As what has been a rather shitty status quo continues to get worse, I didn’t feel like the big new releases in Doom Eternal or the Resident Evil 3 remake were the appropriate antidotes. Instead, I’ve been relying on a little glimmer of light that’s been occupying my Switch since “social distancing” entered the vernacular: Grandia HD Collection.
The first game’s relentlessly optimistic adventure makes it perfect for these bleak times. It was something of a throwback even at release, with its Saturday morning cartoon storyline and colourful, sprite-based characters bucking the trend of dark and gritty post-FFVII RPGs. There are no brooding antagonists and tortured antiheroes – the main character is a young boy, the son of an adventurer and a pirate because why not, intent on making his name as a first-class adventurer by exploring uncharted continents and discovering ancient civilisations with his friends. There’s a militaristic empire on the party’s heels, of course, but it wouldn’t be a Saturday morning cartoon without its Cobra.
It’s a perfectly upbeat change of pace. Not overly challenging, with no esoteric systems to potentially snooker you later on. And it has what remains my favourite RPG battle system ever designed – a perfect mix of turn-based, active time and the spatial awareness of real-time combat that seems simple and yet, once mastered, rewards flawless victories with this soaring, gloriously of-its-time riff. I’ve spent most of my time with the game with a smile on my face. It’s a proper warm blanket of a game.
The HD collection also contains Grandia II, which is still a great game with Dreamcast era 3D graphics that upscale better than Grandia’s sprites – my one complaint about the first game’s remaster is the smeared filtering job on the sprites, which is bearable on the Switch’s screen but looks worse the bigger your display gets. But the sequel comes with a touch of post-FFVII brooding that I can’t bring myself to like as much. Think of it as a nice freebie, with the first game as the real reason to buy this collection.
For the first time, the iPhone 11 Pro is a phone that I feel entirely comfortable using as my sole snapshot camera. Literally the only thing it doesn’t do better than my point-and-shoot (which is no slouch) is zoom, which may be an unsurmountable problem for the smartphone form factor… or it may not.
I’ve been away twice since I’ve had it, to Berlin and Paris, and it’s been phenomenal, but here I want to showcase its night mode in particular with a few samples. Some of the following shots are lit by little more than a few candles.
It’s uncanny, and impressively naturalistic – it almost always looks like a properly exposed night shot rather than an artificial day shot.
My Nikon DSLR will always remain the king, but when I don’t want to carry around a few kilos of camera and lenses, this will do.
I’m holding a copy of Shenmue III. I’ve got another two on the way, but that’s not important right now. It’s still hard to believe. It had been a punchline for so long, and even that bonkers E3 was four long years ago. But 18 years after I put down the controller to watch the end credits of Shenmue II, not knowing that the series would spend quite that long in stasis but perhaps suspecting its future wasn’t quite assured, the long wait is over.
Silly as it sounds, it’s actually quite an emotional moment for me. I never really lost hope, even as I’ve become less involved in the community. At some point I reacquired the domain of the old Shenmue Fan Site when I noticed it become available again. Tempted? Nah. But those were fun times.
These are my Japanese copies of the first two games. Going from my purchase of the first one, which would have been in the early days of 2000, as soon after the 29 December 1999 Japanese launch as the Video Game Centre (naturally) could get them, these three represent a little shy of a 20-year journey.
There are even some people who I might send a cheeky tweet with a link to this post. Those dirty non-believers on Twitter and my editorial teams who told me to let it go, that it would never happen.
I’m planning to post some more detailed impressions when I’ve spent some time with the game, but given how sparse my updates here have become, I couldn’t let this day pass without some acknowledgement that I’m still here — and so is Shenmue.
While not as earth-shattering as the Shenmue III announcement, the weekend’s news that the first two games are getting a remaster has been almost as long coming. It’s multiplatform, it has a physical release, it has dual languages, and considering that even Sonic Adventure didn’t justify a standalone release back when Sega was pushing Dreamcast ports, this series getting one is pretty fucking vindicating.
And even with my intention to support the series by buying every version, it won’t cost me as much as the Shenmue III Kickstarter did.
Japanese language option – The most important feature, without a doubt, and the one thing that will guarantee my happiness with this port. This is the first time, short of messing around with CD-Rs and hacked undubs, that it’s been possible to play Shenmue in Japanese with English subtitles. My life feels kind of empty without this drum to bang. What do I complain about now?
Widescreen – It’s unclear from the trailer what exactly will be offered here, as the announcement trailer shows both gameplay and cut-scenes from Shenmue II in 16:9, with the first game’s gameplay in 16:9 but cut-scenes in letterboxed 4:3. But while we wait for all the details, the important thing we do know is that Shenmue and Shenmue II will both be playable in widescreen.
Fixes for pop-in and slowdown – No mention of this but I’m taking it as a gimme. No way does this get the widescreen TLC and interface polish without making sure it’s running smoother than a Dreamcast.
Dual-analogue controls – Admittedly all we know for sure is that “choice of modern or classic controls”, but it would be inexplicable for them to not take movement off the D-pad. I’m claiming this one. Giving us the choice is good too – everyone should experience the hideous claw hand required to run and look around at the same time like Ryo was always doing in the trailers.
Whether or not it’s based on the Japanese Dreamcast versions won’t become clear until more media is available but I think it unlikely, simply because of (a) licensing issues and (b) using the Xbox port of Shenmue II saves a lot of work. Online leaderboards/Shenmue Passport are moonshots, but I’ve seen lower-profile remasters with comparable supplemental material, so let’s see.
Unfortunately the backporting of the time skip is a no, which is disappointing given that interface work is happening elsewhere. But even so, there’s enough going on here to suggest more than simple emulation, as simply making the original game function glitch-free in widescreen, which has so far been impossible with emulators, is no mean feat.
I’ve been running for a couple of years now, having started with a C25K programme and working my way up to regular 10Ks, 10 miles, obstacle runs, and several 5Ks a week. I’m doing my first half marathon in April and, assuming that goes well, might do a full one in October. Rain (sometimes) or shine, on a weekday evening I’m a regular somewhere along Bournemouth seafront, where you’ll find me somewhere between Boscombe and Sandbanks.
Until now I’d been tracking my runs with my phone strapped to my arm with Strava, but waking up on Christmas morning to a brand new Apple Watch provided an opportunity to improve my fitness tracking.
Integrating Apple’s Workout app with Strava
Apple’s Workout app is excellent, offering support for tons of different activities and providing lots of lovely stats afterwards. It can track my heart rate during and after a run, syncs with numerous other devices without needing to pay a premium subscription, and doesn’t provide the bafflingly inflated calorie estimates that Strava is known to do.
My problem was that I had several years of runs and a handful of similarly inclined friends on Strava, and I didn’t fancy losing that social aspect, not to mention my PBs on the numerous Strava segments I regularly run.
Strava has its own Apple Watch app, of course, and it’s perfectly functional and capable of depositing its runs into the Activity app alongside any Apple-tracked workouts. In fact, my first run with an Apple Watch, on Boxing Day, was tracked with the Strava app. But it lacks some of the stats, including heart rate recovery (being a native app, Apple’s Workout can keep tracking your heart rate after the run has ended) and those all-important GPS-tagged route maps. And since I was going to be using Activity for tracking weight training and other workouts anyway (Strava is limited to running and cycling), I was keen to streamline things by using one app for all my exercise.
The solution, then, would appear to be liberating my Apple-tracked data and dropping it into Strava. But that’s not always an easy thing to do with Apple.
HealthFit solves the problem
Trying a failing with a few apps, I came across HealthFit, which, wonderfully, does exactly what I need it to and nothing else – the last thing I wanted was to bring a third fitness-tracking service into this. All it does is export your workouts from Apple’s Activity app in the widely supported Garmin .FIT file format, where they can be saved to your iCloud Drive, emailed or automatically uploaded to a number of different services, Strava among them (the others are TrainingPeaks, SportTracks, Final Surge, Selfloops and Dropbox).
A few taps and my run is exported, and it’s a matter of moments before Strava pops up a notification that it’s ready to view in its app, indistinguishable from a Strava-tracked run. Better, in fact, since my exported runs feature heart rate charts – a Strava Premium feature if I used their Apple Watch app.
The only niggle was that, since Strava was installed on my phone and allowed to write its workouts to the Health and Workout apps, anything exported into Strava through HealthFit was appearing twice. That was solved by simply revoking that permission in the Health app (in the Sources menu), giving Strava read-only access.
Were I not into fitness, I’m not sure I’d find the Apple Watch worth it. A timekeeping and notification machine is cool, but a questionable value proposition. However, if you throw in comparable fitness-tracking to the high-end offerings from Fitbit – at the time of writing the only Fitbit with built-in GPS is the Ionic watch, which starts at £299, or only £30 less than the much more flexible Apple Watch Series 3 – and it becomes much more justifiable. The fitness-tracking focus of watchOS 4 suggests that a couple of years on the market has led Apple to a similar conclusion.
The Apple Watch is the absolute definition of a technological luxury item, completely unnecessary but kind of cool when you have one. It’s a fantastic fitness-tracker, though, particularly for outdoor activities, and the sheer omnipresence of iOS means, by proximity, any fitness-focused online service is likely to have some level of support. This comprehensiveness, coupled with the constant nudges to close my rings, is often enough to get me out when the cold weather and post-work fatigue might otherwise tempt me to take an evening off.
It’s been a while since I played enough games to populate a top ten, so let’s follow last year and stick with the top three.
2017 was arguably the best year for games in a while, with a number of early contenders that would likely have made the list, had I played them. Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey have ensured me a good time whenever I buy a Switch, getting me more excited about Nintendo games than I’ve been since the N64. Surprise critical successes like Nioh and Nier Automata intrigued. Resident Evil VII proved the series’ versatility with another complete overhaul that went over well. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins confounded my expectations by doing the over-designed open-world thing well. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is also likely to grab me just as firmly as its predecessor.
The above would almost be enough to populate an impressive top ten on their own, but alas, I didn’t play them. Oh well.
There are, though, a couple of honourable mentions for games that I did play but didn’t make the top three. First is the 3DS Dragon Quest VIII remake, which did a good job of transferring a rather immense PS2 game to the handheld with surprisingly few compromises, and saw me through a couple of long flights. Then there’s Monument Valley 2, an excellent sequel to one of my favourite phone-based Escher-like mind-benders. Both are firm recommendations for anyone with time to kill and a handheld gaming system on their person.
3) Sonic Mania
A remarkable revival for a series that I don’t think has been worth writing about since the Dreamcast, and arguably not truly great since Sonic 3. Sonic Mania reminds me of something like Shovel Knight, in that it echoes a familiar classic gaming staple without being completely beholden to it – it’s how you remember the Mega Drive games looking, even if it’s technically far beyond what that hardware was capable of. I had a wonderful time playing it, feeling transported back to those early 90s stolen moments on my brother’s Mega Drive.
And maybe, if Sega had done something like this on the Saturn, things would be different now…
2) Metroid: Samus Returns
I’m slightly baffled by the fact that, after such a long, notable absence for Metroid in the N64 era – there were eight years between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime – it’s now been even longer since the last proper one. How many best game ever contenders does Samus have to star in to guarantee herself a regular appearance outside Smash Bros?
An enhanced remake of the second game, coming a mere 13 years after the enhanced remake of the first game (the pattern continues!) will have to do. MercurySteam – a strange choice of developer for this one, it must be said – put out a beautiful game, with understated stereoscopic effects adding much-needed visual flair to the most neglected game in the series, left to languish for too long in monochrome. While I’ll admit that the melee counterattack system hurts the pacing, discouraging fast traversal and otherwise turning many enemies into annoying bullet sponges, that Metroid magic was there, reminding me why Super Metroid remains my favourite game ever made.
I’d dearly love an entirely new instalment in this style, but if that’s not on the cards, the obvious next step is a similar remake of Super Metroid, which would make me fucking ecstatic. See you in 2030, then!
1) Persona 5
It was a safe bet to make the list after the last two gamesclicked so solidly with me, and here it is. I loved this game. The slick presentation and the music deserve mention, of course. The juxtaposition of carefree leisure time with really quite dark undercurrents was brave and amused me, too. But my most heartfelt praise goes to Atlus for demoting the random dungeon-crawling to a side quest in favour of properly designed, non-random dungeons, fixing my single biggest criticism of Personas 3 and 4.
Part of me misses the small town Japan feeling of Persona 4, which itself evoked the small town Japan feeling of Shenmue, but at the same time, this game’s setting in the middle of Tokyo has earned it a special place in my heart. My time with it bookended last year’s trip to Japan, meaning I visited many of the places I’d been spending time at in the game, lending a special weight of nostalgia to the memories of Persona 5. As the J-pop beats of Ouendan defined my holiday in 2005, then, so this will do for one of the best times of my life.