still widely talked about and given that the game is readily available on the PSN network, you really have no excuse! In an era of angst-filled JRPG solemnity, the charm and brilliance of Game Arts’ classic is a welcome one. It’s time for adventure. It’s time to level up. It’s time for Grandia.

Seven Video Game Boss Music Favourites – Let’s Celebrate Those Baddies

We all love bosses. Video game ones, that is, not our office ones. What game wouldn’t be complete without a gruelling, end-of-level monster to truly test our newly acquired skills? To make a good boss requires many different elements, and sometimes we forget about the importance of the music. So, to celebrate all those baddies and their themes, here’s our (my – can’t speak for everyone!) top boss music:

7) Castlevania – Stage Boss

One of the most wonderful and challenging games to play on the NES, Castlevania places you in the shoes of vampire hunter Simon Belmont as he attempts to rid the world of Dracula. The eerie creepy vibe to the levels and the monstrous boss fights deserves a complementing soundtrack, and that’s certainly what it gets.

6) Crash Bandicoot – Dr. Neo Cortex

I always loved the Crash Bandicoot music. It was so refreshing moving from the electronic synthesised sounds of the 16-bit wars to something just a bit more uplifting! Still, even with the chirpy melodies, there was still room for something a bit different and atmospheric. A perfect end to the game, some may say.

And here’s the N. Sane Trilogy’s wonderful new version:

5) Donkey Kong 64 – King K. Rool

Who could forget this tongue-in-cheek final boss? Who else in their right mind would choose to fight such an adversary in a glorified wrestling ring? And yet, if you purely listened to the epic music, you’d be none the wiser. A score that still takes itself seriously, yet also hits the nail squarely on.

4) Sonic & Knuckles: Minor Bosses

There are quite a few iconic boss melodies from the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) Sonic era. However, for me, I always found the music featured in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles to be just sublime. And this is the cherry on the cake. For me, this is the best boss theme of the series. It’s frantic, intense and energetic, the way a boss fight should be!

3) Super Mario World – King Koopa

A glorious final battle atop of Bowser’s lair, or King Koopa as he’s sometimes referred to. Why do I like this music? The intro builds up perfectly and choreographs with the graphical presentation perfectly. It sets the scene extremely well for the ultimate showdown that is about to come.

2) Pokemon Red & Blue – Gym Leader Battle

Ah, Pokemon, the franchise that took over the world. If you owned a Game Boy, you owned Pokemon. It was one of the biggest driving forces behind the handheld’s success. Facing a gym leader, you always knew it was going to be tough (especially early on), but the music not only casts a sense of importance over the battle, it also motivates you. The tone is exactly spot on for this game.

1) Final Fantasy VII – Boss Theme

I think somewhere it is written: “all roads lead back to Final Fantasy VII.” Though I may be wrong.

There’s only one reason why this enters in at the top spot, and one reason only. And that is purely because of how different it is to the normal battle theme. When you start to hear that iconic guitar riff, you know it’s on… like Donkey Kong. Time to put on your big boy boots because you’re not leaving this fight without earning it.

Which boss themes are your favourite reader?

Looking Back At Medal of Honor: Frontline – An Immersive War FPS

It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when Call of Duty didn’t rule the FPS roost. Before the first game of the aforementioned FPS franchise was released in 2003, it was the Medal of Honor series that was most gamers’ experience of virtual World War II. MoH kicked off with its first game, released in 1999 on the PS1 by DreamWorks Interactive (now known as DICE) and is notable for having legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s involvement in the game’s design. If that wasn’t enough, the game also boasted music from popular Hollywood film composer, Michael Giacchino. What resulted was a then-immersive war FPS that was released to critical acclaim and set the standard for WWII video games at the time. It also meant the beginning of a video game franchise, with several sequels and spin-offs to follow in the following years. Yet, we will focus on one of those follow-ups here – Medal of Honor: Frontline.

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Released for the then-current-gen consoles, the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Nintendo GameCube, the game featured a similar quality in its action setpieces as previous games in the series. Only this time, it was powered by greater technology than the primitive PS1, bringing such historical moments as D-Day and the Battle of Arnhem gloriously to life in ways that had never been done before. I can already hear those who grew up with the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault PC game argue that it was that title that did the cinematic experience better, but Frontline was many players’ introduction to the series as a whole. The opening D-Day level, while not as graphically compelling as today’s games, is still playable, with excellent sound design and voice acting creating an intense atmosphere. The battle reeks of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opening in terms of tone, but since the series’ origins lie with the aforementioned director, it shouldn’t be that surprising.

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But, as veterans of the game are no doubt aware, the majority of Frontline doesn’t have you fighting huge battles alongside fellow comrades-in-arms but has you as an agent infiltrating Nazi Germany. Frontline pits you in the shoes of soldier-turned-OSS (nowadays known as the CIA) agent, Jimmy Patterson who must go through nineteen deadly missions, from investigating secret German weapons facilities to sabotaging U-boats to obtaining classified Nazi documents. Patterson can safely be described as a mute, WWII-era Rambo, as an overwhelming percentage of these missions involve him having to eradicate entire facilities-worth of Nazi soldiers alone as he goes about his business. The good thing though, is that it is damn well fun, thanks to the combination of an impressive presentation and enjoyable gameplay with a whole host of different weapons at your disposal. From the M1 Garand to the Thompson to the German MP40, gunning down hordes of relentless Nazis is as fun today as it was back in 2002 when the game was released. Yeah, sure, the AI isn’t as up to scratch as that of more modern games, but going through corridors, single-handedly mowing down Nazis with a machine gun or picking them off with a sniper rifle from afar is still as deliciously fun as ever.

Perhaps a glowing difference to the CoDs of today is the game’s lack of a rest-and-recover health system. Instead, the more Jimmy gets shot, the more his health will deteriorate. Medical packs dotted around the levels will refill it. If that weren’t humorous enough a walk down memory lane, then the fact that the game allows you to have multiple weapons in your possession at one time will. Apparently, Jimmy – like many of other of his contemporary World War II FPS protagonists – has superhuman strength and can hold a multitude of heavy weaponry at once, including a machine gun, rifle and bazooka!

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Questionable weapon-carrying aside though, what makes Frontline arguably better in the presentation department than many WWII games that have come before and after it is the music. Like with the first game in the series, Frontline employs the masterwork of composer genius, Michael Giacchino (whose recent film credits include Spider-Man: Homecoming and War of the Planet of the Apes). The brilliance of the music is that it captures the villainy and tyranny of Nazi Germany as well as the humanity and loss in war. In the levels ‘Rough Landing’ and ‘Arnhem Knights’, for example, Giacchino employs a child’s voice which sings sombrely throughout these levels as a dramatic accompaniment to the horrors of war. Then there are the urgent, momentous violins of the manor house mission, which perfectly captures the feeling of being discovered by Nazi soldiers. It was here you had to fight your way through the manor house to rescue your informant. The music is such a character of the game, one wonders whether Frontline would be the same game without it. Regardless, it helps give the game a more heightened sense of cinematic emotion that many more modern WWII games intrinsically lack.

But whatever more recent WWII games may lack, they have much to thank Medal of Honor: Frontline for since it paved the way for their existence. The game scored $95 million in the United States alone and gaming publication Next Generation ranked it as the eighth-highest selling game launched for the GameCube, Xbox and PlayStation 2 between January 2000 and 2006. The game also found great success in the United Kingdom, selling at least 600,000 copies and attaining Platinum status on PlayStation 2.

A year after the game’s release, the first Call of Duty would be released and war-based FPS’s would continue to flourish in the game industry. They continue to do so – and with the big CoD’s return to a World War II-era setting next month (November 2017), it sits as a pleasant reminder of what led to games of its kind. And with the game having a remaster available for the PlayStation Network, there is simply no excuse not to check this one out.

Looking Back at Superman 64 – The Worst Game of All Time?

When game critics cite the worst game of all time, they’re likely to come up with a range of different candidates. They may say E.T. They might even say Big Rigs Racing. But among them, a more superpowered candidate stands out: Superman 64. Developed by Titus Software and released on the Nintendo 64 in 1999, the game was a major best-seller during June of that year. At the time, the game even scored a reputation as the console’s third-best-selling title. But one problem remained – the game was bad. No matter what the sales record says, the game was critically panned across all gaming media. But why was this? Does Superman 64 truly deserve the harsh criticism it continues to receive to this day?

Superman 64

Well, to be put it abruptly, yes. Superman 64 is as bad as they say. The game is filled with bugs, tedious gameplay and poor design choices. It’s a game that was evidently rushed out to meet the deadline. The game’s infamous ‘ring-flying’ stages, where Superman must fly through rings within a specified time limit and reach the goal have received much derision from gamers and critics alike.

There are several reasons for this. One is the multiple glitches and bugs that plague these stages. Superman can easily get caught in the walls, buildings and bridges if you fly too close. Then, there is the game’s poor draw distance. A green fog blocks most of the player’s field of vision, making the act of flying through rings even more tedious than it would be otherwise. That’s not even bringing to attention the game’s abhorrent control scheme, which makes Superman hard to control – clearly, the man isn’t great at turning tight corners. These points all come together and build a frustrating experience, which is further hindered by the stage’s strict rule when it comes to the rings. You can skip a couple of rings, but any more than that will result in the player failing, with Lex Luthor laughing victoriously in the background. It’s a sound that players of the game have come to know and dread since failing is a regular thing in this game.

Superman 64

However, the ‘ring stages’ are just the start of Superman 64’s problems, since the maze segments are considerably worse. Unlike the flying stages, the player will spend the majority of the mazes on foot, completing various objectives. These include defusing time-bombs, protecting Superman’s friends and fighting bosses. But while the variety of mission objectives is well-intentioned, the execution is lousy and poor.

One example is when fighting the game’s ‘bosses’. I use ‘bosses’ in parentheses because they’re not so much bosses as normal enemy mooks who take more hits to put down. They’re programmed in the same way as the game’s “Shadows” (the identikit enemies you fight), staying on the floor punching the player and offering no idiosyncratic movement or attack patterns of their own. To a Superman nerd, this can be particularly jarring, especially when intergalactic supervillains such as Darkseid and Mala are fighting like ragdolls as opposed to the superpowered beings they are in the animated series. The worst thing about fighting these enemies is that it’s impossible to dodge their attacks due to the awkward nature of the fighting system. The only physical attack in Superman’s arsenal is his awkward punching. Therefore, fighting bosses is more about withstanding their attacks long enough for you to kill them.

Superman 64

Then there are the damned glitches. Superman 64, like many games of its generation, is fond of the escort mission trope but, unlike many of those other games, doesn’t do it very well. One section has Superman rescuing Lois Lane and escorting her towards a certain goal. This means defending her from all manner of enemies that suddenly pop up from nowhere. The problem is that enemies that the player will have already defeated in previous rooms on their way to rescuing Lois will respawn out of nowhere and with no explanation, forcing them to go ahead and wipe them out before they wipe the sassy young journalist out. Unfortunately, leaving Lois for a short amount of time means that shadows will automatically respawn near her position and start attacking her!

And yes, if Superman doesn’t return in that given amount of time, it’s game over. The problem with this is that it provides an example of fake difficulty. The time you have to return to Lois isn’t nearly enough to contend with all the newly respawned enemies from the previous rooms – not helped by the poor controls. This means having to return to the room to save her from the shadows then going back to the other room to deal with a few more respawned enemies before flying back to Lois to deal with a few more magically-appearing ‘Shadows’. Rinse and repeat.

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Alas, there are some good reasons as to how the game became the poor product it was. The developers, Titus, were given strict guidelines from Warner Bros., who insisted that Superman could never harm real human beings and placed limits on the superhero’s powers. This is what would inspire the ‘virtual world’ setting of the game. It was delayed for six months due to a lengthy approval process and, ultimately, according to the game’s head honcho, Eric Caen, the game’s design was too ambitious for the N64 software. Yet, despite the game’s critical panning, it became the best-selling release of June 1999 and the third best-selling game so far in the console’s history at that point in time. That’s how things work, of course.

One thing is for sure, though. Superman 64 will forever remain one of the worst video games of all time in many gamers’ minds. In an internet generation where we regularly worship or denounce video games on a daily basis, it’s unlikely to be forgotten as such. The game continues to be the butt of every gaming nerd’s joke and is a good advertisement on how not to make a game. That’s not going to change anytime soon.

Why Retro Gaming is Still in Business

Looking around at the gaming industry right now, it seems we’re living in a great time. Most video games on the three major modern-gen platforms – Xbox One, PS4 and Nintendo Switch – have games with presentations that easily rival the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. We’re seeing new technology drive forward, with hardware like Sony VR and Oculus Rift further immersing players into their science-fiction-style fantasies. Yet, despite all this, a subsection of the industry is also thriving: retro gaming.

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Given we’re surrounded by games that utilise so much of today’s latest and greatest technology, why are gamers heading back to the past to get a good dose of their entertainment? Why are we looking back to the simpler, less-evolved ancestors of gaming when we have the overwhelming complexity of modern-day gaming all around us?

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Perhaps it’s because of what modern-day gaming can’t seem to provide. For example, the primitive nature of technology back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras of gaming meant none of the big Hollywood-esque production values we see in today’s games but it did mean more emphasis on gameplay. When one switched on their Sega MegaDrive/Genesis to play Sonic the Hedgehog, there were no lengthy opening CG cut-scenes or tedious tutorial sections. Players were transported straight to the first level and worked out the basic controls by themselves or through the game’s instruction manual (*sigh* remember when games had instruction manuals?).

Although no doubt a bugger to program, retro games were simple in the objectives they presented to players. Run through the level, collect rings, jump on bad guys and reach the goal. Shoot the invading aliens without being shot yourself. Create a line of coloured blocks. The games were simple in what they asked of the player, and any player can receive enjoyment out of playing them because of that, kids included. Nowadays, the complex nature of game design and the layers of elements in these games can make them a turn-off for more casual players.

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Mobile Gaming: Bringing Back The Past

But where casual gaming is concerned, it’s no secret that the mobile gaming section of the industry is a real moneymaker. This is because the majority of their games are targeted towards casual gamers who like to play on their mobiles and tablets. In a Newzoo article posted in April 2017, it was calculated that $46.1 billion will be generated from mobile gaming for the whole of 2017 – which is 42% of the global market. While there has been plenty of original retro-inspired content such as Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, we’re seeing more and more retro games from past consoles being ported to mobile devices.

Ubisoft released a tablet version of side-scrolling PS1 classic, Rayman in 2016. Remastered ports of Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 were released on iOS and Android devices in May 2013 and were programmed by Sonic Mania director, Christian Whitehead. What’s more, you’re sure to find a host of other retro games from Space Invaders to Tetris amongst the extensive mobile gaming library. Mobile gaming is bringing back the past – and in the palm of our hands no less.

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Retro Gaming: The NES Classic Mini

But the most recent example of how retro gaming’s popularity is still alive and well is in the sales of the ‘mini-consoles’. The NES Classic Mini was released in November 2016 and sold out on pre-orders while the remaining few that made it to the shelves were quickly swiped. Only until recently has Nintendo declared it will resume NES mini-consoles next year. If that wasn’t enough, the SNES Mini also experienced a similar fate – high demand for the 16-bit classic console has convinced Nintendo to continue to ship more in 2018.

If Nintendo’s efforts to retrieve the past weren’t enough, then there’s the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive Classic Console which boasts an impressive library of 80 built-in games. This is joined by Atari’s upcoming Ataribox, which will be a console optimised for both retro and modern forms of gaming. It’s as though past and present are existing side-by-side.

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Procrastination Vortex – YouTube

And if the real world wasn’t evidence of retro gaming’s popularity, then the world of the internet definitely is. The fanbase is particularly thriving in the inescapable procrastination vortex we call YouTube. Among YouTube’s most popular gaming stars is the Angry Video Game Nerd, written by and played by filmmaker James Rolfe. His show revolves around comedically reviewing retro games and hardware from the Atari to Nintendo and beyond. Not only is it a goldmine for older gamers who want to reflect nostalgically on their childhood days, but it also exposes millions of younger gamers to gaming’s past through its humorous presentation.

Through his videos, the Nerd has cast a spotlight on lesser-known commercial failures of the 90’s such as the Atari Jaguar and the Nintendo Virtual Boy. The Nerd is not alone in his reviewing of the past because there are a large number of thriving YouTube channels that revere retro gaming and even capitalise on the nostalgia-loving hearts of today’s gamers. Whether that be through Let’s Plays or similar game-themed shows and reviews, retro gaming is alive and well on the interwebs.

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So, one thing is for sure here. Retro games may be old, but they are not past their heyday. In fact, retro games seem to be timeless as opposed to a thing of the past. They remain an eternal presence and don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. And given that these games are still highly playable and enjoyable to this very day, who can complain about that?

What are your favourite retro games? Are you happy about the popularity of retro gaming? Let us know in the comments below…

5 Times Sonic Hit An All-Time Low

Sonic Mania has raced onto the scene with critical acclaim, being noted as the best Sonic game in decades. By combining the speed and clever level design of the classic Mega Drive games with some fun modern touches, the Blue Blur is potentially on the verge of another golden age (don’t screw this up, Sonic Forces!). But, as with any successful platforming character, Sonic has had his fair share of hiccups over the past few decades. Well, alright then. Perhaps ‘hiccups’ is a bad word. How does ‘downright monstrosities’ sound? Hmm…that sounds a little more to the point. So, why don’t we go over some of these poor judgements on Sega’s part and hope that nothing like these horrid abominations are ever produced again?

Well, alright then. Perhaps ‘hiccups’ is a bad word. How does ‘downright monstrosities’ sound? Hmm…that sounds a little more to the point. So, why don’t we go over some of these poor judgements on Sega’s part and hope that nothing like these horrid abominations are ever produced again?

Shadow the Hedgehog

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It was the game that nobody asked for. But we got it, anyway. This 2005 semi-sequel to Sonic Heroes starred the eponymous black hedgehog in his first (and, hopefully, only) solo game. The problems with this game were many; poor, glitchy level design, a dark plot uncharacteristic of a Sonic game and, of course, those damn guns.

The idea of guns being in a Sonic game was eyebrow-raising enough – but the way they were implemented into the gameplay was awful, as though the mechanic had been shoehorned in at the last minute. Stopping to shoot foes regularly just didn’t feel natural and contradicted the game’s attempt to be a fast-moving platformer. The vehicle sections were also tedious and out of place (when you can move faster on foot, what’s the point?). While the game boasted multiple endings and level pathways, you’d be forgiven for not wanting to endure a second playthrough of this awful stain on Sonic’s legacy.

Sonic Shuffle

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By the time Sonic Shuffle hit the Sega Dreamcast in 2000 (2001 in European territories), Sonic had experimented with a number of other genres. There was the Game Gear Mario Kart-esque Sonic Drift games and also the arcade beat ’em up, Sonic The Fighters. Not content with those forays into other zones of gaming, Sonic had to have his own Mario Party-style party game.

Now, to the developers’ credit, they crafted a new narrative for the game to take place in and dressed it up in a plethora of bright colours. It’s just that they forgot to include the ‘fun’ aspect. The game was bogged down with a small number of below-average minigames and tedious loading times. You would be better off sticking with Mario Party than this boring clone.

Sonic The Fighters

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It should be obvious to anyone that Sonic simply isn’t suited to the fighting genre. He’s a platforming hero known for his speed and agility, not his resilience or fisticuffs. Apparently, though, Sega didn’t get the memo and thus, in 1996, Sonic The Fighters hit Japanese and American arcades (after which, it has been ported to a number of Sonic games collections since).

The game can best be described as a poor man’s Virtua Fighter. While it is true that Sega designed a number of exclusive characters for the game, they are mostly forgettable, due to having a very short supply of unique fighting moves. The fighting system is simply Virtual Fighter-Lite and is overall tedious and slow. You would be better off playing any fighting game but this.

Sonic R

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Nowadays, most gamers will recognise games studio Travellers’ Tales for their seemingly endless supply of Lego video games. But, back in the day, they did some other things (Mickey’s Wild Adventure for the Sony PlayStation comes to nostalgic mind). One of these things, however, was co-developing the awful Sonic R, which was released for the Sega Saturn in 1997 and for Windows a year later. Now, as a concept, a Sonic racing game where the characters move on-foot, doesn’t sound too bad. But when this concept is brought to life via Sonic Team’s poorly-designed racing tracks and Travellers Tales’ poor programming, it makes you re-think that statement.

The majority of the game’s tracks are bugged with awkwardly tight corners and are short to the point of tedium. The characters are awkward when trying to turn corners and some of them are so slow and disadvantageous when compared to the other racers (I’m looking at you, Amy Rose) that they just aren’t worth bothering with on a whole. Add in the fact there are only five available courses and you’ve got yourself a stinker here.

Sonic the Hedgehog Genesis (GBA Port)

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This is perhaps one of the lesser-known examples of bad Sonic games, but it’s well-deserving of a spot here. This lazy, (half-assed) Game Boy Advance port was developed by Sonic Team for the blue hedgehog’s 15th anniversary and is one of the worst Sonic games in existence. It takes the original Genesis/Mega Drive game and gives it a painfully-slow frame rate, poor physics and an awfully-downgraded soundtrack – in other words, everything that made the first Sonic great.

As a cheap shoe-in, Sonic Team did add an “Anniversary mode” – which is the exact same game save for adding the spin-dash that was introduced in Sonic 2 onward. Wow, Sonic Team really pushed the boat out with this one.

What do you think are the worst Sonic games ever? Are you enjoying Mania? Let me know below.

Past Blast: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Everyone’s talking about Skyrim nowadays – and for good reason, since it seems to be getting ported to every system under the sun. But before the fifth instalment of the Elder Scrolls chronology wasted hours of everyone’s life, there was its predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Morrowind was already popular, but its sequel was truly the game that rocketed TES into mainstream gaming popularity with a stunning 9.5 million copies worldwide (as of 2015). It was many gamers’ gateway into TES‘s rich universe, including my own, and is worth remembering today for its contributions to the sandbox RPG genre in general.

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Whereas the relatively darker Skyrim gave us a Roman Empire-inspired Tamriel, Oblivion gave players a bright, colourful medieval fantasy world. The province of Cyrodill was a sight to behold, with reams of golden fields, a rich, sprawling Great Forest and a wide array of different castle towns filled with interesting characters and locales. As a matter of scale, Oblivion‘s world map is a little larger than that of its successor, albeit lacking in some of the finer details offered by said successor. But this doesn’t make it any less of a pleasure to stroll through, when Cyrodill’s golden sun shines upon you in the hills, with Jeremy Soule’s epic orchestral soundtrack sweeping you through the experience. That same sense of wonder is instilled in the player as they find new locations such as abandoned forts, bandit camps and caves within the wilderness. A favourite memory of mine is coming across the huge lake that rests before the Imperial City and watching the surreal White-Gold Tower standing proudly in the distance. It makes you feel so humble and small in this vast, detailed fantasy world.

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Having crafted such a large, detailed world, it was up to developers Bethesda to make it feel alive. And make it feel alive, they certainly did, using the ‘Radiant AI’ system to give each NPC a routine through the day and night. Then there was the inclusion of multiple operating factions throughout Cyrodill. As with the game’s predecessor, Morrowind, players could join a number of factions in the game including the Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood, each with their own benefits and exclusive quest-line. As with the other games in the series, it was so easy to get caught up in these quests and forget the main plotline altogether, but it also highlights one thing Oblivion did better than Skyrim – the quality of the quests. The quests were far more involving and fun than the game’s successor. Mention the Dark Brotherhood questline to a seasoned Elder Scrolls gamer and they will likely let out a nostalgic sigh. It was successful in that it made you feel like a badass assassin in a lawful world and set up many unique situations, including having to fake someone’s death. Similarly, the other questlines were generally well-written with a great deal of suspense and mystery, often pulling the player in hook, line and sinker.

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As far as the gameplay went, it was similar to Skyrim. Of course, being ‘the game before’, it’s naturally a little less refined. The ability to select seven major skills at the beginning of the game has its fans and foes. On the one hand, it helps keep your character unique since constant use and upgrading of said skills is the only way to level up your character and, therefore, encourages players to keep to those skills. On the other hand, it can trap new players who are unused to the Elder Scrolls games and doesn’t offer much in the way of skill experimentation. This was later altered in Skyrim where players could level up with whatever skills they wished to use. Many players, however, missed Oblivion‘s levelling system which concentrated on unique character growth as opposed to Skyrim’s, which allows players to potentially upgrade and master every skill in the game if they wanted. Personally, I wouldn’t label Oblivion‘s levelling system as better or worse. It’s just a little different.

Overall, I would recommend Oblivion to any gamer who loves Western role-playing games or even RPGs in general. It offers an immersive, fantastically colourful fantasy world with great characters, voice acting and an epic soundtrack. Even if you’ve played Skyrim, but never played this, it’s well worth it for all the additional hours of great content at your disposal. Given that Skyrim is basically being re-released over and over for all of time, it would be a shame to forget Oblivion and sweep it under the rug. Let us remember it for what it was: a great adventure that laid the foundation for what was to come and a ‘how-to’ on creating a gripping, immersive fantasy game.

FF XII

Viewpoint: 5 Reasons Why You Should Play Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age’s Remaster

If there is one Final Fantasy title that has divided its fanbase, then it’s Final Fantasy XII. Originally released for the good ol’ PlayStation 2 in 2006, the game squeezed out the true capabilities of the aforementioned console’s graphical power, but split players due to its unique battle system and political storyline.

It was a Final Fantasy of a different flavour than previous instalments, that was for sure. But there is no denying that the game has its fair share of fans who regard it as one of the best JRPGs in existence. To such people, the upcoming HD remaster, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, will no doubt be a good excuse to crack out the gambits and Espers once again.

But to those who didn’t have a chance to experience it the first time around? Playing The Zodiac Age is a pastime you likely won’t regret. Thus, without further ado, let us count down the key reasons why you should be playing this in July when the game finally hits the shelves.

1) The Stunning In-game Universe

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FFXII is set within the fictional world of Ivalice, which is where previous Square Enix titles such as the Final Fantasy Tactics games and Vagrant Story were set. In a similar way that Vagrant Story used the full power of the PS1, this game’s original release did the same with the PS2. Here, however, the visuals will be given a current-gen revamp, with the nooks and crannies of Ivalice looking sweeter than ever before. You will immerse yourself in a diverse and unique setting, from the Arabian-esque kingdom of Rabanastre to the wet and horrible Giza Plains to the relatively high-tech kingdom of Archadia. A world filled with anthropomorphic lizardfolk, rabbit-eared humanoids and high-tech airships (but public toilets haven’t been invented here yet, sorry!), your visit to Ivalice will unlikely to be one you forget in a hurry.

2) The Amount of Content

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Final Fantasy XII has a stunning amount of content and will have you hooked well outside the bounds of its main storyline. No better is this demonstrated than with the game’s ‘Hunts’. These missions have you join up with a clan led by the lovable Moogle, Montblanc, where you will receive ‘hunts’ and are given a special ‘mark’ to kill. In return for killing these special monsters, you will be justly rewarded with spoils and also gradual increases in rank within your clan. Anyone who has played the original can vouch for how much time the Hunts – and other sidequests – take up. As the old saying goes, you’re getting a whole lot of bang for your buck here.

3) The Unique Battle System

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FFXII really divided the fanbase with its battle system. Gone was the traditional turn-based mechanics of previous titles (well, except the MMO FFXI, of course) and in came a real-time experience. No separate battle screens here – enemies were dotted throughout the landscape and your team would draw their weapons upon contact. The interesting thing here though is the ‘Gambit’ mechanic which allows you to tinker with your team’s AI, controlling how they act in battle. Want Vaan to cast Cure on the team once they are all under 40% HP? You can do that. Want Ashe to use an antidote on allies who are poisoned? You can do that too, and much, much more. The Gambit system enables players to act strategically and make their party the way they want it to be. It adds a layer of depth and flexibility that is often absent in other JRPGs.

4) The Characters (Balthier)

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If you ask a FFXII fan about their favourite characters from the game, Balthier is sure to pop up. The witty British-accented charmer is a Sky Pirate, the ‘Han Solo’ of the game’s story, if you will. Together, alongside his sparsely-worded Viera partner, Fran, they act as Vaan’s mentors early on in the game. But, where cutscenes are concerned, Balthier has some of the most memorable dialogue in FF history, often referring to himself as a ‘leading man’. While that claim is no doubt questionable, this charming sky pirate will be on your mind long after the game has ended. Yes, the other characters have their merits, from the ambitious teenager Vaan to the jaded, aging soldier, Basch, but Balthier will always be the leading man in the eyes of many players – even if the game denies him this honour.

5) A Remastered Soundtrack

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Final Fantasy XII‘s soundtrack is truly underrated amongst the series’ long history of musical genius – and, much like the FFX re-release, it’s getting a remaster. Mostly composed by Final Fantasy Tactics composer, Hitoshi Sakimoto, the soundtrack manages to capture a unique atmosphere from the moments exploring the Dalmasca Estersunds to the epic Esper boss battles. Some favourite moments include the imperial majesty of the city of Rabanastre and the beautiful strings of the Ozmone Plains. If you thought that the original, synthesized music was underwhelming for a game of such high visual scope, then the new, fully orchestrated versions will more than make up for that. They will literally give Ivalice a whole new lease of life than ever before.

Will you be buying the remaster of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age? Let us know in the comments below!

Viewpoint: Why I’m Optimistic About the New Spider-Man Game

One of the most impressive games of E3 2017 was undoubtedly that of Insomniac’s Spider-Man. The presentation was a visual feast, showcasing a mission where our favourite web-slinger subdues goons at a construction site, and then chases down a helicopter containing lesser-known Spidey villain, Mister Negative. Many would argue that this was the icing on the cake for Sony’s already impressive E3 presentation, and secured them the crown for the whole event. Combining all the key elements that make Spider-Man great – his agility, flexibility, web-slinging and wisecracking humour – could Insomniac give us the best Spider-Man video game in a while?

The question isn’t easy to answer. After all, a game can look as pretty as it wishes, but its the gameplay and feel of the game that truly counts. As far as the combat and swing mechanics of the game are concerned, it would seem that Insomniac’s effort takes cues from Beenox’s much-derided effort, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the Batman: Arkham games. No better is this exemplified than in the stealth section we were given at E3. Spidey can perch from high-up areas (in this case, the girders) and take out his enemies from above using stealth attacks. The difference between Batman and the wallcrawler though is noted, as you have a unique repertoire of attacks at your disposal.

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Like Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker is also a dab hand at creating useful gadgets. The clip showed him plant a device on the wall that yanked an unsuspecting thug off his feet and pasted him onto the wall with web fluid. Another example showed him leap from a girder and quietly faceplant a thug into submission, aided by his incredible spider-like agility. So, while Insomniac is taking cues from Rocksteady’s take on Batman, they are at least doing so in the right way, implementing the unique characteristics of Spider-Man in combat situations.

Where web-slinging is concerned, the demo showcases a superbly weighty swinging mechanic. As I have already stated, the swinging appears to take its inspiration from Beenox’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, but this is no bad thing since the swing mechanics of said game were its best feature. Here, the wisecracking web-slinger is just as agile and flexible as he has been in previous instalments. What’s more, the web-swinging is based purely on the skill of the player. Insomniac confirmed on Twitter that skilled players will be able to swing much faster than what was demonstrated. They merely wanted to keep the helicopter in view for purposes of the presentation. If Insomniac truly pull off a skill-based web-slinging mechanic, this could make getting around New York a real joy.

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One of many areas that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 failed to get right was its lacklustre story. The game, which already felt rushed, conjured multiple story threads that all had nothing to do with the other – it ended abruptly and was treated carelessly. Cletus Kassady, a deranged immoral serial killer in the comics, was reduced to a uncharismatic machete-wielding vigilante who eventually becomes an Oscorp experiment run amok – Carnage. There was Kraven too, who acted as your mentor for much of the game before finally turning on you in the end (spoilers!). But while the game tried some original things, it was poorly executed and created a plot as convoluted and messy as the film on which it was based.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man has a chance to create something truly better. For one thing, they’ve cast Peter as a relatively experienced 23-year-old crime-fighter, much unlike the inexperienced teenager depicted in recent games. Secondly, the appearance of lesser-known villain, Mister Negative, signifies that Insomniac aren’t just going to rely on the tired old A-Listers of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, like Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus to carry the story. That, combined with the new Spider-Man suit, shows us that the game is being taken in a new and refreshing direction.

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All in all, Insomniac’s Spider-Man shows much promise and could prove to be the reinvigoration that the Spidey games need. The demo showed all the hallmarks of a fun and engaging action game with visual flair and style to boot. If the folks at Insomniac can manage to craft a unique and equally engaging narrative and carefully implement the combat and swinging mechanics, we could be onto something here. Excelsior!

Viewpoint: Dragon Quest: The Most Underappreciated JRPG in the West

We all know who the kings of the JRPG throne are. Final Fantasy, Tales, Pokémon, they’re all at the tip of the tongue. However, when you ask someone what’s the greatest JRPG series of all time, they’ll seldom mention Dragon Quest. This is for good reason – after all, the series only made the international jump outside of Japan and the US in its eighth main installment in 2005. Since then, Square-Enix has been remaking the titles for Nintendo’s handheld consoles, the Nintendo DS and 3DS, introducing the games to a whole new generation in Japan and overseas. Yet, still, DQ hasn’t attained the same international success as their contemporaries. The original Dragon Quest – known as Dragon Warrior in America – was one of the stalwarts of its genre and even somewhat inspired the Final Fantasy series.

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The main premise of the Dragon Quest games mirrors that of many other JRPG videogames. You play as a designated hero who must save the world from some superpowered threat with the help of a ragtag bunch of party members. Usually, the hero is a mute, and his/her name is decided by the player, not the game script. But another thing that is unique to DQ is its cartoony, anime look.

In fact, that may be the source of its lack of popularity in the West, says Square-Enix’s Yu Miyake in a 2016 interview: “Mature gamers look at it and feel like it’s a kids game. When you actually play the game, it’s a little complicated for children to play, but it’s kind of been a hurdle for grown ups to get into it.” As likely as this is, it’s also a big shame since the series’ cartoony visuals – brought into existence by Dragon Ball artists Akira Toriyama – are actually a large part of what gives the games their signature charm. Toriyama’s art give Dragon Quest a unique, colourful identity, while bringing to the table stories that are relatively mature in nature.

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To many of those who have played Final Fantasy, the battle system in DQ can seem rudimentary in comparison. No limit breaks or summon spells to be found here, you have ‘Attack’, ‘Magic’ and the ‘Psyche Up’ option to buff up the damage of your attacks. There’s no waiting on the ATB bar – there is just the traditional turn-taking commonly associated with the genre. But the real element that the series thrives upon is strategy in these battles. Much of the battling relies on the teamwork of your characters, knowing when to attack, when to buffer your teammates’ attacks and how to work your team effectively overall.

As the game stories progress, the battles do indeed become more complex to play and this is aided, in part, by an ever-increasing difficulty. Perhaps not a turn-on for some gamers. But the mature stories, ranging from ‘childhood to adulthood’ to ‘corruption’, as well as the unique monsters and memorable characters draw many more in, especially in Japan.

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Another key cause of Dragon Quest’s lack of popularity in the West is Square’s lack of effort in localizing the games. The long-running games company only started localizing the series in Europe with Dragon Quest: The Journey of the Cursed King which was released in 2006, 2005 in the US. This meant that many players missed the first eight games in the series. While the US did receive the first four games for the NES, they did not receive the DQ games released for the Super Nintendo, skipping an entire console generation – which meant that finding dedicated fans for the series would be hard.

The SNES was also the console generation where the US received FFII (IV in Japan) and III (IV in Japan), which meant that JRPG lovers had found their home with Final Fantasy. Then there was the series stalwart that was FFVII, which received a release in Europe as well as the US, and proved to be a critical and commercial success in those territories. This release as well as its successors stabilised the franchise, making it a household name in the West, putting it to the top alongside franchises such as Pokémon and Mario. The continued success of Final Fantasy, often bearing a relatively mature visual style to DQ, has ensured its popularity and has more than likely overshadowed DQ, even as the remakes and new games cross over to our shores. Simply put, Dragon Quest hasn’t had much time to establish itself.

Given the series’ questionable success in the West, who knows whether the next game in the series, Dragon Quest XI, will receive a Western release. The fact remains that Dragon Quest is a highly overlooked franchise and deserves more attention than it does. As with any truly great JRPG series, the games are fun and engaging with rich storytelling and diverse mature themes that far defy the series’ cutesy art style. If you haven’t checked out a Dragon Quest game yet, then you would be wise to do so. You won’t regret it.