Saturday, 11 May 2013

Retro Review

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, Sega Megadrive
With the slow but consistent growth of Megadrive cartridges coming back into my life, it was with a super addictive knowing that I loaded Dr. Ivo Robotnik’s (aka Eggman) Mean Bean Steaming Machine into the black hole of joy, fully expecting the next three hours to disappear in his beany dungeon.

As a 16 bit call to arms, it doesn’t get any bigger than this. In a world where beans need help, I was called on to thwart Dr Robotnik and his evil henchbots as innocent beans were rounded up to be hurled into the nasty mean bean steaming machine. This hellish creation would turn the jolly folk of Beanville into devious bot beans rendering them lifeless and at the same time sucking out all the music and fun in the world.

Developed by Compile from Japan and released in 1993, DRMBM is a Puyo game where little beans/Puyo with tiny eyes fall from the top of the screen in pairs and can be moved left, right or rotated clockwise or anti by 90 degrees. The purpose is to create rows/shapes of beans of at least four colours in order for them to disappear and end up as refugee beans on my opponents side of the board acting as blockers and disrupting the plans they had. As a game design, there are similarities to Tetris, Dr Mario and Columns, but the gaming rapture comes from creating bean chains and unloading up to 40 refugee beans onto the other board through a set of carefully planned explosions which bung up your opponent.

The soundtrack and audio design is a splendid sonic glove that fits this classic puzzler so well. With metallic 16 bit rasps combining with pulsing frentic drops and the joyous “yippee” high as I cleared a chain reaction of quatro beans. The intelligent audio design certainly helped quicken my heart as beans stacked high and with just three clear rows remaining, the bpm increases, the pace ramps up and if concentration is not kept then death had a habit of becoming me.
It was during these times, close to my own demise, that my motivation was at its zenith. As I’d look across to see my CPU opponent their face would turn from neutral to an arrogant animation, taunting me and this acted as the ultimate inspiration to try and recover. From the 12 henchbot opponents, before I faced Robotnik, the smirking mug and arched chicken eyebrow of Scratch is the one I saw most and made my blood boil hottest. I felt little frustration in repetitively losing a round against the same foebot (continues were unlimited) because Dr Robotnik treads the fine line between player motivation and exasperation so well.

There is even joy in the details when the beans join together from two to three or form a chain, their eyes burst, stretch or go boss eyed and the little Has Bean (looking strikingly similar to a luma from Super Mario Galaxy) in the middle of the two boards waves and dances with joy as two beany heavyweights go head to head. Alongside Bust-A-Move on the N64 Dr Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine is one the finest puzzling experiences to grace any console within the last 30 years.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Istanbul...not Constantinople

There is order. There is disorder. Then there is Istanbul.

After spending 5 blue sky filled days in the Bosphorus saluting, Europe/Asia straddling, 14 million strong metropolis in north western Turkey, we decided to capture some of our reflections on this outlandish, wild and beautiful experience before we begin to question whether some of the things we encountered were real, imagined or induced by the tastiest kebabs ever eaten.

Istanbul is steeped in Islam and has beautiful and architecturally splendid mosques dotted across the city framing the skyline at dusk with their minarets and domes breaking the outline and reflecting the depth of history that permeates the very fabric of the city. Staring defiantly in the face of regulations and state control however we saw acts that showed a spirit of invention, defiance and were head scratchingly bonkers all at the same time.

There are two images which will stay with me from Istanbul. The first is a man on the side of a dual carriageway  (often choked with traffic) next to the Sea of Marmara who had a pistol and rifle on a box, 2 strings of washing line between two sticks and tied to these were about 20 balloons. He had created a balloon gun shy in which members of the public could try their luck shooting balloons as they flapped in the air (who knows what a prize winner would receive).

The second is the Museum of Innocence. Originally a book by the Turkish nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk that details the obsessive love that a wealthy businessman bears for a shop girl 12 years his junior for over 30 years. Since April 2012 it is also a live museum that acts as a complement and extension of the novel. Sited over 4 storeys it presents a curated collection of incredibly detailed and observed artefacts that relate to the narrative timeline and act as a meta-fictional experience that a reader/visitor can immerse themselves in and learn more about the characters and environment that exist within the novel.

This is not to say the man selling bow and arrows in a traffic jam, a albino rabbit tombola, a palatial 16th century pavilion for princely circumcising decorated with Iznik  tiles, a harem specifically for eunuchs, whirling dervishes or underground toilets with Medusa heads, do not merit further attention, but serve as cultural breadcrumbs and act as an invitation for you to take a trip, sometime in the future, to this unique city.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Retro Review

Two Crude Dudes, Sega Megadrive
Two Crude Dudes (aka Crude Buster), developed by Data East, is a Japanese side scrolling beat em up coin-op conversion that held its tongue so firmly in its cheek, I could see it almost poking through its creatine induced jaw.
With New York in a ruinous post apocalyptic state and the year 2010AD, a violent gang with the moniker Big Valley have seized control and over the next two decades dominate the streets. That is until a fragile Government secretly call upon the manly Biff and Spike to expunge every enemy and restore the city to its former glory.
The absolute joy and distinguishing feature of Two Crude Dudes lies in the ability to rip things out of the ground and hurl them at the onrushing stream of enemies. The environment became my armoury and I launched rocks, traffic lights and burnt out cars at everything from long haired moustachioed punks to miniature purple gremlin santa lookalikeys. If the screen was barren and I had harvested all possible street furniture, I could choose to pick up the onrushing enemy and fling them into oblivion. However my absolute favourite was plucking enemies clean out of the air whilst they were in mid-jump. This consistently brought a gigantic grin to my own non creatine induced jaw as I was safe in the knowledge that if this clean up job failed this spiky orange haired punk could easily moonlight in the NBA or any Olympic throwing discipline.
In a neat and satisfying level design, each of the six 2D side scrolling levels often had dual floors on the same screen. This enabled me and my co-op partner to maintain different areas of the screen, not clutter up each other’s fight arenas and clear enemies that were incoming from all levels. There is also huge benefit in not being in the throwing line of friendly fire as this ate small portions of my life bar on the several occasions that Tracey wanted to introduce my face to a bonnet of a car.
The title screen theme music The Lifeline of New York and in game cue Kids in Battle captured the knowing spirit perfectly and aurally had a distant relationship to the soundtrack of Toe Jam and Earl. With detailed 16 bit graphics and Roy Lichtenstein/60s Batman TV series Krak and Wham fight bubbles being revealed after every hit, the inventive enemy (turquoise rabid hounds who affix themselves to your nipple to bouncing mint green commanders that poop out radioactive discharge) and end of level bosses ensured that Two Crude Dudes understood its identity and what it wanted gamers to experience.
However, I was perplexed briefly at the end of my playing experience because it took less than two hours to complete. This is a game that retailed for £40 nearly 25 years ago and although has fun co-op possibilities did not last longer than the average film. I took a quick look back at our review of Streets of Rage and that too was finished off in 90 minutes and it helped me frame an internal question around value, length and joy within games.
If a game provides delight, satisfaction and delivers a great memory and personal experience for the player then it doesn’t matter if it’s played in an arcade for 50p and lasts for two minutes, bought from ebay for three figures and is an ultra rare game for the NES which will be played to death or is a downloaded from PSN like Journey, completed in two hours and never loaded up again. The great memory has been made and because of that I’ll talk about Two Crude Dudes with friends and reference it in the future knowing it has added another piece of 1990s goodness to my personal cultural diet.