Currently playing

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite

A few years back there was a distinct lack of offline co-operative games for home consoles, and lo and behold, with the release of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite PSP owners have access to the definitive version of the handheld sensation from Japan.

As a game premise it sounds quite dangerous in both senses – the life of a hunter killing ferocious beasts against the backdrop of an MMO-like grind and repeat scenario, but to summize it as such does the game a great disservice.

Trials and tribulations

  • The premise of Monster Hunter is relatively simple, rather than levelling up your character you improve your armour, weapons, and tactics for completing your next hunt, the sense of challenge and reward is palpable.
  • The cycle of challenge and reward are one of the main reasons to play, the eurphoric sense of accomplishment you get from taking down an enormous monster from your talent alone is one of the the most rewarding gaming experiences ever.
  • New players to the series will have to spend a long time getting used to how the game plays. This will mean many hours in tutorials to improve yourself. The steepest learning curve I have ever seen in a video game may be too much for most people.
  • The game has many barriers to entry, but just as your confidence may start to grow, one particular boss creature is likely to smash you down a peg or two (over and over) one potential hurdle is bad enough, but two?

Look and feel

  • The game world looks gorgeous, from the outdoor map areas especially. Capcom manages to balance the sense of scale perfectly; creating outdoor spaces that you can quickly grow accustomed to, as well as a perfect town, farm and home area that doesn’t confuse, yet adds extra value during battle downtime.
  • Weapon and armour creation games are two a penny, but the level of detail exhibited in Monster Hunter is unlike any other. You ARE in effect your equipment, and hours of work will go into creating and improving every piece of your set to enhance your chances out on the battlefield.
  • Memorising multiple weapon controls is tricky and may force you to make very important decisions about your favoured gameplay styles very quickly. The animations and time needed to manuovre, control and battle your enemies are extremely clunky at first and are at times of danger quite frustrating.
  • Repeating missions will become nessersary in order to gather materials and scope out areas, while this may suit some, the lack of story as well as having to revisit the same areas has the potential to become repetitive after time.

Solo and multiplayer

  • Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is an extremely rewarding multiplayer game as is clearly designed with this in mind. Parties of up to four people can team up to down monsters that are tricky to manage alone, with the games inventory system allowing you to share and recieve items from each other on the fly.
  • For those unable to play multiplayer the Felyne companions provide an adequate (if quite noisy) alternative to playing completely alone, training and improving your Felyne’s skills as well as your own is a welcome challenge.
  • The decision not to include online multiplayer is a puzzling one, as this would have been how the vast majority of gamers would have experienced it. Particulary puzzling as the game is marketed as a multiplayer game but then can only be played using local wireless. Leaving this important feature out is inexcuseable.
  • This is a much-harder and less satisfying game alone, multiplayer improves this challenging game no end, so it’s quite sad that many people will not be able to experience the game as intended.

In conclusion

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite is one of the most rewarding handheld multiplayers of recent years; an improvement over the previous installments and a freshly prepared complete package for those who are new to the series.

If you can make it past the odd controls and occasionally obtuse inventory system, this is a wonderful game that will give you many hours of pleasure, it’s purely for those who like a gaming challenge – on their terms, and the PSP is a perfect format for it.

Currently playing

Rock Band Unplugged

This portable version of Rock Band for the PSP tries something a little different, challenging you to play all four tracks of the Rock Band soundtrack in a four lane track system Harmonix already explored in Amplitude and Frequency.

So rather than using a series of incresingly more complex perhipherials Rock Band Unplugged is a nod to the rhythm action games of old and a faithful descendant of Harmonix’s two earlier games.

A Portable Rock Band?

  • Harmonix have done a fantastic job at porting across the Rock Band look and sound onto the small screen of the PSP. That said it is a game that is best experienced with a set of headphones.
  • One of the best looking and best presented PSP games on the market. Even the normally quite prolonged PSP loading times don’t seem to be an issue on this game.
  • Although you can customize all of your bandmates, some of the finer details of doing so are not present in this version, such as the logo creator. Mind you this could be because you’ll have a hard time even watching what your characters are up to anyway.
  • Playing all four instruments may take some getting used to. You’ll either love the flexibility the game provides or hate the fact that you can’t focus on your favourite instrument.

The music

  • The World Tour mode is back, with the quickplay and tour mode matching the standard of it’s larger cousin. Everything plays as you’d expect and moving between the four instuments is easier to keep on top of compared to Frequency & Amplitude. This is a far more accessible game.
  • The four layers that build up the songs are best noticed in this game, you begin to become more aware of how certain songs are put together. Rock Band Encourages this by increasing the volume of the track you are currently playing.
  • Existing fans may be disappointed by the amount of songs they already own in Rock Band 1 & 2 repeated in Unplugged. Some more unique tracks would have been nice, but at least the amended gameplay makes every existing song that much more enjoyable.
  • Initially you’ll be playing the same songs over and over in quick succession if you follow the world tour mode religiously. Impatient people may want to use the unlock music code for quick play.

The controls

  • Mercifully it’s quite easy to keep on top of what you need to do next. Rock Band Unplugged screen space is squeezed full of helpful details, such as the indicators bouncing on the beat pointing what track to play next to continue your score multiplier.
  • Harmonix’s note charts ease you gently into each more progressively difficult song, as ever each difficulty is perfectly weighted and each combination of notes or chords make sense both musically and rhythmically.
  • This is quite a tricky game, especially on higher difficulties, certain instruments (drums) tend to be more difficult than the others and the PSP buttons can be quite unforgiving; letting you make easy mistakes that are hard to recover from.
  • The default controls are a little fiddly at first, particulary for the buttons required to play red and yellow (relegated to the d-pad), thankfully they can be changed if you’re beginning to struggle.

In conclusion

Rock Band Unplugged is a worthwhile contribution to anyone’s PSP collection, proving that a spinoff to a music series can indeed be worthwhile and not just an occasion to cash-in but an enhancement to the series. That said this game stands on it’s own perfectly, and it ideal for beginners and experts alike. A must buy.

Retro gaming

Great game shop: R Games

After complaining about the state of most video game shops on the high street, I thought I’d show some examples of places that manage to get video game shopping done right.

I think the most important thing about games shopping is the experience of it, a lot of shops have lost this now, but one particular shop still feels magical every single time.

So I thought I’d start with my favourite games shop ever: R-Games in Westgate Street, Gloucester.

The Nintendo Cabinet

Stacks upon stacks of boxed N64 games in a glass cabinet.A rare collection of boxed NES and N64 games.

One of the first things that greets you as you enter is the shop is a fantastic display of Nintendo games in a glass cabinet. After seeing so many tatty, rubbish games in hundreds of different shops it’s wonderful to see a tidy, and a very special collection of games on display. Now these aren’t for sale sadly, but it helps to set the mood. Often you’ll see people stood in front of this cabinet in awe, chatting about their gaming past or pointing out their favourite games.

I particularly like all the NES games on the bottom shelf, they’re quite tricky to track down in such nice condition apart from ebay. It really feels like you’re looking in on someone’s personal collection, and I approve of games being on display in this way. Let’s face it most games collections are hidden away, rather than appreciated by many.

Current Gen Titles

 DVDs and collectibles on shop shelves with console boxes on top.Current gen games stacked neatly on shelves.

Most of my second hand game shopping is done here. R Games stocks all the current gen games for very reasonable prices (some of the best in Gloucester I think). Games brought from here are always in fantastic condition, as well as being clean and tidy. The chaps in the store are always happy for you to test any of the games out in the store, and the entire shop is very relaxed so you don’t feel hurried along like in larger stores.

There are games and DVDs in here that you usually won’t find anywhere else, the employees here are knowledgeable and helpful, and this seems to help them buy in genuinely decent stuff, rather than anything and everything Joe public brings in. It’s worth mentioning that the shop itself it quite small, but every spare space is filled with gaming trinkets, action figures, posters, cuddly toys, even all the inserts from games long gone, it’s all fabulous nostalgia.

The museum pieces

 Games merchandise behind the counter of R Games.Various retro consoles under the glass counter.

There is always some gaming merchandise in here that will surprise you, behind the counter especially, as this is where they tend to keep the really rare games on display (Panzer Dragoon Saga anyone?) Nearly every item behind the counter is a gamer’s dream. It’s nice to see such rare games in the flesh, on display rather than hidden away in a cupboard. R Games is a fantastic shop, but I think it’s also the nearest thing we have locally to a gaming museum.

Nearly every items in this shop brings back memories. All the adverts from the 1990s, all the boxes, and shop POS, perhaps they play on this constant sense of nostalgia by keeping most of the retro consoles in stock, as well as definitive collections of all their games available for sale. I like knowing that if I needed a particular retro console or game I could come here and find it, it’s extremely reassuring.

Retro consoles and games

 Retro consoles with N64 in forefront.Lots of Mega Drive games.

Quite honestly the amount of retro games and consoles in this shop puts the vast majority of high street shops to shame. But part of the reason it works here is because no one else is really doing this anymore. This shop feels like the shops I was in as a child, before all the corporate franchises came in and demolished the high street. In this shop at least it’s different, you get knowledgeable, helpful gamers behind the counter and a smile when you come in.

The pride and personality behind the shop really shows, and while I have no doubt that they’re partly supported by an ebay shop as well, it’s wonderful to have retro and current games in a brick and mortar shop rather than one a computer, it’s the sort of thing that every shop should be doing.

Handhelds and DVDs

 An anime collection on the shop shelf.Lots of different handheld consoles and cartridges.

There is also quite a collection of specialist DVD titles, particularly anime and music DVDs for the so inclined. It’s nice to have lots of interests which are normally deemed too niche in another shops properly represented and appreciated here.

The handheld game collection is also fairly complete. I can’t think of many other places that support the Gameboy Advance and Colour so exhaustively. This is a great place to pick up cart based games, but it’s also nice to see games in their original boxes, as immaculate as the day they were brought. I certainly approve of the choice and variety the shop provides.

Attention to detail

Cables and controllers hung neatly by the till.Master System games on the shelf!

You can really see how all the old game inserts are used in the shop here. Best of all, all the way around the top of the shop are old console boxes, and all their various different iterations also, so a Japanese Saturn box, next to an Atari Jaguar and Famicom.

I also believe you can judge a good games shop on how they store their controllers, in here they are all beautifully tied and displayed rather than stuck into little bags in bargain bins.

Slightly faded console boxes in the shop window.Slightly faded console boxes in the shop window.

Simply put R Games is my favourite games shop and has been for an extremely long time, hopefully you can see why from the pictures I’ve taken. It goes against the tide stocking things that most places wouldn’t bother to, and in doing so creates a unique games shop that matches the personality of it’s customers. It has become the tidemark upon which I judge every other games shop I walk into.

Not just because of it’s contents, but the sublime service, friendly staff and wonderful prices. I’ll have a hard time trying to find other shops to write about after this one.

Currently playing

Drumming with Rock Band

I’d like to ask a simple question. Can music games improve your ability to play a real instrument?

After drumming in Rock Band for almost a year I’ve decided to learn the drums properly again. While there is no definitive answer for you just yet, this is a subject I’d like to return to as as my real drumming improves.

But before we get to the lessons themselves; a little information on my musical history.

My musical history

The Drums

Now I have to be honest I have played the drums before, but I would describe myself as extremely amateur. Largely self taught. My practical drum experience was from about 11 years ago, and I’ve largely forgotten. I’ve picked up a lot of bad habits from RB2, so I’d like to start over.

Other Musical experiences

I played the violin when I was very young, and I also played in a percussion section (Xylophone, Glockenspiel mainly) so I used to have a fair understanding of musical theory. However I am sad to say this knowledge has completely drained from my head.

Rock Band 1 & 2

On July 15th 2008 I unboxed my Rock band instrument set for the first time. But who was I kidding, I bought Rock Band and it’s sequel so I could play the drums first, and second for the music and for the sheer joy of experiencing one of the best multiplayer games ever made.

After muddling through Easy and Medium difficulties, by November 2008 for the release of Rock Band 2 I was playing on Hard exclusively. And now less then a year after I bought the original game I play on Expert difficulty for the vast majority of songs.

My drumming aims

  • To learn the drums properly, with an emphasis on musical theory.
  • To ditch any bad habits I’ve picked up from teaching myself in the past.
  • To figure out whether playing RB for the last year has helped me to improve over what I could do before.

Week One – Re-learning the basics

It’s been years since I’ve sat in front of a drum kit this big, and I’m suddenly extremely nervous. First things first apparently the way I am holding the sticks is good, thankfully I have learnt some of the benefits of stick bounce from RB2, I’ve noticed I tire less when I let the recoil of the stick do most of the work.

We go over the basic drum names, and I hit problem one straight away – the high-hat sat on the far left of me, which forms the basis of the main beat in my starting drum grooves, we play it closed today but even so, I now have a second pedal to worry about when I am now more used to one. So not a problem for now, but perhaps a problem for later.

I have a total of nine drums to manage rather than five Rock Band ones, that’s the biggest hurdle.

Two Rock Band Kits show the difference in drum positions.

Problem two is that I have to return to playing cross-handed, that is right hand over left so I can play high-hat and snare. To deviate a little:

When playing RB2, your main drum beats are on the red and yellow drums. Snare is usually the red drum on the left in-game, and yellow the high-hat.

Except on a normal drum kit setup, it’s the opposite; your high-hat is on the left, and you play cross-handed (as a right handed person) to prepare your stronger hand for faster beats. I’m no expert on the subject, but I am guessing Harmonix changed this around to make the hardware more accessible to non-musicians.

We start building up a basic groove, my tutor seems pleased that I play all drums on all hands and feet very evenly, apparently this normally takes a while to get right in your head. (Thanks RB!)

I drum along to my first song (Californication, Red Hot Chilli Peppers) I am trying to relax but I’ve noticed how much I stare ahead at one fixed point like I am looking at a screen for guidance. Must try harder not to do this next week.

Week Two – Testing my memory

As I suspected the hardest thing to unlearn is the fact that I am no longer taking direction from a screen. I need to learn to relax and loosen up a bit. I manage to play the grooves from last week without too many problems, but taking on new stuff is hard. I am used to playing by ear and suddenly I have to remember to count and think again. So the majority of this lesson is just spent practicing what I can do over and over and over. This hits hard, although still fun – it’s a step back from the immediacy and accessibility of the game and a reminder that in the real world things need to be slowly perfected over time.

My hands do in fact need some tweaking to help prepare for faster beats, I need to move away from my RB method of parallels sticks so that they form more of triangle shape on the snare. This helps, but my left hand is weaker and frequently messes up it’s beats on my fills. I would like to improve this.

Co-incidentially I am practicing (outside of my lessons) on the Rock Band kit atm, less than ideal. Not enough drums for one, but at least I have some real sticks and something to hit! For this reason alone the drum training mode of RB2 is a genuine blessing, until I am ready to commit to something a little more permanent at least.

The drum trainer mode in RB.

One thing RB does not prepare you for is the space between the different drums, at least not sufficiently, extra time has to be factored in between the beats. Biggest problem for me is moving to the cymbals in proper time. I also forgot how incredibly noisy the crash cymbals could be. Teacher recommends some ear plugs, I might just.

Perhaps RB has not been as much of a help as I originally thought. I mean it’s helping me to juggle all the various new grooves that much more quickly, but I am still finding it hard to relax and bash the hell out of the real drums, but anyone that’s seen me drum on RB will know this will not last long.

Overall feeling? The real work has started now and I need more practice, so off I go. Stay tuned.

Retro gaming

Remembering Sonic the Comic

A lot has been said about the American Sonic the Comic, but there aren’t too many resources online for the British version. Looking back on my collection today though it’s become clear just how diluted the Sonic franchise has become.

Ladies and gents I’d like to take you back to the early 1990s, back to my early gaming childhood when Sonic mania was at it’s peak; and the console war between SEGA and Nintendo was reaching mammoth proportions.

A lot has been said about the American Sonic the Comic, but there aren’t too many resources online for the British version. Looking back on my collection today though it’s become clear just how diluted the Sonic franchise has become.

Ladies and gents I’d like to take you back to the early 1990s, back to my early gaming childhood when Sonic mania was at it’s peak; and the console war between SEGA and Nintendo was reaching mammoth proportions.

The background to SEGA v.s Nintendo

The Nintendo side of this saga is well documented, but in Europe at least SEGA’s wave of influence was building, and the power they mustered within our young minds was exciting. The Sonic games in particular were unlike anything else we had played – fast, slick and obviously instant classics. Collectively as a fanbase we felt like a wave of energy pushing against the tide that was the mighty Nintendo.

Sparkster flies upwards in the Rocket Knight Adventures comic.

The sense of vendetta built into us was mischievous – but we were kids and we loved it because it tapped into the playful banter and rhetoric of the playground. The old mantras of the SEGA side of the divide are still so deeply ingrained into my mind to this day that I still get a sort of taboo like tingle when I turn on an old school Nintendo console.

I think Sonic the Comic had a lot to do with that, obtensively a cog in the SEGA marketing machine, but more than that, a much-needed avenue for the fans, a delicious appreciation of everything that we were – our passion manifest on pages, and this was long before the comfort of the internet. Knowing that I wasn’t alone in enjoying games was deeply cathartic, and for that reason buying Sonic the Comic was the first moment that my young mind understood that I was a gamer.

The control zone of the comic contains sales charts, the Megadroid intro and other SEGA-related news.

Sonic and the planet Mobius

The simplicity of the original Sonic games hid a beguiling world, and vibrant cast of characters. They were games that could be sped through as quickly as possible, or played perfectly noting every step to achieve a perfect Super Sonic ending. Sonic the Comic built on that with the main Sonic strip, initially with light-hearted storytelling which pandered to our childhood aspirations of Sonic as a flawless, arrogant hero. Later on the comic would lead our imaginations down darker paths, into long winding backstories including our favourite characters, as they were pushed together in an underground resistance against Dr Robotnik’s growing dictatorship.

This was Sonic the Comic as it’s best – when it moved away from the patronising stance of other kids comics and acknowledged that it’s young readers were imaginative young people able to deal with the vast array of issues thrown at their heroes.

We loved to understand Sonic’s story, how he came to be, as well as the origin of Dr. Robotnik and his motivations. The gameworld we knew and loved began to manifest into the vast and magnificient planet Mobius, and rather than departing from the brief lines of text in the game manual, the world began to grow as each installment of the Sonic franchise added more, and the comic and game world blurred together into one wonderful collective canon.

Sonic and Tails grapple with an enemy in the Chemical Plant Zone.

And that was just the storytelling, the comic sounded and looked the part once it found it’s feet. This was particularly evident under the guidance of artist Richard Elson and writer Nigel Kitching. I hate to single out two names out of a sea of people whose collective energy brightened my childhood, but whenever I saw their these names in the white space next to the comic I knew I was in for a treat. The most recent designs for Dreamcast era Sonic onwards do him no justice, but on a personal note, I think Richard Elson was the only person that was able to get Sonic’s iconic look over perfectly in every single frame.

A growing cast of characters

While I didn’t agree with some of the later additions to the cast (namely Amy Rose) the comic largely benefited from the extra faces in the early days. It was nice to see Tails take centre stage in his own comic, to have his backstory, bravery and intelligence properly explored in a decent way. This is a distinct contrast to his treatment in newer Sonic games – as he becomes increasingly more juvenile, but able to juggle obtaining a pilots licence while harbouring a penchant for invention…

Knuckles though was a welcome addition, and is probably the only character to have survived intact through various recent redesigns. Sonic the Comic was the first time many of us got to meet this new character, leading up to the pre-release hype of Sonic 3. These were exciting times, but like many others I started to lose track as the hero and enemy list grew past the original band of heroes.

Dr. Robotnik tells off a trio of suspiciously familiar looking Italians.

As time went on the Sonic’s power came less out of his solo efforts and more out of the sense of camaraderie that surrounded his growing circle of allies. In particular I really enjoyed the exploration of the animal characters which were originally just creatures trapped in the badniks. These simple animations in the game(s) became actual characters within the comic, (such as the rabbit and pig becoming Johnny Lightfoot and Porker Lewis respectively), each original character added their own unique skills to help solve each fortnights problems, and perhaps this best shows off the comic’s inventiveness at creating new, believable characters (if only the recent games followed this lovely design pattern).

This was also the time when Dr. Robotnik was a proper evil genius, (who clearly earned his doctorate) as he frequently got close to beating Sonic. I miss the times when Robotnik used to be a believable, and genuinely disturbing bad-guy – the man that you loved to hate, and it efforts made it abundantly clear that Sonic was not infallable, as Robotnik’s growing resourcefulness forced Sonic’s character to reinvent new ways to take him down each time, it was no longer enough for his character to rely on pure bravado.

Sonic aside for a moment – it was also really nice for other SEGA franchises to benefit from the comic treatment, with all of the aplomb and personality of the Sonic trips. Suddenly the characters of some of my favourite gaming series were no longer silent, but bright, vibrant characters on the page in front of me, speaking their motivations aloud. Golden Axe, Wonder Boy, Shining Force, and Shinobi were among many others series immortalised in print by the fabulous artists and writers at STC, the quality of these strips are so great I may have to return to each of them at a later date to point out their individual merits.

Ecco the Dolphin explores Alantis.

We miss you Sonic…

I consider myself a fan of the SEGA and Sonic Team of old, first and foremost, and Sonic the Comic helps me to tap into the preciousness of my youth. These were the moments when every penny spent on games, and related merchandise were appreciated and treasured. Every game I owned was played repeatedly until they were not just completed, but memorized and mastered. Although the comic was by no means perfect, the British version is an undeniable reminder of the moments when I was most patient and to a greater extent in awe with my gaming.

And Sonic was much better then too.