Wednesday 29 January 2014

OlliOlli Review (PS Vita)

OlliOlli has been on our radar for some time now but we were never really sure how it was going to turn out. The idea of a 2D skating game on the Vita’s small screen would seem to be a tricky thing to pull of successfully but we’re pleased to say that roll7 seem to have accomplished it with skill and style.

The controls of OlliOlli are simple. The left analogue stick is used to perform tricks and jump and the X button is used to land jumps successfully. Holding down the stick and then releasing it launches your skater into the air, doing this at different angles or with a half circle motion produces different spins and tricks. You can also use either shoulder button to spin you around for further combinations.

Once in the air the aim is to land on a grindable service or at least flat on the ground again. To grind you need to press down as you hit the surface. Doing this at the exact right moment gives a higher score and allows you to maintain your speed. Pressing the stick down at different angles also allows you to land in different types of grinds. The one stick trick system works well and allows for a surprising amount of trick variations.

Maintaining speed is all important as you need to make it to the end of each level without bailing in order to move on to the next. A lack of speed is likely to see you not able to jump obstacles and pits or simple fall off the grind rail you are sailing along. If you are on the ground you can press the X button to speed up but you’ll have to master the perfect grinds as you won’t be spending much time on the ground in later levels as they become one huge grind fest.

The levels themselves are a mix of tricky obstacles and opportunities for big scores. It’s easy to say this is Tony Hawk in 2D but it does hold some essence of the truth. The same addiction to high scores and creating perfect runs becomes embedded in the players mind and it creates the same need to instantly restart and do better as well. The game also draws from games such as Canabalt and its endless running genre. The levels are not endless but you’ll need to understand how to negotiate each obstacle along the way and falling off ends your run dead.

There are a few issues but nothing that really stops the trick-style madness. First of all the game has a knack of crashing when connected to the Playstation Network. It’s far from a common occurrence but it’s certainly frustrating when you’re in the middle of a run and it shuts down. No doubt this will be solved fairly shortly via a handy patch. The other issue is brought about via a combination of speed, the Vita screen and some of the level graphics.

Sometimes it’s very difficult to see what is actually an obstacle or rail and what are background graphics. There are also certain multi-levelled objects where it is very difficult to tell where the grindable part of it is. The tanks in the fourth area are particular offenders. The speed you are normally travelling at gives you next to no time to react so when things blend into the background it is almost always a game over situation. Once you learn the courses this becomes less of a problem but initially it can be frustrating to continually hit things you can barely tell are there.

Overall, OlliOlli is a ridiculously addictive game that provides great pick up and play action. Levels are short but you may end up losing hours without knowing it. It all works extremely well and the courses provide great excuses to go back and get higher scores or complete challenges. OlliOlli is an excellent Vita game and yet another example of indie creativity showing the big boys how to do it.

Overall 8/10

Monday 27 January 2014

Wire Strippers, Beer and a Spectrum: Part 1

Written by Dan Gill

Christmas is great.  You get to eat your body weight in cheese and sweets, have the opportunity to drink from 9am without anyone batting an eyelid and you get to spend quality time doing the previous two things along with those closest to you.  You also get presents, usually socks, more sweets, socks, perhaps a book, maybe a bottle of booze and socks.  However, others prefer the money approach, a gift which is often seen as lazy, but is in fact a wonderful thing – a gift which can become almost anything just by being handed to a shop assistant in exchange for something you really want.  I was given money at Christmas, and it immediately began to burn a hole in my pocket.

Due to other life commitments and lack of expendable income, it had been some time since I'd purchased anything gaming related.  I realised that I'd played none of the big releases from the past year and wondered if maybe throwing a chunk of my money on something like Bioshock Infinite or GTA V would be the way to go, but then I started looking on eBay.  It may have been a long time since I'd bought a relatively new game, but it had been longer still since I'd purchased a gaming machine.  So the hunt began.

I was thinking of putting the money towards a new console, but that would involve waiting.  My impatience led me to start looking at retro machines.  My last retro purchase was probably my second Dreamcast several years ago, and with most of the main consoles now in my possession I felt it was time to go after a home computer, but which one?  My first computer was a Commodore 16 given to me at the age of four.  Tempting, but I felt that maybe I could go for something I wanted when I was younger.  I already have an Amiga (probably my favourite machine of all time), so that really only left a few contenders: the C64, Amstrad CPC464, ZX Spectrum and, as an outside possibility, the MSX.

For the next few days I waded through eBay listings, watching auctions to see what kind of price I would be expected to pay, doing some research on the machines and additional hardware required.  I eventually found a ZX Spectrum which had gained little interest.  There was one picture showing the little computer with a Sanyo cassette recorder and a couple of tapes.  The description was also sparse, stating that the machine was found in the attic and the seller wanted it gone.  There was no information on whether the unit was working, or if it was the 16k or 48k version so I sent a message.  The seller informed me that they hadn't tested it, but “for 99p it's worth a punt”.

A few days passed, and I'd pretty much decided not to bid as I thought that if I did I'd end up with a non-working space filler which served no purpose.  I did keep an eye on the auction, just out of interest, of course.  But as the auction approached its end, I did something totally out of character. I took a risk and placed a bid.  I won the Spectrum for £24, including postage.  I paid, then played the waiting game.

In the days to come I was beginning to regret my decision, not that £24 is a lot of money, more that I could have paid about £15 more for a machine which was confirmed as working.  Within a few days the package arrived, and with mixed trepidation and excitement I opened it.  I opened the first box, finding the cassette recorder, tapes, and a small blue box with a red button and several wires poking out.  I put these to one side and looked at the second box.  It was the original ZX Spectrum's box! What was even more satisfying was that it indicated it was the 48k version.  Already I began to feel that this could have been a steal at the price, but held celebration until the box was open. 

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Nidhogg Review (PC)

Nidhogg is a game that has been wowing the tournament crowds for a little while and now the rest of us get a chance to see what all the fuss is about. A one on one fencing the game, it is a pure test of skill against an opponent much in the same way Street Fighter or IK+ is. 

On the service Nidhogg is a simple game. You have to get your fencer to run across the level and reach your opponents end zone. Here you are eaten by the big worm Nidhogg thing and pronounced the winner. In order to do this you need to repeatedly best your enemy as you progress. Starting in the middle of the level you need to kill your opponent and run, after a short time your opponent will respawn and you fight again. If your opponent kills you they can then run the opposite direction in an attempt to regain ground.

There are four levels to fight on which offer different environmental challenges and obstacles to use to your advantage. The castle has rooms and pits, so you can try and force your opponent to jump a pit and land on your sword or stay in a room so they can’t jump over you. The mine has a low ceiling which nullifies the ability to throw the sword or jump over your opponent, The clouds have disappearing ledges and the wilderness has platforms and long grass which allow for more manoeuvring and hiding.

The only stage that doesn’t really work is the cloud stage as it’s just a bit much for your eyes to deal with; it’s also a bit dull compared to the others. The Wilderness reminded us of a 2D version of Bushido Blade which is certainly no bad thing at all.

The fencer has a range of moves and techniques at their disposal. They can roll, cartwheel and jump which can be used to try and sneak past opponents if they have their sword at the wrong height. You can also perform a dive kick which knocks opponents over and makes them drop their sword. When an opponent is on the ground death can be dealt via a swift neck break. 

With the sword in hand you can thrust at three different heights. This works in a rock, paper, scissors kind of way and also defends against things like dive kicks depending on where you have the sword set. If you wish you can also throw your sword, however, if it’s parried you then leave yourself open to almost certain death.

These basic moves form the crux of your sword fighting strategy and can be used in a number of different ways in order to best your opponent. If you are feeling super confident you can also disarm your opponent by moving your sword to the correct position at the exact right moment. Get this wrong though and you will find your own sword flying away.

Essentially, this is a two player game and anyone going into it expecting a lengthy single player component will be disappointed. Single player acts as an arcade mode where you continually square off against computer controlled opponents on the games four levels. It’s practice for multiplayer and while a nice distraction it will only last you half an hour or so.

The game uses a bright, 8-bit styled, colour palette to build its world. The colour scheme is garish but somehow seems to work. As a fencer is slain they explode into coloured dots and quickly begin to cover the arena in pixelated blood. It helps to highlight where the choke points are in each level as well as provide some visual flair.

There’s no denying that Nidhogg is an excellent two player experience. It provides the same sort of adrenaline rush as all the best one on one fighting games and the mechanics work really well. However, we can’t help but feel that more could have been done here. There is certainly scope for a roaring Prince of Persia or Defender of the Crown style single player adventure. Even something like taking the Blood Valley (it’s an old, bad, 8 bit game), template and adding the superior gameplay of Nidhogg could work. Another option would be to have more stages. Having just four levels does make the package feel a little sparse. You could have had stages requiring some basic climbing or less footholds etc. 

Anyone who plays the game is going to have a great time and this is some of the best multiplayer action around at the minute. However, it could have been much more fleshed out in both single and multiplayer. The mechanics are great; we just hope there’s some further development of the other elements in the future as it could lead to something really special.

Overall 7/10

Monday 20 January 2014

Shinobi Review (Master System)

One of Sega’s most loved franchises, Shinobi had you taking on the role of a deadly ninja trying to take out a high profile terrorist group who are the meanest ‘ever to take up guns and martial art’s weapons’. So what good are a sword, a bloke in a silly mask and a few throwing stars against a whole army of terrorists? Well you have that Ninja Magic!

Set across five missions, each split into smaller sections, you must engage in side scrolling platform action taking out enemies and rescuing hostages to gain power ups before fighting a boss character at the end of the stage. As well as the standard side scrolling action our hero can leap up and down levels of the playing area, something that becomes increasingly important as the levels move along. Rescuing hostages gives the player better weapons as well as increasing life and unlocking a bonus stage which has you throwing shuriken's at enemies moving towards you in a first person perspective. 

Graphically, Shinobi is small but well defined and levels contain a large amount of detail. Enemies are varied from level to level with a new type of terrorist appearing every few levels to keep things interesting. Boss characters are large and well animated, often taking up around half the screen and presenting a daunting opponent for our heroic ninja. When jumping up and down levels the playing field moves well with the game screen keeping integrity and moving without distorting. Slowdown is hardly ever apparent, though there is a touch of flickering at times due to the large amount of characters that appear on screen. 

Though Shinobi may appear to be a standard platform action game, it contains gameplay that really lifts it above the competition. The mixture of tactical screen jumping to try and get the hostages and the more standard action help create a truly memorable game. Controls are responsive, though turning on the spot does present a few problems but for a game that stacked its claim in 1988 we really have to forgive such things. 

The power up system is inspired with a wide range of projectile and hand weapons to be gained and the impressive bonus level always worth hunting out the last few captives for. The truly inspired touch though is the way you can increase your health giving a slight role-play feel to proceedings. 

Overall, Shinobi remains a classic game. Playing it today shows how impressive the game would have been when it first came out as it still remains fresh and fun to engage with. The learning curve is set about right with difficulty increasing in bearable steps the further in you get. Each time you play a little more progress will be made and you will find yourself pressing to see the next level which is the mark of all classic games. If nothing else Shinobi proves two things; that ninja’s are cool, and true classic games always date very well. 


Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Legend of Zelda Review (NES)

Welcome to Hyrule, A land in crisis. A nasty evil pig called Ganon who hopes to get his hands on the ‘Triforce of Wisdom’ has kidnapped Princess Zelda. Luckily for us though Zelda managed to smash the Triforce into eight pieces. In steps Link, to find the pieces and restore order to the kingdom. So begins the legendary tale of a young warrior that lead to some of the greatest moments in gaming history for many years to come. Can the age-old NES version stand up to the test of time? Of course it can.

Perspective wise the game is set out from a top down point of view and takes the approach of presenting us with singular screens of action that slide into another when Link moves through an exit. An approach that proved so successful that Nintendo employs it in all the Zelda games pre N64. 

Graphically, the game is fairly plain, but this is the NES we're talking about. What is important is that Link, along with all the monsters are coloured and defined clearly with simple animations thrown in for good measure. Not exactly ground-breaking, even for the NES. But it does the job. 

Where the game excels is in the gameplay department, filled with fairly simple puzzles and the odd spark of outstanding genius. Zelda is both brilliantly executed and stunningly addictive. A remarkable achievement considering the game came out in 1986. Emphasis is set very much on exploration, where finding the eight dungeons can be as tricky as completing them. 

The game follows a fairly straightforward course, You find the dungeon, complete it and find an object hidden somewhere within it. Then find the place where this object can be used, which in turn leads you to the next dungeon. This collect and explore approach works excellently. It also means that players are never dumped into an impossibly hard situation without the right equipment to deal with it and this shows excellent foresight on the developer’s part. 

What makes the game even more excellent is the replay value within the shiny gold cartridge. Once the game is completed the first time round the game takes you on another adventure. Basically, what happens is that all the entrances to the dungeons, and all the magical objects in Hyrule are moved around meaning you have to start your search all over again. A nice addition to an already excellent piece of gaming history. 

Obviously, The Legend of Zelda can't stand up against the more recent games in the series in terms of looks but there is still a solid game here. It's now one of the weaker adventures but all things are realtive. However, it is still a classic example of what a great game should be. Everyone should try to experience it as it shows all the hallmarks of what the series developed into. Definitely worth searching around Ebay for, Zelda is a little gem that holds many fond memories, even if it is surpassed by later instalments. 

Overall 7/10

Monday 13 January 2014

Super Mario Bros 3 Review (NES)

After the mixed reception of Super Mario Brothers 2, Nintendo had to create an instalment in the Mario franchise that fully lived up to fans expectations. What they produced far exceeded the hopes of fans and showed a massive step forward for Mario, both in terms of play mechanics and also in the sheer size of the adventure to be undertaken. 

The game consists of nine main worlds split into a number of smaller levels and mini-game sections. Each world is based on different terrain, for instance level two is a desert landscape while later levels are set on top of large clouds and in areas filled with pipes. Far from being just a cosmetic touch, each of the stages are tailored to whichever world they are set in. For instance, in the water world expect a reliance on swimming sections, while the cloud world involves precision jumping. This variety maintains player interest from one moment of frenzied platform action to the next. 

Graphically nothing else comes close to this on the NES. Large well-animated characters running around colourful, large levels are very much the order of the day. Very impressive to the point where you could mistake this for an early Super Nintendo game. Furthermore, there is absolutely no slow down present, which makes the game seem even more impressive given the size of levels.

With all Mario games though the focus is on the gameplay, and this third installment has it in absolute bucket loads. As well as the standard platform action there are so many new gadgets and suits to get to grips with it's unbelievable. The standard fireball remains but now Mario can adorn a raccoon tale and fly, use a frog suite to swim, use hammers to break blocks, music boxes to distract enemies and even turn to stone to hide from passing Kooper turtles. Absolutely everything you can think of has been included to make this one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences available on any format. 

What really helps to bring out the greatness in Mario 3 though are the little touches on the world map screens. There are little mushroom huts where you can visit and collect new items, a sort of mushroom kingdom ‘snap’ game and wandering Kooper turtles which have to be dispatched one on one and it all adds to the feeling of fun and invention.  

Once you've made your way across the map screen to the castle of the land, you must board one of Bowser's Kooper kids ships, make your way through the treacherous maze of cannon balls and bullet bills before finally facing a showdown with whichever of the evil kids is at the helm. This is a truly epic and fitting end to each world that shows just how much attention to detail has been poured into the game. 

The difficulty pitch is just about perfect. Each world provides a gentle step up in difficulty from the last until you get to the absolute nightmare stages on the last world. What is so brilliant about the learning curve is that unless you use the warp whistles to move from one world to the next you don't really notice things getting harder. That's not to say the game seems easy, it just simply seems to match you move for move as you get more accustomed to it, a brilliant accomplishment. 

Overall, Mario 3 is practically perfect, and represents the pinnacle of NES platform games. In fact it still shows up a lot of far more graphically splendid games to this day. The only subsequent video games that really outshine Super Mario 3 are later releases in the Mario franchise. This is another example of gaming gold from yester year and one welcomed onto the virtual console services with open arms.