Once upon a time, a platform game was a platform game. A shoot-‘em-up, a shoot-‘em-up. Football, football. I could go on. But as games have gotten bigger and longer, the tried and tested formulae of the past have looked increasingly repetitive, and so developers have tried many a time to insert token gestures of variety to keep players interests up. When it works, it becomes a section you end up saving a file beforehand just so you can go back and play it multiple times. When it doesn’t, it can run the whole flow of gameplay aground.
But let’s not dwell on the negative too much. Here are five of my favourite game segments where the game you were just playing doesn’t play like how the game usually plays. THERE BE SPOILERS.
5. TimeSplitters 2 (2002) – Anaconda
I initially wanted to keep out of the whole ‘game-within-a-game’, as mini-games such as these are often superfluous to the main narrative thrust and not exactly necessary for furthering progress in the game (unless it’s Donkey Kong 64 requiring high scores on original versions of Donkey Kong and Jetpack in order to unlock the final boss). Usually, they are simply fun extra bonuses, more often than not a spin on a classic arcade Asteroids/Space Invaders/R-Type-shooter, which mildly distract you for fifteen minutes, then back to the main objectives at hand. Not so with TimeSplitters 2 though. Or at least when it comes to one of three (THREE!) retro-style games included within, found as cartridges in the story levels and selectable on your handy Temporal Uplink gadget.
Anaconda, the first and best of the trio, is ostensibly a slicker smoother version of perennial mobile phone favourite Snake. What tips it into must-play status is the up-to-4-player mode, and its full 360 degree controls. It makes for simple but manic multiplayer fun that rivals the already pretty awesome deathmatch mode for pure entertainment value. Oh, and the music is groovy too.
4. Portal (2007) – Test Chamber 19
When the history books of this current long-lasting generation of gaming hardware are written, two games which managed to match unconventional ideas and innovative design with compelling gameplay will stand out in particular: Bioshock and Portal. Both titles were also remarkable in their meme-generating central twists that not only turned the very narrative of the game on its head, but commented on the artifice of video games themselves.
I’ve picked out Portal here, not so much to focus on all the in-jokes, nor even the shift in storyline (it’s pretty obvious early on there’s something sinister about the experiments you find yourself trapped in). Because while the gameplay itself doesn’t change, the way the game plays does. Having been led by G.L.A.D.O.S. from self-contained stage to stage, come the end of Test Chamber 19, you’re led to your death unless you effectively ‘break the game’. From that point, you must employ all the puzzle skills and tricks you’ve acquired to survive outside the parameters set by your digital overlord, like a cartoon character escaping their film cell, in some kind of meta-commentary on the restrictions game designers impose on us players. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?
3. GoldenEye 007 (1997) – Streets
Ah, the vehicle section – as ubiquitous in modern shooters as manning a turret. And in some cases, you even get a magical mix of the two, as with GoldenEye 007 and its wondrously destructive tank. While it actually makes its first appearance on the brief Runway level, it’s the Streets stage (adapted from the St Petersburg-set action sequence in the original Bond film) where you really get to run riot.
With wide open streets laden with mines, guards armed with rocket launchers and a ticking clock, you’re actively encouraged to take to the tank to give chase and rescue Natalya. But where Rare really sweeten the deal is giving you carte blanche to crush enemy soldier after enemy soldier, their chilling screams ringing in your ears, the gruesome crunch as their bones break under your tracks, their shuddering final gulp and gasp as their organs rupture in their cracking ribcage… Aaahh, bliss. Almost brings a tear to my eye. Sniff.
2. Banjo-Kazooie (1998) – Grunty’s Furnace Fun
More Rare (and yes, let’s mention now that TimeSplitters-makers Free Radical Design were formed by former Rare designers, including Dr. Doak himself), but something completely different, and indeed something I haven’t seen in a game before or since – a game show. Oh sure, there are specific game show-style titles (Buzz!, the obvious series), but for the preliminary stage of the final boss battle to comprise of an observation/trivia quiz focused on the game you’ve just been playing is a pretty wacky, and hilarious, concept.
Oh sure, it raised buckets of ire in certain quarters being that there was no indication you ever had to pay attention to the game’s sound effects, textures or dialogue for a set of randomly generated brain-scratchers upon a game board hovering above a pit of lava in order to complete the game (see the same complaints levelled at DK64). But hey, I’m a sucker for quizzes and attention to detail, so I thought it was great. Silly, funny, but great.
1. Shenmue (1999) – The Motorcycle Race Against Time
Open world and sandbox games are arguably as much a collection of mini-games as a Mario Party instalment, just with a narrative pinning it together instead of a board game setup. But being that Shenmue was one of the earlier examples of the genre in its modern variant, it was more limited in its scope, though by no means in its execution.
Case in point: the motorcycle time trial. Ryo Hazuki has to rescue his friend-who-is-a-girl Nozomi from the clutches of dock-bothering harbour-hangers the Mad Angels and their head honcho, the evil Terry (maybe the least threatening name for a villain beginning with a ‘T’ after Tarquin). However, time is ticking, so you hop on a friend’s hog (after asking politely if you can borrow it, and putting on your helmet, of course) and speed off into the night.
Okay, I’ve already covered vehicle sections, and bikes are pretty much standard fare (see also: No More Heroes, MadWorld, Resident Evil 4’s jetski to an extent, etc.). However, Shenmue stands out for a number of reasons. First off, it avoids the pitfalls of suddenly dropping you into a new kind of gameplay and a new set of controls with no idea what to do save for a hastily skipped instructions screen, because you’ve already been in training for this section before without you even realising. Yes, the hours and yen spent down the local game centre have paid off, as your race against time plays identically to retro motorbike arcade title Hang On (see also: Bayonetta’s wonderful bonus stage take on that other Shenmue stalwart Space Harrier). You’ve ridden a bike before, albeit in a QTE sequence, and there are of course the famous forklift truck races, but everything has been building to this moment, so it’s just as well that, so long as you’ve played enough Hang On, you’ll be able to handle the ‘real’ thing. A comment perhaps on video games leading to transferrable skills in the real world too? Well, let’s just motion away from that particular can of worms, lest we stray into Manhunt territory, supposed copycat killings, and all the controversy that entails.
But back to Shenmue! What also makes this short section so memorable is that it really opens up the world of the game. Your journey from Dobuita to New Yokosuka Harbour is skipped ordinarily, fading to black in between boarding and disembarking your bus. All of a sudden, the two key game areas are joined up – fair enough, joined up by repetitive anonymous streets, with the only distinguishing feature the omnipresent Tomato convenience stores. Yet, it still feels like your area of play has broadened and become just a little more tangible.
In the grand scheme of things, the motorcycle section may be just a tiny footnote in Shenmue as a whole, perhaps better remembered for the post-Nozomi rescue cutscene/music video instead. It’s very short, the music’s awful, and basing the controls on a 14-year-old arcade game does it no favours. And it’s not even the most drastic gear shift; witness the final disc of Shenmue II, where all the gambling, fist-fights and hustle and bustle of the big city gives way to forest walks, long conversations with the girl of your dreams and finding kindling for a campfire. But it still strikes a chord – Ryo’s appearance in Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing saw him riding proud on a motorbike (with a bonus forklift special mode). Granted, if he turned up in a go-kart or a bubblecar, it would be somewhat less fitting, but you get the point.
So, we have a vehicle section (a la GoldenEye 007), that plays like a game-within-a-game (a la TimeSplitters 2), thereby commenting meta-style on games themselves and expanding the world in which the game is played (a la Portal). That oughta cover it – well, apart from the board game element. Shenmue Cluedo anyone?
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So, those are my favourites. I think I’ve sort of explained the kind of thing I’m getting at. Let me know some of yours!