20 February 2009/
5 January 2009


 


 

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

POLICE AND THIEVES
Location: the street

With new DS releases drying up to a mere 40 or 50 a week, this year Iíve mostly been playing Scotland Yard, because I'm the classic example of an only child.


Mr. X is going to have a job stealing this.

Boardgames are brilliant fun, offering gameplay thatís been tried and tested over years or often decades, but are usually handled terribly on consoles. Seeking some justification for running on powerful electric machinery and costing twice as much as buying the physical version from a toyshop, they frequently swamp the gameplay in pointless bells, whistles and cutscenes (which the player is forced to instantly turn off in the options so that a single game of Monopoly doesnít last for 14 hours), as well as imposing an unwavering rigidity of rules.

Worse still, some are so mean-minded and grasping that they make the economics of using the console to play them simply too farcical to bear Ė hello DS Scrabble, which eschews the eminently sensible and obvious possibility of multiple players passing round a single machine in favour of insisting that all players have their own individual DSes and copies of the game, raising the price of a four-player game of Scrabble from about a tenner for a real-life set to somewhere more in the region of £500. As a result of all the above, boardgame conversions rarely get reviewed anywhere, which is a bit of a shame as sometimes it means you might easily miss out on an absolute gem, and such is the case with Scotland Yard on the DS.

(Missing this particular gem is even more likely than usual, because at the time of writing it seems, rather oddly, to have had a European release but not a UK or US one.)


This is an original London boardgame board. Click the image for a full-size version.

The original board version is around 25 years old and has sold over 4 million copies worldwide yet isnít terribly well-known outside of serious boardgaming circles. Itís a game of asymmetric warfare, in which one player (a Pink Panther-style thief called Mr X) has to move around a real-life city evading a team of detectives (numbering anywhere between two and five), while the detectives attempt to track his movements using only details of what forms of transport heís using and occasional scheduled sightings. (Mr X is a very sporting crook, and rather kindly agrees to have his last location revealed to his pursuers every five turns or so.)

WoS isn't about to read the entire instruction manual to you Ė go and look on the internet for more info on Scotland Yard itself if you need it Ė but itís a cleverly-designed, highly entertaining game (which explains the quarter-century lifespan and counting) with lots of balance and flexibility and no reliance on dice or chance except the random positioning of the characters at the start. It is, however, a bit of a pain to play in real life due to the preponderance of fiddly tickets and the difficulty of Mr Xís location having to be physically concealed. Itís exactly the sort of game, in other words, that someone ought to port to a console.


This dude, perhaps. Wait, no, he's much too thin to be a videogame developer.

The DS version of Scotland Yard ought to be nailed into the brain of anyone ever considering bringing a boardgame to a games machine, because itís a textbook example of how to do it right. For a start you get a lot more in the box Ė where DS Scrabble stingily just gave you the vanilla version, with no Super Scrabble or Scrabble Junior, and makes you sweat blood just to unlock some different board graphics, Scotland Yard generously offers five different cities Ė two from real versions of the boardgame and three new exclusive ones, each map having its own idiosyncrasies. (You start off with only London, but can unlock New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris by beating the previous city at any difficulty level, which is extremely easy. You can even enjoy a full replay of your game afterwards to revel in how you did it.)

Itís also extremely flexible. You can play as Mr X or the detectives, at three skill levels and with any combination of rule variations. You can have any number of CPU assistants you like - you could, for example, choose to play as the detectives with two of them controlled by you and two of them by the CPU. And crucially, unlike DS Scrabble (though apparently the 2009 edition of Scrabble will put this right, incremental-update fans), you can play in ďhotseatĒ multiplayer, using just a single console and handing it to the appropriate player when required. Lovely.

(Thereís also local wireless multiplayer, with only London available if youíre playing against someone who doesnít have their own copy of the game - which seems pointless because since youíre probably in the same room you could just play hotseat instead and get all the cities that way, but itís thoughtful to include it all the same. The same could be said for the short and skippable cutscenes at the start and end of a game and the occasional one-line onscreen interjections from Mr X and the detectives, which add a little extra splash of personality to proceedings without ever slowing down the gameplay.)


These shots depict the New York map, on default settings the most difficult location.

On its own Scotland Yard would already be a brilliant conversion, with a superbly slick interface and game rules included for newcomers, but the extra stroke of genius in the DS release is that you also get Campaign mode, in which you can play any city at one of three difficulty levels with fixed rules. (You get three save slots, so you can have one Mr X campaign, one Detectives campaign and a spare slot for a friend.) In Campaign mode you donít just win or lose, but score points depending on how well you played (eg capturing Mr X in fewer moves), and the game saves high scores for each city at each difficulty level, extending replay value more or less to infinity - it'll be a long time before you can't improve your New York (Hard) score.

Simply making Scotland Yard available to play by yourself, or with friends without all the tedious mucking around with little bits of card, would have been an honourable feat, especially when done without requiring multiple DSes. But the developers have really gone the extra mile here (in fact several thousand extra miles, all the way from New York to Berlin) and come up with a brilliantly-transferred and greatly-enhanced game that's made all of WoS' train journeys in recent months pass by in a blink, as well as providing countless engrossing hours of home-based sleuthing. You can really feel the love when you play it, and as a documented fan of the forces of law and order, WoS recommends it with all possible vigour and warmth.


Truncheons, metal staircases and puppy dogs' tails, perhaps.

But as alert viewers will know, WoS isn't one for leaving a good seam of potential gaming unmined. The all-round splendidness of Scotland Yard DS immediately seized your reporter with curiosity as to whether anyone had, perhaps in an equally low-profile manner, thought to bring this excellent game to electronic formats before. And sure enough, as stealthily as Mr X himself, Scotland Yard has stalked unsuspecting gamers from the shadows for many years.

The most recent attempt at capturing its appeal came in the shape of a Windows version from French publishers Cryo in 1998, slap-bang in the middle of a period in which the games industry was going mad for taking classic boardgames like Risk and Cluedo and drowning them in frippery, cutscenes, new modes and gameplay elements until they reached a point where they bore almost no resemblance to the originals whose names they'd appropriated. And so it was with Scotland Yard, which - despite being described by the reliably hilarious MobyGames as "a faithful PC version of the 'popular' board game" - found itself relocated to the Victorian era and forcibly cross-bred with the legends of Jack The Ripper and, less plausibly, Dracula.

(Quite why MobyGames felt the need to put quotes around 'popular' is anyone's guess, incidentally. At over 4m copies, Scotland Yard has sold far more than 99% of videogames.)


The words "in the form of a bat" ought to have no place in Scotland Yard.

It took WoS a considerable amount of time to track down an abandonware copy of Scotland Yard For Windows - commercial ones for legitimate sale were completely impossible to find, although SYFW is the only version of the game to have ever been officially released in this country. It took considerably longer still to install it, thanks to some horrible online code that required multiple reboots and all manner of extremely confusing twatting around before the game would consent to run at all, even though I had no desire to ever utilise the online component and repeatedly but fruitlessly swore at the PC to that effect.

When it was finally satisfied that it had enough completely redundant net-software plugins, it turned out not to be worth all the bother - the "classic" mode had an interface that made the simplest moves a complete chore, and the enhanced version introduced so much dizzying complexity to what was once a simple game of strategic choices that I gave up playing after approximately a quarter as much time as I'd spent installing it. That can't be right, can it?

(In the new mode you're not so much playing a boardgame as a traditional computer adventure game with isometric graphics. There are suspects to interrogate, laboratories to investigate, strange characters to meet and items to collect, but mostly there's just  a lot of agonisingly slow trudging around the 3D sections. Combined with the new setting it's hard to imagine how you could start out with the same basic premise and then end up with a game that was very much less like the original Scotland Yard boardgame than this is. )


You're right out of luck, mate.

The experimental WoS Time Radar (patent pending, all rights reserved, wealthy backers sought) next picked up a signal from 1993. On detailed analysis it turned out to be from a most unlikely source - namely, the Philips CD-i. The ill-fated console did most successfully  (or more accurately put, did slightly less disastrously) in Europe, which is coincidentally where Scotland Yard is most popular, so it's perhaps not a surprise that the CD-i was the host of the game's only home console port. Indeed, so niche was its appeal that Scotland Yard Interactive (to give it its full title) is conducted entirely in German, with no other language options available.

Much more traditional in approach than the Cryo game, SY Interactive (interactive as opposed to what? A slideshow of watching the game play itself?) nevertheless has a few interesting quirks of its own. Developers in 1993 were still dazed by the awesome storage capacity of CDs and the vast graphical leap offered by the first generation of disc-based consoles over the likes of the SNES and Mega Drive, so the game is full of digitised photographs of London, apparently taken in a hurry by an unhappy Philips employee handed a compact camera and sent out in his lunchbreak with a two-zone travelcard. They're not just for decoration, though - as far as I can tell (all the instructions are in German, remember), the pictures shown after most of Mr X's moves show you, with varying degrees of helpfulness, the actual location of the fugitive. 

(WoS unequivocally and unreservedly condemns the racist comments depicted at the above link, and apologises to any of its sensitive viewers who may be offended. If WoS still has any sensitive viewers left, that is.)


Apparently, Germans think this is an inconspicuous look for criminals on the run in Britain.

More often than not, in fact, it'll be the location of the fugitive robot. Cutely, all the CPU characters in SYI are played by androids, which the game reports scrupulously at the end, and in one-player mode you'll always be hunting down Robi X, rather than the human version.

If you already know the rules, beyond the menus the game itself is entirely playable without requiring any knowledge of German ("Neuer Fall" starts a new game) and it's pretty nicely done, if a touch slow-moving. (Mechanically it actually works very similarly to the DS game.) The best feature, though, is that it comes with two modes - "Classic" and "London Special".

As far as WoS has been able to ascertain, the only gameplay difference between the two is that in "London Special" mode, the reliability of the public transport systems Scotland Yard is built around is portrayed in a somewhat satirical manner. Around one in every seven or eight player moves will fall victim to buses being out of service, taxis being broken down, on strike (below) or on dinner break, or even tube stations being closed. This, WoS can only assume, is the German sense of humour at play. Man, you've got to love those crazy Teutonic funsters!


Have taxis ever gone on strike? If not, nice Photoshopping.

But wait! What's that insistent beeping noise? Can it possibly be the WoS Time Radar again? Hold on tight, viewers! We're going back further than we've ever gone before!

Well, to 1990, anyway, because as far as WoS's top team of trained and toughened time technicians have been able to probe, 1990 was the date that heralded the first ever home electronic-gaming version of Scotland Yard, and it appeared in an unlikely place. A prophet apparently without honour in the land where it's set, the game first found a digital welcome in the lands of the Orient. For it was on the original mono Game Boy, of all things, that boardgame lovers saw the debut domestic appearance of a Scotland Yard videogame.

Blimey, it's 20 years since the mono Game Boy. Yikes.


The elusive Mr. X - he really is a master of disguise.

The GB's little blurry low-res screen, of course, was never capable of much in the way of fine detail, so perceptive readers might at this point be wondering how on Earth it could ever be expected to cope with the lovely artwork and intricate maps of the board game. And obviously it couldn't, so  developers Toei were forced to think creatively when it came to recreating the game experience. The result was something that to a passer-by wouldn't have looked the least bit like Scotland Yard, and which takes some radical liberties, but ends up capturing at least the primitive essence of its character, while adding a flavour all of its own.

The differences between the Game Boy version and the original, and indeed any of the other translations, are many and substantial. For a start you can only play as the detectives, not Mr X. Secondly, the detectives always number three (usually, as alert viewers will recall from the DS part of the feature, you can select any number between two and five agents, which effectively serves as a simple difficulty-setting mechanism).

There are numerous other significant changes, both to the gameplay mechanics and the interface. You can't scroll the map while playing, which itself is a major alteration. There are no buses or taxis in the GB game - movement is by walking or by train, or occasionally by travelator. There are shops where the agents can sell unused travel tickets to buy other kinds of ticket or even special sorts of tiles which can be laid on the ground to restrict Mr X's movements. And the player gets to nominate one of his detectives to move with a police-dog unit, which can be used once to search a 3x3 grid of squares around the detective's location.


He could actually be one of these dogs for all we know.

Squares? Well, rather than the twisted and tangled streets of the original, GB Scotland Yard depicts its five cities (nominally New York, Paris, Tokyo, Cairo and London) as simple grids of uniform blocks. You can only move in the four compass directions and you can't cross railway tracks, so in the screenshot below the train station located just below and right of centre can only be exited to the south and the east, not to the north-west.

With grids comparable in size to those in the boardgame, that would make tracking Mr X down with only three agents a fearsomely difficult task, except for the fact that he can't cross the railway tracks either, and the detectives' main method of success is to trap him in a cul-de-sac of train lines with no accessible stations for the fiendish mastermind to escape through.

Balancing this, however, is the strangest facet of the game, namely Mr X's one-time teleport capability. Randomly - but usually when you've got him backed into a corner and one move from capture - he simply vanishes into a magical castle that wasn't there the moment before (there's one pictured below, in the centre of the screenshot), which seems to contain a handy sewer leading to his original start position. See, I told you they were pretty radical liberties.
 


Your agents are represented by the cute detective-themed symbols. That's the shop at the bottom.

The last weird thing about the game is that for no good reason, your agents leave a trail indicating their movements. Now, that wouldn't be weird at all, except for the fact that there's no visible way of distinguishing your agent's current position from the trail markers. If you start doubling back over squares that you've visited before, it becomes impossible for Agent Briar Pipe to tell (except from memory) which square Agent Magnifying Glass is actually standing on, making it tricky to co-ordinate their positions and leaving Mr X the possibility of dashing through an indiscernible gap between them to freedom. Man!

Given all this, it's remarkable that the GB version still, after a fashion, feels like Scotland Yard. But somehow it does, because the core gameplay is still the same - it's still about forward planning, informed guesswork and judicious use of limited resources, and once you've adjusted it's still challenging and fun. It takes some getting used to if you've played any other version, and by the time you get a grip on it you'll have learned to fervently hate the person who forgot to include a music-off option, but it's a piece of work that makes you want to take your hat off in admiration to the  coders who squeezed it all into a tiny 128K cart, and to marvel at the strength of a fundamental game design that can survive being so mangled in the process.

If you want to play Scotland Yard (and you do), you should unquestionably do it on the DS. But you really ought to take a moment to pay your respects to its grandpa too.


This feature is over. I'm outta here!
 

The DS element of this piece originally appeared on Snappy Gamer.
 

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