Retro gaming

Metroid over mantra: forgetting gaming rivalry

I genuinely believe that gaming like many other aspects in life is affected by mood. Even as the most ardent gamer there are moments where I simply don’t feel like playing anything. I decided to make the most of this lack of motivation and play something truly out of my comfort zone.

The choice may surprise you; it’s an atmospheric classic that I’ve somehow avoided for years, but remarkably Super Metroid isn’t a obvious fit for me.

Getting over the old mantras

I now realise that Super Metroid a masterpiece of design, atmosphere and gameplay, but I have not always thought this. It will seem obvious to anyone that has played the game or grown up in it’s shadow, but for someone playing the series for the first time retrospectively it’s become a bit of a metaphor for all the games that I’ve chosen to ignore for whatever reason over the years. There are so many remarkable games out there that I will never have the time to finish, so I’ve developed an unintentional coping mechanism to rationalise my regret – “I wouldn’t like them anyway”.

I’ve always placed a number of games series in this category, for as far back as my memories go. I can’t even remember where the motivation for these decisions came from, they’re as clear in my mind as night and day. Old presumptions developed in childhood about a series or genre that I can’t quite shake even as an informed adult. Decisions I didn’t question until others expressed alarm at me never having played certain widely-acknowledged classics.

Using the beam cannon against an enemy.Discovering a creature in the tunnels.

Why does this happen?

Personally at least, most of the games this concerns are the remains of the legacy of growing up during the 1990s during the peak of the Sega/Nintendo marketing rivalry. This faction-based model for playing games is a old approach that I am still working back from. I am slowly revisiting the back catalogue of games that I denied myself as a child; and the Metroid series is one of them. As hard pressed as the Nintendo or Sega mantra seems now, there was some logic to it – it saved my parents the financial worry of buying two sets of consoles and two sets of games, and it saved me from realising there were twice as many games in the world to obsess over. I would have been overwhelmed.

It seems quite bleak looking back on my gaming history, but I was happy then in my little world of Sega, and I am even happier now that I am able to fully experience everything I missed many years later: free from assumption and prejudice. I am as bewildered and excited playing these games now as the eight-year-old I would have been back in 1994 when Super Metroid was released.

It is the weirdest feeling playing a game that I have obviously misjudged for years, particularly as I stumble to grasp the concepts and ideas Metroid develops that are completely new to me. It’s a testament to the timeless beauty and rigorousness of Super Metroid’s design. As such I am playing a game that I have subliminally known for years, I recognise almost every noise and score; and yet it feels new and oddly nostalgic – all at once – like an old, yet happy memory I had long forgotten about.

I am beginning to fall in love with an old “enemy”. Thank you to everyone who recommended it to me.

Retro gaming

How to fix the Sonic franchise

I was pretty much raised on SEGA games, and playing the New Super Mario Bros. game on the Wii this week has been a bit of a minor revelation for me – it’s a fantastic game, and it got me thinking why hasn’t Sonic team pulled out all the stops and made the next gen Sonic game we’re all waiting for.

I don’t hold out much hope for Sonic anymore like many others. But if Sonic Team is to have any chance of winning over us old school fans, they have to tap back into what made Sonic great.

A likeable cast of characters

And by cast of characters I mean Sonic. All other characters are largely superfluous. Tails, Knuckles and Robotnik work because in previous games new characters had a purpose. Tails became the personification of the new multiplayer aspect of the series (an aspect that foreshadowed the latest Mario game by some 17 years) and he positively improved the dynamic of the Sonic series in doing so. Knuckles became the classic anti-hero and a contrast to Sonic’s speed, a direct result of complaints that the Sonic was all speed and no brain.

And Dr. Robotnik was a proper badguy, power mad but deeply inventive, the embodiment of the changes that the Sonic levels go through, from dazzling casinos to scrapyards all popping out of his need to invent his way around his hedgehog menace. This allowed Sonic to go above and beyond the elemental and season based level designs of other platformers, because behind the scenes there was a crazy but insanely bright evil genius preparing your next hell-sent obstacle course.

Sonic in the Special stage and stuck between the bumpers in the Scrapyard Zone.

A developer to die for

Over the years Sonic Team have created a wealth of well-regarded games. But when they started out Nintendo had a major headstart, so Sonic the Hedgehog became the masterpiece that would allow this tiny new developer to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nintendo’s Mario. Creating the first Sonic game was a labour of love and the results of that first creative struggle are obvious. The first Sonic game was not only a technical marvel, but a deeply engaging platformer which could be sped through or completed fully by carefully collecting each of the six chaos emeralds.

But recently Sonic Team has struggled to maintain gamers attention in a vast ocean of big platforming talent. The various fractures of the team working in two different regions (America and Japan) over the years may have taken their toll, as has the pressure to create more and more successful games franchises. Despite several key members moving on to pastures new, Sonic Team still proved a capable developer creating unique and engaging games right up to the late 1990s, titles like Phantasy Star Online, ChuChu Rocket!, and NiGHTS Into Dreams.

Based on the calibur of games that Sonic Team has made in the past, there’s no real reason why they couldn’t pull out all the stops and give Sonic a reimagining similiar to what Nintendo have achieved. The 2D/HD remake idea is starting to catch on as developers start to tap into gaming nostalgia in a big way. The Zelda series played with this idea with Four Swords Adventures on the Gamecube, mixing 2D fun with beautiful up-to-date 3D moments. Most recently Komani’s Rocket Knight seems to be following a similar route only with the action taking place in HD.

Sonic and Tails in the Casino Night Zone and flying using a biplane.

The right perspective

While I am not a huge fan of the 3D games, I imagine this is where a lot of Sonic fans lost their way. It wasn’t just the change from 2D, but changes to the character design and platforming structure that put some gamers off. The original Sonic games used perspective carefully, limiting 3D elements to special zones or bonus levels where the change in viewpoint had a context.

And now the increasing focus on speed make the more famous level design choices in Sonic rather obtuse. The spiral rings and jumping sections made rather redundant by the changes in camera angle. Despite the impressiveness of Sonic’s first foray into 3D, it has become increasingly more difficult to notice any massive improvements that each new 2D Sonic game added to the series.

For me Sonic works best with the old formula of the original games; two or three zones with a boss, with each zone becoming progressively more difficult. Saving wasn’t an option until Sonic 3, so you had to rely on the most part on skill and repetition to improve enough to master your personal best. Maybe that’s where the more recent games have fallen down – increasingly rewarding players for speeding through zones quickly rather than learning how best to actually play them.

The intro and special stages to Sonic 3.

A decent soundtrack

There’s simply no beating the 16-bit Sonic soundtracks. Each one is instantly recognizable and conveys the message of each zone perfectly. The music that the Sonic composers were able to tease out of the limitations of the Mega Drive is nothing short of astounding, and this is where I think the modern Sonic games have fallen down the most. So much of that original music was open to interpretation, a reminder of the fun you were having just as the games were beginning to tax you. The Sonic music did so much more than accompany the level, it emulated the mood of each zone, and established the sort of pace you should tackle it at, as a result Sonic games quickly become very flat without the right music.

Newer Sonic games seem to deviate from this using music with lyrics for the key points of the games. While the new music is catchy, soundtracking a game in this way gives a target audience to the sound moving it away from the universality of the 16-Bit tunes. This is the main reason I don’t think voice acting works particularly well for the series either, with silent protagonists the developers had to work that much harder to create ways to indicate how characters were feeling, and it mostly worked, just look at Knuckles’ badass introduction to the series in Sonic 3, it was quite clear that a serious vendetta was forming and it developed without a word being spoken.

Two of the later stages from Sonic and Knuckles.

Not losing sight of the USP

It’s easy to forget Sonic’s special ability simply because it is so well known. If recent Sonic games are to be considered then apparently running at the speed of sound just isn’t exciting enough anymore. In the last few years Sonic’s name has been associated with sports events, racing games and he’s even had a curse to deal with. While the 1990s were full of spin off Sonic titles they were seldom at the expense of Sonic’s reputation. I’d like to see a new Sonic game make continued use of the characters best asset: his speed, and only his speed.

And this means knowing when it is appropriate to use it. Following the Sonic franchise of late means playing a game of mixed signals, including design decisions that seem to reek of profiteering, darker plots that aim at older gamers, with confusing side-stories aimed at adolescents. Losing all of these cutscenes and gimmicks would get the series back on track helping to move the focus of the franchise away from telling a story and back to creating an enjoyable, memorable game filled with dynamic zones and imaginative badniks, more like the sort of Sonic games we’re used to.

Knuckles running through the Mushroom Hill zone, and Sonic 1's pass screen.

Invention not reinvention

Most of all I am tired of the reimaginings of Sonic – the endless takes on his character designs and that of his nemesis Robotnik. The numerous changes to gameplay in order to fit in another tenuous link to another new game world. Dr. Robotnik’s inventiveness allows for grander and crazier game designs, but instead we seem to get endless promises about the next great Sonic game and not much of a reward for waiting. Suspending our disbelief based on the games that Sonic Team have made in the past has led to increasingly more disappointing current gen titles. While other developers learn from the mistakes made from deviating too much from the style guide, Sonic Team just seems to be doomed to repeat each critical failure by trying to throw too many ideas at the problem.

The next Sonic game could be a return to form, the proper Sonic game we’re all waiting for or more likely a quick disappointment. Sonic was a great series but somewhere along the line they made it a pastiche of itself, doomed to embody the mediocre platform market that it once soared above.

Sonic Team needs to go back to basics, back to those wondrous colour palettes, the captivating music, the perfectly-paced 2D arena and make a game worthy of being sold next to the newest Super Mario Bros. game. There are no major reasons why this Sonic era can’t be one we can look back on and laugh at, because let’s face it that’s the only situation in which the Sonic series should be a laughing stock.

The first two zones from the original Sonic game.

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.

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.

Retro gaming

How buying used games got dull

These quieter summer months mean I am catching up on a pile of games that I have yet to play. Many of them bought second hand – titles that I missed the first time around that I am just getting around to.

But I have noticed that as each summer approaches, the availability of exciting second hand games has reduced dramatically. My appetite for second hand titles hasn’t gone – but there aren’t as many to be found anywhere other than the internet, or so it seems.

The lost art of second hand games

The days of picking up a genuine bargain at Car Boot sales, garage sales and flea markets have long gone. Internet auctioning sites seem to mean that every game in even the most casual gamers collection can be looked up and sold on at a premium. Most of the old avenues for retro titles seem to be favoured by dealers wanting to resell in-demand titles on, moving focus away from people who buy games to actually play them.

Even specialist game shops are guilty of this, many only buy in games and consoles from the previous generation or newer, because doing otherwise is no longer profitable. As a result we’re losing a lot of gaming history from our high streets, as even the smaller chains and independents are starting to become extremely picky about what they buy in.

A stack of games including; Sonic Chaos, Castle of Illusion, Kurushi and Frequency.

The quality of what’s on offer

Most larger game shops don’t seem to take any pride in the work they do anymore – and this isn’t a pop at the hardworking sales staff of most video games shops, but the senior managers who force them to tow the company line which is a shame as it often takes all the personality out of the shopping experience.

Taking the quality of the stock itself as a major example. The condition that some stores are prepared to sell games and consoles in is laughable at times, and further perpetuates dwindling sales as customers feel less inclined to part with their cash.

  • Conveniently misplaced collectors items

    If the game requires an addon to play it then they should be included when sold on. Case in point: Animal Crossing on the Gamecube which came with a free memory card because your town data would use up an entire card – except if you bought it second hand it seems.

  • Labels in inappropriate places

    Sticky labels that can’t be easily removed really bother me, especially on old cardboard boxes when the box art starts to peel away. Also why write on the games in permanent marker or put labels on the manual?

  • No manual

    I’m not asking for the plastic wrapper to still be in there, or even the special edition art cards that were originally bundled with the game, but is a lot to ask that the manual should be in there, especially as it is the thing that tells you how to play the game – if it’s not included then you should be charged less.

  • Scratches on discs

    If the game is scratched it shouldn’t be allowed to be traded in. Some shops will buy in discs of any condition and use a cleaning machine to remove the top layer of the disc making it playable – but the vast majority don’t, and won’t show you the condition of the disc unless you specfically ask.

  • Dirty stock

    Sticky game boxes, or something just ingrained with dirt. Things do get dirty, but selling things on from the shop in that condition is equally disgusting. Everything bought in should be cleaned completely with a cleaning product and clean cloth. Discs, boxes, consoles and pads. The customers will thank you for it.

The inside of the Frequency box, with the manual damaged by a sticker.

Why not head online?

It’s becoming harder to track down something out of the ordinary in game shops, or any other location other than online. The removal of older titles from the shelves mean that all shops start to become the same bland sea of branding and empty cases. Older titles are resigned to discount bins or dark corners of the store – or worse museum pieces behind glass with inflated prices that you have to specifically ask to view.

You start to see the same copies of games on each routine visit to the store. Older games should be preserved and bought, not left to languish in a store purely to serve as padding for an otherwise dull shop. Heading online to find your desired title is becoming a requirement for more and more gamers, as smaller shops start to put their rarer stock on ebay – but there are a couple of reasons why this is equally undesirable.

  • You end up paying a premium

    If like me you like to collect things based on recommendation you’ll often find that the games spoken about most highly are becoming increasingly more difficult to acquire at a reasonable price. At least the internet gives you the often of always finding a copy of something though.

  • The thrill of the chase

    The enjoyment I get from finding a copy of of a game I have been after for an long time outsides of the wild of the internet is an experience in itself. Shopping online takes all the fun out of my hobby – which is finding a title or console I have not seen in absolutely ages.

Don’t forget about the pleasure of finding something worth playing nearer to home, often the expectation of trying to find a game you’ve been after for a while matches the enjoyment you get from actually playing it, and in doing so you’ll be supporting the network of independent game shops who particularly need support during this recession.