Review – SNES Classic Edition

SNES Unboxed

I’ve been pondering recently on what I would consider my best console to date. A tough ask as it’s tricky to balance the nostalgic charm of older consoles with the power and efficiency of modern consoles. Then I started to think about which console I would consider the most important in my life. The answer was there instantly, it always had been – the SNES.

The SNES (or more formally: the “Super Nintendo Entertainment System”) was the first video game console I ever owned. Arriving on Christmas morning in the early nineties I could never imagine that what was in that tightly wrapped box would spark a life-long love of video games.

I don’t intend to sound like a reminiscent old fool, but times really were simpler then. Especially for video game fans. The early nineties saw a division carve its way through school playgrounds around the world – you were either Nintendo or SEGA. The “Console Wars” were in full swing and the battle lines were drawn. Phrases such as “blast processing” and “16 BIT” were thrown around with reckless abandon. Those days are for another post however, I bring them up to emphasise the power of Nintendo, and the SNES, at that time.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and I still own the original cartridges I had back when I had a lovely head of hair. The problem is that these days older games look dreadful on modern TV’s and the hardware of the consoles themselves is starting to deteriorate. I’ve tried to store my original SNES the best I can by wrapping it up in an old carrier bag. Maybe not the most dignified way to treat such a beloved family member.

So imagine my joy when Nintendo announced that they were following up the success of last year’s NES Classic Mini release with the SNES Classic Edition. I could barely contain my excitement. The truth is, I’ve been waiting for something like this for years. I remember being at MCM Comic Con back in 2013 and seeing the Retron 5, but after almost a 2 year delay I finally lost interest.

So, after getting very lucky and managing to secure a preorder, I picked up my SNES Classic on release day and I can finally report that it’s everything I expected it to be – a nostalgic trip down memory lane via HDMI!

The box is compact and small and I must admit that I didn’t want to open it (I’ve already decided to buy a “spare” when stock becomes available once again”) and had to fight the urge to lock it away like a highly valued piece of treasure. Once I did open the box I was greeted by the SNES itself, albeit a miniature version. The shrunk down console is light and sturdy. The “feel” of the plastic will be familiar to anyone who owned the original. This feeling is only compounded once you un-package one of the controllers. Unlike my original SNES controllers, these are crisp and brand spanking. The buttons click and press like a dream. They feel much lighter too.

SNES with Pad

That’s side by side! Controller bigger than console

The NES Classic last year was notorious for having extremely short controller wires. Nintendo have rectified this and I find the length perfect for me. However, I have already had to jump off the couch a couple of times to stop the dog from tripping over the wire and pulling the console of its perch.

The SNES has two ports in the back – HDMI and a DC in. That’s it. Nice and simple. No fannying around. Yet, even thought the console does come with a HDMI cable and USB lead, it doesn’t come with a plug to connect the USB to the mains. I had to scramble through my drawer of electrical bits in order to find an adaptor.

Once we were all hooked up I flicked the familiar power on switch and we were in business! The menus are responsive and simple and the layout is as intuitive as you’d want. In the display settings menu you can alter the way the screen looks; old TV, 4:3 and Pixel Perfect. You can also add a frame to the edge of the screen if you like or just stick with black. These additional options are a nice touch.

The games themselves are a who’s who of some of the greatest games ever released on the SNES and indeed some of the greatest games ever made, full stop. There are 21 in total with classics such as Super Mario Kart and Donkey Kong Country included. I won’t go through them all, but it’s safe to say that even a handful of these are worth the price alone. Firing up Super Ghouls and Ghosts was like playing it yesterday.

With a limited number of games on the console there was always going to be some argument over what was included and what was omitted. Personally, I would have liked Pilotwings and Legend of the Mystical Ninja to have made an appearance, but I understand that it would have been impossible to please everybody. Hopefully I can play these again once Nintendo get a move on and finally make the Virtual Console available for the Switch.

There was a big deal made over Star Fox 2 finally getting a release on the SNES Classic Edition over 2 decades after it was originally canned. Personally for me, I find it hard to  muster any excitement as I thought the original was overhyped crap back in the nineties. A controversial view maybe, but a valid view nonetheless.

All in all I am very impressed with what Nintendo have achieved here and I look forward to many more years of playing these classic games.

Long live the SNES.

 

 

 

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The State of Play – The End of Nintendo?

I write this article with the realisation of a man who can no longer ignore the inevitable. Like a doomed passenger onboard a slowly sinking ship, I can do what only one can do in times like these: embrace the end, remember better times and try to fathom where it all went wrong.

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I, like many gamers, began my journey into video games with Nintendo. I’ll never forget unboxing my first console – the Super Nintendo Entertainment System – back on a Christmas morning at the beginning of the 90’s. My young mind could never comprehend the path my life would take as video games would become my favourite way to spend my free time. The console itself is my most treasured, and some of the games released on the platform I count amongst the greatest I have ever played. I have many things to say about the SNES and its accompanying sublime titles, but that is for another day.

Long before the powerhouses of Sony and Microsoft arrived on the console scene, the video game world was dominated by two console manufacturers – Nintendo and Sega. The legendary rivalry between these two titans of gaming needs no introduction, anybody growing up in the 90’s knows all too well the history of this classic feud. As a gamer you picked a side. And you stuck with them, to the end.

Last week details emerged about Nintendo’s newest offering into the console market – the Nintendo NX. News like this to my 90’s self would no doubt have sent me babbling to my parents and informing them that I know what I want to be on my Christmas list in a year’s time. But reading the news today I was left feeling a little empty and for the first time I felt sorry for Nintendo. The general feeling from the gaming press and fans alike is one of disappointment.

The news that the NX won’t be as powerful as this generation of consoles was the first nail in the coffin. Nintendo say that they won’t compete with Sony and Microsoft in the power department. Not since the N64 (for me, the Japanese company’s last great offering) has Nintendo lead in the power department – that was 20 years ago. The design of the system seems to be causing a certain amount of confusion too, much like it’s dog turd of a predecessor – the Wii U. The general consensus is that the system will be some kind of a vague “hybrid” between a home console which is can also be used as a portable. What this means for the 3DS is anyones’ guess. Seeing as the 3DS is Nintendo’s most lucrative product within the market, it would seem like suicide to take the focus away from it.

Then there is the release of the worldwide phenomenon that is Pokemon Go. Nintendo’s stock rose through the roof as opportunistic investors jumped onboard the Pokemon train. Stock prices shortly plummeted to a 20 year low as those same investors suddenly realised that Nintendo had actually very little to do with the record breaking app. A fact anybody who actually had played the game could have told you.

The sense of shameless opportunism hit a new low when I was perusing the Nintendo Store on my 3DS to see what “new” Virtual Console titles were available (telling that isn’t it? Searching for 20 year old games to play). There in the catalogue were all of Nintendo’s available Pokemon releases – on sale. The blatant cashing in on Niantic’s worldwide phenomenon caused me to cringe as I added Contra 3: Alien Wars to my download list.

So; a falling share price, an extremely tepid response to their new console and a general feeling of pity towards the once glorious console manufacturer. The question is: how can Nintendo be successful once again? For that, we have to turn to their oldest adversary. We have to talk about Sega.

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After the Mega Drive (Genesis), Sega decided to teach the new kid on the block – the Sony Playstation – a lesson, with the release of the Sega Saturn. Unfortunately for Sega, the Playstation was an astonishing success – selling over 100 million units and establishing Sony as the one to beat. The Saturn sold less than 10 million units and was widely regarded as a very expensive disaster for Sega. Meanwhile, Nintendo had decided to sidestep a 32bit disc based console altogether, opting for the aforementioned N64.

The bosses at Sega could see the writing on the wall and decided to go for broke with the release of the Sega Dreamcast before the turn of the millennium. The Dreamcast is the only Sega console I have ever owned and I can honestly say it was fantastic. The system itself sold just over 9 million units but ask any owner of a Dreamcast what they thought of it and they will regale you with mythical tales of VMU’s, Shenmue and ChuChu Rocket! whilst giving off a feeling that you “really had to own one” to know what was so special about it. Looking back you can clearly see it was well ahead of its time. It’s a cult classic of a console. It was also the last system released from Sega.

A decision was needed. Decisive action was to be taken in order to prevent this historic icon of gaming from heading into the abyss. Sega would no longer make consoles and would focus on producing and developing games. By doing this they could remain part of the industry as a whole, with their reputation in tact, and still contribute to making titles for old and new gamers alike.

This is what Nintendo need to do.

They have an arsenal of first party titles that they can focus on to bring in revenue whilst at the same time showcasing them on the most powerful consoles on the planet; Mario, Zelda, Metroid etc. all could be brought to a wider audience who would never touch a Nintendo console as it’s “for kids”.

It has to be done. I have a feeling that the Nintendo NX will be the final system Nintendo make. I just don’t want it to financially cripple them. I don’t want to live in a world where new gamers look at you with the mystified gaze of a time traveller when you mention the names Nintendo and Sega.

The next few years will be pivotal for Nintendo’s future, yet they have to look at their past and identify their strengths and focus on them in order to survive and become great again.

Over 20 years ago I picked my side and I’ve stuck with them ever since. And I will to the very end.

 

 

The State of Play – No Man’s Sky

NMS 2

In a month’s time Playstation 4 owners will be able to get their sweaty summer mitts on one of the most hyped games of this generation, Hello Games’ – “No Man’s Sky”. The excitement within the gaming community is palpable, but I’m wary.

“18 quintillion planets” are theoretically possible for you to visit according to the most recent trailer. I say theoretically, as somebody did the maths and it turned out it would take you billions of years to explore every single one of them. You may have gone slightly overboard there lads, 2 quintillion would have sufficed.

Since its first appearance, Hello Games have bamboozled gamers with incomprehensible facts and figures about the size of the explorable universe within No Man’s Sky. It gets to the point though where the eyes begin to glaze over as it all starts to become a little meaningless.

Gamers always want bigger and better worlds to explore, I think it’s a natural progression as we have journeyed through each generation of console. Yet it can get to the point where worlds are too big and too empty as to be interesting. This is the core of the problem with No Man’s Sky, I believe.

If there is nothing to fill the world then why does it need to be that big? Take Red Dead Redemption, for example. The game world is vast, and yet it is filled with amazing characters and details that you often stumble upon sometimes entirely by accident. The Witcher 3 is another prime example. These are massive worlds but filled to the brim with interesting NPC’s and quests.

It seems that there is none of that quality and gameplay in No Man’s Sky. Apparently there is little to no story and our aim is to explore, mine materials and catalogue what we find. There is little to no interaction between characters – as I don’t believe there are any. Have your socks been blown off yet?

And I swear that if I hear the term “procedurally generated” one more time then I’m going to put my head through my PS4 and send Sean Murray the bill. Most of No Man’s Sky *sigh* is generated procedurally; the planets, the life forms, the sound effects, the terrain etc. But how long is it going to be remain interesting to land on yet another planet which is slightly hillier than the last one and a slightly different shade of red? Or to see a tree with square branches rather than round? Or to “scan” and catalogue an animal with two dicks rather than one? You get the idea.

NMS 1

The very best worlds in video games are meticulously thought out and filled to the brim with lore and legend, with characters that ooze story and dripping with gorgeous dialogue that has been painstakingly crafted by a writer or writing team over countless hours.

We will be getting none of this with No Man’s Sky. Yet maybe that’s the point. Maybe the handful of people who have worked on this intend for the universe to be sparse – much like our own.

I really want to be wrong, I honestly do. I pray to the gaming Gods that in a few weeks I’ll be eating humble pie because I respect Hello Games and admire their ambition. But unfortunately, I have a feeling that the resounding lesson that Hello Games will take from No Man’s Sky is that sometimes, less is more.

 

The State of Play – Average Ubisoft?

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Do you know how much Ubisoft’s operating revenue for the last reported financial year (2014) was? I do – $1.5 billion.

That’s a lot of money. It’s the kind of money that rockets the French colossus into the top video game publishers on the planet. Top by income that is, not necessarily quality.

For all their power, vast resources and massive budgets I can’t help but feel that Ubisoft put out very average releases and tend to play it safe.

They have their hugely profitable franchises; Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and the seemingly endless Tom Clancy releases to name a few. These titles are guaranteed, bankable games. They are Ubisoft’s bread and butter. Yet they lack substance and they whiff of recycled ideas and concepts.

I often enjoy talking to people about their favourite games of all time and not once has somebody named an Ubisoft title. As a company I believe they lack the balls, the ambition and drive of a From Software, say, or a Naughty Dog. The story telling in a game such as Assassin’s Creed feels convoluted and hokey compared to The Last of Us for example, with stiff dialogue that doesn’t ring true.

Playing an Ubisoft game is like eating a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet; it’s tasty, quick and you believe yourself to be contented. A short while later however, you realise the contented feeling you have was actually trapped wind and once this has been remedied you are left feeling empty and hungry once again. The lingering smell of stale egg fried rice serving as the only memory of the entire experience.

I don’t intend to come across as bashing Ubisoft unashamedly without recognising some of their better efforts. The first Splinter Cell game I enjoyed very much. The stealth gameplay, lighting and level design was all fantastic. I played it to death on the XBox twice (the first time I encountered a game breaking bug later on and had to restart, which was nice). For me, it’s their best game I have ever played. The original Rayman was also not bad, for the time.

In recent years their releases have been met with average reviews where a simple “meh” will normally suffice in summing up. Take the upcoming Tom Clancy’s The Division or Far Cry Primal for example. On the surface they are highly glossy from a well established line of franchises and yet I would put a wager on neither of them being hailed as a masterpiece after release. They are destined to be awarded an “8 out of 10”, a “3 out of 5 stars”, “75 – 80%” – you get the idea.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. Nothing grinds my gears more than seeing video game companies playing it safe, not when they have such talent and resources at their disposal. Do we really need another Assassin’s Creed? Are we salivating for yet another generic Tom Clancy title?

Maybe the bean counters and share holders at Ubisoft think we do – they want to invite us back to the Chinese buffet – but not me thanks, I’ve had my fill.

Top 5 Video Games of 2015

Well here we are, 2015 is about to come to a close and with it we wave goodbye to what has been a fantastic year for gamers. I’ve played many games on my trusty Playstation 4 over the course of the last 365 days and I have decided to whittle them down to the 5 best and bang them into a lovely little list. Here we go.

5 – COD Black Ops 3

Black Ops 3

The Call of Duty juggernaut is renowned for being the reliable King of online first-person shooters, but this year’s instalment from Treyarch takes things to a whole new level. It is honestly one of the most addictive games I’ve played in years.

Intense battles that flow gracefully through well mapped-out levels and the addition of new “specialist” characters ensure that the game has it’s own distinctive feel. Wall running and underwater sections can at first seem strange, but soon become more fluid and pivotal to your playing style.

The campaign is decent – it’s not going to last long in the memory – but it’s not the campaign thousands of fans buy this game for. It’s the sublime, aforementioned, multiplayer.

Top it off with the return of the excellent “Zombies” mode and you have the best Call of Duty in years.

4 – Limbo

Limbo

I used to cast envious scowls at Xbox users when they would harp on about Xbox “exclusives” such as Super Meat Boy and Limbo. However, this year my patience was rewarded with the release of both these titles on Playstation 4. Super Meat Boy is fantastic in its own right, but it’s Limbo that made me realise that I can still be stunned by such an original idea even after all these years.

Limbo is a visually arresting piece of work. The blacks and greys that blanket the screen give you a deep sense of dread and foreboding. The story is deliberately ambiguous, a point that annoyed some critics upon its release. For me however, there were just enough scraps of suggestion here and there for me to fill in the gaps and hypothesise as to what I believe was going on. It feels like a nightmare that you are trying to recall in fleeting moments.

The puzzles are some of the most ingenious I have ever played, with the physics system as perfect as you could possibly dream. Blocks slide and glide along levels as you push buttons and pull pulleys to get them to where you want. It’s wonderfully, head-smashing-against-the-TV frustratingly superb.

The game ends as abruptly as it started, 6 hours later. I felt a pang of sadness at it being over. Limbo is one of the finest, most hauntingly original games I’ve ever played and I’m sure it will stay with me for years to come.

3 – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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Nothing much more needs to be said about CD Projekt RED’s release earlier this year that hasn’t already been said. It is, without doubt, a masterpiece.

It is an absorbing, detailed, beautifully stunning RPG that can consider itself as one of the best ever made. It is arguably one of the standout games of this generation of consoles.

The Polish studio have created such a detailed world that it beggars belief. The story intertwines with local myths and legends whilst characters involve you in normal, human problems as you go about your quest and there are laugh out loud moments interspersed with fast moving, brutal combat that flows beautifully with every sword stroke.

The release of Fallout 4 has only cemented what a great piece of work this is. Fallout 4 looks bland and it’s world empty compared to The Witcher.

The game is so vast that even after days upon days of cumulative play, I didn’t even fully finish it.

CD Projekt RED are now focussing on their next title – Cyberpunk 2077. A futuristic RPG set in the future. The Witcher crossed with Blade Runner anyone?

I’m so excited I could cry.

2 – Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight

I play a lot of retro games. My SNES is played as much now as it was over 22 years ago when I first unwrapped it one Christmas morning. The games of that era sparked a life long passion for the medium that is evident as I type!

I think that’s why I love Shovel Knight so much.

Yacht Club Games’ release took me back to my childhood in an instant as wave upon wave of nostalgia slapped me across the face like a 90’s dance track.

Platforming rules and patterns that had been burned into my subconscious through hours upon hours of gaming in the early 90’s suddenly burst back into my mind like they had never been away.

I wrote an entire article on Shovel Knight which you can go check out for a more in-depth look at the game. I don’t need to say much more, other than not only is Shovel Knight one of the best indie releases in recent years, it is also one of the best platform games ever made in the history of video games.

1 – Bloodborne

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Without doubt the best game I have played all year (and quite possibly working its way into my top games of all time) is Bloodborne.

The gothic, blood soaked action/survival horror/RPG nightmare from Hidetaka Miyazaki is an original masterpiece that has to be played to be believed.

Very little explanation is given to what is going on with regards story – I know about as much now as I did when I first started playing many months ago – but it’s deliberate and refreshing so that the gameplay can take centre stage and the story can be patched together as you go along.

The city of Yharnam that you wander around is a gothic nightmare; dark cobbled streets, towering cathedrals and looming gargoyles cast their menacing gaze from above. A varied army of enemies patrol the city and wait to be dispensed in a shower of blood by you and your arsenal of weaponry. Combat is satisfying and fluid, the action intense and controlled.

It is also a brutally difficult game, the casual gamer might not be able to hack the challenge. But for those who dare take it on, they will be rewarded with a gaming experience like no other. It is absolutely fantastic.

So there we go, my top 5 games of 2015. Do you agree or disagree? What did I miss? Let me know below. Cheers

 

 

 

The State of Play – Is it a case of quantity over quality in Fallout 4?

Title

Is it me or does Fallout 4 look a bit shit?

Now, before I get inundated with virtual dog turds being sent to the comment section, I would just like to say that I think Fallout 4 is superb. I, like hundreds of gamers around the world, have being playing feverishly since yesterday’s release.

I’ve already invested many hours in making no meaningful progress whatsoever and instead spent the time trying to figure out how to get my generator to power my ceiling fan that I have in my new prefabricated house (I also spent a good hour trying to pick the right pictures to go alongside my dining table – but that’s a story for another day).

For Bethesda fans this is what it’s all about; the crafting, the upgrading, the exploration – it’s what makes these games addictive and has the effect of warping time so that when you look at your watch, hours have gone by in the blink of an eye. There is so much to see and do – the shear quantity of content is staggering and will keep gamers busy for many months.

Fallout 4 has delivered in every department, but one: visuals.

As soon as I exited Vault 111 and stepped out blinking into the blinding Sun, I was impressed by the draw distance and detailed horizon. However, it was on closer inspection of the immediate world around me that things got a bit disappointing. Copied and pasted textures are everywhere. In buildings there is a serious lack of lighting/shadow on objects/furniture and when you get up close to an NPC you realise that the character models are found lacking.

rubbish

I wouldn’t be sounding dramatic when I say that this could be considered a last generation release. The thing is, I don’t know why it looks this crap. Maybe we could turn a blind eye but this year we all played The Witcher 3, a game just as vast and consuming yet also one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played.

Bethesda is also a larger developer than CD Projekt RED and arguably wields more financial clout than the Polish outfit.

So why does it look so average? Laziness? Lack of focus? Naivety? I honestly don’t know. Bethesda has never made the most visually stunning games, and some would argue that the raw look and buggy nature all adds to their games’ appeal and is part of their character. I disagree, I think if you’re selling a product then it should be near perfect before it is released for retail. Visuals aside, bugs and programming flaws should be rare and should never be considered “part of a game’s character”.

I’m enjoying Fallout 4, it’s all I can think about when I’m doing other things. It’s involving, satisfying and rewarding all at the same time. I love it. It’s just disappointing that they could have made it absolutely perfect had it looked as good as it could have.

Bethesda are going to make a lot of money from Fallout 4, more money than most game developers will make in a lifetime of releases, and I want them to invest it. I want them to make their budget even bigger for their next big release and put more money aside for hiring better artists, QA testers and creating a better engine that can deliver better lighting and a more beautiful world.

There is no excuse for poor looking games anymore, not from developers with huge amounts of wealth and access to the best talent the gaming world has to offer.

Right, back to Fallout and I’ve decided. I’m going to go for the picture of a sailing ship for my dining room. Now I just need a nice rug for the bedroom……

The State of Play – Taboo Releases

Black Ops 3

Why do I feel dirty and slightly embarrassed about next week’s release of Black Ops 3? The thing is, I’m genuinely more excited about it than Fallout 4 which releases a few days later.

Treyarch’s latest behemoth in the COD franchise is surely going to be weighing down Santa’s sack this Christmas, yet why do I whisper its name in hushed tones to friends and work colleagues as if it’s taboo? I feel like a teenager quietly telling a friend about a porno mag he’s found in a bush.

Certain gamers and video game journalists have become sniffy at the series, many dismissing it as a money making machine and nothing more. Sure, the two most recent offerings of Ghosts and Advanced Warfare were nothing spectacular, but they were still great fun to play online and provided thousands of gamers with hours of head shot goodness. Most buy COD simply for the multiplayer, the campaign comes second. There is nothing wrong with this as multiplayer is where COD has it nailed. It’s become synonymous with online gaming – the image of a player in a darkened room, headset on, shouting obscenities at his TV as he’s blasted with a noob tube from across the map. Indeed, the decision to sell Black Ops 3 on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 as multiplayer only was met with mild outrage in the more snobbish corners of the gaming press, but the general gaming community as a whole simply muttered a “meh” and realised it wasn’t a big deal, no fewer copies will be sold. It’s the multiplayer people come for, and Activision know this.

For what it’s worth, Black Ops 3 looks like it’s going to be the best in the series for years, but that’s not the point. The point is that people are having fun in a series that is confident in what it is. Activision don’t want Treyarch reinventing the wheel, they are simply asking them to give the fans what they want.

For me, after a busy year that has seen me play some seriously heavy games; The Witcher, MGS V, Bloodborne etc. I can honestly say that the last thing I want to do right now is dive head first into Fallout 4.

I want something fast, dirty and satisfying. And Black Ops 3 looks just the ticket.