848th played so far

Genre: Platform
Platform: Playstation 1
Year of Release: 1999
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer

More monkeys? Super Monkey Ball wasn’t enough, so I’m going to go for Ape Escape, which feature more cute looking primates. We’re chasing them rather than freeing them, but the theme continues.

Our Thoughts

Ape Escape, for the most part, plays like the collect-a-thon action platformers of its era – not unlike Super Mario 64 or Banjo Kazooie – but with the objective of capturing the apes that run around each level. You need to get a certain percentage of them to continue, and will need to backtrack as you need to get the right gadgets to capture some of them, which you unlock by proceeding. It’s got a decent semi-in game, separate tutorial for these too, which takes you through a clinical lab setting rather than the time travel adventures of these creatures.

Because yeah, not only did the apes escape, they used a time machine to travel to different points in time, which means that you have to subdue a Tyrannosaurus Rex to get some of them, but go to medieval times in others. It’s a pretty neat idea, with a variety that feels a bit less forced than other games. The cute (for a PS1) graphics help as well, still looking decent enough today.

The unconventional controls are where the game loses modern players a bit. I’ve complained about that before, when games make some unconventional choices, but the decisions made here don’t help. As an early game made specifically for the dualshock controller, the right thumbstick is integral – not to control where you’re looking, but to swing or use the different gadgets you gather – you actually have to aim your net in the right direction. Jump is moved to the R1 button, away from where you’d normally expect it, and everything else feels jumbled. It’s somewhat of an adjustment you have to make, and it doesn’t help you handle the frustrating puzzles like, for example, getting the aforementioned T-Rex dizzy. It’s not impossible, but it doesn’t feel quite right.

Final Thoughts

Ape Escape is an entertaining platformer with a decent variation in puzzles and environments. The controls hold it back, but I can see how enjoyable it would have been and I assume that the sequels would have taken a lot of the frustration out of it – perhaps I should track them down at some point.

#247 Frontier: Elite II

Posted: 21st February 2020 by Jeroen in Games
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847th played so far

Genre: Strategy/Shoot ‘Em Up
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1993
Developer: David Braben
Publisher: Gametek

For what it’s worth, Elite‘s promise and capabilities were somewhat diminished by its age and the lack of accessibility for a very complex game. You can’t blame it for being difficult to get into, but it’s hard to see how to keep it playable at this point.

Nine years on, I do expect a game that’s better at this – maybe not having resolved all the kinks, but being a bit closer in helping you through the game. At the same time, we’re still talking about 1993 – not an era where I expect it to be flawless or accessible. Just seeing these changes here, though, will be interesting – even away from whatever is added compared to the first game.

Our Thoughts

Frontier: Elite 2 feels as open ended and complex as the first game – possibly more so in a way that makes sense to fans, but I couldn’t get deep enough to find the extra complexities. That’s fine though, flying around, trading and ferrying passengers is fun enough. I still can’t really do combat, but I admit that’s down to me.

What really helps are the many quality of life improvements that were made. While the interface still isn’t as intuitive as you would expect it now, it’s already better, but the game improves a lot of other things as well. The game has added an autopilot, which includes automatic landing and docking, which greatly simplifies the difficult parts. It’s easier to point and say where to go, which we didn’t have before. It feels like a lot more elements of the game are more visible, so we get a game that’s easier and more fun to play.

Final Thoughts

Frontier: Elite 2 looks and plays better than the original and is a lot more fun to play around with. Elite Dangerous, the most recent incarnation, seems to have that same draw, but even here the open nature of the game, inviting you to do what you want, is still infectious. The game doesn’t always quite play along with you, but it’s closer than before, and that works.

#667 Rebelstar: Tactical Command

Posted: 17th February 2020 by Jeroen in Games
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846th played so far

Genre: Strategy
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Year of Release: 2005
Developer: Codo Technologies
Publisher: Namco

It seems like Rebelstar: Tactical Command is a clear example of a sequel in name only. While both the original Rebelstar and this game are tactical games, there isn’t a clear link in storyline or special mechanics between these two.

Obviously, with the graphics clearer in this game, it’s obvious here that in this game, we battle aliens in a set of missions – so yeah, something like X-Com without the base building.

Our Thoughts

While Rebelstar: Tactical Command did not immediately reference Rebelstar, you can tell that there’s a lineage from that to X-Com to the contemporary tactical games. The interface and gameplay is actually quite close to Final Fantasy Tactics and the like, which derives from the earlier games, and this creates its own twist on it. In part, the surprise and response mechanics are quite present, and being able to respond when another enemy spots you coming into a room becomes quite important. It ties into your remaining action points as well, so there’s a lot of planning around that. It is pretty tactical, even if frustrating when it doesn’t work well enough.

What adds to the way it feels different is that the characters gain experience between missions and you can customize how they play and advance. It’s something you sort of see in other places, but it feels like it’s bigger than the western strategy games and works well to keep you attached to your units.

Final Thoughts

I’ve had some tricky levels here, sure, and got frustrated with its surprise system, but the game itself does it well and becomes quite engaging. It presents some interesting systems and while you’ll be replaying some levels quite a lot, it stays enjoyable for the most part.

#421 Seaman

Posted: 13th February 2020 by Jeroen in Games
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845th played so far

Genre: Life Simulation
Platform: Dreamcast
Year of Release: 1999
Developer: Vivarium/Jellyvision
Publisher: Sega

It’s quite difficult to play Seaman these days. It was only released for the Dreamcast and needed a specific microphone that could plug into your controller and play. These are difficult to find, so you need to use unofficial workarounds to be able to play.

Even after we sorted something for that – using a microphones that probably didn’t work quite as well as the game expects – it was a lot more complex to actually see a lot of the game, as you need to play bits every day to advance. We finally did, so we can catch up on this write up.

Our Thoughts

A game like Seaman is fundamentally incompatible with the way I play the games for this blog – I want to binge a game, get into it deeply for a while, rather than spreading it out across time as other games come knocking. Luckily, you can always change your console’s date and play ahead that way, so that when your Seaman, the fish the game is named after, is done with you for the day, you can jump ahead. And you’re doing plenty of that – while you can get your Seaman to an adult state in less than a week, it requires you to do the right things each day, which I didn’t always feel was obvious. I used an FAQ to find it and even then wasted some resources because my fish didn’t need the food yet.

Once I goth there, it became interesting to interact with the different ages of the fish. They weren’t great at listening – which might be part microphone quality and part accent, but the game also is less liberal in what it listens to, compared to what you expect. Again, it’s not quite clear what you need to do each day, so I keep hoping I got that right. When it works out, you get to have an interesting conversation with a snarky but curious fish with a man’s head.

The other part that drags it down is the maintenance needed in the system. Each time you come back, you have to manage the temperature and oxygen levels, as well as feeding your Seaman. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have an influence on anything other than stopping you from interacting with the fish when you start and to provide a reason for its demise if you don’t check in for a few days. It’s useless, and busywork in a game that doesn’t need it.

Final Thoughts

There is something genuinely fascination about conversing with your Seaman. Even if it’s constrained by what he knows and is willing to talk about, it is a lot of fun to follow. It’s sad that this is hidden behind a lot of busywork, several days of getting your fish hatched and several more where you need to teach him until he is willing to speak English. I think that if it were made today, we could have had more faith in the conversation system, and that’s what would have really paid off.

#698 Tomb Raider Legend

Posted: 9th February 2020 by Jeroen in Games
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844th played so far

Genre: Action/Adventure
Platform: Xbox 360
Year of Release: 2006
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos Interactive

So I still had two Tomb Raider games left to play – Tomb Raider Underworld is yet to come. My only real exposure to the series was the original Tomb Raider, which was my only real exposure to the series before this blog. I’ve sort of seen how it moves on, but like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, it also feels like at this time, it’s been overtaken a bit by how the gaming landscape changed. I’m not sure when the last time was that these games made an impact for me, and it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up now.

Our Thoughts

Action/Adventure games like this, exploring exotic environments (often jungles, as they feel like a location on Earth that hasn’t been explored a lot) with some shooting and puzzle solving, rely a lot on their feel. We were probably spoiled by Uncharted, which is the yard stick we measure these by, but the controls of Tomb Raider: Legend, at least in the PC port that we ended up playing, felt off. Part of this is the UI signposting we’re used to – modern games give you a feel for the ledges you can jump through, through the movement of your character and sometimes the look, that I was missing here. Even, or perhaps especially, taking that into account, the special interactable items that are there just don’t work right. In particular, jumping at vines is finicky and I ended up jumping through them and falling several times, which wasn’t just frustrating, but at times harmful because of your health. It felt clunky and perhaps made too many assumptions you are familiar with the series to make sense of it.

Once it works though, the movement feels quite good and the environments are pretty nice, at least considering its age. The story holds up nicely as well and is clearly a step up from earlier entries in the series (as far as I’ve played it), presenting an interesting origin story. Again, it still assumes familiarity with earlier games in the series, as there are some characters I don’t know – and don’t know whether to know.

Oh, and there’s gunplay. It’s mediocre. It felt unnecessary. I didn’t enjoy it being there – it’s not the strength of the game.

Final Thoughts

In a modern context, this game is overshadowed by Uncharted – it feels like it does just about everything better, and I had to resist comparing this game to it. It is decent and I could get into it, but it was a bit too rough in places and I think there’s a polish possible for future games. There’s one more on the list, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this gets improved.

843rd played so far

Genre: Flight Simulation
Platform: Xbox 360
Year of Release: 2007
Developer: Project Aces
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games

This entry on the list is the first I’ve heard of the Ace Combat series, a flight simulator series that takes place in its own fictional universe, rather than the (alternate) history of games like IL-2 Sturmovik. Instead we deal with Emmeria and Estovakia and other places with names that sound vaguely East European but don’t actually exist – not quite as bizarre (for me) as Valkyria Chronicles‘ use of Dutch names, but it feels on the edge of what seems real to me.

Our Thoughts

Ace Combat 6 starts off well. While I have played several other flight sims by now, this is the first tutorial I played where I felt I actually understood pitch and roll well enough that I feel good going forward. There’s a snag in the second tutorial where it’s not clear that you have to stall, but beyond that it’s a good tutorial, teaching everything you need while not staying around for too long – more in depth tutorials unlock later, but it stays out of the way.

That leads into some decently sized missions, not too short, but not as long as they get in other games – they feel like the right length. These are connected by an anime-styled story that explains the start and progress of the war that the game revolves around. It makes the story a lot more personal – while in other games you’re a nameless pilot, here you have a name, wing mates and, most effectively, a family that you lose touch with for part of the family. You still don’t see much of yourself, but the way it tells the story of this country is really effective.

Later missions up the stakes – requiring you to, for example, only focus on finishing a few of your list of objectives, as well as giving some other upgrades. There’s also a full video replay of the missions you play, which feels quite impressive considering the size of these missions.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot more to unpack in this game, but there’s something especially compelling about the way it tells its story. It was more affecting than I expected and I hope it will pay off further as I keep playing.

#138 Head Over Heels

Posted: 1st February 2020 by Jeroen in Games
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842nd played so far

Genre: Action
Platform: Various
Year of Release: 1987
Developer: Ocean Software
Publisher: Ocean Software

After I felt like we mostly neglected them for quite some time, I have been trying to play some more of these isometric action adventure games again. I touched Fairlight a month and a half ago and I’m going for Head Over Heels today, which has the same aesthetic and pixelly look, even if it’s meant to be more action based.

Our Thoughts

One of Head Over Heels‘ selling points are its dual protagonists, as you switch between two characters are you play the game. You start off separated, which for these purposes mean that I didn’t get as much of a feel of the interactions between the two, but it’s an interesting approach for these games.

Comparing this to Fairlight, this game helped me quite a bit by staying more focused on where you can go – rather than opening up the entire play area, there are only a few screens for each to check on. I still used a walkthrough to get hints and ideas of what to do, as the game doesn’t give you as much direction. In fact, the walkthrough partially taught me how to play and some of the later interactions. Still, the constrained area worked a lot better here anyway.

Is it great? I still struggle with the controls. It doesn’t look much better, and I think I’ve lost the skill to read these games as we don’t play them anymore – and so, while the game is an improvement, this thing simply doesn’t work as well.

841st played so far

Genre: Action/Platform
Platform: Playstation 2
Year of Release: 2004
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

The Sly series is another one where we have a big gap between the two games of the series. We played Sly Cooper about nine years ago, as part of a collection of games we borrowed. We enjoyed it, but the whole thing was also part of a push to get a mascot for the Playstation systems – something we don’t have as much of a need for anymore, but at the time Sony seemed to have been trying.

The game got a sequel, which we’re playing today. I remember enough of the first game that I’m curious to see what else the burglar will do.

Our Thoughts

About a year ago, there were a number of complaints about a large chunk of a Game of Thrones episode being too dark to see what was going on. The response of the cinematographer was that you had to change the settings on your TV – watch it in a dark room on a TV that’s specifically tuned, almost sounding like you have to readjust your set for each show you watch. Playing through this game reminded me of that, as it was quite dark (as you’d expect from a thieving stealth game), but without any sort of brightness or gamma slider to adjust the game’s visuals to your environment. For that reason, I was squinting a lot, as there were sections where I felt I was basically traveling blind – apparently this is not a game to be played on a Sunday afternoon, even if that’s when we would have had time.

The game itself worked as other action platformers, with several hub worlds in which parts of the story levels take place, which then lead to smaller individual levels (that might be revisitable, but I did not have a reason to do so while I played). The levels, rather than centering around jumping and action section, it becomes a stealth game. During the hub levels, guards keep moving around and you need to avoid them while you go about. This is mostly using roofs and the like to get around. The levels are more set up for it – smaller areas, but with places to crawl and hide. It’s quite well done and keeps the game tense, which really suits the thieving mood.

The story draws on this as well, with some quite cool cutscenes and a Batman-like way of telling the stories – in parts, you have some quite Arkham Asylum-feeling bits, though obviously more cartoony and humorous rather than grim dark. It’s done quite well and there is more of a world here that’s interesting enough.

Final Thoughts

At first, the fact that we have a semi-mascot platformer here would draw comparisons to the like of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, but clearly the ideas have moved on. Sly 2 gives us a fun stealth game, using the action platformer formula, but focusing on that one element and making it the best version of it.

#763 GrimGrimoire

Posted: 24th January 2020 by Jeroen in Games
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840th played so far

Genre: Strategy
Platform: Playstation 2
Year of Release: 2007
Developer: Vanillaware/Nippon Ichi
Publisher: Nippon Ichi/NIS America/Koei

With GrimGrimoire, I continue my exploration of strategy games on the console. While a game like Halo Wars draws on the RTS genre, it looks like GrimGrimoire draws more on the likes of Dungeon Keeper, less units with more individuality. The magic angle certainly makes it look like there’s more there.

Our Thoughts

While the game feels like Dungeon Keeper, the first impression comes from the almost visual-novel style story that is being told – longer introduction that, at first, serve to introduce a bunch of characters. There’s a good reason why it does that later in the story, with some weird time mechanics that feel like a story that is more interesting to explore. It ties into your magic progression as well, in a way that shows how much more you’re learning while giving the characters a chance to settle into different stories.

When you get to the strategy game – which happens sooner in some cases than in others – it builds up the challenge quite nicely. You build ruins that allow you to summon creatures, not too different from other RTS buildings, but with smaller teams that are constrained by your resources. As you go on, you get to learn more spells and runes, which unlock further creatures and spells. It means there is a good explanation for your progression – explained by the story taking place in a magic academy. Because of that, you also get a playing field that’s vertical rather than horizontal, which makes the travel between floors quite a bit more interesting.

The units feel quite distinct as well, with some heavy hitters and faster units. There’s a big difference in movement as well, whether they can fly or not, and that really helps a lot to define them. Most interesting is the dragon, which is expensive and time consuming to summon, but it’s amazingly strong. The level where it’s introduced puts you against some, while teaching you some lessons on how to handle them as well. It feels good and stays a lot of fun.

Final Thoughts

The magic angle, with its summoning runes and other restrictions, make for a game that’s a lot more interesting to play and explore. When digging deeper, you see a lot in common with other strategy games, but somehow it feels distinct enough to stand out. It’s a game I want to dive bak into, not in the least because the story of the game is different enough to catch my attention.

#412 Mr. Driller

Posted: 20th January 2020 by Jeroen in Games
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839th played so far

Genre: Puzzle
Platform: Arcade
Year of Release: 1999
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco

As the last of this batch of Dreamcast games (for now – the real last one of the batch needs some more time to play), Mr. Driller has always reminded me of early list game Drill Dozer – drilling through coloured blocks to advance through a level. Mr. Driller, however, is a puzzler using these elements – probably a bit simpler at its core than the Gameboy Advance game.

Our Thoughts

Forgetting about the Drill Dozer link, which is quite superficial anyway, Mr. Driller is an excellent puzzle game using drilling. You’re standing on top of a pile of blocks that combine when they’re the same colour. You dig out these blocks a group at a time as you try to make your way to the bottom. There are a few things to stop you: You don’t want to be crushed underneath the falling blocks. The physics hold blocks up if they’re held up by at least one other block, so you can get hiding holes created. If you’re boxed in by indestructible boxes on all sides (except above you) and can’t drill out, you’re gone. Then there’s the time pressure from oxygen running out. You can replenish it by collecting pills, but it adds some pressure once you get to higher levels.

There are a few different modes which vary your goals (how deep you need to go and so on) and gameplay details, but the basics obviously stick around. It’s a good, solid system, challenging enough once you get deep enough while still staying fun to work out. There’s something pushing you to speed up at some point, but there’s a balance between that and not getting trapped. At its best, the big blocks falling cause some nice chain reactions as well and it’s satisfying when they pay off, especially in the bonus levels where you only have blocks of two colours.

Final Thoughts

Every time I look at this game, I desperately look for a PC port of the game. I want to play more of it – if I could, I would have played a round right now. Sadly, it doesn’t exist and I’ve had to put the Dreamcast away, so instead I hope I can get back to it next time it comes out.