Saturday, 18 December 2010

Gaming Drinks: What Geeks Do At Parties (by Ben Winterton)

I am not cool. I know this. Sometimes people think I am cool. Then they talk to me. They discover they are wrong. This is because I am a geek.

But we all know this to be true. In fact, your reading this means you are probably pretty geeky yourself. Fair play. But there are a couple of things I like to do in place of the standard “party” activities that often distinguish me from the normal geek, though I suspect the phrase “normal geek” is something of an oxymoron. Oh and before I forget, for the benefit of the super-hardcore geeks out there, a 'party' is defined as a gathering of people for the sole purpose of socialising. 

Nintendo Super Mario Bros Power Up Energy Drink

One thing a lot of people like to do at parties is drink alcohol, and sometimes this evolves into the form of a drinking game, the aim of which is to find a “fun” way of getting as much alcohol into its participants as possible (I’m not sure what it says about people who drink but don’t find it fun); examples include “Ring of Fire” and...others. If you don’t know what a drinking game is, Google it. If you don’t know what Google is...well, let’s be honest, you just do.

What I like to do at parties is initiate gaming drinking games. This combines the competitive nature of gaming with the dangers of mass alcohol intake. For instance, you pick an “elimination” game, where one drinks when one is eliminated. Games that serve well for this are the Smash Bros. Series, “Hot Rope Jump” in Mario Party, or any kind of endurance game.

Mario Party 2

You can also just take any game where your co-ordination directly affects your ability to play, and introduce alcohol as a penalty for success and/or failure. The perfect example would be Super Mario World; have the rule that your drink every time you die, finish a level, or gain an extra life. The beauty is that the better players will initially finish several levels and get lots of lives, but then get smashed quicker and start dying more. What are we left with? Some intoxicated nerds laughing at the words “Choco Mountain”. A clear sign of a good time.

The more extreme Variant Party Activity, or V.P.A., is the gameathon, or gaming marathon. This is pretty much what you think it is, but has actually happened, and will happen again. You choose a set amount of time (I’d personally recommend 24 hours) and play video games non-stop. You can pick a theme, say personal all-time favourites, or Zelda games, and then you play them through. And, just to clarify, this isn’t a kooky internet ramble, me and my friends (you know who you are) have done this. We played for 24 hours. I personally ran “Ocarina of Time”, “Lylat Wars”, “Timesplitters 3” and “Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon”. I didn’t sleep.

Time Splitters: Future Perfect

Now, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is an awesome idea and it does make me very attractive to both sexes. But there is a minority of people in the world who may be asking; what’s the point? And of course the answer is that there isn’t one. But then there is no “point” to going out to a club and singing along to “Walk This Way”, other than that both are fun. If anything, the former has more benefit, as going clubbing has never increased anyone’s Gamerscore.

Now, I am soon to reach the ripe old age of 22, and I am looking back on my life, wondering if I could have done more. Could I have learned another language, got married, founded a charity, listened to The Beatles, run a marathon or joined a band?

Yes, I could of. I could also have finished all 3 “Ninja Gaidens” in one sitting. And I know which one I plan to do before the age of 23.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

I've Got Wood for Settlers of Catan

Recently the content of this blog has been largely to do with computer games. I believe that videogaming is merely but one of many forms on gaming, though it must be said it is a very important one. To steer 103's content away from games consoles and the like I could easily wax lyrical about the joys of traditional pub and board games or I could bore you with endless suggestions, reviews and strategies for very obscure games that don't require a HD display to enjoy. I could talk about Apples 2 Apples or I could explain the intricate human experiment that is the parlour game of Mafia (and I may even choose to do so in future posts) but if I am going to direct your attention to a game that is worth your time in a big way I would have to go for Settlers of Catan

The Settlers of Catan

Every time you play Settlers, the game board is a randomly generated honeycomb from a deck of hexagons. Each six-sided tile on the board represents a land mass that produces a particular type of resource such as bricks, wood and sheep(!). The rough objective of the game is develop and expand your settlement and its economy faster than any of your opponents, where the snag is that development requires resources and the game is designed so that no one player is likely to be able to meet all their own resource requirements at any given time. It's frustrating not being able to build a city because you can't find enough gosh darned wheat, especially when your mate across the board is awash with the stuff and will not trade.

Shrewd cooperation and diplomacy becomes a necessary aspect of gameplay and Catan delivers a great social gaming experience that is never quite the same twice. The social aspect of the game also allows less experienced gamers to effectively impose a trade embargo on players that develop too quickly and this usually results in a tense endgame and a dramatic conclusion. More importantly, the game usually resolves itself within a reasonable time limit of 90 mins including set-up and explanation so a host could easily include Settlers as part of a nice 'n' nerdy social experience at their home.

Without going into the rules too much (although I assure you that they are very easy to pick up, even for inexperienced/casual or young players) I can say that this game is way better value for your money than most games that are out there on the market. It's replay value is immense and every penny you spend on the game is worth it to be able to say "I've got wood"* every 5 minutes. There are also very good expansions for this game should you want to go more hardcore with it. An essential purchase for board game enthusiasts,

*if little ones are playing I prefer to call that particular resource 'lumber'.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Mario On Speed - Ben Winterton Does it Fast.

If you’ve played a videogame, the chances are you’ve played a Mario game (if you haven’t played a video game, I may question why you are reading this article). Now, let’s first get the formalities out of the way; the Mario franchise contains some of the best platformers ever created: Super Mario Bros 1-3 (plus “The Lost Levels”), Super Mario Land 1 and 2, Super Mario World 1 and 2, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, even Super Mario Sunshine.

Super Mario 64

Great. Lovely. Fantastic. Do you know what I love about all these games? They are great, nay, perfect, for speedrunning. I’m aware some people may know what speedrunning is, but it is also likely that a lot of people don’t, so I’m going to give a quick explanation for the uninitiated.

Imagine you are preparing for some sort of social gathering, one that you want to look fairly presentable for. It is several hours away. You have some clear goals; brush teeth, have a shower, get dressed, apply some sort of scent, sort out hair. Once you have finished all these goals, you are done. You want to take your time, do all these activities to the best of your ability, and look good. You calmly get in the shower, have a relaxing wash, get out, and dry yourself off whilst lackadaisically picking your outfit. Then you decadently apply some perfume, spend 30 minutes on your hair, brush your teeth, and still arrive early to your destination. This is what normal gaming is.

Now imagine doing the above but in a fifth of the time. You brush your teeth and hair with the same implement. You get dressed in the shower (which you have also fitted with special scented water). Sure, you arrive four hours early and no-one is impressed by your achievement, but you’ve done things as fast as you can. This is speed running.

Basically if you apply speedrunning to Sporcle quizzes, you blitz through them against a self-imposed time limit. Mario games are, for some magic reason, perfect for speed running. This is partially due to the number of shortcuts within Mario games, and partially down to the number of exploitable glitches. My personal favourite is Super Mario 64, a game which should take several hours but can be done in under 20 minutes (my personal record is around 40 minutes).

What these games do that is so good is allow you to get the same experience but on any scale. Compared to, say, rather grand RPGs, which demand a certain, generally huge, time committal, these games can be as big or as small as you make them. Sure, I can exploit “Super Mario 64” and bomb through it in less than an hour, or I can have a bit of a wander, have some laughs, maybe cry a little, and take my time getting all 120 stars. Sure, it takes longer, and means I have to play “Tiny-Huge Island”, but it allows me to play how I want to.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

It’s an odd fact that these games serve such a broad level of play so well when it is (in certain instances, at least) a complete programming fluke. It seems that, in the age of high-concept gaming, the notion of the “breakable” game has been lost. Sure, “Mario Galaxy” may be a smoother game, but it doesn’t let me fly backwards through a supposedly solid door, and I for one count that as a loss.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Ben Winterton: Twilight was Better than Inception (Pause Screens)

Pause Screens: A debate that doesn’t exist (but should)

I’m not going to lie; this article is pretty much exclusively about pause screens. I realise some people may find this boring, so I am going to concurrently also argue that “Twilight: Eclipse” is a more artistically viable film than “Inception”. Hopefully these two topics in combination will keep everyone entertained.

For my generation, a pause screen was pretty much standard. I’m certainly not debating the point or nature of pause screens; I am definitely of the opinion that when you hit start the action should be paused in some way or other. Whilst inherently practical, however, there is an interesting aspect of pause screens, and that is the breaking of game-flow and immersion that comes with them. You may suggest that this is almost the point of them, and indeed this notion went unchallenged, until a seemingly very specific point.

“Twilight: Eclipse”, whilst far from a great film, has one key feature of cinema, and that is the prevalence of more than one reading. For instance, I like to think the whole “Twilight” saga is not a cosmic love story but a morality tale about the suppression of Native Americans by the overtly “white” people.

I think very few would contest that “Goldeneye 007” is one of the most important landmarks in the development of the first-person shooter, and certainly one of the biggest games of its generation. What I find interesting about it is its pause screen (I find other stuff interesting about it too; I’m not a psychopath). For those of you who don’t know, when you hit start, Bond looks at his watch in a short animation, which then contains all the standard pause menu stuff (weapons, mission objectives etc). Easily dismissed as a stylistic riff, there is an interesting point being made here; are we still in the reality of the game or not? Bond is looking at his watch, which contains some genuinely diegetic (in-reality) stuff, such as his mission briefing from M. Interesting as this is, it is little more than a discussion point.

Golden Eye 007

“Inception”, whilst a technically superior film, lacks any depth. Every character, with the exception of the central character, is a one-note plot device. Furthermore, the film is about one thing; no readings, no ambiguity (the so-called twist can be explained away in less than a minute).

Fast forwarding over a decade brings us to “Fallout 3”, which shares the “watch on wrist/info” system of “Goldeneye 007”; if anything, things are made more complex, with the “P.I.P. Boy 3000” containing 15 different information screens. You use it to heal, fast travel, change weapons, choose quests, basically everything. You rely on it endlessly. At one point mid-game, you are required to enter a virtual reality environment to rescue your father. When you enter, you are at the complete mercy of the psychopath controlling the very universe around you. You have been placed in the body of a child, with no weapons or equipment of any kind. After a while, you consider your options, and open up the menu...except it’s gone. All you have is an analogue watch, a brilliant subversion of your built up reliance on the system put in place, as well as a cheeky call-back to “Goldeneye 007”. In doing this, “Fallout 3” has completely deconstructed the immersive aspect games, turning your own comfort and complacency against you. But the question still remains; is this in game or not? How far can developers push immersive-ness? Please challenge my arguments or, better yet, agree with me.

Fallout 3: Game of The Year Edition

Oh, and since “Twilight: Eclipse” allows for more deep and complex readings than “Inception”, it serves as the better example of a cinematic text, rather than simple Hollywood popcorn entertainment. Who said pause screens weren’t controversial?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Rapid Knowledge Acquisition Games

The following words will become very important words in your life: Sporcle and Anki. They are both quiz functions of some kind.

Sporcle describes itself as a collection of 'mentally stimulating diversions' and that is precisely what you get. You can do quizzes supported by text, audio and video (same with Anki) and do it all online without the need to spend any money or even go anywhere. The results of each quiz are saved on a profile should you register, and I do recommend that you do, so that you can revisit previously attempted quizzes. You can rote learn a variety of lists and information pockets very efficiently this way should these be Kings and Queens of England, 
Oscar award winners of the Noughties or, more crucially, the names of all of the first generation Water Pokemon..

Pokemon - Red Version

Just because this paragraph is shorter does not mean that Anki does not require your immediate attention, especially you students out there, because it allows you to create your own flash cards (and download decks of pre-made cards in an amazing array of subjects) so that you can learn very specific information about a variety of things very efficiently. You can learn Korean on the bus to work. You can develop a greater understanding of the human anatomy in between Facebook/Twitter sessions and you can do this all for free so do it now all you ignorant fiends out there!

From an array of exciting quiz resources available, the first reason these two brands stand out to me is that they are both heavily customisable. The second is that there are both very well supported by a swarm of other quiz hungry users. If any of you know of any more quiz resources that are worth a look then I would personally appreciate any links!



Friday, 29 October 2010

First Impressions of a Ground-breaking RPG - Final Fantasy 13

Somehow I have loaned an Xbox 360 and a copy of Final Fantasy 13. I have heard a lot about the game and not a lot of what has been said about it is all that good. But after playing it for only an hour I am already forming the impression that the people who diss this game are complete and utter morons of the highest degree.

Why you ask? Well first off let's really ask ourselves what an RPG really is. It combines two active elements which are the 'role playing' and 'game' aspects and FFXIII excels in both areas, even by Square Enix's grand standards.

From the opening alone the storytelling is the best in any RPG I have ever seen or played. More importantly, I am truly engaged as a player character in this particular universe because the absurdly high production value cinematics make me feel the terror, elation and horror of the unthinkable situations I am thrown into very first minute. So far so awesome! Nobody can really complain about the story here and it only enhances the role playing experience. Need I even mention that somebody in Square's art studios finally thought it a swell idea to include a non-White character who isn't Barret since the 90s? Tip of the iceberg but I shan't spoil any more.

So surely the haters have a point with the 'linear corridor' gameplay?  In today's modern age of pick up and play gaming attitudes (see BW's excellent 'The Problem With Great Games' article) I think it is very forward thinking of Square Enix to release a very immersive episodic style of gameplay where players can play such a deep game very quickly at any time they choose and not feel lost in either gameplay or story even after a period of not playing. To top it off FFXIII has streamlined so much of the chore of RPG genre in the same way computer games removed a great deal of tedium from the tabletop era by fine-tuning the gameplay mechanics.

Every battle is fought independently of the result of the one before it! You don't need to access a stupid ends convoluted menu after every battle to restore your health (It is no coincidence that SE's excellent The World Ends With You for the DS used this idea too) and it appears that level-grinding has been discarded for pure strategy gaming which is phenomenal as this leads to a more strategic and therefore satisfying way of progressing through the game as opposed to the brute force EXP festivals of the past. Even the much loved Final Fantasy 7 can look sheepish in light of its sixth youngest cousin's bright ideas.

I will not pass complete judgement on the game until I have played it through but I just want to re-iterate to those who are still cowering in their Inn and Weapon Shop drudgery: Move on! This is the future of console role-play.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Problem with Great Games by Ben Winterton

The Problem with Great Games by Ben Winterton

Oftentimes, when I am bored and have only my mind to occupy myself, I get to thinking about my own mental top 10/20 lists; for novels, for films, for albums, and of course, for video games. We all have titles that we know would instantly make the cut (for me, “Timesplitters 2”, “Bioshock”, “Lylat Wars”, or “Starfox 64” outside of the UK, and “Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon”). I then realise that I have something of a penchant for fairly complex, convoluted and just plain long RPGs. In this bracket I usually think of games like “Final Fantasy X”, “Baiten Kaitos”, “Tales of Symphonia”, “Dragon Warrior Monsters” and the “Golden Sun” games.

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon

Now, don’t get me wrong. These games are absolutely superb; each one is engaging, charming, dramatic and amazingly playable. But none of them have that “pick-up-and-play-and-dick-about-causing-the-biggest-explosion-you-can-preferably-involving-your-own-body aspect. And so I sometimes find myself in the very odd situation of not wanting to start playing a game I know is better and that I will get more enjoyment out of because all I’ve played of late is epic yarns of a similar style. Case in point; the last 3 games I’ve played through have been “Mass Effect 2”, “Deathspank” and “Dragon Age: Origins”. Very diverse games, yes, but all undeniably RPGs. Now, I have a bunch of games I’ve not/barely touched; “Nier”, “Oblivion” and “Final Fantasy XIII”. Are these games going to be awesome? Almost certainly. Do I want to play them? Not really.

Super Mario Kart

No, what I’ve been playing recently has been “Prototype” and, for my sins, “Overlord II”. The first of these is an enjoyable, but shallow, free-running hack-and-slash affair. The second is frankly a crap rip-off of “Pikmin”. So why am I playing it? The answer is simple; diversity.

Even back in the good ol’ days I had to occasionally take “Super Mario All-Stars” out of my SNES (if only to put “Super Mario Kart” in). It comes down to one very simple factor, and that is that you sometimes need to have soup; you can’t have steak every day. Unless you’re my mate Stu, who had steak for every meal for 4 days for a bet, until his digestive system started rebelling.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Black Sheep of Mario: Super Mario Sunshine

Hi readers. I've been playing a little old game called Super Mario Sunshine on the Nintendo Gamecube.  It is generally acknowledged that Sunshine was a bit of a wet fart in the history of Mario's console platformer outings and you can see why this is the case just by looking at it.

First of all, what the hell is all this Delfino Plaza rubbish? Speaking as someone who waited for this game, I was there expecting this long awaited Mario game and looked forward to the coin collecting, Piranha Plant avoiding, old school action that we all loved the moustachioed jumping midget for in the first place. Instead we got some thoroughly unlike-able creatures called the Pianta people getting rather irate about some trippy coloured vandalism which actually makes the bland Delfino Plaza only more interesting to look at.

We don't even get to the Princess kidnap scene for at least an hour perhaps and even then it's all just a bit weird. Not Mario at all. Hell we even get some kinda talkin' water powered jet pack (that has no real personality) so we don't even get to enjoy any real pixel perfect jumping action except for the 'special' abstract levels which to be frank felt really tacked on and more or all of the game should have been like that.

The game feels more difficult than it should because tricky jumps need to be cleared using the aforementioned fiddly FLUDD jet pack. The difficulty of said jumps is amplified due to dodgy game cameras and awkward level design. But even with these glitches Super Mario Sunshine never seems too unfair and the game does not just give away its Shines, it is a real fight to nab them all. I repeat, the character of FLUDD is very dull (even with the tongue in cheek Dr E. Gadd reference) and I maintain to this day that I honestly couldn't care less about the fate of any of Isle Delfino's inhabitants. Yet I have to concede that every Shine in this game contributes to some greater narrative and the platform action is quite nicely wrapped around this.

 To an unseasoned player expecting an easy ride, Sunshine does not offer you that and once you figure out how to even find the Shines you are after, you then have to actually go and bloody do it. I very much enjoy the game but I can see why Nintendo made the Star goals very clear in their subsequent Galaxy games.

Now of course the Mario franchise has had its fair stick from the likes of Zero Punctuation and those who prefer to only play grown-up looking games, which is fine because let's face it, Mario is so squeaky clean his perfect little while gloves have never so much as seen the bad side of a blocked up U-bend in his entire plumbing career. That being said, Sunshine shows how devious Nintendo can be when they really want to be. An open challenge to Mario-haters and those who claim 'Nintendo is easy' is to put up or shut up and play this game first. It will school you.

Verdict: Hardcore despite its flaws.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Loops Of Zen

Hey man...     what's the deal? You seem uptight. Wound up. Just a little overwhelmed by the challenge of life maybe? Just remember that there is no challenge. There is no life. Only the delicate balance of harmony in the soul which is so easily corrupted and disturbed by all that is (or isn't) and for these so-called 'reasons' I encourage you to find the Loops of Zen and become restored.

So yeah... enjoy your clicking and relax man..... reeeeeeeelaaaaaaaackkks.

Verdict: There is no verdict, and there is.

Why Bioshock didn't need a sequel, Part 1 (by Ben Winterton)

Everyone who considers themselves a fan of any form or genre will always have favourites. Whether conscious of not, there will always be things one favours, and this is, of course, no different to games. Now, one of my absolute favourite games is “Bioshock” by 2K games. It was one of the first titles I properly played for the Xbox and still stands out against everything else of the present generation of games. I distinctly remember when I finished it for the first time putting the controller down and saying out loud “Wow. I hope they never make a sequel”. And we all lived happily ever after.

Whatever next? Playing as Nemesis in a Resident Evil game? Oh wait...

Until I went on Wikipedia, to discover they were planning not just one, but FIVE sequels. Now, I put off playing “Bioshock 2” for as long as possible, but knew sooner or later that I would have to deal with it, if only to make sure my negative opinions on it were right. They were.

Now, let me clarify. In terms of core gameplay, there is very little between them; if anything, “Bioshock 2” removes some of the minor annoyances, like the inefficiency of the research camera and not being able to use weapons and plasmids at the same time. What it does also do, however, is completely miss the point of the first game. First and foremost of the ways it does this is the choice of protagonist. In “Bioshock”, you play an unnamed, never seen, but ultimately ordinary man who survives a plane crash, swims to a mysterious island and descends into a dystopian nightmare, Rapture. Come to think of it, the production name of the character, Jack, suddenly becomes more obvious*. The genuinely terrifying opening sees you running from superpowered, psychotic mutants with nothing but a wrench and a pocket radio to aid you. Worst of all are the Big Daddies, mentally-conditioned humans welded into diving suits that mindlessly protect the lifeblood of Rapture, the little sisters.

This is where it's really at people, seriously.

Compare this to “Bioshock 2”, where you play as a Big Daddy. In one simple move, the game ceases to be a survival horror, as you are now the scariest thing in Rapture. Why would a few squishy humans be scary when you have a drill attached to your arm? Furthermore, you no longer have any investment in the character. When you play Jack in the first game, it could easily be you finding yourself in that environment, desperately trying to survive long enough to understand what has happened and why. With the Big Daddy, all you see is an emotionless box. Worst of all, the explanation of the plot (that you are trying to find your Little Sister) is actually explained as not being genuine emotion, but rather chemically engineered love.
In short, a slave obeys, but a man chooses...not to make a crappy, ill-thought-out sequel.

*unless you don’t watch Lost

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Bunny Flags -- This is a Must-Play Game!

You have to play Bunny Flags because it is truly excellent. It does everything I asked it to do in my head without my having to ask for it. Tower Defense games don't give you enough agency and you don't feel in direct control of anything so Bunny Flags puts you as the main character with a gun so you can actually shoot stuff yourself. Don't like the capture the flag aspect of Tower Defense Games? Then introduce levels where the only goal is to survive and turn it into an arena shooter of sorts. Don't like level grinding? Hell, Bunny Flags not only allows you to increase the difficulty but encourages you as a player to do so with a sliding scale of medals that award bonus exp when you achieve them? Did I mention there was exp? Well there is and there's a whole ruddy skills tree with three main character types depending on your chosen play style.

The game looks and sounds awesome and will keep you playing for hours. Everybody will find this fun if they give it a chance.

Verdict 5/5 -- Perfect Casual Gaming Mayhem suitable for players of all skill levels and ages.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Blast From the Past: Monkey Island Special Edition

I was very pleased to see that LucasArts have decided to release special editions of their first and second Monkey Island adventure game series on Steam. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the award winning Monkey Island series follows the journeys and trials of one oddly named Guybrush Threepwood, a thoroughly unrespected 'mighty pirate' who is constantly tormented by the ghost/zombie/demon/whatever pirate LeChuck, largely because Guybrush has somehow managed to pull the unattainable Elaine Marley at some point and LeChuck just happens to be infatuated with her love triangle blah blah blah backstory sorted.

Using a point and click interface you help Guybrush solve all the puzzles and appropriately chat up all the right people in the right ways to help out Mr. Threepwood overcome whatever predicament he's got himself into whether it be escaping prison, chartering a ship or winning a spitting contest (yep) it is up to you to figure it all out. The puzzles are usually very satisfying and rarely resort to some backwards moon logic that only the developers understood when coding it.

On top of all that, the Special Edition offers the chance to ditch the pixellated environments of all and play the facelifted version of the game with enhanced graphics as well as fully voicing the game's dialogue, which is very well done. It all looks and sounds very nice and fans of the old game will appreciate the changes.

Bad points: The audio commentary, as enjoyable as it is, gives away spoilers so first time players may or may not want to listen to them at key moments in the game such as the Stan's Coffin Shop to name one of many giveaways. The point and click interface is all screwed up and far too awkward to use, especially in Monkey 1. I don't see why they couldn't have just kept all the actions at the bottom of the screen like usual instead of making me use either my mouse scroll wheel or pressing bloody SHIFT every two minutes. Also, they couldn't be arsed to add in any extra puzzles. What a cop out.

Not that there is any shortage of puzzles, Monkey Island 2 will take you around 5 hours to finish if you don't resort to guides and such like and the whole package is very good value for money so if you want to try out an adventure game, or want to revisit one of the best in the business. I heartily reccommend downloading this one. I only say this because I have yet to play Day of the Tentacle and I am embarrassed by this fact.

Verdict: 4/5: Solid adventuring package, but no new gameplay.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Square Logic + Your Tunes = Puzzle Music Mong Fest

I think I'll also tag this post as a Time-Sink special too just because I've played Everyday Genius: Square Logic for a cumulative total of 12 hours according to Steam and I've barely made a dent in the amount of content this game has to offer and all this for less than a measly couple of squid.

If you've ever come across a puzzle called KenKen you'll know what kind of thing you're in for but Square Logic goes further than KenKen ever does and throws all kinds of madness at you whether it be solving two puzzles with the same solution simultaneously, putting comparison '<' symbols between certain cells in a given grid or having the gall to ask you to figure out where the puzzles 'cages' even are in the first place using your already heavily tested logical circuits to a greater extent and just when you think you've got a grip on all the gameplay mechanics the game has on offer, it throws a few more in and makes the puzzles even bigger. Soon you find that individual puzzles can be campaigns in their own right and miraculously this remains to be very fun.

To make the experience truly euphoric... add your fave tunes to the mix by muting the game's pleasant music and sound effects and catch up on some albums! I've managed to get through most of the Radiohead discography, got into Scroobius Pip in a big way and cracked out a bit of Outkast and Gorillaz for good measure and I've never enjoyed my music so much. Give it a try and see if you agree. If you don't then it's your loss because this is awesome.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Play My Puzzle Game: Linesweeper

Yes you read right... I kinda invented something. "Linesweeper" is not too unlike popular Japanese puzzles except I guess it's not Japanese since I made it (so we I guess we should call it one of those "British Puzzles?") but this is all fluff. I should tell you all how you can play it online and where you can do so.

Linesweeper is hosted on the website of a great guy called Otto Janko, (I've mentioned his excellent site before) and he has kindly made a Javascript applet for what would have otherwise been solely a pen and paper based grid puzzle so you can actually just do it all in your browser right now!

There is a good explanation on the main page on how to solve... but it's in German so unless you want to use a translator to figure out the rules I'll just explain it here.


1. The object is to create a path through the grid which forms a single closed loop. You can only ever move up, down, left or right (not diagonally).

2. The loop can't cross itself or have a fork in it, just one uninterrupted loop.

3. The numbered cells can't be passed through and tell you exactly how many of the 8 surrounding cells should contain some part of the solution path. (e.g. "0" means the 8 surrounding cells can't be passed through at all).

NB: There is only ever one solution and no guesswork is required.

There are 20 puzzles on the site at the moment and I've already written another 5 personally and perhaps other puzzle authors out there will create their own problems in the future? Watch this space!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Elder Scrolls IV - Oblivion: The Time Sink Diaries

Bethesda really blew me away with this cracking Action RPG and the sheer size of the game and potential for replay value seriously makes me consider my mortality. There is so much to see and do and the level of freedom makes Oblivion feel more like an adventure simulator than a game that has a full blown story mode or anything like that. Once you've constructed your character, which is done in neat little steps throughout the opening tutorial section you will get one last chance to rethink your character's race, profession, appearance and star sign (yep) before being set loose on the great expanse that is the game world of Cyrodill.

Cyrodill has witnessed the opening of portals to hell-like parallel world Oblivion and the ensuing invasion by all kinds of demonic nasties. The portals are able to exist because the Dragonfire lamps are dark and can only be set alight again by the members of a particular imperial bloodline and as luck would have it all but one known heir to this bloodline have either died or been assassinated. Oh, and this mook has to be wearing The Amulet of Kings in order to do all of this and guess what... It's only gone and got itself nicked. So it's up to your custom designed ass to sort it all out. Well, that is if you can be bothered. You can ignore all of these dramatic goings on and have a really good time as the world falls to ruins if you like and it's a lot of fun doing that too. 

And don't expect to be able to be good at everything either. This isn't Final Fantasy 7 where you can have all your cakes and eat them. You will not be a master swordsman and a master spellcaster and have loads of summons and be good at being a thief and you will certainly lot be able to please all of the people all of the time which in itself is refreshingly important in a game like this. Making the most of your Personality stat and Speechcraft skill gets you in the good books of NPCs who are more likely to divulge sensitive information and trust you with some variety of sidequest. On top of that you had better keep a clean criminal record if you wish to be accepted into the more noble factions and guilds. Similarly, don't expect Cyrodill's black marketeers and master thieves to associate with a blue blooded knight who barely knows how to pick a pocket anyway. Being your character and faithfully playing your role is the key to success here.

This ethos also applies to combat. Each character class comes complete with its own selection of Major Skills which have an initial starting bonus and also tend to level up faster whilst the other skills level up far more slowly and aren't so high to being with. All of these skills are divided among melee, magic and stealth and level up when the player actually performs the actions in question. Want to have more skill Blocking with shields? Then you had better use one. Want to be more skilled in healing? Make frequent use of restorative spells. Gaining enough skill levels in your major areas allows you to level up your base stats by sleeping once you've gained enough experience.

Oddly, Oblivion's world levels up as you do which does and doesn't work. On one hand, you never really suffer from the age-old "Oh my gosh I can kill everything with one hit this is so dull" syndrome of RPGs and you'll be able to visit all of the locations you can find whenever you want and still find there is a reasonable level of relative competence in your enemies but there is the possibility that you will level up in such a way that the enemies become disproportionately stronger than you and it does mean that old-school RPG'ers miss that "Oh my gosh I'm invinciblez lv. 999 warriah lolz" buzz. Both of these problems can be solved by adjusting the difficulty of the game (which can be done at any time) but this seems to be a bit of a ham-fisted and dissatisfying way to solve such a serious gameplay mechanics problem. Ultimately it hasn't ruined my experience of the game (yet, I have aeons of content to explore yet) so I heartily recommend this title, even more so because it's such a bargain these days and has technical support and expansion pack and hell it even has a wiki if you're into that kind of thing. Top stuff.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Your Alternative Super Mario Fix

Hello readers! I have a big bag of Mario awesomeness to dispense today so let's get right down to it!

First up is the so far excellent Super Mario 63, which is so far quite frankly an incredible flash game in which the traditionally "3D Mario" games get a 2D makeover and the result is pretty cool from what I've played until now. The game starts off with its own take on the 'Bowser kidnaps Peach' and although they play this pretty much straight there are some Mario gags that fanboys like me will just eat up. 

But honestly, they've whacked everything in here! The non-linear castle exploration and paintings that act as portals to worlds with many missions is from Mario 64, as is the health bar and red coins but we have Silver Star missions (DS Mario 64), FLUDD and Shine Sprites (Sunshine), Star Coins (New Mario Bros), and even the Star Slings from Galaxy! The Mario sprite hails from the Mario and Luigi RPGs on the DS and There's a whole host of backgrounds and sprites from Yoshi's Island --where I have yet to see the little green dude but I have not had a full playthrough yet. This is all before I've even collected my first Shine Sprite so I'm uber excited to play more of this game. There are bosses to fight with set piece puzzle weaknesses and although the levels are all in 2D, there is a great deal of non-linearity here and one can even zoom in and out of levels to see more of what is happening.

Mario can dive, jump, double and triple jump, use FLUDD nozzles and do spin attacks and ground pounds from the start and I imagine many other abilities become available further in the game. My one complaint is that Mario's movement and jumps can feel a bit clumsy sometimes but I was able to adjust rather quickly and it doesn't ruin the gameplay for me. SM63 is an excellent and exciting game. Please have a go. 


If that's all a bit too modern for you, we now go all retro and visit the UPDATED version of Super Mario Crossover. I say this because the original version of this game came out a while ago and there have since been some improvements. Anyway, for those who have never played this game, Super Mario Crossover is basically the original Super Mario Bros. NES classic with the option of playing through the game with (at time of writing) 6 other NES characters including Megaman and Samus Aran in all their pixelley glory.

The characters are all roughly controllable exactly as they were in their own NES games and attack accordingly. Megaman has his buster, Samus has her Power Beam and Link has his sword. However since they are guests in Mario Land, they play by Mario's House Rules in that if you take a hit from a Goomba or fall down a bottomless pit, you die. Mushrooms and Flowers each have their own unique effects on the characters and as well as offering the usual one hit shield before being vulnerable again, characters usually get a weapon upgrade. For example, Megaman can charge his weapon and acquires his headgear in Mushroom Mode. Purely a nostalgia love festival this but it's very well made.    


I also intend to delve into the dark scary world of Super Mario World rom hacks and recommend some particular titles soon so watch this space.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Hardcore Players Only: I Wanna Be The Guy

I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: Game is an indy freeware game famous for its absurd level of difficulty. Taking the role of The Kid, who is some caped boy with a mean pistol on a suicidal quest to become The Guy. Run, gun and jump your way through game designer Kayin's gauntlet of unforseeable traps, barely avoidable spikes and the famous 'death cherries' (apples) that fall upwards. The experience is made even more maddening by the fact that one hit from anything that moves means instant death. This is not for the faint hearted and to quote and old Royal Navy slogan. 99.99% need not apply. 

This is how artwork is done people 

From the starting point, you can explore many routes none of which are particularly easy and all of which can be explored from the get go as apparently, upgrades are extraneous and only make things easier. You will notice (if you can even beat the first couple of screens) many locations and hazards from various games of the 16-bit era and most of the music and sprites are directly hacked from games like Metroid, Megaman etc. Speaking of Megaman, the game requires you defeat six bosses before allowing entry in to final lair of The Guy, which in itself consists of many screens which even after memorising all of the 'surprise hazards' take a great degree of skill to conquer. 

The difficulty levels mainly govern the frequency of the save points in the game, ranging from Impossible (no saves) to Medium (many saves, all of which read 'WUSS' instead of 'SAVE' and The Kid wears a big poncey pink ribbon at all times to add further insult) but the actual screens themselves maintain a consistent level of difficulty. 

If a group of your friends start playing this be warned that there will be severe bragging rights earned by those that complete their quest and become The Guy. If you've Beaten the Bear (see last post) it is now time for you to Be The Guy. Do you have what it takes?

Friday, 17 September 2010

Great Free Online Flash RPGs

A lot of people cite Square's Final Fantasy 7 as being one of these benchmark RPGs to compare all other contenders to but FF7 has one fatal flaw. You can't click a tab anywhere in the entire game and check your Facebook before clicking another tab to return to the game. The following three not only allow you to do this, but are all solidly enjoyable games, each with their own distinctive and often humorous styles.

Most recently released is Epic Battle Fantasy 3. Now if you have experienced either EBF 1 or 2 then please those forget those experiences now. The previous two games in this series saw you progress linearly through fight after fight with no exploration, character levelling and you started off with every kickass magic spell and summon in the game from the get go. This time you have to properly earn all your strength with levels, AP to buy skills with and the whole upgradin' shabang.

In this third release you take control of Matt (some kinda pirate), Natalie (a magic wielding girl with boobs that jiggle when you click on them, yep) and Lance (a soldier of sorts and the final boss in the previous game) on a quest to defeat some demon that looks a lot like the Aeon Anima from Final Fantasy X that drains away the party's magic and skills in the opening scenes. This goes to explain why the adventurers start off as proper Lv 1. noob warriors in this game. Great!

This time there is a full blown map to explore with treasure chests to open, monsters you have to approach to battle (no random encounters here) and sidequests which consist entirely of bringing X amount of Y items to person Z in return for Prize A. There are minigames, a bestiary to fill and medals to collect for the compulsive gamers out there and four levels of difficulty to master should you want the extra challenge. Oh yeah and don't forget the clickable jiggle boobs. They are also there too.

Combat is essentially "We make our moves first and then you make yours" and the rest is standard RPG fare. The graphics are nice and cartoony and the whole game makes fun of itself with constant references to various internet memes and RPG tropes. Basically the whole thing looks and feels like it was designed by a 15 year old and it's up to you whether you find all that annoying or not but the game itself is pretty solid. Enjoy!

Next up is something of a big deal. Indie programmer pseudolonewolf has created a series of SNES-like RPG's called Mardek. So far there are 3 chapters on the web and a planned series of 8 altogether. The very cool thing is that as long as you play each of the games sequentially on the same website and don't delete your cookies and whatnot it is possible to finish one chapter and carry over all your stats, items and data from one chapter to the next which is unique in the world of Flash gaming as far as I am aware and it works brilliantly. If you want to play the first instalment go here.

Now be informed that although the first game is relatively short the following two chapters boast about 30 hours plus gameplay and plenty more depth. During exploration the interface is very much in the realm of Super Nintendo graphics and it pulls this off well and everything looks very clean and polished for a free game. The battles ditch this graphics style and offer more detailed sprites for enemies and heroes during combat. This RPG comes complete with more satisfying sidequests than Epic Battle Fantasy and offers a greater depth of tactics and storyline. The game even allows you a chance to skip random encounters when you 'grow out of them' stats wise so the game progresses at a good pace.

The narrative revolves around a little medievalish village boy called Mardek who encounters a being from outer space called Rohoph that has fled from his own people. Residing inside the body of Mardek, Rohoph stays with him as he grows up to be a full blown royal soldier and that's when Rohoph's 'people' catch up with him. Anything else would be telling so I'll let you get on with it. Mardek's style does include some self referential RPG - trope stuff like the 'Sidequest Priest' and characters that are fully aware that they are useless NPCs consigned to walk backwards and forwards. However the tone of the game is serious enough and gets the daft-serious balance bang on. Worth your time but it is a meaty one so be warned.

I now draw your attention to Sonny and it's sequel which can be played independently. As the blurb text warns you, this game puts you in control of the eponymous zombie. You're not sure how you became a zombie or even how you died in the first place but there you are, on a boat, undead and being hunted down by the living and it's just your luck that instead of curious horny tweenage zombie fodder coming to explore your spooky location, it's a bunch of highly trained soldiers with nasty weapons. Sod's Law.

With the help of tutorial NPC Louis the Blind you escape the boat and go on a quest to well, stay alive for want of a better word. The game progresses linearly from battle to battle with the option to shop, equip stuff, save and take part in level grinding battles if you need the exp. There's an interesting buff/debuff system which allows various conditions to be stacked on one another (e.g. "Double Poison") and debuff heals/buff breaks work on a Last In First Out basis so if you "Regenerate HP Every Turn" yourself three times and an opponent's debuff technique is good for only two debuffs, you still have the very first one left over and active. It works very well and I've not seen it elsewhere.

Each turn your characters can choose from eight equipped skills. These skills can be bought with point that come with every level and skills are arranged in a 'skills tree' which means that you can't buy a skill on a given branch unless you have bought all the skills preceeding it on the branch. If you make bad decisions or your character would simply be better off in a certain fight having a whole new skillset, you are able to claim back all your spent points and have a do-over a certain number of times a day. 

Most of these skills require some of your limited supply of 'Focus Points' in order to use and there is a 'cooldown time' for most skills which can be somewhat circumvented by equipping a skill multiple times (there are limits there too though) and the main strategical problems revolve around timing which skills you use and precisely when you use them. No good having a 'block attack' skill in cooldown when you are expecting a huge attack from an enemy next turn.

The annoying things about this game are that equipping your character can be very fiddly and annoying, your companions in the party act on their own which sometimes can lead to their daft moves leaving you in a bad situation. Also this game is not ideal for slower connections as the game can suffer massive slowdown which really makes the game a chore to play and watch. However the battle mechanics work well enough and there is some good voice acting in it which makes the three story chapters plus the bonus fourth chapter playable enough to keep you interested for that length of time. Worth a go if you've tried everything else.          
Phew! With that I leave you to the 70+ hours of time wasting RPG fare on offer here!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Free Logic Puzzle Heaven

Remember this URL It is the personal homepage of Angela and Otto Janko. As well as documenting much of their home life such as their pets, garden and hobbies, there is also a whole treasure trove of brainteasers here and make up a great bulk of the site. Taking submissions from puzzle authors and categorising them by type, size and difficulty there is a whole wealth of fun times to be had. Better still, many of the popular japanese logic puzzles are all solvable interactively in custom designed Java applets which allow you to save progress, check for errors and retrace your steps as well as including 'what if' markers so you can graphically check for contradictions if you are into that kind of thing.

Bonus points to anyone who can find puzzles I've submitted to this site. Oh and be sure to use google translator when you get to the puzzles section as the website is written in German. There are a collection of flags at the top left hand corner of the Puzzle/Raetsel section. This site is regularly updated and continues to expand.

Oh and just for another good timewaster, try Picture Logic for some of the popular Hanije puzzles, also frequently updated.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Puzzle Quest 2: The Time-Sink Diaries

If you have already played the first Puzzle Quest game, skip this paragraph. For those who haven't, the original Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords blended the 'match-3 of the same thing' game mechanic with the character based RPG system and the result was frankly quite a bit dull but inexplicably addictive to many. The story was barely worth reading and the visuals didn't inspire and at times the game doesn't even seem remotely fair with the very reasonable possibility of losing without having the chance to even swap one pair of the game's millions of gems. This game ate up most of my study time at one stage and I often found myself playing til the late hours without being aware of it. Dangerous stuff. You've been warned.

The word 'Pummel' always makes me chuckle, as does the word 'Yeast'.

The sequel takes this oddly successful formula and smooths out a lot of the kinks. Playing this on Steam I found a large wealth of achievements for those that are into that kind of thing. As for the story, it has been reduced to minimal chit chat to connect quests together and that's all you get, which is a welcome change compared to the reams of uninspired dialogue you were treated to in the previous game. Another nice edition is the change to the weapons and levelling systems which are much simpler (you don't have to worry about percentages this time around) and it's all much more pretty. Rather than there being 'experience gems' on the board to level up with there are now 'action gems' in the form of gauntlets that add an extra layer of strategy. Collected action points can be spent using weapons to attack or other effects such as increased defence from a shield or regaining health from a potion. The combat isn't radically different but fans of the old game will relish the tweaks and twiddles made here.

Everything (everything) is match-3 mayhem (or tedium) from picking locks, bashing down doors and disarming traps, each task bringing with it special rules and strategies whilst all being so disarmingly simple and fun to play and trust me, if the single player doesn't keep you playing for half of forever, the four character classes and tonnes of side quests most certainly will. The online multiplayer will fill up the rest of eternity for you if you are so desperate, and believe me if this game leaves you lacking for a timewaster... you are. On that bombshell, I shall once again assume the form of dread barbarian Jakkus and kill another Polar Bear, send hate mail to the usual address...