Friday, 11 March 2016

Arcade Throwback hiatus

It's no secret this blog has slowed down over the last few years, but it is with a heavy heart that we have to announce a complete hiatus of unknown duration. This is due to our head writer and editor needing to undergo hospital treatment for a long-term illness.

Arcade Throwback has always been a small operation and because we aim to never publish inaccurate or false information about classic arcade and pinball games, researching and writing for the blog is very time consuming. As such I hope you understand our decision to close shop until we are all fit and well enough to work on it again.


The Arcade Throwback team

Friday, 30 October 2015

Creepy Classic - Chiller

Manufacturer:Exidy Inc.
Design:Larry Hutcherson, Vic Tolomet, Ken Nicholson
Genre:Light gun

With it being Halloween tomorrow, I couldn't resist bringing my creepy classics series back from the dead. This year, we have Exidy's Chiller, easily arcade gaming's most desperate attempt at being shocking and controversial. Does it succeed?

This super gory light gun game is more famous for its outrageous visuals than anything else. It consists of four levels, each depicting an atypical horror scene. It begins in a Torture Chamber, with people strung up and maimed or shackled in guillotines. Next is the Rack Room (which, arguably, is also a torture chamber), where people are being pulled apart. After that we visit the haunted Hallway, which is full of ghouls and ghosts, and finally a graveyard, complete with zombies and the Grim Reaper. The objective of the game is a little muddled. To move on to the next level, you have to shoot a set number of monsters, which primarily come in the form of barely visible ghosts, before the timer runs out. However, you also score points for shooting everything else in the scene, which in the case of the first two levels includes the torture victims. Thankfully, the graphics are atrocious (even for 1986), because the first two levels are pretty sick. You can literally blast flesh right off the various victims and even trigger things like decapitations by shooting the rope that holds up a guillotine blade. But in the context of the primary objective, I'm not sure why you are rewarded for doing this, especially when the third and fourth levels are more appropriately occupied by ghouls, bats, mummies, Mr Reaper and various other horror staples. It is for this reason I say the game was desperate to be controversial, because the first two levels make no real sense. They are 8-bit torture porn and that's it. Had there been demonic torturers to blast at or if shooting victims had a negative affect on your score, it might have made more sense, but as it is, it's gore for gore's sake.

Exidy were one of the earliest arcade manufacturers and right from the outset they had a habit of making games with deliberately over-the-top violence. Ten years before Chiller they released a racing game called Death Race (not related to the David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone movie), which allowed players to run over pedestrians for points. It was the first video game to cause parents to start panicking about digital violence (as laughable as that seems now); Chiller, on the other hand, was their goriest and  most sadistic game ever. It was banned here in the UK, but as is so often the case when something tries to be shocking and controversial, Chiller is instead schlocky and contemptible. As a result, it did not do very well in any territory. This is probably due to the fact this is not a game you could put in public. In a typical arcade, alongside other, more child-friendly titles from 1986, such as Arkanoid, Out Run and Bubble Bobble, Chiller was just plain inappropriate — like wearing a mankini in a public swimming pool.

Despite poor sales and obscurity, Chiller was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990, albeit unofficially. Predictably, the NES port was very tame in comparison to its arcade forebear and also managed to be even worse to play, due in no small part to its terrible hit detection with the light gun.

So why, if this game sucks and nobody likes it, have I included it as a "classic". Well, it isn't a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It's sick, but not revolting or scary, and it is no fun to play. However, it is an interesting period piece. Had it been more popular back in the day, it would have surely rocked the boat in a big way. We're talking Grand Theft Auto levels of controversy. And thank God it wasn't popular enough to have any "copy cat killings" associated with it, because this game would not have been worth the floor space required to site it. If you want a horror light gun game, there are much better alternatives and any gamer worth their salt could name the best example of the genre.


Sunday, 20 September 2015

Movie review: The Gamechangers

In the early 2000s, Rockstar Games, makers of the Grand Theft Auto series, had their biggest success ever with Vice City, but also their greatest controversy when attorney Jack Thompson filed a lawsuit against them, Take Two and Sony claiming they were in-part responsible for Alabama teen Devin Moore's fatal shooting of three police officers. It was possibly the darkest period in gaming's history and despite Jack Thompson proving to be his own worst enemy, the stigma of the tragedy has lingered around Grand Theft Auto and other violent video games ever since. Now, the BBC have made a 90 minute docu-drama about these events, along with the subsequent Hot Coffee controversy surrounding Vice City's sequel, San Andreas.

Clearly, this has nothing to do with arcade games, but I thought I should cover it anyway because I am in a unique position in that I am a gamer, who grew up with GTA, but not a fan. I played the first game a fair bit, because it was unlike anything else around at the time, but I only played a demo of the lackluster sequel and never played GTA III, San Andreas or GTA V. I have put a few hours into Vice City and GTA IV, but they never held my attention. You see, I don't like gangsters. I find no joy in tales of exploitation, violence, trafficking and corruption for personal gain — in fact I find it all abhorrent. As such, neither gangster games nor movies appeal to me. I'm also a father, who has a duty of care to make sure his children only play age-appropriate games; I would not let my kids near GTA or anything else with similar levels of violence. With that declaration out of the way, let's get on with the review.

The Gamechangers stars Daniel Radcliffe as Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser and Bill Paxton as Florida attorney Jack Thompson. The story starts with a completely unbelievable fake news story about the hotly anticipated Vice City and how "Sam Houser's Rockstar Games" have made two top selling games in one year. It also shows footage of Vice City, with lots of random violence and vehicular murder. I recognise that this opening provides the setup most viewers need, but it is ridiculous for several reasons. First, television news never talks that enthusiastically about a video game release and second, the GTA series had not made that much of an impact on mainstream media at the time of Vice City's release — all the attention came later.

The first 10 mins of The Gamechangers alternates between Radcliffe's Houser as he instructs his team about his vision for San Andreas, Paxton's Thompson as he potters around his Florida home, being all homely and Christian, and Devin Moore (played by Thabo Rametsi) as he plays Vice City for hours on end. This eventually leads to Moore's shooting spree in the police station, followed by his theft of a police car (which is shot to look like a driving scene in GTA). On reading in the news that Moore compared life to a video game, Thompson embarks on taking down the makers of "murder simulator" Grand Theft Auto.  It also looks at the controversy San Andreas caused when hackers found hidden pornographic animations on the game disc (dubbed Hot Coffee), which Thompson used to bolster his campaign before his own misconduct got him disbarred. Along the way we get lots of shallow insights into the game making process, including the long hours, dedication and aspiration required of the developers and artists.

The importance of the word dramatisation here cannot be understated, as this is a completely unauthorised script, written without any contribution from either Rockstar or Thompson. It is based entirely on newspaper stories, court documents and interviews with "many of those involved", whatever that means. You'd have thought the powers that be at BBC would have shied away from a script that was simultaneously so lacking in substance and so steeped in potential controversy, but no, they just ploughed on ahead anyway. The result is a film that feels skin-deep and I came away feeling no more enlightened about the situation than I was reading the articles Kotaku and Gamespot ran at the time.

The other big problem for me is writer James Woods's clear bias towards Rockstar Games. By the 7 min mark, the film establishes Houser as a visionary, leading the charge to make serious, forward thinking video games that go beyond anything a movie can do and frames Thompson as a self-aggrandising puritan trying to enforce his vision of what's acceptable on the American youth. The film maintains this bias throughout, so any chance of it being taken seriously as an argument against the notion of violent video games causing violent behaviour is lost. As someone who loves games, I personally found this very disappointing, because whatever my feelings are about GTA, I genuinely do not believe a video game alone can cause anyone, let alone a child, to commit multiple homicides. That is not to say kids should get free-reign to play what they like, because there is still the issue of what's age appropriate.

In terms of performances, Radcliffe is fine with what little character Woods gave him and while Paxton has more to work with, his performance is a little OTT. The rest of the characters are utterly forgettable and we never get a clear insight into anybody's motivations, least of all Devin Moore's (Rametsi has less than a few minutes of dialogue from beginning to end). And finally, while the film is clearly on the side of the game makers for most of its 90 minute running time, it does something at the end which flips that on its head in an utterly stupid and crass way.


The Gamechangers handles one of the few game development stories worth telling with too little depth, too much bias and too much fiction for the sake of drama to be enjoyable for gamers or taken seriously by anyone else. It seems the curse of adapting games into movies applies to documentaries as well as fantasies. 

If you haven't seen The Gamechangers and live in the UK, you can see it for yourself on iPlayer for the next few weeks. Here's the link:

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Movie review: Pixels

Hollywood made a movie about classic arcade game characters and I write a blog about classic arcade games, so I had to review Happy Madison Production's new flick Pixels, whether I wanted to or not.

Anybody who calls themselves a gamer, anybody who grew up in the 80s and anybody with kids under 12 will have had Pixels on their radar for the last few months, and the trailers show you everything you need to know about the film. In 1982, NASA sent a probe out into space that contained, among other things, footage of several hit arcade games. Decades later, a race of aliens find this footage and take it to be an act of war. So they launch an attack on Earth using that very same footage as the inspiration for their weapons of mass destruction. Cue Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Galaga, Centipede, Arkanoid and a whole host of other classic sprites tearing up city streets around the world as giant, voxel monsters, while Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad and Michelle Monaghan try to stop them.

Galaga kicks things off by attacking an air base
The movie actually starts in 1982, with young friends Sam Brenner and Will Cooper heading to a newly opened arcade on their BMXs to check out the hottest games. Sam, it seems, is a natural, able to spot the patterns that were intrinsic to games of that era and exploit them. Such are his skills, that he and Will enter a national arcade competition, where the pair meet the even younger Ludlow "Wonder Kid" Lamonsoff and the devious Eddie "Fire Blaster" Plant. And this, it turns out, is the source of the ill-fated footage that NASA sends out into space.

Fast forward 30 years and Sam (Adam Sandler) is now a divorced 40-something, installing TVs for a living, despite his promise as a youth, while his chubby best friend Will (Kevin James) is the freakin' president of the freakin' United freakin' States of freakin' America! The only possible explanation for this is that it puts both characters in positions that allow them to be involved in the ensuing chaos. Enter also Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a hot single mom who's also happens to be a Lieutenant Colonel and weapons specialist. Sam and Violet cross paths when he is sent to her house to set up a new TV and PS4 for her son. Naturally, there is a clash of personalities, with an undertone of attraction, as you might expect from a film like this.

When a US military base is attacked by unknown forces, capable of rendering people, hardware and buildings to little glowing cubes, President Cooper brings both his friend and the Lieutenant Colonel on-board as advisors. On studying footage from the attack, Cooper has a hunch that the aggressor's formation resembles that of the aliens in the Namco classic Galaga and he wants his friend to confirm or deny his suspicions. It's around this time that an adult Ludlow (Josh Gad) is brought into the picture as a "typical gamer", i.e. a 38 year-old virgin, living with his gran, obsessing over fantasy female characters, namely Lady Lisa from Dojo Quest. This is the only non-authentic video game and character portrayed in the movie and also the only circa 1982 video game character to appear as flesh and blood, rather than a bunch of primary-coloured cubes, because bewbs! As well as being a true-to-life representation of us gamers [insert sarcasm here], Ludlow is also a conspiracy nut, who already knows about the invasion and has come to the same conclusion as Sam and POTUS Will.

The Arcaders, Lieutenant Colonel Violet, Sam, Wonder Kid and Fire Blaster.
The aliens then reveal themselves through a montage of 80s icons, such as Madonna and Fantasy Island's Mr. Roarke and Tattoo to throw down the gauntlet to planet Earth. Each side gets three chances or lives, if you will, in a series of battles based on the games contained in the space probe. Only, Sandler and crew had already lost two rounds before anybody had figured out WTF was going off, so the next battle is an all or nothing fight in Hyde Park, London. Here the aliens attack using the Atari classic Centipede. Armed with "light cannons" (developed by van Patten's team), Sam, Ludlow and a bunch of US soldiers battle the Centipede through the streets of London and Earth gains its first victory. The story then continues with a giant game of Pac-Man through the streets of New York. It's at this point that the team break Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage) out of jail to help with the fight, because he was the world's best Pac-Man player. It's a decision that costs them later, as Eddie is not to be trusted. Things soon escalate, with a chaotic showdown that doubles-up as a who's who of classic arcade gaming. In terms of plot, there are no surprises, but did you really think there would be?

The Centipede scenes are genuinely great
Pixels has been mauled by both movie critics and the gaming press alike, but I will say this: the Centipede and Pac-Man scenes are intense and authentic, right down to the movement patterns, rules and colour schemes for each wave. By the end of Centipede battle, I had a big smile on my face and I was willing to go along with Sandler and co for the ride. To be fair, this is probably the highlight of the entire film, but throughout Pixels does do justice to its source material. But there are problems, not just with its cookie cutter plot and characterisation, but also its portrayal of women; they are shown as being either pretty and insubstantial or simply prizes for the men to win. There are other problems too; Sandler and James seem uninterested in the proceedings and Dinklage has very little to work with, other than being a sneaky, diminutive Billy Mitchell look-a-like. Gad's character, on the other hand, is very muddled, alternating between being so obsessed with Lady Lisa that he has written and published his own book on how she could be real, to lusting after the muscular soldiers and touching their asses (as the Americans say) whenever he can. Michelle Monaghan's character is also ill-defined. At one moment she is a strong, confident woman who can hold her own with the big boys and the next she's reduced to crying and drinking in a cupboard because her husband has dumped her for a 19 year-old bimbo. We can only assume the speed at which she falls for Sandler is a classic case of rebound. The movie also wastes the talents of Jane Krakowski, who plays Will Copper's wife and is therefore First Lady, Brian Cox, who plays a typical crotchety US army general and Sean Bean, who plays a British commando who gets shown up by Sandler when the chips are down.


Despite all this, I must confess to enjoying the film. There is no denying I got off on all the obscure gaming references and it was great to see Q*Bert getting another moment in the spotlight (he also appeared in 2012's Wreck-It Ralph). I will also admit to laughing from time to time too, but then this is only my fifth Sandler movie (the previous ones being Eight Crazy Nights, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy and Airheads — yep, they are really the only ones I've seen), so his schtick is still relatively new to me. I also got a strong Ghostbusters vibe from this movie, although I won't pretend it's in the same league as the original. They both have a group of no-hopers in jump suits trying to save the world from forces they don't really understand, they both feature futuristic, bespoke guns, designed to deal only with the enemy at hand and the pixel monsters can be likened to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. My kids (who are 5 and 9) loved it too and the only video game characters they knew were Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Frogger. So as someone who has had to suffer such kid-friendly dross as the Nativity movies, the Tinkerbell movies and Post-Man Pat: The Movie, Pixels really did not seem all that bad. In fact, I'd happily watch it again and if I had to chose just one kids movie to see this summer, I would chose Pixels over Minions every time. Yes, I really did say that.
However, if you're a big gamer who wishes the medium was treated with more dignity or your're an adult with no interest in video games, you probably won't enjoy this movie at all.


P.S. They actually made an 8-bit mobile game of Dojo Quest, which is available for free on iOS and Android.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

E3 2015

I haven't covered E3 since my first year running the blog, However, as I'm winding things down on here, I thought I'd cover this year's. I won't be going into detail about every game, just the big ticket items, starting with the biggest thing this year.


I'm old enough to remember VR the first time around, back in the early to mid-90s with W Industries where making games like Dactyl Nightmare, Total Destruction and Flying Aces. I only ever played the latter of those games, but it was fun - for a few minutes. I've been watching Oculus Rift from the beginning and was lucky enough to see it in action a few weeks before the show. We knew Sony were getting in on the VR game a last year, with the Morpheus head-set. Now, Valve, Samsung, HTC, Google and Razer are all carving up pieces of the VR pie for themselves. The tech is clearly light years away from what W Industries were pedaling in the 90s. The industry is excited, gamers are excited. Everything looks poised to explode. While I have no doubt the technology and the experiences it offers will be mind-blowing, I am very skeptical of VR's long term future and for exactly the same reasons 3D movies have come and gone (again) in recent years. Put simply, it's the human element that I think will kill VR. For the public at large, I think the following things will put them off:
  • When people are reticent to wear high vis vests when they cycle, because they think they look dorky, you won't get them wearing a VR headset for more than a couple of times.
  • If you're not into tech or games, it's difficult to see VR as more than an expensive gimmick and gimmicks never survive for long.
  • Comfort and practicality. I really cannot see anyone spending an evening gaming or watching a 3 hour movie without wanting to take the headset off at some point - if only to reach out for a drink. And if you have to remove the headset every time you want to see what your hands and feet are doing, people will soon stop putting it on to begin with.
I may be wrong about all of these points, but history has proven time and time again that it's not the most advanced technology that becomes a success, but usually the most cost effective, practical and convenient. I do not believe VR is any of those.


Back in 2009, when Microsoft and Sony thought they were losing the console war to the Nintendo Wii, with its motion controls, Sony basically copied the Wii-mote design, then innovated on it with their Move controller. Microsoft, on the other hand, did something different with Kinect (or Project Natal as it was known then), by removing the controller altogether. They are doing the same thing with now, with their augmented reality glasses, HoloLens, rather than simply coming out with their on VR headset. And just as with Project Natal, their presentation included a video that ever so slightly completely exaggerated the facts. By all accounts the HoloLens shows potential, but is no where near the vision Microsoft presented in their promotions.

As for HoloLen's future, see my comments on VR, although at least you won't have to take it off to go check Facebook.

New games for the new consoles

Despite PAX, TGS, Gamescom, Nottingham's own Game City and all the other games expos there are around the world, E3 is still the one most gamers look to for the first teasers for upcoming games. With the PS4 and Xbon One now being 18 months old, this E3 looked set to be the first one where these consoles explode, just as the PS3, 360 and Wii did in 2007. So, what have gamers got to look forward to this holiday season and early next year? Err... erm... how does more remakes, rehashes and sequels sound?

A lot of the gaming press has talked about how this was the greatest E3 for years, but given the last lot of consoles lasted 8 years, that's not really saying very much. Microsoft announced a collection of 30 Rare games, which is an impressive figure for one collection. Called Rare Replay, it covers the whole gamut of Rare's mighty back catalogue, from recent hits like Viva Pinata and Banjo Kazooie Nuts & Bolts to 8-bit classics like Atic Atac and Sabrewulf (both of which I loved when I was a nipper). The collection also includes games that previously only appeared on Nintendo platforms, such as Jet Force Gemini and Blast Corps from the N64 and even Solar Jet Man and RC Pro Am from the NES. Would I buy it? Probably, but that doesn't excuse the fact this is in lieu of anything new from Rare.

Microsoft also announced a feature I thought should have been included from the Xbox One's launch: Xbox 360 backwards compatibility and judging by the reactions on social media, people were clearly pleased with this move. I think this is indicative of the way gaming has changed over the last 8 years; as more and more people build up digital libraries, they expect to be able to access that library for years to come, even beyond the life of the console for which those games were originally released. I think this attitude change is supported by other digital libraries, such as people's iTunes collections. The fact the Xbox One and Xbox 360 have totally different hardware is not something the average punter understands. Add in the intangible nature of digital media and you get expectations of longevity that did not exist back when the previous generation launched. For me, I bought loads of Pinball FX tables and loads of arcade ports, which I would like to continue playing, so I'm hoping Microsoft make good on this feature and don't simply support the big AAA games like Halo, Gears of War and Mass Effect.

Continuing this theme, Sony blew everybody away by revealing a Final Fantasy VII remake was finally coming, although it looks more like a re-imagining than a simple graphical refresh. As someone who has played most of the Final Fantasy's since VII, I  can't say it's my favourite, but I understand the love there is for this game. People also lost their minds when Sony showed The Last Guardian — again. This a game that had me chomping at the bit for a PS3 back in 2009, but its development apparently goes all the way back to 2007. With a release date of 2016, this game is going to have to be phenomenal to live up to its near-decade of work and its predecessors on the PS2, Shadow of the Colossus and Ico. To me, it did not look any different to the game Sony showed in 2009, but I'm still glad it isn't as dead as we all thought a few years ago.

The game Sony (sort of) announced that had people most excited was Shenmue III. Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, it's worth noting Sony are not making this game or even publishing it until it can stand on its own two feet via a Kickstarter campaign. If Yu Suzuki and his team can raise $2,000,000, Sony will pitch in, otherwise, this game is going nowhere. It's an interesting approach, but one that seems indicative of the cautious and slow-paced nature of this generation.

For many, the Wii U is already dead. The gamepad appears to have been received with either derision or confusion, depending on how much of a gamer you are. I still talk to people who bought Wiis and say they aren't interested in the gamepad, not understanding it's a whole new console that plays nothing like its forebear. Likewise, even hardcore gamers seem to think the Wii U uses motion controls, when in fact only a handful of launch games use that mechanic. Personally, I love it, but I recognise I'm in the minority. In fact, just 3 years after it debuted , the Wii U's 3rd party support has dwindled to just a few titles from Ubisoft, Activision and Disney. EA don't even both making FIFA or John Madden for the Wii U anymore. And with Nintendo already tentatively announcing their next platform, the NX, it appears the Wii U is already on the way out. And I think this is a real shame, because this is genuinely my favourite Nintendo console, offering everything the Wii had, plus lots of backward compatibility and some great exclusives (Mario Kart 8 is stunning). Anyway, there are not many games coming to either the Wii U or the 3DS, but what there is includes:

  • Super Mario Maker (Wii U)
    Finally, a chance to make your own 2D retro platformer.  
  • Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
    The first new Star Fox game since the GameCube.
  • Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash (Wii U)
    But sadly, no Wii U golf.
  • Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)
    Looks set to be another excellent, sprawling JRPG.
  • Metroid Prime: Federation Force (3DS)
    Continuing to prove will not be getting any more good Metroid games.
  • Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes (3DS)
    Three Swords?
  • Yoshi's Wooly World (Wii U)
    My wife's birthday present is sorted.
  • A bunch of indie games no one will buy.
Overall, a few solid entries, but nothing to save the Wii U's fate.

In summary

Call me a cranky old man, but I actually think this has been an incredibly disappointing E3. There is so little content coming for the Xbox One and PS4, you'll have to buy both just to keep you going until the next E3 and the Wii U continues to be one of the biggest missed opportunities in Nintendo's history. I've already expressed my concerns about VR and the best way to summarise it would be to compare it to 3D movies in the cinema. I've seen about four 3D movies and I liked it, but if I didn't see any more I wouldn't be worried.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A gamer at 40 (or "a gamer grows up")


Sorry, I should be more professional, but you see last month I turned 40 — four friggin' decades old. They say life begins at 40, but you try telling that to Paul Walker or Chris Benoit! Ooh, sorry. Anyway, being 40 in 2015 means that I was born just before the start of the golden age of arcade gaming, I grew up through the 8-bit and 16-bit eras and I came of age just as the internet connected PC gamers from all around the world for unprecedented levels of virtual mayhem and carnage. I was still young enough to thoroughly enjoy the online console explosion and the Xbox 360 ranks as one of my all time favourite game consoles. For the past five years I've been prattling on about my favourite arcade games and occasionally I've talked about modern games, but those articles are now few and far between. I've defined myself as a gamer since before that was even a term and I've spent more time gaming than almost any other leisure activity. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago things started to change. As work and family life took up more and more of my time, I found myself almost resenting the time required to indulge in certain hobbies and I have to confess, gaming was one of them. The reason for this was simple: few hobbies require as much of a time commitment as gaming. Just take the recently released The Witcher 3, for example; the developers, CD Projekt RED, have said there are around 200 hours of gameplay in it. 200 hours? That would get you about a third of the way to learning French or Spanish and that's just one game.

It's because of this time commitment that I gave up playing online after Gears of War 2, but even single-player gaming needs more time than I have spare and it all started to feel a little pointless. I may have played over 200 hours of Skyrim back in 2012, but since then I've only completed two games: Mass Effect 3 and Diablo III. In my various game libraries I have a lot of great games waiting to be played, including Dark Souls, Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2, The Witcher (1), Kingdoms of Amalur, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dragon Quest IX, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Super Mario 3D World, L.A. Noire, Metroid Prime Trilogy, Legend of Grimrock, Legend of Zelda: Spirits Tracks, Brutal Legend, Trine 2, New Super Mario Bros Wii, Mark of the Ninja and both Mario Galaxy gamesAnd I have countless more downloadable games going stale on the hard-drives of my Xbox 360 and PC. There is no way I will finish even half of them.

But despite all this, I still like video games and I still feel they have a lot more to offer than people give them credit for. So what is a 40 year-old gamer to do? About a year ago I thought I'd jack it in altogether, but in recent months I've had a change of heart and there are two reasons for that:
  1. I got out of a job that was killing me with overtime.
  2. My kids are now both old enough to play and they love gaming. 
My son is nearly 9, has been playing since he was about 4 and loves his racing games, pouring hours and hours into Burnout Paradise (surely one of the greatest games of the last generation), Blur and Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing; my daughter is 5½ and she started about two years ago with Kinect games, but got really good at gaming thanks to Minecraft and Mario Kart 7. To my kids gaming and the Internet are just part every day life, and because of games like Minecraft, Terraria, Super Mario, Skylanders, Disney Infinite and of course, the Lego games, they are now both big gamers. I didn't even push games on them, I merely responded to their interest by showing them other games.

At Christmas, my kids got their first console (as opposed to hijacking mine), a Wii U and we all love it. Nintendo has put out some fantastic stuff and I've already played it far more than I ever played on the Wii, despite owning one for nearly 8 years (SteamWorld Dig is my current jam). The half-tablet/half-joypad controller is great for keeping the kids quiet when the wife or I want the TV (even if we just want the TV off). And despite the fact it is already facing its twilight years, with games like Splatoon, Xenoblade Chronicles X and the new Zelda still on the horizon, I reckon we'll be enjoying it for some time to come.
Is Splatoon a genuine, family-friendly
alternative to the big military shooters?
For me it's a bit like coming home to my gaming roots, because it has loads of games that are like the kind of games I played growing up and they have no pretensions of being Hollywood block busters or grand artistic statements. They're game-ass games. And for a man who is, in truth, a little too old to still be playing games, the feeling of reliving my youth with my kids, rather than extending it, seems an acceptable compromise. And besides, they say the family that plays together, stays together, so when all four of us are whizzing around Rainbow Road on Mario Kart 8 or kicking seven shades of shit out of Jigglepluff on Super Smash Bros, our family is no danger of falling apart.

I know there are some gamers out there who will mock the direction my gaming has taken and say that I'm out of touch, that not a real gamer. But listen, I really have down the rabbit hole with this hobby for most of my life.

Homeworld was great on these
As a kid, I marked myself out as a nerd by playing on my computer or console, rather than hanging around the local park, and my favourite holidays were the ones that gave me access to an arcade. I spent my entire summer between 5th year and 6th form playing nothing but 4D Sports Driving (and gained about a stone in weight as a result). As an adult, I got even deeper into gaming. I played the original Quake online using QuakeWorld and custom character models that I'd designed. I spent a decade building gaming PCs, doing dumb things like over-clocking my Intel Celeron 300A to at 466MHz in pursuit of more frames per second. I had crazy peripherals like 3Dfx Voodoo graphics accelerator cards, almost every controller in Microsoft's Sidewinder series (including the ForceFeedback steering wheel and Dual Strike FPS gamepad) and even ELSA 3D Revelator glasses (they were great, especially on Homeworld). I used to lug my giant tower case and a 17" Iiyama CRT to my friends' flats and houses, so we could all play Half-Life or Age of Empires or TOCA Touring Car Racing against each other. I was even in a Half-Life clan at one point, called Full Metal Y-Fronts, who took part in an online tournament hosted by WirePlay (we completely failed to get anywhere in the competition, but never mind that). By the 2000s I had added a Dreamcast, a PlayStation, an N64, a GameBoy Color and a NeoGeo Pocket Color to my hardware collection. In the mid-noughties, my girlfriend and I were as deep into World of Warcraft as you can go, sacrificing sleep, food, sunlight, and even sometimes hygiene in the quest for epic loot. I can remember lost weekends were we would be up until 3 or 4 in the morning doing raids, only to get up again by 7 AM so we could stick all our unwanted drops in the Auction House. And in 2008, I even pursued my hobby into professional life and got my name of the credits of a handful of already forgotten games.

So, I have been what people would now call a "hardcore gamer", but that time has passed for me, like going clubbing or owning a hot hatch. And I say what people now call hardcore gamer, because back then we were just known as gamers. Back then, there was us and them, the non-gamers, and that's it. Now, people who play games can be split up in to all sorts of groups. There's a divide between casual and hardcore, a divide between console and PC gamers, a divide between online and single-player gamers, a divide between simulation and arcade gamers, a divide between retro and modern gamers, a divide between indie and AAA gamers, a divide between games played by enthusiasts and those played by people who don't even think of themselves as gamers and a divide between people who love artsy games and pretty much everyone else. If you talk to people from any one of these categories you will find some who think people on the opposite side of the divide are downright crazy. Take single-player and online (multi-player) games. Even in games that offer both, such as the Halo series, you will find people who never explore and experience one half of the game.

Dear Esther is a strong argument for games as art and has no gameplay whatsoever
But what does all this mean? Well, at the beginning of this post, I talked about turning 40 and how I've grown up with games, but the fact is, video games are closer to 60 years old (if you take William Higinbotham and Robert Dvoraks oscilloscope-based Tennis For Two into consideration). Games have grown up too. We've all heard the reports of World of Warcraft having 11 million active players, Minecraft selling over 60 million copies, AAA games having $100 million budgets and Grand Theft Auto V earning more money than any movie or album, but those facts are not the biggest evidence of gaming's growth and maturity as an entertainment medium. It is the fact games can be divided into so many different categories and serve such a broad audience that really speaks to the maturity of the medium. You can compare it with the success of Marvel's blockbuster super hero movies, which appeal to everyone from comic book guys, to movie geeks, to families and to women who just like Chris Hemsworth's pecs.

Marvel has mastered mass appeal
I've learnt to accept that I am now a gamer dad, I play games with my kids and I love it. Seeing my daughter giggling with excitement because she's just taken out her mummy's kart out with a red shell is as much of a gaming high as I could wish for. You might be a die hard retro gamer, eschewing polygonal graphics and 32-bit processors as "modern rubbish". You might be a sharp shooting Battlefield nut, who could head shot me from the far side of Paracel Storm before I'd even worked out where the beach was. Maybe you only play FIFA and would never consider yourself a gamer, despite buying a PS4 just to play the next game in the series. Maybe you love Kingdom Rush on your phone, but only play it every now and then. Maybe you have a mock F1 car in your living room, with a three-screen display, an authentic F1 force feedback steering wheel and hydraulic seat. Maybe you want your games to ask deeply psychological questions, such as Lucas Pope's immigration officer game, Papers Please. All of that is fine, because no matter what type of game you like, the industry has something for you. This is the evolution of any industry or art form, it is not a sign of selling out, dumbing down or pandering to stock holders. Fear not, the kind of games you want are still being made, whatever they might be, they just now have to take their place with the games everyone else wants.

What I'm getting at is this: what we, as gamers, need to do is show our maturity, especially those of us who are part of the old guard. We need to accept that there are difficult types of gamer, without making a big deal about it, in the same way most of use will happily watch Max Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Minions movie without putting ourselves in a particular movie goer pigeon hole or verbally abusing someone who isn't in the same pigeon hole. Because there is no us and them when it comes to most other entertainment mediums, because with time and greater diversity comes mainstream acceptance. And I don't know about you, but I think games and the people who make them, deserve to be considered normal and worthwhile, not just niche and nerdy. Games are brilliant and game developers and some of the smartest, most talented and hardest working people you'll find in any industry. They and their work deserve better from society and it starts with us.


Sunday, 10 May 2015

TV Review - Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist

What do video game movies and McDonald's breakfasts have in common? One you can only face when you're drunk and the other when you're hung over. I'll leave you to guess which one is which. Any Street Fighter fan who grew up in the 90s will remember the disastrous Jean Claude Van Damme movie. Superficially, it had lots of promise; it centred around Guile (played by JCVD) and his squadron of marines trying to take down Bison (played by the brilliant Raul Julia in his final role) and his Shadaloo organisation. Throw in Ming-Na as Chun Li (also on the hunt for Bison), Roshan Seth as Dhalsim, Wes Studi as Sagat and a young Kylie Minogue as Cammy and you'd be forgiven for thinking it had a solid mix of physical prowess and acting chops. However, much like the Super Mario Bros movie of the previous year, Street Fighter: The Movie was so poorly executed and deviated so far from the source material, that fans were bitterly disappointed. We had to wait decade and a half for the next live action SF movie, but sadly, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li (starring Kristin Kreuk as Chun Li, Taboo off of the Black Eyed Peas as Vega and not much else) was even worse. That said, by its release in 2009, gamers were used to bad movie adaptations, not least because of a certain German director.

When Mortal Kombat and Silent Hill rank among the better movies based on video games, we gamers have had little reason be hopeful about any others. So I was pleasantly surprised by Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist, a budget web series, which made its way to Netflix earlier this spring. On seeing the mock posters for Assassin's Fist one thing immediately caught my attention: it showcased Ryu and Ken, who have been sorely under utilised in any previous live action translation. Before watching it I looked it up online and discovered it was made by the same team that produced the 3 minute short, Street Fighter: Legacy, about five years ago. I did watch the short when it first came out, but it subsequently escaped by memory. If you haven't already seen Legacy, you can check that out here. But while that short showed the team had some physical talent and decent special effects, it was by no means proof they could pull off an actual story. But by being careful and restrained, I think they have done the impossible: make an authentic Street Fighter series that isn't completely corny.

As stories go, Assassin's Fist is a stripped back, bare bones affair. I suspect this was done for reasons of budget, but necessity is the mother of invention, so the result is a focussed tale of Ryu, Ken, their master Gouken and his brother Gouki, who is seduced by the dark power of Satsui no Hadou and becomes the demon Akuma. Although there are a few other characters in the show — most notably the old master Goutetsu and his daughter, Sayaka — there are no other characters from the games. 

Gouken teaches the kids how it's done
The story begins in 1987, with Ryu (played by Mike Moh) and Ken (played by Christian Howard) learning the martial art Ansatsuken (Assassin's Fist) under the guidance of a middle-aged Gouken (played by Akira Koieyama) at a dojo in the remote Japanese countryside. The show spends a little time explaining how the two friends ended up at the dojo, under Gouken's care and training, before getting meaty with the plot. 

When Ken starts complaining about the lack of progress in their training, Gouken takes the young men to the dojo where he and his brother trained, under Goutetsu (Togo Igawa), decades earlier. Here Gouken begins to teach them how to produce a Hadou (those annoying fireballs cheap players lob at you constantly). Before long, Ryu's is outpacing Ken, much to the frustration of the American fighter. Then one day, in a boarded up room of this old dojo, Ken discovers a book that explains how to perform the Satsui no Hadou. Gouken is no fool and on seeing Ken's new technique, he realises the boy must have uncovered something that should have stay buried. 

Ooh-ohwa your fist is on fi-yer!

This then leads to a long sequence of flashbacks, where we learn how the young Gouken (played by Shogen Itokazu) and Gouki (Gaku Space) are taken in by Goutetsu, after their father is killed in battle. Like Ryu and Ken, Gouken and his younger brother are torn between their love for one another and their rivalry. This rivalry extends to also winning the affection of Goutestu's daughter, Sayaka (Hyunri Lee). When his older brother proves himself to be the better warrior and the more eligible bachelor, Gouki is lured towards the darkside of Ansatsuken and the poisonous effects of Satsui no Hadou. This story then takes up the bulk of the series, with us only occasionally checking in on the boys in the white and red jammies. Assassin's Fist was originally released online last May as a series of shorts, but for the Netflix version it has been turned into a 2½ hour movie. While I've not seen the serial, I suspect it probably works better in that format than as a movie. For example, we spend a long time in a cave in the woods, as Gouki slowly transforms into Akuma (played by Joey Ansah). This is an important part of the Street Fighter canon, but viewing these slower paced pieces of exposition as stand alone 20 minute episodes may be an easier way to digest them, rather than slowing down an entire movie with scenes where not much is said or done.

Akuma meditates in a cave for much of the film
Overall, the script and acting are fine; they are a step up from any original content cooked up by the SyFy channel and miles ahead of any Uwe Bollocks. Howard and Moh are not the best actors by any means, but the script (written by Howard and Ansah) does not demand too much of them. In many ways, the true stars of the show are Koieyama/Itokazu, Space and Igawa, who benefit from being allowed to act in Japanese. This mix of English and Japanese also lends authenticity to the series, which it might not otherwise have had. Most importantly for fans of the games, the combat is well choreographed, with many key moves well represented - even if the shoryuken looks a little silly. 

What about non-SF fans, will they enjoy it? Maybe my love for the source material is clouding my judgement, but I think they might. It compares well with many of the epic martial arts movies that emerged following Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's release in 2000. So if you enjoyed that or films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers then you may well enjoy this too. The reason I say this is simple: at the heart of it all is a classic tale of love, rivalry, corruption and betrayal, which is are the cornerstones of so many other classic stories.


  • Tight, focussed story that does not stretch itself too far
  • Mostly great casting. Christian Howard's Ken is as good as I think we'll ever get.
  • Great choreography that does the game's action justice
  • Better acting than you might expect from a low budget web series
  • The most authentic Street Fighter story to date


  • The Gouken/Gouki flashbacks are a little long and may lose any non-SF fans along the way
  • Mix of languages may put off lazy viewers
  • Ken's hair piece


Proof stories from games can be translated to movies/TV series and an interesting look into the core backstory of Capcom's iconic series. The convincing combat, focussed script and competent acting mean that this really feels like Street Fighter. 

Anyone on Netflix can get to the series using this link: