Saturday, August 27, 2011

Goldeneye - N64

Goldeneye on the N64 was one of the consoles most important games. It was one of the first games to popularise first person shooters on the console, in particular the 4 player split screen mode proved to be immensely popular. It was hugely innovative, not just as a console FPS but for the genre as a whole. So how does Goldeneye live up to its pedigree? Well I’m sorry folks. I know this game has a lot of fans that will defend it fervently. However the truth hurts and here’s the cold honest truth. When viewed without those rose tinted spectacles Goldeneye really hasn’t aged very well at all.

However it’s not all bad and I’m going to give the game credit where credit is due. Goldeneye really was far ahead of its time. Most shooters up until this point were modelled on Doom were you walked around a maze gunning enemies down and picking up keycards to unlock doors. Goldeneye introduced a mission structure to its levels where instead of finding a way to the exit there were numerous sub missions to complete otherwise you wouldn’t be able to proceed. This type of mission structure was similar to sims like Mechwarrior and Tie Fighter or the mission/quest structure seen in FPS/RPG hybrid games like System Shock and Ultima Underworld on the PC. To my knowledge this was the first time it was utilised in a pure FPS. This mission structure helped create greater immersion in the environment by giving the player a more complex goal than to find their way out of a maze. A nice addition was that increasing the difficulty level increased the number of objectives for each level. Goldeneye was also one of the few FPS games with a modern world setting. The weapons are realistic rather than silly, although being a bond game you do have access to some crazy gadgets like the laser watch.

The iconic moment

For its time the AI was very advanced and was one of the earliest games to have not only different hitboxes for different parts of the enemies body but also have the AI react differently depending  on where they were shot. You could even shoot the weapons out of enemy’s hands or shoot their helmets off. This was directly influenced from Virtua Cop when the game was supposed to be an on the rails shooter early in its development.  It was also one of the first FPS games to give you the option to play some levels stealthily or go in with all guns blazing. Throwing knives, silenced weapons and, if you are brave enough, melee attacks can be employed to silently take down enemies without alerting others. Security cameras have to be avoided and if alerted the enemy AI can activate alarms to alert all enemies in the level.When going back to the game now the AI is really ropey compared to what has come after it. It does some really silly things and the stealth sections can be hit or miss, the AI can be alerted in situations where it really shouldn’t have been which can become rather frustrating. 

This is probably closer to the visual quality on an actual N64

Goldeneye has aged the worst graphically. This really is an awful looking game. Although it is one of the most technically demanding games on the N64 if you don’t have good art direction then you still end up with an ugly game. The awful character models and dull, grey, repetitive interiors of Goldeneye do it no favours and as a result it has aged far worse than stylised games on the N64 like Mario 64 or Starfox 64. However bad graphics certainly don’t mean a bad game and shouldn’t negatively affect how a game plays. . Most of the screenshots here don’t look too bad but I’ve ‘acquired’ these from google images and most seem to be taken on an N64 emulator. On an N64 Goldeneye would be running at a much lower resolution and the blurry anti aliasing of the N64 also adding to the overall poor quality of the visuals. However bad performance resulting a in framerates can really negatively affect how a game plays, in particular an FPS like Goldeneye. Although Goldeneye is capped at 30 frames per second (or 25 in the PAL version) the game is rarely hitting this cap. It runs at a very inconsistent 15-20 frames per second mark almost constantly. If there are any explosions then the game judders around in frame rates in the single digits. This gives the game a very sluggish feeling, like you are walking through treacle at times, and it’s like the game engine is only running by the sheer optimism of the programmers.


I hate this level, as do most people!

Level design is a bit of a mixed bag as well. Level design seems to be rather haphazard with no real flow to the levels. The designers themselves have said they designed the levels to seem like realistic locations rather than with any real though put into them to function as levels. This does lead to some rather unique level design were levels are rather non linear and require a bit of exploration to find and complete your objectives. There are some rather good levels, such as the Dam, the Facility and the Bunker, but there are a lot of forgettable levels consisting of samey corridors to stumble around lost in and some downright awful levels such as the Tank level and a terrible final boss. It’s a 50/50 split of good and bad. Poor sign posting of objectives can be a problem as well. When told to take out 3 supercomputers you aren’t really sure which badly textured rectangles are meant to represent the supercomputers.

The tank level. Quite possibly the worst FPS level ever until the Cortana level in Halo 3

I do have to commend Rare for their work on Goldeneye’s control scheme. The N64 pad really isn’t cut out for FPS games so to compensate the game uses copious amounts of auto-aim.  Just having an enemy in your field of view makes the Bond aim at the enemy so you aren’t struggling with the N64’s wonky analogue stick. This use of auto-aim was later refined to good effect by Bungie for Halo to give the controls smoothness not possible on an analogue pad without auto-aim.  If there’s one area I can’t fault then it’s the fantastic soundtrack. I’m amazed at what Rare have managed to do with the N64 in the sound department considering the N64 has got no sound hardware meaning scarce CPU resources have to be used.

One area of the game I can’t ignore is the 4 player multiplayer for which the game is best known. In multiplayer the framerate is even more atrocious and it’s very simplistic compared to contemporary shooters. Levels are bland and featureless and even older games like Quake have more elaborate designs thanks to the verticality afforded by a jump button. With the right people however it’s still a whole heap of fun especially experimenting with the wide range of game modes and weapon load outs. Man with the golden gun is still a riot. Newer games like Halo and Call of Duty may be better games but I’d much rather be sitting around with a bunch of mates playing Goldeneye than playing Halo over Xbox Live. Before Goldeneye only a privileged few had experienced the delights of multiplayer FPS. Goldeneye brought this to the masses without the need of multiple PCs and a LAN setup.

The Facility seems to be most peoples favourite level, especially George Michaels
I think the main problem with Goldeneye other than the atrocious framerate issues is that despite being revolutionary in its time it was very quickly surpassed in every way. A year after its release in 1998 Half-Life was released which was even more influential than Goldeneye and has formed the template of modern shooters since and made everything before it seem archaic in comparison. Half-Life brought huge advances in enemy AI and storytelling in FPS games. Shortly afterwards Thief and Deus Ex perfected stealth in FPS games. The weird thing about Goldeneye is that unlike much older FPS games like Doom and Shadow Warrior, which I feel haven’t aged at all, Goldeneye is bordering on unplayable in this day and age. I can’t deny the games legacy but I also won’t let nostalgia cloud my judgement. I know this might annoy people but I feel that Goldeneye in this day and age isn’t a good game. It’s not the game it once was. It’s impossible for me to explain how something that was once so enjoyable is no longer enjoyable, I really don’t know why. However what I do know is that my recent playthrough of the game wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Sorry Goldeneye fans.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dragon Quest

The japanese role playing game, or JRPG for short. The JRPG is far and away my favourite genre of videogames. Ever since getting hooked on Final Fantasy VII, which seems to be the gateway drug to the genre for most europeans, I've fallen in love with the genre and it's very rare that I'm not actively playing a JRPG. It's a hard genre to define and even though I'm not adverse to more western RPG games I just prefer the way the japanese do it. I felt I owed it to myself to play the game that started the genre off, Dragon Quest or Dragon Warrior in the US. Although not the first RPG released from japan, it was the first to really become popular and most subsequent JRPGs have built on Dragon Quests template.
Dragon Warrior on the NES in all its 'beauty'

 The version of Dragon Quest I played was from the SNES Dragon Quest I + II collection, a fan translation of which can be found at This version modernises the NES original somewhat with improved graphics and sound. The game balancing has also been changed I’m told with enemies giving more experience and gold to reduce the amount of grinding required. Some interface changes have also been made. There’s now an all purpose ‘use’ button, whereas the original had you navigating menus for simple tasks like opening a chest or even using a stairs.
Everyone's favourite DQ monster, the slime!

Dragon Quest was a pleasant surprise. I expected a game that was quite archaic and near unplayable in this day and age. I ended up quite enjoying the experience. DQ is a bit more simplistic compared to modern games. You only control one character for the whole game and the range of spells are quite limited consisting of 2 healing spells, 2 damage spells and 2 status effect spells (sleep and mute). There’s not even elemental affinity to add strategy to the battle system. This simplicity also extends to the storyline. The princess has been captured by the Dragonlord, a pretty evil guy that has also been making the world a more dangerous place to live in. It’s up to you to save the princess and stop the Dragonlord. It’s not exactly Shakespeare but at least it doesn’t have Heavy Rains plot holes (oooooh!).

So what made the game fun when it’s so simple? Well the battle system is very quick and not particularly intrusive, like the older suikoden games. The game also has bags of charm. Akira Toriyama’s monster designs are excellent. Some incidental events add to the charm as well. When you finally rescue the princess you have to carry her triumphantly all the way back to the castle and on completion of the game you can wander around the world and check out all the changes your good deeds have made to the world and its inhabitants. Another feature I haven't seen in any other RPG other than maybe Phantasy Star is that entering a cave or dungeon requires a torch, later on replaced by a spell, otherwise you are plunged into darkness and can't see anything.

Dragon Quest isn’t just an important piece of videogame history. It has aged remarkably well for such an early example of the genre and in the SNES incarnation it’s well worth playing. The game is only about 15-20 hours long so not a large investment of time at all. A common complaint aimed at the Dragon Quest series is the stagnation the game mechanic. However playing the first game reveals that although changes in the series haven’t been as radical, as say Final Fantasy, the game has changed gradually over the years and remains one of the best JRPG series today.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mother 1 + 2 fan translation

Back to updating this blog now. I've been too busy the last few months but finally handed in my PhD thesis on monday so have a bit more free time now.

Anyway I've recently played and finsihed the new fan translation of Mother 1 that has been completed by Tomato, one of the people responsible for translating the sublime Mother 3. You can pick up the translation patch for the GBA version of Mother 1+2 here:

So far only Mother 1 is fully translated but there's not need for a mother 2 translation since it's available as Earthbound on the SNES with a damn fine localisation job.

When I originally played Mother 1 it was a rom of the unreleased version of the game. I found the ending excellent but thought that a little more exposition would have made it exceptional. I thought that this translation if truer to the original source would give the story of Mother 1 a bit more context. Well the new translation is still very close to the translation of the unreleased game. This isn't a slight on Tomato's translation skills but more an acknowledgement at how fantastic the original localisation was, even more amazing considering it was would have been released around 1990 and how terrible the localisations of games were not only in 1990 but for a decade afterwards. There's some text now included that was taken out such as a child talking about how much they love Dragon Quest 4, however most of the changes seem minor. The big revelation at the end of the game when everything comes together, which I was hoping would be improved, is only improved subtly.

The biggest change to the game is the easy ring, which is a piece of equipment you can find in your room at the start of the game that will increase your defense and also increase the experience and money you gain in battle. Mother 1 is a very old school grind heavy game which may not be for some people. The end game is also notoriously tough with some enemies that are way too powerful. The easy ring will let people that just want to experience the story and world of mother 1 breeze through the game in about 10 hours with little to no. It's a good thing since it allows people who are fans of the series but don't have the patience or time to get through what is normally a very difficult game to see everything the game has to offer. I used it on this playthrough of the game myself. It's totally optional as well in case you want to old school experience.

In summary if you are hoping for a new experience from the unreleased Mother 1/Earthbound Zero rom then this fan translation will not provide it. The original translation was excellent and this adds little to it already. However if you've been curious about this game but have been put off by its grind heavy nature then I'd recommend this version due to the easy ring accessory.