Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Currently playing

Left 4 Dead: Survival DLC

I like many others have been pulled back into the world of zombie killing following the recent downloadable content for Left 4 Dead. We wanted more zombies and we certainly got them.

While Valve hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel in this recent update, the new experience it provides it certainly worth dusting off Left 4 Dead for…

Getting started

  • A completely free download. Including the previously unavailable Dead Air and Blood Harvest campaigns for versus mode, and one completely new map for survival.
  • The sheer amount of enemies on the screen leads to frantic bursts of gameplay. Rounds are usually extremely short, and have more impact than even the most tense scenes from the campaign mode.
  • Beware of some potential download problems when downloading the DLC. Most of my friends list had problems getting past an endless “pending” message.
  • You’ll soon develop favourite maps, particularly the ones with easy routes to ammo and with the best tried and tested strategies for success. The lack of more new areas may start to grind.

Preparation

  • You will need everyone to be working together like never before. Communication is key in every aspect of Left 4 Dead, although survival sets you up to fail discussing how to delay that outcome with other players never gets old.
  • As with versus mode, tactics are king. The game changes from a comparatively relaxed experience in the campaign mode to all out chaos, and that in itself is like playing a new game entirely.
  • The overwhelming nature of survival mode means it’s not completely suitable for people may be new to the game, it has a completely different pace and may be best saved until harder difficulties are attempted.
  • Sadly there’s no option to build your own maps in the 360 version of Left 4 Dead. I appreciate the limitations of the console copy, but that doesn’t stop me from being extremely jealous of the PC version.

Teamwork

  • Survival is even more of a group game, and the end of timer counter reflects this – by recording your best team survival time and your collective zombie kills by type as a group effect. Can take the pressure off the individual to rack the kill in.
  • Using the time before the clock starts to prepare a particular map for the zombie hordes is particularly satisfying. Some of the best times will be gained by utilizing the fuel cans, and ammo areas dotted around the maps.
  • It’s extremely challenging to have so many special enemies on the screen at once, while this isn’t a bad thing in itself it means one false move can lead to game over fairly quickly.
  • Other players are pretty much a requirement for playing as the NPCs can make survival an extremely frustrating experience.

Conclusion

773 common infected, 15 smokers, 11 boomers, 7 hunters and 12 tanks were harmed in the making of this weblog post.