A New Era…

Last night I had cause to look something up on this blog – a quip I’d made at some stage – and happened to notice that it was nearly three months since I’d posted an entry here. That caught me a little by surprise, really; and now it’s time to make amends, and time to get back to writing. And I’ll open with a grandiose statement:

It’s a new era at The Moobaarn.

Indeed, it’s a new Moobaarn.

In the three months since my last post on this blog, I’ve moved house, bought my first new TV in over 15 years, and – gasp! – acquired a brand spanking new PS3. Luckily, those last two events were linked, thanks to Sony’s latest promotion; I’ve not assisted SCE’s ledger by actually purchasing one of their now-profitable bits of gaming hardware. And the out-of-box experience is great; it’s a lovely chunk of kit, and was set up with no real drama.

Turning the PS3 on yielded another story. It strikes me that the XMB at the core of the PS3’s interface is every bit as cumbersome as the original blade interface of the 360, and completely at odds with the ten-foot interface paradigms of the Wii and the NXE. I reckon the interface – like the DualShock controller, something I’ve never really got on with – was designed by engineers, for engineers; the organisation and design is very clean and regular (symmetrical, in the case of the DualShock), but it fails to compensate for the volume of information… it just doesn’t feel fit-for-purpose, lumbering under the load of the options forced upon it by the opportunities afforded by the hardware.

Anyway, enough bitching.

Having a big HD telly for the first time led me to crack out some of the more graphically impressive 360 titles; Bayonetta‘s arse looks spectacular, Prince of Persia a cel-shaded work of art, and Space Giraffe even crazier than I remember. I tried getting my eye back into the twin-stick-shooter genre with little success (Mutant Storm Reloaded and Geometry Wars Evolved^2 both rebuffing my advances), and there was even some Halo 3 multiplayer during a zombie-themed Double-XP weekend that netted a few new achievements. Yes, the acquisition of a HD TV certainly performed wonders for my flagging gaming mojo.

Prior to delivery of my new TV, though, I was stuck in my new Moobaarn with most of my possessions trapped away in a barely stable structure of boxes. Sure, my old TV had been setup, but the 360 and Wii were buried underneath scores of books and old videotapes that had (perhaps mistakenly) also made the move. Desperate to make some impact on The List, I dug out my original Xbox and started flicking through the pending titles there; Panzer Dragoon Orta got a bit of a bash, but surprisingly I spent a fair wodge of time playing TimeSplitters 2. Now, I’ve ranted at length at this game on various internet fora, especially targeting those that recommended that game to me; as the second console FPS I ever played, it was a woefully abysmal experience compared to Halo. In fact, the in-game stats indicated that I’d spent a scant six hours playing TS2, completing it on the easiest difficulty setting, before running away to play something that felt right. I really didn’t like it at all.

Those same in-game stats, however, indicated that I’d only “completed” 10% of the game on offer… and that just doesn’t sit well with my OCD. So I started churning through some of the Arcade and Challenge modes, determined to attain Gold Trophies in all events… and, lo and behold, I found myself actually enjoying the game! What a pleasant surprise. Anyway, the percentage had crept up to about 34% by the time the new telly arrived and the old Xbox was consigned to a disused part of the entertainment unit; I will return to play more TimeSplitters 2, though, you mark my words.

My sole PS3 purchase so far has been the original Uncharted, and… well, colour me unimpressed. Woolly controls, glaringly shiny teeth, and paint-by-numbers action has done little to warm me; it really does feel like a prettied-up Tomb Raider clone with an awful lack of precision. In its defence, I’m only about half-way through the game, but my favourite bits thus far have been the oft-maligned jetski sections. Sure, Uncharted 2 may have been the critic’s choice for 2009, but on the strength of its predecessor I’m not sure I’ll bother.

But the good thing about this experience is that I think I’m starting to crystallise what appeals to me as a gamer. Without wanting to sound patronising in any way, Uncharted conjures up the same feeling, the same approach and mood, as Gears of War did for me; not in the gameplay (though there’s certainly some similarities there too), but in the way it’s presented: linear progression with well-defined set-pieces. And, just as GoW irked me massively (co-op hijinks with friends notwithstanding), I think Uncharted is going to pan out the same way.

Ummmmm, what else have I been doing in the last couple of months? Well, I’ve knocked two Wii games – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Paper Mario – off the list, the latter being a paniccy weekend completion of one of my aforementioned In Case Of Emergency games when I realised that I wasn’t getting my skills together to complete Wii Play. Yes, the best part of five grand dropped on a nice new HD telly, and I’ve spent most of my time playing Wii games. And that continues even now, with the local release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 last Thursday… a couple of days solid play has allowed me to gather 118 Power Stars, enough to access one of the finest levels of gaming I’ve ever encountered… but more on that later.

Next week? Crackdown 2… and I cannot fucking wait. Which makes me reflect on the fantastic world we live in; only a fortnight ago, I wandered into my preferred vendor of gaming goodness and slapped down pre-orders on Super Mario Galaxy 2, Crackdown 2, and Halo: Reach, and two of those are released within a week of each other. How awesome is that?

Space Giraffe : Final

So – job’s a good ‘un, then.

My final Space Giraffe task – to at least equal my pre-update level scores – is complete. A surprisingly hard slog, too, but such was the joy of Super Ox Mode.

“Super Ox Mode,” you say? Yep – when you ERROR_SUCCESS (beat level 100 for the first time) you also unlock the ability to play the Giraffe in a far more aggressive manner. I start Super Ox Mode by holding down the Y-button whilst I hit the A-button on the pre-Level select screen.

What’s Super Ox Mode all about, then? Well, it’s harder – from just-a-smidgeon-harder to completely-fucking-impossible. First up – enemies nearly always get an upgrade. Passive grunts start shooting, feedback monsters become aggressive feedback monsters, dull ploddy boffins become aggressive boffins. Apart from that, the waves stay pretty much the same.

…but the webs do not. They’re still the 100 webs we know and love, but every time you get a “New Start Bonus Set” (or somesuch) message, their order is randomised. So you play Level 1 and face the simple Level 1 waves on the heinous Level 53 web, or you might select Level 100 and be presented with an easier, circular web. Or it might go pear-shaped, and you’ve still got the Level 100 waves on the Level 64 web. Christ that was bad.


The lovely, score-maximising potential of Super Ox Mode mainly comes from the extra bullets the aggressive enemies lob your way. Juggling bullets is an incredible score maximiser; each time you bounce a bullet back by shooting it, you seem to add more “value” to it; the next time you juggle it, it appears to net more points. So with a fleet of bullets hovering at the end of the web that you can keep at bay with careful sweeping, and a friendly rotor hovering at the other side of the web, it’s possible to get some massive scores on seemingly insignificant levels.

Of course, the random allocation of the webs is a bit of a bastard; what I did was to ascertain whether the web currently allocated to my Level-of-focus was doable. If not, I’d drop back to normal mode and get another Start Bonus Set, inching the score up slightly; when I got a “good” web, I’d sweat on it until I thought I had it nailed. Remember – as soon as you see that “New Start Bonus Set” message in either mode, it’ll randomise the Super Ox Mode webs again; so, if I felt I could rinse the level better, I’d quit the game before the message appears at the start of the next level.

By the time I’d finished, my score of 857,640,088 had me second on the world rankings. Of course, the score above me was over 2 billion, and the score below me was a touch over 800 million… at level 76. So there’s obviously massive opportunities to snaffle even more points; but for me, the Giraffe is done.

And it was a wonderful, wonderful ride :)

Space Giraffe : Update 2

So – a week later and, having lost some time to a spot of illness and a spate of Halo 3 hijinks, my Space Giraffe quest continues…

As you can see, there’s a teensy bit of daylight opening up between the new scores and the old. I’m pretty happy that I’ve managed to best every level score so far, though some (which, no doubt, were inflated by an opportunistic Bonus Level or two) were bloody difficult. Of course, on the other side of the coin are levels that I managed to improve by over 40 million points. Needless to say, the Giraffe is still brilliant fun.

Catching up on some reading recently, I’ve noticed a few of the more… ummmm… thoughtful blogs level the (sadly common) “visual overload” criticism at the Giraffe. My take on the pyrotechnics is this: every game requires the player to learn the visual presentation of information, whether it’s a representation of a maze or a fancy new HUD. Space Giraffe offers one hundred opportunities to learn, to experience, to manipulate; all the information is still there, it’s just a matter of learning how to see it. A great example is Level 52, where the camera perspective shifts; initially, it’s nigh-on impossible to ascertain exactly what’s going on, let alone where it’s happening… but suddenly something in your brain clicks, and the information is as clearly presented as it would be in print. I loved those moments of realisation, coupled with the moments where you can step outside your head, look at the cacophony onscreen, and think “woah – that’s a mess. And I’m going to win because of it.”

Space Giraffe : Update 1

Despite a chunk of the day being taken up by OC-ing Super Paper Mario (and other bits of “life” – sigh), progress on restoring my Space Giraffe score is going pretty well… swimmingly, actually. I’m about 30 million points up on my pre-update scores, and only up to Level 18! Level 15 was a complete bastard, though, and took the best part of 2 hours to nail an adequate score… here’s hoping further progress doesn’t hit too many more snags like that :}

Space Giraffe : The LNLM

As you (and by “you”, I mean “me” – nobody else reads this shit, do they?) might have guessed from my last post, right after I posted my six-weeks-in-gestation Tempest post, the Space Giraffe patch was released onto Xbox Live – removing the old exploits and resetting the Leaderboards as a consequence. So I updated, and leapt into a game… which just happened to launch me to the top of the Leaderboards for a second or so.

The most difficult Achievement in the Giraffe is, undoubtedly, the Long-Necked Long March – starting at Level 1, ploughing through every level in the game ’til you beat Level 100. Last night’s game was the second time I’d seen my LNLM attempt bomb out at Level 88; this morning was the second time I’d bombed out at Level 92 (after a particularly hideous brace of levels in the late 80’s). So, instead of beginning another assault (hey – these attempts were over two hours each!), I thought I’d start trying to resurrect my Level scores, and start the climb back to 400+ million.

Several attempts at Level 1 (using the time-honoured slow-start-left-inch-bull-left technique) saw me better my previous best by about 60,000 points. Level 2 went pretty well too, and before I knew it I was in the thirties, forties, sixties. The seventies sailed by, and – as usual – 88 and 89 tripped me mightily, reducing my lives dramatically. I only just scraped through Level 92 with one life in hand – I was stoked, though, as I’d never managed this before. I glean an extra life or two, and start playing ultra-conservatively…

…and suddenly I’m on Level 97 with 5 lives in hand. Holy shit, I think to myself, I can do this. I whore for lives, snaffling an extra three. I’m starting to shake; I sense the adrenaline starting to cause jitters, my hands shake when I take them off the controller. I take a break, try to calm down… Level 98 is smooth sailing, but I’ve never had problems with it before. Unlike Level 99, which has always given me grief.

I take another break, thinking calming thoughts.

I return to Level 99, and it becomes apparent that something is different. I’m playing this level completely differently, and have one of those weird out-of-body experiences where I look on in wonder. My giraffe dances about the rim, leaping over those bastard spiky buggers before blasting them to smithereens; I am ZONING, I am at One with the Game. The level ends; I’ve got 9 lives in hand, with one level to play.

I risk the ZONE and take another break. My legs are jelly, my hands are trembling mush. I return to my 360, pick up the controller; I try to recall my previous mental state, then begin Level 100. Its lazy opening jars me a little, the calm before the storm I know is coming – I just want the action, dammit! – but soon the zappy things appear, followed closely by spiky bastards and screaming flowers and feedback monsters…

…and then I’m through. The little Achievement toast pops up, and I view it with almost disbelief. The game is over; I have won. 377 million points are on the board (4th on the new Leaderboard), when all I really wanted was the 320 thousand from Level 1. I throw my hands in my air when it hits me – I have walked the Long-Necked Long March.

And so, but one task remains before I put a tick next to Space Giraffe in the To-Do List: return my scores to their original, pre-update levels. But, having missed my personal best tallied score by a mere 25-odd million on a LNLM run, I’m beginning to think I’m going to aim higher…

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”.