Delays

If you’d rather skip to the part specifically concerning delayed games, it begins in the third paragraph. These are my uncut thoughts regarding recent (and bygone) video game delays, and I do enjoy a bit of a spiel. 

Unlike concise disquisition and casual small-talk, the concept of just waiting had come – with almost unnatural proficiency – naturally to me. Indeed, I was the only child I’ve ever known to get excited by the prospect of Doctors’ waiting rooms, and perfectly entertained of a Sunday morning by sitting on the bottom step of my house, suspended in the close surveillance of spiders, cars, occasional street animals – and the very occasional human being. I was a regular traffic-staring cat, resigned to windowsills and garden patios to cast extraordinarily emphatic stares to whomever might be passing at the given moment. The postman was positively overjoyed to shunt our share of bills through our letterbox each morning, only to find the child from Insidious staring bemusedly up at him – unmoving – through the warped textures of front door glass. Not.

My talents for just waiting have dwindled spectacularly since that time. Perhaps it’s the incomprehensible business of contemporary life, or the rapidity at which technology seems to be developing, or my new-found antsiness when presented with time to kill. Waiting just ain’t as fun as it used to be – and it’s only in recent years that I’ve begun to feel the inextricable bite of the delayed game.

Just how unpredictable official launches have transpired to be in recent years (Assassin’s Creed Unity springs irrevocably to mind), I can understand why delays are becoming more of a regularity. Most recently, Uncharted 4′s delay from original 2015 release to May 2016 arguably ensured Naughty Dog gave fans the ending the marvellous Uncharted series deserved. And in my opinion, it ended on a note that encompassed both the Uncharted series and the history of Naughty Dog as a company in a way that balanced fun, humour, nostalgia and authenticity with impressive and evident dedication.

Uncharted 4 Drake and Elena

I suppose when considering a game like Uncharted 4, however, that there’s always going to be something to judge it against. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot to Uncharted 4 that felt fresh (not the least of which was the fluid grappling-hook feature), but when it comes to delays surrounding anticipated new IP’s, I think the stakes raise significantly. That’s why No Man’s Sky leaves me a little apprehensive; a title that’s seen so much excitement over its two years in the public eye that I fear many fans’ expectations could well be misinterpreting what No Man’s Sky – as an explorative, sandbox-adventure game – really is.

(In an interview with Eurogamer, Hello Games developer Sean Murray shares some info on the innumerable japes to be had in the August-assigned No Man’s Sky. You can find it here.)

I’m excited too – I’d even say hyped myself – but apprehensive, and there’s an incredible amount of pressure right now on Hello Games to create something that lives up to the hype. It’s commendable in itself. The nine-year-mystery that is The Last Guardian appears to be in a similar predicament, and with only really enough information about the game to tease, the game’s official launch feels rocky right now (ahead of next week’s E3, that is).

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Just a little longer till I can seek out the domain of the turtle-penguins and be accepted as one of their own. 

So for anyone who enjoys a ramble (I’ll assume that’s indeed you if you’ve read thus far) and is finding it difficult to manage their hype for the delayed, the detained and the dawdling, I want to hark back to one of the most protracted delays seen in video gaming, and how it was worth every moment of postman-deterring traffic-staring.

Valve’s Team Fortress 2 was delayed for almost ten years, and is often considered amongst the likes of Duke Nukem Forever as one of the lengthiest development processes in video gaming. It’s quite spectacular, given that Team Fortress began its life as a Quake mod.
Development for Team Fortress 2 commenced in 1998 after making a switch from Valve’s Quake engine to GoldSrc, with Robin Walker and John Cook at the helm of the game’s development. The duo set to work on a modern, realistic and complex war game, which would comprise numerous innovations like command hierarchies, commanding lookouts, communication networks and even parachute drops over enemy territory. It was – no doubt – impressive for its time, and by the time Team Fortress 2: Brotherhood of Arms (a name that was ultimately cancelled) was showcased during 1999’s E3, Valve’s use of Parametric animation and multi-resolution technology struck as innovative, and incredibly promising.

By 2000, however, the Team Fortress 2 buzz had petered out somewhat, with news surrounding the game’s development becoming more and more threadbare as time ticked on. The delay was likely lengthened by the fact that Valve was simultaneously working on Half Life 2, and, save for a few comments made by Valve marketing director Doug Lombardi and exec Gabe Newell that the game was still happening, all was quiet on the Team Fortress­-front until 2007.

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And by then, boy had things changed. After secretly creating “probably three to four different games” associated with Team Fortress, Valve had agreed on a final design. In those seven years, Team Fortress 2 had gone from gritty modern warfare to Saturday-morning cartoon, and proffered a softer, stylised art style “grounded in the conventions of early 20th century commercial illustration”, with particular inspirations reportedly drawn from J.C Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell and Norman Rockwell.

Looking back at the game, it’s difficult not to compare it to the fast-paced-punch of vibrant titles like Overwatch and Battleborn, because Team Fortress 2 seems to have so evidently influenced them.

Weapons were now less realistic than ridiculous; giving players access to a supercharged armory home to lasers, cannons, nukes and hulking-great missile launchers that often lent a sense of cohesion and diversity to the game’s multiplayer battles. Compared to the grit and mud of Resistance and Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2 was a breath of fresh air, with a clear and simplistic visual design that allowed combat to feel clean and straightforward, without seguing into banality.

Was it worth it? Was it ever. Team Fortress 2 opened to widespread appeal amidst audiences and a deluge of critical appraisal; all whilst snatching a name for itself over time as one of Steam’s most heavily-played multiplayer titles. It was even named amongst IGN’s Best of 2007 for Best Artistic Design, and swept a joint award with Half Life 2 as Game of the Year.  Despite its status as a 2007 game, Team Fortress 2 still looks and feels as fresh as it did upon release, and has seen itself reincarnated in more recently successful multiplayer shooters like Overwatch and Battleborn.

Team Fortress 2 Gameplay 2

If you’re finding yourself pining for No Man’s Sky, or losing hope over the ever-elusive The Last Guardian, perhaps it’s worth remembering that in some cases – certainly in the case of Team Fortress 2 – it’s well worth the wait.

Wait, what? What was that? Duke Nukem Forever? Well…it’s okay. We don’t need to think about that. Not now. Not ever.

Which games are you looking forward to ahead of E3? Do you think the delayed titles will live up to the hype? I’d love to hear your opinion down in the comments.

My Thoughts on Channel 4’s Flowers

A Terrifically Bleak Comedy With Unyielding Empathy.

How suitable for a series heralded by such inherent bleakness to come into the world by way of a cozy storybook rhyme. Here may be “baggles” and “Grubbs”, but Will Sharpe’s Flowers feels about as far-flung from bedtime fancy as can be. Actually, that’s a lie. They feel about half there, with the idyllic shells of folks children might dream about, only to find that these characters have problems far too complex to be able to make sense of all alone.

Indeed, that’s exactly what Flowers seems to exude. It observes the frustration of hopelessness, offering glimpses of quirky cheer and off-the-cuff japes to convince you happiness still – somewhere – exists. But as the six-part tale progresses, I came to understand that it was an assumed cheeriness; an ephemeral comedy, that transcended deeper and deeper into uncertainty by the second. It’s unrestrained, unrelenting and unashamedly odd.

This dark, amusing and mystically sad creature could have only been understood as a comedy, because it’s the only way that ensures the breadth of emotion that confronted me during Flowers’ first episode remained entirely unexpected.

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The show overlooks a country townhouse; a dwelling with all the superficial quirk of a lone holiday cottage, without the comfort of escape. Maurice (Julian Barratt – perfectly cast) is a windblown children’s author; creator of Grubbs, a Lewis-Carrolly series beloved by seemingly all but his stony editors. His wife, Deborah (Olivia Colman), is a try-hard trombone teacher determined to find happiness, whose fitful us she’s also neck-deep in turmoil. Shacked up with them are their squabblesome adult twins (artist Amy (Sophia Di Martino) and inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby)) and Lilliputian Nana ambles along the hallway time to time, in quite her own world. Along for the ride is Maurice’s Asian artist, Shun (Sharpe: maker of tea, giver of compliments, pitcher of incurably raunchy book covers. He’s a peppy spring chicken amidst withered battery hens, but his undervalued presence carries essential weight in this perceptually-warped tale.

This is the Flowers family, who boogie to baroque concertos and bite each other’s heads off at restaurants. But they’re also the Grubbs of Maurice’s books, and the friction the dual-identity causes is both striking and entirely intended. For Maurice’s contemplative, tumty-tum rhymes merely voice what Flowers has us sensing from the very beginning – that no matter how idyllic the rolling countryside hills might look, how many cosily-knitted shawls we see or how ferociously their wearers smile, all is not perfect. Perfect doesn’t even carry weight here.

Flowers is Lovecraftian in in that it takes you inside a vague half-world of maddened townsfolk and creatures of nightmare. The creepy plastic surgeon next door eyes up Deborah’s bone structure, whilst the sympathetic farm-hand makes routine visits to the grave of his late wife with cheese on toast and a bottle of Lea n’ Perrins. Or at least it’s true to say that it doesn’t just do those things. There’s a reason for each and every character’s actions; one that instantly binds our own experiences to them, heedless of our fear of them becoming just that bit too recognisable. There’s one scene in particular, that takes place between the submerged couple, in their thoroughly rained-on car. It’s simple, it’s a line you know is coming, but the weight of self-defeat just. Colman states, “If I don’t know what’s going on with you, I can’t help.” And my heart cries, because Maurice doesn’t really know either. We don’t know either.

Di Martino as Amy begins as a mixture of archetypal teen and aloof artist, keeping to her pant-strewn room, suffering for her art, the ush. But her transmogrification from aloof artist to belaboured empath is inspired, reminding of a blossoming Katherine Parkinson in that she’s as deeply human as she is inextricably odd. Olivia Colman, of course, fits right in, always keeping the viewer at a distance, and allowing her zealous pursuit of happy-families to communicate the distressing (and very real) powerlessness depression is notorious for conjuring up.

And it’s power these characters seem so hungry for, too. They’re fighting tooth-and-nail for some sort of control; to mean something to someone, amid unwavering barrages of criticism (perceived and otherwise). Folks endeavouring for warmth – mere moth people who cosy up to the hurtful, the arrogant, the cold for reassurance, only to find their wings irrevocably, repeatedly, singed.

Flowers 4

But every time you begin to relate, to feel something amidst the numbing chaos, the shouting, the fights and the voices in your head, the show experiences a complete tonal shift. It’s a programme that – unlike most comedies, dramas or lamentably accruing game shows – doesn’t try to make you feel anything. It merely throws feelings at you at such a rapid rate that you come away feeling battered, frustrated, hurt, and ultimately closer to Maurice Flowers than can you could ever expect. It’s a piece of unrelenting empathy. All the while the jittery editing captures moments of blind fury almost in tandem with oppressive intimacy. The latter is decidedly less comfortable; we’re breathed on by sympathetics or browbeat by critics – yet another disastrous effect left in depression’s blue wake.

Flowers is harsh, crushing and inescapably grim. It hurts to watch, but so does connecting to others amidst crippling darkness, and it’s unique as a comedy in that it offers little more than titters to lighten its deepest tragedies. When you realise its tapering dark humour just underscores its psychological themes, it’s not much of a comedy at all. It is, however, one of the most honest expressive contemporary pieces on depression and frustration on television. Narrative cliche already told me that the Flowers family is more than meets the eye. What I didn’t expect was that I was one of them.

Ratchet and Clank Review – Up Your (Half)Arsenal

As the bedroom-dwelling fare of my cupboard and shelf may insinuate, I’m a sucker for a platformer. Having had my heart hacked into early-on by Crash Bandicoot 3 and Super Mario Land, I’ve propelled myself (sometimes with very little sleep and surprisingly vocal excitement) into those late-90’s-early-00’s series heralded by many and enjoyed by even more. And Insomniac’s runny, gunny and crudely funny Ratchet and Clank remains amongst the best series to grace the early noughties. The 2002 original was something of a breakthrough for Insomniac; whilst evidently encumbered with slow character controls and dysfunctional aim system, the series introduced a wry wackiness to the third person shooter. What a shame its silver-screen counterpart contributes no similar notabilities, for it wears its faults on its sleeves whilst keeping its redeeming features firmly out of reach.

Ratchet and Clank grin

Like its interactive better-half, the film reimagines the story of 2002’s shooty-platformer. Ratchet and Clank’s opening moments extend the spanning Solana Galaxy, complete with fizzling subtitles alluding to their various names (Novalis, and so on), before cutting to the first recognisable mug of the series. Chairman Drek – here named Alonzo Drek – plans to explode the populated planets of the galaxy by way of his own personal ‘De-Planetiser’, in order to use the fragments to fashion his very own, perfect planet to house his race, Frankenstein-style.

The rest of the film overlooks the evolution of the plucky, co-titular Lombax, Ratchet – from humble mechanic to hands-down space hero. Ratchet’s attempts to join the Galactic Rangers to help fend off the repugnant Drek are repeatedly shot down by the hopelessly self-enamoured Captain Qwark. Only after a defective repairbot – the scientifically-minded Clank – flees Drek’s intergalactic clutches to promptly crash on Ratchet’s home planet does life turn around for the Lombax mechanic, and between the bot’s logical mind and Ratchet’s tail-to-the-wall bravado.

Visually, the film endeavours to match the clear-fibred looks of the various animal-folk native to other recent animated ventures such as Zootropolis, the intergalactic realms of Ratchet and Clank‘s toonish multiverse is stunningly reformed and remastered, but without the luxury of exploring such a dimension oneself, these worlds can’t help but feel a little alien – and not in an literal, Blargian way.

Ratchet and Clank Space

It sounds much like the premise of a Ratchet and Clank game (something no doubt intended), but over the course of my hour-and-a-half sitting I found myself surprised at just how little Ratchet and Clank the film actually contained. Many moments in the film feel like wasted opportunities to be funny, shoehorning in hyper-relevant social media jokes when a brief cameo from Skid McMarx or the ubiquitous Lizard vendor would’ve charmed so much more. The game’s most prominent aspect – the voluminous arsenal of wacky firearms – was strikingly missed here, instead merely glossed over in a forced gamestyle montage, with the series’ enemies receiving a similar treatment. Whilst the swarming horde of yoo-hoo­ing Zurkon was a fun little nod, conflicts were lacking, and ultimately left me a little deflated considering jaunty lock-n-loads and varied enemy encounters was Ratchet and Clank’s thing.

Of course, that and its winning proclivity for including as many double-entendres into both gameplay and title as humanly (Blargally?) possible. But alas, these were nowhere to be found either. Considering the heightened awareness many films are showing of their audiences (examples might include the recent LEGO Movie and quite nearly all of Pixar’s films), a little naughtiness can be accommodated in many animated films without being clocked by younger audiences. Given that the film is likely aimed at fans of the original game (who’ve since grown into adults quite possibly proficient in the language of the innuendo), I was expecting at least a smattering of nods to some of the series’ bluer titles (Up Your Arsenal remains a favourite of mine). But the closest we get to a euphemism here is a distinctively bum-rushed narrative. Whilst Drek is entertaining and personable, his actions never garner sufficient purpose or intent to drive his maniacal planetary possession. His prompt replacement by the crazed Dr. Nefarious does little to remedy the situation, furthermore, as the filmmakers merely replace a superficial, yet mildly entertaining antagonist with one of lesser substance and none of the supposed charm. Instead, his actions are allowed to revel in a manic futility, with his actions hurriedly trussed up at the end with an explanation more predictable than a secondary school anti-smoking play.

Ratchet and Clank vomit

One positive that can be said of the film is that its cast proffers the pipes of the original Ratchet and Clank alumni. The film is carried by James Arnold Taylor’s Ratchet, and David Kay’re endearingly nonplussed tone as the quizzical repairbot, Clank. Jim Ward also returns, lending a recognisable buffoonishness as the hopelessly doltish Captain Qwark.
Decidedly not returning in this film-of-the-game however is Kevin Michael Richardson as its iron-fisted tyrant, Chairman Drek. The dastardly boots are instead filed by Paul Giamatti, whose childlike exclamations and Plankton-esque sincerity actually make for one of the film’s most enjoyable moments, if not always attaining the gravelly threat that made Richardson’s Chairman Drek a truly formidable dictator.

Following Prince of Persia, DOOM and the condemnable Agent 47, my past experiences with video game adaptations has been somewhat traumatic, so I almost want to commend the film for its competence as a fun and respectful throwback to the original game- but overall it appeared a rickety patchwork of game cutscenes that had been hurriedly stitched together for release, with the evident gaps left for gameplay sections all but filled in with the cinematic equivalent of a sharpie pen. It’s a shame in many ways; even with low expectations, fans of the series will likely find the tie-in for the Ratchet and Clank reboot superficial and disappointing, but the silver lining here is that there’s always the opportunity to play the film in a better-rounded, cohesive PS4 reboot. Not many films have that luxury.

One to Watch: Scanner Sombre

Introversion Software are best known for their gambols in the management and strategy spheres. They showed two currently-in-development prototypes at Rezzed 2016. One, Wrong Wire, was decidedly more traditional in terms of what Introversion usually tends to go for – and perhaps  the reason it saw a little more action during the session was that it appealed to the studio’s wider fanbase. The inquisitive narrative-junkie I am, however, I found myself instantaneously more attracted to their other showcased work in progress, Scanner Sombre. 

It’s mostly an exploration game, in which you’re plonked down into a pitch-dark cave and left to find your way around, by use of the thermal scanner that exists as your only tool in the game. Perhaps a given, thermo-vision is heavily resorted to; a very simple concept that strikes as incredibly atmospheric, and more than a little disquieting. Using the mouse and WASD keyboard controls, you meander about a (for now) simple system of tunnels, illuminating the cave interior as you go. Rock surfaces, stairwells and rickety rope bridges greeted me suddenly in vibrant, granulated display, and as the scroll wheel can be used to control how widely the device scans, some entered areas felt more secretive and dangerous than others.

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It doesn’t feel like a game that’d hammer you over the head with just how much player choice there is, but Scanner still has the potential to become complex and diverse. You could choose to illuminate entire areas before you even enter an alcove and enjoy the scratchy gallery in full, or revel in the unknown and light only the footways that lie directly ahead. This vague sense of choice could, with further development) yield different trajectories, with potential to discover different items or uncover secrets. There is the potential for a unique adventure each time within this simple gimmick – environments just need to be more expansive and interconnected.

Despite its overtly exploratory basis, there are glimpses of a narrative within Scanner’s hauntingly granular world. This vibrant, painter-palette world is space-like and undeniably beautiful, but it’s only until you’re confronted with the possibility that you might not be alone here that things begin to get frightening. The scanner brings the power of vision, but it doesn’t allow you to see fully, and when my potholing exploits were interrupted by some strange, immobile, Dr. Who-weeping-angel-type being, I was rendered – at least partially – vulnerable.

Who (or indeed what) the figure is remained to be seen, but it certainly raises questions about the playable protagonist. Are we playing ourselves in this FPS-perspectived world, or are we somebody else. If so, the figure could mean a variety of different things, including the character’s history, relationships and importantly: mental state.

It’ll certainly be interesting to find out

There are a few environmental issues that prevent the player from moving smoothly from area to area on occasion, but on the whole Introversion offered a solid prototype, with more than a few questions attached. With a lot of development, Scanner Sombre’s gameplay could quite potentially be blown wide open, with the effervescent darkness serving potential puzzle elements, whilst its elusive exposition regarding the playable character is what has me most intrigued. Being a prototype, it’ll probably be a while before word of an official release surfaces, but right now the demo was enough to ponder upon.

I can wait.

EGX Rezzed 2016 – Watchers and Wonders

I can’t believe how time has flown recently. As summer defiantly rushes on (the notion of No Man’s Sky frothily accompanying it no less), the past week has seen my first official event coverage as a journalist, planning regarding University, a whole lot of writing and one isolated occasion on which I was forced to flee for my life as a band of raucous NERF-ers hunted me down Hunger Games-style.

Figuratively, of course, for birthday occasions and death don’t usually mix unless you happen to be an orcish War Chief. But I wasn’t taking any chances. Outside the realms of FPS, my reflexes aren’t all that and I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I resorted to the mud-streaked army crawl on multiple occasions. I was, if nothing else, incredibly well camouflaged by the end.

Back to said event, however. 2016’s been called The Year of VR, and whilst it’s true that this year’s EGX Rezzed housed multiple titles propelling players into the multiverse of the headset, I’m not so sure virtual reality will take off immediately. Rezzed served as partial confirmation of that – highlighting the restrictions the VR headset still proposes with some still quite enthralling and interesting upcoming concepts in their own right.

The event comprised a slew of other promising fare too, though, and ranged from quaking-nostalgic throwbacks to haunting explorations, to pre-released games I wasn’t expecting to enjoy quite so much as I did.

So, in such spirit, I’ll be condensing (if that is the right word given my tangential tendencies) my thoughts into a list not unlike my Most Anticipated Games of 2016, the very first of which will follow shortly.

 

Retrokick – Earthbound

It’s been a while since the last Retrokick. I know, almost two months since my last headlong collision with the saccharine walls of my childhood. Shocking. Discontented pensioners should be collecting at the end of my road, locked in hushed discussion about my sudden living in the moment, allowing only the occasional “Oh I know” and, “Absolutely appalling” to waft its way through my perpetually ajar window. But to tell you the truth, the switch-up’s quite…bracing, it turns out.

I was hit, however, by a particularly strong waft of blast-from-the-pastitude after rewatching Rob Reiner’s 1987 film Stand By Me. Dark, folkish, wayward with a discernible maturity, the King adaptation has always held amongst my top coming-of-age films. And despite Ape Inc’s Earthbound attracting most of its praise from its satirical nature, it’s very much a game that instilled that same juvenile precocity when I locked buttons with the 1994 RPG after it launched on Nintendo’s Virtual Console.

Earthbound might for me be an endearing, refreshingly witty JRPG, but it’s also incredibly relevant today. Gaming and self consciousness has attracted more in-depth discussion currently than has ever been, and the reflexivities of Metal Gear Solid, The Stanley Parable, Undertale and most recently Daniel Mullins’ Pony Island, have had their hands in developing gaming not just as a form of entertainment, but one of creative expression.

And considering that all this has happened in very recent years  (Pony Island only having released two months ago), it’s rather innovative ( not to mention brave) of Ape Inc. to have produced a concept so fresh and challenging as Earthbound.

 

As the second in the now-cult-favourite Mother series, Earthbound‘s very inception could very easily have been canned. The Mother series was dreamt up by one of Japan’s top slogan writers, Shigesato Itoi, whose advertising line for Seibu Department Store remains one of most prominent in the Japanese advertising industry. As well as landing a voice acting role in My Neighbour Totoro, Itoi had co-written songs with the Oscar-wining Ryuichi Sakamoto and a collection of short stories with Haruki Murakami, who just so happened to be one of the country’s best loved contemporary writers.

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Actually, I don’t remember this self-proclaimed ‘photographic genius’ giving Ness the pictures. Did he just stalk a young gang of children, obsessively capturing their adventures?

Understandably, Nintendo eventually approached him in 1987 to write the slogan for one of its games. Itoi, however, agreed on the condition that they allow him to pitch his idea for his own video game: Mother. Despite his creative portfolio, however, Itoi was turned away by the company’s best known developer, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a high-profile games enthusiast, rather than an artistic prospective designer. It was only later that Itoi recovered his chances. Itoi was called back by Miyamoto, having been instructed by Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to inform the seminal sloganer (whom Yamauchi heavily respected) that his idea had been successful.

Mother’s success continued, too, selling nearly 500,000 copies in Japan. After a sequel was planned, Itoi set to work with Kirby’s HAL Laboratory, and suffered technical difficulties to say the very least. Earthbound was worked for four years, and after multiple developmental set-backs, the remarkable Satoru Iwata was brought in to lend his development expertise.
And of course, here Mother 2 is. It was finished, and released in Japan in 1994, a year later in the US as Earthbound. Of all things, the ambitious SNES title was advertised through the olfactory medium of the scratch-n-sniff.

Those cards of what can only be described as compressed death, that all too often laced the underside of your fingernails with eau de rotten egg, or something equally repulsive. It evoked curiosity, but together with slogans like “Earthbound. It’s like living inside your gym shoes” and “Earthbound. The first Role-Playing Game with BO”, adverts didn’t offer much in the way of enticement, even if the satire within the game’s description was markedly apparent. The game’s cheery art style wasn’t held highly in the States either, and along with its vague marketing campaign, Earthbound struck both as unfashionable and unpromising at the time. Quite ironic considering the huge success of the similarly styled Pokémon Red and Blue only two years later, with no graphical criticisms in sight.

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Earthbound‘s narrative strikes initially as a nod to the coming-of age film. Ness, the incurably inquisitive protagonist of this double-sided adventure is woken one night by a meteor landing, and obviously feels compelled to check it out. The id of the child. Upon discovering that the fallen chunk of rock now native to his back garden is rather the vessel of powerful spacebeing named Buzz Buzz (because of course he is), Ness learns that his idyllic 1960’s hometown is under invasion by intergalactic warlord, Giygas, who intends to enslave the Earth. What ensues is a shared quest between a psychic girl, a firearm-handy genius, a perpetually-frowning distant prince, and an incredibly determined young man, as they traverse various cities and civilisations to thwart Giygas and save the Earth. An average plot, but communicated with remarkable boldness and even bolder flair. A shame, considering its self-effacing marketing struck as little more than a cheap joke.

The quaintly tiled visuals might’ve been unimpressive for the SNES, but where the anterior Secret of Mana and Illusion of Gaia opted more for *proportionate character design, Earthbound’s visual predilections assume instead a decidedly Charlie Brown direction. As I guided my motley crew of children across Halloween-party ghost towns and strange cults lead by paintbrush-headed townsfolk, the knee-bobbing piano licks of Peanuts hummed reminiscently at the back of my mind.

Lassie

Much of the humour in Earthbound stems from its observation of a world where kids appear to run the show. Not in a despotic, We Need to Talk About Kevin way, for adults certainly aren’t lacking, or much controlled. They just don’t care as much as we might expect them to. Against Earthbound‘s waggish crayon art style furthermore, it’s not just noticeable – it’s startlingly funny.

Your own mother tells you to ‘Go for it!’ as you embark on your adventure with no certainty of return, because she knows you’ll just defy her anyway – as is the instinctual impudence of any gamer. She also knows you’re playing a game, as does seemingly everyone in Eagleton, many of whom occasionally let the illusion of this Trumanesque world to slip every now and then, with its smarting jabs towards at the player and gaming traditions. Honesty is Earthbound‘s driving characteristic, and given reflexivity in gaming has only started to trend recently, you can imagine this drove quite the rift between the peculiar SNES title and…well, just about every JRPG going at the time.

And it wasn’t just a distinctive quality that made Earthbound notable. Whilst there was nothing quite like Earthbound at the time, its wryly literal humour and deceptively Utopic art style has since fed through into a plethora of other games, both within and beyond the realms of Nintendo. Majora’s Mask, Animal Crossing, Retro City Rampage are just a few titles that revelled afterwards in intentional kookiness, and there’s a little more than a mere taste of Earthbound in all of them. Heck, it even inspired South Park: The Stick of Truth. The game as a foundation for quirkier titles cannot be overlooked, and whilst the form is somewhat taken for granted nowadays, back in 1994, it was a huge risk for APE to take. I’m ultimately glad they took it. I bet Miyamoto is too.

Dungeon Dev

Beneath its smarting, referential tone and beguiling writing though, Earthbound is a relatively standard turn-based RPG. You can attack, defend and use consumables to regenerate health, as well as equip a variety of weapons in between enemy attacks. Levelling up and increasing character health and strength is noticeably easier than in other RPG’s, with experience points being awarded voluminously, even for reasonably straight-forward encounters.

I’ve never been one for turn-based combat, but battles with some of the weaker, yet more persistent enemies often felt unnecessarily drawn out. I found myself resorting to the ‘AUTO’ function after one too many Runaway Dog encounters, and since most opponents possess idiosyncacies and tendencies, this leaves combat feeling predictable, monotonous and occasionally mundane. The original’s lack of save points could also become frustrating; throw in as many quirkily-penned lines as you like, when you’re constantly oscillating between your next big location and finding a damned hotel to save your progress, gameplay can feel restricted by just how time-consuming this transpires to be.
Fortunately (or perhaps not, considering the power of first impressions), most of these instances occur early on, and gradually sputter out as the story develops.

Ruffini

Something I really did appreciate, as a veritable un-frequenter of turn-based bashing, however, was Earthbound’s neglect of random encounters. I’ve always felt interrupted at the prospect of random encounters in an RPG, so much so that Pokémon regrettably continues to be one of the most unnecessarily frustrating games I’ve ever played. But allowing enemies to be visible whilst exploring the battle ground aided Earthbound’s pacing unanimously, even including the option to outrun larger enemies should Ness’s health dip too low.

Another favourite quirk of mine is its constant mockery of the empowered player. Rub a possessed toadstool the wrong way and it might just muss up your control scheme, leaving Ness floundering freely into rocks, trees and all manner of townsfolk as you try earnestly to control him. And don’t worry, it’ll leave you just long enough to suss things out before inevitably re-muddling it all over again.

Earthbound never really lacks originality or character, it’s more the issue of design and technical issues clouding its kooky charms. Amongst the most beguiling is its soundtrack; a peppy, rosy-cheeked, shoulder-twitching, nostalgia-rousing chipset collection that often does as much to reference underlying themes as the words of its odd little folk.

Mini Barf

As I mentioned earlier, it does try its best to be honest with you. Beneath the boppy muzack symphony lies a darker, suspended set of notes; ones that escape every now and then to merely hint that there could be something deeper going on. Today, I’m oddly reminded of the static interruptions and bassy monotones of David Fincher’s Fight Club, although that particular dose of satire didn’t come till ’99.

But alas, playing Earthbound for any of these things alone is a little like watching JJ Abrams’ Super Eight just for the aliens. It’s the wider awarness that makes it. Not just within genre and archetype references, but of the communities that thrive within those genres and know those archetypes well. Earthbound still retains, for the most part (although the Toby Foxotrons, Foxlings, or whatever else they may or may not like to be referred to have since turned to enjoy the delights of Undertale’s influential Daddy), something of a cult status. As of this moment, it’s still incredibly niche, but given its recent release on Nintendo’s Virtual Console (and I have a sneaking suspicion the aforementioned skeleton-dating sim partially influenced that) and the increasing vocality around commentative video games, Earthbound could enjoy some- I think quite deserved – post-millenial praise.

Group

*considering the visual constraints of the SNES era and the technological advancement consoles and PC has seen since, it can be problematic to claim either game was particularly or remarkably proportionate, but we’ll keep the comparison here between SNES games to avoid any unwarranted or potentially violent eventualities.

A Level Spiral – Games, Worry and Universe City

There is nothing quite so inconsiderate, inconvenient and immodestly defeating as worry. Countless hours lay tallied up before me, intermingled into the inevitable milestones and benchmarks of my, admittedly, young life- an accumulation more formidably impressive than any of my feverish hoardings across Fallout, The Witcher, and anything even remotely Elder Scrollsian. 

It’s often during these increasingly common moments of sudden awareness – of my irrational flittering like some crazed squirrel with only half an idea of what it really should be doing – that I can observe my attraction to gamerdom. At least partially, that is. Games aren’t always escapist

It’s true that this bothersome, frustratingly human affliction has been increasing recently, for a rather quite logical reason. In just over six months, I’ll be packing up my bags (more importantly everything related to handheld gaming), books and exactly thirty pairs of underpants to venture off to University, like the optimistic young duckling I am.

Ness in Super Mario Maker.jpg

And it is exciting, don’t get me wrong. I’m looking forward to an (well at least more of an) independent lifestyle to what I’m used to – and the prospect of embracing change is now coming as something of a pleasant eventuality, rather than the experience I’ve always associated with losing all my save data on a heavily invested RPG for the second time in six months. Such experiences must’ve hardened me for the outside world. Who said games could never contribute to one’s life?

But as looky-forward to-y it is, it’s also understandably nerve racking. It’s anxiety (often, anyhow) that can cause a person to get into something of an enormous rut. For me, anxiety breeds a desire for predictability, for everything to be nice and expectable, but the methods that often coincide with such pseudo-comfort is a secondary interpretation of feeling ‘trapped’. It’s manageable and predictable, even comfortable, but it’s not necessarily any more pleasant, especially when taken to extremes. And it’s funny that I’ve only now just noticed how much the precious elusivity of the game worlds I retreat into have helped surface that – until now – quite dormant tendency towards structure.

Settlement

It’d be a little rainy, but the reverberation would be stupendous.

Days have passed before now on which the sole itinerary was to subdivide my orchards by fruit and managing my bank account, of all things, on Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Not to mention the literal double-life I lived playing anything sprung from Todd Howard’s brilliantly open-world mind (the Bethesda director will be earning his Lifetime Achievement Award today, as it happens). Most recently, my penchant for all things steel in Fallout 4 has allowed me to build a seven-storey complex that I’m quite sure mimics what I will be staying in at The Ultimate Big School, except containing considerably less washing-up and a quite noticeably stronger aroma of pizza, dish-soap and breath. Not mine, of course. That would be unstudious, and wrong. 

But even in the midst of what can very easily become a timorous spiral into the realms of impending irrationalities and unlikely-likelihoods, it’s oddly my old linear friends that highlight the – in reality – equal opportunity for balance. Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Tomb Raider (both retro and contemporary greats) bring me as much joy in the present moment as they did when I first played them, and those times have always marked incredible periods of balance and contentment, despite various inevitable changes having been made in my life between the now and the then. Somehow they help bring back to light that despite the oncoming ‘Big Change’ (meaning neither the menopausal, nor lycanthropic change, but the moving from home), once it happens, once adjustment, admin and accommodation has been verily sorted out, balance will naturally restore itself. Sometimes it’s difficult to conceive of a better future in the midst of a panic attack, or a period of gloom, but much in contrast to the claims that gaming provides exclusively escape, my Playstation companions have rather encouraged a little more awareness; awareness that can help jog the ‘downward spiral’ to at least keep it level. A level spiral.

And I anticipate many of my regular homecomings will allow me to feel closer to my family than ever before. In addition to ‘separation makes the heart grow fonder etc’ aphorism, I’ll be able to connect with my parents more as an adult, rather than just their child. Because, naturally, I’ll be doing more grown uppy things to supplement my rampant endeavours betwixt the 3DS, PSVita and Steam whilst defiantly alcoved within the folds of some blanket fort or other outside study hours. Perhaps I’m getting fancifully overworked a bit. Blanket.

bill haverchuck

 And I’m sure each of my (what I’ll anticipate now as relatively regular) homecomings will prove times of great re-connection and unity, before I undoubtedly race into my bedroom on the insistence that no one should disturb me, as I engage in some long awaited me-time. Not what you might be thinking, of course, for that particular activity remains one of the most portable practices in the world today – and, might I add, more immersive than the HTC Vive rabidly claims to be.

No, I’ll be taking the DualShock 4 in my extensively textbooked hands after a lengthy separation due to having no television to accomodate it, and launching myself onto one of No Man’s Sky’s 18 quintillion planets, or unintentionally squashing, impaling, shooting, decapitating, drowning or otherwise irking poor Lara Croft as I discover the PS4’s version of Rise of the Tomb Raider. And it won’t be much different than now – except that I’ll get to sit on trains for a while longer and teach my less-than-technologically fluent mother the arcana of Skype.

There is of course the mindlessly hefty financial side to living away. Despite all Fallout 4 has taught me of late, shacking up in a network of cleverly linked tents outside the school accommodations for ‘economical reasons’ tends to be somewhat frowned upon, even in such places as a University. This is where simulator games like Animal Crossing, The Sims and even a production-sim game from yonks ago The Movies (created by none other than the recently shut down Lionhead Studios), come in. Budgets, structures and savings has always come naturally to me, and I wonder how much of that was encouraged by having grown up with these games. Images of stocky anthropomorphic animals, or the anxious protests of my sims as they fled from an unscheduled fire in their kitchen, certainly come to mind when I begin to think about money.

Fire.jpg

Would now be a good time to mention that it was my aunt’s game save at the time?

But nevertheless, to one extent or another, they’ve prepared me, at least in an extremely elementary way, to be conscious about my various spendings and prospective irrationalities, so for their alleged contribution to that, I can only be grateful. As Sans of Undertale would probably say: All ’bout the determination, kid,