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One quick go

I’ve noticed lately that I rarely find the time or energy to sit down with a game for hours on end. Baten Kaitos must’ve been the latest game to get that treatment and since the wife hogged it, I haven’t found time to continue it, despite being very enthusiastic about it.

I am very much into Ikaruga, OutRun 2 and beat ’em ups (Soul Calibur II foremost). I think this is because I can play a meaningful game in just ten minutes. A successful OutRun run takes just under five minutes, as do a couple of rounds of Soul Calibur. Donkey Konga you can only play for five minutes at a time – I was about to give up because of physical exhaustion when first fighting Karate Kong.

Another cool thing about these quick games is that you don’t have to think about them. When playing an RPG or strategy game, you need to keep the game in your mind, merely put on shelf while you’re not playing. That can be tiring.

There are some games which absolutely require more than an hour of gametime. With these games, I essentially need to arrange a date with the game, plan the session in advance, informing my wife that this evening I’m going to play a game and nothing else. While I feel this is somewhat silly, it does lend a nice air of… expectation to the event.

Games which require this treatment are Madden NFL, the Metal Gear Solid series and, say, Morrowind (if only for the loading times). But of course, in practice you do this kind of thing pretty rarely, no more than once a week, with the possible exception of weekends.

I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. On the one hand I miss really delving into a game and burning away hours upon hours in a game world, but on the other hand I like the way these less time-consuming games don’t take over my life. Although having played games all my life, I highly suspect this is merely a phase and a time will come when I’m exclusively into more demanding games, again… like King Of Dragon Pass, which I haven’t still tried out, or I-War 2, which I really want to get into, but haven’t found the time or energy yet.

Edit: quickie games aren’t the sole property of the consoles, of course. On the PC I fancy Mutant Storm, Parsec47, MAME and the zany Typing Of The Dead, which is only made more hilarious by its awkward technical merits.

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Blood Bowl

Last year I played Games Workshop’s Blood Bowl with a group. I had a lousy Lizardman team in this fantasy take on American football. The group’s interest waned and we stopped playing some time ago. However, I was still interested in the game, so I was keen to try out a Java application that enabled me to play Blood Bowl with my friends over the Internet. You can find a link here.

The game is delightfully fast and easy. I imagine it might be a tad confusing for a newcomer, but we had a blast. I don’t know whether we’ll actually start to keep records on team experience and match results and everything all over again, but the actual play is fun. Recommended to all old fans of the game. You can find leagues online.

I’ve played a handful of matches via the Java version now, losing all of them. My orcs really keep getting pushed around by the elves. I’ve always hated the elf teams, they seem to have no weaknesses. It does feel very good to stomp on them when they’re down, though. The game works very well, we haven’t encountered any bugs. If only the team upkeep could be automated, too, without having to resort to the manual at all.

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Ultima

Ultima V Lazarus was released just before Christmas. I got to try it out last night and my initial impressions are very good. It’s a mod for Dungeon Siege, so you need this now-oldish action RPG to play. I never bothered to play DS very far, but I bought it as a budget re-release specifically in order to play Lazarus one day. Granted, I didn’t really expect the team to ever finish their massive task. (So it’s still buggy, but the first patch is already out.)

I never really played the Ultima series before. I was too young to grasp them initially, and then I lacked a PC to play on for quite some time. I lack the emotional attachment to the game most Lazarus players are likely to bring along. Still, the game’s opening really grabbed my attention and I already feel like embarking on a truly epic quest.

Ultima V doesn’t dumb down the experience. You really feel that the characters have a history together (which they, of course, do, but I never experienced it) and that they are real people. You’re actually given choices right from the start (go to the Abbey? Go straight to Britain?), stuff isn’t over-explained and combat is actually risky. The first clues to solving the situation at hand are intriguing (a demon seeking redemption). And you’re no barehanded newbie, you’re Avatar, who’s already saved the realm once!

It’s been a long time since I last wished to get home quickly and get back to playing, but Lazarus is doing that. Very much recommended.

I like the game’s little touches a lot. You need to gather materials for casting spells (ginseng and garlic to cure poison, for insance), and these are actually harvested from the wilderness. Your party needs to eat, so you have to keep an eye on rations, but you don’t have to actually manually make them eat. You can also hunt. Dialogue is largely very good and there seems to be real motivation to do stuff.

Bear in mind that you need to stomach quite a bit of bugs to enjoy the game, though. Even if this is subject to change if the team keeps up its pace.

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Bongos

So I got my wife a set of DK Bongos for the Gamecube. We didn’t find the music game (titled Donkey Konga) that much fun at the store, but the action game, titled Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, seemed great fun. It is. It may seem odd to control a traditional 2D platform game with a set of drums, but it plain works. Playing is great fun, even if you can only play for a couple of levels before needing a break.

The bongos recognize the left beat, the right beat, beating them together and a microphone picks up the clap of your hands. So you only have four controls, but that is quite enough, really.

While the game features heavily on not being too demanding on the controls, it leaves plenty of room for skilled play. While you can just run and clap your way through the levels, major points are only scored for long aerial combos. I can’t really see how to achieve 1200 bananas required for the platinum awards just yet.

I doubt it’s very long-lived fun, but fun it is. Recommended.

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Ikaruga

The only type of game I’m playing somewhat regularly on the PC is the shoot ’em up – of the sideways or vertically scrolling 2D kind. Most of these games are played on MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, some on other emulators (SNES, Sega Megadrive/Genesis, mostly) and some are modern freeware, mostly from Japan (see ABA Games for free goodies). I’m by no means a shmup wizard, but I do like my shooters.

So getting Ikaruga (cool fan site here) for the Gamecube was a no-brainer. Indeed, it was my primary reason for getting a Gamecube in the first place. It did take some time tracking down a copy for an agreeable price, though, because the game was never manufactured in large numbers and I only got a Gamecube a few months back.

I’ve now played it for around four hours – I don’t know how long exactly, because I didn’t realize the autosave wasn’t on by default, so I lost the records of my first few sittings. (Duh.) It is sweet. I can get to halfway of the fourth level (there are five), but the third level’s boss really makes it clear that if you’re not after a challenge, you need not apply. It’s just brutal. But never really unfair, you can always see where you made a mistake.

And boy, I’ve missed a challenge. I grew up playing games with largely mythical endings: in the 8-bit days, games used to be so hard that completing a game was really an event, something we used to talked about for rather long times. I was very disappointed to see that nobody was making old-school shmups with the power of today, save for the few Japanese amateur artists. There are some quality shmups released on the PS2, but that’s about it. It’s a shame. The shmup is definitely not for everyone and the kids of today are likely baffled by the difficulty level, but that’s just the point. It feels so much better when you’ve had to work for it.

Make no mistake, I do grow frustrated with difficult games. But this is because today’s games tend to be difficult because they’re designed badly, not because they’re challenging by design.

Now, I can see myself completing Ikaruga on “easy”, but the “normal” difficulty (let alone “hard”) seems such a challenge that I have my work cut out for me for years to come, knowing that I won’t be practicing every day. Considering this, it does feel perfectly fine that the game can be completed in something like 20 minutes, once you’re good enough. But can you do it with just one credit? There’s actually an endearing shmup term for this, “to 1CC a game”. To 1CC means you’ve mastered it, and that is my goal with Ikaruga. The art of shooting, truly.

Edit: I’ve now clocked in about three hours plus the initial couple of evenings’ worth and can get to the last level, which is insane. The chaining system really does keep things interesting. I’ve so far managed to chain only 24 in the first chapter. Things get real hairy real fast in the beginning of the second chapter, chaining-wise… I can get to chapter three’s boss on one credit and generally don’t die before chapter three anymore.

In other gaming news, Tony Hawk’s Underground’s last objective (beat Eric) is rock hard. And I’ve been playing on “easy”. I really miss a highscore mode in the game. It’s still fun on two-player, but there doesn’t seem to be anything much to do in single player besides the disposable campaign. It’s the only Tony Hawk I’ve played since the original on Playstation and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2’s demo on the PC, which I played way more than this full-blown game on the Gamecube. Shame, really.