Jean-Luc Picard

xbone

Technically I made the move to the next generation some time ago, when I  purchased a Wii U. However, that decision was never a contentious one as, due to its backwards compatibility, the original Wii had become obsolete and also, Nintendo’s home console kind of sits on a separate rival-less plateau for me. I buy them specifically for the exclusive content and nothing else. Getting a Wii U simply came down to when the price became right.

The “real” move to next gen came from what I consider my mainstream or “core” console platforms; the Playstation and the Xbox. These machines I’m much more heavily invested in, with a massive back catalogue of non-transferable content. Here the choice becomes much more complicated, as first there is the question as to whether the new machines are even worth the investment yet, and secondly there is the big question of which one to go for. Here it feels like an actual decision to embrace a new gaming generation is being made.

Once that decision was made, it simply left the awkward choice of which new console to pick. There’s many factors that need to be considered when getting a new console, but for me it comes down to three core areas. These are games, performance and price. Last gen was made easy for me as the 360 had the games I wanted, out performed the PS3 and was cheaper; thus making it a total no brainer. This time around I went out expecting to buy a PS4, but came back with a an Xbox One. Although Playstation had the performance, Xbox was slightly ahead in games and, to my surprise, had really shifted their pricing. It had gone from being the most expensive console at launch, to being over £100 cheaper than the closest Ps4 bundle; swaying my purchasing decision. But is it any good?

The answer to that is neither yes nor no; it’s “Meh”. I still remember walking through Toys R Us, seeing super Mario 64 for the first time and being dumbfounded by the progress. My reaction this time around was more “So this is the new generation. Huh”. Possibly a testament more to what they’ve managed to achieve on dated hardware than a reflection on the Xbox Ones performance, but the progress curve seems flatter than ever here. I remember last gen had the same issue to some extent, but it did at least have the move to HD. This time it’s just a move from HD to a bit more H’er D. Things do look a bit more sharper though…I think.

It's like the same, but different

It’s like the same, but different

It’s not all about the pixel pushing prowess though, or faster frames; there are other areas of advancement. Battlefield 4 for example can now, finally, be played as the glorious PC master race intended: full 64 player battles. No more running around a deserted map, desperately looking for something to shoot at, wondering where everybody went. Further more, you can now showcase your epic-pro-leet-skillz easier than ever via new video capture and screenshot options.

Unfortunately, this is where the improvements in the user interface end. I assume its because the console was designed with voice commands in mind – where users bark orders to navigate around menus – but doing anything via the humble controller method is horrific. That might sound like an exaggeration – and I’ve seen people moan about console UI’s before, not really feeling their level of disdain – but honestly, the Xbox One has really regressed here. Nothing makes you appreciate the efficient wonder of the 360’s centre button more than haphazardly snapping apps, as you desperately try to perform the simple act of accepting a fucking game invite, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid accidentally switching the machine off. It resurrected painful suppressed memories of my teenage years and those first nightmare encounters of the infernal clasps on bra straps: Please, just let me get to the boobies!

A graphical representation the Xbox One UI

A graphical representation the Xbox One UI

Luckily they haven’t fucked up the 360’s other great legacy, the controller. It’s basically the standard 360 controller with a facelift (it reminds me of a Lambo for some reason). The most noticeable changes are the super grippy sticks and the rumble triggers. Apparently the D-pad has been improved as well, for those that are trapped in the 80’s. It’s nothing to get excited about, but then it didn’t really need anything improving.

I’ve heard a few people bemoan the consoles size, but personally I don’t really see the issue, unless you maybe live in a cupboard or something. It’s no bigger than a sky box, so it’s still well within the bounds of acceptable “under the TV” sizing. It apparently makes in run cooler which can only be a good thing.

The only other thing of note that comes to mind is an apparent increase of non-gaming faff. I assume it’s due to the move to blu-ray, but games now all seem to require installs, and patching seems to be bigger this time around. It’s not reached dire levels or anything, but seems to be a bit of a slippery slope when it comes to the benefits of hassle free console gaming.

Overall, and despite some niggles, the Xbox One has been a solid yet uninspiring upgrade. In its Kinect-less form it does feel like a console in need of a kinect-less UI mode, but it’s certainly not a deal breaker. A couple of unexpected free to play gems in the form of Neverwinter and a Forza expansion have been nice surprise, and previously missed cross-gen titles like Titanfall are proving to be excellent. I can’t compare it to the PS4 because I don’t have one; but anyone looking to upgrade their 360 has little to worry about – just don’t be surprised if it sits along side that legacy machine for a while, rather than fully replacing it.

 

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Nintendo Entertainment System

NES-01

Debenhams. That magical time of the year, just before Christmas. A snow covered festive display, with a train circling around the bottom of a Christmas tree. A little mountain of Nintendo Entertainment Systems (NES) stacked up on promotion. These are all memory snippets that I think are related, but it’s impossible to be sure. I think this was the moment I saw, decided on and then told my parents I wanted a NES for Christmas. I’ve got a vague feeling that the console had even been superseded at this point; that it was a retro buy of a console I’d missed, but wanted to try. I think, but I’m not sure, that I may have even already been a Mega Drive owner at this point.

What I do remember with more clarity is actually owning the console, using the console and of course the games. It had this weird, novel way of loading in the games, as you needed to lift the flap, push the cartridge first forward into the port, then down until it clicked into place. Even stranger was the fact that if you owned a game genie (a pass-through device that let you enter cheat codes), the cartridge stuck out of the machine in such a way that you could no longer push the cartridge down; yet somehow it still worked!

The console also had some more unique peripherals – of which I owned none. There was the zapper light gun (rare for its time), the power glove controller (which apparently sucked balls) and even a robot called R.O.B. (I’ve still never seen one in the flesh)! I did however have a great selection of games. These are the ones that instinctively come to mind:

Super Mario Bros

Super-Mario-Bros2

Not a game that really needs introduction or discussion, but it’s impossible to reminisce about the NES and not have Super Mario Bros. come to mind. My NES console (in fact possibly all NES consoles) came with this game bundled, and it truly is one of the best games on the platform. Despite me slightly favouring Sonic the hedgehog; objectively, Mario is probably the better game. Pure platforming perfection that is still relevant 30 years later.

Mega Man 2

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I played this game over and over, yet I don’t think I ever beat it. I remember there were 8 stages, each with a boss at the end and they could be tackled in any order. After beating a level boss, you acquired his power. This introduced an interesting element of tactics to the game, especially as you needed certain powers from one boss to reach secret areas of another. Oddly, as much as I enjoyed this game, it never set me up to become a series fan. To this day, I believed Mega Man 2 is the only game in the series I’ve played.

Micro Machines

micro-machines-nes

This top down racer is an absolute gem of game! The perspective you play from may be unforgiving – where often the quickest of reflexes is no match for the hindsight of knowing the course – but both the gameplay and presentation are spot on. From sliding miniature sports cars around a desk, to avoiding blobs of honey on a breakfast table in a little jeep; Mirco Machines is fast, frantic fun. This first iteration set me up to become a fan of the entire series.

Probotector

Probotector

Originally called Contra, the European release was renamed Probotector and had the human sprites all replaced with robots. I’m not sure if it’s just because Probotector is the version I played and loved, but I actually think the robot theme suits the game better than the original rambo look. Although I personally never owned the game, I have fond memories of blasting through it many a time around my friends house in local co-op.

Conclusion

The NES rose from the ashes of the 1983 gaming crash and is credited with resurrecting the industry, especially in North America. Although I have no comment on that in particular, I can completely understand the notion; it resonates quality. Where I’ve had to repurchase other retro machines from my childhood, for some reason I never sold or traded my NES. That may not be indicative of anything in particular, but it’s nice to know the NES in my collection is my original little grey box from all those years ago, and that it still works just as well today as it did back then.

Stall of Duty

I still remember the first time I was introduced to Call of Duty. I was round my friends house and he was playing it on his PC. Straight away, I could tell it was a game that had raised the bar. Prior to this, the go to WWII shooter had been Medal of Honour – a fine game – but Call of Duty simply blew it away. There was just so much more happening in Call of Duty. From bursts of triple A lighting up the sky as allied aircraft flew over, to fighting along side squad mates; Call of Duty felt more like a war was going on, like you were a small part of a bigger picture. Medal of Honour on the other hand still had the lone wolf hero feel about it, and also a sense of the ageing corridor shooter.

Call of Duty, raiser of bars

Call of Duty, raiser of bars

Since that first game I, like many, had become a massive Call of Duty fan. The series for me just went from strength to strength. In hindsight, COD4 was probably the pinnacle, but it took a while to realise the COD tidal wave was starting to lose it’s energy. I first became aware of this dissipation when the series stopped becoming a day one purchase for me. Now it seems, the wave has even finally begun to recede altogether. Not only do I not yet own the latest entry in the series, it’s barely even on my radar: a game that I used to count down the days for!

So where did it all go wrong and what, if anything, can be done to re-light my COD fire? The biggest issue here is that old cliché; it’s not you, it’s me. I don’t think COD suddenly became boring. They’ve not broken the mechanics. They aren’t releasing poor games. I’ve simply burnt out on the series. That’s not to say there aren’t areas where I think they could make meaningful improvements though.

It seems to me that with each new iteration, the COD philosophy for keeping things interesting is what I’d call the “add more balls” principle. Piling on the explosions and enemies, making it a frantic shooting gallery from start to finish. I’ve played levels where the main obstacle to overcome was waiting out that irritating 2 second reload animation. It was really getting in the way of my non-stop killing. Part of this is down to the modern weaponry now on offer. Pumping out rounds from your ARX-160, with it’s extended mag and recoil compensator, as you look down the thermal hybrid scope is a far cry from the 8 round, semi-automatic M1 Garand of WWII. I think the other part of it is, this is the only way they feel they can make new iterations stand out from the last. Bigger is better.

COD4 moved the series forward in more ways than time period

COD4 moved the series forward in more ways than time period

My suggestion would be to slow it all down again. To keep it real. Scrap the futuristic drone wars and super soldiers and replace it with one of the real world conflicts. My choice would probably be Vietnam. At one point there was a flurry of Nam games released, but none really did that conflict justice. COD would be that game. There are many great films that could be used as inspiration; Full Metal Jacket, We were soldiers, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Apocalypse now – even Forest Gump!

As for slowing it down, I’d suggest that the non-stop shooting be dialled back. Make the encounters less frequent, add weight to each round fired and build the suspense. I think this would work well in a Vietnam setting, as you “search and destroy” through the dense undergrowth, with unseen, yet omnipresent dangers all around you. I also think you could use the slower pace to build the story, and by story I don’t mean some fantastical tale of betrayal or global conspiracy, I mean a story that really matters; the soldiers story. Try and capture a little bit of what it was like on the ground there; the fear, desperation and madness that is often spoken about in literature. The senselessness of it all.

My other suggestion would be to, in simple terms, play as the baddies. We like to boil these things down to black and white; the brave heroes fighting off the evil enemy. Conflict is never that simple however and in video game terms, I think it could be a deep experience to play it from the other side. Take on the role of the Nazi soldier, the Taliban terrorist, the perceived baddie and blur those lines. See their story, explain their motivations and flip the norm on its head. I can’t see that happening though – in fact I believe a recent Medal of Honor was forced by external pressures to even remove the Taliban as a playable side in multi-player. I understand that it’s probably not the most desirable or marketable approach to take, but I think it would make for an interesting game.

Is playing as histories enemy a gaming "no mans land"?

Is playing as histories enemy a gaming “no mans land”?

Alas, the sad truth is there are games like COD that I think are doomed to just become dead to me. They are trapped being a victim of their own success. The only way to make them interesting again is to fundamentally change them, and to fundamentally change them is to risk changing why people like them. The same is true with many other great games, Mario Kart for example. If you’ve played Mario Kart 8, you’ll be aware of how good it is, but ultimately, it’s just another Mario Kart game. Maybe the answer lies in the time between sequels. I may have played a shit ton of Rainbow six in the past, but as it approachers 8 years since the last game, I am more than eager to grab a silenced MP5, a handful of flash-bangs and repel down the side of a building. Yippee ki yay mother fucker.

Atari 520Ste

STE1

The Atari STE finished what the 65XE started; it got me into games in a big way. I’ve no issues remembering the exact make and model of this one either; it was the Atari 520STe Discovery Xtra, which came with Final fight, 9 lives, Escape from the planet of the robot monsters and Sim City (plus some other not-games software).

It looked like a beefier version of the 65XE, but instead of a cassette drive, it now boasted an internal 3.5″ floppy drive, which made running games much easier. It had a graphical user interface, not dissimilar from early versions of windows, so it was very easy to use. Most importantly, it was now packing a 16bit processor, enabling it to reach dizzy new heights in gaming prowess.

Speaking of Dizzy, lets take a look at some of the games that spring to mind:

Fantasy World Dizzy

dizzy

I enjoyed this game to the point it actually made my list as my favourite action-adventure game. Game development was still pretty inconsistent at the time and Dizzy was an example of a refined title. The graphics, animation, use of vivid colours that complemented the quirky egg people and of course, the catchy music, all gelled together really well. The mix of puzzles and platforming testing both your reflexes and your brain; Dizzy is retro classic.

Robocop 2

robocop_ii_ocean_software_5

Cheat codes; remember them? That’s what I mainly remember about playing this game. Although, despite the infinite lives and infinite health, it was still bloody hard as falls could kill you and platforming made up half the gameplay. Come to think about it, it’s was a bit of a shit game…but I seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.

Lemmings

lemmings_17

No introduction is really needed. A corker of game that required puzzle solving, forward thinking and precision timing. I remember the music was great, the sound effects became iconic and the gameplay was as addictive as it was frustrating. I formed a real love/hate relationship with those suicidal green haired nutters. I really can’t praise this game enough.

Fire and Ice

fire_and_ice_renegade_3

This game holds the crown of my most played demo disc. I think I actually spent more time on the demo than did on the full game when I eventually picked it up. This little known platformer had some wonderfully varied and detailed levels, packed with great little touches. The music was enchanting – in fact the water level has one of my all time favourite level music – and fitted so nicely with the game.

New Zealand Story

the-new-zealand-story

Another great platformer (my favourite genre back then) that I mainly remember because of how bonkers it was. That in itself is saying something, as games, especially at the time, weren’t exactly known for their realism or grasp of reality. It was fast, responsive, colourful and quirky, which are all key elements in creating good platforming gameplay.

Conclusion

The Atari STe really did cement the love of gaming in my heart. It’s also responsible for some other wider gaming culture influences. It was the first time I experienced fanboyism (Atari vs Amiga), it was the first time I got into gaming mags (ST Format comes to mind), it was the first time I tried programming and, unfortunately, it was the last time I primarily used a Joystick for gaming.

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