Getting it in just in time: My 2014 GOTY Top 10

2014 was a fucking weird year in gaming. Hell, you probably don't need me to tell you that, right? It was a year where communities and AAA game engines alike were all doing their best (or worst) to tear themselves apart. But between fruitlessly trying to dissuade people from being monsters on the internet, watching the ever-awesome Jenn Frank leave (and thankfully return to) my Twitter timeline and pining for a decent excuse to buy The Master Chief Collection (which I still haven't bought) there were still some good reasons not to abandon The Pursuit of Gaming™.


Before kicking off the list proper, it's time for some special awards.

The 2014 On The List, Off The List Award - The Castle Doctrine

The permadeath in this creepy little gem carries a couple of penalties, the biggest of which (for me at least) is the fact you have to start from scratch with laying out your devious, trap-filled floor design. Once you're dead, it's all gone in a single moment of hubris and heartbreak. As such, I still have a folder on my desktop that's full of screen caps of levels I made for this game, which I could go back to and use to painstakingly recreate and tweak the floor plan I had in place before I'd foolishly decided to try to rob someone else. This game was in my Top 10 for a while until I remembered another game that promptly shoved it out again.

The 2014 Fuck You It's a Roguelike Award - Heavy Bullets

Weirdo FPS Rogue thingy that's got a style all its own. A very enjoyable game that definitely warrants a mention, especially as another game I thought might make it into my Top 10.

The 2014 You Played So Much Of It So Why Isn't It In Your Top 10 Award - Destiny

I'm still playing Destiny. If it's not the best-looking game I've played this year then it's certainly close. Tonally, it's such a cohesive and impressive world. It's just a shame that world ends up being so small and uneventful for the most part. That said, I'M STILL PLAYING DESTINY.

2014's Console I Should Have Bought More Games For - Wii U

Mario Kart 8. Super Smash Bros. Bayo-fucking-netta 2, for chrissakes. (Captain Toad's not out here in Australia until next year.) Despite best intentions, I bought none of these apparently awesome games that were tailor-made for a console I'm not sure I even turned on during 2014. Not even the almighty enthusiasm of The Ryckert got me to indulge. I'm a bad human being with no joy in my heart.

2014's I Didn't Buy This In Time To Play Enough To Include It Game - Far Cry 4

Apparently it's great. You already know this. I'm about to find out for myself once I spend more than ten minutes with it.


And now onto The Real Deal. (With Bill McNeal!)

10. Fract OSC

Not much to say on this one, other than it's a gorgeous, unique, dazzling musical adventure that made me feel like I was playing the true successor to the Myst games, which I love(d). Who doesn't enjoy being dropped into a strange world with nothing but the urge to explore and discover as your guide? Plus it looks like the kind of game a Tron-obsessed youth imagined would be the norm in the future.

9. Luftrausers


This shit is all action all the way, in an old school manner that very much appeals to me, a dude pushing 40 years old. SHUT YOUR MOUTH, IT'LL HAPPEN TO YOU ONE DAY. Ahem. Anyway, everything about this game, from the graphics to the gameplay, taps into the kind of classic twitch shootery fun that helped form my childhood. Well, I say everything is classic, but that's a lie: Luftrausers' soundtrack is pure modern-day banger crunch. And it's also the most canny soundtrack you'll ever hear, each part of its tune informed by what parts you choose for your aircraft. Change your tactics, change your parts, change the music. It's fucking brilliant, and is yet more excellent work from Kozilek, who produced the Nuclear Throne music (and was totally cool with me mashing up one of his songs with Ke$ha).

8. The Wolf Among Us

For the record, I played Bigby as a guy trying to keep his rage in check, but occasionally letting his true nature slip.

There are some corners of the internet that consider this game to be uneven or just flat overall. Not me. I enjoyed everything about it. In between shooting nazis in the face, tearing giant robots to pieces and cleaving Uruk heads from Uruk bodies, each episode of The Wolf Among Us was a laconic oasis of storytelling that I'd happily let wash over me. The change of pace would deliver me to such a lovely, meditative place that I may have simply not noticed any shortcomings in the way the game's story unfolded. Simply put, The Wolf Among Us had an atmosphere that so completely enveloped me that I was too involved to recognise most of its flaws. Just wish I didn't have to wait so goddamn long between drinks.

7. Hitman Go

I downloaded this game in the middle of a hangover and finished everything it had to offer (at the time) in a short weekend. Once I'd picked it up, I just couldn't put it down. Hell, I don't even have an affinity for the Hitman series, having only ever played ten minutes of the first game; I can only imagine the feeling fans of Agent 47 got, seeing their favourite bullet-headed assassin's antics had been realised so perfectly in another format. When the next set of levels came out I devoured and completed them so quickly that I still wanted more. And there are indeed more levels to come, that brown package teasing another batch of perfectly formed miniature action.

6. Wolfenstein: The New Order

An amazing update of the revered classic. Sounds good, looks great, plays like a dream. There's not much more to say about a game that does what it set out to do, no more and no less, in such a effective and rock solid way. Tight as fuck.

5. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Goddamn, that Nemesis system. That's some clever-ass stuff right there. The game it's imbedded in is a great romp, with its satisfying combat and robust world, but that crucial unique element elevates the experience as something really special.

4. Crossy Road

Sure it's cute, but it will suck the sleep straight out of your body.

Our household got its first iPad at the end of last year. As a result, three out of the ten games I'm listing here are titles I've played curled up on the couch next to my wife, or lying in bed trying to fight off that pesky sleep. Crossy Road is one of those perfect "just one more go" games. My high score is 399. I have 48/53 road-hopping critters you can choose from, and all without paying a cent despite the (very non-intrusive) suggestion I do so. I love this game so much. It's such a brilliantly simple idea, to make an endless runner Frogger (although some of the busier road areas remind me more of Freeway for Atari 2600). And it's done with such gleeful panache that you can't help but be charmed. Plus Hipster Whale, the company that made it, is from Victoria, Australia! I feel so good saying that.


3. Monument Valley

I've finished this game and its DLC multiple times, and still love going back and noodling about with it. While the puzzles are never really taxing (the RED dream charity levels up the ante a bit) they're still quite clever and not common fare. I've heard people rag on the fact it's not that difficult, but could those same people have come up with Monument Valley's space-warping ideas in the first place? And for me the puzzles aren't really the point, although I very much enjoyed that aspect. I think the package as a whole, from sound design to art direction to the sumptuous storybook feel, is what makes me marvel at it all over again each time. It's such a complete experience, and an inspiring one at that. It's just gorgeous to look at, and no other game on this list has made me feel like hopping on a computer and creating something of my own after I've spent time with it.

2. Sunset Overdrive

There's a lot of talk about how the attitude in this game tries too hard. And I get it, it does try too hard in places. But then I thought Sunset Overdrive's bratty swagger was perfectly in keeping with the 90s gaming vibe its art direction evokes. Heck, it even made me chuckle aloud on more than one occasion. Say what you will about Sunset Overdrive, it swung for the fences on the presentation front. But the fact there's a game that's just pure fun beneath the presentation's lurid impasto sludge? Hell the fuck yeah. Traversing an open world that's bristling with life has never been more of a fluid, natural joy.

1. Titanfall

I even have that fucking pesky Pull Harder! achievement. But I guess that was one of those monkeys-and-typewriters situations.

AKA You knew this was coming if you follow me on Twitter.

I'm not one of those fanboys who gets so attached to a franchise or company that I get genuinely upset when even the smallest slight is made against it. Well, I wasn't until Titanfall came along. Now, every time I see someone snort and glibly ask if people were still playing Titanfall (or worse, Titanfail OH YOU'RE SO FUCKING WITTY AREN'T YOU INTERNET) I feel compelled to lunge at the keyboard to defend my favourite game of the year. But I usually talk myself out of typing a response, mainly because I'd come across as one of those fanboys who gets so attached to a franchise or company and gets genuinely upset when even the smallest slight is made against it.

So why am I so protective of this game? Because it just clicked with me, right from the first minutes of the beta. It's so fast, it offers so many options for getting from A to B in a flash, the gunplay feels right, there are big fucking robots… seriously, I could dump entire paragraphs here, all filled with the breathless, smitten awe I still feel for Respawn's spry debut (and the disappointment I feel that it didn't catch on among my circle of friends in a bigger way). Last time I checked (and this was ages ago) I'd spent 530 hours with the game. THAT'S JUST FUCKING RIDICULOUS BUT FUCK IT I JUST LOVE TITANFALL SO MUCH


Solid Scanlon and Colonel Ryckert

During the first season of Metal Gear Scanlon I was inspired to make a Solid Scanlon image. I thought it was okay, but it didn't really properly capture the Yoji Shinkawa spirit that I was after. Now, with the current second season of Metal Gear Scanlon exceeding the first (in my mind, at least) I felt the creative urge bubbling up inside me again.

Of course, the second MGS game ups the ante on so many fronts, so I thought in having another stab at making a Metal Gear Scanlon image I'd better up my game as well. Here is the result. While I'll never be Yoji Shinkawa (and really, who could be?) I'm a lot more satisfied with this effort.

Man, I can't wait for the endgame of MGS 2 to blow Drew's mind into nanomachine-sized pieces.


Dan's Diner

It's been a while since I blogged about… well, anything, really. But I'm doing so on this occasion due to Dan Ryckert following up on the potential I knew he had.

I've loved Dan's antics since Game Informer. He was always the best thing about that site (although I do so love me some Tim Turi) so the news of his hire at Giant Bomb was just two of my favourite things being smooshed into a sexy, crazy gestalt. And then I realised a lot of the stuff out of his mouth was potentially a new shirt design waiting to happen.

While Ryan was always my muse and actually-very-involved partner in crime on the shirt thing – and as such is irre-fucking-placeable – Dan promised to be a new well nay gushing oil rig of dumb shit that would rekindle something in my brain. (I'm probably mixing my metaphors with the oil rig/rekindling thing, but then I realised the two ideas combined cause an oil rig fire, and that imagery kinda seems perfect when we're talking about Dan.)

Well, here's the first thing that's spawned from that promise. It's something that's been kicking about in my head since he first made mention of it, but I've only recently had time to implement it. I think it speaks for itself.

Side note: I still totally use Salty Bet. No, I'm not kidding.


Salty Bet: Masocore Metagame

There's obviously been a lot of hot talk about Salty Bet recently, both on Giant Bomb and elsewhere, and from Jeff's enthusiastic pitch on a recent Bombcast I knew I had to check the site out. I'm not going to explain in detail here what goes on over at Salty Bet – you either know what it is, or you don't and can just pop in there to check it for yourself. Suffice to say I've never had so much fun or lost so much time watching what boils down to an elaborate and sporadically broken attract mode. I haven't written a blog post in a good while; that I'm doing so now may be an indication of how much of a stir Salty Bet's particular brand of nonsense has created in my waking thoughts.

At first, it seemed I could barely pick a winner. I'd lay down Salty Bucks on characters I recognised, their opposition seeming to be crudely drawn monstrosities a third the size, only to see my champions obliterated in a flurry of limbs and insane effects. But after my initial flailing and failing as a fledgling bettor, I slowly started to see repeat characters or telltale indicators pop up. I was slowly building up a mental database of who was stronger, what each character's traits were and who they could beat. Sure, I'd lose when I made a foolhardy bet on a match where I knew neither combatant (I've since learned that I really don't have to bet on damn everything). But I would always just put that down to the learning process I was going through.

Believe it or not, tiny red Godzilla vs giant MS Paint Wario is one of the more normal matches you could see.

Another part of the learning process is recognising that Twitch chat is pretty much useless as part of the learning process. I quickly realised that it was full of conflicting (dis)information, and that the only real way to win any sort of money is to ignore it and use it for comedy purposes only. And even that is strained through a Olympic-standard barrage of everyone saying the same meme every three seconds. Darude's Sandstorm, anyone?

So, after rapidly coming to the conclusion that the formula for any reasonable success is to be patient enough to learn what's what and to never trust the chat, I found I could build up a bit of money (and promptly lose it, rebuild, rinse, repeat). But I'd still see people getting absolutely irate about the obviously lopsided bouts that were occurring. The chat would be flooded with ALL CAPS INCREDULITY, bellowing that they'd been hoodwinked out of their virtual savings.

Now, if you went for a day at the races and had zero idea about the form of any of the horses, just chucking money on a hopeless nag because you liked its name, could you be angry if it ran dead last? Who's at fault that due diligence wasn't done? I simply couldn't understand why these people were so angry – didn't they realise it just meant they hadn't sussed the rules out yet? And that's when I saw that, as much fun as the game of betting and winning can be, there's something way more compelling at play. To me, the dollar amount is merely an indicator of how well I'm doing in Salty Bet's metagame: knowing the expansive roster of fighters.

I get a lot more pleasure out of knowing I bet right rather than knowing I bet big. Mastery of the game isn't about having the most money so much as it's being able to correctly predict the winner of every fight. I'm certainly not at that stage yet, and I still make my fair share of dumb calls with the occasional impatient rush of blood that loses me a bunch of money. Hell, as I'm typing this I've just lost $10K on a member of the 71113 stable, a group of characters I previously thought nigh infallible. But I'm still enjoying the process, even if the constantly expanding cast of fighters means I'll never truly "beat" the game.

You see what I'm saying, right?

Further to my personal epiphany of what Salty Bet's metagame is, last night it dawned on me that it's a masocore metagame to boot. Titles such as I Wanna Be The Guy (a game that Salty Bet shares a similar fuck-your-copyright aesthetic with) have you learn through repetition, dying and retrying maybe hundreds of times before you memorise and successfully avoid all the unfairly concealed pitfalls. Being destroyed and picking your wiser self up is the only way you'll beat that kind of game, and the same is true of the nature of Salty Bet.

Of course, the site's other draw is that it's just fun to watch a doofy menagerie of mismatched opponents jerking around a screen to a schizophrenic soundtrack. Yup, I've just convinced myself that I need to check in on what's going over at Salty Bet. Time to bid farewell to another few hours (and probably more than a couple of ill-invested Salty Bucks).


Godspeed, Ryan Davis

I loved Ryan Davis to bits, and it's really hard for me to articulate why, especially as someone who never actually met the man in person. He had just the right amount of acerbic wit that I enjoy in my humour; to witness him busting out in uncontrollable laughter was a unabashed delight for me. And dude could host the shit out of my favourite podcast.

Without trying to diminish the awesomeness of the rest of the crew--they're all perfect pieces of the complete Giant Bomb puzzle, and the loss of any element leaves an immense void--Ryan was pretty much my fave on staff. A lot of this was due to the privileged position I have had doing work for Giant Bomb, with Ryan being my main conspirator on such things.

I was lucky enough to be able to frequently chat with Ryan behind-the-scenes, and dude would rib me in a way that my Australian mates and I do with each other. Ryan instantly felt like my friend from the get go. He was a guy I could shoot the shit with so easily, his personality shining through in even a simple AIM message.

Collaborating with Ryan on shirt ideas was honestly some of the best fun I've ever had doing design work. But that he and Anna asked me to design the invites for their all-too-recent wedding was truly one of the greatest honours I've ever been party to, both professionally and personally.

I was very much looking forward to catching up with Ryan, as he was due to come out to PAX Australia in just ten days. Instead, I'll be raising a glass to an irreplaceable duder who will be so sorely missing from our inaugural event.

My thoughts are with Ryan's family and friends at this time. I'm having a hard time typing this out, so I can't even begin to imagine how those closest to him are processing this devastating turn of events.

Godspeed, Mr Davis, and thank you so much for everything you've added to my own life. You were one of the best, mate. One of the absolute fuckin' best.


A Cyborg and His Fork

The last time I played BioForge was back in mid-1997 after my boss let me lend his copy, along with Crusader: No Remorse (another game that has featured on this very site). While I couldn't actually get Crusader to run on my PC--if memory served it needed a floppy boot disk that never ended up working--BioForge was a snap to get up and running. And boy, was I glad it was.

I remember being instantly blown away by how amazing it looked, with the giant characters and their fluid animation, set against some cool pre-rendered backgrounds. Despite being tinged with some (fun) dopey dialogue, the overall atmosphere of mystery and brightly-lit dread was so appealing.

But for all the impression the game had made, I never really got that far. By now you've probably witnessed what an obtuse bitch BioForge can be, so that's made Vinny's deeper-delving sessions with the game so much more fun to watch. He's looking at stuff I'd begrudgingly abandoned hope of seeing fifteen years ago, with 1997's version of the internet not being the helpful ocean of information that it is today.

Vinny's time with BioForge has also jogged long-dormant memories of the game. I'd forgotten how chuffed the player's amnesiac cyborg is every time he picks up an item and enthusiastically proclaims what it is. And nothing is as pure as his joy at discovering and rediscovering a simple fork.

Part of me wonders if he feels some sort of weird kinship to the utensil, innocent and metallic and brainless as it is. Whatever his reasons, his relationship with the fork has inspired this latest design from me. Sure, our cyborg friend is surrounded by futuristic perils by the score, but once he finds that fork there is no laserjail that can stop him feeling so free.


Miniature robots are screwing with my brain

By now it's probably pretty well known that Giant Bomb enjoys a match or twelve of Tetris Battle Gaiden, with various videos and discussions on the site devoted to its loopy lunatic brand of rival-baiting fun. It was during one of these videos (I forget which) that there was mention of another game (I forget who mentioned it) called SD Gundam Power Formation Puzzle. If memory serves, it was called out in the chat as something the crew might wanna look at next time they stream their SNES antics.

Sure it looks all cute, but beneath all that chibi metal beats a cruel, merciless heart.

Well, I'm here to say I don't really think that's a good idea. And it's not because I don't like the game; I've only had it a few days and I think it's really cool and interesting. But it just doesn't have the immediate pick-up-and-play mechanics that would make great viewing for a casual audience.

The underlying beauty of watching the guys play Tetris Battle Gaiden is that everyone knows how to play Tetris, so all you've gotta do is drizzle some barmy power-ups all over it and you've yourself got a crowd pleaser. But SD Gundam Power Formation Puzzle is not Tetris. In fact, the base gameplay is so counterintuitive to what you know about falling block games that you might find it difficult to deprogram yourself straight away.

After hearing about it on the site, I looked up footage of the game being played. It appeared to be a straightforward, head-to-head SNES puzzle game. I watched for a while, and it seemed that the person playing was putting blocks in places that made no sense. Occasionally they'd match four blocks, and those blocks would explode and disappear from the board. But more often than not the blocks were piling up in an unchecked way I just couldn't understand. I just put this down to the player being rubbish at the game, and an annotation by the video's creator backed this notion up.

And that was all the research I did before paying someone in the Magical Land of Japan to send me a nice boxed copy of the game for my collection. I mean, it's a SNES puzzle game - what more convincing did I need? I got the game, slapped the cart in and pressed Start. So far, so good! Of course, the instruction booklet was Japanese (and my high school studies sure weren't gonna cover all the kanji) but I wasn't going to need any guidance. After all, this was just a Match 4 puzzle game...


SD Gundam PFP wants you to do many things, but matching four blocks is something you actively want to avoid, at least for the most part. At first I thought I was owning the CPU player, making blocks match and disappear all over the place. But then I realised that the central meters were health bars and, every time I eliminated block groups, my meter was going down. Eventually it ran out. I had lost, and my opponent's meter had barely moved. It was time to consult the internet.

Without trying to turn this blog post into a guide, here are the basics:

  • Blocks come in four colours: blue, green, red and yellow. Like Tetris Battle Gaiden, blocks are drawn from single shared chute.
  • Lining up four or more of the same colour (horizontally, vertically or diagonally) or having four or more of the same colour touching in some way will cause them to explode and disappear. This will harm you.
  • Similarly, if you have one of each of the four colours touching in a group, all of those blocks will explode and disappear. This also harms you.
  • You're trying to make complete horizontal lines that don't disappear until you tell them to, and those lines are converted into Mobile Suits - these are one way you can attack your opponent.
  • Depending on which button you press, Mobile Suits are either launched immediately or stored (up to five) to be launched at your discretion later on.
  • The more lines that go into creating a Mobile Suit, the stronger it is. If Suits from either side are launched at the same time, the stronger one will win and carry on to its attack with its health depleted from the encounter. The side that launched the losing Suit in that scenario can then launch another to prevent the opposing Suit from completing its attack.
  • Filling your board with blocks won't kill you. Instead, columns are pushed down as you place new blocks on top of them.

And that's pretty much it. That alone would probably serve up more strategy than you're used to from a run-of-the-mill puzzle game. But SD Gundam PFP doesn't stop there! Because Japan, there's a whole extra layer of shit to consider, namely in the form of Power blocks.

Most of that lot is actually information about the way the game will play.

Lining up four Power blocks (black with a green P) will unleash a special ability. Just what this is depends on which column the last Power block of the group was placed in, with each of the board's six columns having various effects. On top of this, what each column does changes according to what team you pick to play with. Man, even after I've typed all of this out, I'm still not entirely sure I've got everything correct. Probably not.

Maybe it'll change the longer I play it, but right now even getting through one match against the CPU requires way more concentration than a game of Tetris Battle Gaiden. I'm sure my freshly-minted wife is sick of me swearing at our television after I've lost my focus for a second, resulting in a string of misplaced, self-harming blocks that decimate my health before my opponent finishes me off with a well timed Mobile Suit barrage or special ability. Bouts can also last a lot longer than something like Tetris Battle Gaiden, with a lot of back and forth battles between launched Suits, and the potential to heal yourself with specifically placed P blocks.

So, if you liked Tetris Battle Gaiden… I honestly can't tell if you'll also like SD Gundam Power Formation Puzzle or not. For what it's worth, as taxing as I may have made the whole affair sound, I'm really enjoying playing it. Like, a lot. Maybe it's because it's a different take on the falling block thing, or maybe it's just because I like having cool robots injected into my falling block games. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I bought the cartridge. Now I've just gotta get my puzzle-loving wife* to give it a chance.

*My wife is the fucking queen of Columns, which is a phenomenon deserving of its own blog entry.


A love letter to Impossible Mission

To my dearest Impossible Mission,

We've been together for nearly thirty years now, but you're as perfect as the day we met. We've been through so much, and you still make me want to do somersaults through the air. You've watched me die a thousand deaths for you, and I've still come back for more.

I can still remember the day we met so clearly. It was in the front room at my cousin Stewart's house, the heat of an Adelaide summer sizzling outside. Stewart had told me a little about you, and I thought you sounded pretty cool. He put a tape into his Commodore 64 Datasette and started loading. It was going to be a while before you arrived, so we braved the intensity of the sun-baked suburbs to fetch a cheese and onion hot dog from the shops.

But when Stewart and I returned, you still weren't there. We sat and waited in front of the pale blue television screen, chatting and finishing our lunch. Then, a sudden pop from the (mono) speaker. The screen turned black for an instant, only to be replaced by you.

And then you spoke.

The wait was worth it. The sound of your voice, gravelly and synthetic, was like nothing I'd ever heard before. Your first cooing invitation was intoxicating and fascinating. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was instantly smitten and had to find out more. We played that little game where you sang something and I rearranged the notes. Even your little joke about paws was so cute.

As the years went by, I spent more and more time with you. Of course, there was that rough patch at the start where you were difficult and my clumsy attempts to understand you only ended in frustration. I would take time out in a silent hallway to clear my head, the echo of my feet on the metallic floor reminding me how alone I felt.

But then, one miraculous day, I completed you. Apparently the years of trying and falling short were not in vain. Each time I'd plunged down a hole with my anguished, gurgling scream filling the room, I'd taken a small but vital step towards fathoming how you work. Every time I saw myself fading away, losing precious time, I had actually learned something. I'd been searching for the solution for so long, and now things had just finally clicked for us.

Of course, these days I understand you so well that I know exactly how to handle you, no matter what you throw at me. I don't even have to call anyone to help me solve your riddles. I've seen you show up in other places, and while you may have a different style in those situations, it doesn't take long before I deduce your new quirks and have you figured out all over again.

Kids today look at you and don't get how amazing you are. They look at you and all they see is an ugly, tired, jagged old face. But that's not what I see. To me, yours is a deep and timeless beauty. I know how wonderfully animated you are, an amazing sprite at your core. When I enter a room, you hum to yourself with such a distinct, unique burble that I adore. And the way you make a robot pivot is still beguiling to me.

You and I will spend so many more hours together, beyond even this. While everything we do is just the same pieces of a puzzle arranged in a different order, the end result is always the same. No matter what version of you I am faced with, I know I will ultimately see things through to the end.

This predictability is not a shortcoming; it's a comfort to know that I can always turn to you, and what we've got going will never change. And so, nearly thirty years on, it turns out the first thing you ever said to me is still so relevant.

You asked me to stay forever, and I will.



P.S. Please don't show this letter to my fiancé. I really don't think she'd understand.

P.P.S. Your sequel sucked.


SID-licious #11: Lightforce

SID-licious is a series of blogs where I post Commodore 64 SID tunes. They'll be available for download until the next entry goes up, when I'll be pulling the previous file(s) down. I'll probably have the mp3 floating around, though, so if there's some tune you're reading about in a past blog and want to grab a copy, shoot me a PM.

I'd loved the music for Lightforce for years before I even knew it was the music for Lightforce.

Among the many games on the many disks for my Commodore 64, there was a game called Cyber Trap. It was nothing that special, just an Othello/Reversi clone that I'm guessing was some sort of public domain project. I'd play it occasionally, but more because the music in the game was stunningly good. I used to marvel that such a fantastic, Terminator-style tune was buried in some pissy little title that had nothing to add to a well-worn concept. Most of the time, instead of playing the game, I just used to load it up and have the music play, looping in the background while I did something else in the room. Put simply, I was in love with this song.

Then, disaster struck. My parents left town for a trip, and had left me alone and in charge of the house (so it was their fault, really). As is to be expected, a party happened at the house pretty much as soon as they walked out the door. Much stupidity was engaged in, many drinks were drunk, and just as many memories of the night's events were drowned and killed.

Hard to believe I'd be so upset about not having a copy of this, huh?

When I awoke the next morning to survey the damage, I noticed that a bunch of my C64 disks were placed in a pile next to the computer, out of their covers. A half-empty bottle of Coca-Cola, minus cap, sat next to this stack of disks. Beginning Operation "Make It So The Parents Have No Idea What Happened Here" I grabbed the disk on top of the pile to place it back in a cover... only to have the rest of the pile come with it. Yep, the drink had been spilled all over the disks and become stickier than the situation I was going to be in if I didn't clean the rest of the house before my parents got home.

While I was pulling the morass of disks apart I suddenly noticed in horror that one of them contained Cyber Trap. Slightly panicked, I wiped it off as best I could and tried to load it. It failed. I tried again. Failed. Again! Failed! AGAIN? FUCK!

Crestfallen, I figured I'd lost the Cyber Trap music forever, and that was that. Years later, when the internet was actually becoming a tool that you could actually use to actually pursue this kind of thing, I sometimes used to search online and post in forums, desperate to track down a ROM of the game. I rarely even got a response; on the few occasions someone did reply it was only to say they'd never heard of it.

And, as is so often the case, the High Voltage SID Collection came to the rescue. Browsing the songs of the legendary Rob Hubbard, I started up the file for Lightforce... and there it was, this holy grail I'd been searching for all these years. Apparently the dudes who made Cyber Trap had just lifted the music from another game! Ears filled with memories and heart filled with joy, I sat motionless save for the ever-widening smile on my face, soaking every glorious note up.

So there's my story of love, loss, yearning and reunion. Your move, Hollywood.

A few post scripts:

  1. Various versions of the SID chip exist, and I've heard a couple of variations that make this song slightly different, but I've posted it as it sounded coming out of my own C64.
  2. I never played Lightforce as a kid (and I've only ever played it on emulator to get pics for the GB wiki) so I never knew what Zzap!64 was on about when it used to babble on about this piece of music. In hindsight, it's obvious why the tune was the focus of so many column inches.
  3. Quote from Rob Hubbard: "Is LF a cover? I don't remember if it was. In any case it was good rhythmically but the rest was a piece of junk." See, even geniuses get it wrong sometimes.

SID-licious #11: Ghouls 'n' Ghosts

SID-licious is a series of blogs where I post Commodore 64 SID tunes. They'll be available for download until the next entry goes up, when I'll be pulling the previous file(s) down. I'll probably have the mp3 floating around, though, so if there's some tune you're reading about in a past blog and want to grab a copy, shoot me a PM.

Okay, so I've been away from blogging for a while, but I'm gonna try and make this a regular thing again. And what better way to return than with my favourite C64 soundtrack of all time? Strap yourselves in, because I predict I'm going to have a fair bit to say.

Back in 1989, my mate Russell Strang and I (both C64 owners, although I was probably more proud of this fact) decided that we'd go halves in a game. There was one game we'd seen running on nice PCs that just looked brilliant. The animation, the concept and the execution of this particular title amazed us, and that there was a C64 conversion meant we simply had to have it. That game was... Battle Chess!

We pooled our savings, purchased Battle Chess and returned to my house, keen to chuck the 51⁄4" floppy into the drive along with a quick LOAD"*",8,1. The disk drive whirred to life. It then rattled, grunted disapprovingly and then fell silent again, as it flashed its little LED to signify there'd been a loading error. Repeated attempts to get the game working yielded the same sorrowful result. Russell took it with him to his house to see if it would work in his disk drive. No joy there either.

With leaden hearts, Russell and I soon returned the useless disk to the store. Of course, this meant we had to choose another game in its stead. While perusing the shelves, we saw the cover for something called Ghouls 'n' Ghosts. We both loved Ghosts 'n' Goblins on C64 - was this some sort of knock off?* I mean, the artwork on the cover was rubbish, so it couldn't have been a very good game, right?

I guess it's not Mega Man levels of bad, and I'm sure the high school student who made it must have been stoked.

Well, Russell and I decided to take a punt on it. This obviously turned out to be one of the best decisions we could have made.

Russell eventually got more interested in things outside of the Commodore 64 (girls, probably) and the game just came to live at my house full time. C64 Ghouls 'n' Ghosts is an excellent conversion, with slick graphics and bone-smooth playability. That said, I never managed to complete it without resorting to the cheat mode: Just enter WIGAN RLFC (with space) as your name when you get a high score, and then in-game you can press A to get your armour back and S to skip a level!

But of course we're not really here to talk about how the game played or looked, or even my brain's ability to remember useless shit like cheat codes that you, dear reader, will never use. Nope, it's all about the music, and the soundtrack for C64 Ghouls 'n' Ghosts is killer.

Tim Follin is my favourite C64 composer. He always manages to get the SID chip to do amazing things, from sound effects to emulating real world instruments, all draped in prog rock sensibilities. He also knows how to juggle and manipulate the SID chip's three channels to make some of the best layering, delay effects and harmonies the C64 has ever known. And all of his tricks are on show in the Ghouls 'n' Ghosts soundtrack, a collection of songs I loved right from the off and still listen to today when the mood takes me. I even hooked my C64 up to the stereo when I was a kid so I could have a recording of the title screen music on cassette.

[ Here's where the music was. I've probably still got the mp3 if you wanna PM me! ]

I've included a lot of tunes this time around because they're all great; they're all pitch perfect for a G'n'G title and in my mind they all come together to form part of a perfect whole, regardless of their origin. The funny thing is, I didn't realise how short each song really was – with the exception of the title tune, they're all under 3 minutes – until I started making the MP3 files for this blog. I guess it's a testament to Follin's talent that I never fully realised how repetitive the songs are at a mechanical level.

Because this is my favourite soundtrack (and because it's my blog, dammit) I'm going to be a little self-indulgent and give some quick track-by-track notes.

The title screen's not that flashy – imagine that text wiggling spookily – but man, DAT MUSIC.

Title Tune - This sets the tone straight out the gate. Rain and wind effects with a burbling, urgent undercurrent of a riff that builds to a tolling bell and a menacing harpsichord melody. Then, the sound of a screaming woman... or is it a wailing demon? More harpsichord (with some great harmony work) that gets bolstered by a great bass part joining in. And just as it all peters out, Follin quickly fades back in with some suitably spooky and mournful stuff. Notice that it's the opening riffs revisited? Great stuff. It finishes with just the moody bass over what sounds like someone (or something) banging on a large door, before a heartbeat and heavy breathing rise and cease.

Level 1 - The echoey opening isn't included at the loop, so you only ever hear it once, but I always feel it's such an essential and iconic part of the composition because it's the first thing you hear when you hit the fire button to start. The warm bass sound, the harmonies and the percussion are all top notch in this tune. Plus there's the usual Follin prog flair to it all.

Level 2 - The opening to this is very jolly (and, if memory serves, it's all very close to the original) but it's where Follin starts going all progressive at 1:45 that I really love. Oh, and that harmonica sound is brilliant. Actually, now I'm thinking about it, the whole thing reminds me of something out of a Zelda title.

Level 3 - Okay, this tune's just prog as all fuck. Follin gets all noodly Wakeman in this one, and I love it. Actually, I'm surprised I like this song so much, considering it's the level I used to routinely lose all my carefully garnered lives in. The bit where you've gotta run along the tongues AND shoot shit AND not fall off into the abyss below? Argh.

Our hero Arthur in a crystal cave, yesterday.

Level 4 - The shortest of the bunch, but also one of the best. The off-kilter chimes that evoke the crystalline forms of the level's landscape are great, and the brooding nature of this song's opening salvo is so well delivered. But it's when the song builds to a more rousing gallop (complete with flange effects) that it really impresses, especially when Follin drops out of it momentarily before coming back and hitting hard again.

Level 5 - As is befitting the final level, this song has a great sense of grandiose bombast. It includes a few different styles, but moves flawlessly from one to the other, and the way it staggers into the loop is just some canny-as-all-hell stuff from a composer on top of his game (no pun intended).

There are a bunch of other excellent incidental tunes in the game as well, but I've presented the important stuff here. Also, as a bonus, here's Binster's incredible remix of the Level 4 music.

*Hey, this was before the internet was a really real thing, and we were living in a country town that didn't exactly have ready access to more information.