It’s been nearly three weeks since my last Sunday-night update, and that’s largely because of my recent Gears of War boosting habit.

I say “habit” for good reason; my Gears boosting became an addiction. When I first started boosting for the Seriously Achievement, I guesstimated that it would take about one hundred sessions to complete… that was about three hundred hours’ worth of Xbox occupancy. With various time off, and with various other stuff on my plate, I figured I could manage two or three of those sessions a week… a year of effort, then.

But in my first couple of sessions I fell in with a group of other boosters (Lita, Narv, and Beets, with a couple of regulars like Wicky and The Polish Guy) who were more than accommodating, and a barrel of laughs to-boot. Two or three sessions a week turned into two a day, five times a week. The purchase of a second copy of Gears led to the introduction of the double-boxing crew (Bolch, Saturn, Raven, and then Slash and Danger)… all the while, with every multiplier, the outstanding time I guesstimated for my Seriously Achievement was dropping.

Suddenly, I realised that I could finish it before the Fringe this year (in mid-February); hell, I could finish it in January.

Or even early January.

I returned from Christmas with my family late on the 27th of December, and leapt straight into a late-night boosting session. I went to bed around 2am, then got up again at 5am for another session; the entire Christmas / New Year break was a cacophony of sleep and boosting, catching both wherever I could (although one 5am session was shamefully missed when I slept through my alarm. Literally. I woke up three-and-a-half hours late, alarm still blaring away. I sheepishly apologised to the Team; they laughed, and thanked me for the extra kills).

One by one, my friends and accomplices in this most Serious of goals started dropping out, having Achieved what they set out to do; many of them donated their second box (or even both their boxes… thanks Bolch, Narv, Lita, and Beets!) to sessions in order for the stragglers to pick up quick extra kills. And for all of use, there was a pleasing social regularity to proceedings; check TA to see if anyone had got their Achievement recently, then hit the sessions, get the gossip (who popped? what was their count?), and start grinding those kills out.

Raven popped at 11,154; Narv at 12,345. Lita, presumably stymied by a number of network drop-outs, had to wait for 13,246 – and the pause at the end of each game was almost heartbreaking, as we waited in vain for her squeal of delight. And then Beets and I were surging through the 11-thousands, with him trailing me by 300 kills…

…and, at the end of one match, after 11,291 kills, Beets yelled out in jubilation. And I did not.

I don’t mind admitting that I felt absolutely gutted at that moment. I’d played alongside Beets for probably two-thirds of the time, and with only slight variations of play; yet his Achievement had popped, and mine had not. Deflated, I pushed on, running alongside Slash and Danger as we surged through the kills again. Another day, another seven hours, and Seriously had still not unlocked.

Finally, after another four demoralising hours, it popped – at 13,166. I didn’t exclaim my delight out loud; I just smiled to myself as I felt the dejectedness fall away. And then I had a glass of wine. Or two.

Remembering all the kindness that had been shown to me by others, I stayed in the game. Eventually, word got around and the congratulations poured in, but I became focussed on getting others to that goal. Slash popped next, at 11,550, and as I type this now Slash and I are sitting ducks as Danger runs rampant, racking up 57 kills every twelve minutes. I’m now paying it forward.

It may sound clichéd, but I’m going to miss those sessions. For 27 days I chatted to the same group of people about pretty much everything (though I’ll freely concede that, if there was a downer of a conversation topic, I probably brought it up). Sure, it was a gaming grind – but it was a sociable one. I really meant it when I said that Gears provided the Surprise Discovery of the Year for the sense of community I felt; but that provided another little thrill when Raven read that post and was delighted himself. And Slash’s acceptance speech says it all far better than I ever could.

So – I’m sad (and glad) that Seriously is out of the way. Another little bit of effort saw all the rest of the Gears Achievements wrapped up. One more playthrough, a more considerate blog post, and – after four years – Gears of War will be struck from The List.

Speaking of The List… The Rub Rabbits was finally completed. Fucking Stampede Memories. The less said about that, the better, I think, lest this otherwise positive post become a torrent of bile.

Finally: for the last couple of years, I’ve always seemed to manage to have a nice little palate-cleanser of a game first thing in the New Year. This year, I fired up Doritos Crash Course (which I’d conveniently forgotten to include in all my end-of-year calculations) on New Year’s Day… and bloody hell did that entertain me when I wasn’t whoring Gears! All Achievements wrapped up (including some bastard-hard Gold Medal times)… Fantastic stuff, and well worth the free download (for your 360).

So – the next week should see Gears completed, and maybe – just maybe – I’ll start Enslaved, after an irresistible bargain appeared in the New Year sales…

Je Retourne! (Part 3)

Four weeks since my last post. Four weeks, three of those spent at a construction camp an hour out of Karratha, tethered to the Interwebs – and hence, my sanity – by a satellite connection that was lucky to hold 5KB/s for a solid minute. And so, with the exception of this weekend (grinningly punctuated by my annual dose of Eurovision kitsch and bloc favouritism), my gaming has been sporadic – and mostly handheld based.

And by “handheld,” of course, I mean “DS.” The PSP has only tempted me with Patapon, Loco Roco, and (more importantly) the potential for a powerful emulation platform. Prior to the DS, my only other handhelds were also Nintendo in nature: old style Game & Watches (Helmet & Donkey Kong). But I digress, distracted by history and Sweden’s off-key Eurovision entry.

Just before my last painful journey to site, I picked up my first-ever entry into the Grand Theft Auto franchise: GTA: Chinatown Wars. And early impressions were fantastic – I loved the open world, the presentation, the scope. After 13 hours (56% complete), however, the lustre has most certainly been lost: where I initially thought the writing was mature, it now feels hopelessly juvenile; where I once savoured the morsel-sized missions, it now feels like an annoying grind. If this is the franchise that defines modern gaming, then I’m not really sure I want in; an especially ironic comment, given my undying love of Crackdown, which owes so much to GTA‘s heritage. But where Crackdown is wonderfully refined and constrained in its maturity, GTA: CW feels like it’s trying too hard to be Adult. Technically impressive and fun in small doses, sure – and it most definitely deserves to sell more than its reported numbers. But it’s hardly the most compelling thing on the DS.

Compare and contrast with another recent DS acquisition – Soul Bubbles. Seemingly victim to an unsupportive import policy (it was available in Australia for all of two weeks, I reckon), I had to get a UK mate to snaffle this for me (Amazon UK had it for a paltry 6 quid). And it’s a cracking game – utterly unique control mechanism, fun without frustration, a perfect little package. It’s shameful that this has gone so unnoticed.

Other site-based gaming has been limited to more Sight Training (which has proven to be quite enjoyable in a minigame-ish way) and Rub Rabbits (which leads me to believe that practice may, indeed, may – eventually – make perfect). The last couple of days has presented opportunities to get back into my Zelda Master Questing, with a couple of today’s dungeons surprising with their re-jigged ease; both Dodongo’s Cavern and the much-feared Jabu-Jabu’s Belly felt much easier in their Master Quest renditions.

To be honest, though, my mind has been more focussed on a game that’s still some months off: Bayonetta. Ever since I first laid eyes on the initial teaser trailer, I’ve been gagging for more goodies from Platinum – and they’ve delivered some delicious tidbits on the complexities of modelling Bayonetta’s arse. Now, I’m a bit of a fan of a bit of female protagonist posterior, and Bayonetta backs that up with some nutball looking action – I can’t wait.

The near future, however, is (annoyingly) still dictated by work – do I have more lovely Zelda in my future, or am I going to be grinding more GTA: CW in airplanes? It’s pretty much a day-by-day proposition at the moment, but hopefully there’s only another four-to-six weeks of this flux left. I want a chance to feel at home again, bed myself back into my old gaming habits; I haven’t turned on my 360 since March!

Je Retourne! (Part 2)

And so, after 6 weeks away from this blog, I returned – only to be shipped off to site for work. And site, in this case, was north-of-nowhere in Karratha, living in a project camp – the likes of which I’ve never encountered before. With nothing on the cards except working 12-hour days, eat at the mess (not as bad as I’d feared), and drink at the cheap wet-mess, the few hours up my sleeve every night were available to catch up on all the video podcasts I’d been downloading in the last five years… and to get a spot of gaming in.

The thing is, I wasn’t about to drag a console up to a mining site – which left me with the DS and the PC to choose from. I started off with my much-belated attack on Tim Schafer’s Full Throttle. Created prior to the glorious Grim Fandango, I was expecting clever writing, silly puzzles, and an all-round solid package – after all, Fandango gave me four full solid days of delight. But, whilst the writing lived up to its end of the deal (creating caricatures which managed to feel solid, with a splendidly quippy script), I found the SCUMM-based puzzles to be of the “click everywhere and hope” variety. In particular, the final section of the game unfortunately lingers in my memory, because its key was to click (essentially) offscreen – and that type of trick shits me right off. Couple annoying puzzles with a short game (something like ten hours, I reckon), and you can colour me – sadly – disappointed. It may have been just worth the ten bucks it cost me, if only to see Schafer’s progression… but Grim Fandango also only cost ten bucks, and is oodles better in every respect.

A day of airplanes and airports had me home for three days over Easter and, desperate for some retail therapy, I picked up a new Nintendo DSi. The new matte finish feels lovely in the hand, but is tempered by the fact that the serial number sticker breaks up the finish under my fingers; despite some reservations with the new interface, it’s proven itself to be a great acquisition… although I recently found the receipt for my original DS – AU$188, whereas three years later the DSi was AU$299. And, as I’ve previously mentioned, the very idea of a freebie game horrifies me – despite trying to barter for some Points Cards instead, I had to plump for Sight Training; another blight on The List, though hopefully not a long-lasting one. The DSi has also got me looking at Electroplankton and Rub Rabbits again, too…

Finally, one of the videos I consumed whilst on-site was a “History of Zelda” documentary (acquired, possibly dodgily, through Zentendo). Seemingly released around the same time as Wind Waker, it features interviews with a bunch of Nintendo fans and luminaries (including Shigsy himself, and Eiji Aonuma – who, I was somewhat disappointed to discover, directed both Majora’s and Wind Waker). And it’s a great doco, but it had the effect of stoking the flames of passion for Zelda again… and so, on Easter Saturday, I broke out my Limited Edition of Wind Waker, popped the bonus disc in the Wii, and started playing through both Ocarina (again) and Master Quest, side-by-side… and I admit to being surprised just how much harder Master Quest is compared to the original: even the very first dungeon offers a significant challenge. So, with essentially two Ocarina playthroughs being attempted at the same time, and further opportunities for work-related travel in the near future, it’s pretty safe to say that the rest of April is taken care of, game-wise. And May. And probably June, too. Bloody Gerudo archery.

Another Unsuccessful Foray

As November drew to a close, I painfully reminded myself that it’s been another month without any games crossed off The List. There was a patch earlier in the year where I had a good run – one game one month, a couple the next, always a little progress. But the last four months has seen no decrease at all, and – feeling a bit glum from my day job and in need of a little retail therapy – I decided to splurge on something that would ensure that November would be a winning month.

A cheat system for the DS: the CycloDS Evolution.

I’ve mentioned cheating before, and truth be told I only wanted this particular device for one game – The Rub Rabbits. The one remaining barrier to Completion in this game (as I’ve written before) is the horribly unfair Stampede (in Memories) – but the CycloDS, with its real-time save feature, offered a solution that I considered completely tenable. After all, I reasoned, if I merely create a fall-back save every time I successfully get past one of the dreaded heart-of-hearts… well, I’m still actually playing the game, aren’t I? I’m still actually performing the actions required to get the game done, right? Maybe not in the time-frame the creators had in mind, but still.

Now, I’ve got a couple of other flash-cart combos for my DS – an old M3 / Passcard combo (still incredibly useful for ripping my own ROMs and grabbing existing save-game information), and a relatively new R4 (an utterly lovely bit of kit and a real revelation after the rub-your-tummy-whilst-patting-your-head trickery of the M3). The CycloDS is very similar to the R4, in that it supports unpatched, raw ROMs – simplicity itself to use – as well as presenting a polished interface, and access to Action Replay-style cheat codes. The R4 is slightly nicer in that it pre-empts the DS’s normal boot sequence, saving you the hassle of actually booting the cart – but apart from that there’s little to separate the two cards.

…Except for the CycloDS’ real-time save feature. Once enabled, the rather contorted A+B+X+Y+L+R button combo interrupts the game, allowing you to save the current state of the game back to the flash-cart’s Micro-SD card – easily reloaded at a later date to enable you to pick up exactly where you left off. Thus, my task was simple: play The Rub Rabbits‘ shitty Stampede mini-game, save the state when I get over a tricky bit, reload if I fail, and just push on through to Completion. And it turned out exactly as planned, though for some bizarre reason I was able to complete the six heart-of-hearts in a total of seven attempts (but some other sequences caused a few problems). Still, twenty minutes later, the job was done.

I could cross The Rub Rabbits off The List.

…Except that something didn’t feel right (again). Could it be that the DS ROM’s save state was stuck on my Micro-SD card, rather than on The Rub Rabbits‘ cartridge? That’s not an issue – I could reverse-dump the save state back onto the cart no problems. Or could it be the fact that I was objecting to my own (subjective) cheatiness? Surely not – even back in the C64 days, before I started devoting time to coding assembly rather than gaming, I’d use my trusty Expert cartridge to do much the same thing as I was doing now. I still remember the utterly convincing joy I felt after slowly-but-surely conquering Uridium.

Clearly, that was not why I was feeling slightly icky.

…Except it was. And, I think, part of it was the ease at which I managed the task when all pressure was off; only one botched heart-of-heart! Now my mind’s playing tricks on me – why can’t I reproduce that quality of play in regular conditions? Maybe all that’s required is the ability to calm myself, pretend that there’s no pressure there. It’s all about control – mind games.

More games.

And suddenly I’m playing The Rub Rabbits again, original cartridge wodged in the DS, utterly convinced I can do this absolutely, unequivocally, one-hundred-percent legit. And failing miserably. Fuck knows what that scoreline looks like now – let’s just say something like 30-1 heart-of-hearts attempts have been unsuccessful.

And so, once again, my brain has conspired to prevent me from moving on, from crossing something off The List. November was yet another dry month.

(Luckily, though, December has already been covered – Mercenaries 2 has stepped up to fill in the void. More on that later…)