With your host, Rob Remakes

Author: Rob Page 3 of 13

I write about videogames for human beings and I also write videogames for human beings. I run Punching Robots.

Emma Fearon (Mrs Bob / Shabbyshark) 1974-2021

Emma, my friend, my wife, mum to the most incredible kids, her own person, passed away on Saturday. We’re all heartbroken.

Em was the not so invisible hand in my videogame career, the one person I’m proudest to have got to share time on this Earth with – Em was just an amazing person to be around.

For folks who used to frequent the Retro Remakes forums, Em was Mrs Bob. An eternal background presence, the person who even when things were ridiculously tough going for the pair of us, made sure that month in, month out, the place stayed online.

I couldn’t stand the username she chose – she was always more than Mrs Bob, she was Em. She was proud tho, proud to be with me, be by my side and of the community as a whole. To her, Mrs Bob was a way of telling me that I mattered to her. That RR mattered to her. Oh. And for the shits and giggles of tormenting me whilst sitting across the other side of the room, grinning, posting.

I still find it ridiculous, still think it undersold everything she ever did. I don’t think anyone in the community thought for a second that Em wasn’t a huge part of RR existing for as long as it did tho. I think everyone knew. She just liked it all better this way and well, that was that.

Her real passion was in writing tho and she had a wicked way with the written word, playful, cheeky, blunt. Before her health went awry, she had a ball of a time down at a local-ish writing circle with similarly talented folks. If she wasn’t reading, she was writing. If she wasn’t doing either, she was thinking about writing, talking into the night about strands and passages.

Six years ago we’d just finished having the house extended, redecorated, mainly so as to make space for an office she could write in, for a conservatory she could sit in and look out up at the sky and when the sky opened up, listen to the rain hammering off the roof. She loved that.

We’d just finished when her health took a sharp turn for the worst and she never did get to write the stories we’d spend hours discussing. I’ll always be sad that the world didn’t get to see that side of Em outside of a short, affecting, Twine game about abuse and eating disorders.

I have no doubt that if life had bothered to stop happening to us long enough, she’d have wrote some wonderful things – probably about shapeshifting sexy werewolves or something.

(Mind, with apologies because I can’t remember the author or books right now, but somewhere out there people have been reading a couple of quite popular urban fantasy books with a character named after Em starring. Times like this I regret having a forgetful brain and, more so, not having Em to ask and double check.)

That was the amazing thing about getting to spend time with Em though. Her kindness and generosity touched so many that odd things like that would happen.

Even in recent years when she’s been in ridiculous amounts of pain, where we’ve both had so much to get through, she’d still find time to support the local animal rescue somehow, to put her money where her mouth was and lift people up – from local taxi drivers, to folks struggling without a roof of their own over their heads and on. She never stopped giving a shit, she never stopped helping. Couldn’t even manage getting a coffee without making sure there was extra money for a bigger tip or to throw in towards getting someone a hot drink who needed one.

She brought that same love of life, that same belief that some things are just the right things that you need to do – not just talk about – to our home life too. She imbued our kids with a profound sense of what is unjust in this world and how it won’t fix itself. We both did but I always thought Em as the one who’d be one step ahead of me. Mainly because she invariably was.

Em believed in unions, in wanting everyone lifting up so they could thrive, in wanting a world where people can just be themselves in safety, where we you know, try and scorch the Earth a fair bit less so that other people can have a go on it.

That sense of justice was often a sense of sadness too tho, especially over the past decade, especially especially during the pandemic and especially as her inability to do as much as she wanted due to ill health dragged on.

I’m painting a rosy picture here and I am biased, she was my best friend as well as partner. Our life together has never been plain sailing. She was, like me, prone to the most ridiculous fuck ups and whoops moments, Em was human and all that entails, we always said that was the strength in our relationship, the glue that held us together alongside a mutual enjoyment of each other’s company, that we knew each of us could get ourselves in a pickle from the off and accepted each other as who they were.

I never wanted to change Em, Em never wanted to change me. Where would the fun be in that? I mean, we’d have less to talk about and that’d be no good.

Part of the reason all this hurts as much as it does, you know? Decades together, with crappy health and a chaotic life and we somehow managed to find time to still miss each other’s company when apart and to never run out of things to talk about, wrongs we wanted righted, films or whatever we loved, books we’d read.

No shit I’m going to miss her. Em was an amazing person to be around and I’ve always felt privileged to get to share my life with her, even if I remained forever mystified how anyone could walk down the street accumulating a cat following like she would. Taking a walk with Em was like meandering down the road with some sort of Hellboy/Pied Piper crossover.

This probably explains why my first stupid thought when she passed away was “fuck, the cat’s going to kill me for going home without her” and only after that, anything remotely sensible.

The next while is going to be hard. We’ve been struggling for a while now, skint and firefighting too many corners. Rather than getting to fully enjoy what time we had left together, it’s been constant battling to keep our heads above water, to keep the family together and safe. Things are going to be tighter still now it’s just me and the kids.

I’m fairly sure that I’ll forever be sad that things weren’t easier, of the time we wasted on things which we could have spent doing things we enjoyed doing, together. I’ll always be sad that the past five years has been spent surviving with Em in considerable pain and time together growing shorter, money getting tighter, stresses getting more profound.

But if I’m honest, there could never be enough time. There never was. I’ll still always be grateful that I got to spend the best part of my life with the best person I could.

Em, then. Mrs Bob. Shabbyshark. I’m going to fucking miss you and so are the kids and the cats. Even the cats that weren’t ours. Especially the cats that weren’t ours. What on Earth did you do, hypnotise them?

Flynn: Son Of Crimson

A screenshot from Flynn: Son Of Crimson. It's some absolutely gorgeous pixel art! A cave scene with purple lightning bolts blocking the exits either side. A rotund knight with a big axe meanders across the floor as the player leaps through the air.

I’ve been reading a lot of nineties videogame mags these past few weeks and as anyone around at the time can confirm, there really is rather a fixation on things always pushing forward -on the next new thing – around that time.

I mean, videogames nearly always has a fixation on the new but the nineties were all that and more so. A decade where a game would get puzzling looks if it didn’t at least do something different.

To be honest, I found it exhausting then and I find it exhausting now. No wonder I meandered off for a bit to do just about anything else.

It's Flynn again. This is a forest scene, there's an Audrey-esque plant sitting atop a platform, a few gems, Flynn leaping through the air (again) and a big cute doggo.

One of the joys of the past decade, for me at least, has been watching originality become an almost useless metric as the sheer volume of games released pretty much guarantees that folks will be working on similar games in their respective genres.

To the surprise of no-one who thinks about this for even a cursory amount of time, this hasn’t come at the cost of exploring new things – we’re still making remarkable progress in that regard – instead it’s allowed folks to put their own personal (or impersonal!) stamp on things. It’s allowed players who enjoy certain genres to rarely find themselves short of different games to play in those genres.

It’s a ridiculously abundant time. I say it often but I really do feel rather spoiled by it all. It’s nice!

Flynn again. He's riding the doggo through a dungeon. Careful now!

I grabbed Flynn: Son Of Crimson on a whim. I can’t say I knew anything about it or that I even read the store page properly before grabbing it! I had fifteen quid left over from grabbing the eldest something, it looked kinda pretty, I figured “why not, eh” and *click* bought.

I don’t mean this in any derogatory sense whatsoever, it looked like a safe purchase. This sort of platformer usually is (and I should know because I keep buying the things).

There is always the platform game curse to consider – that perhaps there will be a point where the skill and effort the game requires is more than I can manage – but for the most part, I’ve usually had more than my money’s worth at that point anyway and there’s always another one to play.

It's Flynn! This one is a bit Dead Cells with how the platforming arrangement looks. Goblins galore here and one is even riding something or other that doesn't look too friendly. Flynn is still leaping! He likes leaping.

At the time of writing I’m around 30% in (according to the save data) and it hasn’t had me beat for skill yet. I’m not sure how much that is in time spent as I’m forever having to put games down for a bit to go and tend to the kids or whatever so time is pretty much meaningless to me by now. It’s a while, anyway.

Mind, I wouldn’t say the game has a difficulty curve as much as it’s just a bit all over the shop from stage to stage. Sometimes it can be a bit all over the shop within a single stage. The consistently wonderful art and all round polish hide a game that’s rougher round the edges than you’d perhaps expect. Certainly more than I expected at times.

Flynn again! He's not leaping this time! He's on a rope (they got him on a rope) over some lovely blue water. A winged beasty carries an explosive barrel above him.

Dips and spikes aside, if you’ve played a modern indie platformer that isn’t fixated on brutalising you then you’ll have a fairly good idea what to expect of Flynn.

A world map, the odd village or stop off hub to chill in, discreet stages with the usual sort of puzzle platforming trickery at play. Fiddle with switches to open doors, move platforms and all the usual stuff, all punctuated by the odd moment of not too strenuous combat. Hit things, get gems, find the odd secret pathway. You know the drill.

It is very much a “if you’ve played and liked something similar and fancy more of that sort of thing, here you go” kind of game. It’s pretty in the same way a fair amount of these games tend to be. No surprises, basically. Oh, and it has a big doggo that’s really cute. Or at least, you might find it cute. It’s not a cat so it does nothing for me. (Meanie – Ed)

In summary, it’s a genre piece and a perfectly fine one at that. I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to be especially excited over it but I have been comfortable with it. I’ve mainly been having a relaxed time with it, give or take the odd niggle with the odd level here and there, and most definitely don’t regret the almost random purchase.

That said, they should take the dog out and replace it with a really big cat (or a really small cat. Just less dog, more cat in general). Cats improve everything, especially videogames.

As usual, I’ve been playing on the PS4. Other formats are available.

Dr Who And The Advert Of Terror

The cover art for Doctor Who And The Mines Of Terror. It's a TARDIS.

CW: Gratuitous and explicit picture of a brain.

Whilst there’s far, far more famous examples of misfiring videogame adverts out there I can’t help but keep a special place in my heart for the Dr Who And The Mines Of Terror advert.

Not only is it the thing least like something from Dr Who, beating the Dapol Davros to the star prize, it’s absolutely nothing to do with the game either. And it’s a squidgy brain with a blood splat.

Even by the standards of videogames in the eighties – notorious for often painting a far more vivid picture than the videogame could manage* – it’s, erm, somewhat off on a tangent. A whole big ‘why’ of an advert.

On the other hand, it does rather stick in the memory so I guess that’s job done?

It's the advert for the videogame Dr Who And The Mines Of Terror. It's a close up photo of a squidgy brain, complete with bloodsplat, and the words "are you ready for brain to brain combat?"

*Although I disagree with this! I have an imagination and back then (and now) my brain was/is able to quite vividly fill in the blanks, more so than any box art can manage. I appreciate this isn’t possible for everyone though.

Ye Olde Videogame: Space Cruiser

I don’t really like the whole “old games=hard” thing games has a tendency to default to assuming, mainly because there were a lot of old games and amongst them, a lot of kinds of old games. From the humble text adventure to the platformer to the shooter, difficulty and approachability tended to be rather all over the shop!

So, you know, not that different to now really. Saying old games were all hard is a bit like saying new ones are because Dark Souls exists. It’s silly.

That said, some of them are absolute monsters and I had forgotten quite how monstrous Space Cruiser was/is. My main recollections of the game shrouded in the mists of a lot of life having been lived since it sat in the cafe at the local swimming baths alongside Hunchback and Scramble, and I don’t think I ever really consciously paid it much attention on MAME in more recent years – not out of any particular dislike or concern, just I hadn’t really thought about it in a lifetime.

Partly out of necessity (a dude needs his old games) and partly after finally letting the wisdom of Yak from a few years back sink in after one of my more grumpy moments about the Arcade Archives range (“if we won’t pay a fiver for an arcade game, who will?” and as ever, man has a point), I’ve been grabbing some stuff from the all too tiny bunch of old games you can buy on the PS4 and trying to not just stick to another copy of Scramble or I, Robot either.

I definitely wish the games had more pleasing bezel artwork instead of whatever that is.

So yeah, that’s kinda meant if I’ve got a fiver spare or whatever, taking a punt on some half remembered thing because, well, why not? The worst a game can be is not to my tastes. As I’m going through a bit of a space shooty (and in particular, space shooty with a simple coloured scrolling pixel starfield if possible) phase I figured why not eh over Space Cruiser.

Oof. I know my reflexes and co-ordination are far from what they used to be but still, oof. I’m definitely spending more time losing lives than progressing on this one. Enjoying myself, mind!

I have no idea what the term du jour for this sort of thing is but it’s a bit Moon Cresta, even down to having a ship docking sequence. Think one screen at a time, bunch of aliens flying around in some formation – not rigid like Space Invaders, more chaotic like the latter parts of a Galaga stage. A very dawn of the eighties blast.

Coloured pixel starfields are the best starfields.

It’s got some lush presentation going on, some definite showy-offy bits. A short animated sequence of your spacecraft launching opens the game, your progress is marked in an on-screen map at key stages and my personal favourite thing – the colour cycling asteroid blasting stages that start off fairly reasonably paced but quickly descend into a glorious nightmare of, like, a whole few colours cycling pretty fast.

It’s as effective a simple trick here as it is in today’s games, though obviously needs a hefty epilepsy warning just in case.

There’s definitely the occasional thing here where I’m like “Ref! Ref! Come ‘ed, that was a foul, easy” (the first time I got wiped by the first stage’s high speed red ball, I swear I swore swears no-one should swear) but in space, no-one can hear you appeal to an imaginary referee so I just had to get on with it.

You can try Space Cruiser for yourself through MAME or on a bunch of consoles as a title in the arcade archives series. It’s pretty good.

Here’s me failing repeatedly to make any sort of decent progress. Like I say, this game is hard.

Catlateral Damage Remeowstered

A screenshot from Catlateral Damage showing a cat paw lurching into the screen to trash a bacon sandwich.

Actually breaking off writing about something else here to quickly mention that Catlateral Damage, my favourite cat game that isn’t the wonderful Calico, gets a shiny remastered version launched today. Not only that but an already perfectly named game (Catlateral! Brilliant!) gets a variation on “Remastered” that puts Red Faction Guerilla’s awesome “Re-Mars-tered” to shame.

(And yes, I don’t trust anyone that doesn’t have a favourite cat game. I’ll even accept Artic’s Paws).

Catlateral Damage is a sandbox (litterbox) game where you get to pick one of many cats and do what cats do best – get the zoomies, push things off shelves onto the floor thus causing a massive mess and having a ball with the bog roll. Oh, and nap, obvs.

For anyone with a long enough memory, it’s more Off-Road Velociraptor Safari than Goat Simulator. – compact and focused on doing what it does well.

(Oh, and yeah, there’s a dedicated meow button because that’s important)

It’s great and out on just about most things today. A wonderful piece of family friendly silliness that I’ve adored for a fair few years now and I’m glad it’s getting another go round because it’s great.

Top Banana

GLOBAL CHAOS (in a very nineties, grainy, style)

In “videogames I haven’t thought about in years” corner, it strikes me that it took indie games approximately 30 years to reach the visual heights of the Archie/Amiga game, Top Banana.

It's Top Banana. A purple and black striped border surrounds a mass of digital detritus masquerading as a videogame in the best possible glitch-aesthetic.
all pics from Moby Games

Which would be less strange if Top Banana wasn’t an early footnote in indie game history courtesy of (latterly) Pom Pom’s Miles Visman.

Pom Pom, of course, being responsible for Mutant Storm and that – games which would have been a lot of people’s gateway back into the world of the super small team long before anyone had even considered thinking about making Braid or whatever the first indie game is this week.

Another pic. Same deal as the last but more.

Here’s the ever reliable HG 101 if you want to know more, though I disagree that “it’s just plain bad”. Personally, I prefer “difficult and before its time”. Also “looks astounding“.

GLOBAL CHAOS

SDI and A Tale Of Credits

Wading through some old Amiga mags at the moment and last night I ended up down one of my rabbit hole things, stumbled into this old piece (again) on why and how the Amiga version of SDI ended up with curiously defaced credits.

Picture, in your mind’s eye, 1987. A buoyant and flourishing games market on home computers such as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, with Activision extremely interested in exploiting it…

What begins as a bit of a “well, this is odd” ends on a bunch of lovely recollections on how things ended up as they did.

I recall reading all this a while back but it’s worth another kick round all the same.

Snip Snip: Artificial Intelligence (And Why You Might Not Recognise It)

Snip Snip is an occasional look at a magazine cutting from computer games past. Where necessary, names and addresses have been removed to protect the innocent.

A cutting from Amiga Power, I'll try and get round to transcribing it in a bit. In the meantime, sorry.
A passage from issue 1 of Amiga Power’s Gods review

I’ve been playing a bit of Gods (courtesy of the PS4 remake which is fine providing you stick to the original game art) in-between other things recently.

I can’t say I got on with a lot of Amiga era arcade adventures, as pretty as a lot of them are there’s a tendency towards showboating sprites and, well, slowness. Given I’m as ADHD up to the eyeballs as can be, this really can rub me the wrong way. So, you know, I tend to avoid them.

However, given I’m more at peace with myself these days I’ve been finding a fair bit of joy in the slowness of Gods. It is an achingly slow game, ponderous even, but that’s precisely why I’m enjoying it. That slowness gives it a curiously satisfying rhythm, one where it encourages you to be meticulous in examining the level around you in order to progress.

Anyway, I went to root out some reviews from the time and in any excuse to read some magazines, ended up browsing through the Amiga Power review. Nothing too exciting there but I did end up thinking about the box out describing what we’d now call “dynamic difficulty” or, in a post Left4Dead world, attribute it to a game director.

It’s not so much that Gods does this stuff but that videogames still find themselves in a position of explaining the exact same stuff in 2021.

Don’t misunderstand me here, I don’t think this is a problem! The audience for games is always going to consist of new people or folks who only normally tinker with one genre but they just couldn’t resist a particular game.

If anything I want us to keep getting better at explaining stuff. There’s a time and a place for videogames being for an incredibly specific, incredibly niche, audience. There’s a time and a place for them being absolutely opaque too.

Videogames can be remarkably insular and obtuse and there’s genre traits which seem mystifying to me still, never mind. Sometimes that’s an important part of what a videogame is!

For those moments where it’s not, I hope we’ll keep explaining stuff and making this stuff easier to grasp even if we’ve been doing it for 30 years.

5 Rejected Sonic Prototypes

A fancily dressed skeleton with a fine pipe and hat introduces the top 5, an occasional series of lists of 5 things not to be taken entirely seriously.
  1. Sonic The Eggnog
  2. Sonic The Red Log
  3. Sonic The Lead Clog
  4. Sonic The Dead Frog
  5. Barry

Fallen London

Fallen London is a game that’s probably sucked more hours out of my life than, well, any other videogame ever. Yes, even No Man’s Sky or Left4Dead can’t hope to compete with it as we’re talking a game I’ve been playing most nights for yonks now.

Partly it’s because I am nothing if not an ageing goth and Fallen London’s the closest a videogame has ever gotten to fitting in perfectly alongside my music tastes (please videogames – less Tim Burton, more Bauhaus), partly it’s a comfort thing because I can log in from bed, have a little bit of an adventure, then nod off or crack open a book or whatever.

Mainly though, I keep coming back for the writing. It is so b____y good (which is lucky for a game that is entirely words really). For a few quid a month, I get one (extra) story each month to play through and I can count the ones which haven’t quite done it for me on one hand. An exceptional hit rate by any standards and one that speaks to the talent Failbetter have been able to rope in to contribute over the years.

(I have a sekrit mental wishlist of people I’d love to see have a pop at a story because, basically, I’m greedy and would have everyone whose writing I adore in games write me a Fallen London story if I could)

One of the things that I find remarkable is after all this time playing Fallen London I must have read some passages in the game an absurd amount of times (sometimes multiple times a night if I’m knackered and just doing a bit of lazy making a number go up), I still enjoy reading those passages. Nothing has me going “oh, not this” or glazing over and stuff that made me smile an age back, still makes me smile now.

There’s been times when I’m exhausted, my brain residing in some sort of chemical toilet or whatever and I can’t bring myself to even play something I enjoy this much. It doesn’t bother me so much because I know that when I get round to feeling better, I’ll have accumulated a bunch of new Fallen London tales to play through. Best kind of reward for being able to drag myself out of a crappy malaise.

Mind, I’m not the kind of person able to roleplay a character easily. I’ve never really been able to inhabit someone or something else in that way. Any games that ask me to make a choice are going to find me pressing ahead with whatever choice feels like the one I’d make.

I appreciate how much the writing, the multiple interweaving stories, of Fallen London accommodates that every bit as well as someone who has the ability to not be themselves for a while and with purpose. I don’t think I’ve even once felt like the game pulled the rug from under me, ever felt like a story cheated me from a choice I’d (like to imagine I’d) make in a particular situation.

It’s quite the balance to maintain! Especially over this many years, this many stories, and throughout that time I’ve changed a lot! Still the contributors to this videogame and Failbetter in general always seem one step ahead.

It’s a wonderful thing to exist and so many times over the past while I’ve been thankful it does.

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