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.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Angel Interceptor

When it comes to iconic and criminally short lived TV adventure programmes, there is one that stands head and shoulders above them all. Brimmed with action, suspense and screeching out from high above some fine English countryside, it’s Interceptor. Created by Jacques Antoine (the brainchild of Treasure Hunt, Fort Boyard and The Crystal Maze) the eight episode series aired on ITV during summer 1989 (with a single episode being held back for January 1st 1990).

There are some splendid fansites and forums if you want to take your interest in Interceptor even further and they all lead back to Chris Hart - who lives in Nottingham and runs Interceptors Lair. The site is filled with behind the scene footage and episode guides plus you can even download some of the famous incidents like the great tractor ambush or the Interceptor’s catchphrase “I like it!”.

With the contestants dropped off 10 miles apart from each other, they were radio guided by retired British tennis player Annabel Croft and had to use all modes of transport to try and find their hidden key.

This key would open the other contestant's backpack and could only be accessed after completion of a series of mental and physical challenges as it might be found at the top of a boats mast or in the middle of a maze. The contestants, strapped up with cumbersome early radio tech to their chest and what looked like a white oven hob on their back (their infrared packs), reminded me of a pair of alternative Ghostbusters. Contestants had just 40 minutes of TV time (it was actually filmed over an entire day and had a few local stooges on hand to help out with various modes of transport) to find the keys, find each other and open their packs to hopefully reveal the cash prize of £1,000 whilst avoiding, surviving, hiding from and out manoeuvring the mighty Interceptor. 

Dressed all in black, complete with a leather trench coat, the Interceptor (played by former model and Hollywood stuntman Sean O’Kane) delivered a mesmeric performance that instilled fear and sweat into contestants with his fish eagle screams, incredible gate jumping agility and the constant menace of his hovering helicopter patrolling the skies piloted by his loyal manservant and former Royal Navy pilot Mikey. The Interceptor (with his infrared technology purchased from the Army) had only 20 shots to aim and try to zap the contestants back packs thereby locking them and making sure that the prize money could not be accessed.

Fans were crushed when the series was cancelled and the last word has to go to Steven Howlett who wrote this poem and sent it to ITV’s teletext service, Oracle:

Annabel Croft is sorely missed
and so is Mike the pilot,
Racing ‘round the countryside
once was a weekly highlight
Clad in black
With packs on backs
There simply was none better
So come on ITV,
Bring back the Interceptor

Kudos goes to Challenge TV as they have responded to public demand and have re-run the series several times over the past 13 years bringing Sean O'Kane, Annabel Croft and the entire Interceptor crew back into our front rooms and lives, which is exactly where they belong.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Oh Lymingtonshire

Our inter-nation travellers guide book continues with our first foray of 2013 crossing over the border into Hampshire and the idyllic Georgian seaside market town of Lymington.

With a population of 14,000, this sea faring and boat racing port has an intriguing history because for most of the eighteenth century, Lymington was the main producer of sea salt for the UK.

There was a continuous line of salt works along the five miles of coastline from Lymington to Hurst Spit and when Daniel Defoe (author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Cruesoe) visited around 1725, he commented: "the town of Limington is chiefly noted for making fine salt, which is indeed excellent". With the last salt house closing in 1865, the landscape is now home to an attractive and important nature reserve bringing in 250,000 visitors a year.

With dozens of independent retailers, we found Lulu's Gifts a veritable treasure trove of gift ideas for females of any age and they're one of the largest UK stockists of the Dutch design house Pip Studio.

We found a sign writer called Terry Smith who sells collectibles, transport memorabilia and other retro items from his Old's Cool (like what he did) base and too many eateries too mention, but Tracey did have a fine salad at the 13th Century coaching inn The Angel which is worth a mention.

It has a cracking independent museum and art gallery, St. Barbe, which has a diverse and appealing exhibition  programme and historic collection. We'll be heading over to see the illustrator, humourmesiter and creator of numerous eccentric machines Heath Robinson who's ink work and watercolours are the focus of the forthcoming exhibition (mid February till mid April 2013).

The current exhibition by Randolph Walsh (an official war artist) also picked up national press coverage from The Times and it's heart warming to see St Barbe and other smaller galleries across the UK, like The Grundy in Blackpool, delivering such stimulating programmes.

Awarded "best town on the UK coast" last year by the broadcaster Channel 5, based on criteria such as: attractive scenery, transport links and crime rate (this has seeded an idea for a future extended piece about the O & C top coastal towns), it provided us with with a good few hours of exploration up and down the narrow cobbled streets and the barometer for any visit  is would we come back and would be come back soon? Yes we definitely will.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

A Short History of Creativity and Toilets

Round The Bend showed me the first alternative possibilities and creative uses of toilets. From 1989 to 1991, three series were originally broadcast on ITV in the UK and had a stellar crew behind it.

Written by the team who created the equally potty-humour filled comic Oink, puppet making courtesy of the team behind Spitting Image and animation from Aardman Animations. As the camera was flushed down the toilet in the opening titles, it revealed the spiky host Doc Croc sitting in the sewers below and featured a whole host of remixed animations and satirical responses to the cartoon favourites of the time including: Wee-man and the Masters of the Looniverse, Botman, Thunderpants and Teenage Mutant Ninja Toilets. For an opportunity to see all 18 glorious episodes online, head over to the website of Mr Tony Husband, one of the co-creator’s of Round The Bend and don’t forget to sign his guest book. Round The Bend also created a licensed TV tie in ZX Spectrum game which saw you taking control of one of the rats to try and recover lost comic pages through a series of sewer platform adventures.

From those heady days in 1992 to just last year in Japan where software developer Sega piloted a series of urine controlled games at a technology expo in a brand new creation, the Toylet. 

Each urinal is fitted with pressure sensor and eye level digital display to play the following titles: Graffiti Eraser (where visitors take aim at the sensor and erase virtual graf on the display), Mannekin Pis (measuring the volume of the users stream) and my particular favourite Splashing Battle (pitting stream strength against the last urinal user). If you're thinking that  creative and unique toilet experiences are distinctly Japanese, then please see my latest discovery.

One of my most recent explorations in to the world of water closetness has been a cover to cover devouring of the visual compendium created by Morna E. Gregory and Sian James entitled Toilets of the World. After visiting all corners of the world, they capture a multitude of designs from a purple plastic kangaroo created for children in Australia to a metallic wall sized urinal in Canada. However, my absolute favourite and the final entry in the book leads us back to Japan.

Ten & Chi (aka Heaven or Hell) is a Taiwanese restaurant in Shinjuku, where as you rap the door, you’re greeted by a gatekeeper and you get to pick if you go up or if you go down.

Upstairs is Heaven or downstairs is Hell. The rest of the culinary experience is as adventurous as the first encounter would suggest, but a trip to the toilet will leave you either in hysterics or ensure a fierce bout of constipation. In the man corner, there are urinals which move up and down (forcing constant vigilance on your aim) and boom out “that’s a nice one you have!” The next urinal along has a target which is a giant red mouth with a life sized mutant affixed to the top who has a camera in one of his six hands, the flash goes off as you’re in the process and your most intimate moment is captured forever. For the ladies, once sat on the toilet, a giant floor to ceiling sized head slowly starts advancing towards you accompanied by ear popping music and crazy singing. The head just keeps on moving forward and progressing until it actually kisses your knees!

These are but a brief scraping on the surface of creativity and toilets and there are numerous other pathways to explore, be it with origami and toilet paper courtesy of Linda Wright or the manual to which I constantly refer back to The Water Closet - A New History by Roy Palmer.

As long as there is man, there will be a need for toilets and where man goes creativity will leak.