Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Happy Anniversary Blue Swirl

Ten years ago today, at around 5pm, I was sitting on the top deck of a stinking double decker bus with two weighty plastic bags clasped tight to my side. Inside, a pristine, launch day Sega Dreamcast, a vat of peripherals and the vast majority of the launch titles. I'd saved all summer, sold my chipped PlayStation for £30 more than it was worth, worked my fingers at least slightly closer to the bone, all for this moment, all for the wonder that rested in those crisp, enormous bags.

I got the console home, unpacked everything with the due diligence of an architect carefully revealing a fragment of ancient pottery. This was the first time in all of my gaming life that I had caught up with technology. More often than not I was a generation behind; Spectrum instead of C64, Master System 2 instead of Mega Drive, Mega Drive instead of PlayStation, and I only got one of those a couple of years in and had to spend a month playing the demo disc that came with the console because I couldn't afford any games. Not this time though, oh no, this time I was cutting edge.

Once my prized possession was connected to the knackered old TV, it was time to decide what to play first; Sonic Adventure, obviously, a re-imagining of a childhood hero. I opened the box; no disc. Perplexed, vaguely terrified, I tried the next game; no disc. Hands shaking with rage and disbelief I scrambled for my other purchases, yanking open the cheap plastic to be greeted, over and over again, by a disc shaped absence. I could feel an expletive brewing deep in my belly, a scream of gargantuan proportions, the sort that wakes the dead. Then I realised the boxes were double sided and the discs were all in the back. It's a bit like a microcosm for the whole Dreamcast saga, Sega starting off as they meant to go along, getting us early adopters ready for the pain of having to say goodbye too soon.

I'm not afraid to admit that the Dreamcast is, and will likely remain, my favourite console. Online gaming, amazing peripherals, the strongest launch day line up of any console ever, Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia, Virtua Tennis, these are all mine. It's like the first band you love, and I mean really love, are always your favourite band, even if you stop listening to them. Your tastes change, you move on to bigger and better things, but there's always a part of you that belongs to your first. The blue swirl made me the gamer I am today, and for that I'll never forget it.

Even if it did look like a futuristic Japanese toilet.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Lengths To Which We Go

Today, in total, I have spent £150 on two pieces of none console videogame hardware; one arcade stick and one set of headphones. This is the kind of thing that we gamers do, we make ridiculous impulse purchases, filling drawers with items that we'll use for a couple of hours, declare the greatest thing in the world and then forget about when the next shiny new thing catches our fickle, fickle eyes.

I've got statues, posters, limited edition boxed sets, art books, art cards, art. I have controllers of differing colours and ergonomic design, games for consoles I've never owned and consoles I've bought for just one game. I'm not "hardcore" or "l33t", but I am passionate about the culture and counter culture that has grown up around the pastime that ensnared me. I had a fishing controller for the Dreamcast for pity's sake.

A lot of us are hoarders, stock pilers, magpies. We collect that which we identify with, much in the same way that other people do. T-Shirts, bags, jewellery, accessories, all manner of paraphernalia carry the logos, icons and imagery of our preferred distraction. Our collective possessions are building us a cultural identity - it's no longer just the games that you buy, it's the way you buy them, the accoutrements you purchase to diversify the experience, the clothing you wear to display to others that you have had and enjoyed that experience. Legitimacy won't simply come from more mature content, it will come from our acceptance as consumers. We're becoming a demographic, but it's up to us to define ourselves as we see fit.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Shooting and scoring

It's that time of the year again; summer's all but over, the kids are back at school, my drive to work takes ten minutes longer than it did last week. It can only mean one thing – the annual football game sequels are on the way. I say sequels, when of course I mean thinly veiled title updates with a handful of extra features, up to date rosters and slightly less deformed looking players. We've been in the current “gen” of consoles for a good long while now, and will more than likely remain in it for another few years, which does begin to beg the question; can EA and Konami keep shovelling out the same game every twelve months, or are they going to have to find a new way to claw the hard earned cash out of millions of pockets, wallets and purses?

It's not just sports games though, take a look at the release list for October and November, you'll find plenty of sequels, including the annual update for Call Of Duty, and, in a new move for Valve, Left 4 Dead 2, landing only a year after the original. The rush for the Christmas cash is already on, and it would certainly seem that familiarity is what gets gamers and their parents chucking money at retailers. But if a game is just a refinement, a few tweaks to the engine and a bit of polish, something that can easily be accomplished with DLC, then why should we be expected to shell out another forty quid, or in the case of Modern Warfare, sixty?

I know that it's not quite as simple as I'm making out, but it could be. Incremental changes to games have been commonplace since the advent of the internet, with bugs fixed and maps added on the fly, surely we can't be that far away from whole new campaigns, characters and experiences being made available. Steam, Xbox Live, PSN and a vast number of other download services have proved that the appetite for digital distribution exists, and seeing shelf room in game shops taken up by new I.Ps and original thinking, rather than Football 26 and War Game 18 is something we all should be striving towards.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Help! I need some... rings?

There are two big video game stories today; The Beatles Rock Band and the ten year anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast, but since I'm in the UK, and the Dreamcast wasn't released until the 14th of October over here, that really only leaves me with one option.

Project Needlemouse.

You can scream at me until you're blue in the face about the significance of the Beatles back catalogue being released for the first time digitally in an interactive format, and whilst I may agree that, yes, that is a significant step forward in the fight for credibility for the medium we all love, anything else pales in comparison to the announcement of a new two dimensional Sonic game. In all of my 26 and a bit years on this earth I have not once wanted to be a member of the Beatles, in fact, in my humble opinion, they're an overrated pop group at best, but my younger days were dominated by a spiky blue hedgehog in red sneakers, and his increasingly bizarre cast of friends and hangers-on.

Today is a day for cultural icons, on one side, a band that shaped the progress of music and celebrity, and on the other, a video game character who was one of the first to bring mainstream cool to a hobby that was thought by many the preserve of spotty, knitted jumper wearing losers. Sonic defined the 16bit era, in much the same way as The Beatles music defined a specific time in popular culture, and despite his rotten run of form of late, a return to the halcyon days of the Mega Drive is every bit as important to videogames as The Beatles: Rock Band.

Maybe in ten years time, this day will be remembered as the day videogames finally got the credit they deserve, but I doubt it. The Beatles: Rock Band is a niche game, one that costs almost as much as a console if you want to experience it properly, the latest in a long line of -Band or -Hero games that all play identically. It doesn't represent the best, or the most distinct, that our little corner of the entertainment world has to offer. If, as an industry, video games want credibility, they need to build their own heroes, not recycle those from other, more well established forms of entertainment. That's why it's Needlemouse all the way for me today.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Not So Strong In This One...

George Lucas hates me. He hates me because I'm not 5-12 years old and my parents don't have a large amount of disposable income. He hates me because I grew up and became less susceptible to advertainment. He hates me because I don't have, need or want, a lunch box with matching flask anymore. There was a time when I thought we'd made up, that we were buds again; The Force Unleashed was for me, a present to say sorry about all the lies, the crushing disappointment, Jar Jar. It was like the old days, hanging out, talking about Kurosawa, the best places to buy stylin' checked shirts and growing beards. I should have known. I should have known that he'd just let me down again.

The demo for Republic Heroes hit Xbox Live this week, and, predictably, it's not very good. A fixed camera third person romp with an oddly Irish sounding Yoda guiding you through a non-descript desert-ish planet and explaining that, using "the force" you are able to do "double jumps" which are "powerful". Ever since Midichlorians, the mystique and mythology that surrounded the original trilogy has been constantly diluted, with videogames often the worst offenders, and Republic Heroes is no exception. The force is little more than a dull gameplay element here, you can push stuff and pull stuff, as long as it's highlighted, as long as the designers want you to at that point in proceedings. You could copy and paste any identikit kids license over the top of the game you've got here and the result would be exactly the same; a boring waste of time.

I know it's not for cynical, twenty something geeks, that it's "for the kids", but kids aren't stupid; just because you've made a bad game with a license, doesn't mean young 'uns are going to lap it up. In fact, if anything, children are more discerning than adults. If they don't like something, you're going to find out about it. And probably get some food thrown at you into the bargain. Good games and bad games are universal, that's how it works, licensing doesn't change that fact, it just annoys more people in the process. If you want to be friends again Mr. Lucas, you should have a long hard think about that.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Ze Anticipation

Batman: Arkham Asylum has been sitting on my shelf for more than a week now, the plastic wrapping disposed of, the annoyingly sticky seal removed, the manual gently thumbed once or twice, but the disk itself still snug and unplayed within the flimsy green plastic. This isn't because my thumbs have fallen off, nor is it because I haven't had a chance to play it; to be perfectly honest, I could be playing it right now and have had ample opportunity in the past couple of days to give the whole "caped crusader" thing a whirl. No, the reason I am yet to indulge of Rocksteady's much vaunted superhero 'em up is that I am too excited. That sounds lame, but it's true.

It's rare that a title can engender such a reaction in me; not including Batman, there have been three in the past couple of years, namely Street Fighter 4, Mirrors Edge and Bionic Commando. Only one of those hasn't left me staggeringly disappointed, Street Fighter, the others ended up crushed under the weight of my expectations. Mirrors Edge and Bionic Commando weren't bad games, but they could never live up to how I imagined they were going to play. It wasn't the hype that I bought into, the PR spiel or the marketing campaign; they just spoke to me, whispered sweet words to my gamer heart and made me think, "yes, I have to play this."

That's why Arkham Asylum's on the shelf, not exactly gathering dust, just waiting for me to pluck up the courage to play it. It may happen tomorrow, it may take another week, who knows? All I can hope is that the game in my head is the game that Rocksteady have managed to make, or at least something close to it, because I can't be doing with any more disappointment.