I’m the first to admit that I tend to gravitate towards the flashier end of the arena shooters spectrum. I am, if nothing else, forever in awe of games that flash lights at you.

I know, I know, I’m an easy sell. A few neon glow effects and I’m suckered. In my defence though, I’m still a big fan of games that aren’t all that, even if (in my not so humble opinion) they could be. Like, erm, R-Coil for example.

It’s not that R-Coil doesn’t have it’s fair share of glowiness, it absolutely does, it’s just most definitely more restrained than most. It’s more Vectrex than Geometry Wars. And this is fine. Absolutely totally fine. I happen to like the Vectrex a fair bit. More than a fair bit, even.

Which is lucky because R-Coil eschews a lot of the more modern conceits we’ve come to associate with the arena shooters genre and not only looks like a Vectrex game but plays a great deal like one too. Albeit, a Vectrex game written by an absolute monster.

You see, whilst looking and feeling like an early eighties vector game, R-Coil is also an incredibly mean game. That’s a compliment, by the way. I happen to like my videogames mean sometimes.

The trick R-Coil is based around is one where your firing and your momentum are tied to the same buttons. There’s some stuff about your ship being broken blah blah blah but the essence of the game is that if you want to move, you’re going to have to be firing your guns to do so. But also, firing your guns is going to have some serious recoil. Hence, umm, R-Coil. Luckily, holding down the fire button will shunt you forward at speed giving you some control over your forwards momentum. Some.

As a result of this slightly brutal movement mechanism, R-Coil is a much more sedate game than most recent arena shooters aspire to be. Where the Geometry Wars formula is one where the screen is often filled with enemies, if not racing towards you then spawning around you, R-Coil plops just a handful on screen at a time. It’s a game that deliberately derives its difficulty from its controls and needs to give you more space than most else you’d be done for in seconds.

It’s masterable. Honest, it is. I’m not going to pretend it won’t take a fair few goes just to last more than however many seconds but it’s perfectly possible to hit a rhythm with it, to settle in to knowing how firing will effect your whereabouts on the screen, to know when it’ll push you away or towards danger. To know when to tap the fire button and when to hold to propel yourself forwards.

Once I’d found that rhythm myself, I began to really enjoy my time with the game. Sure, I would still die often (often at the hands of the same enemy, at that) but I didn’t care because *grits teeth* I was going to score higher very soon no matter what and there was nothing the game could do to stop me.

Well, except kill me again, of course. Which it did do. Frequently. But aside from that.

R-Coil is the sort of small, simple, game that I can pump a silly amount of time into. It’s a few quid on Steam and well worth a look. Oh, and it also has a nice accessibility mode where it removes lives and just lets you play, you know, in case you find the steep difficulty a bit much.

Shadow Of The Beast

I’ve never been the greatest fan of Shadow Of The Beast in its earliest incarnations.

The box art, the fantasy art inspired graphics and that scrolling definitely made for a heady mix on release. It was a mix that, for me anyway, the games could never hope to match and indeed, didn’t. Try as I might, there was little in the way of joy I could squeeze out of them. At their best they felt so much like faintly average platform games in a fancy coat and each iteration appeared to do little to change my opinions.

Yet, despite this, if you asked me to pin down what Shadow Of The Beast was, is, or should be, I would find myself pausing, not entirely sure of myself. It’s a videogame that exists in an almost liminal space, a hazy moment of nostalgia, a work of visual art in the transition from 8 to 16 bit, of a moment when the bedroom coder would be giving way to studios and brands and the videogame industry itself would never be the same again. That’s what Shadow Of The Beast is, something more than a videogame. It’s a point in time.

It helps, I’m sure, that the videogame part is so skeletal. There are a thousand ways to expand on it, a thousand different directions you can explore. My problem with it has always been that because it is so much less a videogame and more a moment, I’ve never found myself interested in anyone revisiting it. When a reboot was announced for the PS4, my first reaction was little more than “Why?” and a shrug.

With each trailer, all so focused on the combat system present in the new game, that why became overwhelming. Whatever Shadow Of The Beast is, it is not this, I thought.

And so I very nearly passed on the rebooted game entirely. In these times of videogame abundance it’s never been easier to pass on something. I understood that the team behind the reboot weren’t just doing this on a whim but still I thought “what use is Shadow Of The Beast in 2016? The moment for it has long gone.” and put it out of my mind.

This is, I’ll admit, hugely unfair. There are a great many fans of the videogame out there and not everything has to be for me, it’s perfectly okay for it to be made for them, whoever they may be. For me, Shadow Of The Beast’s time was on the Amiga and the Amiga is long dead.

I’m not sure what made me give the new version a punt now. Boredom, maybe? Out of all the videogames I could have been playing on the PS4, I guess there was still this curiosity around the game there. Like, how do you make a playable game out of Shadow Of The Beast? Can you even make a half decent game of Shadow Of The Beast?

I went in with low expectations, 30 years having done little to dim my memories of trying to get to grips with playing the original.

The thing is, it’s not half bad. It’s rough around the edges, it’s clearly overambitious, it’s slightly broken at times. These are pretty much all the qualities I admire in a videogame, you know? But what really took me by surprise was how, yes, this felt like it could be, should be, Shadow Of The Beast. That was not a feeling I was expecting to walk away with at all.

It is at its heart a slightly daft combo based scrapper game, tackle a bunch of enemies and try and come out with the highest score from each assault. It’s a game about punching things, mainly. Just, you know, it looks like a modern Shadow Of The Beast. It feels nice to play. It has the right sort of slightly strange Roger Dean painting come alive vibe that makes it slot neatly into the box labelled “Shadow Of The Beast”.

It is amply mysterious, slightly off kilter and sinister. There are moments of frustration as it’s clear that ambition beat resources at times – the tutorial is very full on, the bosses are, well, very videogame bosses but there’s something about it, something I can’t quite put my finger on that just works and it works in a way that, in my not so humble opinion, earns the right to the name Shadow Of The Beast. That’s more than enough, you know?

There’s a moment on the first stage where the camera pulls back as you climb this hill towards a very Roger Dean fortress. You remain in control the entire time, the beast becoming smaller as it climbs into the distance. Seconds later, it jolts you into a battle with some hooded folk but for that brief moment I could see where the game is reaching toward. That thing where no matter how scrappy the videogame turned out to be, you can see the thought and the consideration. How the game wanted me to feel bled through to reality and it just worked. The world felt so large, so overwhelming and I was only a tiny, inexplicable, part of it.

It was the vibe I would get from staring for far too long at the box art, that vibe of somewhere quite strange, of inexplicable structures, of mysterious forests and of course, of beasts.

It took just a moment to sell me on the game because sometimes, it’s the smallest things that endear me to something. Sometimes that’s just a small moment of the sublime in a scrappy videogame. Sometimes that’s so much more than enough. I know I’m easily pleased but I’ve enjoyed my time with the game. It might seem like small praise but it just feels right, like Shadow Of The Beast has finally found its videogame. And I dunno, I’m not sure I could ask for anything more from Shadow Of The Beast in 2018.

No Man’s Sky: A Year On

I’ve played No Man’s Sky pretty much every day since its release. This is, for me anyway, something rather exceptional.

It’s not the first game to get it’s hooks into me in such a manner but it’s definitely the first single player game that I’ve spent this much time in.

Essentially, I wasn’t kidding when I said that this was a videogame I always longed to exist. Now it’s here, now I’m *there*, out there, I’m quite content.

My relationship with the game has certainly not been a smooth one – for two whole major updates (that’s about six months, give or take) I let the game itself take a backseat.

It became too difficult to progress in, less a meander and more like work. I knew it wouldn’t be a permanent situation as I make games, the machinery of getting a thing you’ve created to where you want it to be has its ups and downs, I know this.

Here was a game that felt like it was moving forward, improving, just that’s never straightforward for the simplest of games. For a game with as many masters to please as No Man’s Sky would have, I can scarcely begin to imagine how difficult balancing the bloody thing would be.

Sure, there’s always that slight nagging feeling with any videogame that’s under constant (re)development that it may drift away. At 400 or so hours sunk in prior to the first major update, I’d have been content to walk away regardless and I’d have been happy with that.

I’d managed to accumulate a huge stash of screenshots and so at some point I figured I’d make use of them. Initially for my own amusement and to ease the load on my main Twitter feed a tad, I set up a Twitter account to post pictures from the game there – this way folks who might want to see them could and those that cared little wouldn’t have so many clogging up their feeds.

(It also helped with a rule I’d set myself whilst between updates – never leave a planet without at least three pictures I was content with).

Anyway, that got a little out of hand and now I spend an hour or so a day retweeting pictures other folks have taken from the game as well as posting my own. It maybe sounds absurd but that account is the best thing I’ve done for myself on the internet in a long time.

I get a real enjoyment from an account that is nothing but things I enjoy seeing. It’s nice and these days I figure I need all the nice I can get.

So here we are a year on or so from the game’s launch and I’m back playing it again as enthused as I was when the game first dropped. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it feels fresh now, it is very much still the No Man’s Sky I fell in love with first time, I would however say that it feels a heck of a lot more whole now. And so much more beautiful. So very much more beautiful.

Sure, it’s not without its flaws. The first fifteen minutes to an hour (depending on how long it takes you to fix your ship up at the start) are achingly bad, it still sometimes feels like there’s holes where things should be and I would definitely argue it hasn’t found itself with anywhere near the amount of props it needs to really shine. Just once again, it feels held together by magic, not crushing grind and fetch quests.

Even though, you know, the game is sort of a series of fetch quests. There is that, definitely.

But I enjoy the rhythm of the game again. I won’t call it a loop because it’s more an amble. I’m tootling across planets, rummaging around for stuff of no real consequence to me, I’m scanning and naming planets because leaving a small piece of me in this universe is very much the whole point as far as I’m concerned. It’s important that nothing out there matters, that I am just somewhere, that this is a place I can be.

I know plenty of folk who find this in maybe World Of Warcraft or Destiny or Minecraft or somewhere. I figure if you’re patient and willing to wait long enough, maybe videogames will eventually turn up a world you’re happy to get lost in, yeah?

Of course it stands in stark contrast to my life these days. I have pain that exists with me all hours of the day, I have duties to look after other people and if I’m honest, I’m rarely happier than when doing small things to make days brighter and easier for folks.

The past twelve months have been a hell of a rollercoaster ride and with so much still to deal with, the near future is looking quite busy too. And yeah, maybe now more than ever, with my daily life and what’s happening in that big old world outside, I no longer just want, I need the escape that No Man’s Sky provides me.

It helps, also, that it’s a game that works around my life. I can put the controller down and go and wrangle the kids from whatever mischief they’ve found themselves in- remove a water pistol from someone’s nose or whatever. I can put things to one side and go and tend to whatever whoever needs at any one time, come back and everything is still fine.

(Well, unless my PS4 does that thing where it decides I’ve left it alone and switches itself off just to annoy me. That happens a fair bit if I’m honest).

No Man’s Sky is a game that becomes background noise.

It is, I suppose, a true ambient videogame. It exists in spaces most other videogames have no interest in occupying, demanding as they so often do your full and complete attention. It is a game that I listen to podcasts to, queue up playlists to listen to whilst exploring, a game that I abandon to go and serve tea.

In so many ways it is nothing and everything. None of this stuff is especially unique to No Man’s Sky but few embrace it quite so wholeheartedly and more to the point, in a way that’s so very to my taste.

It is calm in times that are so far from calm. It is respite. It is the videogame as escapism that I never considered would exist, having long given up that particular dream to a hobby fixated with anything but pastoral, meandering, ambient vibes.

It’s perhaps fitting that the first time I felt the videogame as world, oh so many decades ago now, it was due to the work of Sandy White in making the city of Antescher exist in 48k. Now, it’s with No Man’s Sky – a game Sandy White lent his enormous talents to.

And like with 3d Ant Attack, No Man’s Sky feels like it’s opened up the doors to some more, pleasing, possible futures in games. Whether that be from what folks perceive as the game getting wrong or from its exquisite use of procedural generation that whilst nothing new, is certainly something at this sort of scale.

That’ll always be the best kind of game for me. The sort that seems to offer a smaller sly wink to one of our many futures. I’m glad that all these years on, games have this effect on me still too.

Long may it continue.