16/08/2014

EPHEMERA, VOLUME 7

It's time for another Ephemera article, where I pick out five small fragments of gaming fluff that amuse or intrigue me and give them more attention than they probably deserve. Let's get right to it, shall we?

Fighting Changes A Man

Here's Ken's portrait from the arcade version of Street Fighter II.


Nothing too unusual here, just the face of a man ready for battle, the face of a man determined to give it his all, the face of a man who forgot about his eyebrows when he was dying his hair. It's a serious expression that show he means business, and he's in the business of punches.


By the time Super Street Fighter II rolls around, Ken has a new portrait portrait that show a distinctly more jovial side of his character, a beaming smile plastered across his face. Why is Ken so happy now? Maybe he's really pleased with the results of his trip to the barbers, where he asked the stylist to give him a He-Man hairdo. Perhaps he's excited because he can now punch so hard that his hand catches fire. Another explanation is that after the first tournament, where he fought stretchy Indian men and sumo wrestlers, he has come to the realisation that this Street Fighting lark isn't quite as serious as he thought it was going to be.


Then we get to the SNES port of Super Street Fighter II, and the transition to sixteen bits has given Ken's expression a subtly different cast. The narrowing of his eyes and the different angle of his lush black eyebrows has changed his mood from simple excitement to a psychotic desire to hurt others, his once-winsome smile replaced with a grimace that says to the viewer "I want to punch someone right now," and he doesn't much care who his victim is. Street Fighting can take a terrible toll on a person's psyche, which explains why Guile chose that hairdo.

The Jolly, Candy-Like Button

From one ridiculously-muscled blonde American to another, here's Duke Nukem.


Duke's a man of action and not much of a deep thinker - watching all those eighties action movies so he could steal one-liners from them took up a lot of time that could have otherwise been used for intellectual self-betterment. He also takes a lot of steroids. Still, I think giving him these buttons to push in Duke Nukem 3D was a bit on the nose.


Just look at those things - so chunky and childlike that pressing them is at once strangely pleasing and faintly patronising. They're Fisher-Price buttons, buttons straight off a kid's toy. I half-expect a soothing female voice to say "A is for apple" or something whenever I activate them. Of course, this is Duke Nukem 3D so what generally happens when you push them is that something explodes and Duke repeats a line from an Evil Dead movie.

Ninja Baseball Bat Man

Final Fight 3 is a side-scrolling beat-em-up in the traditional mould, where brave heroes and elected city officials take to the mean streets to beat up a huge criminal gang, one thug at a time. Most of the bad guys are the usual fare, punks in sleeveless jackets with names like Billy and Ray. Then these weirdos start showing up.


This is Hunter, a baseball player wearing a hockey mask, and I think that's a fashion choice borne more from a desire to look like Jason Voorhees than the expectation that a hockey game will suddenly break out. I just think Hunter is a really neat bit of character design, especially as it comes after mostly fighting enemies that are "normal," as street punks go. I mean, you can construct a mental picture to explain why the likes of Billy and Ray are in this gang - young, deprived men from the wrong side of the tracks who are lured in by the camaraderie and potential financial gain that gang membership could bring. Then you see Hunter, and you start to wonder what his deal is. He likes baseball, that much is obvious, but I guess he likes clobbering people more than scoring home runs, and that's why he's lurking in back-alleys and not in the batting cages. Maybe it's another Splatterhouse-inspired case of a man being driven to violence by a haunted hockey mask, or he recently watched The Warriors and he was impressed by the cut of the baseball-themed gang's jib. Yeah, it's definitely that last one. He saw The Warriors and then came to work the next day trying to convince his fellow gang members that they should have a unified theme, like baseball players. It didn't work, obviously. That's why Guy is consoling Hunter in the screenshot above, a friendly arm around his shoulder as he says "don't worry, Hunter, you can start your own gang, and me and Haggar will beat you up, I promise."

Teenage Mutant Futuristic Bats

The SNES version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters features a character called Wingnut. Here's his character bio:


His favourite activity is Castlevania 2095, appropriately enough for a man-bat. Ever since I saw this as a kid I've been wondering about what Castlevania 2095 would be like. My original theories were that it's a Castlevania game set in space with lasers and Cyber-Dracula and what have you, or it's a TV series in the vein of Beverly Hills 90210. Now that I'm older and a little wiser, it's clear that this is a glimpse into a distant future where the trend for rebooting franchises and giving them the same name as the original has continued. That should actually read "Castlevania (2095)," the Ultra-HD remake of the original game for the PlayStation 74.


You know what, I'm going to expand this one to include Wingnut in general. How the hell did he end up in a TMNT videogame at all, never mind appearing in a fighting game ahead of Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman and Casey Jones? He was in one episode of the original cartoon series and some spin-off comics, it's like making a Marvel comics fighting game and including Shuma-Gorath instead of Cyclops. Oh, right. Anyway, the staff at Konami obviously saw Wingnut somewhere along the line and thought "yes, a deranged mutant bat who dresses a little bit like Batman and who no-one has ever heard of, that's the character we want in our game." Good on them, I say, because Wingnut is pretty great, with his big, adorable grin and his lack of interest in the actual fighting tournament, and he deserves his brief moment in the spotlight.


Yes, Wingnut. Yes I do.

James and the Giant Chainsaw

In Silent Hill 2, one of the bonuses for completing the game is the chance to collect and wield a chainsaw on your second playthrough. Having a chainsaw in any monster-slaying situation usually works out pretty well - just ask Bruce Campbell - but sadly the chainsaw in Silent Hill 2 is a little too cumbersome to be truly effective and you're probably better off just whacking things with a metal pipe. The chainsaw does have a couple of features worth noting, though.



One is that if you stand around for a while with the chainsaw equipped, James will occasionally lift it over his head and bellow like a maniac. Now, this never happened to me when I was first playing Silent Hill 2, because I was always too nervous of impending psychological demon attacks to stand still, but can you imagine if that happened after you'd, say, set the pad down to make a sandwich? That'd be terrifying, as well as providing a clue that James may not be in the best mental health (or at least it would if you didn't have to complete the game to unlock the chainsaw).
The other thing about the chainsaw is really impossible to see under normal gameplay conditions, but I lead such an exciting life that I spent some time looking through all the textures in the game. Would you like to see that chainsaw's texture?


That's right, the chainsaw has "BADASS" written along the blade. I have to assume that's an after-market modification applied by James himself. I don't think chainsaws come out of the box like that, having the word BADASS on the blade is just going to encourage people to get up to chainsaw mischief, the second-most dangerous kind of mischief (after clown mischief). It's wildly inappropriate for the mood of the game, but then that's one of the great things about the Silent Hill series - they've got just a touch of comedy to them, like the UFO endings and Heather's reluctance to stick her hand down a filthy toilet - and it works beautifully in contrast to the overall grimness of the franchise.
As a bonus, poking around in the textures also provided me with confirmation of the names of a couple of businesses in the town of Silent Hill.


There's a record shop called "I Love Groovy Music," for one thing. What a great name, it's so inclusive - who doesn't like groovy music? That town from Footloose? Exactly.


Then there's a business called Magical Envelopes. I have long wondered what the hell it could possibly be about these envelopes that makes them magical: I know this is Silent Hill, but I don't think the cult's insidious influence extends to granting dark powers to common stationery. The mystery only deepened when I saw the Fashion Envelopes banner, because the idea of a fashionable envelope is one that my brain is not equipped to handle. Maybe it's a command, "fashion envelopes from the paper and glue provided, fill this box with the envelopes you have fashioned, if you see the Red Triangle Thing please report it to your supervisor". That's industry in Silent Hill, folks - the tourist trade, drug trafficking and the best damn envelopes you ever saw.

13/08/2014

SUPER SCOPE 6 (SNES)

It's lightgun time again, as Nintendo begin the Super Scope's dismal life by offering the player six games on a single cartridge: the 1992 SNES collection Super Scope 6! Because there are six games, and you use the Super Scope to play them, you see.


Nice to know Nintendo expended as much effort designing the title screen as they did coming up with that title.
So, the Super Scope. Everyone's favourite electronic drainpipe. A lightgun that's not shaped like a gun but like plumbing supplies, with a little rest bolted on so you can balance it on your shoulder. I've written about the Super Scope before, and though years have passed I still have no earthly idea why someone would get to designing a fake gun attachment for a videogame console and pattern it after a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher instead of, you know, a gun. Had Nintendo forged a shadowy deal with the world's PVC pipe manufacturers? We may never know. But yes, that's definitely it.


Exciting calibration action! This is all consigned to the dustbin of history now, of course, what with the advent of LCD TVs. If I suddenly had an uncontrollable craving to play Duck Hunt these days I'd have to lug a CRT telly out from the storage space under the house, so it's a bloody good job that scenario is extremely unlikely to happen. I played enough Duck Hunt as a kid, and I don't think it's gotten any better with age.


The six games are are grouped into two categories: Blastris and LazerBlazer. I know you'd all prefer to see some blazing lazers - not the TurboGrafx game - but I'm going to start with Blastris because it's at the top of the screen. Nintendo obviously felt it was the more important of the two, otherwise they wouldn't have put it at the top. I'm not about to argue with the Big N on this one.


If you're thinking that "Blastris" sure sounds like it's going to be Tetris with the addition of some blasting, then congratulations, have yourself a biscuit or something because that's exactly what it is. Well, one of these three games is like Tetris, at any rate. Let's start with that one.


This is Blastris A, and the basic elements of Tetris are in place - blocks inexorable fall into the screen, and you must manipulate them to form full lines across the play area, which then disappear. However, unlike regular Tetris you can't move or rotate the blocks. Also unlike regular Tetris is the fact that the tetrominoes move from left to right instead of falling from the top of the screen as God - or at least Alexey Pajtinov - intended. Seeing Tetris blocks move this way feels very odd. It's like seeing someone out walking their cat on a lead: it's conceivably something that could happen, but that doesn't mean it should.


So if you can't move or rotate the blocks, how do you control Blastris? Don't forget you're using the Super Scope, (as though you could forget,) so the answer is that you shoot the blocks. In the example pictured above, the long green block is moving from left to right, where it's bottom-most square will land on the top of that yellow clump. You don't want that, so take hold of your Super Scope and fire away!


They you go, the bottom square has been blasted off of the Tetris piece. If this was a film, this would be the part where they finally say the title of the movie out loud. Blastris - now you're getting it, and the newly-truncated tetromino will neatly fit into that three-square gap. That's it, that's the game. You have a limited amount of shots, with two shots being restored for every block that drops, so you can't just keep blasting pieces out of the way, but you generally seem to have enough shots available to do what needs to be done. Clear five lines and you'll move up to the next level, where the blocks move faster.


Unfortunately, Blastris A isn't much fun. I think this is because it suffers greatly when inevitably compared to Tetris Classic™, with the player's reduced ability to decide where the blocks will go leading to a sense of disconnection from the action. It was probably just a quirk of the game's randomness, but it seemed extremely reluctant to send blocks along the lower-most row, making it more of tedious waiting game than a challenge of intellect. In normal Tetris, I could have moved the blocks over there myself, and that knowledge was constantly at the forefront of my mind as I whined to myself about the lack of suitable blocks coming in at the bottom of the screen. Also, the blocks move from left to right and that's just not right. Verdict: a noble effort, but an unsuccessful one.


On to Blastris B, which isn't so much Tetris as it is Columns. I'm guessing it kept the name because Blastolumns is an awful title. Anyway, coloured blocks fall in - from top to bottom, thankfully - and you have to align them so they're in matching rows / columns / diagonals of three. Again, you can't move the blocks, but you can change their colour by shooting them, making them cycle through green, blue and orange. It's a nice touch that you can see the next colour in the sequence along the top edge of each cube, so you don't have to worry about forgetting the order in a hectic moment.


There are some blocks whose colour you can't change - these are the ones with the metal borders, an example of which you can see fall in the screenshot above. Aside from that, there are no extra complications or twists to the mechanics, giving the whole experience the feel of playing Columns on a controller with a busted d-pad. Setting up chains, normally a core feature of games such as this, is far more difficult when you can't decide where the blocks are going to land, and just like Blastris A this is an experiment that didn't quite pan out. The only other interesting thing about Blastris B is that in the Type B game there are constant elephant noises playing. I have no idea why this is the case.


Finally on the Blastris side there's Mole Patrol, which has absolutely nothing to do with Tetris and was presumably only included in this half of the game to achieve a three-and-three split between Super Scope 6's games.
Mole Patrol begins with a conga line of small purple aliens - which are quite clearly not moles - grinning at the player before jumping into the green Super Mario pipe on the right.


Then they pop up out of these craters and you have to shoot them right in their adorable little astro-mole faces. It's Whack-A-Mole, but with guns. Cap-A-Mole, perhaps.
It's a very slight offering and it feels a bit cheeky to describe it as a "game" when you're calling this a "six games in one" package, but unlike the previous two games Mole Patrol does make sense. It feels basic, but it also doesn't feel like a failed attempt to shoehorn guns into a puzzle game, so I think it just about manages to take the top spot out of these first three games.


You'll quickly realise that the key to success in Mole Patrol is making quick and accurate distinctions between the colours purple and pink. Amongst the purple moles are these pink moles, and shooting a pink mole makes the whole game speed up to a point where it's nigh-impossible to hit anything for a while. Don't shoot the pink moles. The game is quite clear on this. Why the pink moles are deserving of our special consideration while the purple moles are vermin that must be executed on sight is not explained, but the obvious answer is that it's a grey / red squirrel situation, only instead of nuts the moles eat, I dunno, moon rocks?


Once you've played one round of Mole Patrol you've played them all, and there's not much to do besides watching for the tell-tale plume of dust that appears when a mole is about to pop out of a particular hole and then trying to differentiate between pink and purple as fast as possible. This game is not kind to the colour blind.


I do like this scorecard you get after trying the single-round "Score Mode," even if it does highlight just how ravaged by age my reactions have become. Or maybe I was just too cautious in my mole-blasting ways.


Over to the LazerBlazer side of things now for three games of sci-fi shooting action, brought to you via menu screens populated by futuristic flight attendants. We've got Intercept, Engage and Confront. I think I'll start with Intercept, I'm not good with confrontations.


In Intercept, you have to intercept things. Missiles, specifically, big rockets that travel from right-to-left across the screen and which must be taken down with fire from your Super Scope. Not too much fire, because you only have three shots and they take a while to come back but, you know, some fire.
The big twist of Intercept is that you can't just shoot at the missiles: oh no, because they're moving you have to lead them, firing ahead of them so that your bullet has time to reach them before they fly past. Let five rockets reach the left-hand side of the screen and it's game over. Why yes, it is sort of like Missile Command, although it's a good job that the young John Connor honed his guerilla techniques on that game instead of Intercept. I don't think this would have held his interest long enough for him to become the saviour of humanity.


This "leading the target" aspect factors ever more heavily into Intercept's gameplay with the arrival of these smaller rockets. Except they aren't small, they're far away and therefore you have to lead them by a greater distance. It took me a while to figure that out, as though I were trapped in that bit from Father Ted.


During Intercept's versus mode, you'll sometimes see a cameo from Mario as he's chased across the sky by one of the Koopa Kids. Is that Lemmy or Iggy? I can't tell from this distance. Anyway, if you manage to shoot Lemmy / Iggy, you're reward with a points bonus and the restoration of a hit point.


I did not manage to hit the Koopaling. I accidentally shot Mario instead. Sorry, Mario.


I'm afraid I didn't have much fun with Intercept. Having to lead your targets all the time just isn't that much fun, and the repetitive missile patterns and one-note gameplay aren't exactly thrilling either. One thing I will say in Intercept's favour is that the backgrounds are lovely to look at, and if you're a fan of parallax scrolling then this game is your Louvre, your Sistine Chapel. Next time I'm in a bad mood I think I'm going to load up Intercept, turn off the sprites and enjoy the scenery.


The second game in LazerBlazer is Engage, where you shoot at enemy ships while flying very quickly over some Mode 7 scenery. Very quickly, like, fast enough to make me feel a bit ill if I look at the ground too long. The floor looks like the inside of a migraine.
Spaceships appear and you shoot at them. You have four shots in this mode, so that allows for some less... restrained gunplay, but you still have to lead the enemy ships a lot of the time.


Sometimes the enemy will launch missiles at you. They're picked up by your ship's computer, as you can see in the screenshot above. That small circle is highlighting an incoming missile, so you'd better shoot it down by wildly shooting all your remaining shots in its general direction. Hey, it was a tactic that worked out all right for me. The actual enemy ships don't seem to be much of a threat, so as long as you concentrate on clearing out the missiles you'll do just fine.


You also get your energy recharged between stages. I'm not sure what happens when you run out of energy, because it's separate to your hit points. I mean, I'm sure you still die because I think "energy" is analogous to "fuel" in this context, but I'm not clear on exactly what effects your rate of fuel consumption. If I just streamlined my spacefighter and took all the unnecessary weight out of the boot I probably wouldn't even have to worry about it.


Finally there's Confront, our hero finally deciding to confront the alien menace about why they're doing all this menacing. Not really, there's nothing even resembling a plot in any part of Super Scope 6, although it's not difficult to imagine the protagonist of Mole Patrol being upset about the alien moles digging up his cosmo-allotment.
In this game, Super Scope 6 finally presents the player with an opportunity to blast some spaceships with no worries about leading the target or planning your shots - it's just you, the enemy and unlimited ammunition, and as such it's probably the best game of the bunch. I know that Nintendo were trying to demonstrate the potential versatility of the lightgun experience, but in the end these types of games seem to be at their most engaging when they simply task the player with shooting everything in sight.


Yet more enticing backgrounds, too, even if they are a touch placid for the gameplay. Confront is little more than a generic shooting gallery, where ships pop up and you have to shoot them before they shoot you, but it's all pleasant enough, what with the nice backgrounds and the very Star Wars laser blast sound effects. It gets very difficult very quickly, but then that's true of every game in Super Scope 6 with the possible exception of Engage, so while the games themselves might be ephemeral affairs, you'll still have to put in plenty of practise if you want to complete them. The LazerBlazer games do apparently end after thirty stages, but I couldn't make it that far so if there's a fancy ending sequence I'm afraid you're going to have to see it elsewhere. Like I said, the ageing process has done terrible things to my reactions.


So that's Super Scope 6, half-a-dozen not particularly impressive lightgun games. Confront was okay, I suppose, but not a patch something like Time Crisis or even Yoshi's Safari. The puzzle games were interesting but deeply flawed, Mole Patrol and the first two LazerBlazers are just a bit boring, and the whole package most assuredly didn't accomplish what was presumably Nintendo's goal with Super Scope 6 - to sell people on the Super Scope. Of course, Super Scope 6 was bundled with the Super Scope, so if you owned the game then you already owned the gun, but playing this isn't going to send you running off to proselytise about the power of Nintendo's latest peripheral. It doesn't impress now and it didn't impress when I was a kid: I remember trying it at a friend's house just after he got one, only for the Super Scope to be put back in its box after a quick go at each game, never to be exhumed from its cardboard tomb. Well, we had too much Mario Kart to play to be messing around with electronic drainpipes.

08/08/2014

THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE (AMIGA)

I'll be honest, I'm writing about this game because I saw what it was based on and thought to myself "how is that possibly going to translate well to a videogame?" Yes, my intellectual curiosity was piqued by a decades-old computer game based on a kid's TV show, as though the rest of this site wasn't already a towering monument to my deep sadness. Anyway, here it is - Peakstar Software's 1992 Amiga game Thomas the Tank Engine.


As Thomas the Tank Engine is up there with Mickey Mouse and Spongebob in the pantheon of children's icons, I'm sure you're all familiar with the basic premise of the show (and the books it was based on). The Island of Sodor is home to a variety of sentient vehicles (mostly locomotives) with human faces who are ordered around by a fat man in a top hat. They have adventures, I suppose? I know I was an extremely avid Thomas the Tank Engine fan when I was a very small boy but I'm struggling to recall what happened in any episode besides the usual cartoon mischief. The only one that comes to mind is that an unscheduled water refill from a river once ended with Thomas having live fish in his water tank. I believe the situation was resolved when his drivers caught the fish - with actual fishing rods, no less - and then ate them. It's established that having fish in his guts caused Thomas physical pain, so god knows how weird it must have felt having people angling inside his internal organs. I know, overthinking children's media, that's something that's never been done on the internet before, but it's hard not to when Thomas is a living creature condemned to a life of slavery. Even as a kid I knew that was a bit weird.


He looks happy enough on the stage select screen, his disembodied face fair beaming with pleasure at the prospect of fulfilling the wishes of the Fat Controller by delivering a tractor to a farm.


He doesn't look so keen about taking crude oil to the refinery, though. Thomas' facial expressions are supposed to indicate the difficulty of each stage, but because this game is obviously aimed at very young children Thomas might as well have the same blank look on his mug for each one. There's no point pulling a face about it, Thomas, you're going have to make the trip to the refinery eventually, because the Fat Controller has decreed it and his rule is absolute. He famously once bricked an engine up in a tunnel just because it wouldn't go out in the rain. I put the Fat Controller's malice down to the fact that his parents were mean enough to name him Sir Topham Hatt. Cruelty begets cruelty.


So, I went into this one wondering how you could make a compelling videogame based around a character whose movement is limited to a single direction along a predetermined track, and the answer - or at least the answer supplied by this game - is that you can't. The basic aim of the game is to get Thomas from the left of the screen to the station at the right-hand side of the map, which you accomplish through thrilling left-right manipulations of the joystick. You can also reverse, and switch between tracks by moving the stick diagonally at the junctions. Changing tracks works well and with a good degree of accuracy, which is excellent news because it makes up about eighty percent of the gameplay. I know it sounds a minor thing to be pleased about, but having Thomas' ability to switch tracks be a horrible, awkward mess is exactly the kind of basic, game-shattering error I'd expect to find in a relatively low-rent Amiga game such as this.


Aside from making your way along the track, the most important thing to remember is that you have to pick up your carriage by reversing into it before taking it to your destination. Sometimes it's a passenger carriage, but not during the stage where Thomas is taking children to the seaside. The kids are dumped into the same windowless wooden wagon that you can see pictured above. That's going to make it hard for the little ones to fill in their I-Spy books.


Once you've hitched up your wagon, all you need to do it make your way along the tracks, collecting coal and buckets of water for points while trying to avoid rolling into dead ends, like I have done in the picture above. If you choose to play Thomas the Tank Engine you'll do it a lot too, because you don't get to see much of the track ahead of you. It's a good job Thomas can move in reverse as fast as he can go forward, otherwise constantly finding yourself in impassable sidings might get a touch wearisome. I'll give the developers credit there, Thomas can move a fair old clip when you're holding the fire button down to put him into high-speed mode, although moving faster than the more sedate default pace can be fraught with danger, as we shall see soon enough.


Bang, job done, Thomas has delivered the tractor to the farm. A farm that has its own train station, apparently. That must be convenient for them.
Thomas is so grateful for your help that he shows his appreciation in the only way he can: exaggerated cartoon gurning.


Look, Thomas, I'm willing to help you do your job, but you have to promise to never wink at me like that again, okay? You're creeping me out.


Now, I'm sure the gameplay of Thomas the Tank Engine sounds kinda dull to you, which is probably a side-effect of it being kinda dull. However, I have yet to reveal to you the true challenge of this game: navigating a rail network of such ramshackle construction and mind-bendingly poor design that I could almost mistake it for something I whipped up in Transport Tycoon. Whole sections of track lead nowhere, fallen trees lie across the rails and, showing complete disregard for the lives and safety of both the sentient living trains and their human engineers, the Fat Controller's plan for an efficient rail service is to have as many locomotives sharing the same stretch of track as possible. Other trains from the Thomas series speed around the tracks that you're trying to navigate, moving along seemingly random paths and causing an endless series of collisions and derailments.


None of the other engines give a damn about this constant locomotive carnage, either: it's always Thomas that crashes, Thomas that erupts in a billowing cloud of steam, Thomas who gets sent back a few screens with no appreciable damage. Yeah, crashing isn't exactly a game over scenario here, and in fact I think you can bust Thomas up as many times as you like without comeuppance. Still, it's be nice if the other engines weren't such dicks about it. Here, James the red engine has smashed his rear-end into Thomas' face and does he feel a scintilla of remorse? Just look at his smug face, he's clearly loving every second of Thomas' agony.


You're not helping either, Percy.
I spent more time than was probably advisable tying to unravel the mysteries of the other trains' AI. They zip around the tracks with no readily apparent goal other than to get in your way. They never seem to travel directly towards Thomas if they can possibly avoid it, but as the GIF above shows they're not willing to stop if you blunder into their path, either. Thomas is at the very bottom of Sodor's pecking order, and "move it or lose it" is a motto he's forced to live by. In the end, I came to the conclusion that by never using the speed-up button you could probably play through the entire game without a single crash, thanks to a combination of the other trains' reluctance to move onto the same track as you and the fact you've got more time to see where you're going. There's no rush in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine, and unlike any real railway the Island of Sodor's trains operate on a "whenever the hell you feel like it" basis. There is a time limit but it's "between sunrise and sunset." Better get this cargo delivered and be back in your shed before the sun goes down, Thomas. That's when the vampire trains come out.


I had to purposely wait around for a good ten minutes (the stages take two minutes at most to clear) before I could get a game over screen to appear. The Fat Controller is not pleased, and it's hard to read that first sentence as anything other than a threat. Off to the scrapyard for me, then.


The Fat Controller disappointment in Thomas' performance might be more understandable if the old sod hadn't let his railway fall into such a terrifyingly dangerous state of disrepair. There's a broken section of track here, for pity's sake. I'd say that not having missing pieces of track is Rule Number One of running a successful railway, but then again the Fat Controller doesn't seem to believe in timetables either, or not having different trains travelling towards each other on the same stretch of track. This is what happens when people are put in charge of public services purely because they're members of the aristocracy. Thomas needs better union representation.


On a couple of occasions I collected a bell, which transported Thomas to a bonus game. It's a straight race against three other vehicles: a locomotive I couldn't identify, Bertie the Bus and Harold the Helicopter. You might think Harold has an unfair advantage, what with him being able to fly and all, but his powers of flight are no match for my ability to rapidly tap the fire button of an Amiga joystick. Yes, of course it's a button mashing event, how else did you think it was going to work?


That red train is an embarrassment to living steam engines everywhere. A train, being beaten by a bus? Disgraceful. As a regular user of British buses, I'm amazed Bertie even managed to turn up on time for the start of the race.
I know that the congratulatory message says "You Win Thomas," but for finishing first I didn't win Thomas, I just got some points.


Bite me, Topham. I've literally got all day, and I'm not going to risk increasing my speed until you do something about the appalling state of the tracks that I'm risking my life, such as it is, just by negotiating.


Well, would you look at that. I think some work is actually being done to repair the tracks. That giant spanner isn't some esoteric railway worker's tool for fixing busted train lines, it's just something Thomas can collect for points. Of course, if he really wanted that spanner he'd have to go up and around this section and then reverse into it, because touching the broken track counts as a crash. I don't think Thomas is willing to do that. Not now that a vision of the Holy Grail has appeared to him, floating above a nearby siding.


As the stages progress the track layouts get more complicated, but the game doesn't become any more challenging - it just takes longer, as you head down a dead-end route only to have to back out of it and pick another one. I suppose there's little else to the life of a train.
As always with these games aimed squarely at the under-five crowd, I have to wonder whether it would be any fun for the target audience, and I think this one would, maybe. It's certainly more engaging than something like The Tweenies, because at least you have to pay attention to this one, but thanks to its limited gameplay even young 'uns are going to get bored of it fairly quickly. It does have a jolly enough version of the show's theme tune, and I'll confess that I quite like the graphics - they're nicely detailed and rather charming in their appropriately "model railway" aesthetic, although they could have done with a little more variety. It's slight and occasionally tedious, but if you've got a kid who's obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine - and let's be honest, they all are at some point - you could do worse than sitting them down in front of this.


After some pointless chugging and plenty of crashes brought about by my unnecessary use of the speed-up button, Thomas the Tank Engine is complete and I'm rewarded with this image. Thomas looks pleased, but all the other trains look like grizzled old lags who have just seen a naive new kid step into the prison yard. And with that cheery thought, I'll take my leave of this game.


Oh no, hang on, there's one more thing: instead of the main game, you can play a card-flipping memory-match game. You know how it works, turn over the cards and try to find the matching ones. All I got from it is that Diesel looks like Johnny Vegas.


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