Friday, January 28, 2005

Double Review - Jak 2 and Jak 3

A while ago I promised you a review of Jak 3, but I thought as I'd also completed part 2 of the series within the last few months I would combine the two together. This also helps when I come to compare one game against the other. So, let's get on with it, yes?

Back in the early days of the first PlayStation, Naughty Dog created Crash Bandicoot to try and give Sony a platforming mascot of their own. This worked to a certain extent, at least until Spyro came along and stole a lot of the limelight. The games offered traditional side on platorming with modern 3D graphics, along with a variety of other styles including levels where you had to run into the screen to avoid boulders, and later additions in the series added submarines, planes, and balls like the Atlaspheres from Gladiators to roll around in.

These days the Crash games feel a little dated, and they never really rivaled the genius of Nitendo's Super Mario 64. However, about a year into the life of the PlayStation 2, Naughty Dog in conjunction with Sony released Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. It was a breath of fresh air, featuring fantastic visuals (the animation and day/night cycles were particularly impressive) and a more free-roaming style, where you were free to travel from one level to the next and try the various challenges. Unfortunately, the game didn't sell as many copies as they'd hoped, which is always a risk with a new franchise. The game did build up a small fan base however, and rather than abandon the planned trilogy, Naughty Dog decided on a change of direction.

Jak 2 is a much darker, meaner game that the first part. It's still quite suitable for teenagers to play though - we're not in GTA territory here. At least not as far as the swearing is concerned. You see, the developers obviously took a long hard look at the GTA series and decided that was the direction they needed to go in, as a lot of Jak 2 takes part in a sprawling metropolis, Haven City. The game begins with Jak escaping from the clutches of the evil Baron Praxis, but you will find he's changed a bit since the last game. In the few years while he's been held captive in the Palace, the Baron has performed experiments on him with Dark Eco, and now he has some strange powers (which are very handy in a fight).

Once out of the Palace, you slowly get caught up in a revolution against the Baron and Crimson guards which sees you exploring sewers, pumping stations, metalhead nests, and many other locations within and without the city. To aid you in getting through all this, you are given a gun, which gets more modes the further you get through the game. The is a shotgun, normal blaster, a very fast chaingun an ultra powerful gun that homes in on enemies and takes down several at once. Changing from one gun to the other can be done on the fly just by pushing a direction on the d-pad, it's an excellent idea that avoids all the faffing around in menus that many games make you go through. You will also gain a hover board at a certain point in the game, and of course, this being modelled on GTA, you can steal a zoomer from any of the citizens wandering around the city.

Let's skip ahead to Jak 3 for a minute. When you start the game, you are initially cast out into the Wasteland. The major addition to the game over Jak 2 are buggies. There are about 10 different vehicles which you can use to bomb around the desert, from the rather pathetic model you start with, to the great behemoths that you can only drive by collecting Precursor Orbs and trading them in. There's even one with huge springs built into the suspension, which you must use to jump from one archipelago to the next. The new buggy missions include races, smuggler's run style package collecting, checkpoint racing, and shooting down huge creatures. While they are great fun and add a bit of variety to the game, I thought there wasn't enough of them.

So then, let's start comparing the two games. Graphically, both are fantastic, and from a technical point of view, the way the games stream the world from the disc so you don't notice any loading times is very impressive indeed. At various times I would just stand in a level, and watch as sun rose or set. The graphics of Jak 3 are perhaps slightly less varied that in 2, being predominantly set in the desert, but there's really not much in it.

A lot of the voice cast are present in both games, and among the games are Clancy Brown as Baron Praxis (who may be familiar to some of you as the Kurgan from Highlander). They're a highly talented and professional bunch, and the voice work in the Jak trilogy is some of the best of any games. Music is good, but it is often drowned out by all the shooting that goes on since Jak acquired his multi-purpose gun.

On to gameplay and originality, and for me, Jak 2 scores more highly in this regard. Upon it's release the addition of guns felt new and fresh, and the game still managed to contain more traditional platforming levels, vehicular challenges and mini games. While Jak 3 has expanded the range of gun even further, I found I stuck to the old favourites most of the time. The buggies are a nice idea but just when you're really starting to enjoy yourself the game ends, leaving you disappointed. Also new to Jak 3 are Light Eco powers, and one of these really sucks out the challenge of the game. Apparently, many people complained that certain parts of Jak 2 were too hard, and so Jak 3 has been toned down. When you add the ability to heal yourself, it's far too easy to survive most of what the game throws at you. While one or two missions could be annoying for a while in Jak 2, they're not as frustrating as some of the harder missions in the GTA games for example, and the fact that you can try as often as you like eases a lot of the frustration (for me at least).

How about value for money? Jak 2 took me about 20 hours to complete, but Jak 3 took much less than that. While there is a Hero (Hard) Mode, most people probably won't bother to go through the game again. Once you consider the fact that Jak 2 can be picked up for £20 brand new or around £10 second hand, it starts to look like the stronger of the two games. It also has the more interesting plot. There are many new characters introduced in the second game, and most of them are carried over to the third. Also, while Jak 3 wraps up all the loose ends, you may feel a bit underwhelmed by the "revelations" at the end. In other words, Jak 2 is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, the dark, exciting middle chapter that leaves you wanting more, whereas, Jak 3 is the equivalent of the good-but-not-brilliant Return of the Jedi. Fans of the first to games will undoubtedly wish to see how the story ends, and they'll have great fun doing so while it lasts. However, it may be worth waiting until Jak 3 is a Platinum release, rather than splashing out £40 for it now.

Jak 2 - The RetroModern gaming score: 8 out of 10
Jak 3 - The RetroModern gaming score: 7 out of 10

Jak 2

Jak 3

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Review: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

Anyone who's been visiting this site regularly since I started posting on here in September will probably have noticed that I've mentioned Paper Mario on more than one occasion. I discovered the original only about a year and a half ago and enjoyed every minute of it. It really made the most of the N64 hardware, with a unique graphical style, extremely fun play mechanics and lots and lots of humour. I remember shortly after I'd finished it there was a rumour that Nintendo were going to port it over to the GBA as Mario Advance 5, but that idea vanished and instead they made the amazing Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

About half a year on from that, the first images of Paper Mario 2 arrived. It looked (and still looks) like the original but at a much higher resolution. All of the rather fuzzy looking sprites are now very clearly defined. Although the sequel shares quite a few similarities with the first game, it's by no means a simple rehash however as I shall attempt to explain now.

The story begins when Princess Peach, on holiday with her faithful 'shroom butler Toadsworth, sends a postcard to Mario saying that she bought a strange looking map from a shady looking merchant in Rogueport (you'd think the name of the place would give her a clue that it's not the safest of areas, but she's a bit of a ditz). No sooner has she bought said item and shipped it off to Mario for safe keeping, then she's kidnapped by the X-Nauts (evil scheming alien guys). Mario, being the clever chap he is, realises that she's probably got herself in trouble again and sets off to Rogueport to find out what's going on. When he gets there, he discovers Toadsworth in a state of distress, and soon the map leads them to the fable Thousand Year Door, which according to local legend holds back a demon with the power to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom. It's up to Mario and the assorted pals he meets along the way to travel the world and gather the seven Crystal Stars in order to gain the power to hold the demon, the X-Nauts and Bowser at bay.

The game plays in a similar fashion to the original. Firstly, when not in a town, you can see enemies wandering around. If you jump on them then you score a free hit before the main battle even begins, but if they hit you the same thing applies in reverse. Battles are turn-based affairs, but instead of just pressing the button and watching Mario & Co. attack, you get to participate in the form of action commands. These vary from holding the stick left and then letting go on the count of three for a hammer strike, to circling the stick and other motions. Correct timing scores extra hits, and action commands also work in defense as well. Then there are a variety of moves than you can use by equipping various badges and spending Flower Points (FP) in battle. The amount of badges you can equip are limited by your Badge Points (BP). Experience is this game takes the form of Star Points, and every time you earn 100 Star Point you earn a level. Then you have to decide whether to increase your Hit Points (HP), FP or BP.

This is all very similar to the way things worked on the N64, but the twist this time is that all the battles take place on a stage. Accurate timed hits and spectacular moves are more likely to impress the audience, which in turn leads to more people coming to watch next time and more power in your Star Meter. At the end of each chapter, you get another one of the Crystal Stars and another Star Power, and you can use these to help you out. Star Power include healing spells, earthquakes and sleep inducing moves, and each uses a certain amount of your meter. Finally, you meet a number of other characters on your travels, including a Goomba, a Ghost, and a Yoshi, who each get a turn before or after Mario and each have their own strengths. Yoshi, for example, is the only character that can harm certain enemies by swallowing them and spitting them out again. Outside of battle each of your companions has a special ability as well, such as Yosh's flutter jump, and this is usually the way you gain access to new areas.

There are also a view abilities you gain throughout the game from "cursed" black chests, such as the ability to turn into a plane, roll up into a tube or turn sidewise to fit between small gaps. If all this sounds rather complicated, you needn't worry as everything is explained very clearly as you go along and it's easy to use.

The game has a very witty translation that rivals Nintendo's hilarious english version of Mario & Luigi, and highlights of the story include prize fighting in the Glitz Pit as the Great Gonzalez, and breaking a curse that means that the residents of Twighlight Town turn into pigs everytime the bell in town square rings. After each main chapter there are interludes where you take control of Princess Peach and Bowser as you follow their side of story. Peach's sections are very entertaining as you creep around the X-Naut's base and are assisted by a computer who develops a crush on her after watching her naked in the shower (the perve!).

I know for a fact that cel shaded graphics are not everyone's cup of tea (just look at the fuss that Wind Waker caused) but personally I think the graphics in Paper Mario 2 are fantastic. They look liked a hand drawn pop-up booked, with walls of buildings folding down as you enter. The power of the Gamecube is put to the test on various occasions when 100's of sprites fill the screen at the same time.

There are some nice tunes as well, but it's not the most amazing game soundtrack to ever fill my ears. I particularly like the funked up remix of the original Mario theme that plays near Hooktail Castle at the start of the game. There are no voice overs in the game, and the usual Mario sound effects such as his jumping noises, the ching of coins and so forth are also all present and correct. So aurally Paper Mario 2 is functional at best, but at least nothing is particularly offensive to the ear.

From a lifespan point of view Paper Mario 2 is a much longer game than the original. As well as the main quest, which is likely to take to from between 25-30 hours, there are a whole range of sidequests that can push that time up to 40-50 hours. These include collecting info on all the enemies in the tattle log, finding all the badges, combining items and discovering new recipes, beating a second, harder version of the Glitz Pit, defeating the 100 level dungeon, playing mini games in the Casino and solving all the "Troubles". There is a message board in Rogueport where resident from all over the world post their problems for Mario to solve, and later ones can involve traipsing back and forth across the world several times. This is great news for completist who love to do every side quest in their RPG's but those who just want to get on with story needn't worry as they're completely optional.

So, this all adds up to one of the finest RPG's on the Gamecube (although there is some stiff competition in the forms of Tales of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos and my old favourite, Skies of Arcadia). It is undoubtedly one of my Top 10 games of 2004 and if you haven't bought a copy yet, I suggest you do so. It has more than enough game to keep you happy for weeks to come.

The RetroGaming Score: 9 out of 10

Monday, January 17, 2005

Bargains Galore

So, there I was, down the town preordering my PSP, when decided to have a little browse around Gamestation. I had no intention of buying anything, but ended up buying no less than four games! You know how it is (or maybe you don't). Luckily, three of them were only £5 each, and the fourth was a reasonable £20. I won't go into too much detail now, because they're worthy of their own reviews or Hidden Gems entries in their own right, but here's what I got...

Armed and Dangerous - Xbox - £5
This is definitely my favourite of the games I bought. It's been a long time since I've played anything that's put as much emphasis on pure fun as this game. It's a frantic third person shooter, and good one too. The sense of humour is a little depraved, but there are some great parodies of Star Wars and other Science Fiction favourites in there. The weaponry is genius, and the level of destruction and the ease of the controls all add up to make this one of the best games I've ever stumbled across by accident!

RTX Red Rock - PS2 - £5
This reminds me of the old LucasArts classic The Dig in many ways. It's starts off in a fairly realistic manner. You are E.Z. Wheeler, an RTX (Radical Tactics Expert) who's been sent on a mission to investigate what's been happening on the colony on Mars. Things soon take a turn for the worse though and you find yourself stranded on the red planet, battling strange aliens called LED's and solving all sorts of puzzles in order to save yourself and the colony. So far the puzzles have been a little obtuse, and it's not always clear where to go next, but it's a fun, well presented adventure game.

Drakengard - PS2 - £5
This is was originally known as Drag-On Dragoon in Japan, until Square-Enix wisely renamed it for US and European audiences. It plays like a hybrid of Dynasty Warriors and Panzer Dragoon except neither part is quite as good as its inspiration. The graphics are a bit underwhelming and the camera was really bad from what I've played so far, but I've only got a short way into the game so I'll reserve final judgment until I finish it.

Prince of Persia - Xbox - £20
Finally I've got around to buying the first next generation Prince of Persia, and it's very faithful to the 80's original. The ability to rewind time allows you to experiment with the puzzles, which are very imaginative and will take all your platform game dexterity and brain power to overcome. After I've finished with A&D, Shenmue 2 and Super Mario 64 DS, I shall definitely be going back to it.

Phew! That should keep me quiet for a week at least! There's some good games coming out soon though, which I'm pretty sure I won't be able to resist. Titles like Resident Evil 4, Baiten Kaitos, Gran Turismo 4, Metal Gear Solid 3, Star Fox Armada and Wild Arms 4 are all either out already or are extremely imminent. I shall post my impressions and reviews of each of them as I acquire and complete them, so keep checking back regularly!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Ridge Racer Retrospective feature

I originally wrote this article last year, and thing's have changed a bit in the Ridge Racer series since then. I thought it would be interesting to leave the article as it was and then just add some bits for the latest games in the the series. Here we go:

The Beginning - Ridge Racer (Arcade, 1994/95?)
Way back in 1995 (or was it '94, I can't quite remember), an amazing new arcade game was released by Namco, the people behind such classics as Pac Man, Galaxians and Galaga. It was a fully three-dimensional racing game, and it took the games world by storm. Together with Sega's Virtua Racing arcade cabinet it redefined the racing genre. The game featured cutting edge visuals for the time, a thumping Rave soundtrack, blistering speed and memorable track design. Even though there were only three different tracks, players found themselves coming back time and time again because playing the game was such a thrill.

The Launch - Ridge Racer (PlayStation, 1995)
Sony benefited from Namco's almost arcade perfect port of the machine on the launch day of their PlayStation. For many, the temptation of being able to drive around the tracks without putting £1 every time was too hard to resist. A bit of extra challenge was added in the form of an "Extra" mode, which was simply the tracks in reverse with a slightly trickier opposition and time limit. There were also some bonus cars to unlock if you were quick enough to shoot all the Galaxians before the game loaded up. At the time, it didn't matter that you could finish the entire game within a few hours. Nowadays you can pick the game for around £3, and it's still jolly good fun to pick up and play from time to time.

Ridge Remixed - Ridge Racer Revolution (PlayStation, 1996)
Namco cashed in on the popularity of the original by releasing this remix a year later. All the tracks were new, save for a couple of classics that were strangely only available in the new multiplayer mode. Graphically, the game was very similar to the original, but the handling was tweaked slightly and the challenge was increased. Even so, you could still easily finish it all off in an evening. This game can now be found for the mind bogglingly cheap price of £2, so short as it is it's still damn good value for money.

Ridge Rethought - Rage Racer (Playstation, 1997)
Despite this entry to the series only having the usual paltry 4 tracks, it had a much longer one player game than the games that preceded it due to there being multiple cups for you to win, along with many different cars that could be (and indeed had to be) upgraded. The fastest cars were only available in manual transmission too, forcing automatic drivers to learn how to drive properly. The usual range of tunez was present, but the graphics had a much more subdued, grimy look which looks a bit ugly compared to it's colourful forebears. It also came out a short while before the Dual Shock pad was commonplace, and the digital steering makes it feel older than it is. At the time I thought this game was brilliant, but looking at it in the harsh light of day now it's probably the most dated of all the games featured here. Again, the game can be found on the cheap today.

Ridge Revamped - Ridge Racer Type Four (PlayStation, 1999)
RRT4 had more of everything - more tracks, cars, tunes and some of the best graphics ever seen in a racer on the PlayStation. It was the perfect antidote to Gran Turismo 2, which was about as realistic as you could get. The handling and powerslides were balanced just right and this time the game featured full analogue control and vibration. Although it was very easy to get all the way through the game with certain teams and cars, you could choose a team that was struggling with their finances and have a much more challenging time of it. Many people regard this game as the pinnacle of the series so far, but I still have a soft spot for the original. Expect to pay around £5 for this one.

Ridge Recycled - Ridge Racer 64 (Nintendo 64, 2000)
Although this entry to the series bears the Namco name, it was actually Nintendo Software Technology (NST) that programmed it. It was the biggest version of the game so far, featuring all of the tracks from the original game, Revolution and a handful of completely new ones. The graphics were a halfway house between the look of the original and the shinier cars of Ridge Racer Type Four. The only thing that let it down was the slightly floaty handling. It was too easy to go into a powerslide when you didn't mean to and slam into the side of the track. Prices vary from about £5 to £10 depending on whether you get the box and instruction manual.

Ridge Renaissance - Ridge Racer V (PlayStation 2, 2001)
The Ridge series finally entered the next generation with the launch of the PlayStation 2 and players got more of the same, only better looking and slightly trickier. The soundtrack featured some amazing music from the likes of the Boom Boom Satellites, and gameplay wise the game took the multi-cup approach used in Rage Racer. The classic track from the first game returned along with about 5 other new ones, and the handling was tightened up a bit to produce a very playable racer. The game suffered a bit from a lack of anti-aliasing meant "jaggies" were quite obvious, and the PAL version wasn't optimised leading to huge borders and a noticeable drop in speed over the silky smooth NTSC versions. Not the best arcade racer even seen then, but it can still provide quite a few hours of entertainment for around £7.

Ridge Reimagined - R: Racing Evolution (Multiformat, 2004)
Now we come to the latest entry to the Ridge Racer series, and the first truly radical overhaul the game mechanics have had since the whole thing started. The team behind the PS2 Moto GP series joined forces with members of the Ridge Racer V team to produce this new game, which features storyline elements ala TOCA Racer Driver and an altogether more realistic approach. The cars and circuits are for the most part based on their real life counterparts, and the handling has been steered in the direction of realism and away from the drift heavy feel of old. The story mode is somewhat short and easy, but there are dozens of individual challenges for players to unlock which should last a while. Fans of the series have grumbled that it just isn't the same, but I rather enjoyed this game. Still, I was glad to hear the announcement of...

Ridge Redux - Ridge Racer 6 (Multiformat?, 2004-2005)
Very little is known about RR6 as it's only just been announced, but the name would suggest a return to the series' arcade roots rather than the semi-realistic approach favoured by R: Racing Evolution. If I'm honest I've always felt that the series has had a lot of potential and although all the games have been fun in their own way they've been let down by one key aspect, either the length of the game, the handling or the overall lack of challenge. Imagine what a true next generation Ridge Racer could be like, with properly anti-aliased graphics, perfect handling, dozens of tracks, a weighty one player mode, plenty of speed, the usual thumping music, and maybe even an online mode? Come on Namco, make the Ridge Racer game we've all been waiting for.

Hmm... now we know, eh? So, here's my thoughts on the two newest, handheld versions of the series.

Ridge Renovated - Ridge Racer DS (Nintendo DS, 2005)
This is basically the same game as the N64 version, but the gameplay has been improved quite a bit in the porting process. The frame rate has been increased to a silky smooth 60 fps, there's no slowdown and everything looks nicer on the smaller screen. Handling has also improved slightly, thanks to the d-pad being better suited to the game than the analogue stick was, and there's the option of using the touch screen to steer as well. There's 12 tracks, plus reverse versions, and lots of cars to unlock (only a handful are worth driving though). Not a bad job on the whole, but not the amazing game I was waiting for.

Ridge of Rapidity (sorry, I was running out of words that start with re) - Ridge Racers (PSP, 2005)Now this is more like it. While I haven't played this version yet, all that I've seen and read leads me to believe that it is the best version ever. There's a selection of classic tracks which have all been given a modern day makeover, along with a selection of the best music from previous games and a mammoth one player mode (we're talking at least forty cups of 3-6 races). The Arrange Tour mode sounds good - choose a time from 5 to 60 minutes and the game with create a championship for you that fit's in with your requirements. I shall definitely be picking this baby up along with my PSP in March.

And there's one I missed completely originally...

Rave Racer (Arcades, 199?)
This had a completely different set of tracks, cars and tunes but it still stuck to the familiar Ridge Racer formula. Ridge Racers on the PSP features some of the tracks from this game that many fans won't have seen before due to the limited exposure of the arcade cabinet.

So there you have it, who knows what the future will bring the Ridge Racer series? It's nice to see it have a return to form though.

Review: The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

American GBA and DS owners have only recently been able to go to their local store and buy the latest in the prestigious Zelda series, whereas European gamers have had their copies since last November. I finished my copy a week or two ago and now it's time to give you my verdict.

This is the fifth Zelda game that Flagship/Capcom have developed for Nintendo, having previously worked on Oracle of Seasons and Ages for the Game Boy Color, the GBA port of A Link to the Past (and Four Swords), and then the Gamecube's Four Swords Adventures (which actually came out afterwards in Europe). Their experience really shines through every moment in the Minish Cap, and they've even brought a fair few new ideas to the series that not even Nintendo have managed.

The storyline is our old Nintendo favourite with a few twists. Zelda is in trouble again - this time she's been turned to stone by an evil young magician called Vaati, who suddenly became very powerful when he stole a magic hat from his master, Ezlo. Before escaping with said hat, Vaati turned Ezlo into the eponymous Minish Cap. A while into the adventure, Link discovers the Cap and puts it on. Ezlo's hat form has the head of some kind of bird, and he talks to Link, giving out advice and smart remarks whenever they're needed. He's a bit like the Red Dragon boat in Wind Waker.

It's up to you, as link, to traverse Hyrule, beat the 6 different dungeons and power up the Picori Blade (more on this in a minute) so that you can defeat Vaati. The major twist this time is that the usual Master Sword is referred to as the Picori Blade in this game (told you I'd get to it). The reason for is that once upon a time, a race of tiny little people called the Picori came down from the sky, and fashioned a powerful sword for the hero of that time (also called Link) so he could banish the evil once again. Once every 100 (or is it 1000? I can't remember) years, the force field to the Picori Shrine weakens and their presence is felt once again. Now is that time.

Upon finding the Minish Cap, link is able to shrink himself down to their size and explore areas that were almost invisible to the eye before. You will find yourself surrounded by giant shoes, reeds, cats and all sorts of other everyday objects. It's a bit like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but without Rick Moranis (thank god!).

Another big twist this time around are the Kinstones. They're like little jigsaw pieces, and if you find someone with a matching half to yours, something good happens in the land. What this is varies greatly, and includes chests appearing, rare golden monsters, and new areas to explore. Most of the kinstone trading is entirely optional, but it's addictive stuff and adds quite a bit of replay value to the game.

Thirdly, Flagship have come up with some novel new items instead of just reusing the standard Hookshot and that sort of thing. The first one you get is the Gust Jar, which you can use to blow yourself across the water when standing on a lilypad, or you can suck a stretchy mushroom into the jar from a distance and use it to fling you across a gap. I won't spoil the other items as a lot of the fun is the in the surprise of exactly what you discover next.

Graphically, The Minish Cap is phenomenal. It's definitely much more detailed than A Link to the Past ever was, yet still captures a lot of the charm from that game. The best way to describe it would probably be to tell you to imagine the Wind Waker, but from an overhead perspective. There's some impressive sprite scaling effects when you face off against some of the bosses (such as a giant Chu Chu, or green slime). It's a showcase of what the GBA can do and it's just a shame that something this good took such a long time to appear. Hopefully, an all new Zelda won't take as long to appear on the DS (you hear me Nintendo? No ports!).

Aurally, pretty much every familiar tune from past Zelda games have reappeared, but sometimes slightly remixed. For example, you think the Hyrule Castle theme is going to be the one from A Link to the Past, but then it becomes something different. It's definitely some of the best music on the GBA alongside Final Fantasy I+II Dawn of Souls.

From a challenge point of view, TMC is a little underwhelming. The six dungeons are pretty easy to get through, but are nevertheless fun the whole time. Even though TMC is a fairly easy game, there's still a lot to keep you occupied if you choose to spend some time on the side games, kinstone trading and figurine collecting.

Ultimately, this is one of the best GBA games ever made, and keeps up the high standard that most of the Zelda games have lived up to (excepting the dire Phillips CD-I game of course). While all you DS owners are waiting for some more decent games to arrive, do yourself a favour and get The Minish Cap. It's Nintendo gaming at it's best and it's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

The Retro-Gaming score: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Nintendo DS First Impressions

I've had my Nintendo DS for just over two weeks now. At first I just had the console, and spent the first few days playing my GBA games on it. It makes games like Golden Sun and Racing Gears Advance look better than ever with its super sharp backlit screens (well, screens, but the GBA only uses one of them). The stereo speakers also made them sound better than ever.

Then Super Mario 64 DS arrived, and finally I could put the machine to a proper test. The first thing I did was try each of the 8 mini games that are initially unlocked. The touch screen in conjuction with the stylus is extemely accurate and easy to use, and the games are great fun. My early favourite was Wanted, but now I've unlocked more games I find Sort or Splode and Wario's pachinko games to be the best.

The main adventure mode was next, and it looks fantastic. Imagine and N64, but going through an RGB cable, with more detail and better effects. The controls took some getting used to, I really didn't like them at first, but after I swapped from thumb strap to stylus I find them to be better than the N64's analogue stick. The game itself has loads to do, from collecting all 100 stars to unlocking the other characters and mini games (by catching rabbits).

Yesterday, I received two more packages. One of them was Ridge Racer DS, and the other was a selection of accesories. I'm very impressed with the offical DS headphones by Hori - they look very nice, are extremely comfortable and sound great too, all for about £7 from Lik-Sang. I also received some spare sytli, a UK charger, some screen protectors and a carry case. The case is a bit cheaply made, with a poor zip, but it does the job.

As for Ridge Racer DS, it may not match up to Ridge Racers on the PSP (currently the best game on that system) but it's still good fun and the best choice if you're looking for a racing game for your new DS. The graphics haven't changed very much from the N64 version (it's a port of Ridge Racer 64) but they do run at 60 fps with no slow down now which makes a difference. The music is fantastic, and sounds great through my new headphones (really bassy dance stuff). Until something better comes along, Ridge Racer DS will tide me over quite nicely.

So now it's up to Nintendo to bring some more decent games out before the PSP is officially released in the US and Europe. If they don't, any early lead they may have built up will be wasted. How about updates (NOT ports) of Pilotwings, Starfox or the Mario RPG series on the DS? Nintendo, it's over to you.

The Best Games in the Word Ever, Part 3

It's been quite some time since I did one of these. Since around 2000, there has been one game that I keep being drawn back to, no matter how many times I've already completed it. Last week, I finished Shenmue for the fifth time, and yet I still enjoyed every minute of it and even discovered characters and conversations I had missed the first four times!

Right from the beginning, Shenmue amazes you with the amount of detail present within the world. The graphics may have aged a bit, but still impress considering their age and are actually better than many of the titles on today's consoles. After Ryo Hazuki witnesses his father's murder at the hands of Lan Di, he sets off on an epic journey to track down his father's killer, and if possible, slay him for what he has done to the Hazuki family. It's a classic revenge story, and I find there are quite a few similarities and messages to the Kill Bill films (but without all the Hanzo swords and bloodshed. There is a 80 man battle though!).

Piecing together the information that leads Ryo to Lan Di's trail is slow going (indeed, this game is only Chapter 1 of a planned 15 chapter story that still hasn't been concluded today, but don't let that put you off). You take control of Ryo's life in December of 1986, and everything he does from then on is up to you, including all the little things like spending spare time at the arcades while you wait for an appointment, etc. At times all the waiting can be a bit tiresome, and it's rather annoying that you can't go to sleep until 8pm rolls around. You also have to go back home before you can save the game. Thankfully Shenmue 2 fixes a lot of these flaws.

In the neighbourhood of Yokosuka, which includes Yamanose, Sakuragaoka, Dobuita and the Amihama harbour, you will meet a colourful range of characters, some with very strange accents indeed. The strangest of all has to be Tom, the local hot dog vendor. It's clear he's supposed to be Jamaican, but the voiceover work is so bad that you will detect some scottish and cockney mixed in there at times as well. It still makes me laugh every time I talk to him. What also makes me chuckle are the dubious conversations and quests you have to go on, such as crusing around the seedier side of town looking for sailors.

When you're not trying to find the next clue to further the story, you can collect capsule toys, play a game of darts, Space Harrier or Hang On, or practice your fighting moves. Every time you enter a fight (they're all scripted into the story, there's no random battles), the battle engine kicks in and it's almost as complex as Yu Suzuki's other famous series, Virtua Fighter. In fact, you won't need all these moves to get past the fights as their very easy, but it's nice to have a choice of ways to pound their faces in.

I've already mentioned how laughable the voiceovers can be at times (although some are actually pretty good), but the music is fantastic. I love the main theme that plays during the ending sequence and the credits, and who can forget the music that plays at the Tomato Convenience Store? A lot of the tracks feature traditional Japanese or Chinese instruments, and sound very exotic to the western ear. Definitely up there with the great gaming soundtracks of our times.

Depending on how quick you are to get on with the main story, Shenmue lasts in the region of 15-30 hours. You can spend days just wandering around, playing in the arcades if you wish, but you must have reached your goal before the end of March or Lan Di will reappear and finish you off. This is still a very generous time limit and most people will have finished way before that point, however.

So there you have it. Shenmue remains one of my favourites to this day and it's worth keeping hold of my Dreamcast so I can play it every so often. Is it worth getting a Dreamcast just to play it? I'm not so sure about that. You could just go straight to Shenmue 2 on the Xbox and watch Shenmue The Movie which tells you everything you need to know about the story so far. My hope is that one day Sega will finally conclude the series and I will get to see what happens to Ryo, whether he gets his revenge and how much this ultimately costs him. Shenmue was apparently the most expensive game ever made when it was released, so it would be a shame to waste all the resources that were created and leave the tale unfinished.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Review: Racing Gears Advance

Hi again. I decided the site needs more full length in depth reviews, so expect to see more like this soon. In the meantime, find out whether Racing Gears Advance is worth adding to your GBA collection...

I've always had a soft spot for overhead racing games in the mould of Micro Machines. Their history can be traced back to Atari's classic arcade machine Sprint, and it's two follow-ups Super Sprint and Championship Sprint. The actual gameplay was quite simple - there was an overhead view of a track and four cars raced to the finish. Three of them could be controlled by a human player, which was great fun and led to many hours being spent in intense competition down the arcades.

Later, Codemasters had a genius idea. They would create a new game based on the little toy cars that come in collections of five - Micro Machines. They were a great success on the 8-bit and 16-bit consoles such as the NES, Mega Drive and SNES. The Mega Drive version was of particular note because Codemasters actually built two extra controller ports into the cartridge, therefore avoiding the need of a multitap and making 4 player gaming accessible to the masses. Later on they updated the series on the PlayStation in the form of Micro Machines 3D, before making a spin-off game called Micro Maniacs which did away with the cars altogether and just had little freaky people running around the house.

At about the same time, Supersonic, who made the original MM game on the Mega Drive, set about making their own rival games. These started with Supersonic Racers, a valiant but flawed effort, and then Circuit Breakers, which gave Codemasters a run for their money in the gameplay stakes but unfortunately never sold as many copies as it deserved. Most recently, Supersonic made the awesome Mashed, and thanks to word of mouth and a budget price tag, it's been very successful so far. The physics are spot on, and when combined with the weaponry they can lead to hilarious duels to death.

There have been plenty of also-rans in the genre too, like the latest version of Micro Machines developed by Infogrames, which just felt totally wrong to play, and Karnaj Rally on the Game Boy Advance, which actually played quite well but struggled to sell once again because it didn't have a popular license attached to it.

That brings me finally to the subject of this review, Racing Gears Advance. I first saw a preview of this game about half a year ago, and I could tell just from the few screenshots that it had the potential to be amazing. The months rolled on, and still there was no sign of the game. I forgot about it for a while, but then Nintendo Official Magazine reviewed it and gave it a very respectable score (86%, I think it was). At last, it was released just before Christmas, but I had to buy my copy online (Gamestation knew nothing about it). So was it worth all the waiting? Yes. Yes it was.

The first time you pick up and play the game, it's obvious that everything just feels right. The handling is superb - if you take your thumb of the accelerator as you turn into a corner and then quickly slam it back on again, you can powerslide all the way around the bend. This is guaranteed to bring a big smile to your face. When your car is obscured by bits of scenery, be it trees, overhanging buildings or whatever, an arrow appears showing you which direction your car is facing. Simple, but extremely effective. What's more the game features 25 tracks, 12 drivers (all in licensed cars like the Lotus Elise or Dodge Viper), and also includes a range of weapons and car upgrades which add much more depth and longetivity to the game.

A typical cup goes like this - you'll probably get beaten the first time through, but you'll begin to learn the tracks, earn some cash and spot some shortcuts. You buy some better tires, maybe a bigger engine and some weapons, and try again. This time you nail it, and upgrade again before the next cup begins. This pattern continues until you beat the final cup, and then you unlock the custom cup where you can race any combination of tracks just for fun or maybe to finish upgrading your car. Progress is only saved for the character you chose, so you could go back and play the game a further 11 times. Each character has one unique ability, such as stealing money from other racers if their car hits yours, or getting a turbo boost when shot with a weapon.

During the later cups, the game can get a little bit frustrating when all of the CPU controlled opposition decide to ram you/shoot you/zap you with a energy draining weapon, but you can always try again and the addition of Engine, Turbo, Armor, Brake, Weapon and Tire upgrades help you level the playing field. Weapons include standard Nitros, Oil Spills, Missiles, Heat Seekers, Mines, Energy Zappers and Cloaking Devices, and add a bit of strategy to the races. I mostly just stuck with the Nitros and they saw me through, but you could play the game much more aggressively should you wish. Before each race there's even a little reaction based mini game where you have to press the accelerator as soon as possible after the light turns green, which decides on your starting position.

That's the gameplay, now the aesthetics. The graphics are extremely pretty, some of the best on the GBA. Rather than trying (and failing) to produce 3D graphics like PlayStation release, Orbital Media have gone for a sort of isometric, not-quite top down angle, with your little car centre of the the screen. There's always plenty of room to see where you're going (which is another area where these games sometimes fail) and the sensation of speed is very convincing. The speed increases noticeably with each engine upgrade, but as long as you buy the best tires you shouldn't have any trouble making it around the corners. The only gripe that I have about the presentation is the number of menus and the amount of button presses it takes to get through them all before you start a race. It can take quite a few presses to repair any damage from the last race, upgrade your car, switch tires and then finally start the race.

Now the music and sound. The sound effects are nothing amazing, but the music is really good for a GBA cart. It's very funky, and features voice samples and some good drum beats. One tune called 1985 sounds (deliberately) like something a C64 would've produced.

Finally the game also has a multiplayer link-up mode, but not having played it, I can't comment on how good it is. It does sound potentially awesome though.

So there you go. I got my copy of Racing Gears Advance from for £17.99 and at that price it's a bargain. If you have a GBA, SP or DS (it looks fantastic on the new handheld by the way) then you should search out a copy and buy it.

The RetroGaming Score: 8 out 10

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Hidden Gems 2005 Volume 1

Yes! I'm back and Hiddens Gems is back, and for the first entry of the New Year I've chose a game that is more retro than usual (if you can actually call it a game).

It is Little Computer People on the Commodore 64 (I believe it may have been on the Spectrum and Amstrad as well, but this is the version I played so many years ago. Basically, when the game loaded up you were faced with the profile view of a house, with all the usual rooms and furniture that you'd expect. After a while, the front door would open and a little man would walk in, along with his pet dog.

From that point on, it was up to you, the "owner" of this LCP, to take care of his wellbeing and make sure he is happy. You don't have direct control over him, instead you type in commands and if he feels like it (or indeed understands you) he will carry them out. Sometimes he will just stand there and shake his fist indignantly at the screen if he doesn't approve of what you ask him to do.

Activities included feeding the dog, brushing his teeth (the man, not the dog), going to the toilet, playing the piano, playing some records (and dancing, badly), writing a letter (to the player of the game) and many more. Even though this little chap is merely a collection of code in a computer, you really start to care of him. Those with a mean streak could think up ways of separating him from his food though, and eventually he would become ill, turn blue and possibly even die.

So is it a game or not? Hard to say really, but one thing's for sure, it certainly is a whole lot of fun. Also, I'm not sure whether this game had a direct influence on EA's The Sims, but you can't help but notice the similarities.

The ROM of the game can be downloaded from along with a C64 emulator if you wish to experience the game for yourself. It's a charming little "game" that was way ahead of it's time.