Monday, 24 December 2012

Simply having a pixely Christmas Time

Season's greetings one and all!

With the festive period very much in full swing and the Big Day almost upon us, I thought I would take a little look at how Christmas plays a part in some of my favourite video games...tis the season, after all.

Shenmue - Dreamcast

Ryo nearly manages a smile at Christmas!
For me, there are very few sights in the gaming world that compare with that of the wonderful city of Yokosuka covered in snow and lit up at Christmas time. And as you would expect from such a magnificent game, Shenmue makes you feel as if you are really there, trudging through the crisp snow, downing cans of Jet Cola and spending all your pocket money on addictive capsule toys! And what's more, you can do all this (and so much more) to the accompaniment of some wonderful background music.

The very first time I played Shenmue was in the lead up to Christmas of 2001, and for this reason alone it will forever remain a special Christmas game to there aren't many better ways of hibernating the winter away!

Secret of Mana - Super Nintendo/Super Famicom

Christmas is saved, thanks to Salamando!
I'm not sure I've ever played another game where you have to beat the living daylights out of Father Christmas in order to help save the world...but here we have it with Square's masterful Secret of Mana! Upon arriving in the Ice Country, you find out that the jolly fat man has been kidnapped and as it turns out, possessed by the spirit of Frost Gigas. In order to stop him wreaking havoc you need to take him down fast...a few well place swings of a Flame Sabre and a couple of Fireballs help knock the sense back into Claus and save the day.

Secret of Mana will always be one of my all time favourite video games. It offers up a very rare experience, and the chance to save Christmas within it's joyous world makes that experience even sweeter.  

Christmas NiGHTS - Saturn

Nightopia, the ultimate Christmas destination...
The original NiGHTS was always a rather magical experience for me, but once you get the Christmas edition and (if need be) change the Saturn's internal clock to December...the fun starts to get really festive! Elliot and Claris journey once more to Nightopia and team up with the whimsical jester known as NiGHTS, this time to rescue the Christmas Star from the evil Gillwing. Flying around around Spring Valley while it's covered in a deep blanket of snow and with a gorgeous instrumental version of Jingle Bells as your musical accompaniment is genuinely out of this world!  

Christmas NiGHTS is not the longest or most complex game you're likely to play this year (only 2 levels long), but it another piece of unbridled joy from Sega and one which would put a smile on the face of all but the biggest of grinches.

Batman Returns - Super Nintendo/Super Famicom

Festive cheer...Gotham Style!
Not content with making one of the most accomplished beat-em-ups of the 16bit generation, Konami also saw fit to smother Batman Returns in a wonderful Christmas inspired glaze! The Penguin and Catwoman are intent on bringing chaos to Gotham during the holiday season...cue the Dark Knight and his dazzling array of moves and gadgets. In order to save the day, you must knock seven bells out of the baddies...which strangely enough, could be compared to shopping on Christmas Eve.

Although it's by far the darkest use of Christmas within this list, there is a definite allure to prowling the lawless streets of Gotham and dispensing some seasonal vigilante justice.

So there we have it. I sincerely hope this little list of games adds to your festive cheer!

To everyone who reads my written meanderings; I'd like to extend a massive thank you for your support and encouragement throughout the year. I wish you all a very happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Too weird for the west? Part 1: Gegege no Kitaro

Obviously not a winning lottery ticket...
Being a bit of a Super Nintendo fanatic, I've always been partial to the odd crazy platform game. Unfortunately for me I'm also a member of the PAL community...which in Nintendo's translation book, I could wear means 'leper'. As a result of this I sadly missed out on many of the wackiest and often finest titles this happy-go-lucky genre had to offer.

Now I'm not going to sit here and preach that all Japanese games should have been released in the west because...well lets just say; Super Bikuri Man. In some cases though the lack translation and release of certain titles was a genuine loss to those of us outside of Japan, Seiken Densetsu 3 being possibly the most famous example.

Thankfully through magazines like Super Play and now, the maturation of online retailers it's easy for people like me to hurl themselves head first into the curious and wonderful world of Japanese gaming's shining stars. And then give them a once over to try and see if they really were missed over here.

So lets start with this; the loveable (and equally infuriating) Gegege no Kitaro - Fukkatsu! Tenma Daiou for the Super Famicom.

The subtitles say it all...erm, yeah! 
Gegege no Kitaro - Fukkatsu! Tenma Daiou (roughly translated as "The Ghost of Kitaro"...I think) is a magnificent looking and exceedingly strange (even by these standards) platform game by Bandai, based on the long running manga and anime of the same name. As far as I know the story goes something like this: Kitaro is the young looking, but actually very old last surviving descendant of an ancient tribe made up of half spirit/half human folk. He also has one eye missing...though this is strangely not a problem! Anyways, he receives a letter informing him that he will soon die, and so off an exciting quest he must go.

Putting the boot in.
The visuals in this game grab hold of you from the minute you flip the switch, even though it was released fairly early on in the console's lifespan it is achingly pretty. From the myriad of (frankly unintelligible) cut-scenes to the actual levels themselves, Gegege no Kitaro is stunning and does a staggering job in showing off just what the Super Famicom could do. Most pleasing of all though is how well Bandai have managed to capture the likeness of Kitaro's world, the characters from the original manga and series are brilliantly represented and alongside the legions of bizarre enemies, are right of out of top drawer.

More sumptuous eye candy... 
Gameplay wise there's nothing much that hasn't been done before so you're unlikely to find your mind blown wide open, but what the game does it does very well indeed. The controls are pin sharp and super responsive...especially for a third party title and Kitaro himself has a impressively weird line-up of moves (that can also be powered up) to help him take down the scores of paranormal baddies. From firing nails out of his eye socket (yep!) to electrocuting himself ala Blanka, you can guarantee that disposing of his foes will be well as rather challenging.

Facial expression perfection here!
Though the levels are are a bit on the short side they are quite stunning to behold. Each one is packed full of lush and vivid backgrounds which again, considering this game's release date is breathtaking. Bandai also made good use of the Sufami's parallax capabilities which adds much to this visual splendour...funny how 16bit fans will always appreciate a nice bit of parallax eh! There are tons of enemies skulking about so you're never left short on action and then there's the obligatory end of level bosses, which are all hard as nails.

I spy with my little eye...sorry.
As I've touched on previously Gegege no Kitaro is tough, brutally tough in fact, and there are times when this does sour the experience somewhat. Platform games are at their best when they're challenging, but it really does need to be fair and if you're prone to the odd bout of pad throwing rage then approach with caution! One way to ease this ball breaking difficulty level is to grab a friend and utilise the two player option. Every level gives Kitaro a different 'helper' for player 2 to control, each one comes with their own kooky set of moves and weapons which adds to the fun and the madness (more importantly). Historically, these games are more enjoyable with a friend and the same is definitely true here.

Guess what...I died here too!
Overall then, it's not too difficult to see why Gegege no Kitarou was never selected to make the jump form east to west...although if it had, I'm sure it would have garnered a very loyal following (with me included). I can't help feeling that it's just a bit too weird and the fact that both the anime and the manga are not massively well known outside of Japan won't have helped either. Whilst on a personal level I consider this a great shame, I'm also quite thankful that as a kid I was spared the sheer rage that this game can induce!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

All you need is love...

As we all know, there are some ludicrously talented people out there. I'm lucky enough to read some of what these people write, and feel it's time that I try to share their work with anyone who reads this blog.

So without further ado:

Future Retro Gamer

A fantastic site, jam packed with news, reviews and blogs. The content is written by supremely talented people and I'd urge anyone with an interest in gaming, old or current to pay them a visit.

Australian Retro Gamer

Written by the retro gaming legend from down under, if you want quality content on a plethora of systems then this is the place to be!

Retro 101

Newly relaunched and ready to rock: 

"A new website and a host of new designs are giving Retro 101 a much needed shake up. The website is now much more flexible and allows articles to be published much more quickly and thus give you that nostalgic buzz more often. A host of new graphics created by talented young designers have also added a much needed identity for us."

Kimimi's blog

Right now, my number one source for the more obscure video game...she has taught me much (including how to run on Boku no Natsuyasumi!). Get yourself over there to see something new.

Retro Games Collector

Showcasing the very best in gaming collections, and providing quality, practical advice about retro systems. One of my favourite sites.


SHMUP legend, arcade legend and now I find out; fighting game legend! Plus, all round top bloke.

Quite Cross

Another all round top man, has a very enviable games collection and has been known to write poetry...about cricket!

Tinpot Gamer

A slice of what's nice! Lots of well written reviews on a wide range of video games.

Gaming Hell

Ah, Gaming Hell. This site is that good, it actually makes me want to play Pit Fighter over and over again just so I don't get into heaven! Astutely run by the long suffering 'Ed the Editor', anyone who enjoys video games should visit at least once!

Visit the site

Level Up Gaming

One of my favourite sites to call on for well written and thought provoking articles. Articles are written by a number of contributors so the style never gets too familiar.

Bigman Runs

The thoughts of a big man...who runs. Our good friend, Jay McNeill and his musings on various issues.

Visit the site

Nerds Review is the completely unnecessary blog devoted to reviews by nerds and for nerds. 'Nuff said really.

Visit the site

Gamer Spy

Articles written by our very own Blanka fiend...always worth a look!

So there we are. The next time you're wandering the internet and looking for somewhere to go, stop off at one of these fantastic haunts and say hello! 

And is all you need.

Triple Threat Top 10!

Some of the rowdy bunch that captured my heart...
For many years now (more than actually I care to remember, to be honest) fighting games have been my biggest attraction in the wonderful world of video games. From the first time I picked up IK+ on the Commodore 64 I found the allure of controlling master marital artists irresistible, and through the years this love only intensified with the barrage of staggering triumphs that were released in the genre. There is no other family of game that offers such diversity and depth of character, as the world of the fighting game (AM2's Fighting Palm tree, anyone?!). And it's testament to the genre that even today, the likes of Arcana Heart 3, Tekken Tag 2 and BlazBlu are keeping the torch lit. Just goes to show, knocking seven bells out of your mates will never get old!

Anyways, after a chance Twitter conversation with fellow brawling connoisseurs; Messrs Dave Bird and Anton Sombetzki, we decided to each jot down our top 10 favourite fighting games and then compare the lists...vs style! Given that we each enjoy differing gaming palettes, the variations in selections should hopefully make for some interesting reading.

This is the first time I've embarked on compiling this list so, here goes...or as Anton put it: "three dudes, ten games, one week!"

By the by, this not my take on the "definitive" or "greatest" fighting games. It just those which I hold dearest, and the systems on which I fell in love with please don't be offended if a certain game hasn't made it.

1. Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting (SNES/Super Famicom)

Funny what some new colours and a speed increase can do, eh...
As anyone who knows me (even a little bit) could probably tell you, I am bit of a Street Fighter nut, and Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting is my most beloved of the lot. In fact it is not only my favourite fighting game, but also my favourite game...period. I can honestly say that I have never felt the same level of anticipation or love for any other video game, nor has there been another game that I have ploughed the same (obscene) number of hours into in all my years of rolling quarter circles. For me this game has absolutely everything; a near perfect balance, an intelligent and diverse character roster, fantastic visuals and sound effects and possibly the most hated villain the fighting game world has ever seen. It was and still is a shining beacon for Capcom at their very best.

2. The King of Fighters 98 (PSX)

Dragon vs Wolf, in stunning SNK-ovision!
Pound for pound, the best King of Fighters game there is, and probably the best 3 on 3 fighting game I've ever had the privilege to play. KOF 98 is a kind of 'best of' from the previous instalments (94 to 97) and it certainly shows. It has probably the finest roster of characters I've ever seen in a fighting game with characters shipped in from all over wacky world of SNK, a ludicrous amount of depth and some wonderfully extravagant (but not over the top) combo attacks. What sets KOF 98 apart from all other fighting games though, is the sheer amount of minute detail that SNK stashed away inside it; little touches like Kensou choking on a pork bun and Terry's hat falling off when you lose a bout, are almost insignificant but show just how much effort was poured into the game. While it did borrow a lot from other games (namely Street Fighter), KOF 98 remains my favourite fighting game of its generation.

3. Tekken 2 (PSX)

Brush head biker, batters armoured a forest, why not!
The first Tekken game kind of passed me by (as did a lot of early polygonal 32bit games) but when it's sequel (imaginatively titled Tekken 2!) arrived on the scene it, demanded that I sit up and take notice of it. From the (even now) gorgeous CG intro sequence to the excellent soundtrack, Tekken 2 remains to this day my favourite poly-fighter. Where Namco truly excelled themselves though was with the sheer depth of this game...there are no other brawlers from this period with anywhere near the same amount of scale to them. There is a bewildering array of oddball fighters to choose from, and more than enough variety to suit all styles of play. More than this though, each character has a distinct personality to them that really helped to pull me in. Add to this a fascinating tactical approach to each bout, where a considered approach would often be rewarded (as opposed to the rather speed heavy/move spamming approach we now see in current Tekken games) and you are in for a royal treat.

4.  Street Fighter Alpha 2 (Saturn)

The Capcom geekometer is off the charts here...
I adore the Street Fighter Alpha series, it was definitely the logical way for Capcom to take Street Fighter at the time, and Alpha 2 is my favourite of the three. Although it has a smaller roster than Alpha 3, I've always considered it to be the most balanced of the series and I'd also say it's the prettiest, too. There are three distinctly different fighting styles you can choose from, lots of very impressive super combos and a mountain geek-tastic cameos in the stages stages (my favourite bit!). I've chosen the Saturn version of Alpha 2 here because it was the most faithful port around at the time, little (but significant) touches like the water reflections in Gen's stage and a number of extra animation frames just push it above the PSX version.

5. Capcom vs SNK 2: Millionaire's Fighting (Dreamcast)

After years of clamouring, the fans got their way...and it was good!
It's probably not wrong to call this game 'the fan boy's wet dream''s certainly how I felt when I got my hands on it. Happily for me though, the game managed to live up to the hype that surrounded it. The choice of characters on offer here is frankly insane, with a plethora of fan favourites making the cut. CvS 2's stand-out feature though, is it's choice of combat styles; there are three from both the Capcom and SNK stables, plus the ability to customise your own...this allows for some truly in-depth and epic tinkering, I found myself spending hours here just getting the balance tight for my own style. While the game is not perfect; a lack of Robert Garcia and a gimped Ryo Sakazaki are unfortunate, it is still one of the most magnificent fighting games I've ever picked up.

6. The Last Blade 2 (Neo Geo CD)

SNK's prettiest ever game?
Big shout time here. I consider The Last Blade 2 to the best looking game that SNK produced, and this is what initially drew me to it. The stunning vistas of feudal Japan, intriguing characters and innovative battle system, make for a splendid (and indeed my favourite) weapons based fighting game. It's slightly less comic book style than the (also magnificent) Samurai Shodown but manages to keep that manga feel to it...the SNK artists really outdid themselves with this one. Although the access times on the Neo Geo CD version mean you have to wait an eternity between bouts, this just adds to the anticipation...and lets you go and make a sandwich!

7. Street Fighter III Third Strike (Dreamcast)

The purists choice...and with good reason
Yes, its another Street Fighter game (sorry), but it really is hard to argue with the pedigree of Third Strike. After playing Alpha for so long, I initially found it difficult to get into Street Fighter III but once I picked up Third Strike and got to grips with it's intricacies I found it to be Capcom's best since Hyper Fighting. The new parry system allows for some epic counter attacking and for once, the new characters were of a pretty high standard (except for Urien in his undies!). The old favourites are not left to rot though with Capcom breathing new life into Ryu and Ken et al...this means loads of fun relearning them all over again! This game spent has spent so much time in my little Dreamcast, and I picked it up brand new just for £10, can't say fairer than that!

8. Garou: Mark of the Wolves (PS2)

Finally, Garou plays as good as it looks...
I've been a fan of the Garou/Fatal Fury games from the very beginning, but while each game was interesting and well presented I could never help thinking that not a single instalment was as polished, or as well executed as a Street Fighter least until Mark of the Wolves was released. SNK tweaked the system and made it more conventional (I know that sounds like a sell out but it honestly brings so much more to the game), giving it a much nicer flow while also introducing some new miscreants to the party. The overall result is incredible! I actually felt like all other Garou games had been made just to facilitate the arrival of MOTW. Sure, the game borrows heavily from other franchises but this doesn't diminish it's quality one bit. Although I own Mark of the Wolves for the Dreamcast too, I found myself ploughing the most number of hours into the Japanese PS2 version.

9. Fighters Megamix (Saturn)

This was the ultimate SEGA get together!
There was a list of reasons why I wanted to own a Sega Saturn back in the day, and top of that list was Fighters Megamix. An epic coming together of some of Sega's most beloved read like a who's who of fighting games! The fact that I could pit Akira against Bahn was brilliant, but to be able to then pit Bark against the Hornet car from a cage match was just too much! AM2 also saw fit to add to the ability to dodge, which enabled some sneaky counter attacks and a genuine extra layer of scope to the game. Fighters Megamix may lack the slick presentation of Tekken 2 but in terms of depth it runs Namco's finest very close indeed, and that helps propel it into this list and makes it the finest 3D fighting game I've ever played.

10. Killer Instinct (SNES)

Insane combos at their best!
When I first laid eyes on Killer Instinct I was gob-smacked by how stunning it looked but also fairly sceptical of what Rare seemed to be trying to achieve. Their formula of Street Fighter II + Mortal Kombat + massively insane combos struck me as a bit naughty and more than a bit lazy, this all changed however once I finally got my mitts the game. KI's biggest draw by far is the combo system, which is nothing short of brilliant. It takes a little while to learn what move links to the next but once you get the basics, you won't look back. As previously mentioned, it looks glorious and has one of the best soundtracks on the SNES. It may not be the most original game in terms of characters and settings but it certainly is bags of fun, and that surely, is the point.

So there we are then, my ten favourite fighting games. I hope you enjoyed reading the list as much as I enjoyed putting it together. Please feel free to vote, comment, share and subscribe...oh and check out my comrade's lists too!

Honourable mentions:

Samurai Shodown 2, Fighting Vipers, Dead Dance, Virtua Fighter 2, Street Fighter IV, World Heroes Perfect, Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, Soul Edge, SD Hiryu no Ken, Waku Waku 7, IK+, Flying Dragon, Last Bronx, Arcana Heart, Galaxy Fight, Super Smash Brothers, SvC Chaos, Gals Fighters, Rival Schools United by Fate

Vote for your favourite game?

There is just about enough time left for to mention a game that, while very popular would never make into (or even close to) my top 10 list...the elephant in the corner:

Mortal Kombat (Arcade and every console)

I'll come out with it straight away, I just don't "get" Mortal Kombat. Never have and probably never will. That's not to say I've never tried though, I've played (and indeed owned) at least four instalments of the series, and can honestly say I've never once enjoyed playing it. I don't know if it's the fact that it's too American, had stupid and ugly graphics or just that Midway managed to spawn a truck load of games based on nothing but overly gratuitous violence. For me, a fighting game must have depth, interesting characters and a fluid feel to it, Mortal Kombat has none of these. In fact the best way I can sum it up is like this; when my mate first got his SNES copy on 'Mortal Monday', I rushed round to his house to play it...within 30 minutes we were back playing Street Fighter II. Case closed.