Gaming

Descenders

I think we’ve established by now that I like racing games, so my initial thoughts when I saw tweets regarding RageSquid’s Descenders was “oo that looks like a great racing game”, so once it hit Game Pass on XBox One I gave it a download and have spent the last week playing it and I was wrong, its not a “great racing game”.

I was however to use the term “great” because Descenders is really, really good, but its not a racing game. It’s also not a Tony Hawks style game, which is another assumption it is easy to make when you look at screenshots or watch videos. It actually has both elements, there is a race to the bottom of the hill and you can do tricks, but overall, at least in single player where I’ve spent all of my time, there’s no right way to play Descenders. There’s no position markers, so its not about beating your “opponents” (who, depending on if you’re connected to the internet or not) are all humans, thing is, “opponents” is the wrong term, they all occupy the same space as you, but you’re not pitched against them and people drop in and out of your instance on a consistent basis. Likewise, your Rep score isn’t compared to these players whilst your in a particular event (which are all procedurally generated based upon stats set when you choose an event).

Which makes Descenders difficult to describe to others, but I keep returning to it. Why? Well, aside from it being really good fun, its cathartic too. There’s something to be said about just throwing a Mountain Bike down the side of a hill, popping off tricks whilst the excellent EDM soundtrack plays, its incredibly cathartic and thanks to the fact its only a ragdoll physics based representation of human who’s bones are at stake I don’t have to worry about being rushed to the hospital or being left to die (which is one of a few reasons I’m unlikely to really get into mountain biking as a real world hobby even if I could do with some excercise thats less damaging to my knees than jogging would be).

I mentioned before that the game was instanced, it has a similar kind of structure to RICO that I reviewed a couple of months back in that theres branching paths for each of the games four locations. Each branch leads to a new event that is randomly generated and the map gives you an idea of what kind of terrain to expect using gauges that show you the routes steepness, how twisty it is and whether it is trick intensive or not. You’re given a pool of attempts to get as far through all four environments as you can and you can increase that pool by completing the (also randomly generated) bonus objective for each event. As you progress and also gain more rep (earned via doing tricks) you’ll also build a Team, these are essentially stat buffs that allow you to land from greater heights, loose less life points when you’re bailing, make you spin faster when doing tricks and a whole host of others than you can pick from to tailor the game to your own abilities. Each environment finishes up in a “Boss Jump”, an almost Evel Knievel style jump (i.e. over a viaduct with a steam train going over it) that you need to land in order to move onto the next environment.

What makes all this work though is just how great the game is to control, the weight and momentum of your bike as you hurtle downhill and the speed with which the game can shift along is exhilarating and its rare that the frame rate begins to struggle. It all feels incredibly simple to begin with, RT gets your guy peddaling, LT is your break, left stick steers whilst the right stick allows you to pump and bunny hob the bike in a similar manner to EA’s old SKATE games. Personally I feel that having to hold the left bumper button and then use the right stick to perform tricks is a bit cumbersome but you soon get used to it, although I’ll admit that I was less focused on doing tricks and more on riding as fast as I could down the hills.

Circuits are lined by tape with checkpoints as you go, but you’re never forced to stick to the route, the checkpoints are merely there to give you a new starting point if you crash, and in fact some events do away with a route completely and merely ask you to head in the direction of the finish line as told to you by a compass at the top of the screen, and its this level of freedom that gives the game its almost meditative feel.

Its not perfect though, the load times can sometimes feel a little too long and theres an argument to be made regarding to its repetition, but on that last point, in a medium where far too many games can feel overblown and bulked out Descenders offers a nice counter in that its unlikely you’ll ride the same series of corners more than once and just setting out to “get to the next environment” offers a great 20 minute play thats perfect for just unwinding. I’ll happily admit that I was worried during my first play of Descenders that me getting the wrong impression of the game from its trailers would damage how I felt about the game, but further time with it as shown it to be a hidden gem of a game that I’ve grown to want to recommend to everyone that states there aren’t enough console exclusives on the XBox One, that its (at the time of writing) available on Games Pass means that everyone subscribed to that service, in my opinion, owes it to themselves to give it their time.

Formats:  PC, XBox One (Version tested)
Release Date: 9 February 2018 (PC), 15 May 2018 (XBox One)
Publisher: No More Robots
Developer: RageSquid

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Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

After the recent trailer for the godawful looking Sonic the Hedgehog live-action movie, I decided that I’d go back and play what is mostly regarded as the best Sonic game, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Yes, I know theres an argument to be made that the best Sonic is Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but I’ve never actually played that.

In actual fact the most I’d ever played Sonic 2 was at a friends house as a kid. Well, a couple of friends actually, as I didn’t own a Mega Drive for myself until about 2008 when I got one off a car boot and thats spent a good few years sat in my loft as I don’t have the space to have my collection set up and on display. We mostly played the 2 player special stages when I visited friends’ house, although I did “help” occasionally as Tails on their play throughs, but only ever saw bits of levels at a time. I remember the first four levels, although I may have gotten through those via emulation in the years since it came out, and I remember controlling Tails’ plane on Sky Chase then watching a friend on Wing Fortress, but beyond that I don’t remember much of whats in between or after those zones until this recent play through.

For Sonic 2, Sonic Team introduced two new key features, the most obvious is Tails, whom either runs along behind Sonic or can be controlled via a second player (always my role as a kid), the other introduction was the Spin Dash, a move that has become such a part of the Sonic experience that many forget that it wasn’t there from the start. Emerald Hill Zone, much like the games predecessors Green Hill Zone, gets things off quickly and its very easy to get through to the end of both Acts without incident and a fast pace but as the game progresses the area’s become more technical and call upon the player to combine both Sonic’s speed and his maneuverability to traverse the levels. Some of the Acts are almost maze like, according to the timer in the top left corner of the screen I spent around 10 minutes working my way through Act 2 of Metropolis Zone, and whilst I enjoyed the zone’s music at the start of Act 1 by the end of its third Act I was finding it really annoying.

On the subject of the music, none of Sonic 2’s offerings are as iconic as Green Hill Zone nor as wonderful as Starlight Zone (which I think is still my favourite piece of Sonic the Hedgehog music, Open Your Heart from Sonic Adventure is wonderfully cheesy but its just not as good as Starlight Zone imo), but whilst Metropolis Zone’s music outstayed its welcome it was mostly because it would repeat itself so quickly and so often and there weren’t many Invincibility boxes scattered in the level (which is fine) to break up the monotony of the tune.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still a brilliant platformer. Purests will say its not as long, nor as deep as Super Mario World which was released two years before Sonic Team’s game, and despite going head-to-head with each other, Sonic 2’s goal was always to continue SEGA’s edgy, cool and exciting approach to gaming. Has it aged as well as Super Mario World? You know what, I think it has, it still looks wonderful and when you’re good at it it provides the same assault on your senses as it always did. Theres a few enemy designs later on I wasn’t keen on (again, Metropolis Zone, which has a habit of putting its punching crabs and praying mantis enemies in exactly the wrong places) and there is sometimes an over-reliance on intricate platforming and small platforms that require dexterity to overcome (I properly abused the PSP SEGA Mega Drive Collection’s save game feature to get through some of them), but, importantly, its still really good fun to play through now. Which bodes well for the Mega Drive Mini’s release later in the year.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Dead to Rights 2 (PlayStation 2)

Dead to Rights 2 is a strange beast, it seems intent on distancing itself from the original game but also wants to be associated with it. This may sound contradicting, but thats how Dead to Rights 2 plays.

The original didn’t receive favourable reviews when it was released 2 or 3 years ago, so its understandable that the developer wants to change things around a bit and take a slightly different approach, although, with it being a sequel, or in this case a prequel, it has to be the same style of game, and in this case its a generic third-person shoot-’em up.

Although the game offers nothing new, it is a fairly decent shooter at times. The game is fast and frantic and isn’t complicated to get to grips with at all, and is ideal for the odd quick play when you cant think of anything else to play. This short play method is accentuated by the level design, which at best is repetitive and almost purely corridor based.

It literally gets to the point where every 5-10 minutes you are confronted with a loading screen thats lasts just as long as each section of level. So on average an entire level can take between 15-30 minutes including 3 loading screens which makes the game feel like a throw back to some early PlayStation titles, especially when you look at titles such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas which use disc streaming to create and entire State that only has 3 or 4 load points. This is also a problem when it comes to the graphics, as although the graphics in the GTA titles aren’t great, they’re quite a number of rungs above those of Dead to Rights 2, which at best looks like a high-end PlayStation 2 launch title.

No shoot-em up would be playable if the targeting system was terrible, and while Dead to Rights 2 isn’t awful, its nothing special either. Holding down a shoulder button will lock onto the nearest enemy with either a green, yellow or red icon depending on how likely your bullets are to hit the guy. This would be great if it actually made an impact on your shots, but Jack Slate seems so cock-handed with a gun that you miss just as many shots when the target is green as you do when its red. Its just as well that you recieve plenty of ammo whenever you kill someone then.

Books

What “Solo” could have been

I quite liked last years “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. I genuinely thought it was a fun little story, however, and you’ll notice this is a bug bear of mine, I feel it bogs itself down in fan service too much. Do we need to know how he got his gun or see him winning the Falcon from Lando? And the Kessel Run being included was always going to be on the cards. I know it sounds like I’m complaining, again, about Star Wars and that I’m not a fan. I assure you I am, but I’ve just read Marvel’s “Han Solo” by Marjorie Liu and Mark Brooks and genuinely think it could have made for a great standalone movie for the character.

We’re re-introduced to Han and Chewbacca after the events of Star Wars, Han is trying to pay off Jabba but turning down job after job (much to Chewie’s concern) because “they dont feel right). He’s ultimately coaxed into a job for the Rebellion, mostly as he doesn’t want someone else to use the Falcon, which involves retrieving some informants, using an inter-planetary race as a disguise. Its the perfect setup for an excellent adventure featuring Han and Chewbacca, and whilst Leia appears at points throughout (plus gives Han the job anyway), it doesn’t feel the need to name drop characters from the movies at all (Luke gets mentioned once, Jedi aren’t mentioned at all).

So, instead of having a story that feels the need to nudge and wink at its audience on a regular basis, as we got with Solo, what we have is a race across space in the Falcon, with occassional planetary visits that help move the mission along. Han meets some characters from his and Chewie’s own past along the way, and like with our introduction to Lando in Empire, we’re given just enough information to understand the relationships between these characters. The Empire play a large part in proceedings, indeed, they pursue Han (and the other members of the race he is taking part in) throughout the journey and its only down to Hans wile and (typically) alot of luck (all part of the plan!) that Han achieves his mission unscathed with the closing panels giving us a nice pathway into Han and Leia’s relationship, plus Han’s further involvement in the Rebellion, at the beginning of Empire.

So, as good as the comic book is, and as fun as Solo: A Star Wars Story is, I think the two would have better served the franchise as a whole of their creation was switched. A chase movie featuring Han questioning his own morals and beliefs, new characters that don’t shrink the Universe plus some familiar sights (Stormtroopers, Twi’leks, a Dug) that all help tie its involvement into the Star Wars Universe beyond it being a story featuring Han Solo, plus the growth of the Rebellion and how hard its key leaders have had to work in secret, for me, would have made an incredibly compelling movie. Instead, I urge you to pick up Han Solo from your local comic store, it contains a second story but that one spends alot of time with Luke and Leia too.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday – Metal Gear Solid

Back at the beginning of 1999 Future Publishing released Official PlayStation Magazine UK issue 42, which was a big deal. The front cover depicted a robot ninja, the cover disc had the logo for Metal Gear Solid on it. There were other games on that demo disc, but as far as a 14 year old me was concerned they didn’t even exist. I got home from the Co-Op I’d bought it from, put the disc in the PlayStation (I’d read the MGS feature on the way home) and jumped straight into the demo. The following day I had French, I was in the first year of my GCSE’s, but instead of listening to the teacher a group of us were sat at the back of the class, talking as quietly as possible about sneaking past guards, Hind D’s and the DARPA chief. I’ve no idea how much I played that demo, but it was alot.

Later a friend of mine, who had a chipped PlayStation, got a bootleg copy of the US release, I went over to his straight after school and we spend the next week or so playing through. We were obviously hampered by not having a game case with Meryl’s codec code printed on the back and also that elevators would occasionally crash the game, but we got through it, taking it in turns to play, swapping the pad when the other died.

I didn’t get the PAL release on launch day, which was shortly after the magazine was published, I think I rented it from Blockbuster first and eventually persuaded my Mum to by me a copy of it and finished it on each difficulty multiple times (the only time I’ve ever done that for any game, aside from Phantasy Star Online on Dreamcast but that’s totally different), but I’d still say getting that demo was a pivotal moment in me becoming so enamored with video games as a medium. I’d been playing them for a long long time before then, and it wasn’t the first game that became an obsession (I think that would probably be SEGA Rally, but I didn’t own that for myself till much later, it was my brothers copy that I would play as much as I was/wasn’t allowed, but thats a story for another time), on the PlayStation it may have been Gran Turismo, but it was definitely a moment where I just wanted to know as much as I possibly could, I later got hold of MSX emulators for my PC to run the older Metal Gear games (although I bounced off of those) and picked up the Special Missions bonus disc when that came out (which my Step Brother from my Mums second marriage stole, well I blame him for it going missing but was never able to prove it). I made a fansite with as many video’s and pictures I could store on GeoCities when I started college, which then fuelled an obsession with finding out every little bit of information about Metal Gear Solid 2 as I possibly could.

I’ve loved every instalment I’ve played (so the main line titles up until and including Ground Zeroes) but none of them have grabbed me like Metal Gear Solid did where I’d find any reason I could to play through it again, including on two other occassions at other friends’ houses, taking over their playthroughs and showing them how to finish the game in a day (but still watching each and every one of the amazing cutscenes and codec sequences).

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Canis Canem Edit (PlayStation 2)

Canis Canem Edit, or Bully as the general public know it, has already stifled up alot of controversy because of that particular former title, that Rockstar have decided to still use in the ol’ US of A. It’s actually becoming a case of wondering if Rockstar are actually paying these people to name drop each of their titles in a “All Publicity is good Publicity” manner.

But in Rockstars favour, none of the games that have been criticised by the anti-violent videogames parade have been truly awful. With the Grand Theft Auto being the main series that gets the attention.

Canis Canem Edit is very much GTA “Lite”, it’s not as brutal, the playing area isn’t as big and the characters are much younger, which is unsurprising considering the games setting. But unlike most “Lite” products, the flavour is all there, Canis Canem Edit doesn’t suffer, in fact this particular author feels its a more complete experience than Rockstars seminal series, purely for the fact that its not so big as to make you feel like its impossible to finish. It’s much like dating the stunning but gorgeous Prom Queen, then after that’s finished or she’s dumped you for the latest trendy guy, dating her almost as pretty sister who you can actually hold a conversation with without having to flatter every five seconds, and less likely for you to want to start force feeding her a dozen hamburgers or something.

From the off, you can tell this game is incredibly similar to Rockstars leading franchise, Jimmy has the same attitude and swagger of the lead characters in the Grand Theft Auto series, the missions are along the same lines of “go fetch”, “go fight”, etc. But how it differs is in its structure and in the ways you can get into trouble. Merely staying out past a certain time can have prefects (and even police officers) on your tail, as can truancy.

there’s always something to do. Lessons (as previously mentioned) can be missed as you feel like it, but each time you only delay getting another reward for completing each lesson, you can return to them any time that particular lesson is available (it all works in a similar way to a normal school time table). But each time you attend, and manage to complete the various different mini games that each lesson is made up of (English for example involves you making words out of a certain group of letters, Gym see’s you taking part in wrestling to learn new fighting moves or playing Dodgeball) you are rewarded with various things, as previously mentioned, Wrestling gives you new moves to use when fighting, Shop earns you a new faster, better handling BMX bike to use from the school garage. These also in turn open up new things to do occasionally, for example, unlocking the BMX allows you to partake in bike races in the neighbouring towns. These in turn earn you more and more cash, which you only really need if you’re wanting to collect every single purchasable item in the game, as you earn enough money from missions to buy the odd outfit and haircut, chocolates and flowers for wooing the girls and cans of coke to heal you.

All the controversy surrounding the game would lead you to believe that Canis Canem Edit is a despicable experience that glamorises bullying. All of this has come about because of the games former title and the fact that those in “higher up positions” only really hear what they want to hear, The game tells the tale of a boy who’s been expelled from a number of schools, mainly for violence, being dumped at Bullworth Academy by his money grabbing mother who’s just married another rich man and his heading out on her 58th honeymoon, which happens to be the same length of time as a school year.

Once there, you are befriended by a boy called Gary, who wants to use your strength to bring down the bullies and various factions within the school, as he story progresses though, it seems he was simply using you for his own gain. By the final chapter, the schools in chaos and only the normal final confrontation can fix things.

Surprisingly, the story is quite compelling, and easy enough to imagine going on within any school, you feel increasingly pleased as things seem to be going your way only for it to completely rubber band in the opposite direction. The gangs system of GTA 2 and San Andreas appears in the various forms of the school factions (Jocks, Geeks, Greasers, Preps) and doing one thing for one faction will only piss off another, although each chapter is set out to try and win a particular faction over to your side.

Many will complain that Canis Canem Edit is too short, and compared to its older siblings, this could be seen as true. But with the story complete after around 14 hours and 70% of things done, there’s still plenty there to keep you going for at probably another 6 hours. Enough for anyone to be able to complete it 100% without feeling like your not getting anywhere and getting bored.

If you’re a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, you will have no doubt already have purchased this, if you’re not a fan, I still think this is a worthy purchase, in fact I’d go so far as to say its a better game than the infamous crime-Sim. The smaller elements that bring fun are alot more innocent than they are in GTA, I for one spent alot of my time pinching girls bottoms, snogging girls and waiting for a pupil to enter one of the cubicles in the boys toilets before throwing a firecracker down the neighbouring toilet.

Canis Canem Edit is incredibly well presented and acted, its a really fun game with only two minor niggles, both of which lie with the controller and exist in most games of this type.

Books

#FreeComicBookDay2019

Yesterday, May 4th (so also a belated Happy Star Wars Day, May The Fourth Be With You), was Free Comic Book Day, an annual event where comic stores offer a selection of comics that customers can take for free (some ask for a small donation) to help promote their business and promote the key titles from comics publishers for the next 12 months. Now, whilst these comics are all free to customers, the store has to buy them in, so if you plan on going next year, please, please purchase something too as most comics stores are independent businesses and are great for the struggling high street. My comics shop is Close Encounters in Bedford, they have other stores in Peterborough and Northampton and are a family run business who run events ranging from the book club I attend through to Pokemon TCG and Magic tournaments.

Now due to the popularity of the event, and that everyone likes free shit, alot of stores limit the number you of comics you can take,  my store put the limit at five per customer, these are my pics.

Under the Moon is a Catwoman origins story set during her high-school years prior to her becoming Catwoman, when she is just Selena Kyle. This FCBD release is part of a bigger graphic novel aimed at Young Adults thats coming later this month (and is part of a series of books that will also see Raven from Teen Titans get her own book, part of which appears at the back of this issue).

So, teenage Selena doesn’t have a very happy life, her Mum has a dickhead for a boyfriend who stamps his authority on the household. One day Selena finds a stray cat and takes it home, hides it in her closet and the pair make each other happy, which her Mums boyfriend begins to question until her discovers the cat which ultimately leads to the cat dying.

There are elements of this story I like, I like that it hints that Selena will have to learn to deal with her feelings and possibly grieve the loss of her cat and I like that its quite obviously aimed at somebody similar in age to my eldest daughter (and I think she may get a kick out of the book herself, although she’s at that stage where anything I recommend is regarded as being uncool so may have to leave this FCBD issue where she can read it and discover it for herself). I like the colour palette, which is full of pale blue tones and gives the story a kind of melancholy edge to it. However it does something that I find distracting in alot of media, particularly media within the geekdom, in that far too often writers tend to include characters and events that shrink that particular world. In this instance Selena goes to school with Bruce Wayne, they were once good friends but he “stopped speaking to her” but her finding this cat gives her the courage to speak to him again and he reveals how he has lost his parents. I’ve complained about fan service on here before and this feels very much the same and the reason I complain about it is due to me wanting certain characters, in this case Selena Kyle/Catwoman, to be able to stand on her own two (four?) feet for herself without having Batman there to prop up the story. Something else I’d have liked to have seen is taken from the short interview that Lauren Myracle (writer) and Isaac Goodman (illustrator) have conducted between themselves at the back of the book. In the interview Myracle talks about how books featuring high school kids often have moments where the cast are chatting to each other but that when it comes to comics each panel needs an “Action” because people just talking doesn’t work in a comic, I’d personally like to see someone try, because I think if the conversation is engaging then it would still work regardless of whether or not the scene is described using pictures or words.

Sticking with DC Comics, I also picked up Year of the Villain after hearing somebody else asking to have the tie-in books to be added to their pull list. Year of the Villain is DC’s event comic for this year and this FCBD is the one that kicks things off, which it does with some style, all the major players turn up for a few panels each, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow etc but the major event for this issue is Lex Luthor attacking the White House and then seemingly taking his own life.

There’s not alot else to say about it, as its one of those books thats essentially an advertorial for things to come without offering anything of note, a teaser trailer that gives little room to discuss things and anyone who is interested in the event will already be adding the relevant titles to their pull list (such as the guy above).

It’s at this point that I noticed I didn’t pick up any Marvel, that wasn’t’ a conscious decision. I went to the store with only two titles in mind that I really wanted to try, Under the Moon and Spawn (which I’ll come to later), the rest where titles I picked on a whim. First of which is Deadly Class: Killer Set.

I knew nothing of this book before going in, I wasn’t aware that it’s been running for a number of years already and that it has its own TV show, have I been living under a rock all this time? Evidently. So a quick read up suggests this is a one shot inclusion to the series, a standalone story but it also feels like the reader is expected to know the characters already, which is fair enough (and is a feature of the next book I picked up too). That being said, its piqued my interest in the series and I want to pick up the collected volumes as I really quite liked this one. I really enjoyed the artwork, which had a kind of punky edge to it which tied nicely into the setting of the second half of the book when the group go to see a rock band, not to mention its general location which appears to be an 80’s New York.

There’s an almost Edgar Wright quality to it too, with music being heavily used a backdrop and the action when Viktor is “completing” his homework assignment. On this evidence I may even check out the TV show.

So, you know how I said Deadly Class seems to require some knowledge of the characters? Well the biggest culprit of this is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which to be fair almost everybody knows who Donatello, Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Raphael are as theres been a plethora of non-comic book media dedicated to them since the late 80s. I’ve never actually read any of the comics (and I know thats where they originate) so was excited to see this sat on the table so I could give it a try. The main story is entitled “Road to War” and the comic is being pushed as the Road to Issue #100.

With that you’re thrown straight into the action, the Toitles are in a race against time to get a friend to the hospital whilst being pursued by a variety of bad guys, and its at the point where Mikey and Dony have to turn the Turtle van around and head elsewhere that we leave the action and the book then takes us down a path to give us a short retelling of the Turtles’ history which is told well enough to leave someone who has missed all the action thus far and provides a good jumping in point for newer readers, which is something I feel these FCBD should embrace more (and possibly do).

The last of my five, Spawn. This one I’d heard of, and as mentioned near the top of the page, was one of my “to get”‘s. Image Comics decided to re-issue the first issue of Spawn for FCBD2019. My only experience of the series is watching the film when I was a teenager on VHS in the late 90s. I dont even remember what I thought of it, but that I’ve never re-watched it probably speaks volumes, I do know its not particularly well regarded though.

So onto the comic, its really very 90s, the artwork in particular screams early 90s, and it seems to want to revel in that.The talking head news reporters that bookend the comic remind me of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. What #1 of Spawn does do is it sets out alot of questions for the reader, and opens things up so that you will want to read further issues, but it doesn’t really give alot more than that. I’ve come away from it not knowing whether Spawn is a comic for me or not, which if I’d have paid for this, would probably have put me off buying more issues.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday – Golden Axe

I’ve been joining in with a retro gaming club on a forum I’m on, the first month we played Links Awakening, but due to using my phone and emulators to play it I got too distracted by social media and the likes being available so readily that I didnt put much time into it.

For April we played Golden Axe, with us all playing on a variety of platforms. I played on two and I’ll come to those in a moment.

My memories of Golden Axe are split into two seperate experiences and I don’t really know which is the earliest. The shortest tale is of being in the waiting area of Jersey Airport and seeing the arcade cab and having a play on it there, my lasting memory is of the skeletons, which suggests I got a decent way in (I’ve no idea how many coins I pumped into it, sorry) as they don’t appear until the latter half of the game, unless it was a different Golden Axe I was playing, I’ve not knowingly played Golden Axe 2 or 3 so can’t comment if the skeletons appear earlier in those games or not.

My other memory is of sleeping over at my older sisters, shes around ten years older than I am and would have us over at the weekends so my Dad could go out to the pub with friends after working all week (my parents split when I was young and initially my Mum and her boyfriend at the time were living with his brother so my younger sister and I couldn’t stay over). My sisters boyfriend had a Master System II, as did I although mine had Alex Kidd built in, his had Sonic the Hedgehog. Other than having Sonic the Hedgehog he also had a copy of Golden Axe, and whilst I don’t remember it intricately, I do remember sitting up on the end of the bed playing on it until my sister would come up and tell me to go to sleep. Poor sleeping habits and videogames are pretty much a pattern for me as you may discover in later #ThrowBackThursday posts.

Let’s come back to the present then. My initial choice to play Golden Axe was via the SEGA Mega Drive Collection (or SEGA Genesis Collection if you’re in the US) on my PSP. For such an old game it really does look lovely on the PSP-2000’s screen, the sprites and colours are crisp and sharp and not in the least blocky, which is probably due to the systems size, I doubt it’d look this good on a television without some poking. It plays well too, again, largely thanks to the system as the d-pad on this 2000 model is excellent (as I discussed in last weeks KOF94 post), and the more I played and the more I learned the better the experience. I didn’t know about the special moves the characters have, for example, nor the differences in the characters beyond the level of their magic usage. Even so, I found the PSP Mega Drive Collection rather difficult and despite playing it in fits and drabs for a month, would only ever get half way through the last stage at very best.

The other version I played was the version SEGA ported to the XBox 360’s XBLA platform, although I played on my XBox One S. Admittedly I ramped up the number of lives, etc to the maximum that version allows, and managed to complete it twice on one continue each. Coming back to the games visual appearance, knowing that it would be played on the a larger HD compatible TV, SEGA have redone the artwork for the sprites and they look kind of painted. I can understand why they’ve done it, I remember rightly, back when this was ported, there wasn’t much in the way of enjoyment of pixel based artwork and everything had to be up-ressed, now it just looks blurry and a bit crap. Still, it plays well, the controls don’t feel as tight as they do on the PSP, my ability to pull of special moves or dash attacks wasn’t as consistent on the XBox One controller as it was on the PSP, but its still a really enjoyable game that doesn’t ever really feel too unfair, unlike alot of arcade games of this vintage.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Red Earth and Pouring Rain – Vikram Chandra

Aprils Close Encounters “Books Without Pictures” book was Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra.

Red Earth and Pouring Rain, on its surface, is the tale of a young Indian man, Aphay, who having returned to India from America, shoots a monkey who regularly visits his parental home for food, however, a spirit is awoken within the monkey as it is nursed back to health by Aphay’s parents, it is the spirit of Sanjay Parashar a poet who has to bargain with the Gods to extend his life, his payment? To tell a story and keep Lord Yama at bay.

His story is told throughout the book, which jumps back and forth over a couple of centuries covering everything from pre-English rule Hindustan, prior to Sanjay’s birth, the key figures at that time, both real and fictional, through his birth alongside his “brothers” Sikander and Chotto through to Aphay’s time studying in America, his falling in love but ultimately in him returning home and his fateful conflict with a white monkey who had stolen his jeans from the washing line.

This is over simplifying the tale that is told within the pages of Chandra’s writings, even referring to it as a “tale” is to also over simplify things, as Red Earth and Pouring Rain is a whole bunch of tales with a wide variety of key characters and voices all told within an amalgamation of tales themselves. We are told of the Gods, of war, heroes and villains, love, death and everything in between and in the hands of a lesser author it could all have so easily have gone awry. That’s not to say that Red Earth and Pouring Rain isn’t a challenging read, it can be difficult to keep up with who is who and what has happened to each of the characters and at what point in history certain events take place. I also felt I may have had more of a grasp of things if I’d had more of an education in regards to India, its history and the religious upbringings of its people, as thing stand we’re not even taught about England’s involvement in the area (and it wasn’t until the recent episode of Doctor Who that I knew anything of the Partition of India for example) so reading this has been an eye opener really.

I’ve struggled to take much more from the it really, I’m not sure if its trying to say anything in particular, and again, I can’t help but thinking that my very white working class upbringing has played its hand there, not that that excuses my ignorance, but I’m definitely glad that Red Earth and Pouring Rain came up as otherwise I wouldn’t have known is existence, let alone read it, as its most definetly outside of the kind of book I’d normally pick up and read.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War (PlayStation 2)

Ever since the mid-90’s and the original PlayStation, console owners wanting a fix of aerial combat have turned to the Ace Combat series, simply because theres been nothing good enough to knock it off its throne. It’s helped, of course, that with each installment, the series has gone from strength to strength. Sure it’s not a flight simulation, as PC gamers will always point out, but its never meant to be seen that way.

So, Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War then, is the sixth game in the series, but contrary to its name, its not where it all began, instead its a prequel to the story told in Ace Combat 5. Visually, theres barely any difference, those that aren’t die-hard fans of the series certainly wont be able to tell the difference. The similarities aren’t just in the visuals though, this is good and bad, fans will be pleased as it means their much loved series hasn’t been messed with, but some people may just be waiting for that one big advancement to the series that will give them the kick they need to get airborne for the first time.

There are very slight modifications to the engine, but it still plays the same as Ace Combat always has, no bad thing thats for sure. Advanced moves like rolls, banking, reverse loops and such are easy to pull off, even for a complete novice, but the game still remains a challenge. With the weather affecting your vision meaning you can be pushed right to your dog fighting abilities limits in order to complete just one more mission.

Missions can vary greatly, at times you can be taking on numerous other aircraft in dogfights that look impressive on the games replay function, other times you’ll have to systematically take out ground units, meaning the skies are always full of something that could potentially harm you, although some weapons feel a bit too out of place, such as laser towers, considering the games 1995 setting.

The Ace Combat series has always had a pretty impressive story and narrative, and The Belkan War is no different. Missions never feel pointless and you really want to achieve the goals your set in order to gain your side another footing in the war.

Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan war is a fine addition to the series, but rather than following the established template, Namco have moulded a new one. Almost like car designers enhancing their original design year after year. In addition to the normal missions you undertake, you occasionally come across groups of pilots known as Aces, there are several different groups, who are all mercernaries in the same manner you are, but happened to have chosen the opposing side. These aerial battles can take upto half an hour just to even land 1 missile on target, never mind if your trying to take them down with your guns instead! This increases the difficulty of Ace Combat Zero by quite a bit, but not in the frustrating way it sounds as these particular dogfights never get boring.

So, for fans of the series, Ace Combat Zero is everything you’ve followed the series for all these years, possibly more. For those who are waiting, why? This is by far the best installment yet, I’d go as far as to say its easily the best aerial combat game available, better than anything the over-serious PC market has to offer.