22/09/2016

FANTASY LAND (ARCADE)

It’s not Fantasy Zone. It’s not Fantasy World Dizzy, nor is it any of your Final Fantasies. It’s Italian developer Electronic Devices’ arcade game Fantasy Land, and it’s got some pretty weird ideas about what fantasies should consist of. Let’s have a look at it, shall we? Whaddya mean, “no”? Hey, I’ve played through this bloody thing now so you’re going to sit there and learn all about it, all right?


I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes you see a title screen and you can’t help but think “this game is going to be crap.” Ugly gradients, a blobby logo in a font where the holes in the letters appear to be a gaping orifices and a main character that looks like someone hastily drew a hobbit during a bumpy bus ride. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Fantasy Land isn’t going to be some hidden masterpiece.


The game begins in a very Ghosts ‘n Goblins manner, as a cloaked villain swoops down and abducts our hero’s romantic partner. Differences from Capcom’s arcade classic include the villain having LED flashlights for eyes and the small parrot nesting in the hero’s hair. So, I’ll be travelling across a variety of landscapes, battling monsters and bosses until I rescue the kidnap victim and murder this floating cloak? Okay, I was just checking it wasn’t going to suddenly turn into a jet-ski racing game or something.


Nope, it’s your common-or-garden side-scrolling hop-n-bop platformer. It even begins with a forest stage, so I doubt we’re going to be seeing much divergence from the usual formula. You play as the small blonde person currently hiding behind his parrot, a character that the game doesn’t bother introducing to us. He may look like a once-ordinary chap who escaped from a car compacter just before his injuries became fatal, but there must be something special about him because he can fire magical bolts of energy from his fingertips. Let’s call him Steve, in honour of Marvel Comics’ sorcerer supreme Dr. Strange. Move to the right, jump over obstacles and annihilate all those who oppose you with the powerful mystic forces you command. You know, the usual.


Sometimes, when you zap an enemy they turn into a giant pear. I think that’s a pear, at least. Perhaps whatever extreme gravitational forces turned out hero into the lump he is also deformed an orange.


You can also jump on the enemies to defeat them, but I wouldn’t recommend this, for several reasons. They take multiple bounces to kill, you tend to spang off them at unpredictable angles and their faces transform into grotesque mockeries of human physiognomy when you jam your boots into their skulls. Stick to using you magic powers, that’s my advice. Your parrot will even help out. It hangs around until you take a certain amount of damage, and while it’s there it acts like an Option from the Gradius games, adding an extra projectile whenever you attack. You can even control the hight of the parrot by pressing up on the joystick, although this ability is rendered entirely useless by the endless streams of enemies that pour in from every corner of the screen. The constant attentions of the earring-wearing, ham-fleshed archers, bald warriors and whatever the hell those grey things are supposed to be means that you’ll never have the time to think about the best place to put your parrot.
This screen also serves as a good example of Fantasy Land’s wonky level design. You see that waterfall? You can’t walk across the top of it. If you try, you fall down the waterfall. That’s okay, I can understand that. So I tried approaching it from the bottom, but it turns out you can’t jump through the waterfall either. I say “though,” your character is clearly in front of the waterfall, but if you try to jump past it you hit an invisible wall and fall down. It doesn’t make sense with the way the geography’s drawn, and I think I'll simply have to accept that Fantasy Land isn’t going to make much sense in general.


The jumping physics work okay, I suppose. A little floaty, but I could generally get Steve the Munchkin to go where I wanted him. I did have problems with accidentally falling through platforms, though. To drop “through” the floor and land on a lower platform, you press down on the joystick… which is also crouch, so there’s a lot of opportunity to fall down when all you wanted to do was duck. That’s why most games map this command to down and jump, Fantasy Land.


Then a boss appeared, as bosses are wont to do. I kind of wish it hadn’t, mind you. Not because it’s a difficult boss to defeat – shoot it and jump over its head when it gets near is about the extent of it – but because it’s creepy as hell. What’s going on with its feet, for a start? I know it’s just an extra-large person in red boxers shorts and thus shouldn't be so unnerving, but I’ve realised why I don’t like it: it’s because its expression never changes. It’s always got that same look of resigned boredom on its face, whether it’s being shot by a pudgy magic-man or pounding said magic-man beneath its gargantuan fists. There’s something disturbing about my potential murderer not being interested in anything I do.


Stage two now, which is set in a castle of some sort. That’s fairly standard for a fantasy setting. Less usual are the men is executioner’s hoods and very snug-looking jockstraps, a garment which gives these enemies a very prominent groinal bulge. I can only assume that Steve’s assault on this castle coincided with the annual executioners versus prisoners football game, and nobody had time to get changed before rushing out to deal with Steve.
Also take note of that skull. It’s sitting there on the floor, not moving, not doing anything and generally being unobtrusive. It hurts you if you touch it, something I didn’t notice was happening as I stood on top of it and my health drained away. That’s another problem with Fantasy Land, it’s surprisingly difficult to tell when you’re taking damage, an issue that’s compounded by the fuzzy boundaries of Steve’s hitbox. He doesn’t get hurt when something physically hits him, he gets hurt when his personal space is invaded.


Also in this castle: some fairly adorable bats and far less adorable rats that don’t so much look like plague carriers but active agents in the furthering human misery through the spreading of the Black Death. There are also these teddy bears you can collect. I presume you can collect them, anyway. I wasn’t about to go near them in order to find out. Not with those soulless eye-holes staring out at me.


Once upon a time, a young man named Aladdin found a whoopee cushion in an ancient cave. The whoopee cushion was dusty, so he gave it a polish and out popped the Genie of Farts! The genie cannot grant wishes, but he does leave the lingering scent of rotten eggs and boiled cabbage wherever he goes.
I may mock the Flatulence Genie, but he’s managed to kill poor old Steve. There he goes now, divested of his mortal apparel and floating off to heaven why I try to figure out what that red mark on his belly is and why the artist seems to have given him very subtle pectoral muscles.


We’ve had a forest world and a castle world, but stage three combines the two with a castle in a forest. The next stage had better take place in a castle that has a forest growing inside. For the first half, this stage is pretty much the same as the previous two, but half-way through it takes a change of tack.


Steve finds some scuba gear and embarks on an underwater adventure! Given how generic Fantasy Land’s gameplay has been up to this point, you won’t be surprised to learn that this swimming section works exactly how you’d expect it to. You can swim in eight directions and, while you can still fire a projectile attack Steve launches dinner forks rather than his usual magical energies. It’s not a bad little section, honestly, although it’s still plagued by the same issues as the non-swimming areas: too many enemies appear with no warning and the zoomed-in playing area gives you little chance to avoid the enemies when they do appear. The swimming section also manages the remarkable feat of making the ruddy great sharks look like the least menacing creatures in the sea.


Also found underwater are gun-toting people in diving suits that remind me of Chelnov, if Chelnov made his helmet by cutting a hole out of a beer keg and covering that hole with cling-film. There are mermaids, too. The mermaids don’t look pleased to see our hero, or maybe they’re annoyed that someone has left a load of naval mines in what is essentially their front garden. Like almost all the enemies, the mermaids have soulless black orbs for eyes, but I think it’s a look that works much better for a half-fish creature of the deep.


Another boss arrives, and I’m calling it a boss just so I don’t hurt its feeling. It’s not much of a guardian, I’ll tell you that. Final encounter aside, the bosses of Fantasy Land are by far the easiest part of the game, because they fall into one of two categories. Either their attacks are very easy to avoid or, as with this stubby-limbed eel, you can hold your position and mash the attack button and the boss will die before you do. A boring fight to be sure, enlivened only by the realisation that the collectable gold bars on the ocean floor are only 18 karat gold. It seems fitting that a game such as Fantasy Land, a game that either can’t or won’t attempt to be anything but mediocre, wouldn’t have the purest gold laying around.


The level design reaches a nadir at the start of stage four, as Steve makes his way across an ocean liner that’s been overrun with pirates. It’s just a flat walk across the deck with the odd box to hop over, but Steve having changed costumes to get into the mood (or maybe to fool the pirates, he does have a pet parrot, after all) is a nice touch.


The second half of the stage takes place in an icy wilderness, where the pirates have wrapped up warm and the penguins are large. Hang on: ships travelling to the Antarctic, mountains in the background, giant penguins: please tell me this is going to turn into a colourful platforming version of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I want to see Steve driven mad by the unfathomable star-beasts that lurk in the frozen wastes.
Speaking of those penguins, they don’t half remind me of James Pond. This is partly because James Pond II was sponsored by McVitie’s Penguin chocolate biscuits, (a snack that I ate so often as a child that I’m not sure I could face eating one nowadays,) but also because Fantasy Land has a real “European computer game” look it it. If you’d told me this was an Amiga release, I could have almost believed you, thanks to the cartoony but not anime-inspired art style and the fact that there are hundreds of small, mostly useless collectibles in each stage.


Wow, maybe I wasn’t too far off with the Lovecraft connection. This boss certainly has a little of the Cthulhus about him, with his green bat wings and alien demeanour, but I don’t recall any of the Elder Gods having a grappling hook for an arm. Maybe if Lovecraft had focussed less on racism and more on giving his creatures totally sweet cybernetic upgrades, his books would make more palatable reading today.
This is another boss that’s very easy to defeat, thanks to its claw not being able to hit you while you’re crouching, but I do have a lot of fondness for it. There’s something very endearing about just how ugly it is. Like, if I was a parent and my young child drew me this as a picture it would get pride of place on the fridge door, you know? It’s part xenomorph, part Ridley from Metroid and part construction equipment, and that’s a surprisingly lovable mix.


Oh look, it’s another castle! This one’s got lava in it, so I guess it’s the “fire world” to complement with the previous stage’s “ice world.” The level layout is a bit more twisty-turny than that boat, which is an improvement, and there are even a couple of actual platforming challenges to get past, but it’s still lacking something. Excitement, mainly. The whole game feels rather half-arsed, as though the developers had ideas but couldn’t quite transform those ideas into gameplay. Take, for example, the keys. There are some locked doors in each stage that you need a key to open, but the keys are always so close to the doors as to render them entirely inconsequential. Of course, the alternative – maze-like levels in which you have to really hunt for the key – would be much less enjoyable given Fantasy Land’s hitboxes and relentless enemies, but still.


However, this is still the best stage in the game because of these enemies. What the hell are they? I’m not sure, but I’ve got a few ideas, most of which involve a combination of the words “vampire” and “sea creature.” Who was the incredibly brave vampire who sank his fangs into a shark to spawn Count Chompula over here? Did Dracula and the Gill-Man have a regrettable one-night stand after a well-lubricated Universal Monster party and nine months later these fish creatures of the night were spawned? Here’s my personal favourite explanation: they are beluga whales that are dressed as vampires for Halloween.


The game itself might not be much cop, but I’ve got to say I’m really enjoying these weirdo monsters. Here’s a jolly executioner, leaping around the room and trying to menace me with his axe, He’d be more menacing if he wasn’t wearing bright blue underpants and pink boots, but his axe is real. Real easy to avoid, that it. If the axeman could stop himself from prancing all over the room for a couple of minutes, I’d have no way to dodge his mighty axe, but for him gallivanting is a way of life so I had plenty of opportunity to run underneath him.


The final stage takes place, bizarrely, in a modern city. I think it might be Metro City, specifically: street punks roam the area and there’s graffiti everywhere, I’m on my way to rescue my kidnapped lover, this is basically just Final Fight, right? I was confused as to why the villain of a game named Fantasy Land would make his final stand in the urban jungle, but I think I’ve figured it out. He’s actually from the real world, and he needed to kidnap a princess so he hopped over to Generic Fantasy World #7894-B and kidnapped their princess. There aren’t many genuine “daughter of the reigning monarch” princesses in the real world, and if he did abduct a member of the, for instance, British royal family, he’d have the SAS tracking him down wherever he went. So, he abducts a fantasy princess, reasoning that one chubby wizard is going to be easier to deal with than one of the world’s deadliest special forces units.


The city stage is definitely my favourite of the bunch, because it at least offers a bit of a journey: you start off on the streets, climb up a few fire escapes, scuttle through the sewers and then jump across the rooftops. It’s almost not bad, which is a good description of Fantasy Land in general. Almost every aspect of the game is bad but not awful, and if a few areas were improved – most notably the collision detection, enemy placement and general level design – you’d have a game that wouldn’t be amazing but would at least be a passable way to spend thirty minutes.


While I’m up on the rooftops, please enjoy this billboard in the “extremely unsubtle sword-boner” category. Magic Sword, indeed.


There’s also this billboard which implies Silent Hill 2’s Pyramid Head has branched out into the hospitality business.


Eventually I reached the final boss’ lair, but before I can meet the head honcho I’ve got to take care of these jungle cats. All they do is run back and forth and can easily be stopped by Steve’s magic fingers, but it still takes quite a while to do so because they just keep coming. The kidnapped (presumed) princess spend the whole fight shouting “HELP ME!” from the background, as though I’m fighting all these jaguars just because I’m bang into animal cruelty.


Then the floating cape reappears. Seemingly flummoxed by Steve managing to penetrate his inner sanctum and thrown into anguished confusion by the deaths of his pets, the boss does little more than float about the screen like a moth with a hangover, occasionally throwing balls of energy in random directions. The balls eventually fizzle out and leave a solid core, which our hero can bounce on. That seems to be the best way to avoid the boss while you chip away at his needlessly long health bar. It’s hardly the earth-shattering clash of titans I was hoping for, but at least it’s simple enough that I didn’t have to do it for long.


“My hero!” exclaims the rescued princess. Steve looks dubious. Can anyone truly be considered a hero when they have toilet plungers for feet? Oh well, no time for self-reflection now. Fantasy Land is over, and there’s just the extravagant ending sequence left to enjoy.


There you go, that’s your lot. Steve and the princess get romantic, despite looking so similar that they’re almost certainly related, and Fantasy Land draws to a close.
Well, that was an arcade videogame, wasn’t it? Yes indeed, no-one can say it wasn’t an arcade videogame. That’s about all you can say for it, though, and Fantasy Land is an unsatisfying sludge of an experience. Bland gameplay and dull levels mean it’s something I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone actually plays, but I will give it credit for having some interesting and often charmingly ugly enemies. Play Ghouls n’ Ghosts instead and pretend some of the enemies are vampire sharks, that would be my advice.

16/09/2016

VGJUNK'S FAVOURITE GAMES, PART 2

Last time out I wrote about ten of my all-time favourite videogames, but because I am an indecisive sort I just kept going. So, here are another ten, in no particular order. It was a fun exercise, and I hope you found a couple of games you've never played before that you try out and end up enjoying.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call (3DS, Square Enix / indieszero / 2014)


I am obsessed with this game, I really am. Not since Tetris has a game exerted such a strong “just one more go” influence over me, and that’s okay because the Final Fantasy-based rhythm action game is perfect for playing in short bursts. It’s also perfect for playing in marathon sessions, if you ask me. Okay, so how you feel about Theatrhythm is, in large part, dependent on whether or not you like the soundtracks of the Final Fantasy games. I love Final Fantasy soundtracks and I love rhythm action games, so it was an easy sell for me.
If you’ve never seen it in action, Theatrhythm has you tapping and swiping along with music tracks from the Final Fantasy series – over two hundred of them included in the game – and it’s a simple gameplay system that works perfectly. Inputs are precise, the difficulty levels are excellently balanced and it’s packed with that sense of pleasure that comes from getting really immersed in the action.
The gameplay is excellent, but as bonus it’s all wrapped up in an extremely loveable package. Square Enix are putting more effort than ever into leveraging the history and characters of the Final Fantasy series into lucrative spin-offs with games like Final Fantasy Explorer, Record Keeper and Brave Exvius, but it’s in Theatrhythm that it comes together the best. That’s partly because it’s all just so sweet and charming. Some people will complain about the cutesy, doll-like character art, but personally it’s preferable to yet another CG model or FF6 sprite edit. There’s fan service aplenty, stat-boosting art cards to collect. You can make a party composed entirely of dads. Even the online versus mode is a pleasure. Sure, there aren’t many players about and when you do get a match you’ll probably be stomped by someone with a playtime of 999 hours, but even if you lose you swap a little profile card with the other player, which includes a new map for the game’s quest mode, and you also get one of the game’s collectable cards. The way it works is that you each pick a song and the one that you battle each other over is randomly picked - and the majority of the time, an online opponent who won the virtual coin-toss will pick the song you chose last time, so that everyone gets to play the track they want. I'm getting old and soppy enough that this kind of unenforced ettique is very heartwarming to me. Like I say, Theatrhythm Curtain Call is utterly charming and it’s also the only game to make me say “I wish they’d keep releasing DLC for this.”

God Hand (PS2, Clover / Capcom, 2006)


The game that was so much of a cult thing that it stopped being a cult thing and became widely known, God Hand came out of nowhere and finally got the transformation of the beat-em-up genre from 2D to 3D right. The ultra-weird presentation that revels in such glorious insanity as wrestlers in gorilla costumes and fat demons called Elvis is the perfect parter for a deep, challenging and customisable combat system. It’s not a game that wants you to have an easy time of it – it gets more difficult they better you play, for starters – but it only treats you mean because it knows you’ll get so much satisfaction when you master the combat.
A harsh taskmaster, then, but one that exudes such a loveable sense of dumb fun that it’s impossible to get angry at. And hey, if you do get angry, you can kick a dude in the balls to relieve said anger, complete with cartoon “ding” sound effect. Finish the whole game for the best and most appropriate ending to any videogame, then head straight back into it on a higher difficulty. When it all clicks and you’re dodging attacks almost without thinking and counter-attacking with suplexes, you’ll be glad you did.

Global Defence Force (PS2, Sandlot, 2005)


Another cult game, this second entry in the still-going-strong Earth Defense Force series is the one that first revealed to me (and many others) the inestimable charms of the EDF. I remember hearing about it through the GameCentral page on the late, lamented Teletext service, where they gave it a glowing review. “What the hell”, I thought, “it’s a budget game so I might as well pick it up. Maybe its as good as they say.” It turned out to be even better, the ultimate surprise package. It’s a simple premise, born from the sci-fi movies of the fifties: giant insects are invading the Earth. Shoot them. Shoot them and shoot them and shoot them, because there are bloody thousands of them, crawling over buildings, scurrying across beaches and occasionally calling in an off-brand Godzilla for back-up.
Quite a few games on this list have what I’d describe as a feeling of purity about them, where they do one thing but do it exceptionally well, and Global Defence Force fits exactly into that category. The graphics might be ugly and the slowdown rampant, but it’s worth it to have destruction on such a huge scale. You haven’t lived until a group of tarantulas the size of buses are leaping at you, only for you to send them back where they came from with an enormous plasma cannon. Five difficulty levels, two very different playable characters and dozens of weapons to collect give it plenty of longevity, too. Try the Inferno difficulty level, if you fancy a challenge. It even says in-game that only a handful of people in the world will complete it, so if you’re the kind of person who responds well to that kind of antagonism, then have at it.

Night Slashers (Arcade, Data East, 1993)


Of all the hundreds of games I’ve played in my time writing VGJunk, Night Slashers is the one that stands out as being my luckiest find. I might never have played it otherwise, but since I did it’s shot straight onto my list of all-time favourites. It combines a genre I love with my favourite setting to produce a side-scrolling beat-em-up that takes place in a gore-soaked horror world of Frankensteins,  mask-wearing psychopaths and zombie bowling. That’d carry it a long way even if it wasn’t any fun to play, but happily Night Slashers is one of the more refined examples of the form. It’s got the basic brawler set-up of multi-attack combos, throws and a special health-draining attack, and then it piles plenty of extra moves on top of that: charge attacks, screen-clearing magic spells and the ability to wedge zombies into the ground like tent pegs so you can kick their exposed heads off, amongst others.
You all know of my love for Halloween by now, and there are very few games more evocative of the season than Night Slashers. It’s even more of a gory B-movie than most gory B-movies, and being freed from the limits of what special effects can accomplish allows it to be packed with things like monsters whose flesh melts off when you punch them, all set to a wonderful soundtrack that I’d describe as action-horror-rock if I had to give it a genre. Night Slashers might not be the best arcade brawler, not while the also excellent Alien vs. Predator exists, but it’s just - just - my favourite.

Shining Force 2 (Megadrive, Sonic Software Planning / Sega, 1993)


As an RPG fan living in Europe, and especially as a SNES owner, the nineties were kinda rough. So many of the classic RPGs of the 16-bit era never made it to our shores. No Final Fantasy VI, no Chrono Trigger, no Earthbound. Of course you can buy all those games though various different services nowadays, but that’s no good to pre-teen, summer-holidays-to-fill VGJunk, is it? Happily I managed to get my console RPG fix through a borrowed Megadrive and Shining Force 2: the jolliest, most candy-coloured RPG out there. Just thinking about Shining Force 2 means I’m immediately hearing the town theme in my head, a musical theme that by rights should appear under the definition for “jaunty” in every single online dictionary.
Yes, Shining Force 2 is a happy game, a cheerful game, a strategy RPG where, if truth be told, the strategy rarely gets more complicated “try to fight enemies one at a time.” Not every RPG has to be unfathomably deep to be enjoyable, though, and sometimes it’s nice to just command your fairy-story characters about the battlefield without worrying about personal affinities or elemental alignments or what have you. Shining Force 2 is a great example of this kind of gaming experience. A colourful world to explore, packed with weird characters and dialogue with a slightly wonky translation that only adds to its charm, Shining Force 2 has a certain childlike sweetness to it. Would it be one of my favourites if I had had access to Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger as a kid? I’m not sure. Maybe I wouldn’t love it quite as much as I do, but I’d always have room in my heart for an RPG that lets the player put a werewolf, a vampire knight called Lemon and knock-off Gamera in their party.

Blood (PC, Monolith, 1997)


Anyone who’s been following me anywhere on the internet will already know all about how much I love Blood, and that’s a lot. Back in part one I said that Silent Hill 2 is the game that most feels like it was made for me, but Blood runs it a close second. It’s a first-person shooter created using the Build engine, much like Duke Nukem 3D - but where Duke Nukem 3D is a parody of and homage to over-the-top action movies, Blood is all about horror. “An undead cowboy with a pitchfork fights evil cultists” is an elevator pitch that makes me realise it’s probably a good job I’m not in charge of a movie studio. Everything about the world of Blood is just completely, spiritually nourishing to me, the computer game equivalent of a big mug of soup in November– the horror movie references, the sinister carnivals and haunted hotels, the ghost enemies that scream like someone with their testicles caught in a bear trap, all of it.
The setting is great, but it wouldn’t mean much if the gameplay was rubbish, but Blood delivers in that regard too. It’s got the classic, rocket-speed carnage that the golden age of PC shooters was so wonderful at creating, but with its own unique style of combat. Even the lesser enemies can be utterly deadly, so there’s less focus on the huge swarms of monsters you’d see in, say, Doom, and more emphasis on tightly-constructed corridors and smaller arenas, with excellent level design all the way through the game. The enemies are fantastic and nicely varied, and the selection of weapons is probably my favourite in any first-person shooter, from familiar friends like the double-barrelled shotgun to the destructive power of the dynamite bundle to more exotic tools of death like the voodoo doll. It’s the closest you’re likely to get to being the “hero” of your own gore-soaked horror movie. A Bruce Campbell-em-up, if you like, and that feeling is probably why I play through Blood at least once a year.

Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360, Access Games, 2010)


Let’s get this right out in the open: a lot of the time, Deadly Premonition isn’t that much fun to actually play. The controls are bad, the combat is repetitive and dull and I always seem to get one or two huge glitches whenever I play it. However, none of that matters, because Deadly Premonition’s gameplay is merely a vehicle for transporting a truly bizarre and completely captivating storyline. The comparisons to Twin Peaks are immediate and obvious, but Deadly Premonition twists that familiar setting into its own unique experience, creating a world that looks at first glance like low budget trash but eventually reveals itself as a game with a rare depth of personality. The game’s star, FBI special agent Francis York Morgan, is a truly fascinating character, and not just by the usually low standards of videogame characters. Driving around and hearing York talk about the movies he’s watched sounds like it’d be insufferably dull but it ended up being my favourite part of the game. You don’t often get such a glimpse into the inner life of a videogame protagonist, and as York makes his way through a surreal plot with a shocking twist at the end I find myself being totally captivated by this weird world full of oddball townsfolk. It’s also one of the very few games to make me feel genuine emotions. I had a lump in my throat at the end of the game, and it wasn’t the usual hastily-swallowed sausage rolls.
Deadly Premonition is a great example of what videogames that might be lacking in technical proficiency can make up for in sheer imagination and ambition. It starts out as a supernatural murder mystery but goes on to take in so many different themes, always tinged with a unique sense of humour, that any problems I have with the gameplay are completely negated. Of course, if you told me that you hate Deadly Premonition, I could totally see where you’re coming from. Not every game has to be for every person, though, and that’s the great thing about Deadly Premonition.

Rainbow Six Vegas 2 (PS3, Ubisoft, 2008)


I can’t believe I’m putting this game on the list. It’s a fairly generic tactical FPS in which terrorists get shot in Las Vegas. It’s pretty decent, although hardly more evolved than any of its predecessors. And yet, when I was thinking about this list I kept coming back to it for one simple reason: the Terrorist Hunt mode. I have spent so much time and had such a good time playing that mode, specifically playing it couch co-op with a friend. Just the two of you, a very limited number of respawns and a mansion / oil refinery / casino filled with terrorists who skipped the “camouflage” portion of their training camp and turned up in bright red fatigues.
I couldn’t even tell you what it is about this mode that was so appealing to us, leading to RSV2 becoming our go-to game any time we fancied some shooter action. Maybe it’s the way the terrorists sometimes command their comrades to “Aim and shoot!” just before you aim at them and shoot them, the irony being as devastating as the machine-gun fire. Maybe it was the uncomplicated, solid combat combined with the tension of only having limited lives. I have no idea, I really don’t. I guess that’s why they call your tastes “tastes.” I like the taste of Dr. Pepper, but I sure as hell couldn’t explain why.

Street Fighter Alpha 3 (Arcade / PS1, Capcom, 1998)


I’m pretty bad at fighting games. I’ve explained this before, it’s because there are so many of them that I want to play that I never have the time to sit down and really master any single game. I’m greedy, basically. Street Fighter Alpha 3 is the closest I’ve ever gotten, though, thanks in part to it being just the right level of complexity for me: lots of different fighting systems and three separate fighting “styles” to chose from, but nothing I can’t wrap my head around. Obviously there are many other Street Fighter games I could have had on this list – the impact of Street Fighter II’s SNES port is hard to exaggerate, that game became almost a religious calling for some kids – but SFA3 is my favourite of the bunch. I don’t know how well it’s regarded these days, having never paid attention to things like “balance” and “tier lists,” but it’s got that classic, super-slick fighting action that made Street Fighter famous in spades. It also has the most appealing graphics (to me, anyway) of the series, with big, cartoony sprites, and a huge roster of characters new and old. The PS1 version even adds a “World Tour” mode with RPG-like elements. At its heart, though, Street Fighter Alpha 3 is simply Street Fighter. Timeless, classic action that’s honestly yet to be improved on in a big way. Nowadays, if I’m going to play Street Fighter I’ll probably play SFV… for a while. Then I’ll hop straight back over to SFA3 and spend entire battles doing nothing but Dan Hibiki’s rolling taunt.

Chrono Trigger (Squaresoft, SNES, 1995)


What can I say about Chrono Trigger that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before? Not much, that’s what. Creative talent operating at the height of their powers to craft a true masterpiece, every aspect of the game slotting together to form a veritable Voltron of delights. A time-travel story that not only works, but opens up the possibility of over a dozen endings! Quite probably the best soundtrack on the SNES! Memorable characters, a team-up battle system, singing robot cats! Chrono Trigger is the ultimate gloomy afternoon videogame. Go on, try it text time it’s dark and rainy at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. Get under a duvet and play some Chrono Trigger, it’ll warm you right up.

There, I think that lot ought to do it for now. Some games were omitted because, while I do love them, everyone else does too and they don’t quite feel as special to me personally. Honourable mentions include Zelda: A Link to the Past, basically every Super Mario platformer but especially Super Mario World, Final Fantasies 5-8, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Timesplitters: Future Perfect and Marvel vs. Capcom 3. What did I learn from this? That my tastes are pretty mainstream, mostly. There’s not much here that you’d mistake for being obscure, with the exception of Night Slashers. Also I’m a massive Playstation fanboy, apparently. And with that, I’m off to try to complete my CollectaCard collection in Theatrhythm Curtain Call, an endeavour that I’m sure is going to end up with me found dead from exhaustion, surrounded by probability charts and drop-rate tables.

Recently on VGJUNK:

15/09/2016

VGJUNK'S FAVOURITE GAMES

A very straightforward topic for today’s article: I’m going to write about some of my all-time favourite videogames. I get asked what my favourites are every now and then, and frankly right now I could do with some unalloyed positivity in my life, so here we are. No considered judgements or critical analyses in this one, folks, just the games I’ll take with me when I finally snap and head off to live in the woods. They’ve got electricity and broadband internet in the woods these days, right?

Silent Hill 2 (PS2, Konami, 2001)


In the admittedly very unlikely scenario that I was ordered, possibly at gunpoint, to rank all my favourite games, I would struggle from number two downwards to get them into any kind of order. However, for my number one slot there can be no other choice: it’d be Konami’s classic spook-em-up Silent Hill 2 every time and probably for all time. There are a lot of games I like, but there’s yet to be another that feels so perfectly me, like it was designed solely to provide the exact experience I wanted. What makes Silent Hill 2 so great? It might sound facetious but the answer is everything. It’s a game of rare depth and even rarer nuance, one of the very few video games from a major developer that tackles some truly heavy themes – suicide, euthanasia, child abuse – and handles them in a manner that’s heartbreakingly tragic and impressively non-exploitative.  Every aspect of its design, the characters, the graphics, the music and sound work, is pitch-perfect, creating the only videogame (well, apart from Soft and Cuddly) that’s managed to inspire a lasting feeling of dread in me. It’s assembled with such precision, craft and subtlety that every little detail of the game feels purposeful and redolent with meaning. On top of that, in Pyramid Head Silent Hill 2 produced one of the greatest monsters in any medium. A haunting mixture of the human and the abstract, Pyramid Head is unlike so many monsters in that it has a purpose beyond simple slaughter. It’s got something to teach you, and the idea that you might even be better off for knowing what that something is makes for a creature that’s more unsettling than any other.
As an aside, while there are plenty of reasons to dislike the Silent Hill movies (because they’re not very good, mostly,) the one thing that really annoys me about them is Pyramid Head’s redesign. By replacing the featureless geometry of the original’s “helmet” with a spiky, overly-fussy lump of metal, so much of what makes Pyramid Head unnerving is lost, and the movie version becomes yet another mindless murder machine with a head like a rejected trap design from a later movie in the Saw series.
Obviously every game on this list has earned its place in some part because of personal tastes that others might disagree with, but in Silent Hill 2's case I’d argue that there's not another game out there with such a consistent and expertly-crafted mood of melancholic horror, and as tiresome as the “are games art?” debate is I’d put forth Silent Hill 2 as the premier example of “yes, they bloody well can be.” Maybe one day Konami will reveal that their business decisions over the last few years have all been part of an elaborate hoax and they’re actually going to start making good games again, but until then I don’t think Silent Hill 2 is going to be topped.

Resident Evil 2 (PS1, Capcom, 1998)


While I was thinking about the games that would appear on this list, I realised that a lot of them would be standing in as a representative for their entire series, and nowhere is that more true than with Resident Evil 2. Picking a favourite entry from a franshise that has given me such consistent pleasure over the years was a difficult task, with the original Resident Evil, the Remake and Resident Evil 4 all making good cases for being the finest example of zombie-slaying, evil-pharmaceutical-company-fighting action available. I had to go with Resident Evil 2 in the end, though. If nothing else, the truck driver in the game’s intro who says “Dat guy’s a maniac! Why’d he bite me?!” would be enough to push me over the edge.
When I was finally lucky enough to get a Playstation and the original Resident Evil, it’s fair to say I became somewhat obsessed with it. It’s another game that feels as though it was made just for me, a B-movie in polygonal form with highly-trained police officers fighting against the undead, giant sharks and their own incompetence when it comes to spotting that their boss is the shiftiest man alive. I’m sure that somewhere in a dark corner of a wardrobe at my mother’s house there are still a few notebooks filled with terrible drawings of Jill fighting giant spiders and Wesker getting impaled by the ultimate bio-weapon, put it that way. So, when RE2 was announced, I was obviously very excited, but the excitement was tinged with trepidation – what if it wasn’t as good as the original? What if Capcom cocked it up somehow? Then RE2 arrived, and it was the exact opposite of disappointment. Is there an English word for “the exact opposite of disappointment”? I don’t think there is, so I propose we start using “Resident Evil 2” in those situations. “I opened a letter from the Inland Revenue, and it was a surprise tax refund! What a real Resident Evil 2 of a thing to happen!”
Anyway, RE2 takes the basic structure of the original and cranks everything up. Better graphics, a bigger world to explore, more puzzles and weapons, two playable characters with separate but intertwining storylines and more insanity. A good level of bonkers-ness, and the starting point for the series’ trip into the sheer madness of the later games. It’s the ideal sequel, in a way: everything you loved before, but more. A police station / art museum run by a mad taxidermist. The added tension of the relentless, Terminator-like “Mr. X” Tyrant. The introduction of series mainstays Leon and Claire. It’s all wonderful, and a rare example of a game where I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about it. Some people might complain about the voice acting, but without wanting to sound too harsh those people are wrong.

Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1, Squaresoft, 1998)


In hindsight, it was a bold move on Square’s part to follow up the incredible success of Final Fantasy VII with a sprite-based strategy game that eschewed the semi-futuristic aesthetic of FFVII and the upcoming FFVIII in favour of a traditional fantasy setting, but I’ll always be grateful that they did. I’ve played almost all of the Final Fantasy series, enjoyed most of them and outright loved a few, but Final Fantasy Tactics is always the one I return to time and again.
FFT is a three-pronged attack on my pleasure centres. First are the game’s mechanics. I always love a Job system, and FFT offers my favourite of the lot, allowing for a wide variety of customisation options for your characters. It’s not a game particularly concerned with balance, either, and there’s a huge array of completely game-breaking teams you can assemble. Want a character that shouts at themselves so much that they turn into The Flash and can run around the battlefield murdering everyone before the enemies can react? You can do that. I’m fond of giving people guns with a skill that prevents enemy movement, presumably by shooting them in the kneecaps. Or what about the only time I’ve ever enjoyed mathematics, but using the Calculator job class to pick targets based on god-damn prime numbers? I find being rewarded for figuring the intricacies of a game's systems t be very rewarding, and FFT offers that in spades.
Then there’s the story – it does descend into completely bananas “ancient evil gods” territory at the end, but which for the most part is an intriguing tale of political machinations, religious indoctrination and the unfair treatment of the poor by the ruling classes. Finally there’s the presentation, which is adorable. Tiny sprites absolutely packed with character and battlefield in a pleasingly chunky polygonal style, with possibly the best soundtrack in the series to boot. Add in all the secrets and hidden characters, including Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud being more useless then that time he was in a vegetative state, and you’d got a game that I can replay more than probably any other.

OutRun (Arcade, Sega, 1986)


I’ve already written a long and florid love-letter to Sega’s arcade racer, so I’ll keep this brief. OutRun is a game where you drive a car as far as you can, and it is perfect. At once completely relaxed and utterly precise, OutRun is about as close as you can get to driving down a beachside highway in a Ferrari without arranging a test-drive under false pretences. In fact it’s better than the real thing, because this way you can avoid human company, all while enjoying some of the best music ever to come out of an arcade cabinet. If you have a 3DS, I cannot recommend the 3D port of OutRun enough. Buy it, then play OutRun while sitting on a sunny beach. Now that’s living the dream.

OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast (PS2, Sumo Digital / Sega, 2006)


I had to split the OutRun series into two entries, because OutRun 2006 is such a different beast that its arcade forefather. It’s got all of the original’s atmosphere, though - the same sun-kissed beaches and winding mountain roads that serve as a playground for the sheer fun of driving, the same sense of escapism and the wonderful soundtrack. In my opinion, it’s also the single best example of a retro game being updated and enhanced for a modern (well, at the time,) console. The addition of drifting and the Heart Attack challenge mode keep things fresh, but without sacrificing the atmosphere that made OutRun such a joy to play. OutRun 2006 is one of those games that feel almost pure, somehow, and the simple act of playing the game is so much fun that even if it didn’t look and sound great it’d still be one of my favourite. You could be controlling a shopping trolley in a Tesco car-park and OutRun 2006’s game engine would still make it exciting as you pulled off a sick power-slide around a pensioner trying to reverse her Nissan Micra into a disabled bay.

Bloodborne (PS4, From Software, 2015)


There’s a stereotype about fans of From Software’s Souls games, and it’s that they’ll take the slightest opportunity to bang on at length about how it’s the greatest series of games ever created, and I’m here to tell you that such people do exist. I know because I’m one of them. Okay, so maybe I’m not quite that bad, and I can rein myself in when I see eyes glazing over, but the Souls games really are a phenomenal body of work. Any of them, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 1 – 3, could have made it on to this list but just edging them out for the position of my most cherished is Bloodborne - the one that sits most on the outside of that happy little group.
From’s blood-based Gothic masterpiece follows the template set by the rest of the series but goes off on its own unique tangent, the “medieval” fantasy setting replaced by a quasi-Victorian world of  mutated beasts and madmen, which is precisely the kind of universe that I long to soak myself in like a nice hot bath. The combat is the real star of the show: where one of the pleasure of the Dark Souls games is the wide variety of viable character builds, Bloodborne almost forces the player in operating as a nimble, aggressive, melee fighter. That might sound like a regressive step, but the combat is so finely-honed and responsive that playing the game that way is just so damn fun. A big part of this is down to the “regain” mechanic – when you take damage, there’s a short window where you can restore some of your lost health by slashing tasty, healing blood out of your opponents, encouraging you to get right up in their business. Couple that with the ability to parry enemy attacks not by pushing them aside with a shield, as in Dark Souls, but by shooting them in the face, and Bloodborne offers a masterclass in risk-reward gameplay.
Also exceptional is the world that the action inhabits. Personally I think it’s the best use of Lovecraftian horror that’s ever appeared in a videogame, a universe beset by madness-inducing star-gods and strange cults that worship monstrous blood. Reaching the point in the game where you gain enough wisdom to see what’s really going on in the city of Yharnam is a moment that will stay with me for a long time. It’s a beautiful game to look at, as well. Exquisitely hideous monsters roam the dark places of the world, and the architecture alone is worth the price of admission. Plus, and this is the criteria by which I judge all Dark Souls games, it has a fine array of goofy hats to wear, including a bucket with one eyehole cut out of it and a giant golden traffic cone.

Quake (PC, id Software, 1996)


Don’t get me wrong, Doom is amazing and I love it dearly but Quake is just that little bit more special to me. I can remember the first time I ever saw it, visiting a friend who had just installed the shareware version on his dad’s then brand-new Windows ‘95 machine. It was full 3D, man! And faster than a cheetah on a rollercoaster to boot! It blew my mind, and because there was no chance of me getting a computer powerful enough to run it at the time, I made damn sure I found out which of my other friends owned Quake, too.
I think I’ve said this before, but given how many alterations and compromises Quake went through during its development, from vast and complex RPG to Doom But Moreso and Brown, it’s amazing that it turned out as great as it did. Many people will tell you that Quake’s legacy is its huge part in the rise of online multiplayer, which is true, but I’ve never been much interested in that. Instead I preferred the world of offline play, the dank castles and Satanic ziggurats, the intense satisfaction of nailing an Ogre from around the corner with the bouncing projectiles of the grenade launcher. The inclusion of jumping and swimming leads to ever-more fiendishly hidden secrets, the atmosphere is so oppressive you could mistake it for the North Korea government and the action is never less than full-on heavy metal carnage, served completely without irony or pretence.

F-Zero GX (Amusement Vision / Sega / Nintendo, 2003)


The ultimate speed crazy dream extravaganza, a game so relentlessly, maniacally fast that all other racing games feel sluggish by comparison, and home to the most bizarre cast of characters this side of The Lesser Key of Solomon, F-Zero GX must surely be the result of Nintendo looking at their previous entries in the F-Zero series and saying “yes, but what if it was more? More of all of it?” And so we were blessed with F-Zero GX, the racing game to surpass all others so long as you’re not bothered about driving actual cars. It’s not a game that messes around: if you want to be good at F-Zero GX, it demands dedication and practise, but although it’s harsh it’s always fair. Okay, outside of the Story mode, anyway. That mode isn’t fair. On the higher difficulties, it’s actually a test the developers included to secretly gather data on just how much rage-fuelled punishment a GameCube controller can take. Other than that, though, F-Zero GX offers a racing experience focussed down to laser-like intensity that provides countless endorphin hits when you blast over the finish line just as your vehicle’s about to explode or as you deftly jink left and right to avoid the holes in the track. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong and fall off the track or have your racer explode, but in my experience it really is a game where practise makes perfect and one of the things I love most about F-Zero GX is that every time I play it I can feel myself getting better at it in tiny increments. Not enough to ever beat Story Mode on the top difficulty, but still.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1, Konami, 1997)


I’ll be honest, when Symphony of the Night was first released I wasn’t that familiar with the Castlevania series. I’d played Super Castlevania IV and a little of the NES games, but it’s not like nowadays where I’ve played through them all multiple times, so as well as everything else I can praise Symphony of the Night for getting me into the rest of the series in a deeper way. Not that it requires any knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, because SotN takes the themes of the series and spins them into its own unique adventure. The half-vampire son of Dracula, fighting his way through a castle filled with all manner of monsters, spooks and reimagined characters from The Wizard of Oz? I’d have been sold on that no matter the license.
A game densely packed with secrets and obscure flourishes, (as I’ve written about before,) SotN marries the joy of exploring Dracula’s vast lair with tight controls and a wide range of weapons, equipment and special moves, each enemy you defeat bringing you closer to becoming an unstoppable death-dealing instrument of justice with fabulous hair. You can still find new things after dozens of playthroughs, the voice acting reaches a level of “so bad it’s good” that it transforms into the stuff of legend and Michiru Yamane’s soundtrack is utterly sublime. It’s a game that fair sings with quality, crafted with real passion, and is absolutely as much fun to play now as it was then.

Guitar Hero: Rocks the 80s (PS2, Harmonix, 2007)


Now that the series has been crushed beneath the weight of over-familiarity and a glut of spin-offs and expansions, it’s hard to remember that Guitar Hero was a genuine phenomenon. There are very few games I’ve ever seen – Tetris and early Wii stuff being other notable examples - that had such an effect when it came to getting people who didn’t play videogames interested. Everyone wanted to play Guitar Hero, regardless of whether they’d touched a videogame or a guitar before in their lives. The reasons for Guitar Hero’s appeal are obvious: everyone loves music, it’s simple to learn but difficult to master and despite knowing on a fundamental level that playing along on a chunky plastic guitar isn’t cool, it feels cool when you’re ripping through a Megadeth solo.
The Guitar Hero games hit at a perfect time for me personally, too. I was at university when they first appeared, and I have many fond memories of extremely well-lubricated pre-night-out Guitar Hero sessions. It also works as a good warning system for alcohol consumption: when you become unable to bash out a sloppy rendition of “18 and Life,” it’s probably time to switch to water. All the early Guitar Hero games are favourites of mine. I really enjoy Rock Band too, but there’s something about it that wasn’t quite as appealing as Guitar Hero. As sense that it wanted to be “cool,” maybe, a quality that Guitar Hero most definitely didn’t possess. So, why did I pick Rocks the 80s? Because it’s the one with “Holy Diver” in it, that’s why.

That's quite a selection of games, huh? However, I forgot to stop, and I've got another bunch of favourites to discuss. With that in mind, here's Part 2!

10/09/2016

HIDDEN FILES: ECHOES OF JFK (PC)

You’d better have the details of your local optician close by, because you’re probably going to need to make an appointment after today’s game: it’s Microids’ 2014 good-job-there’s-a-hint-button-em-up Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK!

That’s right, it’s a game with a plot about the conspiracy surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. Yes, there are still people out there that dispute the historically accepted events surrounding JFK’s death, but fortunately this game is daft enough that it’s unlikely to stoke the fires of their paranoia. I don’t have much time for conspiracy theories, for the simple reason that I cannot imagine any government being competent enough to keep secrets of this magnitude, well, secret. The Moon Landing deniers are particularly aggravating to me personally. Perhaps one day they’ll all band together, buy a rocket and piss off to the moon in search of evidence. That’d be nice.


Somewhere, at some time, a car crashes. The driver is killed, and thus we have our starting point for a wacky adventure through the shadowy half-truths that lay a shroud over a turbulent time in American history.
Apologies, by the way, for the grey box that pops up in the corner of some of these screenshots. A byproduct of the image capture process, unfortunately, and not something that’s part of the game itself. I'll say this to it's credit, Hidden Files definitely doesn't have a look based around grey boxes.


It transpires that the dead driver was a journalist named Jack Olsen, a man who claimed to have come into possession of shocking new evidence regarding JFK’s assassination. This is a case that goes all the way to the top, right to the Oval Office. Here’s the President of the USA now, meeting with the head of the FBI and looking thoroughly like a bootleg Barack Obama.


The FBI’s response is to assign one lone agent to the case. I know, you’d think such a potentially earth-shattering revelation would require the attention of more than one person, especially given that someone’s already been murdered. Not to worry, though, they’ve got just the woman for the job. When you’re dealing with a sinister conspiracy that manipulates the lives of the unwitting American people, there’s only one person you can turn to: FBI Special Agent Sully. Yes, I read it as Scully the first time I saw it, too. I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed I won’t be playing as Dana Scully or relieved that Gillian Anderson won’t be appearing in the form of a plasticy bootleg CG model.


Here’s Sully now, ready to bust the case wide open. She will be once she’s got these photos of Olsen printed out, anyway. With those in hand, she’ll no doubt be heading to the crime scene and bringing the full power of her keen analytical mind to bear on the problem.


Except that’ll have to wait, because the printer’s knackered. That’s right, your first task in this game of intrigue and dark secrets is some light office maintenance. Well, you don’t want to cram all the thrills into the first few moments, do you? Then there’d be nowhere to go to but downwards, but if you start with changing printer cartidges then even filling in paperwork would seem captivating by comparison. Speaking of paperwork, I hope she remembers to fill in an expenses report, you wouldn’t want the cost of ink cartridges coming out of your own pocket.


Luckily there’s a spare cartridge in the laboratory next door, and here’s where we get our first taste of Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK’s gameplay. It’s a hidden object game! You know the sort of thing: there’s a big screen packed with a cluttered mass of random objects, and you’re tasked with finding the specific items listed at the bottom of the screen. Cross off all the items on your list and the scene is completed, usually giving you an item that you need in order to progress in the game. Ever since I played Halloween Trick or Treat last Halloween I’ve become slightly obsessed with the hidden object genre, especially the spookily-themed ones, of which there are a significant number. They range in complexity from the likes of Halloween Trick or Treat, with nothing but hidden object scenes and the odd mini-puzzle, to games that are almost full-on graphic adventures with more fleshed-out puzzles and inventories of collectible items. Hidden Files falls somewhere in the middle: it’s mostly hidden object stuff but you do have an inventory, although the “puzzles” involved are all extremely simple “use key on door” things. Or “use ink on printer,” in this case. Also slightly different than the norm is the interactivity of some of the scenes, such as his lab where you can open and close the drawers to reveal more objects. To finish each scene you have to clear the list and then – and only then – can  you pick up the item you actually need, which was a little annoying in this case when I immediately spotted the ink cartridge but had to spend five minutes engaging in Sully’s obsessive cleaning routines.


Now that the printer’s working, I can start assembling the “My First Big Case” scrapbook, complete with photos of the President and Jack Olsen. Olsen’s got something of a young Jeff Goldblum about him, don’t you think? Well, he did before the sudden introduction of that tree into his day.


Before Sully can start piecing the evidence together, she has to access her encrypted computer but it’s locked behind a minigame, and it’s a good example of the level of challenge and complexity you’ll be getting from the minigames in this one. Simply swap around the segments of the lines until you’ve got three continuous lines. It’s not exactly rocket science. It’s not any kind of science, honestly. What’s the easiest kind of science? GCSE geography? Even that’s more challenging than this minigame, and from my dim recollection GCSE geography was ninety percent colouring in maps and ten percent comparing rainfall charts.


The trail leads Sully to a garage near the crime scene, where she hopes to find the black pick-up truck that rammed Olsen’s car off the road. The garage also appears to be part junkyard, so at least there’s some reason for a huge pile of random crap to be laying around, unlike the squalor of the FBI offices. Nice reference to the famous “rebrum” scene from The Shining up there, too. Hang on, was it "rebrum" in the movie? Yeah, that sounds right. I know ambulances are supposed to have backwards writing on them, but this is ridiculous, ba-dum tssh.


I roused the owner of the garage – a man who looks like Ross Kemp fell asleep on a radiator – from his slumber. Unfortunately, I captured this screen shot during the blur between the two frames of his facial animation and so his mouth has taken on the disturbing appearance of a fleshy optical illusion. Go on, take a look at it and try to figure out where his top lip is. Anyway, Donny here goes back to sleep, allowing Sully to ferret around his premises. You can click on his office door and it tells you it’s very well soundproofed, which I believe is what criminal investigators call “a lucky break.”


I dunno, expensive mechanics’ tools?
I said that all the inventory-based “puzzles” are utterly brain-dead, and they are, but this one at least confused me for a moment and that’s the closest that this game gets to challenging the ol’ grey matter so I guess I’ll have to take it. The thing is, this cabinet is locked, with what appears to be a combination lock. Naive fool that I am, I assumed that I’d have to find the combination to said lock, but it turns out I had to crush a car and scoop the acid from the car’s battery into a plastic bottle and then use the acid to dissolve the lock. That’s battery acid that couldn’t melt through a Coke bottle, let me remind you. Oh well, there’s not much of a game world to wander around in – the garage consists of two screens – so I soon figured it out and managed to open the cabinet. I wonder what could be inside.


A submarine gun, huh? I always though submarines used torpedoes, but maybe that’s why I’m neither an FBI agent nor a naval officer. The presence of the underwater weaponry clues Sully into the fact that this mechanic is, in fact, completely dodgy. I know, what a shocker. She also finds some white paint, and there’s a freshly-painted white pick-up truck in the room, but that’s not quite enough evidence for Sully. She has to find some paint stripper as well, just to make sure. If it were me and I was alone in a decrepit garage with a mountain of a man who owns illegal machine guns, I’d call for back up, and possibly an exorcist just in case his weird multi-mouth wasn’t a simple animation smear. I guess Sully is just a lot braver than me.


Again, this does look like a scene that you might find in a criminal garage. Your local Kwik-Fit would surely be more organised, but here? It makes sense. I did have a lot of trouble finding the garden fork, mind you, but that’s because I was looking for a garden fork. Like a spade, but with prongs instead of a blade, that kind of thing. The only tool I’ve ever seen or heard of as being described as a garden fork, in fact. Turns out the game actually wanted me to click on the small rake hidden just under the desktop. Not to worry, there’s a button you can click that shows you where one of the items is hidden, and it recharges over time so you can keep using it which is helpful if you don’t know this difference between various garden tools. This is a problem you’ll often come across if you play a few hidden object games – the tendency for words to mean more than one thing in English. For example, I played one where I spent a long time looking for an aeroplane, only for it to turn out that “plane” meant the thing you shave wood with. Fortunately, that’s not much of a problem in Hidden Files.


Sully’s next stop is Olsen’s apartment, which has either been ransacked by intruders searching for his secret JFK files or it’s the maid’s day off.


Huh, maybe it is the maid’s day off. He’s quite the complex fellow, this Olsen. Crusader for truth, loser of no-claim bonuses, spoiler of cats. There is, naturally, a section where you have to find the CDs to play for Byzance the cat so he’ll eat his tuna flakes. If you don’t, Byzance won’t stand still long enough for you to grab the key hanging from his collar. Sadly you never get to hear what kind of music Byzance deems mandatory for mealtimes, although I’m going to assume it’s Slayer. I’ve got no evidence to back that up, but I’ve got no evidence against it, either.


There are the CDs now, carelessly left on the floor outside of their cases. Everyone’s got their own pet peeves, and one of mine is people not putting optical media back in their box. I think that’s a reasonable thing to get annoyed about, right? I know some of my CD collection probably deserves a brisk scrub with a belt sander, but that’s not the point.
More hidden object action then, and as this is 90% of Hidden Files’ gameplay I should probably talk about it. It’s... not great, to be kind. On a personal level the realistic style of the graphics is nowhere near as appealing to me as the “truck full of Halloween tat crashes into a tacky family restaurant” aesthetic of Trick or Treat or the general spookiness of any other horror-themed hidden object game.  That’s about my tastes, though, and they can safely be disregarded. However, the layout of the scenes isn’t much fun either, with a lot of items that aren’t organically hidden in the scene but are instead lightened, made semi-transparent or have their colour changed entirely. Like, sometimes you’re asked to find cherries so you’re looking around for a bit of red, but all the cherries in this game are green. You can see some on the left, list above the item list. I know green cherries are a thing, but it still doesn’t seem right to me – and then the game does the exact same thing with green strawberries. I had to use the hint button far more often than I usually have to in these kinds of game and it was very rare that I did so and then thought “oh, duh, I should have seen that.” All the scenes are reused at least twice and sometimes even three times, although the second time is usually much easier because you’ll remember where you saw half the objects the first time though.


As it happens, Olsen hid his top-secret Kennedy findings beneath a Fisher-Price puzzle of coloured lights, a sort of combination lock for the illiterate. The solution for this puzzle is on a huge painting in the middle of the same room. I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, but I’m beginning to doubt Olsen’s credentials as a functioning adult, never mind someone capable of bringing the darkest secrets of the US government to light. There was no need to have him murdered, his killers could have offered him a shiny penny to stop digging and I suspect he’d have been happy.
Sully gains access to Olsen’s files despite his high-tech security measures, but there’s not much to go on: only a single fingerprint from a possible suspect. Sully seems to have reached a dead end when the fingerprint analysis (in the form of a spot-the-difference minigame) reveals it belongs to an unidentified John Doe. Well, it looks like this case is over, back to investigating the mysterious deaths of young women in rural towns populated by strange characters, or whatever it is the FBI does.


But wait! With exceptionally convenient timing, Sully receives a phone call from Erik Square, one of Olsen’s colleagues. He tells her that the man she’s looking for is named Walter Wood, but the condition for this information being shared is that Sully will protect Erik from the people who want to see the truth buried. Yeah, sure, I’m sure I can manage to protect you. Federal Bureau of Protection, that’s what FBI stands for!


Ah. I may have overestimated my protective capabilities. In my defence, if you’re in the run from hitmen then maybe you shouldn’t sit somewhere with your back to a door. Any old Tom, Dick or Humphrey Bogart impersonator could spring up and shoot you. I suppose I’d better chase after the killer, then.


Oh ho, we’ve got a bit of an action scene, have we? Action in the loosest possible sense of the word,  but an unexpected diversion none the less. The hitman pops up in random places around the screen, and you must click on him to shoot him. Shoot him ten times to clear the stage. There’s really nothing more to it: you don’t have to reload, and the hitman never fires back, perhaps being so confident in his abilities as a marksman that he only brought one bullet. It’s true to the hidden object genre, at least. You look for something and click on it. The only differences are that there's only one thing to click on and that thing appears to have time-travelled here from the 1940s.


You shot him ten times, you absolute psychopath! Did you think you were going to bring him in for questioning afterwards, maybe with a cheery joke abut how he’s one up on 50 Cent? But no, Sully uses her medical expertise to ascertain that the hitman was killed by a gunshot to the back and not, you know, those ten other bullets.


It’s not technically a smoking gun, but it’s still warm and that’s close enough. The shadowy conspirators have now started an unstoppable chain where each hitman is himself assassinated in turn, so hopefully by the time I reach the end of the game the villains will have thinned their own numbers so thoroughly that I’ll have no opposition.


Sully’s next task is to break into the CIA archives and find information about Walter Wood. She accomplishes this by sneaking through the air vents, despite there being a security camera pointed directly at the area. This is less surprising when you realise that the top-security CIA facility employs one lone guard, and he’s on break. It’s nice that they put a few plants around, though. Really brightens the place up. Keep that bamboo in mind, it’ll come in handy in a minute.


Getting though the air vents requires navigating a maze, a task made more difficult by the fact you can only see a small portion of it at a time. It’s still not hard, though, and the only notable thing about it is that the CIA air system covers roughly the same square footage as Birmingham city centre.


Here’s the reason you need bamboo: the switch for the security system is protected by a laser grid, so Sully comes up with the incredible plan to use the bamboo as a blow-pipe and spit a small pebble at the switch to deactivate it. Maybe you’re like me and you’re wondering why Sully didn’t just cut a slightly longer piece of bamboo and poke the button. My conclusion is that Sully’s kind of an idiot, but maybe you have a kinder interpretation.


Here’s the CIA lab, which is somehow even messier than the FBI’s lab and with the added danger of guns laying around all over the place. One of the items to find here is the letter C, and I was convinced it was supposed to be the C in the word “scan,” but it wasn’t. That C is merely a red herring, but that doesn’t stop it being irritating when you find an item that the game’s asked you for only for it to turn around and say “no, not that one.”


The raid on the CIA furnished me with Walter Wood’s home address, so Sully dashed straight over there to confront him, pausing only to smash his window in with a brick. Maybe you should have shot the lock ten times instead, Sully.
It was around this point that I realised you can actually use the mouse wheel to zoom in during the hidden object scenes. This made things significantly easier. I’m not bitter about struggling through the first four-fifths of the game without the zoom, certainly. A few choice expletives and I’d totally forgotten about it.


I finally caught up with Walter Wood, and he doesn’t seem to bear a grudge over me putting his window through and breaking into his house. A man who seems to be rather enjoying the life-and-death struggles over the secrets he possesses, a man who looks like the old bloke from Up if he sold his soul to Satan in exchange for success in the business world, Walter Wood simply sits in his chair while you rummage through every square inch of his house looking for the keys that unlock his safe.


Here’s where the logic behind Sully’s investigation starts to get a bit strange. Sully’s looking for the keys, and she decides that Walter would have only hidden them around the things in life he loves the most: in this case, making pottery and bonsai trees. She’s got no reason to believe this is the case, but that’s not going to stop her going on a Zelda-style rampage and smashing every pot she sees – after finding all the matching pairs, of course. Amazingly, this line of inquiries seems to be correct and Walter did indeed hide one of the keys in his pot, presumably dropping it in there while trying to recreate that scene from Ghost.


Then there’s the key hidden under this bonsai tree, which brings me to something that infuriates me about a great many of these hidden object games. On a surprisingly regular basis, there’ll be a puzzle where something’s hidden in the dirt and it needs digging up… but your character will point-blank refuse to dig without the use of a tool. You have a tool, you plum. Two of them, even! What, are you worried you’re going to ruin your manicure? It’s loose soil, not drunken scorpions with anger-management issues, get your bloody hands in there.


The hidden object scenes also reach their nadir in this area, when you’re asked to find sticks of chalk that have been placed on white backgrounds. It’s a good thing this is right at the end of the game, if this had been one of the first scene I doubt I would have continued. I would accept some argument that this, in fact, is not actually a good thing and I could have used my short time on this Earth more constructively.


After all that, I got the tape. It reveals that some unknown person was involved with maybe having JFK killed, not even giving away the identity of this John Doe. It’s not something that would hold up in court, and so the game ends on a rather underwhelming note. The President burns the recording in his waste-paper bin, revealing the White House's rather lax spproach to installing smoke alarms. Sully, for her part, simply leaves. She doesn’t have an opinion on the situation, or if she does she doesn’t say anything about it.


The game ends with the President deciding to keep everything covered up, reasoning that the American people aren’t ready for the truth. Not that there’s much truth to go at, really, and everything flops into an unsatisfying conclusion that left me feeling like I’d missed something, like there should be an extra chapter or something. I don’t think there is, though, and so I’m going to say that’s the end of Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK.


Now that I’ve become something of a hidden object game connoisseur – a title I never asked for but will bear with solemn dignity – I’m going to proclaim that Hidden Files: Echoes of JFK is not a particularly good example of the genre. It’s not that appealing visually, the hidden object scenes are sometimes constructed in a way that’s irritating and the minigames are utterly pointless in their simplicity (although a couple of them do at least have the feel of actual law enforcement work to them.) It’s not terrible, though, and I don’t regret playing it. It’s dumb enough to be entertaining, and I do genuinely find hidden object scenes very relaxing to play. One interesting thing is that there are facts about JFK scattered around on each screen and as far as I can tell they’re all pretty accurate, so you can learn something about a great historical figure while you play. Ironically, that makes this game more educational than the Sesame Street game I wrote about.

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