Nintendo Switch UK Premiere: Thoughts and Impressions

I was lucky enough to attend the Nintendo Switch UK premiere at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, a chance to get hands-on with the new Nintendo console for the first time, marrying a home device with a portable one (as evidenced by the entry corridor displaying both arms of Nintendo’s console timeline on either side, merging into one with Switch). I’m just going to talk about my experiences on the day and with the machine, rather than get in depth about pricing, Nintendo’s strategy, whether it will be a success or failure. All I’ll say is that I rarely ever get a console at launch (except for the NES Mini!) as it usually takes a few months for them to bed in, and I have plenty of games to be getting on with. Much will depend on whether I can resist the charms of Splatoon 2 come its summer launch, hence why it was the first game I rushed to once the gates were open.

Welcome to the Splatzone

Welcome to the Splatzone

Fans of Splatoon will be entirely at home with Splatoon 2. I played with the Pro Controller and the in-built gyro worked perfectly in replicating the motion controls of the Gamepad. I used the new dual pistol weapons which were really nicely done, with the special jetpack really fun to play around with, getting some juicy airborne strikes. The only thing to adjust to is the need to bring up the map with X in order to check your progress and jump to your team-mates. It’s an extra step and might force you to be more tactical, interrupting the flow of gameplay whereas a quick glance was fine first time round, but it will become familiar with practice. It’s apparently set 2 years after the first game, according to the helper at the stand, which would indicate some story mode is retained, which is a comfort. And the ability to play local multiplayer with fellow Switch holders as well as online is good thing indeed. Of course, Splatoon was mainly about online play, so we’ll have to see if the sequel has the same take-up given Switch owners will have to pay for online access this time.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was up next, and what we got to try was the intro to the game. Seeing other players wandering off in multiple directions within the 20 minutes or so play-time showed that even in the opening area (representing 2% of the entire map), there was much to explore and get stuck into. I fannied about a bit too much to make much progress, and mixed up buttons a fair bit, but I enjoyed the style and presentation and it seemed like offering much in terms of story and set-pieces as well as general larking around. Having been using the Pro Controller, we switched to the handheld set-up, and I was impressed with how crisp and bright and clear the screen was, something that could not be said of the screen on the Wii U gamepad. The button placement in relation to the right hand control stick was an issue, making it hard to hop your thumb between commands without rubbing up against the “look” stick, so I imagine the dedicated home experience with a Pro Controller will still be the ideal way to play. It’s been a while since I played a mainline Zelda instalment (i.e. not a 3DS spin-off), with Majora’s Mask probably the last one I properly had a go at (and that I didn’t even finish), but I’m determined to give Breath of the Wild a try, though I’ll be doing so on Wii U (hey, if Gamecube copies of Twilight Princess were anything to go by, could be a sound investment).

Breath of the WITCH?

Breath of the WITCH?

I also had a brief turn on Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, racing with eight-player local multiplayer on handhelds, which was much the same as online play, complete with lobby filled with Miis selecting which course to try (we ended up with Baby Park, natch!). At least got to play as Inkling Boy and Girl and their new themed vehicles. For the updated battle mode, we played on the Splatoon themed stage, which seemed like fun, but this time playing on the dinky screen and using the Joy Con (inserted into one of those plastic steering wheels) made it a little tricky to manouevre as well as to make out your opponents. But on the big screen or handheld, it’d probably work out fine. As I already own Mario Kart 8 on Wii U, I can’t imagine the extras will be enough to justify purchasing again, it will just depend on online support for the Wii U version and how long that lasts and if I need the portablity.

Super Bomberman R remains a mystery in terms of what the R stood for (Revival? Remix? Retro? Romberman?), R just being one of those cool suffixes added to video game titles to make them seem cool, like X or Z. But any generation feels like it’s missing something if it doesn’t have a Bomberman title, and given the franchise’s long history with Nintendo and surviving the demise of Hudson, it’s a pleasure seeing it make a comeback, and as a launch title of all things (not that there’s much competition currently shown). And in many ways, the Switch is perfect for it, a portable gaming machine that encourages local competitive play. The core gameplay remains much the same, combining elements of past iterations into a refined and still entertaining whole. With added story mode and up to 8 players (if you can find them), its combination of cuteness and destruction continues to shine. It was also my first game played with a single Joy-Con and on the screen, and a simple game liked Bomberman worked fine with the miniature controller (the size isn’t much of an issue, being around the width of a smartphone, but a more complex game like Ultra Street Fighter II – which I didn’t play – may be more of a challenge). The tiddly screen was a bit squinty, so it’d better suited for a few rounds on the go than extended tournaments, but it worked well.

The only other third party game I played was a quick session of Just Dance 2017, and as someone who doesn’t tend to play these kind of dance games, it was fun. The track I played involved some unexpected dance moves, including circling my dancing partner, and lots of cute graphics – I sadly didn’t get to play as the blob. It all seemed to work pretty well, proving that Nintendo still remain commited to motion controls and that the legacy of the Wii still casts a shadow. It may not be at the top of anyone’s Switch wish list – or Switchlist, if you will – but the Just Dance series feels most at home on a Nintendo console, and it’ll be as decent an iteration as there’ll be available.

In that vein, 1-2-Switch seems the most obvious play at trying to engage with the “never play games but bought a Wii” crowd. In fact, the first game we played involved striking a dance pose and having to mirror the other player. But one of us properly messed up and still won, so how forgiving it is was not clear. We tried our hand at most of the games available, with Safe Crack and Ball Count offering impressive displays of the HD Rumble, but only time will tell how this would actually apply to other games beyond neat little gimmicks (and Ball Count suffering from showing each player’s guesses to the number of balls in the imaginary box they are holding, off-setting your own decision somewhat). Once we got a hand of it, the much-anticipated cow-milking game probably offered the most amusement, but that’s probably as much down to the bizarre concept ripe with innuendo as actual gameplay. All the mini-games last seconds, which is the case as well with the WarioWare or NES Remix games, so there’s past form, though the generic stock-photo art-style means it lacks character, even if it’s a somewhat cynical way of not alienating non-Nintendo fanboys (in fact, we came up with a suggestion that they could’ve made the whole game Wild West themed and at least added a weird angle to the activities – as well as stealing Red Dead Redemption 2‘s thunder!). It’s hard to imagine it will live past the first few months of the console’s lifespan once more games are released (as of yet it is unclear just how many minigames are featured, but I’d hope for at least 50 or so), but if you are a kid trying to justify your parent’s buying you yet another gaming device, it’s your best bet to convince them.

If Splatoon was the unexpected highlight of the Wii U, an original IP that looked somewhat silly at first but ended up being my favourite game on the console, then Arms would seem to heading in that direction. Though there are similarities to the Wii’s rebooted Punch-Out, there’s a bit more going on here while never feeling too complicated, making it easier to avoid resorting to flailing hands (the motion control version of button mashing) and asking you to pay a bit more attention to your actions and those of your opponent. But the character designs and arenas are charming and imaginative, and there seems to be a lot of opportunity for bright, colourful world-building to surround the surprisingly deep gameplay. I had a really good time with it, and the bumper number of set-ups available meant I got to play quite a few rounds and try out the different fighters on offer, and I could feel myself getting better and uncovering new techniques the more I played. If there’s still a place for boxing-style motion control fighting games, then I hope Arms finds its audience. It deserves a shot.

But the most welcome surprise was Snipperclips: Cut It Out Together, a novel co-operative puzzle game which is probably not too dissimilar to many indie titles that play on a central device – changing colours, perspectives, sizes, etc. – but wins you over with its expressive art style. The goal is to move colourful shapes around the play area to solve puzzles as a team, but you can also snip out parts of each other in order to better fit in place. It’s a good laugh trying to nail the tasks at hand, snipping the wrong chunk off a shape or bouncing on your teammate’s head or balancing a teetering pencil on top of each other, but the cheeky faces the shapes pull and their dancing little feet made me chuckle a lot. If you’ve got someone to play with at home, this could end up being your favourite of the bunch.

Overall, it was a well-organised and enjoyable event. Even when attending the late Sunday session and after a long weekend, the staff were excellent, remaining informative, friendly and enthusiastic, despite no doubt having to explain the controls and sit through the same demos over and over again. That tickets were limited meant I pretty much got to play everything I wanted (the biggest queues were for Zelda – as you got a good chunk of gameplay – and for Snipperclips – as only two set-ups available), and the complimentary food and drink and freebies were nice touches. There are still many questions unanswered about Nintendo Switch, and with not long to go before its release, how much will only become evident once people start to take them home is unclear, but I was generally satisifed with my first hands-on with the new machine.

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THEATRE REVIEW: Biohazard The Stage

Biohazard The Stage

As previously documented, my long-standing relationship with Resident Evil (or Biohazard, to give its original Japanese title) has been somewhat tortured of late. Therefore, the prospect of going to see a stage adaptation of the franchise (having already spun-off into films, books, comics, and theme park interactive experiences) was met more with caution than excitement, but still a morbid curiosity. What form would it take? How would it work? Would it be scary? Embarrassing? Hilarious? Awful? Given that it tied in nicely with a trip to Tokyo and I would be accompanied by a friend with a similar take on all things Resident Evil, how could I not go?

Performed at Roppongi’s swish, new EX Theater, with a short run in late October/early November, Biohazard The Stage (a glorious linguistic misfire of a name) is set sometime between the events of RE5 and RE6, in which a virus outbreak turns the staff and faculty of an Australian university into zombies and fan “favourites” Chris Redfield, Rebecca Chambers and Piers Nivans have to contain it. The plot devised by Capcom is not based on any one game, but follows the same predictable narrative beats that would make it fit neatly amongst the official chapters. As such, it won’t surprise anyone who has played any of the games (and God help you if you see this without any prior experience), or probably anyone who has encountered a work of fiction for that matter. Will the scientists with the wonky tie harbour a dark secret? Will the bleach blonde guy in the red shirt turn out to be a bit of a bad’un? Will the mysterious stranger with the leather jacket hold the key to everything?

Perhaps this is more a ‘greatest hits’ package, assembling these well-worn elements (and fairly cohesively) as a nod to the fans. And there is certainly fan service on offer, notably flashbacks to RE0 and RE1, as well as appearances from those infamous door animations, a rocket launcher and even a First Aid Spray (no typewriters or item chests that I can recall though). These winky references are to be expected, and as cringe-inducing as they may be, they made me smile, in a chucklesome “oh, you went there, didn’t you” kind of way. The same can be said of the staging, a large shifting multi-tiered set onto which are projected different foregrounds and backdrops to change location. And yet, these projections are low-resolution and/or created with crummy CG, unintentionally mimicking the basic polygon models and basic textures of the original game. It’s a shame though that the key thing lost in its translation to the stage is the horror. What little blood and gore and gruesomeness there is in Biohazard The Stage is largely confined to pre-recorded video, nothing especially scary happens, and the zombies are disappointingly unthreatening. It doesn’t help that the action gets repetitive quickly, with scene after scene of our heroes darting into a new location, popping some caps, fisting some cuffs (in a reminder to just how much the games have been influenced by the films, there is an awful lot of kicking and hand-to-hand combat), and making their way to point B. But at least the actors are no slouches in that department, maintaining an impressive energy level throughout.

In fact, for all the inherent silliness, the cast are completely committed to the premise, taking everything very seriously, as if a stage adaptation of a video game franchise is just as legitimate as Pinter or Beckett, or at the very least a jukebox musical. And why not? That a stage version of Phoenix Wright was playing down the road suggests this wasn’t as novel a proposition as it first appeared. Though the principals are mostly culled from TV dramas and idol groups, Sonny Chiba (best known in the West for the Street Fighter – not that one – movies, and Kill Bill) lends the production a bit of emotional heft and gravitas, though the best character is the impossibly-monikered Posh Brown, a jittery security guard whose comic relief antics, while played broad, break the po-faced earnestness elsewhere. During the interval, my friend and I joked that what it really needed was a musical number, and lo and behold, the second half commences with a big zombie scuffle choreographed to a hi-NRG dance-pop tune. There are some other fun stage effects and ideas too – the backstory for the Umbrella corporation features actual umbrellas twirling on stage, text messages are projected onto the backdrop, a genetic mutation happens with the aid of simple but effective costume trickery.

So, for better and for worse, Biohazard The Stage is a faithful adaptation of the Resident Evil games as they currently exist. It is closer to the games than the live-action films in execution, and while it plays like one long cut-scene, it’s at least more interesting than the straight-to-DVD CG offerings. Faint praise, maybe, and there’s certainly nothing there for anyone but the most dedicated fans, but despite feeling burned out by all things bio-weaponry, it was not the abomination it could have been.

A DVD release is due in January with English subtitles, but I imagine much would be lost removed from the live setting (where at least there is something fascinating about experiencing it in the flesh with an audience). Viewed through a screen, I can see it becoming especially tedious. One for only the most hardcore/foolish (delete where applicable) Resident Evil enthusiast.

Bioshock and TimeSplitters: Future Perfect Infinitive

TimeShock? Or BioSplitters?

TimeShock? Or BioSplitters?

Mild Spoilers Ahead

With the release of the first batch of downloadable content and the promise of a fresh chapter that marries new and old instalments to come, it seems about time to give my thoughts on Bioshock Infinite, which have somewhat changed since my first play. As with many things upon which expectations are heaped, I came away a little disappointed about what the game wasn’t, but now on second playthrough, I have come to appreciate the game for what it is. But that’s not necessarily what I’ll talk about here (though I may touch briefly on these points later on). Rather I’m going to talk in broader terms and in relation to a completely different title. For what struck me most first time round playing Bioshock Infinite was that the titles it resembled most were not its forebears, but surprisingly, to my mind at least, the TimeSplitters series.

Of course there are parallels between Infinite and Bioshocks 1 and 2, with its mix of standard weaponry and plasmids/vigors, the health and ADAM/salt systems, the narrative drive, audio diaries and object collections, vending machines, a retro utopia setting, etc. But never through my playing the previous two games did I ever think about similarities with the adventures of Sergeant Cortez and co.

TimeSplitters’ heritage is a fine one. Developed by Free Radical Design, TimeSplitters was an exclusive PlayStation 2 launch title released in 2000. The company was founded by former Rare staff members who were part of the development team behind GoldenEye 007 (including “Dr.” David Doak). Two critically-acclaimed sequels that expanded the story and gameplay features followed on multiple formats, but since Free Radical became Crytek UK, a further follow-up has yet to materialise. But in playing Bioshock Infinite, I got an uncanny sensation of welcome familiarity.

Let’s get the obvious comparison out the way – yes, both Bioshock Infinite and TimeSplitters involve temporal rifts and manipulation, be it through ‘tears’ in the former and ‘portals’ in the latter. They come from completely different standpoints and it’s a fairly standard sci-fi adventure trope, so in practice, their use is markedly different. The Bioshock games appear to exist in an alternate past (or possibly just one unknown to the world at large) and there are certainly themes of cause-and-effect and how changes in the past affect the future and influences from the future can alter the past. But TimeSplitters brings these to the fore, hopping willy-nilly across time and space as a way to cram in as much variety in setting as it does jokes about doppelgangers and nudge-wink references galore.

But strangely, Bioshock Infinite reminded me of TimeSplitters before we even see our first tear. From a design perspective, there is a satisfying chunkiness to the world of Columbia, its characters and objects that is shared by the TimeSplitters games. The guns in both are simple but meaty, with a real kick upon impact (while there is no vigor equivalent in TimeSplitters, Future Perfect did give Cortez a gravity gun-esque wrist attachment which is fairly reminiscent of Bioshock’s Telekinesis), and the enemy enforcers, particularly those in military uniform, have a weight and stockiness about them, with slightly cartoonish proportions.

TimeSplitters Future Perfect's Temporal Uplink grav-capabilities meets Bioshock Infinite's approximation of Telekinesis in the Bucking Bronco vigor

TimeSplitters Future Perfect’s Temporal Uplink grav-capabilities meets Bioshock Infinite’s approximation of Telekinesis in the Bucking Bronco vigor

One slight change from previous Bioshock games that makes Infinite feel a little more like a regular first-person shoot is the way this time round the flow of the game is a bit more broken up. Bioshock 2 certainly had an element of this, but this was more to do with the repetition in each ‘level’ (defeating the Big Daddies, saving the Little Sisters, protecting them during their ADAM grabs, then encountering the Big Sister) than level design itself. In Infinite, it’s quite clear which sections are story/exploration based and which are the action sequences, with large arena-style ‘halls’, carefully positioned tears and, in some cases, sky-lines to ride around the space. I was a little disappointed with how this all made it feel more obviously ‘gamey’, making it clear you’re entering battle mode (much like seeing a blockbuster at IMAX and the screen to suddenly fill when something big was about to happen), followed by a brief orchestral sting signifying the coast was clear – whereas in Bioshock you felt like there could be a splicer round every corner (though Infinite is less concerned with the horror vein that coursed through Rapture). Columbia didn’t feel quite as joined-up a world as Rapture or believable in its often symmetrical structure, akin to a TimeSplitters map-maker creation, though obviously a highly detailed one (the first DLC, Clash in the Clouds, seems to play directly to this).

That is not to say these set-pieces weren’t thrilling – far from it, especially with the sky-lines to leap on and off and glide round, avoiding and dishing out gunfire like a mother-funster. The Bioshock games are great at thrusting the player into a conflict they have no knowledge of, sticking you in the heart of a situation and setting you barely understand. Likewise, TimeSplitters 2 saw you inhabit different characters Quantum Leap style, and the Vox Populi attack in Infinite reminded me of the first level of Future Perfect, where Cortez crash lands into a warzone, and fights his way back to his home base. Though as mentioned before, the horror is dialled back, a spectral encounter in Infinite also brought back memories of Future Perfect’s haunted house stage.

Elizabeth opens a tear, while Harry Tipper gets more hands-on

Elizabeth opens a tear, while Harry Tipper gets more hands-on

And then there’s the Elizabeth factor – a regular companion from the world you find yourself in who acts as guide, MacGuffin, and combat partner all rolled into one. Though Infinite itself does not have a co-op mode as the TimeSplitters games did, Future Perfect brought back characters from previous instalments to team up with the time-travelling Cortez, as well as to help further the plot and provide context. While not as integral to the story as Elizabeth is to Infinite’s, they were fun to have around, rather than being a burden or an exercise in poor A.I. programming.

Bioshock Infinite remains a hugely involving, exciting and unique game, so these comparisons are not a criticism or a suggestion they are anything beyond mere coincidence or established videogame tropes (nor would I imagine they would occur to any right-thinking individual). Rather, the reminders of TimeSplitters that playing Bioshock Infinite evoked were happy ones, rekindling my desire for a further instalment with the same charm, fun and playability as last time round way back in 2005. Both series have proved there is room for first-person shooters that are not obsessed with gritty realism, even going so far as skewering the gruff machismo that renders the mega-franchises somewhat unappealing. Fingers crossed that it isn’t yet quite time for the likes of them to split.

Has gaming become too ‘American’?

“Shock and Awe” or “Shrug and Yawn”? Call of Duty: Black Ops II

The dust has settled on another E3. As the booth babes were packed up and put in cold storage until San Diego Comic-Con, gaming journos, companies and punters take stock of everything that flashed before their eyes over during the tumult of show-and-tell. If there were two key stories to come out of the whole shebang, it would be 1) the seemingly increasing insignificance of the Big Three’s press conferences as a source of anything interesting, and 2) VIOLENCE, the jumping off point of this particular piece.

With the industry and its defenders still trying to find some believable explanation as to why Hitman: Absolution’s new trailer was in any way acceptable, E3 should have been a helpful distraction to highlight the rich diversity of videogames today. Unfortunately, it seemed to make everything worse. From the near-rape of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, to the “gunshot (and subsequent cheers) heard around the (gaming) world” in The Last of Us, it was like having to repeatedly apologise for a family member’s embarrassing behaviour in public. To condemn or to apologise? It certainly couldn’t be ignored.

However, the talking point here is not whether video games have become too violent, rather ‘Has gaming become too ‘American’? Before I qualify this statement (note the inverted commas), let’s make it clear I know E3 takes place in LOS ANGLELES and LOS ANGELES is in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, hence an inevitable skewing towards American tastes. It explains why Microsoft (yes, the only American company to have one of the big press conferences) devoted so much time letting people know they could watch more ‘sports’ on their Xbox, with all that blabber about UFC and luxury cars. Clearly they know their core demographic – the “Hey bro, let’s get some brewskis, watch the ‘game’ and play Call of Duty” crowd – but it just all seemed so feeble and appealing to the lowest common denominator.

So, to explain, what I really mean by ‘American’ is in the sense of a global popular culture (big sweeping generalisations coming up!). Although the influence of American culture has been eroded of late as the likes of Korea, China and Latin America have become more commercially exportable as a cultural entities, it can certainly still be regarded as the de facto ‘other’ to the rest of the world. And the biggest exporter of American culture worldwide is Hollywood, so much so that in recent years, international box office takings for American movies have outstripped their domestic takings when the very opposite had been the norm. But Hollywood’s output generally consists of franchise-ready flat-pack block-busters, delivering undemanding spectacle at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

What has this to do with videogames? Well, given that we are constantly reminded that the videogames industry now makes more money than the film industry, it’s interesting to look at parallels between the two and what product reaps the biggest rewards. And while it might be the case that games are bigger now, they still can’t help but draw much from Hollywood, aping movies but rarely with the scripting ‘talent’ to back it up – macho posturing dialogue sticking in their animated jaws. What sells though is what I’d call “shock and awe gaming”. Looking at the big sequels shown at E3 to the established AAA franchises, the focus is on violence and explosions and little else. Processing power allows so much detail and so much happening on screen at any one time, the beauty of simplicity has been lost in a cacophony of firepower and a sea of washed out browns and greys, punctuated by yellow and orange fireballs and the splatter of crimson. It’s Michael Bay’s Transformers everywhere you look.

Brawn in the USA: the meatheads of Gears of War: Judgment

With money-spinning franchises such as Gears of War, Call of Duty, Halo et al en vogue, it seems like truly idiosyncratic titles are becoming few and far between (at least at the top budget level). Even those which look like they are trying to do something innovative with gameplay (such as Watch_Dogs) feel obliged to adopt the generic bland-o-style mix of gritty urbanism, casual swearing, and indiscriminate blood-letting lest a more distinctive style (in something like Mirror’s Edge for instance) put off the punters. It’s not something that has passed Japan by either – I recently waxed lyrical about the increasing action focus of the Resident Evil series, but only recently were Metal Gear Solid’s Hideo Kojima and Keiji Inafune lamenting Japan’s position as the dominant force in gaming being eroded, and citing the need to adopt a more Westernised approach to their titles. While games have never been as easy to pinpoint culturally to their country of origin as say cinema or literature, beyond perhaps no longer relevant lines of taste defined by ‘Japan’ and ‘the West’, but it does seem a very long time since, say, Sega’s Dreamcast output which, though attempting on occasion to emulate Western styles of game, were always quintessentially Japanese in their execution. But then again, the scale of these projects now means studios across the world work on different aspects of the same game, so a uniform, global approach is perhaps a given as well as a desirable outcome.

It’s clear the demographic has changed – the Nintendo and Sega kids of yore are now the PlayStation and Xbox adults of today, even if their maturity often hasn’t caught up. Though Nintendo opened up new consumers with the Wii and its move towards ‘casual gaming’, it feels as if their blockbuster output has slowed of late, with smaller Mario and Zelda titles biding everyone’s time until the key biggies. But if the multi-million-dollar titles in development reflect a sea of indistinct mundanity, the burgeoning indie game sector still shows that they do not always reflect the country produced, be it American, Japanese, French, British or anywhere, but the individuals behind them, displaying their own style, sense of humour, and interests.

Gaming is still a young art form. It’s grown out of its early arcade infancy, passed through post-PlayStation puberty, and is now in its brash cocksure college student days, filled with frat parties, road trips and attempts to get laid (or so I gather from American comedies). Let’s hope by the time it graduates to the next generation, it straightens out and gets a decent hardworking job, instead of moving back home to its parents’ house and reverting to bad infantile habits.

A question regarding the depiction of videogame culture in spin-off rap music videos

The Most Abysmal Man Alive in the Universe Today™, Snoop Dogg, was recently announced to be included in Namco Bandai’s forthcoming Tekken Tag Tournament 2, sat on a golden throne in the background of a special Doggy-Dogg themed pimp lair stage, accompanied by  dancy lady types. Quite for how, and for why, remains a bafflement – it’s certainly one of the more bizarre hook-ups between the videogame and music worlds.  But that’s not all, as The Rt Hon. Mr. Snizzle P.I.M.P  is also responsible for his own stage’s BGM, entitled Knocc ‘Em Down. Which begs the following question:

Since when did THIS become cool…

 

…and THIS uncool?

 

Of course, we all know the very zenith of videogame-related rap has already been achieved:

Five Great Gameplay Gear Changes

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

Believe me, it's more interesting than it looks.

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

AKA the Paul Hardcastle Suite

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

James Bond: "O hai car - h8rs gonna h8 - k tanx bye!"

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

"My name begins with a simple Grunt, and as the final boss, I'm a total...WITCH"

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

Hang On a second!

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!

Resident Evil: Reservations

Six Shooter - Leon takes aim in Resident Evil 6

A couple of days ago, Capcom and Sony, in a bit of cleverly orchestrated marketing, unveiled their first big trailer reveals for the freshly announced Resident Evil 6 and the recently wrapped Resident Evil: Retribution respectively, this the week before Resident Evil: Revelations is released on the Nintendo 3DS, in a clear attempt to whip geeks up into a Resi-frenzy.

It seems like a good time to take stock of where we are at regarding Resident Evil in its various iterations. I was going to save this up for an article in which I watch all four films back-to-back upon the release of the fifth in some kind of hideous masochistic movie marathon but I will only touch briefly on the film series here, so it may still happen (lucky me/you). And I’m not going to enter into much speculation on the story, characters, and call-backs per se, rather I’m interested in looking at where Resident Evil as a franchise is headed. Of course, this is still just another knee-jerk trailer reaction rant, but permit me one moment to state my case.

Let’s just get it out of the open and say right now, Resident Evil 4 was the best game of the decade. Not this decade obviously but the previous one. Though the Gamecube remake of the original had briefly reignited interest in the series, the static camera angles, inventory system and unwieldy controls were becoming tired for previously loyal customers, and still as much of a hurdle for newcomers as when it debuted in 1996. Resident Evil Zero had added a few novel mechanics (the most obvious one being the ability to switch between two characters), but the quintessential survival horror title was looking increasingly like the very walking dead for which it was best known.

Enter Shinji Mikami, director of the first instalment, and now returning to the fold to direct Resident Evil 4. The game had already had a couple of false starts, but Mikami tore up the rule book the way only its original creator could, and the franchise was given a complete overhaul. Gone were the zombies and archaic gameplay mechanics, and in came new intelligent enemies, a shift in camera perspective, and slick tight controls. Incredible set-pieces, interesting characters, creepy locations, and a genuine sense of progression and increasingly overwhelming odds meant Resident Evil 4 stood out not just from the previous games, but everything else out at the time on any console.

So surely I should be excited by the new Resident Evil 6 trailer then? Well, then came along Resident Evil 5. See, Resident Evil 5 is not a bad game, not at all. It plays very much like Resident Evil 4, it has some exciting moments, and there is a lot of fun to be had when playing the co-operative mode. But it lacked the spark of its antecedent. It would always have a tricky time following up a stone cold classic, but it felt like the developers were happy to coast on the good will of Mikami’s offering while failing to understand what made it so successful.  And any game is more entertaining playing in co-op with a buddy – witness the mindless repetitive blast-a-thon Gears of War, which owes a very heavy debt to Resident Evil 4 anyway.

Resident Evil 5 also marked the first time I gave up paying attention to the story. In the previous games, I enjoyed all the scattered diary extracts and documents as much as I did the overarching juicy conspiracies tying Umbrella with Raccoon City’s local government and police force.  However, Capcom went and stuffed it all up by positioning game one traitor Albert Wesker as the franchise supervillain, crowbarring him into the background of every situation, and magically making sure he had a hand in practically everything. Wesker’s Report and The Umbrella Chronicles were feeble attempts to make the story work when it wasn’t needed. By bringing the storyline to the fore, it only highlighted all the plot holes and inconsistencies which hadn’t really mattered anyway.

Taking a look at the trailer for Resident Evil 6, it’s crammed with garbled exposition, throwbacks to past instalments, and lots of messy carnage. Sadly we follow the adventures of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA), a taskforce set up to investigate and eliminate Bio-Organic Weapon (BOW, an acronym I’ve come to loathe) threats. It seems that the continued presence of the BSAA is one of the problems with Capcom’s direction of the franchise, and seems to lose the essence of ‘survival horror’ being an act of ‘survival’. Whereas in the past, your character would be caught up in a situation they never expected, here you’re entering into a situation, guns blazing, with the intention of defusing a biological threat, which just doesn’t have the same appeal.  With the demise of both Umbrella and Wesker, naturally a new story has to go somewhere. But the escapades of the BSAA are uninspiring in comparison. Perhaps when I get Resident Evil: Revelations (and I have played, and enjoyed, the demo), I will warm to them more as an entity, but right now, they seem like morons.

Resident Evil 4 managed to create a contained story, with only the odd hint and reference here and there beyond the returning characters. Resident Evil 6 in comparison seems far too desperate to ladle on the call-backs. We have Chris Redfield and Leon S Kennedy back (and Ada Wong/Sherry Birkin/Ashley Graham depending on what you read), Raccoon City Mk. II with a viral outbreak in Tall Oaks, and the President’s gone all deaded, not a million miles away from if Lord Saddler’s plan in Resident Evil 4 had come to pass.

And rather than scaling back the much decried focus on action that Resident Evil 5 suffered from, here it seems they have upped the ante even more. From the trailer’s brief non-cutscene snippets, there’s kung-fu, explosions and a shot of Chris sliding towards chest-high cover in a style reminiscent of practically every third-person shooter released post-Resident Evil 4 in an act of gameplay cannibalisation. Okay, Resident Evil 4 suffered from similar accusations of abandoning scares in favour of combat, but there were still tight close-quarters enemy encounters amongst the one-man-army battles, and plenty of moments of real horror to choose from. A crazed chainsaw-wielding maniac banging down the door. Evil monks muttering moans of muerte. Regenerating shape-shifting freaks stalking dark prison corridors. But here it seems Capcom have lost the thread. Funnily enough, the only franchise that has managed to conjure up worthy scares recently has been Dead Space, perhaps the game most blatantly inspired by Resident Evil 4 itself.

Evil Shall With Evil Be Expelled - Alice (Milla Jovovich) takes aim in Resident Evil: Retribution

So where does Resident Evil: Retribution fit into all this? Well, it seems that for all of the problems that Resident Evil 4’s great achievements have unwittingly spawned, the movies have been partially responsible too. As both series have developed, they have fed into each other, leading to an increasing push for bigger action, bigger set-pieces and, frankly, more stupidity. Just as Milla Jovovich tries to outrun a chopper firing up a glass corridor in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, inspired by the opening cutscene for Resident Evil Code: Veronica, so too does Albert Wesker become a psychic superhuman in Resident Evil 5 a la Alice’s magical powers in Resident Evil: Extinction.

When Paul W. S. Anderson dropped the first adaptation into everyone’s laps in 2002, fans were somewhat distraught that it had very little to do with the games, with none of the characters featured either. But given what’s come since, I wish they had kept them completely separate given the mangling of story and scenario in the subsequent adaptations. So now, Resident Evil: Retribution, we have returning characters from all the previous films, while Ada Wong, Barry Burton and Leon all make their cinematic debut, whereas Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles even featured an appearance from Umbrella super-computer Red Queen, which originated in the first film. Confused? Well, if Capcom’s attempts at creating an overall story arc to the games seem misguided, Anderson’s series is an even worse offender when it comes to tying itself up in knots and ending in plot cul-de-sacs. By the end of Resident Evil: Extinction, we have an army of Alice psychic super-clones. Then, in the first 15 minutes of Resident Evil: Afterlife, all the clones die and Alice loses all her powers and we’re back to square one. Anderson has indicated that this is the start of a second trilogy (yes, there will be six films in total), but all the back-tracking stinks of making it up as they go along. Of course, the success of the previous film determines whether a new one will get made, but quit with the inescapable cliffhanger endings then.

Ultimately, this is a question of what Resident Evil represents, both to the game developers and the film-makers. In its original incarnation, it was a game of investigation, exploration, and horror. Your actions were limited by the controls and the camera perspective, but also your ammunition and environment. A spooky old mansion, filled with the shuffling undead, nightmarish creatures hiding in the shadows, and you, only with a crummy knife, a pistol, and the inability to aim properly or turn and run away quickly.

For better or worse, this all changed with the advent of Resident Evil 4, and there are still many naysayers out there who claim it is not a ‘true’ Resident Evil game. I can see their point, though I would still argue it still carries enough elements over for it to feel true to what came before. And if that’s the cost for getting such an incredible game as Resident Evil 4, so be it. And it’s not as if Capcom have neglected the past – quite the opposite in fact, given their constant rereleasing of previous episodes and returning to Raccoon City in new titles.

Perhaps the Japanese name for the series – Biohazard – just works better in summing up what the series is all about, less survival horror and more sci-fi action. And maybe, semi-George Lucas style, Resident Evil as it exists now is how they always wanted the game to be. The original clunky controls and B-movie voice acting were just the technical limitations of the time, when all they ever wanted to make was a smooth kick-ass action entertainment experience (just with zombies and block-pushing puzzles).  And the films are just an extension of this.

With three games and one motion picture, 2012 would appear on the surface to be a golden year for Resident Evil fans. While I should be giddy with excitement, I am instead fairly cautious. Will I buy Resident Evil 6? Definitely. Will I go see Resident Evil: Retribution? Inevitably. With regards the former, at the very least it will be a passable way to waste a few hours. And concerning the latter, well, I’ve seen all the others at the cinema, and despite continually being angry with myself for subjecting myself to them, I’ll keep going against my better judgment. But do I have high hopes for either? Not really, I’m afraid.

The gauntlet has been laid down. Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.