Category Archives: Games

Level One – Mario Kart 64

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 75/100Title: Mario Kart 64
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Original Platform: Nintendo 64
Year: 1996

At the end of 2017, I did a major update of the list on Play That Game which did alter a lot of the entries. As luck would have it, most of the games that left were ones I had not played yet (hurrah) so the number of games that I’ve yet to play remained the same. Sure makes my life a lot easier. Also means that I have a reason to play Mario Kart 64.

For a gamer of my age I think I am unusual in that my first exposure to the Mario Kart series was Mario Kart: Double Dash on the Gamecube. In my younger years I was a PS1 kid who got a Nintendo 64 towards the end of the generation and, at that point, had not developed a love for the Mario franchise. I did, however, have most of the N64 games for Pokémon.

As someone who has since become a huge fan of Mario Kart: Double Dash, Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 8 it was a weird step back to the original 3D Mario Kart. Not as big a step back as Super Mario Kart (where I think I said a lot of similar things as I have just written), but a step back nonetheless.

Compared to it’s SNES predecessor Mario Kart 64 feels like the better game. In fact, I would argue that this game is the Mario Kart franchise in purest form. A lot of the gimmicks we love in the later versions of the game just aren’t present and instead we have Super Mario Kart with better driving, better graphics and the addition of, what would become, the blue shell.

I turned on my N64 with the intent to play Mario Kart 64 for 20 minutes and ended up playing it for an hour and a half. There is something miraculously addictive in this game that can still be found in the later editions. In terms of console games I cannot think of a more consistently great franchise than the Mario Kart games and I don’t think it really gets enough credit for that.

 

 

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Level One – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 74/100Title: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Developer: Naughty Dog
Original Platform: PS3
Year: 2009

A while ago I tried my hand at the first Uncharted game. I never finished it because whilst I loved the story and puzzle elements it was the combat that got the better of me. The seemingly endless stream of enemies meant that I was left without ammo and without the will to carry on. If the series could improve upon this whilst keeping up the interesting puzzles and world building then Uncharted 2 would be exactly what I am looking for in a game.

Turns out, yes, Uncharted 2 was able to do exactly that whilst also delivering some of the most beautiful landscapes that I have ever seen on a seventh generation console. It’s one of those games where you sometimes have to take time out of killing enemies or jumping between train cars in order to admire the work that’s gone into creating the in-game versions of Nepal and Tibet.

In terms of gameplay, I have to say that this is a clear improvement on the first Uncharted and is a lot more accurate and responsive than any of the Assassin’s Creed games that I’ve played. Sure there are times that you find Drake hiding behind a pillar the wrong way or plummeting to his death by accident, but when you think how far we’ve come from the original Tomb Raider game then it feels rather miraculous.

The big draw of Uncharted for me was that it feels like are playing your way through a fantastic adventure film. I mean this is essentially an Indiana Jones video game, just with a far better looking lead (as Pam Poovey from Archer would say: sploosh) and a much longer run time. It’s a game that I found hard to put down and ended up playing in two long sittings.

So yes, with the exception of the annoyingly arbitrary final boss battle, I can really see how this is ranked as the best game from 2009. The whole game just feels completely cinematic in scope where it takes breaks to engage in shoot outs. Having played this I think I should give the original Uncharted a second look, but just have the difficulty turned way down.

Level One – Half-Life 2

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 73/100Title: Half-Life 2
Developer: Valve
Original Platform: PC
Year: 2004

So much has been said about Half-Life 2 and the public’s thirst for Half-Life 2 Episode 3 and Half-Life 3. Going into this game (which is ranked at #5 on Play That Game) there was a lot of expectation, although probably a bit less than it could have been since I didn’t completely get on with the original Half-Life.

I think it’s a well known sentiment that Half-Life 2 is head and shoulders above the original. The only thing I had a real issue with, that I didn’t have before, was the brightness. I had to up the brightness on the game, had to play with TV settings and close the curtains before I could see what I was doing. This appears to be an issue with the console port as the hub was fine playing on the PC.

Still, with the exception of that it this was more enjoyable to play. However, thanks to my phobia of zombies, I was unable to continue playing it myself once I reached Ravenholm. So, I had to switch to a Let’s Play to see more of the game and the many uses of the gravity gun (seriously, why did this have to go all Resident Evil on me – I would have enjoyed hurling circular saws at enemy soldiers).

So what did I enjoy most about Half-Life 2? Well, aside from D0g it has to be the puzzles. It makes sense that they made good use of gaming physics seeing how Valve is the company behind the Portal games. It wasn’t always perfect, sometimes it was difficult for me to jump out of the water because of the buoyancy physics, but when they worked some of them were ingenious.

A lot has to be said for the sheer variety in this game. Puzzle elements, some survival horror, boats, cars and a lot of different weapons to change things up. The one-shot kill crossbow and the gravity gun are especially fun, mainly because Valve put in such little quirks like covering enemies in paint when you throw a paint can at them. It’s a small touch, but very much appreciated.

You have to give Valve so much credit for this game. The environments they created still look great some 14 years later and the leaps they made in this and other titles from The Orange Box have really shaped games released afterwards. I wish I was less jumpy with video games as I feel I have missed out on something, but thanks to Let’s Plays I was still able to find a lot of enjoyment even if it wasn’t me having the encounters with G-Man.

Level One – Metroid Prime

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 72/100Title: Metroid Prime
Developer: Retro Studios
Original Platform: Gamecube
Year: 2002

Today it feels like I am going to break a cardinal gaming sin… or at least that I have a sin to confess. Forgive me oh digital father for I have sinned: I did not enjoy my time with Metroid Prime. It may feel a bit over the top to start a blog post in this way, but I have some friends who will probably disown me for this opinion.

Starting off some disclosure, I have played the original Gamecube version of the game for this. Also, this is the second time that I tried to play this particular game… the first being some 15 years ago when the game originally came out and I would rent titles from the local Blockbuster. I figured that I would enjoy this game better now that I have become a better gamer… alas I still didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about.

Let’s talk positives. The music and the ambient sound is excellent, as is the world building. When you are roaming the various mazes and areas within the game it feels truly alien and tense. Sure, there has been 15 years in graphical innovation since (I mean, just look at Breath of the Wild) but the whole package still somewhat holds up to modern scrutiny.

What doesn’t help are two things: the controls and my sense of panic. The latter is something that I have to deal with for most games and is why I am hesitant about starting The Last of Us. It sounds ridiculous as I’ve been able to play Skyrim with minimal screaming… but there’s something about a marriage of undead creatures and a set of controls that I find difficult to work my way around. I don’t want to be running from alien mosquitos whilst thinking ‘oh my god, oh my god’.

 

I know there are some saying that if I wanted a better experience (especially with the controls) then I should have played the Wii port of Metroid Prime instead. It’s a valid point and probably something to consider should I end up expanding my gaming list and suddenly need to play Metroid Prime 2. Until then, I just wanted to give this game a go as it was originally meant to be played. Just sucks that it didn’t work for me.

Level One – Grim Fandango

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 71/100Title: Grim Fandango
Developer: LucasArts
Original Platform: PC
Year: 1998

Now that Oscar season is over it is time to get back to regularly scheduled programming. Probably should have been a classical piece since it has been a very long time, but instead it’s time to tick off another entry from the video games list.

As with a number of games, I am playing a modern/remastered version of Grim Fandango. However, in the interest of having a more authentic experience, I had the old-fashioned tank controls turned on. I quickly remembered why we stopped using tank controls… but hey it’s all about the experience.

When you see lists of the best adventure games ever released Grim Fandango is a regular feature. If it’s a list about the older puzzle/adventure games it will probably be milling around the top alongside a Monkey Island game or at least another LucasArts title. Strange to think that the Star Wars movies are partially responsible for this game.

Anyway. Let’s talk Grim Fandango. You take on the role of Manny Calavera, a travel agent, as he traverses the underworld to save the soul of a woman he accidentally sent on a perilous journey. It’s one part film noir, one part Day of the Dead and all the weird humour you’d come to expect from a LucasArts game.

When it comes to world building this game is an absolute winner. As any one who knows me would work out, a game that has films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca as sources of inspiration is good by me. Then by filling this world with monsters, skeletons and guns that permanently kill you by turning you into a mass of flowers… well you get the idea. I really fell for a lot about this game.

Even the puzzles, which can be esoteric at times, are fun to solve… as long as you have some sort of hints with you. I don’t know if it’s the game or my television settings, but there are some puzzles where it’s hard to see what your meant to be interacting with (like the mug tree or the infamous road sign puzzle) which I can imagine being awful when this was first released. Still, that’s the wonders of the internet, if you get stuck someone can show you where the liquid nitrogen is.

At about 7-9 hours to beat Grim Fandango may not be the longest game out there, but with the remastered version being about £12 on the PS Store (I got mine on sale) you get good value for money with this old classic. Just, make sure you have hints. You can thank me later.

Level One – Ico

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 70/100Title: Ico
Developer: Team Ico
Original Platform: PlayStation 2
Year: 2001

Every now and again an article gets published asking the age old question: Are video games art? It’s something I have talked about before when I played Journey and  I find myself coming to this question yet again with Ico. 

For the record, I am very much on the side ‘video games being art’ in the same way as music and cinema. Games like Ico just make the argument a lot easier to make than something like Naughty Bear or anything Barbie.

There is so much good in this game that makes this an exemplar of games as art. The way that Team Ico used a ‘subtractive design’ method to make this game just helps it to stand out. The villains are just shadows, the dialogue is at a minimum and the lighting is between soft and darkness (it’s a bitch to play if your television has even a slight glare on it). This method was done to help with the immersion and it really works.

At its core Ico is a game about ‘boy-meets-girl’. The way that they call out to each other, rescue each other and run through this old castle holding hands helps to build this relationship between you as a gamer and them as your avatars. Sure, there are times you want to scream at the girl (the pathfinding in Ico is far from perfect), but ultimately you need her and you want to protect her. So mission accomplished.   

However, being an ‘art game’ doesn’t allow you to escape from some criticism. Ico ends up playing as an incredibly long escort mission… and I don’t think there is anybody that enjoys those too much. Also there’s the combat.

On some level I appreciate that the focus is on the puzzles and how to navigate this beautiful castle in a one-person co-op game, but the combat (and the lack of variety in the combat) just added unneeded pieces of frustration in an otherwise atmospheric and mysterious world. The worst part of this were the times the enemies would spawn to kidnap your companion whilst you are separated – it just felt cheap to get a game over because you didn’t memorise the route.

Still, there is no denying the importance of Ico. There’s a reviewer that said (and I am paraphrasing here) that whilst Ico is by no means a perfect game, it is a game of perfect moments. It’s hard to disagree with that as you find your characters running hand in hand in the grass towards the iconic windmill.

Level One – Final Fantasy VI

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 69/100Title: Final Fantasy VI
Developer: Square
Original Platform: SNES
Year: 1994

I am going to start this with, what might be considered, a controversial statement: I think that Final Fantasy VI is much better than Final Fantasy VII. I know I haven’t crossed off Final Fantasy VII yet, but that’s only because my attempt to play it some 6 years ago did keep me interested enough to keep going. As a gamer I am aware that saying this is heresy, but there you go.

Considering that I do not have a SNES to hand, I played the version that can currently be found on Steam and used an Xbox 360 controller. It’s not necessarily the genuine experience because of some of the updates (including art that makes Terra look unnecessarily vapid), but it was successful enough that I know that I am going to end up playing this game to completion.

The big thing that got me with Final Fantasy VI was the scope. The world is huge, the roster of 14 characters gives you plenty of scope for experimentation and the variety of battle mechanics makes sure that you can use many different strategies for the random encounters.

Of course you end up having favourites (the party I have used for most of my game so far is made of Celes, Cyan, Sabin and Edgar) but I can see that should I complete this and come back to this game in a few years time I will be able to have a completely different experience. That’s the mark of a great JRPG and what I didn’t get with Final Fantasy VII, but did with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy X.

Keeping with the character theme, Final Fantasy VI really invests in character development. I enjoyed the fact that your experience of an area can vary depending on the characters you have in your party – which can help you get to know them better. For example, there is an optional cut-scene where you learn about Sabin and Edgar’s relationship and how it was Edgar that ascended to the throne after their father’s death. It’s a scene you can completely miss, I just got lucky.

Also, how can I talk about characters without mentioning Kefka. He has got to be one of those rare pure villains who is evil for the sadistic pleasure and not because of some trauma or some ulterior motive. There is no real attempt to generate pathos, Kefka is just Kefka and he is a few nuns short of a nunnery.

So yes, it’ll be a while before I get to the next game because (as I am writing this) I have yet to complete this. And I will complete this, as I need to heal the ruined world before I walk away from this game.

Level One – Half-Life

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 68/100Title: Half-Life
Developer: Valve
Original Platform: PC
Year: 1998

I think the phrase ‘about damned time’ comes to mind.  Whilst all these video games on the list are essential to the canon, Half-Life really is one of those games. Games that have been so influential and so important that they act as a watershed moment. I think it is fair to say that what Half-Life is for the first-person shooter is what Super Mario 64 is for the 3D Platformer, Grand Theft Auto III for open-world action-adventures and Braid is for indie-games.

As a console gamer there was one overwhelming obstacle for me: the controls. I bring this up now because this is my only criticism of the game and it is one that probably didn’t catch many people. Specifically it was the controls for the crouch-jump and the long jump that really made my playthrough frustrating at times. Thankfully Half-Life is not a game that restricts your saving ability, so I would just make sure to save before making many failed jumping attempts.

Other than the jumping controls, it is amazing just how well this game holds up nearly 20 years later. I mean, sure, the graphics date this game, but honestly the only time you really notice this is in the endgame and whenever you encounter one of the many Albert Einstein lookalikes.

The big thing that set this game apart was how it told the story. Most video games that attempt some modicum of a narrative rely on cut-scenes. Some games, like a number of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, rely too heavily on these to the point that you can become incredibly bored. In Half-Life all the storytelling is done as you progress through the world solving puzzles, finding survivors and neutralising enemies.

This lack of cutscene is something that never really occurred to me as I played through Portal 2but it occurs to me that Valve managed to do the same thing again. Both games also use a mute first-person character to help immerse you further into the action.

A lot has been written about the storyline, but I just want to focus a little bit on the bestiary. As good as the story is, the game would have sunk if it wasn’t for the impressive variety of enemies. The final boss alone is… freaky in a mutant baby with a light mote for a brain kind of way.

I also really loved the houndeyes. They aren’t one of the major enemies, and were originally meant to be allies/neutral, but I always smiled when they appeared. They’re the kind of enemy that are… well cute isn’t the right word for it, but there is something appealing about them. As long as they stay fictional. If they become real then I will be hiding in the wardrobe.

So yes, after the way I couldn’t get into Ocarina of Time it was great to finally experience to get better acquainted with the world of Half-Life. At the moment, however, I don’t count myself as one of the rabid fans who are desperate for Half-Life 3, but let’s see if my eventual playthrough of Half-Life 2 brings that out of me.

Level One – God of War

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 67/100Title: God of War
Developer: SCE Santa Monica Studio
Original Platform: Playstation 2
Year: 2005

Of the three main God of War games it is only the first one that ended up in the Top 100 list, and it is a long way ahead of the other instalments. Fair to say that this must, therefore, be the best game of the three.

Now, if you are into gaming you will know the basic idea behind God of War. You play as Kratos, a former Spartan general who has become the go-to dogsbody for the Greek Gods. Why? As penance for killing his own wife and child (after being driven made by the god of war himself) and to try and rid himself of his haunting nightmares.

Kratos is an interesting character as, in many ways, he is your quintessential meathead. Then again he is also slightly schizoid, ultra-violent and has a Gorgon’s head that he uses to turn enemies to stone. Sure he has slightly emotional moments (nightmares about your dead wife and daughter tends to do that to you) but, on the whole he is a badass.

As someone who LOVES Greek mythology this is a game I have been looking forward to playing for a while. I knew that this game would end up taking liberties with the mythologies – I don’t see a reason why since there is such a wealth of characters and monsters that would be interesting if left as they were – but I admit to doing a few heavy eye rolls.

The biggest of all the eyerolls happened in the desert section where you are tracking down sirens. Sirens life on the coast and, in many cases, are synonymous with mermaids. So if you want to put a siren in the place that would kill them the quickest then the desert is probably your best bet. Now, I did enjoy how they were used… but did it have to be a desert?

Still. As a game that is essentially Bayonetta meets Hercules I had a really great time playing this. Thanks to Zero Punctuation I know a fair bit about the storyline for the next two games and, honestly, I am looking forward to giving those a whirl once I expand this out from the Top 100 (should I complete this!).

Level One – System Shock 2

List Item: Play 100 of the greatest computer games
Progress: 66/100Title: System Shock 2
Developer: Irrational Games & Looking Glass Studios
Original Platform: PC
Year: 1999

And so today we have the latest in the series of games that managed to freak me out and had to watch someone else to get a grip of what made this an essential play. Honestly, for someone who has loved computer games all their life this is getting embarrassing.

System Shock 2 is one of the few games in this Top 100 that were critically appreciated at the time, but was a near flop commercially. So much so that System Shock 3 has been in limbo for the better part of 20 years. Still, so influential was this game that it is a regular feature on a number of best of lists.

In essence this is an action/survival horror game set in space. After some character generation choices (interestingly done in a way to give your character some history) you find yourself waking up on a spaceship as it is being ripped apart by the AI, human-alien hybrids, robots and cryokinetic monkeys.

The world is firmly planted in the cyberpunk tradition with, and it is not too much of a spoiler to say this since she is on the box, an AI called SHODAN acting as antagonist. She is lethal and truly one of the great bosses in a time where evil computer as villain has become a bit old hat.

The atmosphere is greatly helped by the music and the audio cues. Having the first hybrids apologising for hurting you and basically asking you to end their misery is an extreme mindbender. Killer7 did a similar thing, but the effect is much more pronounced here. This is made better by music that just ups the tension at all times. It goes to show the importance of having a good soundtrack on a game that is meant to mess with your head.

One thing that helped remove some of the scares (and this might just be because of playing it on easy) is that death is cheap. As long as you can find the respawn point then you can be up and running straight after death and with no real negative consequence. It really does take the sting out of being overwhelmed by apologetic mutants.

The way this is balanced is by having constantly respawning enemies. This, after a while, just became annoying rather than challenging. Something that really was improved on in the successor Bioshock where once an area is clear you are safe for a good while.

Actually, now that I have seen both System Shock 2 and Bioshock in action the similarities between the two are uncanny. Swap cyberpunk for steampunk and introduce a more philosophical brand of storytelling and there you have it.

Take, for example, the upgrade system. During the game you get a limited number of point called ‘modules’. With it you are able to upgrade your stats or buy new ‘psi powers’. It’s basically the precursor to Bioshock‘s plasmid system, just that you use the modules to buy upgrades for all features.

Honestly, this is a game that I would really recommend. I know I didn’t play it too long because I am a jumpy wuss, but having seen it in action via the husband it feels like my own nerves prevented me from taking part in a unique experience.