Category: Uncategorized

Shopping for Games: 1985 – 2000

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For those of us old enough to remember, shopping has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Some of the experience is still the same, but gone are the Wednesday’s of half-day closing, nearly everywhere is open on a Sunday (albeit at slightly reduced hours), and shops can stay open as late as 8pm during the week, all to satisfy our diverse lifestyles and thirst for consumer goods.

One area of retailing that has changed significantly since the mid-1980s is the experience of purchasing the humble video game. I recall, as a kid, being able to pick up a new Spectrum game almost anywhere, even my local newspaper shop could supply me the latest Joe Blade game for £2.99 or the newest shovel-wear to escape out of Codemasters. Oh yes, I didn’t need to scroll down the information super-highway, oh no, long before the mass accessibility to the internet, it was a stroll down the local high-street to get my gaming fix. WH Smith and Boots were brilliant for games in those days, and my town even had a very good independent just outside the town centre – Software City.

Software City was a goldmine. Not only did they stock all the latest releases at prices competitive with the major chains, but they also had some of the less recent titles at really good prices. I regularly walked up to their shop from Sainsbury’s car park whilst my mum did the weekly shop, and more often than not walked away with a purchase. I’ll always remember going in with my mate and seeing Ocean Software’s The Biz compilation (R-Type, Double Dragon, Operation Wolf and Batman: The Caped Crusader) on the shelf for a mere £4.99… it was supposed to retail for £14.99! Software City was a mecca to me for a good few years, right through until about 1992/’93 when more and more retailers were jumping on to the home console boom as gamers switched to Mega Drive’s and Super Nintendo’s and ditched the Amiga and Atari ST as gaming formats. Today, Software City is no more, their presence long since replaced by a hair salon. How the times have changed…

Whilst 8-Bit computer titles were an easy score twenty five years ago, console games were not. In the late 1980s video game consoles were very expensive compared to the popular Commodore, Amstrad, Atari and Sinclair home computers, and nowhere near as popular.

In the Christmas of 1988 I was very fortunate to receive a Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe pack (the one with R.O.B the robot),  to which I was delighted, and played it constantly over the Christmas holidays much to the annoyance of my parents. However, two factors that did not particularly endear me to the system soon came to light. The first was availability. There was nowhere local that stocked NES games, the nearest place was Toys-R-Us, and that was a good forty minute drive away, assuming I could persuade my mother or father to take me there in the first place. The second issue was price. In 1988 / ’89 the average full price title for one of the 8-bit computers was £8.99, and for those who had an ST or Amiga between £14.95 and £19.95. Now, back then £10.00 for a game was a lot of money, and you didn’t want to spend that and then get home and find out it was a load of pants. NES games on the other hand were usually priced between £29.99 and £49.99 – an eye watering amount of cash for a video game back then and over £100.00 in today’s money!! Subsequently, my NES collection was very modest (at best), and I pretty much gave up on it within a few years as it was just too expensive and inconvenient to shop for.

I believe it was a copy of Mean Machines that I picked up at random one day that first altered me to the imminent arrival of the new, and powerful, 16-Bit home consoles from Sega and Nintendo. In the previews section I looked at the first screenshots I had seen of Super Mario World and Capcom’s port of Final Fight, and my jaw hit the floor at the stunning graphics. I eventually picked up a Sega Megadrive for cheap off a friend at school, but by now consoles were moving into the main stream and I didn’t have to travel to the other side of the county to buy games.

Software City stocked the latest PAL Megadrive and SNES games, and a new competitor shop, A R Computers had also opened selling console titles. The high street retailers had also jumped on the band wagon, with Dixons, Woolworths and Argos all stocking the major 16-Bit formats in the UK. I stayed loyal to Software City, other than when they didn’t have the game I wanted. I think the last title I got from them was Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition if I recall correctly. They closed down a short time later.

Later with the Playstation I finally got fed up with stunted PAL conversions and six-to-twelve month lead times to see the UK version of a new release, and so bought a NTSC/J Dual Shock Playstation package from Another World in Stoke-on-Trent. This heralded the last of the real games buying experiences for me.

Between 1997 and 2001 I would regularly go into Another World to see the latest import offerings, and they would generally not disappoint. It was a great shop, hidden at the back of a rundown shopping arcade in central Hanley and just a few doors away from the legendary (and by then defunct) Console Concepts store. The downstairs was tiny, and filled with comic related stuff, but go up the narrow wooden stair case and you entered import heaven!  All the latest Playstation and Saturn games from Japan, and the odd US title as well, plus some Neo-Geo and PC Engine stuff too. It was a great place, I really miss its musty smell and grubby building it sat in (now demolished). I really hate to think about how much money I spent there, but, you can’t take it with you, right? At least that’s what I tell my wife nowadays.

Do you remember Tottenham Court Road Computer Exchange? Today they’re better known as CEX, but in the late 90s they had some brilliant shops in London, stocking all the latest import games for all the formats you could think of. I remember going into their, sadly, short lived retro shop and seeing the display of Neo-Geo AES games – I had never seen so many in one place before, and the price tags were wallet busting back then too (comparatively to today).

As we moved into the Playstation 2 and Gamecube eras, the international release dates for major titles began to standardise, and letterbox PAL games were replaced with proper full screen releases, and the import market started to rapidly contract. Who wanted to play the latest Resident Evil game in Japanese when you could go to Game and pick it up cheaper and in English?

As the sun has set over the Twentieth Century and the New Millennium marches on, the internet dominates the way we buy our games today. While some of the great names of ’80s gaming like Boots and WH Smith still permeate the Great British High Street, they have both abandoned video games retailing; Game has had some very serious issues and downsized considerably; and the independents have all but disappeared. CEX has changed beyond all recognition, almost becoming like a personal electronics (only) version of Cash Convertors peppered with a smattering of Xbox 360 & PS3 titles.

While video game nostalgia may only be a quick eBay click away, it could never replace cherished memories of going into WH Smith and picking up my copy of Elite’s Paperboy, the buying experience today is just so soulless. 

Welcome to last week: Alien: Isolation – PlayStation 4

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Well the title will be a give away that I am now a PlayStation 4 owner, but I shall leave that to another post. Right now we are looking at Sega’s latest attempt to gain some credibility with the use of the Aliens franchise licence that it acquired from Twentieth Century Fox.

Many will no doubt remember Sega’s last Aliens release – the much maligned Aliens: Colonial Marines. Released in early 2013 to much anticipation, the game was by and large classed as a “train wreck”. While I personally would not go quite that far in criticising the game, Gearbox certainly did not give the game the justice it deserved and should have got their backsides royally kicked by Sega.

The huge fallout from the release, especially over how it fell drastically short of what had been expected based on promotional material, is well charted across the gaming community, so I’m not going to drag it back up here. Eighteen months on and Sega are publishing Alien: Isolation and in the attempt no doubt try to gain some credibility of their custody of the licence. Programmed by the Creative Assembly, the game is played in first person, but it is not a FPS like Aliens: CM.

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Set 15 years after the events of the first film, Amanda Ripley, daughter of Nostromo survivor Ellen Ripley, is looking for closure after the disappearance of her mother. Amanda is told a report has been received stating the flight recorder for the Nostromo has been recovered and is being held at a remote space station – the Sevastopol. Accompanied by two Weyland-Yutani employees, Amanda sets out for Sevastopol and upon arrival quickly finds things have very much gone awry. And so the game begins, first with trying to establish what has gone wrong, and then trying to escape Sevastopol itself.

Ammunition is in short supply, but the game is very much about stealth and avoiding combat, than any outright action. This is more of a first person Metal Gear Solid than Resident Evil. The Alien itself cannot be killed, but androids and hostile humans can all be dispatched if required. Missions are task based affairs requiring you to either collect something from a certain area or to just survive from point A to point B. Weapons can be complimented with some homemade devices intended to distract or disorientate which are “crafted” from parts found lying around Sevastopol.

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If I were to give Alien: Isolation only one note of praise, then it would have to be for the environments that make up Sevastopol.  Should you have ever only shown some interest in Ridley Scott’s original Alien film, you cannot fail to be impressed by how well Sevastopol mimics the environments of that film. Apparently the programmers studied original Alien set designs by the legendary Ron Cobb, and the faithfulness to this is evident throughout thus creating a strong bond to the original material the game is trying to lead on from.

There are some issues with the game, however. When looking down at the floor, Amanda’s feet are not very well integrated with the environment and it looks like you’re walking on air – very odd. It’s a minor gripe, but it really should not be there. Another occasional problem is clipping. In one area I defended myself by attacking a woman who was about to shoot me, clubbing her around the head with my wrench, I expected her to fall down dead. Instead I must have hit her that hard that her body vaporised, because it just disappeared!!

Another minor irritation is the inventory management system, which is fine early on in the game when you only have, literally, a few items, but later on as your choice of weapons and aids has expanded, choosing the item you want can be cumbersome with getting the appropriate icon highlighted for selection. I actually found many of the crafted items redundant, but I guess it depends on your own strategies to survive.

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The Alien’s dogged persistence in staying in your area, even though it has not seen you (but knows you’re there), can be hugely annoying. Some times you feel as if you are stuck in your bolt hole for far too long before you feel confident enough to move off to a safer area… and if you do stay in the same spot for too long the Alien will find and kill you. The game is tough enough as it is, and I felt that a little more breathing space should have been granted if the Alien decides its prey has evaded it and moved on. I felt this also hindered my desire to explore Sevastopol further. Once you know the Alien is nearby, it immediately puts you on edge (which is a good thing for the game), and deters you from exploring rooms you’ve not yet accessed. Sevastopol is huge, and there is so much to explore, but with the Alien on to you half the time, you just want to make it from A – B as quickly as possible… or to the next nearest save point!

Indeed saving is an important part in progressing. I had read several reviews underscoring the requirement to save, save, save! Personally, if I could give any tactical advice on getting through the game, it would be to follow the mantra of “save, save, save” as much as possible. Especially after any encounters with the Alien have been passed.

The sound is excellent, and very much forms part of the game. Creative Assembly have been allowed the use of many musical cues from the Alien film, and they use these to create atmosphere, build tension and to warn of impending danger. Being a big aficionado of the first film, I was very impressed with the way the cues are implemented while you explore, it felt like I was in the film at times. Sound also plays a big part through noise. Very rarely will you walk through a section of Sevastopol without some kind of clanging going on, a klaxon going off, or rattling of some kind emanating from the corridors. This of course puts you very much on edge as you try to keep composed. I really do not recall playing a game where the sound has played such an integral part in building the game’s atmosphere since the original Silent Hill.

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Overall the game is very well put together. The graphics are brilliant, the lighting top notch, the sound is fantastic and the game is a good length; making this by far the best Alien game of recent years, and arguably the best game to use the main film franchise to date. The game will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some will lament the lack of any full blown action, the slow narrative pace, and no doubt the tension / suspense created by encounters with the creature will not be to all tastes. Yet, I feel that it fulfils the brief Creative Assembly set out very well and they are to be commended for their efforts in bringing the Alien world so effectively into our homes. Alien: Isolation is not perfect, but it is very, very good.

If only Aliens: Colonial Marines could have had production values like these…

Alien: Isolation
Version tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3.

Undercover Cops

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Through the very late ’80’s and into the early ’90’s there probably wasn’t a single major arcade manufacturer who did not publish a scrolling beat ’em up of one kind or another. Double Dragon, Altered Beast, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are some of the releases that roll off the top of my head, and of course there was Capcom’s seminal Final Fight and the slew of games that followed, both in the arcade and on home consoles, trying to emulate its success and format.

It’s easy to credit Technos’ 1987 hit Double Dragon as the game that really kick started the demand for scrolling beat ’em ups, and Double Dragon certainly was innovative for its time, but it is Irem’s Kung Fu Master that can be seen as the first landmark title in the genre. Nevertheless, Irem never really pursued the scrolling beat ’em up further, instead generally relying on a steady stream of high quality shoot ’em ups to make its name, (chiefly through 1987’s R-Type).

Released on the powerful M-92 hardware, Undercover Cops hit Japanese arcades in the Summer of 1992 in what would become one of Irem’s final commercial successes before their arcade division was wound up, and their penultimate scrolling beat ’em up (their last being the obscure and imaginatively titled Ninja Baseball Bat Man).

Having more than proved themselves capable of doing a decent shoot ’em up, could Irem work their magic on a scrolling brawler, in the face of the high standards already set by Capcom?

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The premise of Undercover Cops is as flimsy as just about any other scrolling beat ’em up from the era – in the year 2043, New York City has become over-run by crime, and the mayor and city officials have called in three specialists, dubbed “City Sweepers”, to come kick ass and ask questions later. Thus the scene is set for you and your character, plus a friend in two player co-op, to go in and defeat the minions of the evil Dr Crayborn.

With credits inserted you have the choice of three playable characters each with their own individual strengths and weaknesses. So, as either Zan Takahara, Matt Gables, or Rosa Felmonde, you will punch and kick your way across five stages to save the City and win the day. Each character has your standard punch and kick moves, plus two desperation moves which help you out in the tighter situations you find yourself in. However, as with Final Fight, pulling off either your desperation or super-desperation moves will cost you a chunk of your character’s remaining energy bar.

A novel feature that helps to encourage plenty of direct action against your enemy is that at the end of every stage you  get rated for your performance in disposing of your enemies. Surpass your “finesse” (spelt “finess” in the game) target score and you can benefit from bonus energy and additional lives, plus a better score. The action itself is pretty text book – punch, kick, repeat to defeat your foe. Each playable character has their own move set and animations, with your enemies having a limited set of responses to try and stop you. The five stages are each of a decent length, but as the game wears on, the enemy doesn’t vary greatly and you tend to have the levels loaded with the same enemy creating a degree of repetition, which in many respects is a staple issue of scrolling beat ’em ups, but it feels more or a chore than usual with Undercover Cops when compared with either Final Fight or Streets of Rage 2. Both Capcom and Sega’s efforts cleverly break up the monotony of the minion enemies, but by Stage 5 of Undercover Cops a stagnation begins to set in which takes the sheen off the game.

The sprites are excellent. The three protagonists are each individual in their appearance, well drawn and distinctive. Thought has also gone into the enemy the sprites as well, making them stand out well against the usually less creatively styled enemies of other scrolling brawlers. The stages are well drawn but they are not particularly original in concept, although the end of stages 1, 3 and 4 are well executed with some original features. The final stage is a bit of a let down, with the majority of it set on-board a giant helicopter; that is, sadly, rather blandly drawn inside. On some stages, the first in particular, there is still the Irem trademark of high detail in the backgrounds, but across the game not to the level as seen in Gun Force II or In The Hunt. Indeed, the first stage is arguably the best stage of the five – the backgrounds have plenty going on, there’s lots of detail,  and there are plenty of items to pick up and utilise against the enemy along with a decent end boss battle. From there on in, the subsequent levels fail to match this for some reason.

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While it does try its best to do things differently, Undercover Cops fails to do anything particularly original. The enemy attack patterns become repetitive after a while, there just isn’t enough variety within the stages, although credit has to be given to the end of stage bosses. This is where the game becomes memorable and at its most challenging. All five bosses are very original in appearance, drawn to a high standard, well animated and given plenty of creative character. They’re also pretty cheap with their attacks, with only Parcs and Balbarotch relatively straight forward to dispatch.

As one comes to expect with Irem’s late efforts, the graphics are highly detailed sprites with excellent animation as I have already alluded too. The music is good, but not particularly memorable. The game is challenging, but generally enjoyable; a worthwhile addition to the roster of scrolling beat ’em ups if for nothing more than its highly distinctive style to help it stand out from the crowd.  I would say it is definitely worth a play if you want an alternative to Final Fight without feeling you’re playing a total clone of the same (for example SNK’s Burning Fight).

The end sequence suggests room for a sequel but none was forthcoming before Irem stopped releasing arcade games in 1994. In late 1993, and exclusively on the Nintendo Game Boy, an RPG based on the game, Undercover Cops: Hakaishin Garumaa, was released. This was also, fact fans, the second-to-last game Irem release on Nintendo’s hand held.

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The original arcade hardware comes in World and Japanese rom sets. An original Japanese M-92 board-set will be neither cheap or easy to acquire; the World board is a lot less desirable because of changes made to the game, and although not terribly common, it is cheaper than the Japanese board. There is also a third PCB release known as the “Alpha Renewal” version, which is a “fixed” version of the World rom set which restores the features from the Japanese ROM set.

Unfortunately outside of a now very expensive 1994 Super Famicom port by Varie, Undercover Cops is not available for play in any other format save for emulation. Unless you are either a big Irem fan, or simply a connoisseur of the scrolling beat ’em up, you would do better by spending far less money on Final Fight and Streets of Rage 2. Undercover Cops is an above average effort that could have been something exceptional if it weren’t for a few details that let it down. As it is, Final Fight, Streets of Rage 2 and Aliens Vs Predator are all superior entries into the genre. Undercover Cops is good, but it could have been great.

Undercover Cops
Version tested: PCB (Japanese ROM set)
Also available on: Nintendo Super Famicom

Import goodness

I first got into importing videogame’s back in the late ’90’s. Fed up with waiting for the latest releases and the crappy PAL ports we would (eventually) get given, I decided to shun the official world of the UK market place for something far more satisfying…

One has to remember, throughout the 1990’s, Japan was the global powerhouse in the world videogame market place. The two biggest console companies were Sega and Nintendo, and of  course by the latter half of the decade Sony had entered the fray, and surpassed both Sega and Nintendo by the decade’s close. The two big attempts by American companies to enter the growing home console market both failed miserably (Atari’s Jaguar and the 3DO), and European input was restricted purely to the actual games rather than hardware. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, many of the decade’s biggest titles came out of Japan, and because of this, and the strength of the Japanese home market, these games came out in Japan a long time before they reached UK shores.
This became increasingly irritating for me, especially when waiting for sequels or certain titles to arrive from Japanese developers. Another source of irritation would be reading through my monthly copy of Edge magazine. Back then Edge gave good coverage to what was coming out in Japan – most major releases were reviewed when they were released in Japan, so, for example, Metal Gear Solid, Biohazard (aka Resident Evil), Super Mario 64, Sonic Adventure and many others were all reviewed at the time of their Japanese release. You’d see the screenshots, read the review, and then just as you were thinking of nipping down to Electronics Boutique or HMV to pick it up, you’d see the release date and become instantly dismayed. At best the UK release would be some six months away; at worst the letters “TBC” would be printed and you would start to wonder if you would ever play the game at all.

Another issue for me, and for many others as well, was the lacklustre attempts by Japanese videogame companies to optimise their localisations for the PAL market. Most hardcore gamers did not wish to play their games in letterbox format, but sadly that was the reality for most as many titles were optimised for PAL display and therefore wouldn’t run full screen. Does anyone remember the awful PAL port of Dino Crisis on the Dreamcast? If you ever needed a prime example of how bad some PAL ports could be for big releases, Dino Crisis PAL for Dreamcast is perfect.

I think it was around late ’97 that I finally got fed up with being treated as second best, and so packed up my PAL Playstation and went and traded it in at my local import shop (remember them?) for a brand new NTSC/J Playstation Dual Shock edition (which I still have somewhere). Along with the console, I picked up Tekken 3 (which was still months away from being released in the UK) and a couple of other games (I don’t remember what they were) and went home happy. Thus, my indoctrination into the murky world of importing had begun!

Throughout the rest of the 90’s I bought all my PSX games on Japan import only, only slowing this trend with the release of the PAL Dreamcast as many of the games were running full screen and launch dates started to appear at a more acceptable rate. However, just as I thought my reliance on importing was waning, a number of Japan only titles appeared on Dreamcast as the European support for the console was pulled in 2001, and I ended up buying a NTSC/J PS2 to catch up on many Japan only titles some years back.

Today I still get many games from Japan, mainly through either eBay or Yahoo! Japan, to help compliment my collection of PSX, Saturn, DC and PS2 games but gone are the days when I go down to my local import shop for the latest releases. Most, if not all, the big titles are released globally today, occasionally the odd week passes between a US and European release, but nothing like the kind of wait UK gamer’s used to have to endure. As the new Millennium has progressed and the seventh generation of video game consoles has moved in, developers and publishers have adopted PAL 60hz for European releases and the days of letterboxing seem consigned to videogame history. Nevertheless, there will always be the odd Japan only title that intrigues, and having a bit of a soft spot for shoot ’em ups means that I am mulling over the possibility of picking up a NTSC/J Xbox 360… best not let the wife know!!

To new beginnings…

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Welcome to my blog! Sorry, I couldn’t find anything more inspiring to write for my first post, but you’ll have to bear with me as I get used “blogging”. I promise things will get better!

Anyway, this is my way of sharing my love of retro video games, and video gaming in general with the rest of the world. If you’re after the latest tactics for Call of Duty; want to see world beating lap times on Forza; or want to know a decent combo for “Streetfighter Vs *enter-another-fighting-game-IP-here“, then turn away now as you’re gonna be disappointed.  If, however, you want to read ramblings on various 90’s based videogame consoles and games I might write something that’s vaguely of interest to you.

From time-to-time I may even segue into something not even remotely related to videogames just to keep things interesting… but I’m not promising anything.

Anyway, thanks for reading and I hope you’ll stick with me.

PBJT (PeanutbutterJammatime)