Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Tales of Symphonia Review

Tales of Symphonia is the first game in Namco's Tales series to be released in Europe, and if it is a good representation of the series as a whole then I can honestly say it's a great shame that the others never made it.

Each of the games in the series share certain aspects in common - most noticeably the real time battle engine. Instead of your typical turn based RPG battles where you keep pressing the A button and just sit back and watch, the fights here are much more hands on. In the original Tales of Phantasia, the battles were purely from a side-on perspective, much like a 2D fighting game like Streetfighter 2 or Mortal Kombat. However, you're not on your own - you have up to 3 other characters in your party that fight alongside you. While you don't control them directly, you can command them quickly and efficiently to use certain special moves or items thanks to the intuitive menu that can be called up with the Y button. In the battles with regular monsters, you probably won't need to use advanced tactics, as mashing the button generally works, but against the bosses you will need to keep a close eye on the HP of yourself and your allies and be ready to jump in with a heal command.

The more recent entries to the Tales series, Symphonia included, have introduced a new semi-3D version of the battle engine. While you are still locked on a 2D plane with the enemy you are targeting, your enemies and allies are free to run around the 3D battlefield. When you want to change targets all you have to do is hold down the R trigger and select someone else to beat up. At the end of a battle, you are graded depending on how much damage you took, how quick you were, etc. These grade points can be saved up and spent on items at certain stores, or held back until you complete the game. Once you finish the game you can start a New Game+ with your old save file, and buy various things such as double xp, the ability to retain your "titles" and many other things. Throughout the game you will earn various titles for you characters, either at certain parts of the story, or for completing sidequests, or for fulfilling certain criteria in battle. These affect how your characters stats improve when you level up, so you can choose a title that boosts HP, TP (required for magic or special moves), Intelligence or many other stats.

Visually, Tales of Symphonia is gorgeous. It's like the pages of a manga book have come to life. Characters are all very well designed, and the towns and dungeons have a very solid and consistent look to them. The one thing that lets the graphics down a little is the overworld map - it's extremely basic and the monsters that randomly walk around all look the same, giving you no indication what you will actually have to fight should you happen to touch one.

The music is composed by Motoi Sakuraba (I hope I've spelled that correctly), who has been very prolific lately, having written tunes for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, Baten Kaitos, the Golden Sun series and more besides. It would have been nice if the music was fully orchestrated rather than synthesized, but that's not to say the music isn't good stuff. It's nice and varied too, and after a certain part of the game you will get new battle and overworld themes which helps to stop the game getting too monotonous. Voice acting in ToS is spot on, but with the range of talent providing the voices it's only really to be expected. The usual suspects (Cam Clarke, Jennifer Hale, etc) put in very solid performances, as do the other actors who I'm less familiar with. I'm especially fond of Collette's voice over.
I have read in other reviews that the plot is quite weak, but actually I think that's nonsense. While the story might start off quite cliched, it soon develops it's own path and there are many interesting twists along the way. Personally I don't think it matters too much if a story has been told before, as long as it's told well, and Tales of Symphonia certainly is that. What really makes the game enjoyable and keeps the plot from becoming boring, are the characters. They are all very well fleshed out, with decent lines and plenty to say. There are hundreds of optional "skits" that can be viewed during the game, most of which offer insights into the personal lives of the characters and help to develop their relationships with one another.
Tales of Symphonia is also one of the longest RPG's I've played in quite some time, clocking in at least 50 hours even if you just follow the basic outline of the story. If you add in all the sidequests, that time can easily be pushed over the 80 hour mark. There's quite a lot of freedom in the order you can tackle events as well, and certain plot strands could be skipped altogether, which adds to the replayability of the game.
All in all, Tales of Symphonia is one of the greatest games on the Gamecube, and I really hope Namco decides to bring future games in the series over to Europe. They currently have no less than three in production - Tales of Legendia and Tales of the Abyss for the PlayStation 2, and Tales of Eternia for the PSP, so the series shows no signs of stopping now.

Lloyd Irving, hero of the story

Collette Brunel, Chosen One, angel, love interest and heroine of the story.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

In the works...

I know, I know, I've been missing for a long time. However, I do have some new content planned for the next few weeks. Reviews of Riviera: The Promised Land (GBA) and Tales of Symphonia (GC) for one thing, as well as some first impressions of Radiata Stories (PS2) and Burnout Legends (PSP).

The usual features, such as Hidden Gems and Greatest Game Ever, will be back, but I will also be adding some new semi-regular features. Firstly is Imports of Import... which as you can probably guess is all about the latest US releases of note, and then I will also be pointing out some of the best games from the current generation of consoles, starting with the PS2.

I am aiming to have the first update posted by Tuesday at the latest (the ToS review I mentioned), so see you there!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Hidden Gems 2005 Volume 5

First up is another entry to my Hidden Gems series - Drakengard for the PS2. You may recall that I posted some time ago that I had bought Drakengard along with several other games at bargain prices. I paid £5 at the time, took it home, had a quick go, and then it got consigned to the "must play some day" pile that so many games never come out of.

Last weekend, World of Warcraft was beginning to drag a bit and to quote Dr Evi I was surrounded by frickin' idiots, so I decided to have a break. As it turns out, Drakengard was the perfect choice for de-stressing myself and just generally having fun, which is surely what gaming is all about. Basically you can describe the game as a cross between the flying sections of Panzer Dragoon and the epic battles of Dynasty Warriors, wrapped up in a fantasy RPG setting. Each gameplay style isn't quite as good as the game that inspired it, but together they create a unique, enjoyable game. The variety in the levels is quite important, as I could see myself getting bored of level after level of hacking or shooting. Instead, they alternate, and during some ground missions you can even press Select to jump on to the back of your dragon and continue the battle from the sky.

Being a Square-Enix title, Drakengard's presentation is generally top notch. The music can be described as epic and stirring, and the FMV's are as good as anything from the Final Fantasy series. The actual in game graphics let the side down a bit, however. In an effort to keep the framerate up, the same enemy types are repeated many many times during the battles, and there is quite a short draw distance. To make matters worse, the levels are often quite bland and monochromatic, for example entirely grey or green. This is a bit disappointing, but on the other hand slaying and burning hundreds of enemies is such good fun you're not likely to mind too much.

The game is also quite short, rolling in at about 6 hours on your first playthrough, but it makes up for this with it's immense replayability. There's 50 different weapons to find, each with their own unique magical attack, and each is capable of being leveled up multiple times. The central character, Caim, and the Dragon also level up, and you can take part in a Free Expedition in between story levels to make yourself stronger and find new items if you wish. Then there's the fact that there are 5 different endings, and different paths that unlock on subsequent journeys through the game.

The gameplay, whether in the air or on the ground, mainly consists of taking out certain targets on your map, then being given new targets and starting again. On foot you have on standard attack button and a magical attack which you can use when you're meter is filled, and in the air your dragon has a standard fireball attack, the ability to lock on to multiple targets (which is very similar to Panzer Dragoon), and a burst attack which kills everything on screen). You can also do a speed boost, a 180 degree turn, and press R2 to centre the screen your nearest enemy. The controls are generally pretty good, but the camera can make life a little difficult at times.

Drakengard is best taken in short bursts between stodgier games. If you play too long you're likely to tire of all the killing, but when you just want to destroy something at the end of a bad day, it's the perfect way to spend an hour or so. Don't let the relatively low average score on Gamerankings put you off - the most trustworthy sites gave it around the 75% mark, which I think is about right. Also, you have to consider just how cheaply you can pick up a brand new copy of the game.

Square-Enix will probably improve upon every aspect of Drakengard for the forthcoming sequel, but whether it will be released here remains to be seen. The original didn't sell very well, hence the low price, so maybe they'll decide it's not worth it. That would be a shame, because I'm quite looking forward to seeing how Drakengard 2 (or Drag-On Dragoon 2 as it's called in Japan) turns out.

Shall we dance?

Behold the mighty Red Dragon

We're back!

Or rather, I'm back, seeing as I'm the only one who writes this. I have been missing for quite some time I know, and there are various reasons for this. The main one is that the vast majority of my gaming time has been taken up by War of Warcraft lately, so I haven't been playing anything else very much. Over the last week I have varied my gaming diet though and I now have a few things to share with you. So let's get on with it shall we?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Hidden Gems 2005 Volume 4

For this edition of Hidden Gems I will once again turn my attention to the PC, and little game called Mutant Storm. Recently re-released on the Sold Out budget label, it can be snapped up for £5 on it's own or as part of their 3 games for £10 offer. What's it all about? Well, Mutant Storm successfully combines all that was good about arcade games and shoot 'em ups in the 80's and 90's, and brings the visuals up to date.

Those of you who are familiar with Midway's Robotron or Smash TV (either you're old enough to have been their the first time, or you may have played them or the Midway's Greatest Hits disc) will know roughly what to expect from this game. Basically you control one ship in the middle of an arena, and a constant stream of enemies warp in and try and destroy you. If you survive, you warp on to the next arena, and so on. What made Midway's games unique was the control scheme - the arcade machines had two joysticks, one for movement and one which fired your weapon in whatever direction you pointed it. PomPom, the developers of Mutant Storm, have successfully replicated this if you have a twin stick pad for your PC, and the game is also perfectly serviceable on an 8-button pad. If all you have is a keyboard however, I would suggest you treat yourself to a pad of some sort if you're serious about those high scores.

PomPom have thrown a few more ideas into the classic mixture. These include the complex high score system and scaling level of difficulty. Basically, the longer you can go without dying, the higher your score multiplier will get, and therefore your score at the end of the game will be higher. As you rack up points, you will a kind of experience bar, and once it is completely full, you go up a belt. These belts are similar to martial arts belts, and range from white through to black. The higher you get the more the odds are stacked against you, and only the true masters will live to see the end of the black belt levels.

Once a belt is unlocked, you can play the game from the beginning on that difficulty setting. These means you can customise the game to your abilities. While you're still getting used to the game and honing your reflexes, you will probably want to stick to the white or yellow belts, but as your confidence increases you can step up the challenge a notch and challenge the best.

Once you achieve a high score you can connect to the internet and upload it onto the official Mutant Storm scoreboard, but you will have to put some serious practice in if you want to challenge the best.

Graphically, Mutant Storm is extremely smooth, fast and is crammed with bright colors. In the more hectic levels the entire screen can be covered in mutants, bullets and explosions, yet you don't need a powerful PC to run the game at a decent framerate. The sound is a bit more functional, but it suits the style of the game and is reminiscent of the sounds of the classic arcade machines.

If you hunger for simple but challenging gameplay, and you have a love of retro shoot 'em ups, then Mutant Storm is the ideal game for you. If you've never tried a game like this, and you think you might like it, then it's well worth the risk finding out for the paltry £5 asking price. I look forward to PomPom's next game with great interest.

Eat laser death, alien scum!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Jade Empire review

I have long been a fan of games or films in a mythical chinese setting, from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, Yu Suzuki's Shenmue, through to Bioware's Jade Empire. However, whereas Big Trouble and Shenmue were fictional tales set in the real world, chinese myth was the inspiration for the fictional world of Jade Empire. So while you will see emperor's, pagodas, temples and many other things that you may expect, you will also see gods, demons, magic and many other fantastical elements. What all three works share in common though are their gripping stories and interesting characters.

Jade Empire begins in a martial arts school, where you character is under the tutelage of Master Li, the founder and head of the school. Fans of martial arts movies will recognise the wise old master stereotype straight away. In fact, a great deal of the game is like a love letter to the Hong Kong martial arts genre in general. Real life fighting styles such as Drunken Master are included, along with some fictional styles like Thousand Cuts or Paralyzing Palm. However, hand to hand styles are just the beginning, because throughout the game you will also acquire weapon styles, magic styles, transformation styles and support styles. These are mostly self explanatory, except for the last two. You gain transformation styles as you slay certain demons - for example the Horse Demon, and you can then turn into that creature for a certain length of time. Support styles don't do damage directly, but instead can freeze, shock, or drain your opponents. The Spirit Strike style for example, can be used to extract some Chi (magic), which can save your life. The white button can be pressed to change any spare Chi into health.

Some reviewers have attacked Jade Empire because the combat is too basic, but personally I found it accessible and quite refreshing to not have to wade through complicated menus for a change. Four styles can be mapped on to the d-pad, and you can change quickly and easily from one style to another in mid-flow, which you can use to set up Harmonic Combos. While it's true that you only have one basic attack button, one heavy attack button and a block/dodge button, you are free to mix up attacks whenever you want, and in fact you have to on many occasions. You see, different enemies are immune to certain styles of attack. For example, spirits cannot be harmed with weaponry. I have read in several places that the battles are to easy as well, and while this is true in some cases, there are challenging battles to be found, especially when you're up against a whole room of opponents. In any case, if you find the default setting of Master too easy, you could just change it Grand Master on the options screen.

In addition to all these styles, you also gain the support of many followers as you work your way through the story. You can either have them fight beside you (very useful when you are outnumbered) or you can put them in a support role. What they do in the support roll varies from character to character but includes refilling your various energy bars or throwing you bottles of wine (required for the Drunken Master style).

Speaking of energy bars, there are three - Health, Chi and Focus, which are increased by spending points on Body, Spirit and Mind when you level up. Chi is your magic power, and you use it to cast spells, heal yourself and make attacks more potent by using Chi strikes. Focus is used to slow down battles, and is also used when you use weapon styles. The Body, Spirit and Mind statistics also come in to play in conversation. For example, if you choose the Intimidation option when talking to someone, your foe will either run away in fear if your Body stat is high enough, or they will laugh in your face if you're a magic using weakling.

Conversations and missions play out in a similar fashion to Knights of the Old Republic, where you are given multiple choices and it is left up to you what the best way to proceed is. Instead of Light Side and Dark Side, in Jade Empire there is the Path of the Open Palm and the Path of the Closed Fist. While the Path of Closed Fist isn't necessarily evil (they consider strength to be the greatest virtue, not patience or humility), the two ideals often go hand in hand. So you could decide to be a do-gooder, helping out everyone you find, or you could create chaos and disharmony throughout the land, leaving many live's shattered. The choice is yours.

Of course, you could always do both, which is one of the great things about Jade Empire and KOTOR before it. There's is a high degree of replayability, both from the character you choose, the Path you tread, the styles you use, the quests you complete, and the supporting characters you decide to develop a relationship with. There is a lot of scope for experimentation, and I personally found this the most rewarding aspect of the game.

What of the storyline, and the game's length? On the whole, I don't think the story of Jade Empire is quite as strong as KOTOR. Certain parts of the game were quite atmospheric, but overall it doesn't quite have the same impact as the Star Wars game did. As for the length - the first time I played the game I spoke to everyone, finished every side quest and explored every area, and I finished the game in about 28 hours. I have heard of people finishing the game in 12 hours, but they must have really been rushing their way through. I don't know about you, but to me that kind of defeats the point of playing an RPG in the first place - especially one that looks and sounds as good as this one.

Which brings me nicely to the graphics and the sound. Visually, Jade Empire would be unsurpassed on the Xbox if it wasn't for the odd stutter and lapse in framerate. This is most noticeable in battle when to try and jump gracefully and the game freezes for a second before you suddenly reappear on the other side of your enemy. When you are just walking around exploring the games environments however, the graphics are breathtaking. Like in KOTOR, you can click the right thumbstick in at any time and go into a first person view, and really take in the details.

Jack Wall has done a fantastic job with the musical score - it sounds like authentic Chinese music should sound. I'm no expert in the field, but the soundtrack really adds to the atmosphere that the graphics conjure up and the two combined make for a very memorable experience. Finally we come to the voice acting, and I must admit it took me a while to get used to Americans and Canadians playing oriental characters. However, the quality of the acting cannot be faulted. You will hear the voices of video game veterans Came Clarke (Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid), Kim Mai Guest (Mei Ling from MGS), Paul Eiding (the general from, you guessed it, MGS) and Quinton Flynn (Raiden from MGS 2), as well as celebrity voices from John Cleese, Nathan Fillion (Captain Mal Reynolds from Firefly) and Armin Shimerman (Quark in Deep Space Nine, or Principal Snyder from Buffy). All these people and many others put in spot on performances and really add to the overall quality of the game.

If you are fan of RPG's, martial arts films or just appreciate a good story, I can recommend Jade Empire to you without hesitation. The more impatient of you may find that conversations go on for a tad longer than you'd like, but at least the quality voice work and well written script makes them worth listening to. Better than KOTOR? Not quite, but it is of a similar standard overall and benefits from a more immediate battle engine. Highly recommended!

The RetroGaming Score: 8 out of 10.

Amazing visuals can be found all throughout Jade Empire.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Ridge Racer DS vs Ridge Racers (PSP)

Hello again. I realise there hasn't been a post here for over a month now, which is awful. I can only say that the PSP I imported at the end of last month has taken up most of my time, either through playing launch titles like Ridger Racers, Lumines & Wipeout Pure, or watching videos. I promise I will post content more frequently, including all things I promised a while back, along with reviews of Jade Empire (just as soon as I finish it), Ratchet & Clank 2, and much more.

For now though, I have a double review, comparing the two new handheld versions of Ridge Racer. How well do they play, look, and sound. Do they make good use of the hardware? Which is the better game? I will attempt to answer all this and more right now.

Graphics: Of course good graphics on their own don't make for a good game, but as they're the first thing you will notice when you turn on your DS or PSP I will deal with them first. The DS version is almost identical to the N64 version that came out about 5 years ago. At first, the simple fact that you're playing a true 3D racing game on a handheld is quite amazing, but after a while you start to see the flaws. The game glitches that were present in the N64 version are here too, including noticeable tears in the textures, and some bad clipping problems where cars can pass through one another. The graphics are also quite blocky and jagged round the edges. I believe this isn't the fault of the DS however - if they had built the game from the ground up and played to the strengths of the machine, they could probably have come up with much better results. As they are, the visuals of Ridge Racer DS are shabby at best.

In contrast to this, Namco took the basic track layouts from all the previous games and then rebuilt them for Ridge Racers on the PSP. The graphics are smooth and detailed, and in the later classes the sense of speed is staggering. Each track variation is also driven at a different time of day, so you can see glorious sunrises, sunsets, take place in night races around neon-lit cities, or just burn around in the sunshine under brilliant blue skies. I know it doesn't really effect the gameplay, but even the menu designs are classy. When it comes to the graphics, the point definitely goes to the PSP version.

Sound: The Ridge Racer series has always been associated with Rave and Dance music, and both games feature a range of new and old tracks for you to listen to as your power slide round the tracks. While the quality of the music in the DS version is quite high, the sheer range of tunes in the PSP version beats it hands down. There are five different "discs" of music - two with brand new tunes, one with remixes, and another two full of classic tracks. That adds up to 30 tunes in total - plenty of variety. As for the sound effects, the announcer can piss you off in both games, as he is very keen to point out your mistakes, and the tire screeches, engine noises and other peripheral sounds are functional at best. Another point to the PSP version.

Gameplay: Ridge Racer DS isn't a bad game by any means. During the time it takes to finish you will probably enjoy yourself, but unfortunately that isn't very long. The entire game smaller than just the Basic Tours in the PSP version. As well as the Basic Tours, Ridge Racers includes Pro, Advanced and Max Tours, which will take you many hours to complete. Other complaints I could make include the handling - on the DS it's imprecise and tricky to pull off, but on the PSP it's a cinch to launch yourself into a power slide and then control it, and the sensation of speed - the DS version never feels particularly quick, but when you get to the Class 6 and Special races in Ridge Racers the velocity will take your breath away. You guessed it, another point for PSP version - things aren't looking good for the DS now.

Overall: I have to point out now that I'm not against the DS in any way - it's a great machine with some great games (such as Super Mario 64 DS, Wario Ware Touched, Yoshi's Touch & Go, etc), but unfortunately when it comes to Ridge Racer the PSP wins hands down. Because Nintendo took the quick and easy option of porting their old N64 game (which was already one of the worst entries in the Ridge Racer series), their game looks decidedly weak when put next to the power, speed, visuals and sheer variety of races that Ridge Racers on the PSP offers. Maybe if they'd taken the time to write a new game from scratch, which made good use of all the DS's hardware tricks, they could've come up with something impressive, but as it is, Ridge Racer DS is a letdown to both the machine it is on and to the series in general.

The Retromodern Gaming Scores:

Ridge Racer DS - 6 out of 10
Ridge Racers - 8 out of 10

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Resident Evil 4 review

Now on BBC2, another episode of Can't Cook, Dead Cook with your host, Zom B. Chef:

"Greetings. Today I'm going to show you show to cook up some delicious Resident Evil 4. You will need, some salt-cured spanish meat of unknown origin, a pinch of Jaws, a dash of Day of the Dead, a soupson of Metal Gear and a sprinke of Shenmue. Stir well, placed in a greased baking tin and leave for approximately 3 years until golden brown on top. Warning: Eat in small doses - excessive consumption can cause a laxative effect. May contain Parasites."

Yes, the game that has been locked away in the development labs of Capcom for the last few years has finally been unleashed on a public that is in many ways unprepared for what they will see, hear and experience. Many people never got on with the Resident Evil series in the first place, whether it was down to the clunky controls, limited ammunition or a general dislike for the horror genre, and even series stalwarts were beginning to get tired of the same old zombie formula. They've taken the watered down DNA and injected it with an invigorating shot of adrenalin, and as a result they've come up with the best game I've played in years.

There are many reasons why RE 4 is such a masterpiece. The first thing you will notice are the graphics - incredibly detailed, realistically lit and yet given a style of their own through the usage of sepia tones. If you've seen screenshots of the early village sections of the, you will have no doubt noticed just how brown everything looks, but fear not, later stages of the game have a much wider pallet of hues, including the blue-grey of the stone castle, the deep red of blood, and the bright orangey-yellows of a fireball coming straight at you.

Then there is the sound. Not long after starting the game you will start to associate certain noises with fear, and then panic. The snarl of a chainsaw, the shouting of the villagers in an alien tongue, creepy chanting, distancing snuffly breathing, and the relentless pounding of the sountrack that signals that something is out there, and it's coming for you. If you have a surround sound set-up you will hear the villagers (and other foes) behind you, or to the side. It's not uncommon to be fending off an angry mob of 6 or 7 people, and then hear a shrill scream and the angry rip of the chainsaw from behind. Of course, by then, it's too late, and your head is already rolling along the ground...

Next, there's the shear range of set pieces in the game and not knowing what is coming next. To spoil these would be mean spirited of me so let me just say that each and every chapter (all 19 of them) turns the tables on you in some way and it's up to you to instinctively try and get out of whatever trouble your in. These include some truly spectacular boss battles, many of which will see you get torn to pieces (sometimes literally) on your first try. But fear not, because although Resident Evil 4 is harsh and unrelenting in pace, it is also extremely fair.

Every time you enter a dangerous encounter, puzzle or set piece, there's a restart point, so you don't have to reload from the last time you saved a at typewriter like previous games in the series - you just try again. This gives you the freedom to experiment, trying new tactics until you get it right. In the first hour of the game, when you are still getting used to the controls, the pace, and the sheer number of enemies you have to face at any one time, you will most certainly die at least once. It's a harsh baptism into the world of RE:4, but don't give up, just try again, learn from your experience and adjust.

There are elements of RE:4 that you will recognise from other games and films. Again, without spoiling anything, most obvious of these are the codec conversations from the Metal Gear games and the Quick Time Events from Shenmue. Don't worry, the conversations aren't anywhere near as long and rambling as the ones in the MGS series - they usually don't take any longer than a minute at the most. The QTE's are far more dynamic then they ever were in Shenmue too - rather than occurring at prescripted moments, they are context sensitive. For example, if you shoot an enemie in the knee, he will fall down, and if you then close in an image of the A button will appear with "Kick" underneath. A quick press will deliver a swift roundhouse to the head, and if they've been sufficiently weakened already, the head might explode like an over ripe cantaloupe.

No game has demonstrated to the power of the Gamecube better than RE:4. I have counted at least 12 enemies coming at me at the same time with no slowdown at all, and gargantuan bosses. If the Gamecube has not performed as well as Nintendo has hoped, it's certainly not down to the capabilities of the machine itself (or the quality of the games for that matter). I'll save that debate for another time however, or I'll be here all week.

The game is also extremely replayable. The fact that enemies have "hit zones" and the game features realistic physics mean that no two battles every play out exactly the same way. Also, there is a selection of side games and sub quests, both hidden away within the main game and unlocked when you finish the game for the first time as well. I say first time, because you can use your save file to start again, with all the weapons and upgrades you gained during your first play through (or you could try the Professional difficulty).

Yes, I did say upgrades. You will encounter the rather shady looking (and sounding) merchants at various points through the game, often before a particularly nasty battle, and you can buy new weapons and upgrade old ones. There are many statistics that can be improved for each gun, including firepower, firing rate, bullet capacity and reload speed. Reloading can no longer be done from the safety of your inventory screen, it has to be done on the fly, which can lead to some very fraught moments as Leon thumbs some more shells into the chamber of your boomstick. Ammo itself is much easier to come by however, as many enemies drop it when they perish.

The other major addition to the series is Ashley, the daughter of the president, and the whole reason your in this mess in the first place. It's your job, as Leon S Kennedy from Resident Evil 2, to find and rescue he. You then have to protect her for the rest of the game. This sounds like it could be a major pain, doesn't it? It really isn't. She's intelligent enough to duck if you try and aim at enemies behind her, and you can leave her behind in safe locations while you fight. Be careful where you do leave her, however, as she can be carried off to certain doom while you're not looking (bringing back memories of Ico).

Now for some criticism. Although the new controls are a great improvement, they can still prove fiddly in the heat of battle. The laser sights are a great idea (and popping heads with a sniper rifle is extremely satisfying), but aiming still roots you to the spot same as it always has. There's also no ability to side step, but apparently the development team left this out on purpose to heighten the fear of being stabbed from the side. There is a 180 turn that you will use to get you out of many tricky situations, but all in all the controls still aren't perfect.

Then there's the hammy voice acting in cutscenes. I know, it wouldn't really seem like a Resident Evil game without all the overacted lines and ridiculous phrases, but they do undermine the atmosphere of the rest of the game at times.

These small things do very little to spoil the magnifence of the overall package however. It maintains a higher level of quality and fun then any other game I've played this year or last (including Halo 2, GTA San Andreas or Metroid Prime 2). You're never truly stumped, and you can always try again. Those of a nervous disposition should be wary however, as playing the game will inevitably make you on edge. I was very tempted to award Resident Evil 4 a 10, but after much careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that it deserves a 9.

Nevertheless, it remains an essential addition to any Gamecube owners collection, and it's well worth buying the console just to play it if you don't own one already.

9 out of 10.

Not your average Boy Scout camp fire.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Best Games in the World, Ever Part Four

No list of the best games ever made would be complete without Super Mario 64, and seeing as the game is currently having a new lease of life thanks to the Nintendo DS version, now is as good a time as any to talk about it.

The game was released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64 and together with other titles like Ridge Racer, Tomb Raider and Wipeout on the PlayStation it truly defined the 3D revolution. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Players got to explore the familiar world of the Mushroom Kingdom in glorious 3D, and the order in which the levels could be tackled was largely up to the player. Although each star and world was numbered, if you knew what you were doing you could collect them out of sequence.

The tasks involved in obtaining stars were many and varied, from racing Koopas, defeating giant bombs, collecting 8 red coins, reuniting baby penguins with ther mum's and many more. In total, the original game had a huge 120 stars to collect in total, although only 70 were required to face Bowser for the final time and complete the game. The DS version adds 30 new stars, and to get all 150 will take you many hours indeed. Whereas getting every star didn't really reward you with very much on the N64, in the DS version you actually get something for your troubles (a new mini game).

The N64 console, and this game in particular, also introduced players to the analogue stick (which Sony would later adopt for their Dual Shock controller). This took some getting used to, but after a while the precision of the controls became second nature. Of course, the DS has no analogue stick, and to get around this fact the touch screen and stylus are used instead. Many people have complained that this is a poor replacement, but I had no problem with it, and it many respects it is actually better (especially for swimming or flying).

Super Mario 64 has still (arguably) not been bettered to this day. Not even Nintendo themselves could come close to bettering it with Super Mario Sunshine. There are many good 3D platformers out there that are worth playing, but none of them have the same level of imagination and sheer wealth of things to do in the same way that SM64 has.

Opinion is divided on which is the better version of the game. For the purists, the original will always be the best, while those who missed the N64 will no doubt prefer the DS version. With the addition of 36 mini games, 30 stars and a multiplayer mode, it's no simple cash-in port (that many people feared it would be). If for some inexplicable reason you still haven't experienced the masterpiece of SM64, either pick up an old N64 or a new NDS, and prepare to be dazzled. As the great Dr. Jones said, it belongs in a museum!

Bowser on the N64.

Mario on the NDS.

Coming Soon

Just a quick word to say that I plan to be back soon with a whole load of content, including (but not limited to) reviews of Resident Evil 4, Wario Ware Touched!, Star Fox Assault, Lunar 2: Eternal Blue and Gran Turismo 4. There will also be more entries to Hidden Gems and Best Game in the World Ever.

Starting right now...

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Hidden Gems 2005 Volume 3

I went shopping for some pre-owned games on Friday afternoon, and one of the games I ended up buying was Sky Odyssey for the PlayStation 2. I used to own this game back when the PS2 was still fairly new on the scene, and I absolutely loved it.

Playing it evokes memories of games of old such as both of Nintendo's Pilotwings games, and an arcade machine that Namco made called PropCycle. This machine head a set of bicycle peddals and you would have to careful judge how fast you had to peddle in order to control the speed of your gyrocopter as you fly around trying to burst all of the baloons in the level.

Sky Odyssey is a the closest thing to a proper flight sim you're likely to find on a console. Although I hasten to add that if you're looking for shooting and destruction you've come to the wrong place (the Ace Combat series is perfect for that sort of thing). This game is all about the pleasure of flying and enjoying the landscape laid out below you. It's an exciting adventure that will take you through rocky ravines, ancient temples, underground caverns, snow-capped mountains, through the eye of a thunderstorm and much more.

The handling of your plane feels very authentic, and although this takes some getting used to it is a big part of the reason why the game is such good fun to play. It's immensely satisfying when you come in for a smooth landing having just spent the last 15 or so minutes dodging landslides and falling stalagtites or whatever else the game throws at you. In one memorable mission your engine fails about two thirds of the way through the level, and you have to touch down on the river and use the air brakes to steer you away of the rocks as you hurtle down the rapids.

As well as the main Adventure mode which features about 15 missions and multiple routes, there are a couple of other modes which are well worth your time as well. These include Sky Canvas, where you have to draw certain shapes with coloured smoke trails (ala the Red Devils), Target (where you have to go through 6 targets of the same colour, red or blue, and then land on the runway of the same colour for maximum points), and finally Free Flight, where you can just explore the environments at your own pace.

Graphically, the game is a bit of a mixed bag. While the weather effects, such as wind, rain, snow, the spray of the ocean and other such environmental effects are very well done, the textures are a bit uninspired at times and the levels are a bit blocky. This was a first generation PS2 title though as I said earlier, so you can't really expect too much. Besides, the game has got it where it counts, in the gameplay. You will be eager to see what challenges the game throws at you next, and the rousing adventure soundtrack only serves to increase the level of excitement and spur you on. Plus, each time you complete a mission you are given a grade based on certain criteria, such as the amount of time taken and whether you managed to go through all of the checkpoint rings in the stage. This spurs you on to retry the stages until you get an A grade, which allows you to choose an upgraded part for your plane.

If you do manage to find a copy of the game you shouldn't have to pay too much, about £10 at the most, but good luck finding it as it's fairly rare (sadly, it never sold that well to begin with). I regretted selling my copy for a long time and I'm very glad I stumbled accross another copy years later. I definitely won't be parting with this one any time soon!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hidden Gems 2005 Volume 2

Creatures - Commodore 64

First and foremost, this game has absolutely nothing to do with the Creatures games on the PC - they are all about Artficial Life, taking care or little fuzzy critters and making sure no harm comes to them. Creatures on the C64 is almost the complete opposite of that game, and try as you might, some Fuzzy Wuzzy's (as the good guys are known) will get squished, sawed in half, burnt and just generally tortured to death by the baddies.

Creatures stands for Clyde Radcliffe Exterminates All The Ugly, Repulsive, Evil Slime, or something like that (I can't quite remember). You control the one free Fuzzy Wuzzy, Clyde Radcliffe, as he sets off to free his brothers and sisters. Each world in the game consists of two platform style levels, and then one single screen torture chamber. This is the real highlight of the game! Your poor, helpless fuzzy friends will find themselves strapped to all manner of torture devices, and it's up to you to solve the puzzle and off the baddies running the machine before they are slaughtered. It will usually take you at least one go before you get it right, and it's almost worth failing on purpose just to see the gory demise of a poor Fuzzy Wuzzy.

A few years later, a sequel followed, entitled C2: Torture Trouble, which dropped the rather frustrating platforming sections in favour of the torture chambers. This is just what the fans wanted. I also remember that Commodore Format followed the creation of both games in a diary, which was fascinating to read, and it was great to finally play the game that you'd been reading about for the past year.

Both games really pushed the power of the C64, with colourful, detailed graphics, great animation and some fantastic music. These days, they can be obtained for free from www.c64.com and played with an emulator on your PC.

So go on, join the cause and fight to free some Fuzzy Wuzzy's. Or, just watch them get sliced, diced, boiled, bashed and dunked in acid. It all adds up to a fun evening's entertainment either way!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Review: Starfox Adventures

Compared to some of Nintendo's other famous franchises, the Starfox series has had surprisingly few sequels over the years. Whereas the number of Zelda games is now in double figures, and the quantity of Mario games doesn't even bear thinking about, there have only been 3 games starring Fox McCloud and his crew (until February 14th, when the eagerly awaited Starfox Assault is released in the US).

Some of you may not have even heard of the series before. It originated on the SNES, with a game that was called Starwing in the PAL territories, and it was a first for Nintendo. In partnership with Argonaut (who recently went bankrupt), they designed the Super FX Chip, which enabled the aging 16-bit system to produce powerful 3D graphics (powerful for the time at least). Starfox was a "on rails" space shooter, with three different routes through the game, each trickier than the last.
You'd pilot your Arwing through varied locations such as Corneria, the mysterious Sector X, the ominous sounding Macbeth, and eventually end up on planet Venom for a showdown with the evil space monkey Andross. Your ship came equipped with lasers and smart bombs, and it could spin to avoid enemy fire as well as flip on its side to fit between small gaps. You were in constant contact with the rest of your team, Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare and Slippy toad (and you frequently had to save them).

Years, later, Nintendo made Lylat Wars (or Starfox 64 if you lived in NTSC regions) for the Nintendo 64. Rather than a full sequel, it was really a remake of the original game, but it improved on it in many many ways. The graphics were greatly improved, and free roaming areas were adding alongside the familiar on rails levels. You also got to pilot the Landmaster tank in several of the levels, and this time the splitting path through the game depended on your performance in the previous stage.

Meanwhile, Rare were making quite a name for themselves on the N64 with brilliant games like Goldeneye, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo Kazooie and Perfect Dark (among others). They started work on a game called Dinosaur Planet, which was set to feature an anthropomorphic female cat called Krystal. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that the game would be moved onto the Gamecube, and also that the Starfox license would be squeezed into it. As fate would have it, Rare's first Gamecube title would also be their last, as they signed a multibillion dollar deal to make games exclusively for Microsoft (which they haven't really delivered on yet). So, does Starfox Adventures do justice to the brand name, and considering it wasn't really designed to be a Starfox game initially, does Fox's presence feel out of place? That's what I'm here to tell you.

Let me just start off by saying that these are most definitely the most impressive graphics I have ever seen on the current generation of consoles (yes I have played, Halo 2, and Chronicles of Riddick, and Resident Evil 4, and I still prefer the graphics in Starfox Adventures). The detail, the beauty, the way that there's no loading times between one area and the next. The vibrant colours, the fantastic day/night cycle. I spent quite a bit of time just standing around in the first person view soaking up all the detail. Then there's Fox himself - this has got to be the best CGI fur this side of Monster's Inc! It's not just reserved for cutscenes either, his fur is that good all the way through the game. Granted, some of this is a personal choice, as some would prefer the dark, gritty, oppressive visuals of RE 4, or the cel-shaded technique used it Wind Waker, but personally, I thought the visual style in SFA was amazing.

The music is pretty damn good too. I completed the game nearly a week ago, yet the tunes are still going around in my head (some game soundtracks have been rather forgettable of late). Special mention has to go to the tunes in Thorntail Hollow, and Cape Claw, with the chanting chorus (it sounds kind of African in origin, but I couldn't say for sure). The familiar Starfox theme is also included in the game in many different guises, from the "New Item" jingle that plays when you pick something up for the first time, to the "Victory" anthem that plays when you return a spellstone to it's temple.

Voice work is generally solid throughout the game, but Slippy Toad is still as annoying as he always was (this at least, shows a degree of consistancy with the rest of the series), and sound effects in general sound authentic.

Now we come to the gameplay, and before I say anything else I should point out that Starfox Adventures is nothing like the other games in the series. It's closest rivals would have to be the modern 3D Zelda games, namely Wind Waker and The Ocarina of Time. The controls are extremely similar, as is the way that you obtain new items or level up your staff to get new powers, which in turn allows you to explore new areas. One new thing it does add to the gameplay though is Prince Tricky, a juvenile Triceratops (or EarthWalker, as they're known in the culture of Dinosaur Planet) who you have to team up with to solve many of the games puzzles. You can ask him to stand on a switch for example, or dig up items from defined spots on the ground.

Overall I'd say that Starfox Adventures is a better game than the Wind Waker, but it doesn't quite match up to the benchmark in this style of game, Ocarina of Time. Why? Well, it's a bit more challenging than WW, you don't have to spend half your time exploring the bloody ocean (although there is some backtracking) and I thought the dungeons were more believably integrated into the world than in the Zelda games.

However, at times you do notice it wasn't originally intended to be a Starfox game, especially due to the fact that the rest of team are relegated to giving out hints, maps and progress reports on the pause screen. There is the occasional Arwing mission as you travel from place to place but they don't have the depth of a true Starfox shooter and are almost impossible to fail.

From a value point of view, Starfox Adventures takes about 15-20 hours to complete and can be picked up brand new for £20 for preowned for about £12. That's not bad at all considering how much fun you will have playing the game, and it's the sort of game you might find yourself coming back to in a year or so's time (if you're anything like me).

So, as long as you know exactly what you're getting (i.e. a Zelda style adventure/puzzle game, not a space shooter) you should be satisfied with Starfox Adventures. If you've already completed Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, and are looking for more of the same, then I strongly recommend buying this game. Rare's one and only Gamecube title is a gem, and a highly memorable experience. Let's hope Kameo, Conker Live & Uncut and any other projects they have in store maintain the same level of quality.

The Retro-Modern gaming score: 8 out of 10.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Double Review - Jak 2 and Jak 3

A while ago I promised you a review of Jak 3, but I thought as I'd also completed part 2 of the series within the last few months I would combine the two together. This also helps when I come to compare one game against the other. So, let's get on with it, yes?

Back in the early days of the first PlayStation, Naughty Dog created Crash Bandicoot to try and give Sony a platforming mascot of their own. This worked to a certain extent, at least until Spyro came along and stole a lot of the limelight. The games offered traditional side on platorming with modern 3D graphics, along with a variety of other styles including levels where you had to run into the screen to avoid boulders, and later additions in the series added submarines, planes, and balls like the Atlaspheres from Gladiators to roll around in.

These days the Crash games feel a little dated, and they never really rivaled the genius of Nitendo's Super Mario 64. However, about a year into the life of the PlayStation 2, Naughty Dog in conjunction with Sony released Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. It was a breath of fresh air, featuring fantastic visuals (the animation and day/night cycles were particularly impressive) and a more free-roaming style, where you were free to travel from one level to the next and try the various challenges. Unfortunately, the game didn't sell as many copies as they'd hoped, which is always a risk with a new franchise. The game did build up a small fan base however, and rather than abandon the planned trilogy, Naughty Dog decided on a change of direction.

Jak 2 is a much darker, meaner game that the first part. It's still quite suitable for teenagers to play though - we're not in GTA territory here. At least not as far as the swearing is concerned. You see, the developers obviously took a long hard look at the GTA series and decided that was the direction they needed to go in, as a lot of Jak 2 takes part in a sprawling metropolis, Haven City. The game begins with Jak escaping from the clutches of the evil Baron Praxis, but you will find he's changed a bit since the last game. In the few years while he's been held captive in the Palace, the Baron has performed experiments on him with Dark Eco, and now he has some strange powers (which are very handy in a fight).

Once out of the Palace, you slowly get caught up in a revolution against the Baron and Crimson guards which sees you exploring sewers, pumping stations, metalhead nests, and many other locations within and without the city. To aid you in getting through all this, you are given a gun, which gets more modes the further you get through the game. The is a shotgun, normal blaster, a very fast chaingun an ultra powerful gun that homes in on enemies and takes down several at once. Changing from one gun to the other can be done on the fly just by pushing a direction on the d-pad, it's an excellent idea that avoids all the faffing around in menus that many games make you go through. You will also gain a hover board at a certain point in the game, and of course, this being modelled on GTA, you can steal a zoomer from any of the citizens wandering around the city.

Let's skip ahead to Jak 3 for a minute. When you start the game, you are initially cast out into the Wasteland. The major addition to the game over Jak 2 are buggies. There are about 10 different vehicles which you can use to bomb around the desert, from the rather pathetic model you start with, to the great behemoths that you can only drive by collecting Precursor Orbs and trading them in. There's even one with huge springs built into the suspension, which you must use to jump from one archipelago to the next. The new buggy missions include races, smuggler's run style package collecting, checkpoint racing, and shooting down huge creatures. While they are great fun and add a bit of variety to the game, I thought there wasn't enough of them.

So then, let's start comparing the two games. Graphically, both are fantastic, and from a technical point of view, the way the games stream the world from the disc so you don't notice any loading times is very impressive indeed. At various times I would just stand in a level, and watch as sun rose or set. The graphics of Jak 3 are perhaps slightly less varied that in 2, being predominantly set in the desert, but there's really not much in it.

A lot of the voice cast are present in both games, and among the games are Clancy Brown as Baron Praxis (who may be familiar to some of you as the Kurgan from Highlander). They're a highly talented and professional bunch, and the voice work in the Jak trilogy is some of the best of any games. Music is good, but it is often drowned out by all the shooting that goes on since Jak acquired his multi-purpose gun.

On to gameplay and originality, and for me, Jak 2 scores more highly in this regard. Upon it's release the addition of guns felt new and fresh, and the game still managed to contain more traditional platforming levels, vehicular challenges and mini games. While Jak 3 has expanded the range of gun even further, I found I stuck to the old favourites most of the time. The buggies are a nice idea but just when you're really starting to enjoy yourself the game ends, leaving you disappointed. Also new to Jak 3 are Light Eco powers, and one of these really sucks out the challenge of the game. Apparently, many people complained that certain parts of Jak 2 were too hard, and so Jak 3 has been toned down. When you add the ability to heal yourself, it's far too easy to survive most of what the game throws at you. While one or two missions could be annoying for a while in Jak 2, they're not as frustrating as some of the harder missions in the GTA games for example, and the fact that you can try as often as you like eases a lot of the frustration (for me at least).

How about value for money? Jak 2 took me about 20 hours to complete, but Jak 3 took much less than that. While there is a Hero (Hard) Mode, most people probably won't bother to go through the game again. Once you consider the fact that Jak 2 can be picked up for £20 brand new or around £10 second hand, it starts to look like the stronger of the two games. It also has the more interesting plot. There are many new characters introduced in the second game, and most of them are carried over to the third. Also, while Jak 3 wraps up all the loose ends, you may feel a bit underwhelmed by the "revelations" at the end. In other words, Jak 2 is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, the dark, exciting middle chapter that leaves you wanting more, whereas, Jak 3 is the equivalent of the good-but-not-brilliant Return of the Jedi. Fans of the first to games will undoubtedly wish to see how the story ends, and they'll have great fun doing so while it lasts. However, it may be worth waiting until Jak 3 is a Platinum release, rather than splashing out £40 for it now.

Jak 2 - The RetroModern gaming score: 8 out of 10
Jak 3 - The RetroModern gaming score: 7 out of 10

Jak 2

Jak 3

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Review: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

Anyone who's been visiting this site regularly since I started posting on here in September will probably have noticed that I've mentioned Paper Mario on more than one occasion. I discovered the original only about a year and a half ago and enjoyed every minute of it. It really made the most of the N64 hardware, with a unique graphical style, extremely fun play mechanics and lots and lots of humour. I remember shortly after I'd finished it there was a rumour that Nintendo were going to port it over to the GBA as Mario Advance 5, but that idea vanished and instead they made the amazing Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

About half a year on from that, the first images of Paper Mario 2 arrived. It looked (and still looks) like the original but at a much higher resolution. All of the rather fuzzy looking sprites are now very clearly defined. Although the sequel shares quite a few similarities with the first game, it's by no means a simple rehash however as I shall attempt to explain now.

The story begins when Princess Peach, on holiday with her faithful 'shroom butler Toadsworth, sends a postcard to Mario saying that she bought a strange looking map from a shady looking merchant in Rogueport (you'd think the name of the place would give her a clue that it's not the safest of areas, but she's a bit of a ditz). No sooner has she bought said item and shipped it off to Mario for safe keeping, then she's kidnapped by the X-Nauts (evil scheming alien guys). Mario, being the clever chap he is, realises that she's probably got herself in trouble again and sets off to Rogueport to find out what's going on. When he gets there, he discovers Toadsworth in a state of distress, and soon the map leads them to the fable Thousand Year Door, which according to local legend holds back a demon with the power to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom. It's up to Mario and the assorted pals he meets along the way to travel the world and gather the seven Crystal Stars in order to gain the power to hold the demon, the X-Nauts and Bowser at bay.

The game plays in a similar fashion to the original. Firstly, when not in a town, you can see enemies wandering around. If you jump on them then you score a free hit before the main battle even begins, but if they hit you the same thing applies in reverse. Battles are turn-based affairs, but instead of just pressing the button and watching Mario & Co. attack, you get to participate in the form of action commands. These vary from holding the stick left and then letting go on the count of three for a hammer strike, to circling the stick and other motions. Correct timing scores extra hits, and action commands also work in defense as well. Then there are a variety of moves than you can use by equipping various badges and spending Flower Points (FP) in battle. The amount of badges you can equip are limited by your Badge Points (BP). Experience is this game takes the form of Star Points, and every time you earn 100 Star Point you earn a level. Then you have to decide whether to increase your Hit Points (HP), FP or BP.

This is all very similar to the way things worked on the N64, but the twist this time is that all the battles take place on a stage. Accurate timed hits and spectacular moves are more likely to impress the audience, which in turn leads to more people coming to watch next time and more power in your Star Meter. At the end of each chapter, you get another one of the Crystal Stars and another Star Power, and you can use these to help you out. Star Power include healing spells, earthquakes and sleep inducing moves, and each uses a certain amount of your meter. Finally, you meet a number of other characters on your travels, including a Goomba, a Ghost, and a Yoshi, who each get a turn before or after Mario and each have their own strengths. Yoshi, for example, is the only character that can harm certain enemies by swallowing them and spitting them out again. Outside of battle each of your companions has a special ability as well, such as Yosh's flutter jump, and this is usually the way you gain access to new areas.

There are also a view abilities you gain throughout the game from "cursed" black chests, such as the ability to turn into a plane, roll up into a tube or turn sidewise to fit between small gaps. If all this sounds rather complicated, you needn't worry as everything is explained very clearly as you go along and it's easy to use.

The game has a very witty translation that rivals Nintendo's hilarious english version of Mario & Luigi, and highlights of the story include prize fighting in the Glitz Pit as the Great Gonzalez, and breaking a curse that means that the residents of Twighlight Town turn into pigs everytime the bell in town square rings. After each main chapter there are interludes where you take control of Princess Peach and Bowser as you follow their side of story. Peach's sections are very entertaining as you creep around the X-Naut's base and are assisted by a computer who develops a crush on her after watching her naked in the shower (the perve!).

I know for a fact that cel shaded graphics are not everyone's cup of tea (just look at the fuss that Wind Waker caused) but personally I think the graphics in Paper Mario 2 are fantastic. They look liked a hand drawn pop-up booked, with walls of buildings folding down as you enter. The power of the Gamecube is put to the test on various occasions when 100's of sprites fill the screen at the same time.

There are some nice tunes as well, but it's not the most amazing game soundtrack to ever fill my ears. I particularly like the funked up remix of the original Mario theme that plays near Hooktail Castle at the start of the game. There are no voice overs in the game, and the usual Mario sound effects such as his jumping noises, the ching of coins and so forth are also all present and correct. So aurally Paper Mario 2 is functional at best, but at least nothing is particularly offensive to the ear.

From a lifespan point of view Paper Mario 2 is a much longer game than the original. As well as the main quest, which is likely to take to from between 25-30 hours, there are a whole range of sidequests that can push that time up to 40-50 hours. These include collecting info on all the enemies in the tattle log, finding all the badges, combining items and discovering new recipes, beating a second, harder version of the Glitz Pit, defeating the 100 level dungeon, playing mini games in the Casino and solving all the "Troubles". There is a message board in Rogueport where resident from all over the world post their problems for Mario to solve, and later ones can involve traipsing back and forth across the world several times. This is great news for completist who love to do every side quest in their RPG's but those who just want to get on with story needn't worry as they're completely optional.

So, this all adds up to one of the finest RPG's on the Gamecube (although there is some stiff competition in the forms of Tales of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos and my old favourite, Skies of Arcadia). It is undoubtedly one of my Top 10 games of 2004 and if you haven't bought a copy yet, I suggest you do so. It has more than enough game to keep you happy for weeks to come.

The RetroGaming Score: 9 out of 10

Monday, January 17, 2005

Bargains Galore

So, there I was, down the town preordering my PSP, when decided to have a little browse around Gamestation. I had no intention of buying anything, but ended up buying no less than four games! You know how it is (or maybe you don't). Luckily, three of them were only £5 each, and the fourth was a reasonable £20. I won't go into too much detail now, because they're worthy of their own reviews or Hidden Gems entries in their own right, but here's what I got...

Armed and Dangerous - Xbox - £5
This is definitely my favourite of the games I bought. It's been a long time since I've played anything that's put as much emphasis on pure fun as this game. It's a frantic third person shooter, and good one too. The sense of humour is a little depraved, but there are some great parodies of Star Wars and other Science Fiction favourites in there. The weaponry is genius, and the level of destruction and the ease of the controls all add up to make this one of the best games I've ever stumbled across by accident!

RTX Red Rock - PS2 - £5
This reminds me of the old LucasArts classic The Dig in many ways. It's starts off in a fairly realistic manner. You are E.Z. Wheeler, an RTX (Radical Tactics Expert) who's been sent on a mission to investigate what's been happening on the colony on Mars. Things soon take a turn for the worse though and you find yourself stranded on the red planet, battling strange aliens called LED's and solving all sorts of puzzles in order to save yourself and the colony. So far the puzzles have been a little obtuse, and it's not always clear where to go next, but it's a fun, well presented adventure game.

Drakengard - PS2 - £5
This is was originally known as Drag-On Dragoon in Japan, until Square-Enix wisely renamed it for US and European audiences. It plays like a hybrid of Dynasty Warriors and Panzer Dragoon except neither part is quite as good as its inspiration. The graphics are a bit underwhelming and the camera was really bad from what I've played so far, but I've only got a short way into the game so I'll reserve final judgment until I finish it.

Prince of Persia - Xbox - £20
Finally I've got around to buying the first next generation Prince of Persia, and it's very faithful to the 80's original. The ability to rewind time allows you to experiment with the puzzles, which are very imaginative and will take all your platform game dexterity and brain power to overcome. After I've finished with A&D, Shenmue 2 and Super Mario 64 DS, I shall definitely be going back to it.

Phew! That should keep me quiet for a week at least! There's some good games coming out soon though, which I'm pretty sure I won't be able to resist. Titles like Resident Evil 4, Baiten Kaitos, Gran Turismo 4, Metal Gear Solid 3, Star Fox Armada and Wild Arms 4 are all either out already or are extremely imminent. I shall post my impressions and reviews of each of them as I acquire and complete them, so keep checking back regularly!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Ridge Racer Retrospective feature

I originally wrote this article last year, and thing's have changed a bit in the Ridge Racer series since then. I thought it would be interesting to leave the article as it was and then just add some bits for the latest games in the the series. Here we go:

The Beginning - Ridge Racer (Arcade, 1994/95?)
Way back in 1995 (or was it '94, I can't quite remember), an amazing new arcade game was released by Namco, the people behind such classics as Pac Man, Galaxians and Galaga. It was a fully three-dimensional racing game, and it took the games world by storm. Together with Sega's Virtua Racing arcade cabinet it redefined the racing genre. The game featured cutting edge visuals for the time, a thumping Rave soundtrack, blistering speed and memorable track design. Even though there were only three different tracks, players found themselves coming back time and time again because playing the game was such a thrill.

The Launch - Ridge Racer (PlayStation, 1995)
Sony benefited from Namco's almost arcade perfect port of the machine on the launch day of their PlayStation. For many, the temptation of being able to drive around the tracks without putting £1 every time was too hard to resist. A bit of extra challenge was added in the form of an "Extra" mode, which was simply the tracks in reverse with a slightly trickier opposition and time limit. There were also some bonus cars to unlock if you were quick enough to shoot all the Galaxians before the game loaded up. At the time, it didn't matter that you could finish the entire game within a few hours. Nowadays you can pick the game for around £3, and it's still jolly good fun to pick up and play from time to time.

Ridge Remixed - Ridge Racer Revolution (PlayStation, 1996)
Namco cashed in on the popularity of the original by releasing this remix a year later. All the tracks were new, save for a couple of classics that were strangely only available in the new multiplayer mode. Graphically, the game was very similar to the original, but the handling was tweaked slightly and the challenge was increased. Even so, you could still easily finish it all off in an evening. This game can now be found for the mind bogglingly cheap price of £2, so short as it is it's still damn good value for money.

Ridge Rethought - Rage Racer (Playstation, 1997)
Despite this entry to the series only having the usual paltry 4 tracks, it had a much longer one player game than the games that preceded it due to there being multiple cups for you to win, along with many different cars that could be (and indeed had to be) upgraded. The fastest cars were only available in manual transmission too, forcing automatic drivers to learn how to drive properly. The usual range of tunez was present, but the graphics had a much more subdued, grimy look which looks a bit ugly compared to it's colourful forebears. It also came out a short while before the Dual Shock pad was commonplace, and the digital steering makes it feel older than it is. At the time I thought this game was brilliant, but looking at it in the harsh light of day now it's probably the most dated of all the games featured here. Again, the game can be found on the cheap today.

Ridge Revamped - Ridge Racer Type Four (PlayStation, 1999)
RRT4 had more of everything - more tracks, cars, tunes and some of the best graphics ever seen in a racer on the PlayStation. It was the perfect antidote to Gran Turismo 2, which was about as realistic as you could get. The handling and powerslides were balanced just right and this time the game featured full analogue control and vibration. Although it was very easy to get all the way through the game with certain teams and cars, you could choose a team that was struggling with their finances and have a much more challenging time of it. Many people regard this game as the pinnacle of the series so far, but I still have a soft spot for the original. Expect to pay around £5 for this one.

Ridge Recycled - Ridge Racer 64 (Nintendo 64, 2000)
Although this entry to the series bears the Namco name, it was actually Nintendo Software Technology (NST) that programmed it. It was the biggest version of the game so far, featuring all of the tracks from the original game, Revolution and a handful of completely new ones. The graphics were a halfway house between the look of the original and the shinier cars of Ridge Racer Type Four. The only thing that let it down was the slightly floaty handling. It was too easy to go into a powerslide when you didn't mean to and slam into the side of the track. Prices vary from about £5 to £10 depending on whether you get the box and instruction manual.

Ridge Renaissance - Ridge Racer V (PlayStation 2, 2001)
The Ridge series finally entered the next generation with the launch of the PlayStation 2 and players got more of the same, only better looking and slightly trickier. The soundtrack featured some amazing music from the likes of the Boom Boom Satellites, and gameplay wise the game took the multi-cup approach used in Rage Racer. The classic track from the first game returned along with about 5 other new ones, and the handling was tightened up a bit to produce a very playable racer. The game suffered a bit from a lack of anti-aliasing meant "jaggies" were quite obvious, and the PAL version wasn't optimised leading to huge borders and a noticeable drop in speed over the silky smooth NTSC versions. Not the best arcade racer even seen then, but it can still provide quite a few hours of entertainment for around £7.

Ridge Reimagined - R: Racing Evolution (Multiformat, 2004)
Now we come to the latest entry to the Ridge Racer series, and the first truly radical overhaul the game mechanics have had since the whole thing started. The team behind the PS2 Moto GP series joined forces with members of the Ridge Racer V team to produce this new game, which features storyline elements ala TOCA Racer Driver and an altogether more realistic approach. The cars and circuits are for the most part based on their real life counterparts, and the handling has been steered in the direction of realism and away from the drift heavy feel of old. The story mode is somewhat short and easy, but there are dozens of individual challenges for players to unlock which should last a while. Fans of the series have grumbled that it just isn't the same, but I rather enjoyed this game. Still, I was glad to hear the announcement of...

Ridge Redux - Ridge Racer 6 (Multiformat?, 2004-2005)
Very little is known about RR6 as it's only just been announced, but the name would suggest a return to the series' arcade roots rather than the semi-realistic approach favoured by R: Racing Evolution. If I'm honest I've always felt that the series has had a lot of potential and although all the games have been fun in their own way they've been let down by one key aspect, either the length of the game, the handling or the overall lack of challenge. Imagine what a true next generation Ridge Racer could be like, with properly anti-aliased graphics, perfect handling, dozens of tracks, a weighty one player mode, plenty of speed, the usual thumping music, and maybe even an online mode? Come on Namco, make the Ridge Racer game we've all been waiting for.

Hmm... now we know, eh? So, here's my thoughts on the two newest, handheld versions of the series.

Ridge Renovated - Ridge Racer DS (Nintendo DS, 2005)
This is basically the same game as the N64 version, but the gameplay has been improved quite a bit in the porting process. The frame rate has been increased to a silky smooth 60 fps, there's no slowdown and everything looks nicer on the smaller screen. Handling has also improved slightly, thanks to the d-pad being better suited to the game than the analogue stick was, and there's the option of using the touch screen to steer as well. There's 12 tracks, plus reverse versions, and lots of cars to unlock (only a handful are worth driving though). Not a bad job on the whole, but not the amazing game I was waiting for.

Ridge of Rapidity (sorry, I was running out of words that start with re) - Ridge Racers (PSP, 2005)Now this is more like it. While I haven't played this version yet, all that I've seen and read leads me to believe that it is the best version ever. There's a selection of classic tracks which have all been given a modern day makeover, along with a selection of the best music from previous games and a mammoth one player mode (we're talking at least forty cups of 3-6 races). The Arrange Tour mode sounds good - choose a time from 5 to 60 minutes and the game with create a championship for you that fit's in with your requirements. I shall definitely be picking this baby up along with my PSP in March.

And there's one I missed completely originally...

Rave Racer (Arcades, 199?)
This had a completely different set of tracks, cars and tunes but it still stuck to the familiar Ridge Racer formula. Ridge Racers on the PSP features some of the tracks from this game that many fans won't have seen before due to the limited exposure of the arcade cabinet.

So there you have it, who knows what the future will bring the Ridge Racer series? It's nice to see it have a return to form though.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

American GBA and DS owners have only recently been able to go to their local store and buy the latest in the prestigious Zelda series, whereas European gamers have had their copies since last November. I finished my copy a week or two ago and now it's time to give you my verdict.

This is the fifth Zelda game that Flagship/Capcom have developed for Nintendo, having previously worked on Oracle of Seasons and Ages for the Game Boy Color, the GBA port of A Link to the Past (and Four Swords), and then the Gamecube's Four Swords Adventures (which actually came out afterwards in Europe). Their experience really shines through every moment in the Minish Cap, and they've even brought a fair few new ideas to the series that not even Nintendo have managed.

The storyline is our old Nintendo favourite with a few twists. Zelda is in trouble again - this time she's been turned to stone by an evil young magician called Vaati, who suddenly became very powerful when he stole a magic hat from his master, Ezlo. Before escaping with said hat, Vaati turned Ezlo into the eponymous Minish Cap. A while into the adventure, Link discovers the Cap and puts it on. Ezlo's hat form has the head of some kind of bird, and he talks to Link, giving out advice and smart remarks whenever they're needed. He's a bit like the Red Dragon boat in Wind Waker.

It's up to you, as link, to traverse Hyrule, beat the 6 different dungeons and power up the Picori Blade (more on this in a minute) so that you can defeat Vaati. The major twist this time is that the usual Master Sword is referred to as the Picori Blade in this game (told you I'd get to it). The reason for is that once upon a time, a race of tiny little people called the Picori came down from the sky, and fashioned a powerful sword for the hero of that time (also called Link) so he could banish the evil once again. Once every 100 (or is it 1000? I can't remember) years, the force field to the Picori Shrine weakens and their presence is felt once again. Now is that time.

Upon finding the Minish Cap, link is able to shrink himself down to their size and explore areas that were almost invisible to the eye before. You will find yourself surrounded by giant shoes, reeds, cats and all sorts of other everyday objects. It's a bit like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but without Rick Moranis (thank god!).

Another big twist this time around are the Kinstones. They're like little jigsaw pieces, and if you find someone with a matching half to yours, something good happens in the land. What this is varies greatly, and includes chests appearing, rare golden monsters, and new areas to explore. Most of the kinstone trading is entirely optional, but it's addictive stuff and adds quite a bit of replay value to the game.

Thirdly, Flagship have come up with some novel new items instead of just reusing the standard Hookshot and that sort of thing. The first one you get is the Gust Jar, which you can use to blow yourself across the water when standing on a lilypad, or you can suck a stretchy mushroom into the jar from a distance and use it to fling you across a gap. I won't spoil the other items as a lot of the fun is the in the surprise of exactly what you discover next.

Graphically, The Minish Cap is phenomenal. It's definitely much more detailed than A Link to the Past ever was, yet still captures a lot of the charm from that game. The best way to describe it would probably be to tell you to imagine the Wind Waker, but from an overhead perspective. There's some impressive sprite scaling effects when you face off against some of the bosses (such as a giant Chu Chu, or green slime). It's a showcase of what the GBA can do and it's just a shame that something this good took such a long time to appear. Hopefully, an all new Zelda won't take as long to appear on the DS (you hear me Nintendo? No ports!).

Aurally, pretty much every familiar tune from past Zelda games have reappeared, but sometimes slightly remixed. For example, you think the Hyrule Castle theme is going to be the one from A Link to the Past, but then it becomes something different. It's definitely some of the best music on the GBA alongside Final Fantasy I+II Dawn of Souls.

From a challenge point of view, TMC is a little underwhelming. The six dungeons are pretty easy to get through, but are nevertheless fun the whole time. Even though TMC is a fairly easy game, there's still a lot to keep you occupied if you choose to spend some time on the side games, kinstone trading and figurine collecting.

Ultimately, this is one of the best GBA games ever made, and keeps up the high standard that most of the Zelda games have lived up to (excepting the dire Phillips CD-I game of course). While all you DS owners are waiting for some more decent games to arrive, do yourself a favour and get The Minish Cap. It's Nintendo gaming at it's best and it's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

The Retro-Gaming score: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Nintendo DS First Impressions

I've had my Nintendo DS for just over two weeks now. At first I just had the console, and spent the first few days playing my GBA games on it. It makes games like Golden Sun and Racing Gears Advance look better than ever with its super sharp backlit screens (well, screens, but the GBA only uses one of them). The stereo speakers also made them sound better than ever.

Then Super Mario 64 DS arrived, and finally I could put the machine to a proper test. The first thing I did was try each of the 8 mini games that are initially unlocked. The touch screen in conjuction with the stylus is extemely accurate and easy to use, and the games are great fun. My early favourite was Wanted, but now I've unlocked more games I find Sort or Splode and Wario's pachinko games to be the best.

The main adventure mode was next, and it looks fantastic. Imagine and N64, but going through an RGB cable, with more detail and better effects. The controls took some getting used to, I really didn't like them at first, but after I swapped from thumb strap to stylus I find them to be better than the N64's analogue stick. The game itself has loads to do, from collecting all 100 stars to unlocking the other characters and mini games (by catching rabbits).

Yesterday, I received two more packages. One of them was Ridge Racer DS, and the other was a selection of accesories. I'm very impressed with the offical DS headphones by Hori - they look very nice, are extremely comfortable and sound great too, all for about £7 from Lik-Sang. I also received some spare sytli, a UK charger, some screen protectors and a carry case. The case is a bit cheaply made, with a poor zip, but it does the job.

As for Ridge Racer DS, it may not match up to Ridge Racers on the PSP (currently the best game on that system) but it's still good fun and the best choice if you're looking for a racing game for your new DS. The graphics haven't changed very much from the N64 version (it's a port of Ridge Racer 64) but they do run at 60 fps with no slow down now which makes a difference. The music is fantastic, and sounds great through my new headphones (really bassy dance stuff). Until something better comes along, Ridge Racer DS will tide me over quite nicely.

So now it's up to Nintendo to bring some more decent games out before the PSP is officially released in the US and Europe. If they don't, any early lead they may have built up will be wasted. How about updates (NOT ports) of Pilotwings, Starfox or the Mario RPG series on the DS? Nintendo, it's over to you.