OutRunning the Synthwave

Ah, exactly how I remember my journey to school.
Ah, exactly how I remember my journey to school.

The 80s were a strange time. As a person who grew up in that decade, I have a somewhat difficult relationship with the nostalgia and reverence for certain aspects of that period of time that creeps into modern media, particularly music and games. I got very into synthwave music a few years back, partly down to the rabbit hole that the Drive (film) and Hotline Miami soundtracks sent me down. I found the scene around that music interesting, but most threads and forums viewed or remembered the 80s in a different way than I did. Firstly, I remember the 80s as being particularly brown era – accented with the odd orange and green. Certainly not the Miami Vice-esque, perma-sunset, neon wonderland the r/outrun thread is filled with. And synth music was more often the realm of the not-so-funky studio/tech person rather than the personas formed by the new, new, new wave out there now.

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The last few years have seen mass production line formed of racing games, or racing looking rhythm games, that embrace this imagined version of the 80s. Be it the drifty point to point format of OutRun, lap-based loops or even plain old avoid-the-crap-in-the-road type, there’s a plethora of amped up neon sunsets slapped on and shipped out for our enjoyment. And I have a boatload of them (thankyou random humble bundles and previous Steam sales). So, I thought this weekend I’d slip on some wrap-around shades, fasten up that clear plastic tie and climb into my unreliable and horrid to drive DeLorean and head off into some unfathomably pink sunsets. I’ll be marking each one with the clear and unfoggy categories of Racing (marked in OutRuns), Music (marked in Harold Faltermayers) and Miami Viceness (Tubbs out of five, I ain’t no Crockett fan unless it’s his theme music) which will rate the neon colour code everything in the synthwave genre seem to have to adhere to.

Surprisingly hard to drive and hit F12
Surprisingly hard to drive and hit F12

Riff Racer – I’d already clocked up a good amount of playtime with this. Riff Racer does that thing of trying to straddle a couple of different game genres and not really being a great version of either as a result. Its rhythm game portion is how it uses music stored on your PC to generate the track, the look of the level and the pulse of the game. Its racer content is a drift and avoid the stuff type of affair. The problem it has is that the controls are far too analogue in nature to be a true rhythm game and the generated tracks are too hit and miss quality-wise to be a great racer. Alongside this it feels like a phone game and as it was developed as an iPad/PC duel release that’s understandable. Riff Racer is soft and squidgy when it should be razor sharp and this isn’t good when the game is asking the player to do some pretty tight turning and weaving. That all being said, I really enjoy playing this game – particularly when using some relaxing synth music to generate the tracks. The difficultly drops and the pulsing rollercoaster tracks become great vessels for some focused music listening instead of a frustrating challenge. I shouldn’t like this as much as I do, even then it is one of those games that’s hard to recommend because while I get a kick out of it the plasticky feel will be a bit much to overcome for most people out there.

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

Not quite perfectly functional, but not so bad as to be unusable.

Music – 0 or 5 depending on your setup.

How much do you like your own music? How much of your music makes fun tracks? These are important questions that Riff Racer will try and answer.

Miami Viceness – 3 Tubbs out of 5

Ramps up the Miami Viceness but falls onto the ‘maybe this is just Tron’ a bit too much.

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Horizon Chase Turbo – Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge (a 1990 release but I’m overlooking that) was not only one of my most played Amiga games but one of the games from that time I played have the most in total. When I saw there was a spiritual successor/homage to it out there I was onboard. Getting back into a Lotus style game that runs like my memories of Lotus rather than how Lotus actually runs (which whenever I pick it back up give me a little nudge of how very forgiving most of my game memories are) sounded like an excellent idea. The controls were a jolt after the fluffiness of Riff Racer, as was the concept of a lap but that was an easy enough hurdle to overcome. It’s a case of the game having very much its own physics and handling balance and once that clicks, it all feels right. Horizon Zero Chase Dawn Turbo is a tight game all around and once I was in it, despite the lap format, it felt more like a prototyped OutRun game that was developed between 1 and 2 with some of the other un-numbered OutRun games. The first proper DLC for this, Summer Vibes, only echoed this influence by playing like an OutRun 2 cover version, or tribute album. The game does a great job of ramping up the difficulty like a good arcade racer should – I got a bit snagged up by the old hit restart, hit restart, hit restart when chasing those first places that got away from me on the last turn. But the races are short, and more importantly fun, so it’s not so much of a hurdle to have to overcome, that and the game doesn’t hide things away with win only progress. For a game that has a retro vibe but runs like a newer one it relishes in some features that feel so 80s/early 90s that I almost expected the single player mode to use the spare multiplayer split screen section to a pit crew animation or map to save on the CPU drain. Driving through fuel cans isn’t such a common feature of racers these days, but makes the game have that sense of nostalgia that is more in tribute of its influences than blindly following them. The soundtrack is excellent and is gifted to us by Barry Leitch, who worked on Lotus 2 and Top Gear (the console version/remake of Lotus Esprit) and some of my other favourite 16bit era game soundtracks. The span of the music, and the locations massively detract from a continuous synthwave aesthetic some of these other games go for, which is almost certainly to its benefit unless you are a fully signed up member of the r/outrun club. This is a good game, so good I squidged it into a blog list it barely meets the grade for.

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Racing – 4 OutRuns out of 5, with one added Lotus Esprit

One of those games that if you come to it straight off another racing game it will feel odd but it is quick to find the groove again.

Music – 5 Harold Faltermayers out 5

I love this music – it’s not heavily synthwave (huge crowds cheer), but it is truly great.

Miami Viceness – 2 Tubbs out of 5

There are a couple of stages that get the vibe but this is much more Sega Blue Skies than anything else.

Such amazing drift I flew off the track
Such amazing drift I flew off the track

Synthwave Dream ’85 – I worry this game might have hooked me up to some kind of bitcoin mining program without me knowing it, that’s the vibe the game and Steam page give off. It is quickly apparent that this is an endless runner (driver?) style of thing with two settings, Dream and Nightmare. The further I got, the more I played, the more this this seems so… …limited. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I love me some basic games – but this, at £8 ($9.99), one of the more expensive games on this list and it just doesn’t seem to have the content for the price. It handles okay, it looks alright, but it’s just quite boring. I guess there is a very fine line between chill and boring and Synthwave Dream ’85 just about manages to sit on the wrong side of that line. It was also the first of the games on this list I’ve tried that really goes to town with those broken, low quality CRT effect on everything. And I mean everything. They can be turned down, but seemingly not off. I am a person not too troubled by these effects but not being able to turn that stuff off seems weird, especially as it looks like it could be a nice crisp looking game without that gumpf on top. Which leads to the weird controller support. Some menus work with it, some don’t and that becomes a bit tiresome with how often they are a part of the playing experience. This with the other issue that the UI is muddy to navigate at times make the game’s quality feel pretty low. Conversely, the driving isn’t the worst, the controller at least works well for that. The music isn’t bad at all either. Good enough that I looked up the composer – I now follow a Ukrainian Synthwave producer. So, it’s not all bad. Also, my use of an image of the character of Ed Traxler from The Terminator on my Steam profile has never felt so right being used in game.

My alter ego, home at last
My alter ego, home at last

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

The car moves and has drift functions but fun driving it ain’t.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

I’d not had Ukraine down as a synthwave creative node, but it seems it might be.

Miami Viceness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

Miami is made up of glowing blue lines and red vector mountains, right?

Over and over and over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal...
Over and over and over and over, like a monkey with a miniature cymbal...

OutDrive – Ahhhh, the intro was so promising! Bad animation, in good way, setting up the fantastic premise of your car being connected to you girlfriend/passenger’s heart – drive steady, keep her alive. So far so good. Then I couldn’t get the game to play for more than 6 secs. The first 6 or 7 attempts can be levelled at me, I repeatedly used the controller when apparently there is not controller support. The rest – down to the game. I couldn’t work out what the dilly-o was going on, passenger dead, passenger dead, passenger dead, over and over. After a bit of a scour of the Steam discussions it first seems that I wasn’t alone in this but also there are definitely people playing more than 6 seconds of the game. I returned, tried again but still no luck. Although now I felt that there was a strange zoom on the playing area that maybe meant I was missing a key bit of information that was game showing me. I will return to OutDrive at some point but there are more games to try and not enough time for faffing.

Music – 3 Harold Faltermayers out 5

I can only really mark the music as that is about the only bit I got to experience. It was okay but by this point I’m getting a bit synth-by-numbers-ed out.

We'll drift again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll drift again some neon day...
We'll drift again, don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll drift again some neon day...

Slipstream – Do you like original OutRun? If yes, you will probably like Slipstream. So much so I am surprised the developer didn’t have to get some kind of sign-off from Sega. Slipstream does for OutRun, What Horizon Chase Turbo does for Lotus Esprit, it polishes your memories. I mostly played OutRun on a Master System, I eventually got to play a good chunk of the arcade version, but the 8-bit version was the mainstay of my Ferrari Testarossa Spider driving time (very thankful it was not on the Spectrum like my cousin had to put up with). Slipstream polishes up that 8-bit to 16-bit look to within an inch of its life and further ruins my memories of how old games run. Currently it also holds the unofficial framerate record for my PC , my slightly potato PC managed a 1000 plus frames a second according to NVidia (never sure how true these things are). Much like the aforementioned Horizon Chase Turbo, this is a game so lovingly crafted it’s hard to pick at it. It does all anyone wanting more OutRun could want.

Racing – 4 OutRuns out of 5

It is basically OutRun, feels good.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

Good enough for me to have saved it on Spotify.

Miami Viceness – 3 Tubbs out of 5

It’s there, you just have to find the night stages.

As a British person the straightness of this road is troublesome for my brain.
As a British person the straightness of this road is troublesome for my brain.

Retrowave – The advantage Retrowave has over OutDrive is that it works, its advantage over Synthwave Dream ’85 is that it feels a bit more like a proper game, but only just. What Retrowave is, is an old LED driving game simulator with added nice graphics. The gameplay is mostly what I remember from my off-brand LED F1 handheld thingy from the 80s – a stupid amount of really slow traffic and a car that increasingly speeds up until my reactions are not good enough that I can squeeze through the tiniest of diagonals to get through. In some respects, this game is quite rough but it costs buttons and for the price is actually pretty well constructed; it just makes some odd production choices. For example, the default driving view looks almost completely down at the road. So, the nice pink sun and all those cool lines are not even visible until the player alters the view – and the ‘c’ key does that, nothing on the controller. Aaaaaand this default view is even harder to play than the horizon view. It is all so very strange. However, there’s a nice range of courses, you can adjust the direction of the traffic, add some extra obstacles and even quite a short race will add some bucks to put towards a series of almost certainly not licenced 80s supercars. Would I recommend Retrowave? Yes, but for no more than the couple of quid it currently costs, it has a couple of hours’ worth of enjoyable play in there but not much more.

Low lighting, check. Neon glow, check. Inexplicable lines across a cardboard sun, check.
Low lighting, check. Neon glow, check. Inexplicable lines across a cardboard sun, check.

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

We’re into the feeling of dodging rather than driving around things here.

Music – 3 Harold Faltermayers out 5

A good collection of (hopefully) licenced music, I just wasn’t good enough at the game to hear too much of it.

Miami Viceness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

It feels like this game was designed by some r/outrun committee.

At this point I can only see in magenta, cyan and yellow.
At this point I can only see in magenta, cyan and yellow.

Neon Drive – So these last three are primarily rhythm games that use the r/outrun look and vibe on a car-based skin, rather than actually being racing games. I started with Neon Racer which from the outset seemed much more polished product than a few of the other games on this list I’d played. The gameplay is closer to an Audiosurf style game than even Riff Racer’s racing-come-rhythm style. The car pops nicely in and out of one of three lanes and a combination of tetrominoes, and later cars, hurl themselves at the player in time to the music. At points in the level the view shifts from the more standard behind the car POV to a top down one. This makes for a sense of variety that some of these games have been lacking. There really isn’t a great deal more to say about this one, it is a good game that centres on a particular music and stylistic scene. Is it good enough to entertain those that are not in the scene? Probably not, but with this much neon and synth I don’t think the makers were expecting to.

Aerial view-tastic
Aerial view-tastic

Racing – 1 OutRuns out of 5

The car in this game is purely a visual thing, the handling is akin to Frequency or Amplitude.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

The style doesn’t waver much but it’s a well-stocked jukebox.

Miami Viceness – 5 Tubbs out of 5

There are no synthwave assets this game hasn’t used.

Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. Also I lost control two seconds later on this straight road
Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the screen. Also I lost control two seconds later on this straight road

Rhythmic Retro Racer – While Riff Racer tries to straddle the racer and rhythm genres by being a bit of both, early access game Rhythmic Retro Racer splits the two types into two modes in the one game. Unfortunately for Rhythmic Retro Racer it is now a made up of an average rhythm game and a very poor racing game. The racing style sub-game’s handling is like Bambi on ice – it feels like the game is trying to find a smooth drifting style of driving but the levels are all out of whack somehow. There is a disclaimer at the start of this mode regarding the early access state of the driving and I hope that they manage to get it together as there are some things around this game that seem really interesting. The menus hark back to the Megadrive/Genesis Collection 80s bedroom motif and the look of both the game modes is beyond a lot of other games in this price category. And the rhythm game itself is perfectly adequate, which might seem like a back handed comment, but is meant earnestly. When compared to some of the other games I tried in close proximity Rhythmic Retro Racer has a bit more fine tuning needed under that glowing hood. Given the early access state, this might happen, that or it will end up in giant the Steam scrapyard of abandoned early access games that didn’t capture a big enough audience.

Racing – -1 OutRuns out of 5

By adding driving and making it terrible it’s worse than no driving at all.

Music – 4 Harold Faltermayers out 5

Synthy arpeggio after synthy arpeggio.

Miami Viceness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

All the glow and strange coloured suns a game could ask for.

This feels like a still from a G1 Transformers advert
This feels like a still from a G1 Transformers advert

Music Racer – Finally, the last one! Aside from probably ruining my love for synthwave music and the r/outrun aesthetic forever, it has been enjoyable cruising the various neon highways and Music Racer was a good game to end it all on. Feeling a bit burnt out on the random synthwave from the previous games I took the offer of using music from my own collection to power the level generator and re-calibrated my brain to try and ignore all the different control schemes I’d had to work through recently. Music Racer has a lovely UI, more friendly and well rounded in design than Riff Racer, which is cut from similar cloth. While I didn’t get the chance to unlock too many of the level skins to experience them all, their cover screens point to a nice amount of variety, albeit within the aesthetic most of these games have be gunning for. The handling of the level generation from the music feels balanced and has made the challenge such that the first run on a song lets you be good enough to feel accomplished but just keeping that perfect score out of reach without taking a couple more attempts. After a solid seven levels of weaving and collecting to some of the, frankly borderline, synthwave music I’d picked I felt that had I not gorged on just so much this weekend already I’d have probably lumped a few more hours into this. Maybe after a long soak in some acoustic instruments or maybe a shower of some stoner metal and then a long stare at a pastel coloured wall I might feel up to picking this back up.

The last glowing thing I want to look at in some time
The last glowing thing I want to look at in some time

Racing – 2 OutRuns out of 5

Dodging but in a driving sort of fashion.

Music – 0 or 5 depending on your setup.

Much like Riff Racer there are a few tracks to show off the game but it’s only really as good as your digital music collection.

Miami Vice-ness – 4 Tubbs out of 5

I have lost the will to write the word neon again.

With my journey over I feel I have learnt several things. Firstly, I totally understand why many people have felt that this aesthetic is overused and getting a bit hokey now, something I hadn’t but then had only dipped my toes into previously. I’ll still enjoy it, I make music that sometimes falls into this genre myself and I’m sure that I will return to that at some time but mixing things up is good for the soul. I have concluded I should probably stick to what I'd been previously doing, applying r/outrun style paint jobs to my cars in much better racing games. Which leads me to the knowledge that I plan to play a lot more of Horizon Chase Turbo and Slipstream. I’ve missed having easy access to OutRun 2, so they will keep me afloat until I hook up my 360 again. And finally, I have also learnt that having periods of time with restricted social contact, not having any writing work coming in and an underactive brain means I write excessively long blogs. If you actually got to the end of this, I thank you and hope you managed to have a much more varied game diet over your weekend!

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Back on the Digital Farm: Part 2 – The Indoor Farming Marathon

A truly gorgeous looking game that I couldn't quite see to the end.
A truly gorgeous looking game that I couldn't quite see to the end.

So, a while back now I thought I’d start a series of blogs on here about trying out various faming games, with a leaning towards the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons games. After having a good go at Littlewood (which has had some great updates since that blog) my plan had been to dive head first into Doraemon: A Story of Seasons. And dive in I did – I was up to Spring of year 3, and I’d written most of a blog about my time with it when suddenly the world around us all changed rather dramatically. Suddenly, my time at home, mildly enforced by unemployment was governmentally enforced because of a global pandemic. Not what any of us, save the most dedicated Bill Gates fans, were probably expecting and certainly challenging to prepare and live through. Thankfully, despite the financial worries many of us have during this time, both me and my partner has stayed safe and fed. Which, considering some of the other stories coming out of London, I feel I can count myself lucky for. But that isn’t to say the situation hasn’t had more than a bit of a shake up on what games I’ve been playing and the feelings I have towards some game loops, narrative subjects and what I do and don’t want from a game.

Possibly the prettiest fishing I've ever fished.
Possibly the prettiest fishing I've ever fished.

So, the original blog idea I had for my time with Doraemon was love letter to a lack of choice that game gives you, relative to similar games like Stardew Valley, and even other Story of Seasons games. The very prescribed layout of the farm, the reasonably ridged storyline and the enormous care and attention to detail into the look of that game was just what I needed after some of the very open RPG Farming Sims I’d tried before. It meant the day loop for that game was shorter, felt less of a race against the clock and gave the game an idyllic quality that is sometimes missing from games that approximate a rural life. Then a massive amount of my real-life choice was quite rightly taken from me. Suddenly my couple of thousand work paean for taking choice away felt a little off the mark. Granted, I was linking it to a good restaurant with a limited menu being superior to a crazy big menu all done poorly (I’m looking at you Harvester Pubs) comparison but the sentiment seemed very much against my current mentality and rather insensitive given the global situation. I quickly screwed my laptop up into a ball, chucked it in the bin, got a fresh one out and started again.

Then I dropped off playing the game completely. Reduced attention span, needing a break from a game that I’d lumped a stupid amount of hours into in such a short amount of time, feeling deflated as my oh-so-clever idea to talk about it was redundant – all the excuses. But I just couldn’t face it, let alone write about it.

So, I don't have any screen grabs of FS 2017. Enjoy more Doraemon.
So, I don't have any screen grabs of FS 2017. Enjoy more Doraemon.

I thought I’d jump to a similarly themed, but wildly different styled game for the blog. And, as if it came like a gift from the gods, Farming Simulator 2000-and-very-recent popped up on PC Game Pass. Perfect. I’d played a reasonable amount of a Farming Simulator games on the 360, I remember enjoying it, so downloaded it got myself to a nice South American farm and got on my tractor. For close to ten hours over three shifts it was great, just the palate cleanser I needed. I was growing, delivering, enjoying the not too terrible looking scenery and driving in many, many, many straight lines. I totally get why this game has as big a following as it does, especially wih the mod scene attached to it. It’s like the Gran Tourismo/Forza of farming, getting those accurate engine sounds, collecting all the “insert your favourite farming machinery manufacturer here” bits and bobs. I grew up in a rural area, I had my fair share of Britain’s Farming Toys but I’m maybe not quite hooked enough into the scene to put up with the intensely slow build to getting any of the exciting vehicles. The task of refilling, refuelling and unloading on the entry level machines is so frequent it really starts to become tiresome and the specificity of the higher level machinery means that it’s a challenge to work out the most efficient upgrade path. I felt like I’d been dropped into Souls or other tough RPG where every level up feels like such a stressful choice to not paint myself into a progression corner. So I quickly succumbed to cheating money, getting all the things and paying drones to do the laborious sowing, fertilizing and harvesting. I was no longer playing Farming Simulator, I was knee deep in Farming Voyeur 20-something-something and not enjoying it.

It came to me that I’d probably over estimated the possibility of this digital farming blog being more than a few words I’d written about Littlewood, which was frustrating given how much fun I’d had playing the game and writing the post. I had four or five games in the docket to do as follow on post and now couldn’t really face any of them.

Bigger.
Bigger.

Then came Animal Crossing. I know this is no farming RPG, but it hooked me fast. And, more importantly, it’s real time clock gave me an excellent natural breaks and made me feel like I was not just tethered to a ‘just one more day’ cycle Doraemon got me into. Now, a month on from its release my hybrid flower focus has made AC:NH my own little farming RPG with an extensive decorative side quest. And huge debt.

Getting into AC:NH and then writing this has been a cathartic time for me. It would be fair to say I wasn’t dealing with unemployment very well, but it being in that state I don’t think the social distancing/lockdown affected me as noticeably as friends and family suddenly without their usual daily routine. As this situation has drawn on it’s gotten tougher to get into anything, and just keeping up with the real life chores it a challenge, which logically is madness given how much time we’re both at home for. The amuse-bouche of AC:NH has piqued my interest into some games again at least (might hold off on returning to the Division 2 anytime soon though). The news and media repeatedly use the phrase ‘the new normal’ when referring to the post measures situation most of us will be returning to and I hope for all of you, this is a side step, not a worsening of the old normal. And I hope for everyone whose small escapes from reality with whatever games you love get back to ‘old normal’ soon especially if, like me, this has not been the time of a game playing renaissance that the teenage me thought a lockdown would be.

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Stay safe all of you; and a big thank you to the East and West coast teams for keeping a very much appreciated bit of old normal in my life during all this.

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Back on the Digital Farm: Part 1 Littlewood

Really should have noticed the version number on this screen before hitting play.
Really should have noticed the version number on this screen before hitting play.

2019 was a particularly rubbish year in our little house. We went through losing family members and job redundancies which pushed us into challenging times mentally and financially, which alongside all the other life stuff changed the way I was able to approach and play games – up until recently a major part of my life.

Having a high load of real-life stresses affects people in different ways. Personally, I get a terrible loss of focus – not great for gaming – and huge guilt that I should be doing something more useful, even if there is nothing more productive for me to do – even worse for gaming. So, at the bequest of my partner, I needed to get a few things back into my life that perked me up and would try and lift me out of my funk. Distractions from the wonders of navigating the welfare system and looking for work are important and being assured by my partner I was still entitled to some down-time I had a look to see what I might pick up to ease myself back into playing games more.

I have a thing for farming games, going right back to Harvest Moon’s eventual EU release in 1998. I had a second-hand Super Nintendo and no games other than Mario All Stars, Mario Kart and F-Zero when our little indie game shop guy suggested I get his only copy of Harvest Moon. I’d like to think it was because he knew it would be just the sort of thing I’d never try but would like if I did, more likely it was because in 1998 I was about the only person browsing his SNES section of games in his shop and he needed to shift new stock. Anyway, I got it and lost most of that year to it. When I got a GBA SP I bought HM: Friends of Mineral Town and lost weeks and months of time to that. Since then I’ve been snagged by the odd Rune Factory, 360 era Faming Simulator and later Stardew Valley. It’s something about a series of repetitive tasks, the drip feed of new crops, tools and things to do and, weirdly, an in game grind that I don’t mind all running together to make that “I’ll just get this thing done” feeling strong enough keep me hooked. I’ve fallen foul to a few farming games that don’t get the balance right and become as tedious as farming games sound to almost everyone who doesn’t play them.

So, when I was looking to find something to hook me back into a bit of mental down-time, and few of the more intense (or maybe just active) genres just didn’t help, I thought I’d try and go back to a bit of digital farming. I had played a lot of hours of Stardew on Steam before migrating to another boatload on the Switch (so as not to hog a screen for countless hours of sowing, watering and harvesting) and as often happens after one of my farming binges I got burned out on the genre for a bit. I found that I had a number of farming games accumulated in my unplayed pile on Steam so thought I’d pick a few and see how they were to get up and running over the next few weeks. To stop myself falling down the trap of just playing for playings sake guilt I’ve been suffering I thought I would look at the games against what I’ve enjoyed in this genre before and put the ramblings up here. Writing something that isn’t a personal statement on a job application is a mental godsend! And with that here are my thoughts on the first farming game I ploughed into.

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Littlewood is unfinished. I didn’t realise that as I idly clicked to start it up, after investing a good few hours I thought to read up about it a bit more and saw all the early access notices and updates. Usually I would have held off starting it until a full release but now that I was knee deep in the grind I thought it might be worth seeing how an early access farming game worked without all the systems balanced and the game loops that these games live or die by not quite refined to full release standard. And, after getting to the end of the first year, it’s much less early access than I anticipated but still a little way off being a full game.

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The first thing I really get from Littlewood is that it’s a game that seems to have been born from a Venn diagram of a number of other games. This particular one has Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing/Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past at the heart of it. It proposes that the adventures of a Link-like character have come to a close and it is now the time to rebuild the village and world after a destructive evil force has been vanquished. This setup also helps with usually inexplicable amnesia that all these games’ protagonists seem to suffer from and why everything has gone to pot, leaving you with the task of putting everything straight. The tone, backstory and graphical style draw from the SNES Zelda frequently and lovingly; making it easy for anyone familiar with that game to just hop right onboard the narrative ride it takes you on. The rest of the game seems to sit comfortably between the broad strokes of the Animal Crossing series with the slightly more focused aspects of micromanagement present in the Harvest Moon games.

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While Harvest Moon and Stardew offer many things to busy yourself with, whenever I play them the largest portion of my time is filled with the crops, animal care and the mining/foraging. Littlewood makes these tasks important but much less time heavy in the day to day routine of the game. This is achieved in part by simplifying the process required for these jobs – for example, once a crop is planted there is no watering or care, just a wait for it to be ready to harvest. The game also changes the mechanic many of these games use to push things along – the ticking clock of the day and the stamina bar are merged into one single countdown. So, any activity that uses stamina moves the day along, any that doesn’t, such as walking about, talking to folks can be done with no expense to the day. This takes such a lot of pressure off the game and made each day less about a feeling “of will I miss anything?” to a much more gentle stroll through the chores.

One thing that has already that got me hooked is a simple Hearthstone-esque card collecting game that on the surface has a nice level of complexity to it. Any farming RPG trying to get a bite of the market needs to have its hook that the others don’t have to set it apart from its peers. Littlewood might have just that in this card game. I’ve not ever really engaged in standalone card collecting games but I got hooked into this as much, not more than some of the more common aspects of the game. If this becomes a multiplayer function this game could really have more of a catch for me beyond getting the village and farm all spick and span.

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The grind of the game is pretty generous thus far – new crops, décor and items drop frequently enough to keep the player’s interests up and the other parts of the wider world that are available to visit offer a nice amount of variety given the early access status. Mining, forestry, trading and friendships are all present and correct along with bug gathering, museum donating and fishing – the cornerstone of any good farming RPG. The game never slips from being anything other than charming and the world is a place I found myself invested in making a better, and far more organised place.

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There is a definite point at which the game reaches the visible walls and barriers of being incomplete though. After a busy summer season, autumn is noticeably barren of events and change. Winter seems much less polished graphically than the other seasons and has less of an impact on changing the gameplay often seen in similar games. Then there is the frequent “insert text here” placeholders for certain achievements and signs that bar your entry from “soon to be added” locations. The developer seems very open with the game’s state (if unlike me you actually look at the discussion page before jumping in) and from looking over the blog it seems the updates and expansions come frequently. However, for games like this where they hang so much on that drip-feed of content, it makes it hard to recommend starting something that you know will be much more full experience should it be given time to get to full release.

Littlewood was like dipping my toes into the shallow end of the pool before committing to an actual swim. In hindsight, had I jumped straight into a game asking for a much longer commitment to see through to a feeling of achievement I might have found myself giving up. But, as a way to limber up to something asking a bit more dedication from me it has been a great starting point. Should the progress on this game continue on the trajectory it’s currently on I could see this being a really great title for PC owners that want that little bit of Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing in their life. Maybe even to Stardew levels of appreciation – especially if it is as mod friendly as Stardew is. Hopefully the wait for Littlewood to get to a finished state isn’t too far off but even like this there’s a few good hours there of lovely game to maybe be enough for some.

I hope 2020 brings more good times to everyone, although it seems to be determined to carry on with the vein of 2019 so far. Personally, I aim to get back a level of normality and, hopefully, employment that makes playing a game a treat again rather than a distraction from the actual daily grind. Until then I am off to pick a finished farming game from the backlog to move onto and test out the chore-factor of.

EDIT: A week after this blog an update added load more events to the game - although still a little light on content comapred to some RPG farming games the events are better spread through the year now.

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The Walking, Running, Jumping & Standing Still Dead Film (1959)

(Old Blogger blog from April 2015)

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State of Decay has been a wonderfully clunky, not quite what it could be but still a great deal of fun to play addition to my digital pile of games that I hope that one day I get to finish. As I am unlikely to ever probably invest my time in the franchise behemoth that is a GTA game again it has been a nice alternative and stopped me having to return to Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare for a third time. Both Rockstar and Undead Labs’ games are very close to giving me exactly what I am looking for in a zombie based videogame barring the odd ‘if only it had’ moment. If I could go back in time to when I was sat in the makeshift computer den under the stairs tap the hunched over me on the shoulder and pull the Amiga joystick from my grubby mitts and say,

“Hey, stop playing Horror Zombies from the Crypt don’t you realise there is going to be much better stuff to come? In fact you will have so many zombie games you could fill your entire collection with games that involve the rotting hoards in some way shape or form.” I’m pretty sure that 11 year old would have jumped out of the cubby hole and spent the next 15 or 20 years being so excited about this prospect that he would have never slept again and as a result actually become the sort of shambling monstrosity himself that he longed to headshot to kingdom come in a videogame.

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My love of the shambling, rotting flesh-bags started sometime between seeing staying up to see the TV premier Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and the between fingers viewing of Dawn of the Dead at friend’s house. This viewing was on a video that must have been a fifth generation copy; the kind where the shadows of the film have a strange static effect that added an air of eerie and ambiguity to any night-time scene. The slasher horror films of the day, which my friends seemed so obsessed with, and their supernatural, unkillable killers such as Freddy, Jason and Michael always freaked the hell out of me with their inescapable bad guys, to the point of putting a self-imposed ban on myself watching them. Zombie movies however – for all the gore they contained – never seemed as hopeless. I had always felt that with a bit of common sense I would be able to survive the worst zombie apocalypse the world could have thrown at me unlike most of the fools that populated the films. They became my go to horror genre and although now when I try to recall them my entire memory squeezes them into one big maggot infested endless escape sequence, at the time they all stood out as wonderfully diverse catalogue of grease paint and prosthesis.

So fast forward to 2015 and the ubiquitous role that the undead hold in the videogame market you’d think I would be covered in the glorious sheen of bliss at all the various ways I can smash the groaning hoards. Yet here I am about to unload my grump at them. For a brief moment a year or two ago I thought everyone had grown sick too and things were about to take a turn for the less rotten style of enemy. But the exponential success DayZ and other releases from the same time dragged them all out of their graves again. My displeasure at the vast majority of the current crop of undead hack-a-thons is not down to the a misrepresentation of the less than living stars of them. I am not a zombie fanboy about to start jumping up and down because the zombies can jump up and down, or pop a gasket because they use weapons, or even start bleating on about the disparity between the classic Romero-esque animated corpses and the newer sprinty models. For a start, these are entirely fictional creations and suggesting the blueprint set by one director in a couple of films is more than a little bit obsessive. Personally I don’t care too much if the undead are a bit more fleet of foot or are able to hold a baseball bat to help open a brain or two. It always puzzles me how people who get so upset about running zombies don’t seem to question how a body with no blood-flow can see, hear, smell and touch which they all seem to do without too many issues. But then what do I know?

No, my issues are more to do with the lack of imagination that the undead are used in the exceptionally vast range of titles they find themselves being the antagonists in. The sandbox style of State of Decay and Undead Nightmare are great exponents of recreating the way in which I had imagined myself in a zombie movie. While the visceral combat is key there is also a large amount of eerie wandering about, making often difficult decisions and scraping about for every last bullet and bandage. Adding a new member to this group of games shouldn’t be a sin, especially as new technology gives developers more scope to create more of whatever they feel is missing. I also feel the rotting figures work very well as the target of the players’ ammunition within a hoard style game which has been so soundly illustrated by Treyarch in their Nazi Zombie mode. But even this after a few games becomes more about the enjoyment of the arena itself than the enemy models being faced.

This is where I feel our (or certainly my) patience is being pushed somewhat within the whole ‘zombie as the bad guy’ game. As an enemy the poor old zombie is criminally unimaginative which is only highlighted by its overuse.

George A. Romero proved to film-makers that with a limited budget and small crew the zombie genre was an excellent way of making something that felt much bigger, a much more expansive film than the receipts and shooting time would lead you to believe. The film’s high percentage return meant that many others followed suit and tried their hands a getting some of those hot zombie box office dollars. While a few of these coat-tail riding flicks are interesting in their own right most are nothing more than cinematic fast food - cheap, bland, regrettable and ultimately unsatisfying. While there were many games featuring zombies before it, Resident Evil (and admittedly Doom with its reanimated soldiers but that played more in influencing FPSs) and its acclaim and success had a similar effect on the games industry that NotLD did on movies. Many zombie filled titles followed over the years some great, some imaginative if a little shonkey but mostly they were poor to average games hiding behind their rotting cover models. It could be said that this is a trend for all videogames but the problem is when the poor to average games sell in the numbers that other genre games can only dream of. Which leads us onto another reason why the poor zombie becomes so heavily peddled.

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Can’t be bothered to programme complex combative AI? Use zombies. Your ambitious complex combative AI doesn’t work properly? Use zombies. Can’t think of a suitable enemy for your game set in the jungle (or any other non-military setting)? Use zombies. Can’t think of a suitable bullet sponge? Use zombies. Need some DLC but can’t think of a sensible way of expanding your existing story? Use zombies. (You are exempt from this last one if you are a certain Western themed game that I mentioned earlier)

Am I alone in thinking that the zombie becomes an easy excuse for things not being quite up to muster? Why does this enemy continuously walk into the wall? It’s a zombie. Why has this particular enemy not spotted me? It’s a zombie. Why is this character’s eyeballs rolling around in a really creepy manner inside their skull? It’s Assassin’s Creed Unity. Or a zombie. It would seem not only are zombies popular they are also very easy to pass the coding blame onto.

I am not suggesting we should invoke an undead ban in games, but just that videogames featuring zombies should be videogames about zombies. Stubbs the Zombie, despite being a touch short, was an imaginative attempt at being a role reversal zombie game. The Left 4 Dead games offer a situation where without key teamwork you will almost certainly fail, or worse, have to leave the stragglers behind for the greater good. Recently State of Decay has helped wean me off Destiny and get back to actually playing a variety of games instead of just chugging away at one. This is mostly down to the relative freedom of pace the game gives you. While many of the objectives have a time based window to do them in the consequences that arise if you don’t are more about living with the guilt, or the lack of a shiny new stick to hit the undead with than a simple fail state or end of progression. All these feel like zombie games specifically. There are a few others too that although I have not had the opportunity to play myself have read or heard good things about. It really isn’t all bad when it comes to zombie games.

But while filmmakers might have turned to making zombie movies as an effective genre to use their limited budgets this shouldn’t have to apply to videogames. In the last few years small teams and indie devs have shown that when it comes to games some imagination and time can create incredible worlds, wild and unexpected stories in settings that a filmmaker on a similar shoestring budget could only dream of (although recently homemade CGI movies are certainly changing the limitations of this). Recently I played The Swapper, Jazzpunk and Kentucky Route Zero, all small(ish) projects with very interesting ideas on the worlds they present the player with, and, as far as I have seen no ‘traditional’ zombies. I get that by slapping a lipless, rotting face on top of your bog-standard shooter or your parkour simulator will shift those extra few copies but they won’t make it a better game. And isn’t that what creators and consumers alike are looking to achieve, better games. The potential for imagination within games is limitless so why are we continually clipping our wings with a shoehorned walking corpse.

Of course if we just replaced all the zombies with aliens or robots I’d be happier but then that’s what you get from growing up on a diet of 2000AD. Of course, zombie alien robots are fine.

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A Question of Time...

(Moving posts over from Blogger to here. This is from Feb 2105.)

Two weeks, five days, twelve hours and a handful of minutes. That figure was the total amount of playing time I clocked up on the Gamecube version of Timesplitters 2. I was confronted with that figure when I thought I would take advantage of a rare day when I got the chance to break out one of the old consoles to try and remind myself of the golden age of my gaming life. Granted the figure is far below what I see people clocking up on DOTA 2 via my Steam account or other such time sinks but was still enough to knock me back into my seat.

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The only monkeys in the world I actively hate

I looked through my recent forays into games to see what the modern me had clocked up in comparison. Bungie, in all their worldly wisdom, have a rather in depth collection of data for Destiny which is where I have spent most of my recent digital vacation time so I headed on over to my profile. A discussion of the high and lows of my life within Destiny are large enough to warrant their own article but regardless of that it is unquestionably the game I have played the most in the last 6 months or so and yet when I saw the figures I saw that I had barely scraped into three days of continuous play. I was taken aback. I questioned whether the rather large amount of time waiting in lobbies was being counted but then as I didn’t ever play Timesplitters 2 outside of a same screen local multiplayer it would be just as fair if it isn’t factored in. The strange thing is, I wouldn’t have ever counted Timesplitters 2 as being the most played game I had at the time. I played it quite a lot but looking back I know I ploughed much more of my time into Halo: CE, Metroid Prime and Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (and probably more) than I did Free Radical’s time traveling FPS. Currently, I feel that all I do is play Destiny. Sure, I dabble a bit in Minecraft when I get the Lego itch and there are a few other games I’ve started to see what they are like but not seen through to completion. This made me really think about what I was doing then to have so much time available to achieve such gaming hours and yet still function as a human being that I don’t seem able to do now.

I should point out that during this period of the 128bit console releases I had not long left university and was in a reasonably interesting full time job. Thankfully I no longer have access to the game files for the systems I had while studying as I fear the hours clocked up while there would give my brain even more problems on how I managed to fit so much controller based entertainment into the week. Although, if I did, I could fully explain the lacklustre mark I got at the end of my university career. On the surface the me at the start of the 21st Century was not much different to the me of now. If anything, aside from working full time and being in a relationship I would even say that I socialised more then and had the time to play Sunday League Football every week. Yet past-times me was racking up the finished and replayed games at rate which I couldn’t even buy them at now. What happened? Am I just a big gaming flake?

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I spend more time here than I do actually playing. Or being at work. Or sleeping. Or...

A great deal has happened and not just to me. In particular, the games industry changed enormously. The internet got broader, options got vaster and the entire history of games got bundled up and made available to those who wanted it. All this in little more than 13 years. And despite on the surface feeling no different to the me who was venturing through his twenties, the late thirties me is a catalogue of worries and brain-freezes that seem to be common amongst almost everyone I know of my age. So while I fit into the tail end of the largest game buying demographic and consider myself an ardent gamer I’m clearly doing it wrong. So where am I going wrong?

So I did a little comparison of playing in the 2000s to the present by doing time log of an evening playing Destiny.

It read as follows:

1700 – Powered up 360

1701 – Looked through current Gold member offers

1709 – Wait while unnecessary and probably unaffordable purchase of a game I probably won’t play downloaded.

1715 – Think ‘while this is downloading I shall check on the slow cooker’ even though I have no need to as it is a slow cooker.

1720 – Select Destiny.

1723 – Get through the selection menus to the menu that lets you pick an actual part of the playing part of the game.

1727 – See who else is playing and then wait for them to finish their Crucible match to join up.

1735 – Find out they were about to log off have a chat about the price of DLC and whether it is value for money.

1745 – Go back to the selection screen, decide that I don’t fancy the daily heroic so have a browse around before going back to the character select screen to pick another save game to play. ‘Surely I will have more to do with a lower level player’ I think.

1750 – Start a story mission too high to play with my Level 6 Warlock get two thirds through and then die continuously until I eventually give up.

1805 – Go back to the menu screen and go back to a higher level character.

1808 – Select Crucible match.

1813 – Actually start a crucible match.

1817 – Leave Crucible match to answer the door.

1823 – Make a cup of tea for the visitor who shows an interest in playing Destiny. No local multiplayer means I get to watch them play.

1910 – Visitor leaves and prompting me to shut down 360 to have some dinner and actual real life interaction with my partner.

1940 – Turn 360 back on and reload Destiny.

1943 – Go straight to Crucible selection screen and try to actually start playing.

2010 – Everyone else who resides in the same block of flats as me decides now is the time to use their internet too thus rendering my data speed to a trickle and as a result convert my online game into a strange series of events that mostly involves other players glitching through time and space. Give up on Destiny.

2015 – Start browsing games to look for an alternative thing to play.

2045 – Come to the conclusion that everything I own is either too long, needs someone else or isn’t what I fancy right now.

2046 – Start the browsing again because I can’t believe amongst all those games I can’t find one to play.

2056 – Come to the same conclusion I had ten minutes previously.

2100 – Give up and start watching the news.

Compare this to a time log of me in 2002.

1700 – Turn on Gamecube.

1701 – Start playing Timespitters 2.

0200 – Realise I have to be in work in less than 6 hours and so turn off Timesplitters 2.

I do feel a bit bad using Destiny as the example as it is not the only culprit of this problem but it has been the most recent offender of prolonged menu viewing. This is mainly down to me only ever electing to play it in the vague hope I will one day get an Exotic Hand Cannon, which seemingly has the same likelihood of a positive outcome as buying lottery tickets instead of working to earn money would have. Sure it’s a nice chance to chat with your fireteam members over such interesting topics such as the loot we’ve not yet got, the stress of finding relic iron and why the eff I have still not managed to get any kind exotic bounties yet.

The thing is, it isn’t just the drawn out process of getting to start an online only game that is slowing things up in terms of actual game time consoles and PCs provide so much more other things than they ever did before. Upon turning the machine on we are bombarded by a series of links and adverts for other products we might be interested in. I realise that I am a sucker for this, perhaps a bit more than most, but surely I am not alone in pining for the days when slotting a disc or cartridge into a system almost certainly meant going straight into the game when powering up. I think I have spent more time browsing what I could buy on Steam than using it as a hub to start playing a game.

Maybe I am a bit of a relic now and I need to adjust to a changing marketplace. But it also explains my reluctance to purchase any of the current generation of consoles (or upgrade my PC). Added fidelity and even more space to make games larger than the ones I already found too large to complete anyway just aren’t enough to convince me to make the jump. I use the, “I can’t justify the spending.” line when asked but I haven’t ever really been able to afford any of the consoles I’ve owned but when you really want something you make the effort. I can’t ever say I would want retire as a ‘gamer’ but by not staying up-to-speed with the current platforms I fear I might give off that impression to those that do.

Strangely it is quite apt that it was the Gamecube version of Timesplitters 2 that I used as reference, as in that particular generation of consoles Nintendo’s little purple box was the first I got a hold of (not counting a brief fling with the Dreamcast that went no further than a quick cuddle before Sega neutered it). By the end of that round of console births I had a PS2 and Xbox but always favoured the Nintendo line-up more. Now, having had a Microsoft and Sony themed front room for nearly a whole decade for the first time in all that time I am tempted by a Nintendo home console. The Wii U for all its failings and questionable time of continued support seems to be the only console of the generation that seems to be about playing games and not taking over my entire entertainment setup. That and the fact that Mario Kart 8 plays like a dream and the upcoming Legend of Zelda game looks quite special might push me the closest to buying a new system since 2008.

However, if I decide to work my way through my backlog of games on the 360, PS3 and Steam it could be 2025 before I get around to getting one.

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