Vextor

Vextor (iOS/Android) is, easily, the best mobile arena shooter I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

I realise that many folk will read this and think “well, that’s quite a low bar” and you know, I think that’s fair. It’s not a genre that’s immediately well suited to touch controls.

Yak’s iOS take, Minotron, was as good as things got prior to Vextor. Minotron was very good indeed, there’s just the small problem of it no longer being available. There’s other nearly there games, the wonderfully titled Pewpew 2 got close, Geometry Wars 3 was rather let down by being a mobile port of the not-great Geometry Wars 3 but at least controlled okay. And there’s probably a couple more out there that I can’t recall right now. It’s been a while. Oh yeah, the Radian Games stuff – that was, is, pretty good.

Vextor though? Vextor is fantastic. It looks great and it plays great. I kinda wish it had existed sooner but I’m a patient person. Sometimes. Ok. Not often. But I’m sure I could be if I wanted to be.

Visually it owes a clear debt to Geometry Wars with its neon shapes and deformable grid, also to the absolutely wonderful Bezier (which nowhere near enough people have played – please fix that). It’s a lovely combination of two of my favourite arena shooters and, bonus, it has space fish. This is important. Please put a fish in your game.

Interestingly, Vextor plays differently depending on whether you play it in portrait or landscape mode. In landscape, it’s a traditional and familiar twin stick shooter. In portrait, it’s a mobile Neon Wars. (Although both Vextor and Neon Wars arrived at a similar junction independently, I’m glad it gives me a chance to mention a great and forgotten game).

I know most people have never even heard of Neon Wars, let alone played it. It was an attempt at making Geometry Wars work for a wider audience. Mainly, this meant that instead of having to manage with controlling two sticks, the player would only have to occupy themselves with the movement. Instead of the second stick to control shooting, the game settled on a system where you just had to be in the right place and the game would handle firing for you. It worked way better than it sounds on paper and coincidentally, provides the perfect controls for a one handed touch screen game.

So that’s Vextor, then.

It only took ten years or something but it’s really nice to see the Neon Wars control scheme made to work for a second time and more to the point, to finally be able to have a mobile arena shooter that Just Works(TM).

Vextor is fabulous stuff and I’m so glad it exists. Please do consider giving it a try.

R-Coil

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.

Earth Defence Force 4.1

If you were to ask me, most days, what my two favourite things were I’d most likely choose spaceships and robots. So, y’know, it’s probably fortunate that I play videogames because if ever there was somewhere with a surplus of spaceships and robots, that’s videogames.

Earth Defence Force is a game that makes up probably around 92% of robots and spaceships in videogames in each of its incarnations. (Well, except Insect Armageddon but that’s a bit like Doctor Who:The Movie or something like that – we don’t speak of it in polite company. Or impolite company for that matter. Woe is the person who speaks of it, basically).

It also manages to cram in more robots and spaceships than any other game anywhere. Each console generation that Earth Defence Force has seen a leap to seems to have worked on the principle of ‘how many more robots and spaceships can we fit on the screen at once?’ – in the latest incarnation I put the count somewhere in the region of ‘holy shit, that’s a lot of robots and spaceships’

Seriously, within a few missions you’re presented with a field swarming with spaceships and it’s the sort of swarming with spaceships you don’t see in any other game. Like, the screen is full of spaceships.

And you have to shoot them all.

And the robots when you’re faced with the robots.

And the ants the size of houses.

And the spiders the size of houses.

And the spiders the size of skyscrapers.

And the really big spaceships that hover overhead dropping tens of smaller spaceships at a time.

And and and the other stuff that’s also big and robotic, you know – dinosaurs and dragons. Yeah.

Look, Earth Defence Force is a game where you shoot everything. Including the skyscrapers which crumble to the ground with a most satisfying thud.

Without a doubt Earth Defence Force is the single most stupid, the single most ridiculous, the single most absurd series of videogames I’ve ever played.

I adore them. I adore them to bits.

I adore them because everything explodes.

As you progress through the stages and the game throws more and more stuff at you, more and more combinations of spaceships, giant ants, bouncing spiders, enormous killer robots and whatever else, you’re lucky if you can see *anything* on the screen. It’s a game that finds its joy in absolute wanton destruction of everything. It’s a game where you aren’t knee-deep in the dead, the dead have buried you under a pile of more dead and you still come out shooting things until you’ve reduced everything to roughly knee height, if that.

One of my favourite things is finding myself so absorbed in shooting the huge amounts of things in front of me, I turn around to find even more things to be wiped out which somehow I hadn’t noticed. In so many other games I’d sigh as so many games are bullshit – in EDF, it’s someone stacking up the shooting gallery again because you’ve won a free turn and a rubber ducky. Except you probably have to shoot the duck now. Look, this got away from me.

There’s a stage fairly early on in 4.1 where enormous robots are clattering out of the sea and heading inland. It’s one of my favourite set pieces in the Earth Defence Force series. Looking out so far into the distance and seeing this line of enormous robots heading towards you, tanks storming across the beach, your soldiers and the public yelling constantly. It’s beautiful in a way only videogames can be.

And so, you wipe out this row of robots and look out to sea and there they are, an even bigger row of robots. It should by rights be a “fucks sake” moment in the game but instead I find myself near giddy with excitement, knowing the size of the explosions, the chaos and the carnage this will unleash as they head up onto the shore.

4.1 isn’t the first time this setpiece has been used but the amount of stuff the game pushes round now, it works so so much better than at any time before.

It helps a lot that it’s a game that lets you balance your own skills – whilst it withholds the more OTT weapons for more difficult to play with classes (Flying people! Beefy armoured soldiers!) and higher difficulty levels, it’s happy enough to arm you to the teeth on easy and let you enjoy the fireworks. Whatever, it wants you to enjoy its show.

It’s a show that hangs together by a thread too. There isn’t a moment where it doesn’t feel like it’s all going to fall apart, it is the videogame as Spinal Tap and everything is up to eleven except the eleven is the amount of giant robots standing in front of you. There’s another sixteen or so behind you, hiding behind some huge jumping spiders.

It’s one of my favourite videogames, perhaps because it’s the most videogame videogame series ever made.

It is dumb. It really, genuinely, is a game where you mainly just shoot ants with a side order of robots and spaceships. That’s why I love it though. Why I’ll always love it.

Because the ants and spaceships and robots fucking well explode everywhere and there’s lots of them.

It’s great.

Loot Rascals

I’m not the greatest fan of games where you have to rummage through cards to make the best hand you can so I was quite surprised to find myself enjoying Loot Rascals a great deal.

It helps, in no small part, that I adore its ability to front itself as a videogame through the eyes of a child. It may well have (and does, to be fair) a very keen eye for elegant mechanical design that comes with a certain expertise and grown up knowledge, this much is true, but it’s shot through with the kind of joy and wonder that we normally steal away as for children only.

It seems very much a game that’s borne of a sort of Very British Adventure Time. If someone were to tap me on the shoulder and point out it was built from one of the (largely quite wonderful) stories in the Adventure Time comics, I would not be surprised. There’s that same glee and acceptance of childlike things as stuff that maybe, as an adult, you don’t need to put behind you. That it is absolutely still OK to laugh about something being called ‘Big Barry’ because, y’know, it is. It so very much is.

I can’t and don’t care to make any mechanical comparisons to other card games, deck builders or whatever. I’ve bounced off plenty with them often feeling arduous or steeped in layers of obscurity and nerd-dom that I don’t care to scratch at. I only really care that Loot Rascals is the sort of game I end up playing because I spent time thinking about it. Not thinking about the cards or the strategy or whatever, I think about playing it because it’s a joy to play.

It looks good. It makes me smile. I enjoy my time with it. It has robots and I’m very big on robots right now. That’s all I need.

Partially, I enjoy my time with it precisely because Loot Rascals is a game built around making your time with it as pleasant as possible. I would, in some ways, describe it as the perfect Popcap game – you know, before Popcap became whatever they are these days under EA. It’s light, it’s breezy, it explains itself in a fun and accessible way. It’s a friendly game and full of things I find so sorely missing all too often. Sometimes I don’t want a slick techno UI and a thousand graphics settings, sometimes I just want a computer game to be nice to me. This is something that once upon a time, Popcap excelled at. It’s nice to see someone else run with games as a kindness to the player. It’s nice to feel like someone wants me to play, doubly so when so many works seek to exploit me either financially or at the expense of my time.

And of course, in true Popcap-as-was style, its gentle nature hides a mountain of smart, considered design decisions. It’s sort of the act of beautifying surface stuff like menus, button presses and so many other things in a certain way so that it ultimately obscures the sheer amount of craft that goes into building a thing like this. It exists, fully formed, as a videogame that hides its mechanical nature, where you only see the beauty and parts of a game the designers want you to see.

You might have guessed that I like it, anyway. I’m not for a single second suggesting that Loot Rascals is the only game that follows this sort of route either, it just excels at it, y’know?

I realise at this point that I’ve barely touched on what the game itself is. It is a game where you walk across a map that’s different each time fighting monsters by trying to build the best hand from the cards you’re dealt. Along the way, the player is able to grab cards deposited by defeated monsters, find special cards tucked away on the map often surrounded by monsters a tad more difficult to defeat. In the tradition of roguelikes, the player is also tasked with progressing to the next stage of the map so there is always a goal.

There is a day and night cycle where battling during day may prove easier than battling at night, your cards being split between attack and defence mean likewise, the player may become an easier target at certain times too. As far as I’ve played it feels gloriously balanced, it doesn’t take long before I found myself running into fight after fight, traps, dangers and well, some weird things that land after a certain amount of turns has passed. Whatever they are. I’ve seen them. They’re not nice.

And maybe that doesn’t make for a good sell to folks who are neck deep in card shuffling games, I’m not equipped to make any sort of comparison to others anyway. So perhaps it may be the case that Loot Rascals is a game for people who have shied away from wanting to build the best deck of cards to fight a monster when a laser sword and a punch would normally suffice. Maybe it is that.

I hope not though. I hope it gets to be something more than that because it’s quite a special little game that deserves to be played as much as the game wants you to enjoy spending your time with it. Which is to say, a lot.

The Last Screen

The first screen is The Factory Gates. It’s 8:30am at The Chip Factory. Time to get to work.

One of the first, and most difficult, games to really hook me was Hewson’s Technician Ted. A platformer that, like many games of its time, clearly owed more than a passing debt to Jet Set Willy. Just y’know, harder.

When I think of Technician Ted, I think mainly of two things. Firstly, Thursday nights where my dad’s friend would come round and we’d sit there, load Tech Ted up and play it together for hours on end. Through practice, we’d both gotten quite adept at the game and were able to help each other move from room to room and task to task. The game required you to complete 27 of these tasks before 5:30pm. Whilst the tasks themselves were a matter of hitting two objects in order, actually doing that was quite a problem because…

Secondly, Technician Ted was a tremendously hard game even by the standards of the time. Part of the reason myself and my dad’s friend played it for so long was entirely because it was so bastard hard. The rooms were fiendish in their design, requiring a sort of knowledge of animation frames usually only reserved for fighting games in these modern times. How many frames to leap a gap, what position an enemy should be in, what animation frame the enemy should be on. It was, and still is, a tremendously brutal game.

And unfair.

Whilst a great deal of the game is learnable with ease, the task order is never explained. After the first few tasks you’re left to have a look around to find the next one to complete. Amd just getting round is also bastard hard. To compensate the game does provide you with a lot of chances to avoid a game over situation.

Unfortunately, some tasks drain your chances if you’re not fast enough. It’s a game of constant, never-ending pressure and pixel perfect platforming skills. Nowadays, I’d barely have time for it and my tastes have moved on somewhat. In 1985, it was one of the best things I’d played.

It was, shut your face, the Dark Souls of platformers before anyone had even thought of making Dark Souls exist. Not that it’d work out so hot on a 48k Spectrum anyway but hush.

But y’know, plenty of games were hard and unfair in 1985. It’s hardly the most prestigious badge of honour to award a game and hardly the most interesting talking point though Technician Ted was a monstrous bastard variant of hard.

I never finished Technician Ted at the time. I’m not even sure it’s possible without some sort of absurd superhuman ability that I don’t possess. So I’d never really saw the last few screens.

Ok, that’s not entirely true because I’d have seen them in Crash magazine or wherever, despite us hand mapping the game as we went along I’d read magazines cover to cover, pore over maps, tips and just about everything printed about games. Just I’d never clocked them, understood them though. Never realised.

You see, Technician Ted is a game where you turn up for work and have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. Only your mate will tell you some of what to do but even he doesn’t really know where everything is. Which is odd, right? You’d think someone would know something.

The end of Technician Ted, you have to leave the factory after clocking off. So once again, make your way to the factory gates. This time, however, you’re heading in the other direction, out of the gates then on to collect your pay.

So you walk out through the picket line to the last screen stepping underneath a union’s flag as you do.

To get paid outside the factory gates by a man waving cash around.

No wonder nobody will tell you anything. No wonder nobody knows where things are or what to do. You’re a strikebreaker, a scab.

120 quid. Cash in hand. For a days work. Not bad for 1986, if you can live with your conscience.

No wonder Ted could afford a holiday in Spain for his next outing.

No Man’s Sky

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No Man’s Sky is pretty much the game I expected it to be, pretty much mainly the game I wanted it to be.

Obviously, I’m fairly happy with this. Fairly happy with it to the tune of around 12 hours or something so far across two days. That’s pretty happy, I think.

I knew, when going in, it’d be a game that had kinks. Not just because it’s a small team job, although obviously that is a factor. No, because I’ve not played an open world game yet that doesn’t have some really strange quirks. No Man’s Sky is unsurprisingly no different there.

If you were to ask me what No Man’s Sky is as a game, I’d say it’s most of my favourite things about Just Cause 2 transplanted into an almost endless series of backdrops. Most of, not all. There’s no boats (yet?) in No Man’s Sky. The thing with Just Cause 2 for me was I very, very quickly found there wasn’t really that much of a mechanically interesting game there, all told it was a fairly limited and fairly rudimentary handful of things to do. It took next to no time to get bored of clearing out the fortresses and what have you yet I still racked up a few hundred hours on it.

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Why, if the game as game wasn’t really all that did I do that? And the answer is, I just really like looking around and climbing hills in videogames. I first discovered my love for it in Codemaster’s slightly wonky Fuel. There was, again, a game that’s gamey bits were a bit more empty, a bit tattier than they needed to be. Yet hundreds of hours racked up in it because of hills. I’d clamber up a hill, watch the sunset, find a way down. Zip through the forest then find another hill to climb.

Just Cause 2 had a lot of really nice hills. No Man’s Sky is just all about the hills. And caves. And space. And what a space it is. I realise that it’s probably a generational thing here but No Man’s Sky is, so much, Old Man’s Sky. It’s the covers of books I grew up reading, it’s a prog rock album cover become game. It is a chance to exist in a future I believed in that never came. I feel like I owe an apology to everyone who has to endure my Steam activity right now as I upload screenshot after screenshot of this game because it is, and I’ve maintained this from the first trailer on, a videogame I always wanted to exist. I’ve never been so fussy as to what the game itself would be as long as it made that sci-fi dreamscape real.

As long as it looked like this.

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It’s about 30 years late by my clock but I’ll take it. I’ll take every landscape that looks like it’s fallen out of a lost Roger Dean poster, every Monolith, every Trumbullian space travel effect, every Chris Foss spaceship. I’ll take all that. I’ll walk those hills, I’ll fly through that space. I can barely believe it exists. It feels, more than any game I’ve played in years, like it’s held together by magic and dreams. This is what I crave from games, always.

I know, heart of hearts, that the game is a rudimentary open world game that’s Capital I Indie sized. I make games, I can see the seams. I know, because I don’t know how you couldn’t know, that the inventory slot system doesn’t really make much design sense and just about serves to nudge you to do what the game wants you to do. I know it’s a game that’s now up against literal megagames where it’s all the content, all the things to do. It exists in a world where the open world has been filled with a thousand minigames and missions, it exists in the same world where Destiny has put all the FPS into one FPS. And here’s this game where you walk up hills and do a bit of trading or something. You look around, you climb the hills until you’re bored of the hills and then you get into a spaceship and find more hills. It is, whether by design or limitation, a game that’s simultaneously the future and the past of videogames.

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It makes so much more sense as a game that picks up from where we left off 25-30 years ago than it does a game in the now. It is the game Elite never strived to be, it’s the sort of videogame world as Paul Woakes dream, more a Mike Singleton dream than a modern dream. It’s a gap filled.

But it’s only now, really, that the gap could be filled and look like this. So achingly beautiful, so able to bring those book covers, those album sleeves, those posters and imaginary worlds to life.

No Man’s Sky is not without its flaws, without its wonky decisions here and there. I don’t care though, not that much anyway. I just want to be here, amongst the space dinosaurs. I want to be where the islands hang in the sky, where the storms are radioactive, where the space freighters burst into view, where space travel feels like opening up a wound into the heart of all time and space, pushing inside it to taste infinity.

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I know some people might crave more, more game, more mechanical stuff, more things. I understand that. I appreciate that. But I just got a glimpse of a future game I always hoped would exist. I want to climb more hills, look for more space dinosaurs, explore ruins of a lost civilization and fly into space to find more.

It might not be enough for you but it’s everything for me.