Monday, 17 December 2018

Greek mythology and spartan kicks

Assassin's Creed Odyssey



Platform tested: Xbox One X
Released: 2018

Review: Last years Assassin's Creed Origins marked a sort of reboot for the series. Brand new engine, new gameplay and a distinctly different approach to the AC formula; while retaining the much loved style of the series. Although the story of Origins was a let down for me, I really appreciated the huge open world and fantastic gameplay overhaul, especially the combat and stealth mechanics felt like proper realtime combat and less scripted. Odyssey builds upon Origins fantastic fundamentals, but offers a far stronger story and narrative. In fact, it wanders off so far into RPG territory I'd wager to say it's a full fledged action RPG game.

So we move from Origins' ancient Egypt, to Odyssey's ancient Greece. From pharaohs, Cleopatra and deserts to Spartans, philosophers and lushly vegetated islands. Odyssey is a sequel that learns what needs to kept and what needs to be fixed for further enhancing a great series to an even greater form. Lets take a a closer look at what this Odyssey has to offer other than amazing Spartan kicks!




The story is about a pair of Spartan siblings, Alexios and Kassandra, growing up in Sparta their terrible fate is sealed when one of them is forced to be sacrificed at a worshipping ritual. Intervening the certain death of the other sibling, both are thrown off a cliff to seemingly death. The player chooses which one of the siblings you wish to play. It's a great way to let you finally play a full game as either a man or a woman. It also opens up for a different approach if you choose to replay the game.

This time around the storyline is much stronger focused on the sibling you choose and doesn't wander off into a huge mainline plot that puts your character on the sideline. It's all about either Alexios and Kassandra, and there are consequences and various ways key plotline scenes can be changed depending on your dialogue choices that are new to the game. Granted they aren't always that groundbreaking choices or mood changing, but it further grounds the impression that AC is becoming, and in much respect, has become a RPG game.

Although storyline starts fairly locally on a small  but manageable island, guess what your sibling of choice survived the fall in the intro, believe me; what your think is the main quest, really changes up and expands into something huge around 10-12 hours in. Your family storline is one thing, but there's a mercenary, a cultist and a artefact storyline of mythology to take care of too! We're talking a game that easily can reach 100 hours of gameplay time, and double that if you wish to complete absolutely everything.

The previous instalment introduced character leveling and enemies that are at numbered leves and can't be defeated unless yo are fairly equal, same went with weaponry. Odyssey retains all this adding further with weapon engraving abilities and an expanded ability tree for characters skills to tailor your character towards the playstyle you prefer. There are now three main branches; hunter aims towards using your bow, assassin for stealthy upgrades and warrior for the hands-on sword and axe fighting. There's a bunch of more specific action moves to use for each ability class too, which again you must choose to map to your action buttons. My favourite being a good old Spartan kick! In a recent patch the game even lets you transmog your outfit, making it possible to take the stats from one type of armour but retaining the visual look of another.

Odyssey also takes a new approach to it's map. Right at the beginning of the game you are offered to play the game in two ways; either the classic AC map where synchronise points will litter you map with anything nearby. Or with the new, and recommended way by the game itself, which makes you discover everything yourself by walking there. The latter helps keep the map at bay without overwhelming the player. Exploring is highly rewarding too; with secret caves, tombs and enemy camps to discover. Discovering places and completing them will in turn reward you with XP towards leveling. At times I felt like I was playing a free roaming Tomb Raider game with Kassandra taking the role of Lara, hair braided and all. I was exploring the incredibly detailed scenery, constantly looking for new places to discover, a fantastic feeling

Visually the game is just stunning, much like how beautiful Origins looked, Odyssey takes it a step further in variation. The lush and vegetated islands of Greece are painstakingly filled with detail. Daytime wonderfully shines sunrays down on coastal villages, dense forests, huge mountains and flower covered fields in stunning 4K detail on the Xbox One X. HDR lights up everything in great contrast, with the sun almost blinding you as you rotate your camera. Day and night cycle brings life to the world as well as tactics for being hidden in the dark and the draw distance is just draw dropping. It all runs so smoothly to thanks to the dynamic resolution that adapts to the amount of stuff going on.

The fact that the game takes place on islands further makes the sea battles and travelling by boat seem more naturally integrated and brings back memories of why it worked so well in Black Flag. Absolutely massive and stunning open world which is right up there with the very best of the genre.




In such a vast and packed game like Odyssey it's difficult to complain about too much content in a way that seems fair, but it's one of those games that perhaps puts a little overwhelming amount of things to complete. The main storyline, the mercenaries hunt and the an assassin's list of cultists that all need taken care of are interlinked, but coupled together with modern day flashbacks and a the mythology part of ancient artefact locations; well, it just becomes way too many paths of stories to get around to completing or caring about. Luckily each storyline can be completed separately and the one about the life of your character is really well made and the part you'll probably care the most about, Origins lacked this engagement, which is a key improvement and I appreciated a lot.

It boils down to simply killing people, obviously as you're making your character a famous hired mercenary, but being such a RPG inspired game the underlying details like resources being dumbed down and no personal black smith options other than engraving seems a bit primitive. Such an epic undertaking of a game, could need some more detail in some elements. Maybe a meter showing your loyalty between the Spartans and Athenians, making it easier or harder to enter your rivals camps? Doing missions for both of them, with no consequences, feels a little shallow and lacks purpose. These are not complaints that are major in any way, just elements I would have liked being done differently.

Summarising we are looking at a absolutely brilliant continuation of the gameplay elements Origins got right last year,while becoming even even bigger, better and focused on the life story of your character. You learn to care and makes choices for either Alexios or Kassandra, that affect them directly; you're not some sideline plot. Combined with established new combat system from the last game, Odyssey is a joy to play that never really tired me after tens and tens of hours of gameplay. The more I unlocked of abilities and new moves, the more fun it became to engage battles. A great focus made in varying locations and the island layout of land and sea travel helps keep things more diverse. Each island also helps keep the overwhelming game size manageable in small segments.

Odyssey is without doubt the best Assassin's Creed game I have ever played, it's an immensely strong return for the series, and even further more; it's the best game I've played this year. That's quite an achievement for such a long run of series with very frequent releases. Be in no doubt, the amount of lifespan value, fantastic story and hugely entertaining gameplay is top class in Odyssey. Oh and the visuals; man what a beautiful country Greece is!

Rating

★★★★

Friday, 23 November 2018

Seasonal British horizons

Forza Horizon 4



Platform tested: Xbox One X
Released: 2018

Review: Playground Games are not slowing down with their excellent line of Forza Horizon games. Right now they are probably the best racing game developers around, with each version outperforming the last. Leaving Australia behind in FH3, although keeping to the left side of the road, this time around the horizon car festival is set in the United Kingdom. More precise Scotland and Northern England. It's a drastic change of scenery, much like the previous Horizon games.

So we've had the day and night cycles, weather changes from fog to rain, even a DLC in the last game of a snowy mountain, what is the new environmental feature this time in FH4? Seasons. That's right, every week the game changes between the four seasons; summer, autumn, winter then spring. Each season brings with it unique weather aspects, visuals and even road surfaces. It's a really cool and new idea for the racing genre, if not for games in general. Don't worry though, the game uses the intro and quite a bit of the first opening hours to learn you each season' unique aspects. Once these are completed you follow the weekly seasonal clock driven by the games online servers. A neat, original and well implemented feature.




So while I found perhaps the map in FH4 to have a litt less visual diversity in it's environments compared to "mini" Australia in FH3, FH4 makes up for it by having the seasonal changes. Not only does it help with variety visually in the scenery, it also opens unique challenges, races and especially the snow season brings the need for winter tires and a more slippery surface to master. Personally I found spring and summer very alike, bright and sunny, albeit with some visual differences, while autumn is visually stunning with it's beautiful orange leaves everywhere. All in all it's about letting you enjoy a new set of visuals each week as a backdrop to your races.

Based strongly on FH3s more open approach to races, FH4 also lets you make blueprints at each race event to your own car style and suiting, it even lets you force another season upon them if you want each race exactly to your preferred playstyle. I really like that you can basically drive the exact cars you prefer and not be forced to race anything you dislike, while at the same time the game tempts you to go outside your car comfort zone. Offering up challenges that have specific cars and car types you win, they will all tempt you to save some money of buying new ones and try them out.

Speaking of car diversity, FH4 is an even more solid package than before; there are over 400 cars! A number unmatched in other racers these days. Each car has interiors and can be customised with stickers, paint and even body parts if the manufacture allows it. There's no shortage of variety either; hyper cars, 80's/90's classics, vintage models, pickups, off-roaders and even racing trucks are featured. There's something for everyone. Add on the fantastic Forza customisation tools for painting your car, plus the car kits for specific models and you have a large selection of options to make a dream car for your own personal taste.

Graphically FH4 is in a league of it's own; it's hard to see that this is an open world game with this kind of quality. The environments look stunning, the cars are super detailed and the HDR when driving in sunsets or at night is incredible. IF you've ever been to Britain or live there you'll feel at home at once; small cosy villages, farmland hills, lakesides, long beaches, medieval  city of Edinburgh and tje huge coastal castle of Bamburgh. Everything from the vegetation, weather and down to smal details like the road signs look distinctly British. There's even a steam train and hovercraft to race against!

This time around you can choose to play the game on the Xbox One X in either; super sharp with visual effects maxed out at native 4K running in 30fps or super smooth 1080p running at 60fps with graphical settings turned down. The choice is a nice touch for those who either prefer higher framerate or better graphics. In typical Forza series fashion the game runs rock solid at it's locked framerate for whatever you choose and so I went with the better graphical fidelity most of the time. Regular Xbox One owners are locked to 1080p@30fps with a little more cut back effects than the X's 60fps mode. Regardless of system though, it's a beautiful racer to look at. 





Although FH4 is pretty much the perfect racing game on the market, it doesn't really move the layout bar that much further than the excellent FH3 did. Don't get me wrong here, the map and details within it are super ambitious and deliver in the bucket load. I'm talking about the actual race events, progress and the same types of championships like the previous instalment. But why change what works so well, there's more of everything and the tedious hunt for getting gold on every single event is removed to make way for a more level orientated system in each racing type. It makes it a less tedious and checkbox styled affair at least.

Small complaints are the meaningless house purchases and the extremely limited amount of characters models you can choose as your race avatar. Maybe make both these parts more important, like how test Drive Unlimited made you buy new property to extend your garage space for example. I would perhaps have enjoyed some new ideas like adding police cars on the road and more traffic in general, but it's nitpicking and nothing pulling the game down.

Once again FH4 takes the crown as the best racing game on the market, the sheer amount of content and value here is breathtaking and the visuals are so stunning and detailed you'll be dropping your jaw at the screen. Especially the 4K mode on the X is amazing looking on console. It's like huge open world RPG you're playing, only with cars. If you loved FH3 and want a brand new map, more driving conditions and a ton of new events, go for FH4! This years best racer, and a strong statement that the Forza Horizon series is dominating the genre across content, visuals and innovation.

Rating

★★★★

Friday, 12 October 2018

Exploring the shadows

Shadow of the Tomb Raider



Platform tested: Xbox One X
Released: 2018

Review: The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and Rise of the Tomb Raider; two heavy hitters and incredibly well made action adventures and some of my absolute favourite titles of newer times. Such a massive undertaking then, to follow up and make a third sequel.

Development has shifted from Crystal Dynamics to Eidos Montreal, the guys behind Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and the script writer of Rhianna Pratchett fame has been swapped out. Same amazing graphics engine, same layout and the familiar voice of Camilla Luddington. Does Lara's latest adventure build itself up to and deliver the heavy burden of hype from the fantastic previous titles? Let's get our climbing gear, pick axe and bow ready and dive in!




Gameplay is familiar for this trilogy of Tomb Raiders; one continuous world with campfires that work as fast travel points along the way. Some areas are larger hub worlds with Metroidvania backtracking required with new equipment at a later point, opening up locked areas. A lot of the weaponry is familiar and easy to dive into if you've played the previous instalments, so is the skill and weapons upgrade charts. Tried and tested ideas for the series that work fine once again. This time around there's more focus on outfits giving you benefits of increased experience points for certain criteria, however strangely enough, a large portion of the game you are forced to wear certain outfits. This mandatory clothing is something I could have done without at times, mostly you'll be wearing traditional tribe outfits.

The far larger focus on exploration is a very welcome one and perhaps SOTTRs strongest side, bringing back the fundamentals of the series beginning right back to 1996. Luckily they have abandoned the generic black uniformed, SWAT-like, mercenaries of ROTTR, which generically looked like any enemy in half of modern games around, and replaced it with more suiting enemies for it's Mexico setting. The gun fights are fewer in between and have far larger reward for stealth kills. Even going as far as letting Lara cover herself in mud to sneak in bushes and on leafy walls like a predator; it's clever, if not a little simple done with predictable AI, but it works and the general  focus on combat has been toned down for the better.


The long periods of time simply traversing the dense jungles of Mexico and finding paths to underground tombs, catacombs and finding jaw dropping wall murals, statues and ancient buildings is a very welcome one though. It's about raiding tombs and this is even closer to the original series concept than ever before.

Climbing is further improved with upside-down climbing mechanic and having to lower and raise yourself by rope to reach deeper caves. There's more verticality in general to every area and many underwater parts which are nervously claustrophobic and scary to traverse. Luckily the breath timer is overly generous and the typical annoyances for underwater sections is not present; these areas are actually tense and fun to play.

Graphically the series has outdone itself once again; dense foliage with crisp 4K presentation and tons of detail. Rocks, trees, old paintings, ruins and tombs have incredible amounts of detail with a great focus on small things like particles in the air and light shining in through cracks and openings in roofs and caves. The lighting is just superb and perhaps the best use of HDR I have seen to date to date, with lava filled caves almost blinding you with their strength and sunsets looking so rich with this incredible lighting effects. Water sections are really well made too, with beautiful reflections and light beams going through the water. Mud is made like a liquid where Lara sinks into it and footsteps are filled with water behind you.


A truly beautiful game that depicts the jungles of Mexico magnificently, albeit less variety visually than the previous games, the setting in SOTTR stays with the jungle and Aztec style throughout. Perhaps this more one sided environmental setting has allowed the developers even more time to dig into small and rich detailing. Stunning visuals from start to end.




SOTTR brings some negatives to the table though; my main gripe being the rather sluggish story. It moves along with little incentive of making you really dislike the bad guys or feel engaged to do something about what they are blandly threatening about. I get the feeling this time around that some of Lara's morale choices seem to backfire, making her look almost like the bad guy, and yes they are great moments, but the cause of why you are fighting seems stale. It tries to make you feel part of a hidden tribe in Mexico, and care for them, but in the end it fails to do so in successful manner. At the end of the day, the main storyline feels trivial and unmemorable.

That said, Lara's voice actress Camilla Luddington, does her best performance yet in the series though, with fantastic acting performances put into touching and desperate scenes. The storyline parts that focus on Lara herself are the best ones and perhaps a larger part of the story doing so would have made a more interesting angle? We are after all seeing the famous Tomb Raider being born in this trilogy, and her story is most intriguing one.

My other negative is the feeling that the game isn't really reinventing itself much, it feels a little too close to the previous formulas and takes a very safe route through the paces of things you've seen many times before in TR2013 and ROTTR. Gameplay doesn't introduce many new elements and the world you traverse could have had more freedom and less check box structure from the previous instalments. Places unreachable, that in classic Metroidvania become accessible after you obtain a weapon or gadget, end more often up to be small offbeat and insignificant areas. The rewards for backtracking don't seem much worth it and could have hidden far larger places to discover. On a positive note though, they have added a more significant number of sidemissions to flesh out the lifespan of each hub area.

All things considered, I enjoyed my playthrough, but I was maybe hoping for something to truly stand out as more memorable. It seems ridiculous to complain about a game with kind of high quality, and it's complaints are in contrast to comparing it to top end games, so maybe they are somewhat unfair. I just wish there was more new ideas here for those who have played the last two games over and over. The bland storyline and repeated and quite limited structure fell short for me. I did, though, enjoy the larger exploration focus and wonderfully detailed rainforests.

It's a game that's more aimed at older TR fans, yet never dares take new steps very far and into the more niche style the old TRs today are. A good game for a fantastic rebooted trilogy, it just doesn't reach the heights quite as much as the previous instalments did and feels somewhat like a game with a smaller budget at times. It's like they don't really know where to go with the series, and ended up not really going further at all and wrote a story that is forgettable at best.

Rating

★★★★

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Switch it up!

So I bought a Nintendo Switch...



...which puts me in possession of all the three major console families this generation; Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and now, Nintendo's Switch. Like it's previous generation debut with the Wii, Nintendo have opted for something that sets itself far away from the graphics heavy and powerful competitors Sony and Microsoft. While previous Nintendo consoles have attempted to capture another market and audience than the typical teenage/adult market of action games, Switch simply tries to market itself as something different. Both physically as a hybrid console, but also a different kind of software line-up with Nintendo franchises the competitors do not have. It's about new and old ideas.

If Nintendo's Wii proved anything, it's that under powered and different can sell, incredibly well in fact. We mustn't forget that the Wii outsold both the PS3 and 360, by a significant number. This was alongside Nintendo selling insane amounts of Nintendo DS's and 3DS's at the time too.


So while the HD effort of the Wii U felt like a halfway and miscalculated step from Nintendo, thus falling into obscurity, the Switch feels like something brand new and fresh. It blurs away the line between handheld and stationary consoles, making itself a convenient hybrid console of sorts. Yet, it brings over some of the DNA that the Wii and Wii U brought to the market; a controller in two seperated parts, gyro controls and touchscreen. Technically, the Switch is a souped up handheld that can further boost itself when docked and connected as a traditional stationary console to your TV. Nintendo's goal, as it seems, isn't to compete on pushing technical boundaries with 4K, HDR and graphics like Sony and MS. No, it's about delivering something that is very much it's own thing. This choice of goal has paid off already, as Switch has become as huge success for Nintendo. Deservedly so.


As an owner of the other two, more powerful consoles, my aim for the Switch is to catch up on all the Nintendo exclusives and maybe some interesting third party exclusives that are suited for the system. After all, Nintendo have done a nice job at doing their best to optimise Switch titles to perform well on the console. We have also been seeing a nice upgrade to 1080p with Wii U ports, games that really should get more attention than they did on the U's mediocre sales. I'm glad to see ports of Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, Captain Toad and Mario Kart 8 for instance, all Wii U titles. Ports aside though, Switch's heavy hitters at launch are the two titles that have really sold the system in for players; Super Mario Odyssey and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.



The console



Lets begin with the actual console, then take the controllers separately as they are a bit confusing in their numerous ways of usage. At first glance the main console part of the Switch has a distinct tablet design to it, and is most iconic with it's Joy-Cons in red and blue attached to it's sides. It has become a rather recognisable console as such, with Nintendo also going for a more old school and recognisable look on the logo. As a tablet it's a little chunky with the overly thick frame to the screen, however considering the power this little device pushes,  it's a fairly compact device. It's portable, but not pocket portable.

Alongside the actual Switch, a docking bay is included, this square plastic holder sets the console in docked mode and houses a power and HDMI socket. Docking the Switch results in the performance being boosted, typically games go from a handheld resolution of 600-720p up to 900-1080p when docked. It's a cool feature and helps the games look better on a large TV with higher resolution, while saving battery power in handheld mode. The screen on the Switch has a fairly sharp picture  with a native 720p as output, games that go below this resolution can look quite blurry on the screen. Luckily, Nintendo's first party titles hit the native 720p mode in handheld. The Switch can be placed with a somewhat flimsy plastic stand on a table too, for when you are on the move in handheld mode, aimed for multiplayer games on an airplane flight tray, a train table etc.



The docking station will also charge the console. It's all cleverly designed to easily switch between handheld and docked mode. Placed vertically in the docking, I appreciate the sleek and small design of the console visually. The only downside is that the docking station seems like a place where you can easily scratch your screen if you're not careful taking it in and out. All in all, the Switch is sleek looking, though it dangerously fairs in the line between being a underpowered for stationary mode and a too large for portable mode. The end result works just fine though.


The controllers



When it comes to controllers, well there's quite a few official ways to play your Switch. Out of the box you get the two Joy-Cons, one left and one right, meant to be held vertically. These, ingeniously enough, work as two tiny NES-like pads horizontally. Two player action straight out of the box, without more controller purchases needed in other words, neat! These Joy-Cons can be attached to the main Switch console so the whole thing looks like a big handheld device, or removed and used separately in each hand. You can even widen them slightly with som hand strap modules that make the L and R buttons more accessible, these straps are included with the console.



The Joy-Cons can also be placed into a controller shell, which is included with the console, it basically gathers them together in a more ergonomic and traditional controller layout. This controller shell though, isn't a very comfortable controller fit in my opinion and kind of a cheap solution, but hey it's packed default with the Switch, can't really complain.



The solution to get a "traditional" controller is in the shape of the official "Pro Controller". This is available separately and is slightly above a Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controller in price. Although the main principal idea and essence of the Switch are the Joy-Cons and their diversity of how they are used in handheld and docked mode, it's nice that Nintendo have gone all-in with an alternative. After all, mainly the first party games use the Joy-Cons in special ways, not so much the third party titles.

The best bit with the Pro controller though? The fantastic quality. It's no secret that I've never been much fond of the PlayStation controllers with their out-dated DualShock layout of their weirdly placed analogue sticks. Luckily, Nintendo have opted for the left analogue stick in the main position like the fantastic Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers have. I quickly realised this controller is just as good as Microsoft's effort on the XB1 controllers. I'd say they are neck to neck in their ergonomic grip, button layout and quality of build. A nice step above the more cheap feeling of a PS4 controller.

The XB1's controller still has the edge when it comes to the analogue triggers and deeper joystick tops, but Nintendo have the better shoulder buttons and of course their superior d-pad. Both the Nintendo and Microsoft controllers support the fantastic HD rumble too. Sadly the triggers on Nintendo's controller are merely buttons and can not be used the way the XB1's analogue triggers can, for gradual acceleration/deceleration in racing games for instance, a bit of a miss to have the triggers digital only.

As a whole though, this controller is a highly recommended. if not a must-buy, purchase!


The games and UI


Physical Switch games use cartridges for their storage. It's a departure from the more recent handheld devices like the 3DS and PSVita that utilise flashcards. Their form factor is very small, reminding me of a slightly chunkier PSVita game. The games are packed in small cases which are the height of a Blu-ray, but with a much smaller depth. Games can of course also be purchased on the Nintendo eShop, games tend to be fairly small in download size compared to the massive PS4 and XB1 titles, but the internal storage on the Switch is sparse: totalling in on a modest 32GB. You can extend the storage by using a SD flashcard, but be aware that saves from games cannot be transferred between storage mediums. Hopefully this gets fixed when Nintendo now introduces clouds saves with their online subscription system.



I like the visual look of the Switch user interface, they are stylish and fairly easy to navigate with simple icons to recognise. Perhaps a bit on the large size on a big TV, but I guess it's done so to match the small handheld screen. Not the sharpest of picture quality, running at 720p regardless of docked or not, but I found it a breeze to navigate. Fast response as you navigate too. How the game sorts a large amount of game icons and with a horizontal only axis, I could imagine became cluttered. Perhaps they will add folder options down the road.

Much like the XB1 and PS4 the Switch has a home button that puts you back to the home screen while having your game suspended in the background. At the home screen you can check settings, visit the store og check what friends are doing. A lot like the other consoles. I really dislike the short username and the fact that it isn't unique, as such you need to share a long and cumbersome "Friend code" to add people to your friend list. It seems outdated and stupid way to add friends. Suspend mode in general is fantastic though, much because of the handheld feature I presume, it powers up your console from sleep and straight into the game in no time!


Conclusion


While the Switch seems to have already received quite a few third party ports from major titles, it's not a console I'd recommend if you have no interest in first party Nintendo games. It's not a console best suited for the powerhouse game genres like first person shooters or racing games that are pushing hard on the graphics technology. However, as a great family device that easily transforms from a docked console to a handheld device and with multiplayer so prominent as a feature, especially with the fantastic idea of two small Joy-cons. Where Nintendo seemed to miss the target with it's Wii U console, they have aimed dangerously different from a Xbox or PlayStation, yet seem to have hit a jackpot idea. It's different, yet brilliantly so. 

My main gripe would perhaps be the price, with the undeniable lower specifications than the cheaper and more powerful Xbox One or PlayStation 4 competition. It depends on how important Nintendo's first party titles are for you and if you'll use it in combination with travelling. It's Nintendo though, their hardware has always been on the more pricey side, a lot to do with it's first party games being only available on their consoles. A more aggressive price strategy might make the system sell even more though, making third party developers even more interested in porting their games over to the system.


Describing the console is harder than actually letting people try one and understand it's potential. I really believe Nintendo have hit a home run with  the Switch and returned to their, albeit under powered, ingenious thinking when it comes to approaching gaming in a new way, much like how the Wii became such a tremendous success.


Switch is a console you can't help but love once you've tried one. 


Monday, 10 September 2018

Very small classics

So I bought a NES and SNES Classic Mini...



...in the aftermath of their huge demand beginning with the outsold NES Mini back in 2016. I simply couldn't get hold of a NES Mini and even a SNES Mini at launch. However earlier this year I picked up a SNES Mini and recently a NES Mini. Let's take a quick look at both them.


What they have in common


Their hardware replicates in a small form factor how the real consoles designs looked in their aesthetics; mine replicates the European models for both. They are very well made, with working power and reset buttons. I like how the SNES has hidden it's controller ports for added authenticity in it's visual appearance. Both have controllers that are fantastic quality and are extremely close to the originals. Incredible work on the hardware; even down to the original looking packaging they arrive in and their retro manuals. Great design aesthetics all round then.

The NES and SNES Mini's are powered by USB and have a HDMI video output. They both operate at a 720p resolutionand offer a few choices in screen displays, more on that for each model later. Be warned though; the short controller cables and the fact that the actual console needs to be near the TV for HDMI and USB power means that you'll probably need a long HDMI and a close by power supply. It's a little annoying they didn't opt for wireless controllers, but that's probably what makes the price hold a fairly reasonable level. They could have made the controller cords way, way longer though.

Both the NES and SNES controller connection inputs are alike, and the same as the Nintendo Wii's controller ports. Thus you can use a Wii "Classic Controller" or a "Classic Controller Pro" for both the mini's as alternative control pads. You can also use the NES and SNES controllers on a Wii for classic games! SNES games will of course not be playable with a NES controller, as it lacks the right amount of buttons, but a SNES Mini controller will work fine with the NES Mini. It's all about if you want the authenticity of the actual console's controller or not.

A real annoying factor though, even as they have re-released the hugely popular NES Mini this year, they still only package it with one controller. While the SNES Mini has two. It's a real cheap move and an annoyance that you need to hunt down a second controller separately. I get that they missed it on the first run of NES Mini in 2016, but this time around they really should have packed a second controller in. Bad move Nintendo!

The menu system on each model has a retro look to it too and features some typical calming Wii menu styled music. The games on each model are lined up with cover art and have QR codes which grants you access each games manual online if scanned. Selecting a game boots it up, but sadly there is no other way to return to the menu without pressing reset on the actual consoles. Thus making the need to have the actual console close by. On the menus you can save satte your current position in the game or return to playing. Everything is very tidy and easy to navigate, although I felt the way you save stated the game to be a little confusing.

Not much else to say about the features they have in common; other than their fantastic value for money. Even attempting at obtaining these retro consoles, with the amount of games and controllers in new condition would set you at insane high prices online. They are value for money times ten. Let's look closer at each one!


NES Classic Mini



Nintendo's gigantic 8-bit success from the 80's. This console rebuilt the flooded and grounded gaming industry in the U.S. It's Japanese model, the Famicom, is available as a mini in Japan. Here in Europa and in the U.S. though, we're familiar with the grey box that utilises a sort of VHS player lid and press down cartridge action. This was done to make the reluctant market look at the NES as a sort of entertainment device much like a VCR player, rather than another console flooding the dead market. I feel it's design is very iconic and has stood the test of time far better than it's rather weird looking Japanese version.

The NES Mini offers 30 built in games. The library is mainly Nintendo first parrty, as expected, and features a fairly diverse line up of some of it's best selling games. With timeless classics, and the stars of the show, like; Super Mario Bros. 1 to 3, Mega Man 2, Castlevania 1 & 2, Metroid, Zelda, Super Contra and Excitebike. You can check the full list online. My perhaps most missed NES titles are TMNT 2, Super Mario Bros. 2 from Japan and Tiger Heli. The first being held back by a Turtles movie license I presume, the original SMB2 as it was never released outside of Japan other than on the remastered All-Stars collection on the SNES and the latter being a personal Toaplan favourite and nothing else.

As the NES originally did not come with RGB video output, it's difficult to get a very clean image out of the original console without modding. As such the NES Mini is perhaps the best visual upgrade to modern screens you can do, if you want a product straight out of the box. The visual quality alone on the NES Mini as such, becomes more interesting for owners of an original NES, than original SNES owners need for a SNES Mini. Save states are a huge welcome for those that find the old games too hard to complete!

Screen options for the NES Mini are: "4:3" which is the classic CRT TV aspect ratio and the one you'll most likely end up using, the default option. A nice, sharp and clean NES image upscaled digitally to 720p for modern TV's. "Pixel Perfect" is how the game was developed; as a completely square picture, but not how it was intended to be shown, as all TV's had the 4:3 ratio. Why this is included I don't know, but it's nice to have options I guess.

The last picture option is a "CRT filter" and while I can appreciate a good scanline filter for big modern TV's to replicate a CRT TV, making the picture less jaggy and closer to how we used to view the games. This NES Mini filter, however, wants to also replicate a picture with lots of antenna interference. Much like the messy picture an original NES outputs, as it had no RGB output and only composite out. I would have liked to have been without the blurry extras and just had a clean scanline filter. A real miss in my opinion, especially when you could have let the player alter how it looks with some basic options.



Verdict: For fans of the NES, that will be a ton of SMB and Zelda players I presume, this is a perfect purchase. Judging by it's huge popularity I would think Nintendo have really hit the perfect market for older generation gamers and parents that want to go back to their childhood days of NES gaming in 80's. Great care has been taken in replicating the original feel of the console too, albeit a second controller is very much missing from the deal and sold separately.

The game library will come across as very outdated for newcomers though; the 8-bit days have a very pure, direct to the point gameplay, but presentation wise they lack the polish of the 16-bit games. Their learning curve and difficulty will be off-putting for new players I should think. Rest assured though, for younger gamers mostly; usually 8-bit titles require very little prior knowledge or explanation, the gameplay is simple enough to just jump into an learn quickly.


Considering the old age of the 8-bit, NES Mini is perhaps suited for those that have nostalgia and memories of playing the actual console back in the day.

SNES Classic Mini



Feeling the pressure from Sega's early 1988 jump to 16-bit in their fast Motorola 68000 processor powered Mega Drive and their increasing market share success in the U.S., Nintendo felt the pressure to deliver a next generation console. The SNES launched in late 1990 in Japan and 1991 elsewhere. It too became a huge success, albeit not as much as the NES due to the loss of market domination. It became part of perhaps the most competitive and famous console wars generation witnessed between itself and the Mega Drive. Mario and Sonic became prominent competitors and 16-bit technology was pushed in many advertisements as the new leap in technology. By the end of the battle though, the SNES had sold the most by a large margin.

The SNES Mini has 20+1 games built in, that extra one is a really cool addition: It's the completed, but never released Star Fox 2! While the title itself perhaps isn't that fantastic, it's a really cool addition in my opinion and a statement of the work put into these mini classics. Finally, there's a chance for old SNES veterans to play the sequel never released! The SNES Mini has a truly fantastic line-up of classics otherwise; Zelda: Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, Mega Man X, F-Zero, Super Metroid, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Contra III, Super Mario World 1 & 2, Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy VI, Super Castlevania IV, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG and of course the first Star Fox

The lack of a few titles I miss, are at least Donkey Kong Country 2, yes we have the first game, but the second is even better and a true classic. We have Squaresoft's huge heavy hitters FFVI and Secret of Mana, but no Chrono Trigger?! I would also have liked the inclusion of Super Mario All-Stars, the 16-bit remastered collection of Super Mario Bros. 1-3, especially since it contains the true original SMB2 from Japan (Lost Levels). Perhaps they skipped Mario since he was featured on the NES Mini? Some strange omissions in my opinion, but alas with that kind of line-up of timeless and fantastic titles, how could I really complain.

As far as screen options go, the SNES has the same "4:3" and "Pixel Perfect" modes as the NES Mini. However, while not perfect, the "CRT filter" is done much better here than on the NES Mini. Trying harder to actually resemble a CRT screen with a clean and crisp picture output. Although I would still have liked options for tweaking the filter once again.

If you play an original SNES on a modern TV, passed through a Framemeister or an OSSC device with RGB output, I'd wager to say this mini isn't exactly something that will look much better, maybe a little less picture noise. As such the graphical upgrade from original hardware isn't as major as the NES, however most people probably played the SNES through the default cables and just connect it directly through the terrible SCART input on modern TVs, so the upgrade will be very visible for more casual players. If you're considering buying this mini you probably don't own an original SNES any longer or just want one, like me, for the sake of it. At least it has save states anywhere in the game as a major upgrade!



Verdict: As timeless and incredible as some of these 16-bit titles prove to be years later, makes SNES Mini my favourite of the two Nintendo classic minis. They represent the very pinnacle of 2D popularity that has never since been replicated or reached. They are from a era that is perhaps the best and most iconic console generation ever, the amount of fantastic titles that were unique and spread across the SNES and the Mega Drive were of fantastic quality and diversity.

The SNES Mini then, unlike the super cheap rip-off Sega clone consoles through the years, takes great care in representing the original hardware in a best possible way. I'll also wager that the more polished 2D graphics of the 16-bit era fair better with newcomers and young gamers of today better than the 8-bit NES. The 16-bit titles have more forgiving difficulty curves making theme easier to get into and there's more depth to the game experience, compared to the brutal and often rough 8-bit experiences.


A perfect purchase for any SNES fan back in the day, as well as young gamers as great door into some of the best and timeless 2D classics ever made.



Summary


Well that's my take on the two classic mini consoles from Nintendo. The focus on quality of the end product and care that the games behave like they did back in the day, combined with almost identical copies to the original controllers make these the best retro throwback consoles made to this date. They may be a little higher in price than other similar retro throwback systems, but rest assured that the quality is top notch and the amount you'd pay for bloated retro gaming prices on eBay would far exceed the asking price of these mini's.

Let's hope for a Game Boy Classic Mini next?!

Monday, 20 August 2018

Letting the retro consoles live forever

So I bought an Everdrive...



...well three actually. One for each of my following retro consoles; Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, Nintendo 64 and the Nintendo Super Famicom (SNES). The MD and SNES being some of my absolute favourite consoles of all time, home to some of the best games made from the days of 2D and 16-bits. I have purchased these cartridges over the last couple of years, but I'll summarise their features in a single blogpost.

What is an Everdrive?


An Everdrive is brand name for a flash cartridge made by the Ukrainian company Krikkz. It's made to house a SD card with game roms, then flashes a game to it's internal memory and runs it directly through your old retro console. Replicating exactly how the proper game cartridges ran through the original hardware. There's no emulation or fakery about it, the console gets fed the game like it did all those years ago and plays it just how you remember from back in the day. There are alternatives to these products made by other companies, and they're not a new invention by any means; going far back to similar devices that could be used with floppy discs on the very same consoles, but Krikkz's ones are those I have experience with and own personally.

Everdrives are a fantastic way to reduce wear on your old consoles and preserve games that become increasingly difficult to get hold of. It's also a way cheaper way of enjoying classic games if you simply do not have the money or time to collect the actual physical copies for. While I don't support pirating of games, some of the prices on retrogames have risen beyond sense on online bidding. Games that are rare, rise in price regardless of their quality, simply becoming collection objects rather than what they actually should be: games to be played and enjoyed.



Krikkz offers a wide range of Everdrive cartridges for various cartridge based systems; NES, Master System, Game Boy Advance, Mega Drive, SNES etc. to mention a few. There's likely something there for most retro console owners, even with more obscure systems like the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine. The website releases updates to the firmware running on the Everdrive cartridges too, making the products improve over time and cater for new menu options that users request.

Are they tricky to set up?


Absolutely not. After ordering your preferred Everdrive and buying the SD card it requires, some need a standard size SD while others require a micro SD, you simply set it up on a PC. Firstly, you'll need the firmware operating system your Everdrive cartridge requires. They're available for download under each Everdrive systems page on the Krikkz website. Unzipping the firmware onto the SD card leaves you with the structure your Everdrive requires. Then you can make folders where you place your game roms. Whether you want to make separate folders alphabetically, top ten titles or after genres; is up to you.

When the SD card is set up with your preferred game roms on it, it's time to insert it into your Everdrive cartridge. The cartridge goes into your console just like a standard game cartridge, power the console on and you're brought to an Everdrive menu. Here you can browse to your preferred game and start it! It's that easy, plus you can even try modded versions of games featuring new colour palettes, swapped item locations etc. or how about playing some homebrew titles never released before?!

Everdrives work across all of the consoles region locks. Regardless of you being in the US, Japan or a European country (PAL vs. NTSC). It will run games from that region of your console. It may also be compatible for games not built for your console region. At least for Europeans though, purchasing a NTSC console is preferred to get a proper game speed of 60Hz . Provided your old CRT TV or new LCD TV can take 60Hz signals through SCART or Composite input (most PAL TV's do).

A tour of each version


There are some differences for each version of the Everdrives I own, so let me take you quickly through them. Plus some buying tips along the way to make your purchase smarter and aimed towards the best experience.



Mega Everdrive


The Mega Everdrive is probably the most "bang for your buck" purchase of all the Everdrive's. It's one of the longest going and most popular models from Krikkz too. The Mega Drive was a very clean console when it came to it's software, much like the Master System before it. Free of enhancement chips on individual games, thus making the library highly compatible with an Everdrive. It not only gives you access to 99% of the MD's library, Virtua Racing being the only official incompatible game I can think of, as it featured a graphics enhancement chip, but it also lets you play the 8-bit MS library too! It's an incredible way of enjoying all of Sega's 8-bit and 16-bit console years. The Everdrive will also run 32X games, but this of course requires the actual 32X hardware to run.

You can purchase three different types of the Mega Everdrive; X3, X5 and X7. These models are priced after their number of options they offer, X7 being the most expensive model. You can read about what each model does on the Krikkz website and choose a model which suits you best. In short though, X7 features some neat in-game menus, a save state (although it's buggy) and can be used as a Mega CD ram cartridge. It's the model I have, although mine was bought prior to the X naming convention. Both X5 and X7 save your games without having to hit the MD's reset button to return to the menus. All three models have a dedicated button for the MS pause button, just like the Power Base Converter had.


My tip: Buy the X5 Mega Everdrive, it's the mid-range price with the most options you'll need for a stock MD. If you own a Mega CD, then go for the X7.


The MD's console region dictates the output picture Hz of the games run; NTSC consoles output the proper speed at 60Hz, while the PAL consoles output a slower 50Hz signal, making the games run 16,7% slower than intended. This is just what all PAL consoles did back in the day because they were not built to cater for the PAL standard, after all most games were made in Japan and the US anyhow.

Keeping in mind that some modern European HD flatscreens and old CRT's do not support a 60Hz NTSC picture; you really should buy an american Genesis (MD's US name) or a Japanese MD. Both run all games at 60Hz and will only lock you out of a few PAL hardcoded titles released there, mostly Europe exclusive Codemasters titles. Going 60Hz is so worth it to play the games how they were intended to play.

US and Japanese MDs are easy to get hold of, but I recommend buying a first model version, preferably the model with the "High Definition Graphics" text written on the upper part of the outer ring surrounding the cartridge slot. It's the model with the best sound and a dedicated audio jack plug output for that stereo goodness. Though a Mega Drive/Genesis 2 will do fine for those wanting a smaller console and don't care about audio/picture quality. An RGB cable for super sharp picture is also a must-have!


Everdrive 64


Much like the MD, the Nintendo 64 also avoided enhancement chip in it's games. The game library is therefore highly compatible with the Everdrive 64. There are two models to choose from with a couple of major differences: The v3 version, the expensive top model, features an automatic battery save system so you don't need to reset the console to save your game to the cartridge. Not a major inconvenience on the cheaper v2.5 model in my opinion, plus many of the N64 games require a Memory Pak to save anyhow. The v3 also has a built-in system clock, which helps a title like Animal Crossing to work properly as it requires a clock. Not looking into that particular game? Skip v3.

My tip: Buy the cheaper v2.5 if you don't mind resetting the console after using games that save internally without the Memory Pak. It's an easy routine to get used to for the lower price; finished playing the game? Hit that reset button before turning the console off.


Buy any region N64 as the Everdrive 64 will run the games at either 50Hz (but why?!) or 60Hz with a flip of a switch on the cartridge. PAL N64 consoles will run US and Japanese NTSC game roms at 60Hz no problem if the switch is set for it. However, I recommend buying an RGB modded N64 from Ebay, remember also to buy either a SNES or Gamecube RGB SCART alongside it, otherwise it's pointless to buy a RGB modded console. Be warned though, there's a ton of so called "N64 RGB" cables on Ebay that simply are composite ones. The N64 does NOT output RGB without hardware customisation. An RGB modded console with the proper RGB cable and a TV which supports it, will give the best and most clear picture, something the N64 desperately needs for it's renowned blurred image quality.

I would also recommend buying a non-official Memory Pak as they do run out of battery over time. It's really annoying that so many games relied on the Memory Pak on the N64, the cards on both PlayStation and Saturn required no battery for comparison. Plus, an official N64 Memory Pak requires you to un-solder the battery to get it loose should you wish to replace it down the road. The unofficial ones like the Performance Memory Card don't require soldering to change the battery. Luckily the Everdrive 64 lets you dump all saves on a Memory Pak over to a file on the SD card and restore it back, definitely an convenient option to backup those cherished saves.




Super Everdrive


The Super Nintendo is a more tricky console to make an Everdrive for. Not nearly as bad as the enhancement chip forest that were NES games, the SNES uses quite a few enhancement chips on a handful of games. The most famous chip is the Super FX , heavily advertised by Nintendo, which the Everdrive does not replicate. I strongly recommend getting the DSP chip enhancement as you purchase the Super Everdrive to get all the DSP1 to 4 enhancement chip games working at least. The various DSP chips were the most commonly used, featured in titles like Mario Kart and Pilotwings.

Games like Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Land 2: Yoshi's Island and Megaman X2 & X3 all have special enhancement chips that are specialised and not supported by the Super Everdrive. You can check a list online to see which titles which aren't supported, it's a fairly short list of about 30 games though, not a major chunk of the hundreds of SNES games available.

My tip: Buy the cheaper Super Everdrive, versus the far more expensive SD2SNES, which basically supports two-three extra Japanese titles. Add the DSP module to the Super Everdrive though, to get the most out of the SNES library. It's a small extra cost. The Super Everdrive takes a bit of time rewriting each game to flash memory though, not a major issue, but one that you should be aware of. SD2SNES does not have this issue, neither does the Mega Everdrive or Everdrive 64.


Just like the MD/Genesis the SNES console region dictates which games run at what Hz speed. I recommend buying a US SNES or a Super Famicom from Japan. Then you'll be able run any US or Japanese SNES roms at their proper 60HZ speed. NTSC and PAL roms will only run on their respective console region for the SNES anyhow.

An NTSC console will also open up a larger library of games. I find the US SNES console design aesthetically hideous, so I went with a Super Famicom, which looks just like a PAL SNES what I'm used to. Plus, pick up a SNES RGB cable online, it gives you the best picture, let those blurry composite cables die. Image quality wise when it comes to RGB output; the Mega Drive beats the SNES with a clearer and artefact-free output picture. This is more apparent when using the MD and SNES on modern flatscreens, but you really should be playing on a CRT or through a OSSC/Framemeister anyhow. 


Some Notes


For potential European MD and SNES buyers on the road to that 60Hz goodness: The Model 1 MD/Genesis can use any powerbrick made for it in any region. The power brick alters the power to the consoles 10V input. So buying a Genesis or a Japanese MD console if you already own the European one (be it UK or continental style) the MD power brick will power the console without needing a step-down converter.

Plus, that same MD power brick works for the Super Famicom and PAL SNES! Purchasing these as console only, without cables, controllers and boxing can be fairly cheap, it's reasonable way to play the games at their proper 60Hz speed. If you're a after a proper boxed console, for whatever collective reasons, will cost you much more.
So, to summarise all these three Everdrives:
  • Buy a US or Japanese MD and SNES, plus RGB cables to get that wonderful 60Hz with the sharpest possible picture. All MD Model 1 region power bricks work on every Model 1, simply get the power brick for your region and plug it in any region MD Model 1, they work even on PAL and Japanese SNES consoles too. 
  • Buy any region N64 console, but consider buying a RGB modded one. Any model will play 60Hz with the flip of a switch on the Everdrive. Get a proper SNES/Gamecube RGB and avoid the N64 RGB cable fakes.

That's it for now, hope you find what you are looking for in retrogaming through this article! There's hours of fun to be had with each console and their large library's of games. As and ending note, for the love of all things retro: use RGB cables on your consoles and let the composite fussy picture die!