You Spoony Bard!

I’ve spent a few hours over the last couple of days playing Final Fantasy IV Advance and I’m actually surprised by how much I like it. I’ve barely touched any of the pre-FFVI games because I’m definitely not a fan of high fantasy and found the later modern and, in the case of VI, steampunk settings far more interesting. Incidentally, I loved FFIX which renders my complaints about fantasy kind of irrelevant.

Anyway, while the game isn’t particularly pretty (it’s a port from 1991, after all) and since it can’t compensate with flashy FMV like the PSX ports newcomers will have to make do with character portraits and a new translation, designed to be more true to the original Japanese script. It therefore relies on the gameplay and story to sustain it, and since the FF games really haven’t changed the basic gameplay all that much it’s the story and characters that differentiate them.

High fantasy or not, the story is strong so far, with an elite knight stripped of his power for questioning the authority of his king when forced to kill innocent people, and then tricked into carrying out a catastrophic attack on a village of innocent summoners, somehow leaving one survivor, a young girl with the handy ability to summon monsters. I’m sure you can guess where it starts going from there.

The real test will be whether or not I bother to finish it during the wait for FFVI Advance, having never finished a single Final Fantasy. We’ll have to see on that one…

Best of 2005 #4: Lumines


I own the Japanese version of Lumines (pictured) which came out in 2004, but since it came out everywhere else and I bought it in 2005 it gets in, and deservedly so. It’s one of the few challengers to the Tetris throne that even comes close, and it’s still the best game on the PSP by some way.

Lumines is essentially your common or garden falling block puzzle in which coloured blocks fall from the top of the screen, and by matching up four or more of a single colour they’ll be removed by a bar that sweeps horizontally across the screen at varying speeds. It’s as simple as all the best puzzle games and is maddeningly addictive (even when matching your high score can take a couple of hours of solid play), which is really all you need to make a good puzzle game for a handheld.

That’s not all you get, though. Like Mizuguchi’s last game, Rez, music plays a central role in the game, and every few levels you’ll come to a new “skin”, changing the backgrounds, block colours, speeds, and the music. It’s the same sort of music that you’ve seen in Rez (good thing) and makes headphones a necessity to fully enjoy the hypnotic beauty of the game. Even if saying that that this is the best game on the PSP isn’t really high praise at the moment, saying that this is one of my favourite puzzle games ever made certainly should be.

Newsflash: Even GT4 Isn’t Realistic

Tonight’s edition of Top Gear (possibly the best show on television, and I’m not even interested in cars) had an interesting games-related item which seems like an obvious idea but I’d never seen done. Jeremy Clarkson is something of a luddite when it comes to anything that doesn’t have an engine, so he drove a lap of Laguna Seca in a Honda NSX on Gran Turismo 4, achieving a lap time of 1:41, and then tried the same car on the real track incarnate to see how he did.

To be honest I’m not all that surprised that he found it was nothing like the game because anyone who’s ever driven a car knows that it’s completely different to getting behind the virtual wheel, but after several attempts and with the help of the track instructor on the real thing he could only manage a time of 1:59. Trying some of the driving techniques easily possible in the game left him leaving the track or spinning out, and braking in the way that you can to get around the infamous Corkscrew gave him nothing but the strong smell of burning brakes.

Just goes to show that for all the flapping that goes on about tracks with satellite imaging and thousands of hours spent test-driving various cars, a game still can’t accurately simulate the experience. If an experienced driver can drive a lap in the game in 1:41 on their first attempt but is 19 seconds slower in real life when they spend a day racing the track you can tell that something isn’t right.

Best of 2005 #5: Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

Metal Gear Solid may have popularised the stealth action genre but I’ve always thought that the Splinter Cell series did it better, with all the post-modernism thrown out and a fully 3D camera, which I find essential to any game requiring the awareness of your surroundings that a stealth game does. The camera was the main reason I gave up on MGS3, as without the radar but with the anachronistic camera I found it frustrating beyond belief to have to keep switching to first person to see beyond the top of the screen.

Pandora Tomorrow expanded on the first game and added that fantastic multiplayer mode, but suffered from annoying difficulty spikes that detracted from things. By handing development back to the original team for Chaos Theory, we got significant improvements to the gameplay as well as some of the best graphics of that generation. The campaign was long and had variety (the Seoul level is a particular standout moment, and its setting in an urban war with you as a neutral shows similarities to MGS4), and the way that you were ranked on your ability to go undetected and avoid killing anyone encouraged perfectionism that’s unusual for me, actually getting me to go back and replay the game when I’d finished it.

When you factor in an improved version of the multiplayer and an entire co-op campaign with online play, this is one of my favourite action games ever made. Splinter Cell Double Agent is going to have a lot to live up to now and I really hope it can manage it.

Animal Crossing: Wild World Impressions

The Animal Crossing series is a strange one. There’s essentially three versions of the same game, released on three platforms (the N64 version never made it outside of Japan), and all receive the same critical acclaim coupled with bemusement over what exactly makes these such compelling titles. I’ve got the same bug, but on a portable format it’s far more palatable.

I imported Animal Crossing for the GameCube, played it daily for a few weeks, loved it for that time, and then flogged it on eBay when it was announced that it wasn’t coming out here for two years, making a nice profit in the process (life imitating art simulating life?). At that time I can clearly remember enjoying messing around in the game immensely but just thinking that it would make a much better handheld game, as having to be at home in reach of the GameCube made playing beyond a certain point when other console games came along a hassle.

So here we are, three years later with a pretty faithful handheld version with a few tricks of its own. There are already plenty of reviews if you don’t know the basics, but I’ll just say that this is probably my favourite version. It looks as good as the N64 version (the GameCube one is much smoother, but it has no effect on the game), it controls decently whether you use the touch screen or the buttons (touch screen is slightly faster when navigating menus), and the gameplay just lends itself better to a handheld format so that you can jump in and out as and when without having to be tied to the GameCube.

The online mode seems pretty throwaway to me, emasculated by Nintendo’s over-protective attitude to online play, so it’s not the killer feature that it could have been. Otherwise this is a great version of one of the most charming games on the market, and one that probably won’t convert those who didn’t like it on the Cube, but should win plenty of new fans. If you want something for the kids to play I’d easily recommend this over fucking Nintendogs.

WordPress 2.0

WordPress 2.0 is out today, and to commemorate this momentous occasion I thought it would be a good idea for some quick first impressions. I’ve been playing around with various betas and release candidates for a while now but this is my first experience with the finished article.

There weren’t any major bugs to fix with the 1.5 line, so this is just a good opportunity to create new ones by adding a lot of new functionality, both obvious stuff and a lot of tweaking behind the scenes. If all goes according to plan you shouldn’t even notice the change as, for the moment at least, all the changes are on my end. You might get a little speed increase from the new caching system, but that’s about it.

The admin pages are now a fetching shade of teal (I prefer the old white/grey but it’s acceptable) and probably the most noticable addition is a TinyMCE WSIWYG editor for writing posts. I turned it off because I like to control my HTML, but it should help make WordPress more accessible to people who just want to be able to blog without getting their hands dirty. Other changes are fairly superficial (I like the screenshots for theme selection) but we’ll see the benefits when developers start taking advantage of the upgrades. The upgrade was as painless as always, and my theme and all plugins worked fine once I’d grabbed a couple of newer versions.

A couple of bugs regarding timestamps that I’d run into when I was running RC3 locally have been mostly fixed and so far no problems at all. It always impresses me when open source software can be this robust while costing nothing, and this example comes highly recommended.