Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Great Playthrough: Game 9 - Sonic the Hedgehog 2

I know I left you all on a cliffhanger at the end of my previous post, when I stated that the next game would be one of my favourite games of all time. And here it is.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Originally released on: Sega Megadrive (And then on just about every platform ever concieved after Sega stopped making consoles)
Played on: Sega Megadrive and Nintendo Wii. 
Release date: 1992

For the first time in this series, I have arrived at a game that I choose to regularly play anyway, and I wondered whether that would affect my review - either in the sense that I will automatically love it, or that I will wonder why on earth I play it so regularly. And do you know what? It's a brilliant game.

It is one of the best 2D platformers of all time, and there's no easier statement for me to make. 

Firstly, though, let me explain why I have two consoles listed in the 'played on' description above. I intended to play this through on the Megadrive, the way it is meant to be played. In true 16-bit console style, I then spent about ten minutes trying to make the cartridge load successfully. Eventually it did so, and I played through the whole of Emerald Hill Zone and into the second zone, Chemical Plant Zone. Where it crashed. Then, when I tried to restart the machine, it wouldn't load the cartridge at all, so I gave up and loaded up my Gamecube copy of Sonic Mega Collection into the Wii and played on that instead.

I tend to find it's tough to write about things that I really like, without just saying how great they are over and over again. In many ways it's like a biscuit. (Bear with me, this will make sense... I hope). I like most biscuits. I like custard creams, I like cookies, but my favourite biscuit ever is a double stuff Mint Oreo. With a custard cream I can complain that they're normally quite dry, or there's not enough filling, or with cookies you can complain about the lack of chocolate chips. But with double stuff Mint Oreos? All I can say is that they are extra-tasty and the best biscuit ever.

And that's the problem I have with writing this about Sonic 2. It's brilliant great (checks thesaurus for a word I haven't yet used) fabulous - but there's not much else to say! The graphics are wonderful. The gameplay is exceptional. The music is infectious.

The only problem I have with the game is that the final level is frustrating. And not frustrating in the sense that I could get better at playing the game, it's frustrating because you have to jump and grab onto these little pipes hanging off the bottom of the airship, (Incidentally Dr Robotnik, why do you have an airship? You don't need to steal ideas from Bowser, do something unique!)  and half the time Sonic fails to grab them, and you fall into a bottomless pit of death. It feels very strange that the final level of a game based on speedy platforming requires you to keep stopping and have to utilise dodgy gaming mechanics.

But that aside, there is no way I can not recommend this game. Even the less-interesting levels (Oil Ocean Zone, I'm looking at you) are ten times better than 99% of platformers out there, and on the zones that are perfect (Emerald Hill, Casino Night, Chemical Plant) it is one of the best gaming experiences of your lives. And I haven't even mentioned the wonderful special stages and the multiple routes through each level.

So whatever current generation console you may have, you need this game. Thanks to Sega's insistence on pimping their games to every possible marketplace, you can download it for Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii or PS3 - and if you have a DS/3DS there's recently been a cartridge release of the 4 original sonic games called Sonic Classic Collection. Hell, there's even an iPhone version (although I have no idea how well the controls work).

So if you don't have this game, buy it. And if you have never played it before? Shame on you - do so immediately!

Rating: 9.5/10 (And that's only because I hate giving anything a perfect score)
Time played: 10 minutes on Megadrive, and then an hour and a bit on Wii. 
Would I play it again? Of course. In fact, just the act of writing this article kinda makes me want to go and play it right now. 

Next time - another game that is already played regularly in our house, it's time for Super Smash Bros Brawl!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Great Playthrough: Game 8 - Earthworm Jim

Yes, after a short hiatus (due to having to work a lot in the last week or so) I'm back and writing playthrough blogs! And for this next game, I get to return to my favourite era (16-bit consoles) and my favourite type of game (2D platformer.) It's time now for Earthworm Jim!

Earthworm Jim
Originally released on: Sega Megadrive (followed closely by SNES and then a myriad of other platforms)
Played on: SNES
Release date: 1994

I was looking forward to playing Earthworm Jim, as everyone maintains that it's an absolutely fabulous game, and I have very little memory of playing it before. "It's a 16-Bit platformer," I thought, "I'll absolutely love it."

Well, I didn't.

Don't get me wrong, it's fun to an extent, the graphics are very pretty and the whole thing feels like a cross between Disney's Aladdin (the video game, obviously) and Donkey Kong Country. It's got those graphics where they've tried to make characters, objects and scenery look semi-3D, and it feels like it's going to be a good game as you start it up.

Then some minor niggles start to arise. Firstly, the collision detection is slightly weird. One of the most common enemies are crows flying at you, but I kept finding that whenever the crow was on a level with me, flying at me, if I fired my gun in a straight line it... wouldn't hit the crow. If the crow was above me, shooting up would hit him, but strangely it just didn't seem to work consistently on the horizontal plane. Secondly, there are some control issues. Jim is supposed to have a secondary jump where his worm head spins around like a helicopter blade, and this is supposed to be activated by pressing the jump button while already in the air. And it is sometimes activated like this, but also, sometimes not, depending on the mood of the game. And finally? The semi-3D nature of the graphics as I described earlier, make it very hard to tell what is a platform, what is background scenery and what is a hazard (spikes etc.), which makes it a very frustrating game.

It's hard, too. On the first level (New Junk City) I made it to what I thought was the boss twice, before losing all my lives and having to start again. After then going through the games options menu and discovering an easier difficulty mode, (yes, I'm a wuss), I tried again, and managed to defeat that boss, only to discover it was a mid-level boss, and that I had the rest of the level to go! I did manage that, and eventually complete the first level, the between-levels-level (where you pilot Jim through space, racing Psy-Crow), the battle with Psy-Crow (which you get to if you lose the race, which I did) and then I got to level 2. And the problems got worse.

All the problems I already described were still in evidence, but the sticking point for me? It was the fact that mid-way through the level, I reached an area of the game that I seemed not to be able to get out of. There were multiple routes, multiple platforms, but wherever I went, I ended up in the same place over and over and over again. And that was a game-breaker for me I'm afraid.

Maybe I've been spoilt by obviously linear platformers in my life, but this bad level design was a huge problem for me. Discovering a hard jump, or a difficult enemy, or something else in a game that you have to work at to proceed doesn't bother me. But getting completely lost and stuck in a circular bit of level design does. So this was the second game in the playthrough that sadly, I finished playing before my hour was up.

It sounds like I'm being overly hard on Earthworm Jim, and I did enjoy some of my time with it in spite of the niggles. But the brick wall of awkward level design means that I'm not likely to put any time into it in the future.

Rating: 4.5/10
Time Played: 45 minutes
Would I play it again? It's unlikely. The frustrations definitely outweigh the fun, so I'm doubtful that I'll want to get into that again.

Next time? We're sticking with 16-bit 2D platformers for one of my favourite games of all time - what is it? Wait and see....

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Great Playthrough: Game 7 - Super Monkey Ball 2

(Note: The case in the photo may say Super Monkey Ball, but the game disc is for Super Monkey Ball 2. This was due to a cock-up in a Cash Converters when I bought this game back in 2005)

Super Monkey Ball 2
Originally released on: Nintendo Gamecube
Played on: Nintendo Wii (because the Gamecube isn't plugged up at the moment)
Release date: 2002

I like monkeys. They're fun and entertaining. And therefore, a game which features them will be fun and entertaining too, right? Yes. Yes, it will.

Monkey Ball is a franchise that possibly doesn't need to be a franchise - as the first two games got it so right, and every other game since then has messed about with control schemes, which usually results in the game being worse than its predecessors. I have owned four different games in the Monkey Ball series (Super Monkey Ball 2, Super Monkey Ball: Touch and Roll, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz and Super Monkey Ball 3D), and the only one I still have is this one - Super Monkey Ball 2.

The aim of the game is simple. In order to defeat an evil monocled monkey overlord, you must navigate AiAi (the lead monkey) in his ball through a selection of 100-odd mazes, getting him to the goal within 60 seconds and then picking up bananas on the way. You don't control AiAi directly, however, you tilt the level around him as he rolls to the finish line, and as a gaming conceit, this works very well indeed. Whereas on later games you control things via a stylus, via motion controls or even via a balance board, to my mind nothing beats the accuracy and versatility of an analogue stick when controlling the game, and that's why this is the best of all the games, the controls are spot on.

(The plot, on the other hand, is not spot on at all - as it doesn't make any sense that you need to roll them to the exit when, at the end of every level and in every cutscene, it is blatantly obvious that the monkeys can fly the balls with no help whatsoever. But I digress)

Unfortunately, after about 40 minutes into the game, I remembered the disadvantages of Super Monkey Ball 2.
a) It's bloody frustrating at times.
b) The cutscenes are so rubbish and pointless that they make the cutscenes from Resident Evil look like Martin Scorcese-directed masterpieces. (And yes, in answer to your as yet unanswered question, I would watch a Martin Scorcese directed Monkeyball movie. Well, wouldn't you?)
c) It gets a little bit.... boring.

When I say it gets boring, I mean that endlessly bouncing your way through levels to get to an annoyingly positioned goalpost does become more than a little repetitive. However, Monkey Ball 2 contains a saving grace - Party games!

Bear in mind that in the early 2000's, the concept of a party game was still a novelty, as opposed to nowadays when every platformer, puzzle game, RPG and sports game feels the urge to pack in at least four mini-party-games, at least three of which are utterly rubbish. However, with it being a fairly new innovation at the time of SMB2, a lot of the party games included are solid gold. After playing for 40 minutes on the main game, I decided to spend my last twenty minutes re-playing some of these party games, so on a whim I loaded up Monkey Fight.

Monkey Fight is a game where your monkeyball is equipped with a boxing glove, and you roll around an arena trying to knock your opponents over the edge. You get points for knocking them over the edge, there are power ups such as long springs and iron gloves, and it's an entertaining bit of fun - especially as you can play with up to four players.

The next game I loaded up was Monkey Billiards. And I love Monkey Billiards. When I shared a flat with a certain Mr Lambert, Monkey Billiards was our video game of choice. It plays exactly as it sounds. You can choose from four different types of pool, and all of the balls have monkeys in. (Plus there are a pair of freakily huge monkeys drinking at the bar as you play). Basically, it's great fun.

And before I knew what was happening, my hour was up. I'd played SMB2 and (mostly) enjoyed it. It's bright and colourful (as a lot of Gamecube games of the time were) and while the main game can be a tad underwhelming, the fun party games really add some value to the whole package.

Rating: 7/10 
Time played: About an hour and ten minutes. (Well, I had to finish my game of Monkey Billiards didn't I...)
Would I play it again? When I load it up again, it'll be for the party games, but it's unlikely to be for the main game. Sorry Monkeys.

Next time, on Brawny's great playthrough? We're heading into the era of 16-bit platformers - it's Earthworm Jim!

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Great Playthrough: Game 6 - Wii Sports

For the first time in this experiment, I've reached a current generation game. Wii Sports.

Wii Sports
Originally released on: Nintendo Wii
Played on: Nintendo Wii
Release date: 2006

Wii Sports was, for the first few years of the Wii's life, the default pack-in game for the Wii, before the arrival of it's sequel, Wii Sports Resort, and the updated Wii MotionPlus, So consequentially, this was one of the first games people played when they bought their Wii, which is true of myself as well. So going back to it was an interesting experience.

It's made up of 5 sports games (tennis, baseball, golf, bowling and boxing), and while that may not sound like a huge amount, bear in mind these aren't minigames, each plays for a decent amount of time.

The most important thing about Wii Sports is that it was designed as a party game that shows off the ease of use you get with the Wii's motion controls. So I decided that, as this was designed primarily as a multi-player game, I should use multiple players, so for the first time in this playthrough, I have a playing buddy - the ever-beautiful Neety! (Her contributions to this blog are in italics, but she sadly refused to appear in the photograph.)

When Brawny asked me to play Wii Sports with him, my first thoughts were "Who are you and what have you done with my fiance?" Then he explained that it was for his retro-gaming blog and I fully understood why he would want to play a game with Sport in the title. I was looking forward to it, until I saw the word golf appear on the screen. Hopefully we would make it through the game without accidentally punching each other in the groin.

After powering up the game and selecting our Mii's, we launched into a game of Tennis. And do you know what? It's as fun as I remember. Apart from accidentally hitting my lovely Neety in the arm when swinging (after which we moved further apart from each other), we played a Best of 5 game (which, incidentally, I won 3-2). However, after the initial few strokes had played out, I found myself remembering the problems I had previously found with this game. There seems to be very little skill involved. Having looked it up before, I'm aware that the direction of your return depends on how early or late you swing the wii-mote, but that doesn't seem to translate to the game particularly well. Consequentially, while it is a fun pick-up and play party game (which is what it was designed to be), you do very quickly discover that luck (and who is serving first) plays as great a part in the result as skill does.

Neety's Tennis Verdict: Quite enjoyable, slightly erratic, and the Neety Mii that was in the middle of the court didn't do any work and should pick up the slack!

Sport number two is baseball, and just that name makes my heart sink a little. I'm not a fan of baseball. In a previous job where I worked at a bookmaker's call centre, I would work the late shifts, and have to watch American sports. And of these, Baseball was my least favourite. Because it's boring! But hey, it's a party game - they wouldn't make it boring, would they?

Well not intentionally. But just the way that baseball works made it boring, and I ended up the 3 inning game having scored no runs at all. Neety scored one, and therefore she won.

Again, controls are not the best in the world, and this, coupled with the stupid rules of Baseball when encountering foul balls, strikeouts etc., made this a game that I was happy when it was over.

Neety's Baseball Verdict: It was alright, but there seemed to be absolutely no skill to it. I tried picking up a technique, but every time it yielded different results. Good for a laugh but got boring after a while.

Bowling is up next, and this has always been my favourite Wii Sports game. Unlike the two we've already played through, it genuinely feels like there is skill involved in this game, and the controls are responsive and intuitive. After the dullness of baseball, I found myself enjoying this again, and in fact, we went back to one of the additional bowling mini-games after we had played all the sports, where you have to knock down increasingly larger numbers of pins.

The fact that skill is involved, and that techniques can be developed with repeatable results, made this, for me the most fun game in the package, and is the one I'm most likely to go back to again and again.

Neety's Bowling Verdict: Probably the most realistic because it corresponded with my actual bowling prowess in real life, in that it kept curling off at the ends as it does when I bowl, so if you're going for realism then it's much more fun than the baseball. 

Aaah golf. A game I've never enjoyed in real life (which nowadays sets me apart from a lot of my friends), but due to a lot of time playing Wii Sports golf in the past with friends while drinking, the game itself I quite enjoy - and I was expecting not much to have changed. So once I had changed into some checked trousers, a white jumper and a weird looking hat, I was ready to attack the 3-Hole Beginners course. (Note - previous sentence may not be completely true.) Unfortunately, some control issues instantly rear their head once again, causing some slightly inconsistent controls, and after the tight, well-designed controls of bowling, it does feel like a big step backwards. I enjoyed the golf however, although Neety may tell a slightly different story...

Neety's Golf Verdict: Playing any kind of golf, whether virtual, mini or actual proper golf, is for me the equivalent of pulling off my fingernails and shoving them one by one up my nostril before rinsing out my sinuses with balsamic vinegar - painful and unnecessary. F#@k golf. F#@k golf. F#@K GOLF!! ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGHHH!!! *runs around screaming*

Boxing is probably the game I had played the least when I first got my Wii, as it's very much a two-player game. And on firing it up again, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it's got some of the wooliest controls of the whole game, meaning that blocking is a vague notion and the differentiation between high and low punches seems to be non-existent. But you know what? It's fun. You feel like you're getting involved, and you work up a sweat playing it, which is something that can only be said of this and Tennis. My criticisms? Well, if you don't successfully knock out the other player, the scoring to determine who wins seems very erratic, and as I've said, the controls are not the strongest they could be. But we did enjoy playing the first round of this so much that we instantly played a second.

Neety's Boxing Verdict: If you're looking to actually work up a sweat, this is the one game of the five that will do it. It's quite fun to punch your friends and loved ones in their (virtual) face and while it's not as accurate as the bowling, it's pretty accurate compared with the other games, so it's less likely to cause annoyance. 

I know this has been a very long post, but I felt that each of the games were big enough that they deserved a paragraph each. My overall Wii Sports feeling? It's a game that can always be fun. As a launch game, it has nowadays lost some of it's uniqueness (as the number of Wii-based party games with motion controls has rocked to approximately 11,231,464 (this statistic may or may not be accurate)) and the charm of it holds a lot of it together, particularly with it's slightly erratic controls. It's not likely to be high on my re-play list in the future, but it'll probably get played on occasionally, especially if there's a group of us. Now let's check in with Neety for her final thought..

Wii Sports is good as a fun, family game, and it's good for beginners and a good all-rounder. If you wanted more of either a challenge or a workout, I'd recommend Wii Sports Resort or Wii Fit instead, but if you're bored on a rainy day it's not a bad way to pass the time. Also - I HATE GOLF! F@#K GOLF! F@#K IT!

Rating: 6/10 (Would have been higher, but Baseball brought it down)
Time Played: Just over an hour
Would I play it again? Every so often, but it's not liable to become a regular occurance.

Next time - It's time for Monkeys, trapped in balls. It's Super Monkey Ball 2!

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Great Playthrough: Game 5 - Mario Kart: Super Circuit

In keeping with the racing theme, today I've been playing Mario Kart: Super Circuit! 

Mario Kart: Super Circuit
Originally released on: Gameboy Advance
Played on: Nintendo 3DS (via the Ambassador Program)
Release date: 2001

Mario Kart and I have a strange relationship. I have at various times owned just about every iteration of the long running game (except for Mario Kart 7 - the most recent of them), and I enjoy them all. But I seem to be out of step with most fans - because I prefer the later games, and I enjoy racing on a motorcycle in Mario Kart Wii (which is apparently not the popular response to the motorbikes). But due to never owning a Game Boy Advance, I'd never played this version of the game until just a few months ago.

And you know what? As much as 16-bit versions of games tended to be my favourite, that's not the case here. I'm sorry, super circuit, but you try to match the wonder of the original Super Mario Kart with the variation of later iterations. But sadly, it doesn't quite manage it. It doesn't help that consistently holding down the A button on the 3DS wasn't the most comfortable position for me, causing my hand to tense up in a few minutes and making the playing a little uncomfortable. 

But it wasn't just that. It's tough to put my finger on what I found unimpressive with Super Circuit. It has a good number of tracks (and you can unlock the original Super Mario Kart tracks as well), it has coins you can pick up on tracks, which is a feature I always enjoyed in the original Super Mario Kart, and it plays well. It just all feels a bit... similar to everything that came before (and that has come since). This, coupled with the fact that I have always preferred Mario Kart on a big screen TV, rather than a handheld, meant that by the end of my playing time, I was playing because I had to, not because I wanted to.

And maybe that's the problem. Because I missed this game at the time, and I've played later versions - both on consoles and handhelds, this game just feels like a stop-gap. Maybe I've just come to it too late, but as is often the way with game series', there are some weaker instalments than others, or just some that don't innovate as much as before. 

A bit of a disappointment for me then, as if I'm in the mood for an old-school Mario Kart challenge, I'll dig out my SNES, and if I want some newer, more innovative Mario Karting, it's Mario Kart Wii all the way for me. As for Mario Kart: Super Circuit? Well I'll play it for a few minutes here and there probably, but I doubt it'll ever become a staple of my life the way the original did when I was younger or the way MK Wii did when I bought it. It's a nice try, Nintendo, but it just doesn't do it for me.

Rating: 6.5/10
Time Played: 1 hour 3 mins
Would I continue playing? As I said earlier, I might dip into it occasionally, but it's not a game I'm going to play constantly for weeks. 

Next time on the great playthrough, we're entering the current generation for the first time, as I re-play the definitive Wii launch game - Wii Sports. Quick question - should I employ additional players for this game? It is after all designed to be a group experience... answers on a postcard (or alternatively in the comments below!)