What’s your favourite console ever? Mine’s grey, regular in shape, weighs about three pounds. Graphically, it’s a bit underpowered by modern standards – great colours, lousy detail – but it’s got a killer game library. The one I’ve got is showing its age a bit, but it’s still my most precious possession in the whole world.
It isn’t, as you’ve already guessed, the Dreamcast. It’s my brain. My spongey, stupid, sloppy, saturated brain. The thing that makes it the best console ever made is that it’s 100% compatible. It’s like the ultimate emulator. Using it, I can replay ever game I’ve ever played. I can even, thanks to its remarkable ‘Imagination’ engine (watch Sony nick that for PS4), play games that haven’t even been made yet. It’s portable, never needs batteries, never needs upgrading, boots instantaneously. There are no carts to lose, no discs to scratch, no controller wires to unsnarl.
The last thing I played on it was Wipeout, which I dug out last night when I couldn’t sleep thanks to a head full of rather shampoo-y white wine and a three hour argument about the future of game distribution. Proper Wipeout, mind. Original, clunky, exacting Wipeout. Nearly 15 years on, it plays as well in my mind as it used to on my trusty 14″ Trinitron. I can still nail the boost start every time, still feel the flow and flex of every camber and turn as I loop endlessly under the specked ink of Altima’s sky. Some insomniacs count sheep; I count zip pads. (more…)
Here’s a game design conundrum for you: what do Halo and football have in common? I’ll save those of you who are now deep in the process of trying to find a punchy Red Vs Blue pun the trouble. What Halo and football have in common is verbs. Or rather, a verb. Shoot.
Halo is a game about aiming a projectile, usually a bullet, to hit a target, usually someone’s jaw. Football is about aiming a projectile, usually a ball, to hit a target, usually a rectangular, poorly weatherproofed shack which is home to an angry man who jumps a lot.
Oh, wait, I should have said. That football. Real football. Sorry.
I’ve found it makes people uncomfortable when I call football a shooting game. Often this is because they fear I’m trying to be a smartarse, which is an understandable concern. Other times it’s because they’re focused on the specific meaning of ‘shooting’ in football, which they rightly point out is only a small part of the game, which is also about defending and maneuvering and passing and tackling.
For once, though, I’m not trying to be a smartarse. From my exhaustive study of the rules of football, you can only win if someone makes a projectile hit a target, and that to me is a shooting game. (more…)
I’m sitting in a hotel room with a girl I barely know. She is beautiful, but sad and close to tears. The man she loves has deserted her, and she feels like her world has ended. I know she’s wrong, but don’t seem to have the words to tell her why. Her world hasn’t ended. She is still loved, will still be loved, if only she would save herself. But she won’t. Consumed by the past, bereaved by her loss, she’s paralysed. Oblivious to the fact that a very different horror – concrete, violent, terminal – is threatening to end not just her world, but that of her family, her absent lover and everyone she’s ever cared about. Me too, now I come to think of it. But the words won’t come, and so I stand here, counting down to the end of the world one tear at a time. And then, at the last sad second, time loops backwards and everything begins again.
I’m sitting in a hotel room with a man I barely know. He isn’t beautiful, or sad, or paralysed, but he is oblivious. Not oblivious to the end of the world, however. He’s oblivious to a game called The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and that means he’s also oblivious to the unbearably bittersweet experience of sharing the end of the world with Anju as she sits in her bedroom in Clock Town’s hotel, mourning the disappearance of her fiance. And so I tell him about it, trying to condense dozens of hours of brave, benevolent adventuring into five short minutes. And then, at the last frustrating second, time loops backwards and everything begins again. (more…)
Last night I killed eleven people. Not virtual people, not avatars, not NPCs. People. Some I knew, some I didn’t. Some who would have killed me first if they could, some who died trying to protect me. I kill because I was trained to, by a Russian master psychologist by the name of Dimma Davidoff. There are many like me, who live among you peacefully until we are called into action. We aren’t assassins but slaughterers, guided only by the twin impulses to kill and to survive. We call ourselves the Werewolves.
Actually, originally, we called ourselves the Mafia, but there’s probably some copyright infringement there and we had a rethink. Either way, Werewolf has been around for 20-odd years, enlivening frat parties and corporate retreats with a tang of bloodlust and betrayal.
How it works is simple. A roomful of people are distributed cards, in secret, which designate them either villagers or werewolves. At ‘night’ all the villagers close their eyes and the werewolves open theirs to identify a victim. During the ‘day’ the game moderator announces who has died and everyone – villagers and werewolves alike – must come to an agreement on who to lynch in the hope of eradicating the werewolf threat. There are thousands of rule variations, but that’s the heart of Werewolf: a game of deceit, misdirection and skepticism that I love more every time I play it. (more…)
A few days ago I held my breath, squared my shoulders and stepped through a magic portal. It sucked me forward through space and time, turned winter to summer and day to night. It also beeped because I’d forgotten to take my keys out of my pocket.
And now, having had three dinners in a row, and then three breakfasts in a row, I’m in Australia. Ten thousand and five miles across the globe from London; as far as it’s possible to be from base and still get a decent coffee. There should be jet-lag and there should be culture-shock (if only on the basis of how goddam cheery everyone is), but there isn’t. Instead there’s this: I just came home.
Not physically, virtually. After a happy holiday with another guild on another server, I recently put in a character transfer request so I could go back and join my original guild in their assault on Northrend. Fifteen quid for Blizzard to copy a heap of shamefully low stats (level 69 still, somehow, no raid gear, basic mount) from one World of Warcraft server to another. From one identical copy of the world to another. (more…)
In a few more months the DSi will arrive in Europe, and this is something that I view with dread. It is, in part, because Nintendo’s incremental handheld improvement campaign has so far cost me more than a brace of PS3s (as any other victim of the evolution from GBA to Afterburnered GBA to SP to Micro to Original DS to Lite can testify), and I’d promised myself I’d stay on the wagon this time.
A bigger blow, however, is that the DSi’s single biggest strength – the ability to download and store games – is the final nail in the coffin of something very dear to me: cartridges.
They have a practical appeal, of course – more scratch-proof and less likely to get used as coasters than CDs – but that isn’t their magic. Their magic, or rather their alchemy, is that they change the nature of the thing you plug them into. A GBA on its own isn’t a games machine. It’s an elaborate gizmo for showing a little picture of its own logo.
Plug a cartridge in and it still isn’t a games machine. It becomes an Advance Wars Machine, or a Superstar Saga Machine, or a Metroid Fusion Machine. The cart becomes a physical component of the whole, changing it from something with potential but no function to something with a pure, specific purpose.
Which means that my Favourite Console Ever (this week) is my Rhythm Tengoku Machine, which I hand-built myself out of a GBA Micro and a much travelled import cart of Nintendo’s rhythmic masterpiece. Move over, Ben Heckendorn. (more…)
This American Life, Ira Glass’ impeccable radio show, always urbane and humane in equal measure, opened the year by re-broadcasting one of its classic episodes, Numbers. Catching up, it introduced me to the story of Andrea, who as a young temp more than a decade ago taught herself Microsoft Excel by making a spreadsheet called My Love Life: A Ten Year Span.
The years were plotted along the bottom, and the Y-axis recorded the number of people Andrea had got lucky with each year – hitting a total of seven in her luckiest of years. Seeing her life laid out in stark statistics like this was somehow reassuring, she confided: “It is just numbers. Looking at it this way, the people totally go away… So many of these things on their own I would normally classify as failures, they were were rejections or something painful, but when I look at it in the context of all this, these are all my scores, my successes.”
Scores! That simple piece of abstractional magic that can turn failure into success, that assigns you a clear place in a world which can otherwise seem oblivious to your efforts. Life is full of unquantifiable mysteries – rewards you don’t quite feel you’ve earned, punishments you know for sure you haven’t, equations that can’t be solved about whether people who are richer, fitter and prettier, but also ruder, stupider and lonelier are actually better than you or not.
It is from these pains that I take refuge in Disgaea.This time it’s the DS version, but I’ve retreated to the the first two often enough, as well as to stable-mates La Pucelle and Phantom Brave over the years. They’re all made by Nippon Ichi, a company who specialise in producing games for people who like numbers, grids and jokes. Or, to put it another way, me. (more…)
In my line of work, I hear a lot of bad game ideas, which is something I find agonizing. This is because about 90% of them are emanating out of my own mouth, usually prefaced with something asinine like, ‘This is just off the top of my head, but..’ or ‘I know! Why don’t you try…’ The theory is that the good thing about bad ideas is that they always teach you something. In my case, they usually teach me how polite and patient my colleagues are.
Thankfully, the other 10% aren’t my doing, but what’s amazing is how many of them get made. One of the worst game ideas ever was embodied in Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, which is a platform game you control with a pair of cheap electric bongos.
Not, please note, a modern, newfangled, automagic platform game like Assassin’s Creed. A proper, old-fashioned 2D platformer with ledges and enemies and timed swings and all the things that make you cry out for a nice crisp d-pad and a decently sprung jump button. Or, in the absence of those, perhaps at least something with more than two buttons which you can operate without having to pretend to be a toddler who just dropped a jam sandwich off his high chair.
So why go back to Jungle Beat? For a little reassuring schadenfreude that I’m not the only person who can have bad game ideas? No. Because it’s a dazzling, dizzying delight. Bad idea; brilliant game. (more…)
Christmas Eve. Finally the house is quiet, and the lights are dimmed to twinkles. All the hard work is over, the fridge full of once-a-year delicacies and everyone else has gone to bed. But I’m still up, as I always am, to have a last, long look at the tree. Or rather, at the boxes under the tree. The big boxes. The biggest box.
If you’re a gamer, there’s something different about Christmas, something different about those boxes. Part of my work this year has been helping with the launch of the UK’s National Videogame Archive, and it’s meant having a lot of interesting conversations with interesting people about what a game museum might look like. My favourite suggestion so far was that we recreate a childhood Christmas – that childhood Christmas, when whatever it was that changed your life arrived.
So you’d book your ticket, and pay your money, and there when you arrived – alongside the Big Trak or the Tracy Island or whatever it was your sister wanted – there’d be a box with your name on it, wrapped in that papery paper you don’t seem to get any more – and you’d be allowed to rip it open and turn it over and over and over and look at the pictures of Rygar or Pole Position or whatever it was, before taking a deep breath and letting rip on the flaps. At which point a security guard would probably escort you from the premises.
As an idea for a museum exhibit, I admit, it needs a little work, but I’d still love to do it. My big box – my big boxes – would have an ST and a monitor in them, and the tiny, shiny screenshot that I’d pour over would be of Ranarama. (more…)
One of the most enduring relationships I have is with four men I’ve never met. Seven years ago, Hiroshi Iuchi, Atsutomo Nakagawa, Yasushi Suzuki and Satoshi Murata created Ikaruga, the spiritual successor to Treasure’s majestic Radiant Silvergun. Ikaruga is what some people call a top-down, vertically scrolling, combo-based, arcade shoot-’em-up. What I call it is art.
Now, the whole ‘what is art and are we it yet and if we are can we have a cookie?’ is one more futile arguments generated by videogames. It’s not a useful question, for many obvious reasons, but there is one answer to it that I rather like. It goes like this: the hallmark of good art is that every time you go back to see it, it’s changed. Or rather, it hasn’t, but you have, so through viewing it you’re able to measure and identify the changes within yourself. It’s as good an answer as any other to the great unresolvable what-is-art conundrum, and if you apply it to videogames, then my Mona Lisa is Ikaruga. Beautiful, enigmatic, alluring and unmasterable. (more…)