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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LIVE REVIEW: Celebrating David Bowie, 8th January 2017

The climax of "Heroes" - yes, from a bit way back

The climax of “Heroes” – yes, from a bit way back

I didn’t do a best of 2016 post on this blog this year (you can get a Spotify playlist here, and check out my Letterboxd list for films if you like), as it just seemed too hard to try and put into words everything that happened when the past twelve months were overshadowed. I was one of those types who responded with the news of David Bowie’s death that Monday morning by listening to his music back-to-back on the radio, eyes filled with tears. From such great lows came the highs of finding solace but also joy in his extensive – and right-up-to-the-moment – catalogue of music (few other artists could fill the airwaves for so long with such a variety of music, not just his own work, but artists with which he collaborated, produced, championed), and getting to be part of the grassroots GlastonBowie tribute at the Glastonbury Festival last year.

And then came the announcement of the Celebrating David Bowie concerts. With the promise of key members of Bowie’s touring band and frequent collaborators, taking place in his birthplace of Brixton, and on what would have been his 70th birthday, it would be as appropriate a tribute as could be mustered. But it was unclear what shape or form it would take beyond “Bowie People Performing Bowie Music Bowie Style”? In the end, it was very much a big old birthday bash, often ramshackle and free-wheeling but heartfelt and sincere – and all for a good fund-raising cause, Children & The Arts.

With longest-serving member present (and de facto MC) Mike Garson performing a piano overture to begin, when the first singer appeared on stage, I had a heart flutter. Was that DAVID BOWIE? Alive?! A micro-second later, reality kicked in, and then it became apparent it was none other than Gary Oldman. But dressed in attire not a million-miles-away from Bowie’s recent sartorial choices, in a fetching hat/glasses/scarf combo, and with a passing resemblance from afar, for a brief moment, it was like Bowie had joined us. Appropriate then that Oldman was singing a rather decent acoustic version of Dead Man Walking. The show then kicked off in earnest, leading to almost three hours of Bowie…without Bowie.

I mean, come on, it does look a bit like him.

I mean, come on, it does look a bit like him.

Given its rotating roster of performers on stage and perhaps lack of time for rehearsal, it was an audio technician’s nightmare, and the sound mix was indeed mixed. At different points, backing vocals overpowered lead vocals, strings were seen but not heard, and Sound and Vision made me wonder some times about whether they should’ve even bothered. Bowie himself didn’t always stick to the album inlay when it came to lyrics, so the odd swapped or repeated line was forgiven, but sometimes the guest vocalists completely lost their hold on the songs, the band having to play around them until they caught up or brought things to a halt. In these instances, Bowie’s absence and the lack of a leader was most pronounced, having hoped for at least some visual representation of him on screen or banner, if not even isolated vocals for at couple numbers (it didn’t help that special guests were barely introduced – hence having to look up the names of most of the non-super-famous or Bowie band regulars after the fact). Poor La Roux looked the part, and danced a neat dance, but ended up stranded in the loops of Golden Years. Bernard Fowler’s Rebel Rebel was a shaky start, but he made up for it with solid renditions of Diamond Dogs and Stay. For the big sing-a-longs of Life on Mars? and Starman, Tom Chaplin of Keane and Mr Hudson respectively probably were thankful for the crowd’s contribution lest they ended up similarly muted.

There were some great moments from the vocalists though, reminding us that as great as Bowie was as a performer, there’s much to savour in other interpretations of his work. Fishbone’s Angelo Moore made the biggest play for borrowing (not stealing) Bowie’s crown, not through mimicry in any sense, but by channeling Bowie’s approach to weirdo theatricality via Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and/or Baron Samedi, offered hugely entertaining renditions of Moonage Daydream and Ashes to Ashes. Gaby Moreno’s Five Years was an early highlight, while Holly Palmer added a hint of smokiness to Lady Grinning Soul, rendering it positively Bond theme-ian, as well as a haunting rendition of Where Are We Now?, the only (somewhat disappointingly, but understandably) contribution from this century. Otherwise, the setlist was representative and comprehensive as one could realistically expect, though ending the encore on Under Pressure seemed to dilute the theme of the evening just a touch. The big guns as far as guests came were Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon leading Let’s Dance – a decent match of singer to song (and period of Bowie’s career) – while Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley’s Changes was near faultless. Though it was Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott who seemed to make the most of his appearances, great versions of All The Young Dudes and Suffragette City (the first song Def Leppard ever performed together apparently, factoid fans).

But the real stars were the Bowie band, and when those big rocking numbers came, they delivered. Earl Slick relished his guitar solos, Garson’s piano a driving force as much as responsible for those wonderful melodies, and much applause offered for Gail Ann Dorsey’s contributions on bass as well as vocals – especially Young Americans and Space Oddity. It was the love for these magnificent musicians and the shared love of everyone in the room for Bowie and his music that really made the occasion feel special and charged the atmosphere. When the sound was operating at full capacity, the crowd were singing, and the band were rocking, it felt like the best shot anyone gathered would have to experiencing a Bowie concert once more – or for the first time, in my experience in any case.

Q & Eh?: When Asking the Audience Goes Wrong

For some reason, I always jump at the chance of going to a post-film Q+A, expecting an insight into the film-making process, a chance to unpack the themes and ideas behind their new creative work, and enjoy the company of those directly involved. But I struggle to think of one which has actually fully delivered on their promise. Of course, it works both ways – it’s a give and take scenario, and an uncooperative subject doesn’t help matters. However, more often than not, it is the questions from the audience that leaves the experience often being a squib of the damp variety.

It seems there is always one question, be it awkward, ill-judged or just bonkers, when you can hear the other cinemagoers groan, sigh, grit their teeth or bury their heads in their hands. Hey, I’ve asked dumb questions too, but I’m mostly of the camp that thinks “Hey, they’ve taken the time to come here, no one enjoys the press junket experience, let’s not bombard them with crap.” Sometimes it’s a non-sequitur or an attempt to be funny, and in some instances the line of questioning may even be justified, but it’s always better leaving the probing to the journos who actually have some weight behind them rather than Joe Anonymous.

So, here are a few examples of some memorable clangers I’ve bore witness to. Please excuse the paraphrasing and anecdotal nature, but hopefully the essence of squirm-inducing embarrassment has been successful transposed. And apologies to all concerned.

The League of Gentlemen – The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse – London, 2004

With a Q+A, you never know what kind of crowd you’re going to get, and in particular how primed they are for the film they have just seen. Naturally, you’re going to end up with some who have no expectations or prior knowledge, but sometimes that’s better than outright misinformation. For the big screen follow-up to the TV series The League of Gentlemen, three of the four members (Steve Pemberton was filming Lassie at the time) gathered to take the usual questions, including another run through of the Papa Lazarou character genesis story, which even back then they had told many times before. The highlight of the night though was one puzzled punter who, in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, enquired what this had to do with the previous film. You know, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Oh, to have been in their brain during the preceding hour and a half or so to see what on Earth they made of it all.

Park Chan-Wook – I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK – Barbican, 2007

The nature of a duff question can be as much about the timing as the content itself, and the necessity to ‘end on a good one’ was proven here. No doubt in response to scenes in which the ‘Cyborg’ dreams of spouting hidden gun barrels and opening bloody fire on the staff of the mental institution in which she resides, the final question of the night came in the form of asking whether he thought Oldboy had any part to play in the Virginia Tech massacre that had happened some months before (a link which was reported, but quite swiftly discredited). The awkwardness hung ever greater as it had to be translated into Korean, then his answer given, and then translated into English. It was unsurprisingly a diplomatic answer, saying it was a tragedy, but felt the link between violence in reality and in cinema was tenuous and his films had no part to play. But it was an ill-conceived debate to launch right at the end of the discussion.

David O Russell – Silver Linings Playbook – BFI London Film Festival 2012

David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart - audience out of the picture

David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart – audience out of the picture

The ‘Surprise Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2012 (and such a surprise that I didn’t even know the title of the film until it came up in the end credits) also heralded with it surprise guests, namely star Bradley Cooper and director David O Russell. Russell spoke eloquently and sensitively about how the story spoke to him personally and in particular with regards his son’s bipolar disorder. Now, Russell’s anger issues are well documented (notably on-set scuffles with George Clooney on Three Kings, and Lily Tomlin on I Heart Huckabees), but still one audience member’s question quite openly, though not directly, referred to his infamous indiscretions. Okay, so being that it was a surprise film, said audience member would not have known when he took his seat that in about two hours they would have a chance to needle Russell, and certainly those past transgressions are inexcusable, but the atmosphere in the room completely thickened as a result. Russell though was on good behaviour and deflected talk of anger issues back towards his son’s own problems and how that was channelled into the making of the film, but there was a minute or so where a previously jovial interview could have gone sour.

Rich Moore & Sarah Silverman – Wreck-It Ralph – BFI Southbank, February 2013

As mentioned previously, timing can make or break a question, and the first to come from the audience here was the perfect mix of nerd fury, unentitled indignation, and crippling nerves. It came from a young nerd who took the special guests to task about the wait between the US release and its eventual UK release, complaining that there were a lot of fellow geeks out there who were fans of games and they were cross they couldn’t see it – or at least that’s what could be made out from the sweaty stutters and clammy swallow-pauses. But when your question is targeted at Silverman and director Moore (previously of The Simpsons and Futurama, so no stranger to irreverence either), they’re not going to be overly sensitive to your needs. With mock sincerity, they sarcastically praised their courageousness in asking the question, and for a minute or two they pretty much ribbed him good. It culminated in them claiming that “they wanted to release it on your birthday, but Disney were like ‘Nooooo’”. It was pretty mean, but pretty funny too.

 

So, any more Q+A horror stories? Or have you been to a Q+A where the questions from the audience have actually been good?

2011: Gigs of the Year

And so beginneth the first in a series of top 2011 lists, starting with my favourite live performances of the year. All images were taken at the Glastonbury Festival by me, and you can see all my other festy snaps here, and I’ve also thrown in some YouTube links – I mean, all those guys with their cameraphones out at gigs weren’t just recording their crummy footage for nothing, right?

1. Janelle Monáe (Glastonbury)

Though on sparkling form at her Roundhouse show earlier on in the year, that was marred by overcooked sound levels. No such problem here, in easily the slickest and downright most entertaining performance I’ve seen this year. With the ArchOrchestra on top form, Monáe, polished but still filled with soul and bundles of energy, effortlessly rattled through her set with a bonus note-perfect cover of ‘I Want You Back’ to boot. My crowd-surf super-lucky photo-op (which was exhibited at The Guardian offices in London, dontcha know) was just the icing on the cake.

2. Guitar Wolf (Islington Academy)

Legendary leather-clad riotous rockers Guitar Wolf touched their space battleship down in London for a non-stop tour de force leading to puddles of sweat, an audience member attempting a guitar solo, a human pyramid and, when the lights came on and the power was pulled by venue management, an acoustic finale out of necessity as Guitar Wolf battled on regardless. Factor in support from London-based psychedelic noise merchants Bo Ningen and you have one hell of a show.

3. Pulp (Wireless)

For their first announced comeback show, tickets for Pulp’s headlining day at the Wireless festival were rather bafflingly not sold out. But other people’s loss I guess, as Cocker and chums delivered a stonking set filled with their biggest hits and plenty of fan favourites. And Pulp are arguably even more necessary today than at the height of their Britpop popularity.

4. Foo Fighters (Roundhouse)

I am no great Foo Fighters fan, more a casual appreciator, but there was no question that their iTunes festival gig was something almighty. From Dave Grohl appearing behind the audience on top of the bar for a guitar battle, and then later getting an unruly attendee thrown out for picking a fight, to special guest appearances from Lemmy and Queen’s Roger Taylor and Brian May, it was two-and-a-half hours plus of rock excellence.

5. Darwin Deez (Glastonbury)

Darwin and his fellow Deezers know how to put a performance together. Not content with playing their already wonderful tunes, they drop instruments for impeccably choreographed dance interludes to a jukebox jamboree. Not to mention a side order of sweet rapping. Fun fun fun.

6. Mono and Holy Ground Orchestra (Koko)

First time I saw Japanese epic rock instrumental group Mono, they were supported by the astonishing World’s End Girlfriend who somewhat stole the show. But in the European debut of their orchestral accompaniment set, they really came into their own. A beautiful and memorable evening.

7. DeVotchKa (Glastonbury, Wireless)

Perhaps best known for their big Little Miss Sunshine-featured themes, live DeVotchKa have no problem rocking with the best of them, with pounding gypsy-infused stomps amongst the more sensitive sections. Plus, a bit of theremin action, a great big horn, and even a banana maraca.

8. Portishead (ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror)

Though ATP’s inaugural I’ll Be Your Mirror festival was hardly without teething problems, they sure had a doozy of a curator for their first effort. If Beth Gibbons’ voice sounds hauntingly flawless on record, live it’s astonishing. So glad to have finally seen them live.

9. Grinderman (ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror)

For snarling sweaty rock that’s raw, ready and rough around the edges, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds side project deliver in buckets. Shame to hear they may be pulling the plug on Grinderman for the time being, but great to see them run riot in Alexandra Palace.

10. Grace Jones (Wireless)

With multiple hat-and-accessory changes on top of an already revealing outfit (for 63 years old, she still cuts a striking figure), Grace Jones is also a great entertainer. Witness her closing number as she rocks a hula hoop for the whole of ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ and then continues to keep it spinning as she introduces all the band members and still keeps it going as she leaves the stage. Very not bad.