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.

Team Fortress 2 Gameplay.jpg

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.

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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.

scanner_sombre

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.

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.

Photo

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,

 

My Favourite Mothers Across the Gamepad, Mouse and Screen

SPOILER WARNING: I discuss some of the characters from Archer, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bates Motel and Undertale here, and some of these points might be interpreted as spoilers. I also highly recommend watching and/or playing these titles, too, if you’re looking for a little extra Mum to ferment your maternal Sunday exploits. Enjoy!

Ah, Mother’s Day. A day I don’t receive direct joy from, as I am neither beloved caretaker of mischievous sprogs nor the correct sex to be considered such in the future. But none of that matters. What I do find irrevocable joy in is the annual celebration of those who truly deserve it.

Maybe I should explain. Because we’re English, there’s an unspoken boundary on affection. In order to retain the taught, stately reserve that has come to stereotypically preserve us over the years, there has to be a day in which we get all that out, have a nice cup of tea, and then pull back into our own self-contained bubbles of quiet reverence.

Okay, so perhaps it’s just so Clintons Cards can make its yearly shift in its surplus of heart-shaped cushions. The era of quiet reverence died a death a long time ago. But in spirit of all of that – both obligatory and genuine – maternal homage, I invite you all to give your mothers a little love. Give her a hug. Write her a card. Shower her with beguilingly awful renditions of her face translated into macaroni. And I’ll share my favourite mothers across the realms of pop culture.

Bates Motel – Norma Bates

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I was initially going to give the limelight to the original villain of Bloch’s classic thriller Psycho – but there was something to be admired about Vera Farmiga’s intensely human portrayal of such an integral antagonist to the horror genre. The ‘backstory of the baddie’ story arc certainly isn’t new to TV and film nowadays, but in my experience it’s rarely done in a way that invokes real true empathy, and in the case of Bates Motel’s Mother Dearest, Norma’s desperate dominance over her adolescent son is always supported by her introspective fragility. The desire for control and power is driven by the feeling of helplessness, and Norma’s very much still a tortured child trapped in an adult mother’s body. Farmiga supports her character’s rapid swings between snide venom and self-defeat fantastically, and it’s rarely ever I get to view a wicked character as just an incredibly hurt soul free from the trappings of cliché.

Archer – Malory Archer

Malory Archer

Yes. The cantankerous, gin-swindling, intolerably elitist matriarch herself. Although a ‘mother’ only in the legal, Daisy Fay-esque sense, this cut-throat curmudgeon is so irrevocably on my favourites list that it often truly astounds me. She’s egomaniacal, she’s unprofessional, and she’s an incurably bad mother to her son and  H. Jon Benjamin’s crude play on Bond, Sterling Archer. Perhaps most noticeable beneath her hollow-cheeked facade, though, is her persistent proclivity for getting shit done. Although laughably aggravating, she’s perhaps the most capable mind working under Archer’s fictional secret special-ops branch ISIS (the name of which was promptly dropped upon its sixth season, for reasons I don’t think need to be detailed). For that, I can only give her kudos, and cut from the offensive heart of Arrested Development’s Lucil Bluth, the very same Jessica Walter translates her usual shruggish humour to the super-secret spy table deliciously.

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Eva Khatchadourian

Eva

If there’s something Tilda Swinton does well, it’s frost-like exterior. Even Narnia allowed her to parade her icy talents within the , but I’ve always been more interested in the concealed breakdown the refrigerator veneer strives to keep hidden. Swinton really does this in her role in We Need to Talk About Kevin, as the isolated mother of a psychopathic child, who becomes determined to prove to her son that she cannot be broken, despite Kevin’s increasingly dark pursuits. The ending scene remains one of the most powerful for Eva; as she confronts her imprisoned son after his murder of her husband and young girl, she strides towards him and wraps him in the tightest hug you would’ve thought possible for a human being so repeatedly bludgeoned. She realises her past mistakes as a contributor to Kevin’s psychopathy, and rather than fleeing him, by hugging him she convinces her son that all his past exploits to make her life miserable have been in vain. She de-validates him and his life’s work, in the guise of the stereotypical mother-son cocoon. It’s marvelously acted, and the power of the scene holds today as one of my favourite Mother’s Day scenes, demonstrating both female and maternal power.

Undertale – Toriel

Toriel

Possibly the most conventional mother to make it onto the roster is good-old Toriel from Undertale. From the very beginning, Toriel is sweet, nurturing and welcoming, despite her full knowledge that the race you belong to forced her underground to live amongst the dirt. She carries the primary theme of forgiveness in Undertale; something that ignites its further emphases on empathy, humanity and equality. But remember Norma Bates? There’s always something darker lingering just beneath the surface, and Toriel is one of the strongest vessels to carry some of Undertale’s most foreboding atmospheres. Her pressing phone calls that ask only if you like Cinnamon or Butterscotch pie have you questioning her motives from the beginning, but the fact you get no real confirmation holds this sense of foreboding entrancingly in motion. When I encountered her during my first (‘un-true’ pacifist) run, it was one of the first instances that convinced me of Undertale’s scarily capricious nature, and as I was forced (I say forced, because initial gameplay appears to sway the player towards killing Toriel) to slay her unforgivingly, her final words were, most understandably, heart-wrenching. It’s strange; I knew I was being swayed to commit the act of killing her (perhaps in order to fully experience Undertale’s overall messages and questions surrounding gaming’s ‘obsession’ with violence), but I still felt responsible; something that proves vital in carrying over the main question that appears to permeate Undertale’s seemingly adorable front: Is killing the best possible way of dealing with enemies? Are enemies really what we’re dealing with here?

Who are your favourite mothers? Have you any plans for the Day of the Mum? Let me know in a comment. 

A Link Between Worlds – Possibly the Best Handheld Zelda Game

Zelda, as a whole, is a series I never seem to tire of. As noticeable, distinctive and overtly recognisable the games are, hearing the sprightly trills of The Lost Woods or the assertive jingle of a solved puzzle – no matter how many times I might’ve heard it – gets me as worked up as a caffeinated cucco. So much so, indeed, that I spent two years of my youth sipping beverages almost exclusively from a jar. But although my days of milk-sipping have passed, I look back on the Zelda franchise with an excitement that never appears to waver. Consequently, it’s games like A Link Between Worlds that reassure me that Nintendo are determined to keep the series fresh, and despite its ultimately nostalgic tone, this portable release trumped Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks for flair, character and novelty.

Link Between Worlds Zora Queen

It Knows How to Laugh

From the very beginning, it’s clear to see where Link Between Worlds’ allegiances lie. Overlooking a vibrant 3D rendition of Hyrule’s original design, visuals are the very first to surprise, with wry little nods to previous games surging beneath its newfangled surface. From the original Zelda soundtrack thundering along to your adventures to the unassuming Majora’s Mask hanging in your room, A Link Between Worlds is as just as in love with the series as its fans, whilst distancing itself enough to keep gameplay fresh and innovative.

The story revolves around the main antagonist Yuga, a warlock of amusing evil with a discernible penchant for classic art. After having transformed Link to the Past’s Seven Sages into Romanesque paintings, the revered Hero of Time is called upon once again to free them to defeat Yuga, and thwart his intent to reanimate the unmistakable Beast King, Ganon.

Despite his mostly top-down portrayal, Yuga maintains a scrumptiously wicked facade, and over my time with A Link Between Worlds, I found myself laughing aloud whenever the. It’s plain to see that Nintendo had had a more jovial tone in mind than to say, Majora’s Mask or Twilight Princess, and with campy humour on full-throttle, I found coming to Link Between Worlds from some of the darker or tenser games a positive breath of fresh air.

Link Between Worlds Yuga

It Tickles Your Nostalgia

The art style offers a refreshing contemporary spin on the original, top down Hyrule; something that roots A Link Between Worlds more with the original series than its Wind Waker-esque counterparts of Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. As a result, Link Between Worlds felt more like a Zelda game than previous handheld titles – and it’s noticeably more memorable because of it.

Troutish Zora and galumphing moblins all make their reprise in Link Between Worlds, and in fully polygonal form. It’s a joy to watch the foes of my original conquests sprawling about in glorious 3D; even if lock-on and aiming issues still persist, and Link’s elegant, portrait form conjures warm memories of the sprite that housed his original Hylian spirit.

Even if you’re not into the series, it’s a game that represents a variety and ingenuity that first appealed in the Zelda games, allowing it to stand perfectly accessible to series newcomers. From generous pepperings of recognisable Teklites and Sandcrabs, to Hyrule castle’s portraits peering upon the origins of Link himself, A Link Between Worlds respectfully homages its own history, whilst proffering to newcomers a stylish looking-glass into the nostalgic history its ancestors created.

Link Between Worlds Ganon artwork

It’s as Freeing as a Nude Summer Walk

Amidst non-portable ravings over The Witcher 3’s rollicking exploration and Far Cry Primal’s paleolithic expanses, A Link Between Worlds evokes a similar freedom that’s rarely done so well in a handheld title. With no official markers or routes pointing the way, you’re left free to explore the luxurious stretches of Hyrule, adopting ample amounts of Link to the Past’s inquisitive charm.

This being said, this certainly isn’t a mere respectful reboot; the introduction of new systems and strategies invoke a remarkable freshness to A Link Between Worlds’ gameplay. You’re flippantly badgered by Ravio, a bunny-hooded salesman who offers a range of secondary weapons to use at your discretion. You can opt, fo 50 rupees, to rent an item, which must be re-rented once Link dies, or purchase it for upwards of 800. Whilst occasionally you might need to postpone your pursuit of illustrious potions to fund your rented inventory, rupees are abundant enough in Link Between Worlds to ensure the practice doesn’t become grindsome, and the eventual chance to buy a selection of weapons makes level traversal more varied, interesting and ultimately liberating than perhaps it ever has.

A Link Between Worlds’ main gimmick is the Merge mechanic. In this installment, Link can spiritually fuse with numerous walls in the game, allowing the player to edge fluidly . The ease with which merging is made possible opens up new ways to confront discovered territories and across the course of the game, merging becomes less optional accessory, more second-nature. This is made especially admirable by the game’s complimentary level design. Worlds are constructed to conceal hidden treasure, items or realms; so much so that melting into walls becomes as reflexive and as engaging as simply using one’s average, Hylian legs.

Link Between Worlds Portrait

There’s no clear-cut way to clear a palace or wander a dungeon (a notion merging seems to cement), and although puzzles have defined solutions, you’re more than welcome to find other ways to nab keys and unlock chests. For example, a cavern that has you using cuccos to glide safely onto platforms is just as easily navigable – if not more so – by breaking out the Tornado Rod to use instead. Instead of taking intricate tours of mountain surfaces in painting form, you can Hookshot your way unto glory. And treasure.

Another prime difference between A Link Between Worlds and its referenced grandfathers is that secondary weapons can be used infinitely. Whilst prior games had the player scouring the land for ammo or rupees once supplies began to run dry, your only restriction here is the ‘energy bar’, which is depleted each time a weapon is used and takes only a brief time to regenerate. It cut out what often drew me away from past games; I sighed at the notion of annoying fetch quests, and the prospect of scrounging with all my might to gather oh-so-precious bombs began to make me feel ever so slightly woozy. There’s a lot more time to explore in Link Between Worlds because of this, and ultimately it’s the least compromised fun I’ve had with a portable Zelda title.

link between worlds hookshot.jpg

It’s Still Zelda, Just Fluffier

I suppose the risk with such a game as A Link Between Worlds is its comparison to the titles it homages. And when doing so, you’re inevitably going to find a few snags. Despite the undeniable beauty of A Link Between Worlds’ vibrant, polygonal world, the sense of majesty I felt trudging the realms of A Link to the Past was noticeably blunted. Of course, the previous angularities of the S/NES sprite are considered obsolete in terms of new Zelda games, but their efficacy at creating a foreboding atmosphere was something that greatly intensified the grace and mystery of the originals, in addition to their innovative features. Whilst there’s certainly no shortage of clever mechanics, intricate design and challenging boss battles in A Link Between Worlds, it’s all decidedly cute, and the softened world somewhat undermined the primitive danger Hyrule possessed prior.

Link to the Past boss

Commendably Caught Between Worlds

Luckily, rarely is Zelda a game enjoyed for visuals alone, and the game’s merits lie far beyond its superficial design. A reverent hark back to its admired predecessors, it’s a game that flaunts its roots whilst striving to build upon the open, freeing conventions the Zelda series forged for itself. Proffering a storyline with uncompromising humour, A Link Between Worlds bursts with the same hallmark sense of character that rendered me incalculably enchanted by Zelda in the first place, albeit with a lighter heart and a sharper grin.

Monster Hunter: Then and Now

Monster Hunter is a painfully misunderstood series. Indeed, I’ve never played a game so adamant to undermine its own gaming ethos through its complicated design choices. But its technical oddities, for many, have contributed to a challenge level many have dedicated their time and sanity to navigating, and with veritable ‘Felyne’ prowess. And yet, I just can’t stay away from it. It’s retained a cultural atmosphere so reassuring that it inspires me to keep fighting, even if those wonky camera controls frustrate and impede.

Monster Hunter 4 1

So having ventured from the realms of the PSP’s Freedom Unite, I went ahead and obtained its younger brother. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the latest installment in the ambivalent franchise to come to the West, and in many ways, the most accessible. But despite making some admirable leaps in some places, it displays much of the challenge and caprice (and distinct frustration) of its Playstation-infused roots.

What’s fair to say of the series is that since the release of Freedom Unite, it’s beguiling to see Capcom having fun with it. Character creation, whilst not Bethesda-esque, is noticeably more varied, sporting some humorously obscure expressions that affords a brief titter before the hunting raucous begins.

You’re equipped with a feline friend to aid your hunting quests now too, and although Felynes could be called upon in Freedom Unite’s times of need, it’s fun and ultimately more beginner-friendly, to know you’ve your own miniature soldier – a Palico – to deploy when times are dire. Mine’s called Crakajak. He’s a ginger tabby. Yes, he wears a waistcoat. And yes, he is adorable.

Also, about that pig. Totally still there.

poogie

A similar friendliness struck me upon the starting quest. Whilst text tutorials still feel unnecessarily lengthy, they’re much more compulsory in 4 Ultimate, presented with a lighter mood that strikes as welcoming to Monster Hunter initiates. Prompts appear over gatherable items and slain enemies, with hunter notes more easily located than Freedom Unite’s elusive how-to’s.

Since the game erupted more as a beloved culture than it has a series, Capcom certainly seemed to have translated a lot of this sense of togetherness into Ultimate’s environment. Understandably, the result is more welcoming than Freedom Unite ever was. The frost-bitten village of Pokke was homely, even welcoming, but there was always a sense of isolation there (perhaps due to technical hindrances at the time) that kept me very much at arm’s length.

Ultimate’s hot-running Val Habar, on the other hand, is a bustling hotchpotch of caravaneers, smithies, chefs, nomads and anthropomorphic Palicoes. You have to side-step to evade incoming traffic, and are caught between glances within the patchwork variety of the townsfolk. It’s not to say that Pokke couldn’t be a home, but there’s a vivacity permeating Val Habar that makes the ‘safety-hub’ of the game more refreshing to return to after a taxing hunt.

There’s plenty of humour canvassing Ultimate’s welcoming abode, too. Ultimate is much heavier in dialogue than its PSP ancestor, but alongside its still quite lengthy tutorial explanations, each conversation is laced with a decidedly anime style. The Caravaneer is playfully exaggerated, whilst the quest-giving Guildmarm will tease you, with an esteemed tendency to call you ‘Doodle’. Outside Ultimate’s more active narrative, you can expect references aplenty as such Nintendo greats as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario make an appearance during optional side quests and DLC.

Monster Hunter 4 Zelda

In terms of controls and progression, the Monster Hunter series has been moving steadily and slowly upward, and in Ultimate, the notion is literal. Whilst Tri, the previous Wii (and subsequent 3DS) release, included underwater combat, Ultimate presents a focus on climbing, encouraging a more lateral approach when it comes to hunting monsters or items. True, Freedom Unite comprised a labyrinth of snow-capped peaks and moss-sodden caves to explore, but they were circulated easily and required laboriously sifting through each zone during Gathering Quests. There’s much remedy to be had in Ultimate; in addition to remembering the gathering spots of your targeted beasties, you’re encouraged to clamber atop overhead canopies and dip down into shrouded alcoves, and discovering each for the first time feels like a cherished, but intensely secret venture. Gatherables generally stick out more within the luxurious environments, allowing you to take in the scenery without needing to scower it. Whilst this reduces difficulty for Gathering Quests, it does mean that Ultimate presents the explorative experience that Freedom Unite had aimed for six years prior.

Movement is also much more fluid in Ultimate, thankfully incorporating greater speed and agility alongside its trademark, pillar-like weapons. Ultimate‘s hunter is a speedier climber, sprinter and gatherer, and it does wonders for the game’s general pacing. You can even spring from various ledges to initiate a valiant jump attack.

With my frustration comparatively lessened, I found myself much more open to the game’s worlds in Ultimate than I had done in Freedom Unite – and more importantly, the study of each of its irrevocably beautiful fauna. Ultimate introduces 10 new monsters to its already formidable roster; not an unpredictable development considering the game’s premise. They are, however, depicted with a crisp, flowing animation that truly shines on the 3DS, and on the New 3DS, they’re even more attractive. Great, spined behemouths like the Shah Dalamadur are as elegant as they are terrifying, but attention to detail isn’t reserved for more pivotal foes. The smaller, more capricious beings of Monster Hunter often transpire as favourites of mine, and observing the skittish deer-folk, the Kelbi frolic amidst the prehistoric world of the hunt, is more enchanting now than ever before. The visual rift between Freedom Unite and Ultimate is impressive, and I’ve begun to make a habit out of alternating between the two. Kid’s gotta have fun, right?

kelbi

It’s these reassuring additions that make the series’ antiquities all the more apparent, however. Six years on, camera angles are as integral to combat here as it had been in Freedom Unite, and still sporting an unintuitive camera and a lack of lock-on features, it’s plain to see that the series hasn’t perhaps progressed as much as it could have. Exuberant glades and archaic caverns are stunning to behold, and the graphical leap is stark, but if the controls obstruct the game’s objectives, it feels like Capcom focused their aims on the wrong aspect of the series.

Across the Monster Hunter series, soundtrack has remained at a veritable constant, and perhaps as to be expected, Ultimate matches the valiant compositions of its predecessors. Grand, rich and orchestral, I usually hear a boss before I see it, and their crafted themes really contribute to the notion of grandeur each mammoth beast deserves.
That, and the notion that I’m going to get my ass kicked.

Monster Hunter still suffers from the issues of its predecessors; issues that – unfortunately – obstruct its crossover into the mainstream audience. But coming from Freedom Unite is a real treat. Despite its evident blots, it’s a series that is at least moving in the right direction. With roaring visuals and a friendlier first impression, Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate rallies with comedy and odyssey driving the boat, and with a fifth release looming (and the possibility of its Western ventures), Ultimate shows some reassuring signs.

The most reassuring of which is the return of that pet pig. I’m head-over-heels for that little guy.