Rez (Part 1)

The earliest reference to Rez I can remember reading was had Jeff Minter denouncing its gameplay, claiming it was “Panzer Dragoon with trance trousers.” Which meant nothing to me, until I snaffled Panzer Dragoon Orta on the recommendation of an Edge review. At that time, I had little-to-no understanding what a rail-based shooter was all about – but Orta sure taught me all about it. I still love the occasional bash at Orta (which, due to the Hard mode and all the fiddly little mini-games – and the original Panzer Dragoon – is still on The List), and it sparked an interest in the genre.

And then I recalled Minter’s words.

Rez, eh?

I already had a Dreamcast – Jet Set Radio forced my hand in that direction. A bit of eBaying led to a pricey, but mint, copy of Rez. Then came a period of days where I learnt all about the dodgy GD-ROM pressing that led to most Dreamcasts being unable to read the Rez discs. Worry not – it’s possible to adjust the GD-ROM laser (similar to the C64 Datasette’s azimuth adjustment) to read finicky discs; a bit of hardware hacking, a lot of time, a smidgeon of panic when the Dreamcast failed to read any discs, and finally Rez was booted.

And fuck me if it wasn’t magnificent.

The first level, Area 1, will go down as one of my favourite levels of any game ever – purely for the aural accompaniment. I feel like I’ve written this a million times before, but the sonic punch provided when you enter Areas 1-4 and 1-8 – “breathing” – has attained almost spiritual significance to me; the choice of Buggie Running Beeps as this (almost tutorial) level’s soundtrack is inspired. Visually, Area 1 provides a trippy introduction too.

But Area 4 is the one that I love the most (and yes, I realise this means that Rez has two of my favourite game levels ever – but I feel obliged to give credit where credit is due). For a long time Area 4 gave me grief – it was my stumbling block, the one that made me feel uneasy. But, with two years of hindsight, it’s also the level that excites me the most – I find the graphics to be the most arresting of the game (even over Area 5, which is the reason most people give for Rez‘s greatness) – the Running Man boss is simply incredible. Joujouka’s soundtrack is edgy, driving you on through the level with rising levels of adrenaline and concern, building to a thumping crescendo; end-to-end, it’s a wonderful level, surpassing Area 1’s dull boss and Area 5’s introspective length. Area 4 is simply a miracle of gaming, one of the few times that the audiovisual experience is all-enveloping, all encompassing.

And yes – I do have the Trance Vibrator for my PS2 copy of Rez (a far less pristine version of the game, I might add; a most-definitely second-hand eBay acquisition, the PS2 version makes the hacking rainbows more colourful). Whilst my SO looked at me with what can only optimistically be described as quizzical indifference when I indicated Game Girl Advance’s Rez exploits, I found that it was a brilliant addition to the game – playing the PS2 version, Trance Vib behind a cushion nestled into the small of my back, was a sublime experience.

And so we come to 2008, and the long awaited release of Rez HD – and I’ve never been more excited about a game’s release, never felt so much anticipation. Having to travel for work determined the release date, with 2,000kms deemed an attractive torture device by Fate. Whilst others were blissfully playing through Area 1, I was half-drunk; I lay on my bed in the dark and listened to the soundtrack rips that have accompanied me everywhere on my MP3 player for the last 4(-ish) years. The backs of my eyelids glowed with the recreation of the visual experience that I know all-too-well, yet not well enough; Areas 1 and 4 came alive for me.

The plane ride home Saturday night was nominally two-and-a-half-hours, but felt much longer; I listened to that soundtrack again, over and over, while clouds and land and sea drifted below me. The plane only had a smattering of passengers, so I was unabashed in weeping with joy, weeping with anticipation, grinning like a loon – for I was on my way to play Rez again. A bigger, bolder, brighter, louder Rez.

I got home, kissed the SO, and played.

Oh yes. Oh yes.

But more on that later. Another day, when typing is easier because the tips of my thumb (which prove to be ever-so-useful for hitting the space bar) ache so much from the mashing I’ve given them the last 24 hours. Easily my best Score Attack scores, and even a miraculous 98% run through Area 5. I love this game.

But I’ll leave with this little tale:

When I had my little jaunt around the UK in 2004, the RLLMUK rips of the Rez soundtrack never left my MP3 player. Not once. Pretty impressive when you consider that it was only a 512MB player. There were so many dream-like instances where I’d be coasting through the English countryside – by train, bus – and have sunlight streaming through the window onto my face, the greens and whites and blues passing by, enveloped in a state of bliss. At those times I’d often reflect, a little self-indulgently, that this life I was leading was just a game, a game that – like so many others – I was only moderately “good” at, but I was having an absolute ball playing. And Rez provides the perfect soundtrack, the perfect metaphor, for that game of life.

On matters Tempest…

I never really had much experience with the 1980 Tempest arcade game, but Jeff Minter did. He absolutely loves it. So much so that, when offered the opportunity by Atari, he created a glorious interpretation of the game – the Jaguar’s Tempest 2000.

T2K made the Jaguar worth owning. Nothing else in the console’s brief lifetime had anywhere near the playability, and it introduced a whole new generation of fans to Minter’s Llamasoft. But it was not the first of Yak’s Tempest re-workings that I ever played; that honour goes to Tempest 3000, written for the Nuon processor that managed to find a home in a mere handful of Samsung and Toshiba DVD players. An eBay win and shipping from a helpful mate in the US netted me a Samsung N501; a quick trip to DSE for a 230-to-115V transformer saw me in business.

T3K is a visual feast, pure and simple; the vast majority of the game looks like it’s in some glorious mild soft-focus, a soothing “come hither” effect that makes the plethora of death you’ll be dealt seem as daunting as a Mills & Boon novel. But that’s the beauty of it; T3K seems so innocuous, so sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you with visuals that are at once brilliant neon and soothing pastel. Blurry and indistinct, maybe – but spend half-an-hour getting into the groove of the game and they become second nature.

I aspired to be great at Tempest 3000. Being “good” wasn’t good enough; I wanted to be able to hold my head up high and say “I rock at this game.” And so, with guidance from the ever-faithful Llamascores, the nightly practise sessions began: about 15 minutes to settle in, and then the time just flew by as the game and I became a Competitive One, yin and yang, and blissfully so. Early attempts saw me bowing out of proceedings whenever the dreaded Pulsars hit the web – I had no bloody idea what was going on, no idea where they were, and was merely whizzing around the web in hope.

Dropping the trancey music volume down a few notches allows the imperative audio cues to come to the fore; suddenly, the soft “warning” and “pulsar firing” messages (being audible) were actually useful, and more progress was made. Alas, high scores in T3K seem to be reliant on (a) not using the jump (or “hover”) powerup, and (2) being able to traverse the bonus levels. I suck at the bonus level. And I can’t stop using the hover. My multipliers aren’t collected, and my score remains puny.

But what a lovely, lovely game. “Lush” is a word that suits it especially well. If only the Nuon had the ability to persist high scores… Aside from that, though, the Nuon was criminally underused hardware. Apparently hard as hell to program (with a VLIW instruction set that, with the benefit of hindsight, must be a secret shame of someone right now). The controller I snaffled was very N64-ish, and perfect for T3K: a lovely loose analog stick, perfect for thrashing about the web, before switching to the precision of the D-pad. And, of course, the Nuon was also home to Minter’s VLM-2 audio visualiser… but that’s leading to a much longer conversation.

Later, after having positively failed in my attempt to be “great” at T3K, I acquired a Jaguar and a stack of games, T2K included. And – most important of all – a rotary spinner controller, given the Yak-tastic thumbs-up as being the definitive way to play T2K. Fire up the console, give the game a nudge and a wink to engage rotary support, and we’re off – playing the game as Yak originally intended.

First thoughts were jarring; after the plasma-fied smoothness of T3K, the Jaguar’s pixel-shattering graphics felt positively coarse. It also didn’t feel as balanced; early levels carried on way too long, especially when compared to the svelte level designs of T3K. Colour me unimpressed.

Several months later, though, in the midst of a glorious break from work, I decided to return to T2K – if only to try and remove it from the To-Do List. And it managed to dig both fangs in and dig hard. After getting to grips with the controls (and, more importantly, learning how the T2K pulsars worked), I settled in for some quality Minter gaming.

As usual, his progression though levels is beautifully calculated; there’s no massive leaps in difficulty, and you always feel as if you’re learning, and being rewarded for doing so. The T2K “Key” mechanism – whereby you can restart at any odd-numbered level, as long as you’ve completed it – allows short targeted bursts, tackling three levels at a time.

I progress – slowly. My “completed” goal of unlocking Beastly Mode (by completing all 100 levels) seems quite doable as I scoot through the forties, battle manfully through the fifties, and leap into the sixties…

…only to be greeted suddenly with a blank, black screen at the end of a level.


I reboot the Jaguar, restart T2K… to discover that all my high-scores, all my progress, had been lost.

Double shit.

I start from Level 1 again. Things are much smoother this time, and before I know it I’m into the late-fifties. Then the black screen returns, dismissing any gains made.

A quick poke around the InterNets revealed that this problem was symptomatic of dodgy chips – Jag cartridges have tiny slivers of flash in them to store save-states, but the early nature of the technology used led to a relatively low write limit… which I assumed my cart was approaching.

Triple shit. Harrumph.

So, a quick poke around has netted me another (assuredly “almost unused”) T2K cart; it’s yet to be played, though. Yet another little project on the back-burner.

And so to Space Giraffe.

Let’s get one thing straight: Space Giraffe is fucking magnificent. But it’s not Tempest. In fact, were Minter anything but a chilled hippie, he’d kick your teeth in for saying so. It certainly owes a lot to Theurer’s classic (or, more accurately, Minter’s previous re-interpretations) – the webs, powerups, and baddies all seem somewhat familiar… but it’s the gameplay that sets the Giraffe apart. And that’s something I’m not even going to attempt to explain; there’s a squillion other sites out there that delve into details of bulling, juggling, and dealing with rotors.

As expected, the reviews of Space Giraffe have been all over the shop; Edge gave it an 8, OXM famously slated it with a 2.0. Everyone’s favourite opinionated netizen Stuart Campbell loved it (brilliant review there, personal insults aside), and Consolevania‘s fleeting mention (in the tricky-to-find “25677-3” episode) was right on the money too. But, as a lifelong fan of Minter’s work (well, about 90% of it, anyway), I slapped my 400 points down for the Giraffe without looking at the demo, without reading a review. And, from the outset, I knew that we were going to have a good relationship. The Neon engine that pumps forth the brilliant (in both senses of the word) visuals proved no impediment to me (up until Level 52, which required some serious brain re-wiring to comprehend), the music was a perfect fit, the audio cues perfect. Straight away, I knew that I was in love with this game – and, once again, I wanted to be able to call myself “great”. Luckily, the (frankly brilliant) level- and score-save system seems tailor-made for obsessives like me to leverage for decent ranks.

Through practise, determination, and sheer bloody-minded beligerence that I was not going to let this get to me, I managed to scrimp and save enough points to climb as high as 11th in the world… Then the exploit-abusers came in. Yes, there’s a minor exploit to be exploited that allows massive scores to be accumulated; many have taken the opportunity to get wonderful leaderboard rankings. Many more have used it as a reason to not play the Giraffe in anger until it is patched.

Not me, though. I was practising the hell out of this puppy. By the time I cracked the 400-million mark, I’d crawled back up to 13th. Hurrah!

But now I’m taking a break from the Giraffe until the patch – and resultant leaderboard wipe – has come out. Then the graph below will have a new line – the line where I’m trying to beat my own score. Already, I’m concerned about some levels that I completely fluked my way through the first time; but if any game is going to cajole me, it’s Space Giraffe.

If you’ve got a 360, and haven’t played the Giraffe yet, then download it forthwith and play the demo. Better yet, just cough up the measly 400 points and buy it outright.

Fantastic, fantastic game… Massive props, Yak :)

There’s one last game that I should mention in this little Tempest-fest, and that’s Tony Crowther’s N2O. It differs from the original Tempest in almost exactly the opposite manner to T2K; if anything, the two games are complementary.

N2O sees the player piloting a craft through tubes blasting baddies, with the player freely rotating around the outside of the tube as you travel through it. The opaque and twisting nature of the tubes is a key differentiator from the more traditional treatments, but the lovely thing about the game is the weight that’s afforded your vehicle – it’s got a lovely heft to it, and handling subtleties between different models of craft offer one of many minor tactical aspects.

By no means have I hammered N2O – in fact, I’ve only seen about a third of the levels, playing on the easiest skill level. But it’s another game on the To-Do List – like T2K, T3K, and Space Giraffe – that I’m really looking forward to immersing myself in. If only to be “good”.

7 Blades

So I’m looking at my Spreadsheet of Games Left To Complete, and I notice that there’s a huge chunk of PS2 games that haven’t been afforded the appropriate care. Casting my eyes over the list, I figure that approaching the PS2 games in alphabetical order would be as good an approach as any; so first on the list is the little-known, hardly-mentioned-on-the-interweb 7 Blades.

Believe me, this was not an intentional purchase. I bought my PS2 very late, well after the Slim PS2 hit the market, but such was the joy experienced by running Xbox games off the hard-drive that I was determined to do the same on the PS2, if possible. So I had sought out an old-style PS2, HDAdvance, and a network adaptor; the latter two were easy enough to find, but the console drove me to eBay. Luckily, I found a local seller at a reasonable price; when I picked it up, he put a tatty DVD case with ripped instructions in my laden arms and said “here, have this game, I can’t sell it anyway.”

Great. Now I own a game that I didn’t really want, but still appears on The Spreadsheet regardless; The O/C Gamer’s worst nightmare.

(Clearly that’s not really true – my worst nightmare would involve the house burning down, the SO getting burned to a crisp, and then being locked in a tiny claustrophobic coffin-like box and buried alive, only to survive to discover that my insurance company would cover only my gaming stuff on a straight replacement policy, and that I’d have to battle through Ridge Racer 6 Final Battles again.)

Firing up the game for the first time, the presentation feels sparse. Starting a new game as Gokurakumaru (the “first” of two characters: the O/C Gamer’s rules dictate top-left to bottom-right), the controls feel loose, sloppy. Combat is okay, nothing great. Sound is cheesey at best, unannoyingly repetitive otherwise; graphics are chunky textures on angular models. But I persevere, simply because it’s a game that I have to play.

The first few levels are satisfactory; the fight sections seem of a decent length (no infinite respawns, hurrah!) and exploration isn’t onerous. But, all of a sudden, I’m deposited on a beach with a metric shitload of ninjas kicking my arse. Repeatedly. And it’s frustrating – I can’t see an end to it. The frustration grows, hits a threshold – and then I’m off to GameFAQs. Apparently, I’m supposed to ignore these ninjas, run right past… of course.

And that’s the first of many sub-par aspects of Gokurakumaru’s half of the game; cut-scenes fail to convey any useful information, and in fact make the storyline murkier. There’s obtuse targets, confusing battles, and a healthy dose of Jap-wackiness. Boss fights become frustrating – there’s little feedback on whether I’m impacting on the boss, and they consistently require the hit-and-hope, repeat-ad-infinitum approach. Gokurakumaru’s storyline finishes, and I’m left bewildered and underwhelmed.

And I know I’ve only played half the game… sigh.

I start to play the game again, this time as Oriyu. The first few levels are identical to those of her male counterpart, the only differences being the short skirt and tastier textures of my avatar, and the substitution of the G-man’s sword for a gun. Initially, the more distant approach afforded to the player by using the gun seems flawed – the tight spaces and cramped corridors that afforded Gokurakumaru some of his finest moments make Oriyu’s gun feel wimpy, and control – once again – feels loose and only accidentally effective.

But suddenly, as the storylines of the two characters diverge, the whole game opens up. All the “WTF?” moments from the storyline start getting filled in, there’s colourful splashes of humour, and levels far more suited to use of the gun are romped through with glee. The return to familiar areas works much better – “The Alchemist”, set amidst one of Gokurakumaru’s most annoying areas, is transformed into a truly joyous little run’n’gun section. I genuinely enjoyed playing as Oriyu – until the final boss who, as per most Final Bosses, was a finicky and annoyingly difficult impediment to Enjoyment.

7 Blades offered a mix of bland hack’n’slash and fun run’n’gun; neither section on its own would be able to prop up a game, but they both had their moments to shine. The problem, though, was that the second half of the game was soooooo much more enjoyable than the first; upon reflection, it’s like Night and Day. And it’s that disparity that really hurts the memory of 7 Blades. Still, for a game I was dreading, there were a few wacky moments of wonder, a few levels of genuine ninja-slaughtering fun. But eventually the game was finished, and I doubt it’ll be played again.