Hey there, readers! It's been almost a year since my last post on here, because I'm a complete and utter prat who keeps forgetting that this domain name even exists. Still, never mind, I'm here now, eh?
What's brought me back into the fold, you may ask? Well, it's the hotly anticipated release of Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 on the PC (and various other platforms, but I do 99% of my gaming on a PC, so the PC version is what we're talking about here.)
For those unaware, back in 2007 Namco released a new edition in their venerable Pac-Man franchise. The focus was more on high-scores and competition between friends rather than completing mazes, and the game was incredibly well received by many, myself included. The frenetic pace and the gameplay changes surrounding the concept of only eating half of the maze at a time and having optimal paths to do so made going for higher and higher scores very addictive.
In 2010 it was followed by Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (and a DX+ update on Steam) which improved on the formula some more by adding the concept of "collecting" ghosts in a train - ghosts would be sleeping at various parts of the maze and would wake up when Pac-Man flew by. You could then chomp on a power pellet and go straight on down to snack town. Take a look at this video of me playing it if you're not sure how that works in practice:
As you can see, very different to the original Pac-Man, but also much more fun.
The sequel, imaginatively titled Pac-Man Championship Edition 2, was released at the start of September. It's basically more or less the same, but they have tweaked the concept a bit - contact with a ghost is no longer instant death as it was previously, now you can bump into a ghost a few times which will "anger" it and make it chase you around the maze, which can be used tactically if you're skilled enough (I'm not.)
The ghost "trains" that build up over the course of each round are now only munchable if you eat the head ghost, and Pac-Man will then automatically eat the rest of the ghosts, and as if that wasn't complicated enough, when you eat a power pellet the trains now speed up instead of slow down, but follow preset "escape routes" which are highlighted on the maze so you can "head them off at the pass."
There are a few other spanners in the works, too - sometimes you'll come across a "runaway" power pellet or fruit - these will actively try and get away from you as you approach, but with careful decision making and blazing your way around corners you can easily catch up.
Another new addition is boss battles. In these, you have a set amount of time to complete a set number of mazes, and each time a massive ghost behind the maze bumps his noggin on it which triggers the appearance of a couple of extra life power-ups and the fruit/power pellet that you need to get to the next maze.
There are also updates to the "bomb" system from the original game. In the original, you could press Space and (if you had some) a bomb would go off which would send all of the ghosts back to their house and you could carry on your merry way. This was excellent when things got a bit too hair-raising. Now, though, the bomb does the same thing but moves Pac-Man back to his start point. This adds a tactical element whereby you can instantly get to the "reset" fruit by using a bomb.
It's fun enough, I suppose - but I have to admit I don't like it. Take a look at my video below, and I'll run you through some of the things that I really don't like.
The first thing that really winds me up about the sequel is that the fruit power-ups needed to reset the maze are "out of the way" and you have to move up or down into the space to eat it. Doing so resets the maze, and puts Pac-Man back in the place above the fruit ready to go again (see 0:14 in the video). This makes sense, of course, but I just can't gel with it - if you look at the original game up there, Pac-Man never changes direction or moves without your say so, which makes for a much more fluid experience.
In the sequel, his position gets reset whenever the maze resets, and also whenever you eat a ghost train (more on that in a second) and it completely screws with my forward planning.
My other major complaint with the game is the way everything goes a bit haywire when you eat a ghost train. Take a look at 0:40 onwards in the video. When you eat the head of a ghost, the view changes to a sort of "3D camera" and the player loses control of Pac-Man. Pac-Man will snake his way around corners with gay abandon munching on ghosts and then when he's finished, control is returned to you but suddenly you're not where you were and you completely lose your bearings.
To make matters worse, the other major problem I have with this new train system is that while Pac-Man is eating a train, if another train passes through the same area (see 0:44 in the video) Pac-Man completely ignores it rather than chowing down on that too. This seems really odd to me, and just adds to the feeling of disorientation that the game gives me.
That's nothing though compared to what happens when you eat the final train on the maze. Skip ahead to 0:51 on the video and you'll see what happens when you do this. The camera goes absolutely bonkers and you lose sight of the maze altogether as Pac-Man goes flying off seemingly into space.
When he returns, he's out back on the maze, directly above the fruit that you need to eat to reset the maze - you have to move down into it, which then triggers the same reset that normally occurs. However, if you don't do anything, Pac-Man literally just stays there waiting for your command.
In my opinion, which isn't worth much admittedly, these changes to the core gameplay are great on paper but the execution just flat out doesn't work - the game wrestles control of Pac-Man away from you far too many times and you just come away feeling like you don't know what's going on. Pac-Man should never come to a complete stop once you start him off unless you run him into a wall, it's fundamental. Interestingly, the game also includes a "brake" button which stops Pac-Man dead in his tracks and can be used to avoid a ghost encounter if you need to. This is probably useful in some of the later mazes, but I've not had to use it yet and again it seems like it's making the game more complex than it really needs to be.
Using the bombs in this game also destroys any flow, as it moves you back to your start point where you stay still waiting for instructions.
The boss battles (not featured in the video) aren't particularly well thought out, they're not so much boss battles as timed rounds with some "defeat a boss" animation frippery thrown on top.
Other than this laundry list of complaints, I can't really think of much else to criticise. The graphics, sound and control scheme are all excellent (although I may just be imagining it, but I'm sure in this game Pac-Man will move "back" a bit to make a turn if you're a bit late pressing the key, which again makes it very hard to control properly - I can see I've passed the turning, so I'm already holding the turn key for the next junction, don't move me back to the one I've missed!)
I'm still unconvinced that this game is an improvement on Championship Edition DX+, but I'll give it some more time - I may warm up to it after a while.
I've been mucking about with computers for the best part of 25 years now, and in that time I've spent a fair amount of hours playing computer and video games. In fact, as my earlier post about Steam will show, I've got quite a lot of games kicking around on my home PC - most of which I've never played, mind.
But, in that 25 years, I've come across a few games that have made such an impression on me that I can always go back and play them some more. For two of those games, I'd long moaned about how no-one had ever bothered to make a worthy sequel to them, but in recent years those two worthy sequels have materialised and I now have both the old and the new to play with, which spells bad news for my spare time.
Here's a bit of a write up about some of them, starting with...
I kind of missed the boat with the original Elite. It was released in 1984 when I was just a toddler, and until I took ownership of an Amiga A1200 I didn't really have any of the machines that it was available for, and by the time I'd got an A1200, it's sequel was released.
Right from the intro movie, I was hooked:
I loved the sense of freedom that the game provided, and even though strictly speaking there wasn't any "point" to the game (apart from gaining ELITE status, which could only be done by destroying a ridiculous number of AI ships, so I never bothered trying) I never got bored of just flying around soaking up the universe.
I still think that it was an incredible achievement - David Braben squeezed an entire universe into under 500 kilobytes of disk space. True, much of it was procedurally generated, but the core systems were all hand-built and there was of course graphics and audio to be included in that size as well. I imagine this web page probably doesn't fit into 500 kilobytes of disk space!
I always chose the "recommended start position" at Sirocco Station, on the surface of Merlin in the Ross 154 system. My first action would be to buy some hydrogen fuel and some animal meat, and then jet off into the big black (or rather, the big blue in Frontier's case) and hyperjump to Barnard's Star, where I would dock at Boston Base (an Orbis starport that orbited Birminghamworld, if I remember rightly) and sell the animal meat. I can never remember what I took back to Ross 154 - I want to say Robots or Computers, but I think they may have been too expensive to buy at this stage, so it might have been Farm Machinery.
Either way, I went back and forth between the two stations until I'd raised enough to move over to Sol (where Earth is, non-spacey people!) and do more trading around there before getting in with the Federal Military.
Eventually I'd get cash rich enough to upgrade my Eagle Long Range Fighter to a Viper Defence Craft and then I'd go and kick some space pirate arse. Although usually what happened was that I would get my non-pirate arse handed to me on a plate and I'd have to start over.
Over the years I've most likely spent thousands of hours playing this game, and it's one of the ones I always wanted a worthy sequel to. Frontier: First Encounters came out in 1996 but I never had it as I wasn't a PC owner at the time, and it was a buggy mess anyway.
Over time, rumours started that David Braben and his company Frontier Developments were working on a new sequel, the much vaunted Elite 4. Nothing ever came to fruition though, until a few years ago when Elite: Dangerous appeared on Kickstarter and made an absolute fortune. I put quite a bit of money into it myself, and the game came out last year to a mixed reception. I enjoy playing it, and still do occasionally, but at the moment it lacks some of the features that made Frontier so special - namely planetary landings and passenger transport missions, but the former is coming to the game very soon.
And it looks so, so pretty...
The spiritual successor to Laser Squad by the Gollop Brothers, UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-COM: UFO Defense as it was known in the States) was a turn-based strategy game centred around the story of an alien invasion of Earth.
I'd played turn based strategy games before (including Laser Squad, and the good-but-not-quite-as-good-as-UFO Sabre Team) but none of them really "gripped" me in the way that UFO did.
I think it was the combination of base and resource management and the actual turn based battles themselves, it made it feel like a deeper game (and it was only really in the mid 2000s, when I got involved with the UFOpaedia, that I became aware of just how deep the game actually was)
Here's the intro:
The best part about UFO was that it was completely and utterly unrelenting. In most games back then, and even more so today, you were punished for failure - but the difficulty level in UFO (even on the easiest setting) was such that you could expect to lose your soldiers constantly, and for the most part it didn't matter - in fact, in many cases you found yourself recruiting soldiers specifically to be used as cannon fodder.
In most games, the difficulty curve starts off very easy and, as you learn the ropes, the difficulty increases until you get to the Big Bad Boss. This was basically reversed in UFO - at the start of the game, you were outnumbered, outarmoured, outgunned and outclassed in pretty much every way. You are facing off against an unknown enemy force and you know literally nothing about them or their capabilities. As the game progresses, your research scientists discover more about the aliens and their weapons and you develop effective methods for fighting them.
At this point, the game normally throws harder aliens at you with new capabilities, but as time goes on and your scientists produce more and more kit, your job gets easier as you can fight back with alien weaponry. By the time you reach the "endgame", you should have almost no trouble at all taking on the aliens.
This is another game that I've logged a stupid number of hours on. Sure, it has a dated user interface and graphics (although I love the "manga" style, personally) but in terms of gameplay, atmosphere and sheer outright difficulty, nothing has ever come close for me.
And, as with Frontier, this game has been crying out for a decent sequel for a long time. Many, many game developers have tried and most have failed. It was only in 2012 when Firaxis Games announced that they were working on a new game - XCOM: Enemy Unknown - that I sat up and took notice.
The 2012 game (which has recently had a sequel announced, creatively titled XCOM 2) changed some elements of the original, which I remember being quite aggrieved about at the time, but those negative thoughts faded away as soon as I played the demo. It was near perfect, and a bang-on reimagining of the original game. I seem to remember writing a review of XCOM back when it was released, too.
This was a bit of a controversial game at the time. The original box-art featured a red poppy, which led to a hate campaign in various British newspapers, who vilified it as an insult to war veterans and people that had died in service of the country, claiming that it glorified war.
Of course, what every single one of those newspaper editors had failed to realise, and what would have become patently obvious if they'd bothered to play the damn thing, was that Cannon Fodder was very much anti-war. Through satire, the use of visual metaphors (like the "Boot Hill", which would slowly become filled with the headstones of soldiers that had died under your command) and other small touches (like all of your soldiers having names) the game went to pretty big lengths to point out that actually, war's a bit on the crap side and that we should do all we can to avoid it, it being a senseless waste of life.
Besides all of this controversy, the game was great to play and over the course of the game you became really quite attached to your little green helmeted guys.
I don't really get much chance to play this (and its sequel from a couple of years later) any more these days as I can only really play it on an Amiga emulator and I often can't be bothered to boot it up, but it's still as good today as it was then, and I would give my left nut for a phone/tablet conversion.
A Russian company was licensed to make a sequel in 2011. It was crap. It tried desperately to retain the charm of the previous two games, but the move to 3D really didn't work, and nor did the poor attempts at keeping the same atmosphere.
It also didn't help that there was clearly a dodgy translation somewhere as lots of parts of the game (right down to its Start Menu shortcut) referred to it as Connon Fodder 3.
Still, at least the first two games are still playable. There is a game in development from someone completely unrelated to the originals that looks promising (Jarheads, by the excellently named Gareth Williams) and, should the worst come to the worst, the first game gave the world possibly the greatest video game music video to have ever existed:
I've been programming these computer-ma-whatsits since the tender age of 6, when my Dad brought home from work a Sinclair Spectrum 48K.
Well, I say that, but my time with that machine was somewhat limited as I had two brothers living at home then as well, Bob and Mike, and they were even more interested in this alien bit of kit than I was, both of them being nearly 10 years older than I was.
Nevertheless, that lovely old squidgeboard was my introduction to the world of computer programming. 48K Sinclair BASIC isn't exactly a powerhouse of a language, but it was more than enough for my tiny brain.
I never really managed to do anything particularly great with it though - it was only after I'd migrated to the Commodore Amiga that I started really digging my teeth into the biscuit that was creating my own computer programs. Initially I used AMOS BASIC, followed by AMOS Professional, and ended up using Blitz Basic 2.
Using AMOS/AMOS Pro, I created a number of games for the Amiga that I released on Aminet in the mid-to-late 90s. At the time, I was a subscriber to Amiga Format, and they ran a seemingly popular "Reader Games" segment - kind of like Readers' Wives, but (certainly the first couple of times) making myself look more of a tit. Naturally I submitted my games for review in this magazine section.
I present these reviews to you now, for you to make up your own mind. They're in the order of publication.
Amiga Format #97 (May 1997) - Alien Pong Trilogy (no, I don't know either)
Amiga Format #102 (October 1997) - Alien Pong Trilogy 2 (Pong Harder?)
Amiga Format #103 (November 1997) - Shoot Out (I still like this idea)
Amiga Format #107 (February 1998) - Shoot Out 2 (I like my sequels)
Amiga Format #135 (April 2000) - Shoot Out 2000 (Why 2K? Let's run this into the ground!)
Amiga Format ceased publication after the following issue, #136. Obviously this was nothing to do with me, but I still feel a little bit guilty.
As some people may know, I've dabbled in the world of game
development before. I've never been particularly good at it, if I'm
honest, not really down to anything other than a lack of good ideas, and
a lack of time to do any ideas I had justice.
It's something I keep meaning to have another bash at, not in any serious manner of course, just in a "bedroom programmer" kind of way.
Still, I thought I'd make a post about a game of mine that never quite made it past development. It ranks as the most ambitious game project I ever undertook, and actually got quite far down the line.
The year was 2002, and the game was called Arena: Multiplayer Deathmatch and, as the name suggests, it was an Internet/LAN deathmatch game designed for up to 32 players (although I only ever tested it with 4 or 5 before the project kind of fell by the way side.)
Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Two possibilities exist. Either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
It's always been one of my favourite quotations, so it's rather fitting that it gets a prominent place (right at the start of the intro sequence) to a reimagining of one of my favourite games.
X-COM: UFO Defense (or, to give it its European name, UFO: Enemy Unknown) was developed by the Gollop brothers, Julian and Nick and was released in 1993 by Microprose to an unwitting audience.
I've long since had a fascination with nuclear weapons, specifically the effects on Earth (and the human race) should a nuclear war ever occur.
Obviously I'd much rather it didn't, but it is interesting to really think about just how well society as a whole would cope with mutually assured destruction.
One of these items is my old 32" television, which we definitely no longer need as we have an LG 37-incher in the living room and no real room for any other TVs anywhere else.
Unfortunately, the TV is quite old and doesn't have an in-built Freeview tuner, so without being paired with a set-top box it's not much use as a TV. This meant that to show it worked on the eBay listing, I had to come up with some other video source.
What better than my good old Sinclair Spectrum 48K? Yup, the one and only original squidgeboard:
So, I plugged it all in and set the TV searching for the channel the Speccy was using to send it's display to the TV. Once acquired, I set about writing a short Sinclair BASIC program to show off the TVs abilities (yeah, right...) which resulted in this picture:
The eBay listing was completed, and I continued about the rest of my Sunday afternoon business.
This involved a trip to Tesco, where I randomly stumbled upon a 3.5mm jack-to-jack lead on the floor. Curiously enough, I'd been thinking about getting one of these for a while to connect my iPhone up to my car stereos where Bluetooth wasn't available, but now I had another purpose in mind when I spotted it on the floor.
I mean, OK - you can fire up an emulator on your PC any day of the week and (thanks largely to World of Spectrum) play pretty much any Spectrum game you can think of there and then. However, nothing is quite like The Real Thing, is it?
The question now became, how to get the Spectrum game images (TZX files) into a format that the iPhone could play and that my Spectrum could understand.
Fortunately, I soon discovered a (frankly, brilliant) app in the App Store called Speccy Tape. It does exactly this - it takes a TZX file (also works with TAP files I think) and converts it to audio, plays it out of the headphone jack on the iPhone and the Spectrum loads the program from the audio.
The app description suggests that you need some form of amplifier to use it with a ZX Spectrum like mine, but I can happily report that no such device is needed with the iPhone 4 - you have to put the volume up to maximum, but it works brilliantly. As you can see:
That's pretty much my entire Sunday afternoon gone for a Burton, then.
Let's go, Mr. Driver!
This software was originally released in April 2004, shortly after the release of Eidos' Thief: Deadly Shadows, the long-awaited (but much maligned) sequel to Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2: The Metal Age.
The idea was to provide an easy to use GUI to help players tweak their game settings in ways that the in-game settings menus wouldn't allow.
I've now migrated across a couple of my older games, both made in Flash. So, no worky for iOS devices, but anything else should be OK.
Also, as I've just noticed it - oddly enough, the last few posts have all been around the start of the hour.
SWAT4, released by Sierra in 2005, is a great tactical first-person shooter that puts the focus on saving lives as opposed to taking them.
Unfortunately, the game doesn't like dual monitor setups and most of the time bluntly refuses to load without the screen flickering like hell as it tries to work out what resolution to run at. Using Alt-Tab to flick between tasks sometimes cures it, but more often than not you have to go into Task Manager and end the process, which gives you an error message about not being able to set the resolution, recommending that you delete the Swat4.ini file.
Well, don't do that. I worked out that this problem is caused by the intro videos that play before the menu appears. So, to fix the issue once and for all, simply right-click on the shortcut you use to launch the game, go to Properties and change the Target so that it looks something like this:
"C:\Program Files (x86)\Sierra\SWAT 4\Content\System\Swat4.exe" -nointro
This will tell the game not to show the intro videos - which not only fixes the problem, but saves time too!