BEATEN: Tomb Raider III (PC, 1998)

Tomb Raider III is generally considered ‘the hard one’ when ranking the classic Tomb Raider games. And boy it lives up to that reputation. This is a game that takes a sadistic delight in repeatedly kicking you in the crotch over and over. It feels as if the developers want you to fail, give up and never look at a Tomb Raider game again. And given the notorious stress and pressure that Core Design were placed under by Eidos that may not be fair from the truth.

For example, the game begins with you in front of a giant slope. Step forward and you’ll slide to your death on some spikes. Avoid them waiting for you are are boulder traps, many hidden spike traps, ravenous tigers, piranhas in the water – and this is just the first level.

Things only get tougher from here, a factor not helped by the level design that’s more non-linear than previous games. They are sprawling and complex places, requiring a lot of backtracking and trial and error to progress though. Let’s just that I am now fully desensitised to watching Lara die in an endless amount of painful ways. Plus, and this may just be a bug, the laser traps in Area 51 were essentially invisible.

But, despite having to resort to a walkthrough more than I’d have liked, I got through the game. It was touch and go at some points (those London levels…). Given that it was this hard on the Windows version where you can save whenever you like I have no idea how anyone ever finished the PSOne release which used the a consumable save crystal system.

Environmental design is also a bit iffy. The classic Tomb Raider block-based engine does a decent job of environments like the Nevada canyons, Area 51, the London tube and Antarctica. But the organic tropical levels like the Indian jungle and South Pacific island are a mess of textures as the technology simply isn’t there to create a believably tangled forest.

It is cool that there’s a Tomb Raider level set somewhere I’ve actually been – Aldwych Tube Station.

But despite all that, I had fun. By now I’ve totally mastered classic Lara’s control scheme – which fits the level design like a glove. Strictly grid-based movement governed by canned animations just isn’t done in action games anymore – but knowing exactly how far Lara can jump or what will happen if she steps on a surface means you feel confident and skilled getting about.

I’m looking forward to getting through to the next couple of games – but here’s hoping Tomb Raider III is the high mark in terms of difficulty!

Next up, this game’s mission pack: Tomb Raider: Lost Artifact.

BEATEN: Blind (PSVR, 2018)

One of the things I like most about VR is that it encourages shorter, more focused games. Developers work on the basis that people don’t want to spend tens of hours standing up, wearing a headset and waving their arms about. It’s thinking that results 3-4 hour games like Blind, which iterates on its core idea a couple of times and then gets out of dodge.

Said core idea is that you are… blind. Sorta. Following a car crash you wake up without eyesight, only able to perceive the world through echolocation. So, a ticking grandfather clock sends out periodic waves of vision, throwing a book on the ground will create a ripple of vision in its immediate vicinity and a sudden crash of lightning will briefly illuminate the whole room. Soon enough you get a cane, and you can tap your way cautiously through the world.

The entire game is composed of these monochrome environments. It’s a striking aesthetic and plays well to the strengths of the PSVR headset. Plus, it’s fun and satisfying to really whack a wall with your cane and briefly illuminate the room you’re in.

The meat of the game is a series of environmental puzzles that grant keys to unlock other rooms in the house. The best of these utilise your echolocation smartly: directing the flow of water through pipes in the wall or paying attention to the sounds of a machine behind a locked door.

But there are a wholebunch of puzzles that could have been done in a regular game: fitting a series of cogs together to power a jukebox or just watching pictograms appear on a wall and entering them into a keypad.

The nadir came when the game takes away your incredibly useful cane. This leads to a dreadful puzzle where you just stumble around in the dark finding hidden cogs over three large rooms. It was boring, tedious and finding them felt like trial and error.

By that point I was done with the game, but there was a short and easy stealth sequence where you have to avoid the world’s dumbest monster

On top of all that, the game’s mysterious plot isn’t that interesting. I don’t mind enigmatic storytelling with overwrought metaphors (I’m very much enjoying Death Stranding!), but I’m a bit sick of indie games about abusive parent/child relationships.

Blind has some decent ideas behind it, but I wish it was a bit more precise and focused. An echolocation VR game is brimming with potential gameplay possibilities, but Blind ultimately doesn’t do much with the idea. Oh well, it’s short and it’s done.

BEATEN: Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (PSP, 2006)

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops gets a real bad rap – it’s easy to understand why. The control scheme is godawful, the gameplay is repetitive, the boss fights aren’t even a little bit fun, the environments are drab and it’s completely overshadowed by Peace Walker, a much much better PSP Metal Gear title.

But it’s got a lot going for it. For one, Portable Ops sets the soldier-capturing, weapon-developing, army-building template that the series would radically expand upon throughout Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain. For another, it has a snappy and concise plot with stylish cutscenes, lots of voice-acting and a couple of neat moments in Big Boss’s character development (it’s nice to watch him grudgingly accept his role as a figurehead for other soldiers).

The game’s primary antagonist Gene is also a fairly interesting character for the franchise. Like all the best Metal Gear villains, he’s very much in the “we are the same, you and I” mold. Gene and Big Boss battle to be The Boss’s true successor – and his mission to stop soldiers being exploited by politicians mirrors what we see in later games.

That’s all fun stuff for Metal Gear franchise nerds, but even so I can’t really argue that Portable Ops is a great deal of fun to play in 2019. One of the worst aspects is that the developers hadn’t yet concocted the Fulton as a way of extracting soldiers, so you must painstaking drag each unconscious victim to your truck or a nearby box. This takes for-fucking-ever.

Another thing I always appreciate about Metal Gear games are the density and detail of the levels. Even Metal Gear Solid on the PSOne is full of tiny stuff that creates a lived-in atmosphere. In Portable Ops the world is built from cubes, they never feel like real places and they’re subtly at the wrong scale for the character models.

Portable Ops is probably now dead and buried. It made no appearance on the HD Collection and with Konami showing no signs of re-releasing any old Metal Gear games I suspect it will remain tied to the PSP (and Vita).

But while it’s by no means an essential game in the franchise, it’s certainly interesting for anyone who wants to see it all. This replay made me realise it always had rough edges and it hasn’t aged particularly well, but even though it may technically now be non-canon it’s a part of Big Boss’s story to me.

BEATEN: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX (GameBoy Color, 1998)

This is the worst time to play and write about The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. Everyone is still raving about the excellent-looking Switch remake and websites are flush with articles singing the praises of Link’s journey around Kolohint Island.

But I’d set myself the task of playing through every mainline The Legend of Zelda title, and having conquered A Link to the Past I was duty-bound to go 8-bit and back to the GameBoy Color version. I’ll get to the remake soon… soon.

So with the bones of this game picked clean over the last few months, what’s left to say? Well, I still find it mind-boggling that this whole epic adventure, with all its wonderful characters, expansive map, toe-tapping tunes and long, complicated dungeons fits onto a 1mb cartridge.

Even rendered through the GameBoy Color’s limited palette and screen real-estate, Kolohint Island feels like a tangible place. Each biome in the world slots together neatly, and though by the end of the game you can traverse the map fairly quickly, there’s an impressive sense of horizontal and vertical scale.

This also extends to the dungeon design, the best of which feature some impressive lateral thinking. The Eagle’s Tower is my favourite, with the puzzles in which you must carry a ball around the knock down pillars, affecting the geography of the floors above a nice little brain-teaser.

But beyond that the simple vibe of the game is really nice. I adore the dreamy atmosphere, with the cameos from Mario characters making the game feel like its emerged from some collective Nintendo subconscious. The playfulness of the setting also neatly sets you up for the game’s big sucker punch, which everyone seems to know but I won’t spoil.

On top of that, the game’s plot is just full of these weird surreal crenellations and builds to a very trippy encounter with a giant psychedelic whale. And I simply cannot get enough of giant psychedelic whales.

Onto the next Zelda

BEATEN: DJ Hero (Xbox 360, 2009)

At the height of the plastic instruments craze I really wanted DJ Hero. Then, like Scarlett O’Hara, I surveyed my living room and looked over a sea of abandoned peripherals. Various Rock Band drum kits, dongles of all descriptions, four or five wireless and wired plastic guitars and a rat’s nest of microphones. The idea of adding plastic turntables to the pile felt like a step too far, so I suppressed my desires and did my best to forget about it.

A decade later I’ve been picking back through this dead genre and figured it was time to finally pick up DJ Hero. Fortunately it is cheap as chips now. Cheaper than chips actually, as a used copy of the game is 50p at CEX, with the turntable peripheral setting you back about a fiver. Feeling a little flush, I even plumped for the black deluxe edition for a few quid more – giving me a black case that turns into a stand-up table for the decks.

Oh man I was really missing out. DJ Hero might share DNA with Guitar Hero, but it’s a very different and more complex beast. Working from an extensive library of very well mixed mashups, you must crossfade, scratch and hit buttons as demanded. It’s a very different skillset to guitar-based rhythm games and takes a few hours to get to grips with.

Fortunately FreeStyleGames make it easy. There’s a nice extended tutorial, you cannot fail out of songs and you can easily adjust difficulty in career mode. I first piled into the game on ‘Expert’ difficulty, only to quickly run with my tail between my legs to ‘Normal’, eventually settling on ‘Hard’ for the majority of the campaign.

Thing is, even on the lower difficulties, DJ Hero is still a whole bunch of fun. That’s mainly down to it having an incredibly solid tracklist. There’s a very wide variety of songs, almost all of the mixes are excellent and the lean towards hip-hop and away from classic rock is a breath of fresh air after Rock Band/Guitar Hero.

There’s a tonne of good stuff here, but the mashup of I Heard It Through the Grape Vine and Feel Good Inc is a real earworm, as is Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City vs Fuzz. It’s faintly impressive that they can take the unlikely combination of LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells and Bittersweet Symphony and make it work. It’s also awesome to see some of my favorite DJs make the cut as guest characters: when else am I going to get to play as DJ Shadow?

But for me the pinnacle of the experience is the extended Daft Punk set list. Not only can you play as the robotic pair, but the Daft Punk mashups – and particularly the two Daft Punk Megamixes – just fucking slap.

My experience of this was enhanced by having a day off work, a house to myself, and deciding to drag the whole setup to the living room and its much louder and bassier sound system. Four hours and a few beers later I’d had about as good a gaming experience as it’s possible to get – and was happy, tired and slightly drunk.

DJ Hero deserves more attention and FreeStyleGames deserve more praise. They nailed this first time out of the game and, due to the relatively simple presentation and smart soundtrack, the game hasn’t really aged a day. If you’ve got an Xbox 360 or PS3 hooked up and you see this for a couple of quid used, it’s a no-brainer.

DJ Hero 2 in a few months I think…

BEATEN: Shenmue II (Dreamcast, 2001)

I associate Shenmue II with nothing but good times. Despite the console having been given a death sentence in January 2001, by the winter I was still deeply in love with the Dreamcast. Its impending doom caused prices on games to be slashed across the the board – meaning a poor student like myself was swimming in cheapo games and accessories (£1.50 for pre-owned games, yes please!).

But the announcement that Shenmue II might not make it over from Japan hit me hard. Shenmue had opened my eyes on what a game could be and I wanted my Ryo to continue on his adventures. I breathed a sigh of relief when a PAL Dreamcast version was announced – though as with other late period titles I had to get it via mail-ordered.

What followed was a hazy two weeks in which I did little else but guide Ryo through the next chapters of his journey. With the console merrily whirring and buzzing its way through its hardest workout yet, I marvelled at the way they’d scaled up the game from a few streets to an entire city. This was something I simply hadn’t seen up to this point (Grand Theft Auto III had come out a few weeks prior, but I wouldn’t play it until Christmas).

Then there was the hazy and meditative night spent playing through Disc 4, a long walk through the Guilin forest making small-talk with Shenhua. The credits finally rolled at 4am, and I went for an early morning walk feeling extremely peaced out.

Now, almost twenty years later, Ryo is finally about to come out of that cave. I can’t wait for Shenmue III, so decided to catch up with his adventures via the recent PC port. They’ve both held up beautifully.

However, while my memories had jumbled the pair together, a replay makes them feel like very different games. For example, Shenmue is glacially paced and perversely domestic – while Shenmue II features an action sequence where you’re chased by a genderqueer chainsaw-wielding maniac.

But the main difference is that where Shenmue was narrow and deep, Shenmue II is wider and slightly shallower in terms of detail. It’s got it where it counts though, with the game rewarding players who wander off the critical path and poke around in the quieter corners of the world.

On some level this shift feels like a concession to critics of the original who didn’t like the pacing. But, frankly, even as a fan of waiting at virtual bus stops in the rain, I appreciated being able to skip waiting times and have more exciting cinematic sequences.

I also like the variety of environments. Hong Kong is nicely bustling and detailed, and while it’s not huge there’s a great sense of place. I’m also a sucker for the Kowloon Walled City and, while I don’t think Shenmue II‘s depiction is particularly accurate, it’s still an interesting place to be.

The only things I didn’t like were the QTEs. Maybe something went wrong in the PC port but I don’t remember them being this strict in the Dreamcast original. I don’t see how you’re supposed to make sense of the more complicated multi-button ones the first time you see them, and repeating the same action sequence over and over is just boring. Making you go through a long sequence of them at the end of Disc 3 (and you have to replay a tough free battle if you fail) is just bad design.

But now it’s done and I can’t wait to see what Ryo Hazuki does next in Shenmue III. I’d given up hope that this sequel would happen, so stepping into those sneakers and pulling on that leather jacket is going to be one hell of a moment.

See you soon!

As an addendum, this playthrough also revealed to me that Ryo can make friends with a wisecracking talking duck and enter it into a surprisingly involved duck racing minigame. So that was fun.

BEATEN: Metal Gear Solid Mobile (N-Gage, 2008)

As a huge Metal Gear fan I’ve been curious about Metal Gear Solid Mobile ever since I saw a grainy screenshot of it in early 2008. Developed by the London-based Ideaworks Game Studio (without the involvement of Hideo Kojima) the game looks like a strange hybrid of Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2‘s art styles. Where can I get it? How does it play? What the hell is it?!

It’s taken me 11 years to answer those questions. I’d assumed that at some point the Nokia N-Gage would be emulated, but it seems like nobody particularly cares about replaying the system’s limited and iffy selection of titles. It flopped on release, and the N-Gage platform died soon after, so the game has been almost entirely forgotten. And so, when I saw an N-Gage compatible Nokia N95 for sale I snapped it up and finally set out to experience Solid Snake’s lost mission.

But before I tied on the bandana, I had to get to grips with hacking a late 2000s Symbian dumbphone. There are guides on how to do this online (see the ‘Nokia’ thread on this forum), but even with that to refer to it was tough. I had to track down long obsolete 3rd party system tools, get my head around ROM patching, how to install unauthorised packages, find old data transfer cables, fiddle with the slow and unresponsive phone UI, mess with the system clock and generally furrow my brow at the entire process. But (eventually), success!

Even better, it’s actually not half bad (for an N-Gage game). Here’s a plot summary (I wouldn’t ordinarily go into this much detail, but this game is so obscure I figure I may as well spoil the whole thing.)

Set in the wake of the Shadow Moses incident, Revolver Ocelot has leaked the Metal Gear REX blueprints online. Now REX clones are popping up around the world, so Snake and Otacon have formed ‘Philanthropy’ to counter their threat. After Otacon receives a tip from the mysterious Doctor Victoria Reed, Snake must infiltrate an isolated research base and destroy their REX. But everything is not as it seems…

Soon after Snake’s incursion a terrorist group led by ‘The Commander’ seizes control of the base and kills the security team. As you infiltrate further, things become strange. Otacon begins to say odd stuff down the codec and bizarre rainbow-coloured lines trickle around the environment.

It turns out that *twist!* you’re in a VR simulation! Doctor Victoria Reed is… Dr. V.R.! The only way to break the simulation is to battle The Commander on top of REX. Snake escapes to find he’s been captured by The Patriots (I think) who were seeking ‘battle data’ from him. But Snake didn’t give them what they were looking for, so they wipe his memory and prepare the second test subject… “Jack”.

The plot is short, simple but kinda fun, and you can tell that Ideaworks were big Metal Gear fans. I had low expectations, but there’s a surprisingly amount of personality here and Snake and Otacon are both written consistently with their other appearances.

But actually playing it…? Let’s just say it controls precisely as well as you’d expect a Metal Gear Solid game to when played via a phone’s number pad. Movement is sluggish and imprecise, aiming is a nightmare and environments are small and plain. Also, controlling Nikita missiles by using the phone’s camera movement simply doesn’t work.

The bad controls are mitigated by having the dumbest soldiers in the franchise since the original MSX game. You can run up one, punch him in the face, then stand behind him as he gets up and he won’t go on alert. Even if you do get spotted Snake is extremely difficult to kill and you can just run to the next small map. It’s also approximately three hours long, which means there’s just not much time to get sick of it.

The one unique feature the game has is a camo mode that uses the phone’s camera to change the colour of Snake’s sneaking suit. But the guards are so stupid there’s no point in using it to sneak by them, so it’s limited to getting through a handful of colour coded locked doors.

Metal Gear Solid Mobile isn’t a lost classic – but it’s far from a disaster. Taking into account the system it’s running on it looks alright, is perfectly playable and, for all its shortcomings, feels like a Metal Gear game. I doubt this is ever going to see a re-release or even emulation, but it’s a really interesting curio. I’m glad I finally got to play it.