Soul Blade

Based off Namco’s Tekken franchise and released as Soul Edge everywhere else on the planet, this is a 3D Street Fighter II like versus fighter that adds weaponry in to the fighting mix.

It’s pretty much the same as any other similar beat’em up but in this series each character has a weapon to fight with. A Sword, A Staff, An Axe, etc. Beyond that the gameplay is much as you’d expect from these types of games that haven’t changed all the way back to Way Of The Exploding Fist on the 8bit micros.

That said both the weapons and three dimensions do add to the combat experience. There’s a satisfying clink at a good defensive parry and quickly mashing the down key twice allows you to nimbly sidestep your opponent making use of the extra dimension.

These types of games really come in to their own when you have human opponents to stand up against. That said Namco have done a really good job of offering up some compelling single player options. You have your story, or Edge Master, mode. A Survival mode playing single death matches against AI opponents. And the Arcade mode that offers up the original in arcade experience of best of 3 timed matches going up in difficulty until you meat the big boss.

Graphically the game has aged pretty poorly. It is a step up from the likes or Tekken 2 and Virtua Fighter, but the PlayStation 1’s low polygon count only goes so far and these type of games do tend to come off worse for wear over time. Still, it is just as enjoyable to play today as it was back in the late 90’s. I do remember spending many hours on this game with my brother back in the day.

3/5

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

This is a 5/5 game, it’s clearly a 5/5 game, it’s always been a 5/5 game. But, cut to the punch, I can’t in all honesty award it more than 4/5.

Abe’s Oddysee is one of the quintessential PlatyStation 1 games. It was one of the very first games acquired for the system way back in ‘the day’. I’ve played this many times over the years. Always one of the first games to be installed in any emulation. And this is the reason for its demotion into the 4/5 realms. At the end of Paramania there’s a level were you need to out run a nest of Paramites. At the start there’s some alternate platforms to wander and preview the layout of the obstacle course, but even with modern emulation cheats the course is impossible, I just can’t do it!

For those not in the know Abe is somewhat traditional 2D puzzle platformer. In style it feels very much the spiritual successor to the Amiga classic Flashback: Quest For Identity. You play loveable alien Abe who is a worker in a meat factory. It appears fellow members of his species are the latest product for canning. You guide Abe through a series of platform puzzles designed to take him on an adventure to free his species and bring down the evil mega corp.

At a time of the industry moving to and experimenting with 3D, a 2D platformer was a relatively brave thing to attempt. It pays off because Abe really does stand out visually among the pantheon of PS1 titles. The sprites, colours and animations the new generation of consoles could handle over the previous SNES and MegaDrive’s are really put to good use. There’s a very fluid feel to the animation that is extremely reminiscent of Flashbacks rotoscoping technique.

All in all a PS1 must play that only misses out on top marks thanks to an insane level of difficulty later on that even snapshotting in modern emulators cannot overcome.

4/5

Pandemonium!

The mid-90’s was an interesting time for the video gaming industry, and a particularly difficult time for games creators. Technology had reached the point to allow the shift away from 2D animations that had been the foundation of all video games since their inception just 20-years earlier, to a more realistic 3D art style. The problem is nobody really knew what this meant and how to create game in three dimensions. The software developers where discovering and designing the rule book for the games we’d be playing for the next 20-years.

Platform games in particular struggled with this transition. By the end of the 80’s they had become probably the primary and most popular genre of video games. Mostly due to the phenomenal success of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, which all but wrote the rule book for this particular genre.

There’d be several attempts at making this transition from the first person Jumpin’ Flash!, to the fully 3D Crash Bandicoot and a number of, what we call today, 2.5D (halfway between 2D and 3D) including both Abe’s Oddysee and Pandemonium! before Nintendo once again wrote the rule book for 3D platformers with Mario 3D and then the world slowly come to the realisation that 2D is best for this genre and 2.5D is the compromise.

Pandemonium’s take on 2.5D Platforming is to fully build everything is lifelike 3D but restrict the player movement to standard 2D left-right and fixing the camera to the side of the player. This exposes the biggest issue with 2.5D games and that’s camera positioning. Abe’s Oddysee solves this but going for a single screen flip-book affair similar to 2D platformers prior to Super Mario.

Pandemonium attempts to completely recreate the side scrolling Super Mario experience in 3D and camera positioning is vital for this to work. The main issue, which Pandemonium does succumb to, is the player not seeing enough of what is to come to give them suitable time to react. Instead relying on the old, old, Platforming trope of player repetition to learn that “when I turn this corner there’d be an enemy/jump/gap/etc”.

There’s also the issue of how the camera follows the player and moves around the course. Pandemonium went for something a little rigid to the course flows through the camera rather than the camera flowing around the course. This creates instances were pushing right on the controller moves your player away or left as the character follows the flow of the course. Controller Right in this instance being used to “move forward” rather than “move in direction”.

Thankfully Pandemonium manages to transcend the issues it faces from its embryonic move into the 3D play space. The core game is a fairly competent if somewhat average run’n’jump sidescroll platformer in the vain of Castle Of Illusion, Rayman, or Cool Spot. However its saving grace is an art style reminiscent of those older 2D games that fully suits the limitations of the 3D hardware of the time. In a word its about presentation.

Pandemonium nails presentation and gameplay. Because of this it’s very easy to forgive the restrictions imposed by the camera positioning.

4/5

Crash Bandicoot

Like many this was the first time I heard the words “Naughty Dog” and it’s very interesting looking at the developer and their evolution through to The Last Of Part II. You can really see the evolution in their games from Crash, through Jak and Uncharted, to Last of Us. While there are early ND games, this is the one that pretty much kicked started the company and sold them as a by-word for quality on the PlayStation platform.

Crash is one of a few games from the 95-7 period that was experimenting and trying to find an answer to the big question of the day – how to make a Super Mario like platform game, the most popular genre of the previous 5-8years, in 3D. And to be fair, with a couple of very minor issues, ND nail it first try.

The more cartoon-like art style makes for a more pleasing, high quality look and feel, 3D than the more realistic but blocky 3D of games such as Tomb Raider. The game plays in the third person and handles just like any previous 2D platformer using an over the shoulder camera. The game runs linearly and pretty much entirely “on rails”, other than jump and move forward there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for player movement, which is kind of what you want from a platform game.

You need to run through the levels breaking boxes and collecting apples. 99 apples equals one extra life, so there’s some good incentive to try and get all the apples you can find. A few nasties like skunks and man (Bandicoot) eating plants will try to impeed your progress but you have a nice spin attack that timed well will dispatch them.

The game has some problems with timing jumps which can be tricky turning in mid air and getting pixel perfect landing in a 3D environment (these things can be hard enough and frustrating in 2D platformers). Also running into the screen where you can’t see what is coming next (the boulders level) wasn’t really that good an idea.

The other more major annoyance is how the game handles save points. You need to collect three girlfriend tokens to enter a bonus stage. You then need to successfully complete the bonus stage to be able to save to memory card. And the save point itself then is at the very start of the current level, not the point in the game you reached when you entered the bonus stage. This makes it very hard to manage progress and makes for a very unfair hit when things go wrong. Why not just setup regular games saves at the beginning of each level?

4/5

Die Hard Trilogy (Part One)

I actually still have a copy of a contract signed with my younger brother back in April 1997 whereby we agreed to fund the purchase of a brand spanking new Sony PlayStation along with five whole new 3D games. Tomb Raider was, obviously, the entire reason for the enterprise. But what of the other four titles? Well, yes, Die Hard Trilogy was there on the list!

As per the title Die Hard is a compilation, a trilogy, of games based around the three hit Bruce Willis Christmas movies. When the disc first loads you select which of the three games you want to play. This review is for the first, best, and most played of the Die Hards (much like the movies really).

Anyone unfamiliar with the films should disconnect from the Internet right now and go watch the first two (only the first two mind, they jumped the shark after that) before coming back. But, if you insist, you play NYPD cop John McClann (Bruce) on hols visiting estranged wife working in LAPD (way out of your jurisdiction). You roll up in front of her workplace in a limo hoping to rekindle the marriage. Unbeknown to you German thief (not terrorist) Hans Grubber (Alan Rickman) has other ideas with the company high rise.

Loosely based on the plot of the film you start exiting the limo in the garage (car park) beneath the building and have to shoot you way passed waves of mobsters, rescuing the odd hostage on the way, to get to the top of Nakatomi Plaza and rescue your darling wife. Each level of the game comprises of a single level of the skyscraper you need to clear of goons before rushing to a lift to disarm a bomb before the time goes off.

The game is a open area (non linear) third person 3D environment. The camera follows John from a fixed position behind and up in the ceiling somewhere. Being confined to a traditional D-pad movement is the traditional tank system but given the nature of the game and the positioning of the camera actually does work surprisingly well here. Character positioning is still often a pain but since you’re mostly running forward the tank controls don’t become cumbersome in the same it does in contemporary titles like Resident Evil.

In play it’s just your standard run and gun affair like Turrican or Gryzor just transposed into a 3D environment. The demands of 3D processing makes everything less detailed than contemporary 2D equivalents but the speed and fluidity of the 3D movement, and just having an open 3D space to explore, more than makes up for what’s lost in definition.

Where the game starts to full down is that it is a pure traditional arcade game. Arcades are designed to get you pumping coins in to the machine. Die Hard follows all the same design mechanics which leads to plenty of frustration on a home system. Shooting is a little difficult to line up with no crosshair and relying on positioning Johns body correctly using the tank controls. Getting through a level requires finding the power ups dotted around to replenish health. But worse is to come. With no game saves die at any point and it’s instant death. No lives, no second chances, no restart current level. And this includes not getting to the right lift with the bomb within the prerequisite 30 seconds at the end of each level.

Die and it’s back to the very beginning to do it all again from Level 1. Thankfully modern emulators allow us to bypass this flaw. The only way I was seeing Level 3 was hitting the emulator snapshot button on completing Level 1 so I didn’t have to constantly redo that level every time I failed Level 2.

3/5

Tomb Raider

Going back 25 years later and there’s a lot not to like about this seminal classic. Being the first of its kind there’s a lot of rough edges that stand out today in a way they didn’t way back then. For this reason we need to take care how we judge games like this. It is an early PlayStation 1 classic and everything that goes with that after all.

Importantly Tomb Raider really was the first of its kind and set the ground work for everything that has come since. 3D games existed way back before the early ZX Spectrum days. Machines like the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC where pioneering this kind of solid 3D rendering in the mid-late 80’s. But it’s very difficult to think of another game that offered this kind of third person action-adventure platforming prior. A couple of contemporaries, Die Hard Trilogy and Fade To Black, come close but it was Tomb Raider that defined the language of 3D third person gameplay that game makers would spend the PlayStation 2 era perfecting.

In Tomb Raider you play Indiana Jones-like adventurer Lara Croft on a mission to locate the missing pieces of the Scion. A quest taking you to fully realised 3D worlds set in caves and tombs around Puru, Greece, Egypt and Atlantis. The majority of the gameplay involves platforming climbing, swimming and leaver pulling to solve a variety of puzzles impeding your progress. This is interspersed with a touch of quick gunfire to ward of dangerous critters and the old rival adventurer.

Looking back from a modern perspective the low screen resolution, minimal texture detail and flat 2D sprites in place of 3D objects do stand out but all were incredibly impressive to gamers at the time coming from, at best, flat shaded 3D models on earlier 16-bit machines.

Likeways the tank controls can be a trial. Being used to modern dual analogue thumb controls with control over camera positioning. Tomb Raider hails from an era where the venerable D-pad was the only option. Still once you get used to the controller layout it is an incredibly responsive and fluid game to play.

One area where Tom Raider really excels over modern games is in it’s level and puzzle design. It’s the Goldilocks design of puzzle platforming. Modern games tend to be a little to hand-holdy. Earlier puzzle platformers could be a little obtuse in their solutions (get jerry can and take to Fred fill with spring water before pouring on magic bean to grow beanstalk to climb!?!). Tomb Raiders puzzles revolve mostly around finding the platform path, pulling the right leavers, and locating fairly obvious keys.

All in all the game still stands up. It’s a little clunky today but once you get used to the controls the revolution gameplay design shines through and remains every bit as enjoyable and challenging as when it first hit the shelves.

5/5