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GAMES COLUMN 6 - May 1998

IN PRAISE OF ROOMS

Stuart Campbell gets up close and personal

For years now, wild-eyed, greasy-haired loonies have been proclaiming to anyone who'd listen that the era of online videogaming was just around the corner. The day was almost upon us, they'd howl, when playing games on your own in front of a console would hold the same appeal, and be as widespread, as Morris dancing or voting Tory in public.

Luckily, years of non-delivery on this promise/threat finally seem to have awoken the gaming world to the realisation that it's not going to happen, for three very good reasons. Firstly, there's the sound economic objection that BT are still stubbornly refusing to make any concessions to the existence of the Internet, in the form of the cheap, fixed-rate local calls that pretty much the rest of the civilised world enjoy. (And the related problem that analogue telephone systems are, in any case, far too slow and unreliable to support Net gaming without huge delays and crashes every five minutes). Secondly, there's the fact that videogames were invented specifically as entertainment for the times when you didn't have any real people to play with in the first place, and will always fundamentally serve that primary purpose.

Most crucially, though, there's the undisputable fact that if you DO want to get together with some mates and play videogames, the ONLY sensible way to do it is to have everyone in the same room, where you can see them. Because 99% of the joy of beating someone at a videogame is to glory in the crestfallen/horrified look on their face as your character rips their spine out/zooms past them on the last corner/hoofs a speculative 40-yard lob over their keeper's head with seconds to go, then forcing them to watch the slow-motion replay as you dance around the room gloating sickeningly while they throw their joypad at the wall and sulk. (The moment being extra-specially honey-coated, of course, if they've just done the same thing to you 10 minutes earlier.) In videogames, as in life, there's no fun in beating someone you can't see.

So it's great to see game developers pulling out all the stops to create great multi-player games on a single machine, as Namco have with their gorgeous cartoon shooting game Point Blank (Playstation, 60 with gun, 40 standalone). The arcade version was a solo affair, but a truckload of additions have been made for the home release, including a whole extra set of new stages as big again as the original, a bizarre role-playing quest game, and, most importantly, a trio of special Party Play modes catering for up to eight players.

The game itself is a treat, eschewing the tedious, wrist-sapping blast-reload-blast-reload antics of previous shooters (with the exception of Namco's own Time Crisis) in favour of several series of snappy sub-games lasting no more than 20 seconds each, covering a huge range of styles and never testing the same skills twice in a row. It's great even on your own, but for after-pub entertainment no home should be without one.

 

KULA WORLD

(Playstation, Sony, 35)

Although Tetris is one of the world's all-time biggest-selling titles, no other puzzle game has ever come close to making the same impression. And to be honest, Kula World isn't going to change that situation any. That's not to say it isn't a superb game - it is - but the command of 3D spacial mathematics required to master it would tax even good Will Hunting himself, and puts it way beyond the reach of most of us. It's difficult to even describe - play takes place on a kind of abstract magnetic scaffolding suspended in multiple-field gravity, along which you have to guide a bouncing beach ball - but after a few introductory levels the difficulty of description soon pales to nothing beside the sheer mental torture of trying to keep the whole rotating 3D space maze in perspective, and the vertiginous terror involved in moving along it. Well worth a look if you've got the kind of placidity that makes the Dalai Lama look like Begbie from Trainspotting, but otherwise, for the sake of your sanity, walk on by.

 

PITFALL 3D

(Playstation, Activision, 45)

Pitfall Harry is one of the grand old men of videogames (his Atari VCS debut dates back 20 years), and this latest attempt to resurrect him sees the old fella dumped in a Tomb Raider-style tale of jungles and pyramids. There's little in the way of imagination - and, like TR, it cries out in vain for smooth analogue control - but it's all perfectly competently done, and with a fair degree of success at retaining the atmospheric heritage of its predecessors. The game also includes a perfect rendition of the original hidden away as a secret bonus game, which ought to be compulsory with all these modern updates of retro titles. After all, if the game's been dramatically improved, there's nothing for the new version to be scared of, is there?

 

ONE

(Playstation, ASC/BMG, 45)

While Pitfall might be the retro title, it's actually nowhere near as old-fashioned as One. For all its lavish cinematography and dramatic atmosphere, this tale of one bloke's battle against a classic urban future dystopian nightmare (beautifully rendered here as a cross between the worlds of Blade Runner and The Running Man) is about as 1978 as game design comes - it's all about pegging it from point A to point B in a straight line while dodging incoming fire and leaping across bottomless pits, end of plot. It's a tremendously exciting variation on the theme (the start, where you have to flee along a glass-enclosed walkway, pursued by soldiers and with helicopter gunships wreaking apocalyptic destruction on your surroundings, is pulse-poundingly thrilling), but it's a bit thin and repetitive to justify the asking price. Rent it instead for the two nights it'll take you to finish it.

 

BOMBERMAN WORLD

(Playstation, Hudson Soft, 45)

And finally, an example of how to get multi-player games wrong. The glorious Bomberman has been a staple of videogame parties since 1990, but as Hudson continually attempt to squeeze more money out of a game that, to all intents and purposes, was perfect first time, they get further and further away from what made it so great in the first place. Here, a pointless new semi-3D viewpoint serves only to confuse and obscure, and a new stinginess with powerups drags bouts out forever, and robs them of the fantastic over-the-top mayhem which once accompanied four fully-armed Bombermen in a small enclosed space. A fizzling dud.

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