In Which I Find More PS1 Games to Play, Somehow

The gritty, younger reboot of my Playstation retrospective series, 32 Bits, commences in a few months. Whatever form it may take, it will contain one new thing: demos.

I did take a look at some demos before, but I decided to look at demo discs more thoroughly this time around, as a peculiarity of 32 bit-era gaming culture. But one thing always eluded me, until now.

The US’ Official Playstation Magazine, with its monthly demo disc, began publication in 1997. So did Sony’s quarterly demo/video magazine, Playstation Underground. But the UK had a demo magazine since the system’s launch in 1995 – their Official Playstation Magazine debuted in November 1995, and ran absurdly late, concluding in March 2004 after 108 demo discs. While the American Playstation magazine mixed PSX and PS2 coverage, and alternated PSX and PS2 demo discs for a time before discontinuing the former in very early 2002, the British magazine just launched a PS2 edition and kept both in publication for…four years.

Obviously, the stray European exclusive or game that just wasn’t popular in North America can be found on OPM UK’s discs. And there’s a number of experimental, or obscure Japanese games that made it to Europe, but not America, such as Vib-Ribbon. But there’s something weirder: from 1997 on, many OPM UK discs included full games made on Sony’s Net Yaroze homebrew system. These hobbyist-developed games never really made it to American shores.

I fired up a disc – the thirty-eighth, more or less because its Net Yaroze game was one of the few I heard of. Haunted Maze is a weird riff on Pac-Man where you evade mummies to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”:

Other demos include B-Movie – which turned out to be the European name for Invasion from Beyond. Soccer games are far more prominent on the UK discs, and this disc contained one genuine exclusive: Fluid, a bizarre game where you swim around as a dolphin and unlock samples to use in the game’s real focus, a music sequencer. You then play through your own songs – one of a wave of surreal European music games that never reached American shores. Another disc contains an expansion pack for a racing game, Circuit Breakers.

But the star of the OPM UK discs are the Net Yaroze games it gave a platform to, and I’m glad I’ll be able to dive into them and every other oddity strewn about their collection.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

My 32 bit era retrospective series, the creatively named 32 Bits, is on hiatus. In truth, I’ve been trying to pick it up again: as a video series, or by rewriting them (I’d need to at least edit every entry, as many of the images were hosted on Photobucket). Or just carrying on where I left off. But to try to renew my enthusiasm for the 32 bit era, I’m going to step back and post some impressions on games I’m revisiting more or less at random. I’m sticking to games I was already familiar with before 32 Bits: for instance, I might play Final Fantasy VII or IX, games I know well, but not VIII, which I gave up on early, or Tactics, which I never played. I don’t want to taint my opinion of a game I’d play later, so I’ll stick to the pre-tainted. Let’s begin with the only original Spyro game I never beat.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is a Spyro game that doesn’t want to be a Spyro game. Breaking up the familiar platforming of the past games is a slate of new, largely frustrating playable characters.

Sheila the Kangaroo is the most successful, likely because her gimmick is more like the lack of a gimmick: Sheila is just a typical platformer hero, double jumping instead of gliding, kicking instead of charging or flaming. Her stages are more methodical and traditional; her last challenge is even a sidescroller. And it’s probably no coincidence, given the throwback nature of her gameplay, that Sheila has more stages than anyone.

Sgt. Byrd doesn’t have many stages of his own, and we should all be grateful. Imagining the creative process behind introducing a character whose central mechanic is “flying, but bad” is more interesting than any of Byrd’s plodding, clunky stages. There are already areas where the protagonist can fly, but sadly they don’t let you hover in place and get shot while trying to bomb a gopher. Byrd’s one interesting stage is “Enchanted Towers”, the only level where two characters can play the same area. Some parts are only available to Spyro, and others only to Byrd. If only the game expanded on this mechanic.

Bentley’s a sluggish but powerful yeti who bashes enemies with a club. There’s not much to say about his gameplay, and the developers don’t seem to have thought about him much either: he only gets one typical platforming stage after his homeworld, his others revolving around minigames like a deeply frustrating boxing match (which has some weird mechanics involving multiplayer – but this an impressions piece more than anything, and so the history lesson must wait until my real review in, probably, 2037).

The supremely toyetic Agent 9 brings, at long last, clunky first person shooting to the Spyro series. Hallelujah. Agent 9’s primarily used for a series of frustrating first-person and top-down gauntlets, and a late-game railshooter. None of it works, and the best you can say for Agent 9 is that he’s thankfully mostly confined to the final world. Agent 9’s mix of platforming and shooting at least presages Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank – making him more of a tedious platforming caterpillar, who emerged from a chrysalis as something greater, or at least more playable.

Year of the Dragon’s challenges have an unfortunate tendency to repeat themselves; do this, then do the same thing but much harder. The second and third Spyros have a love of escort missions matched only by their endearing failure to convincingly depict escort missions: both features challenges where the escortee weaves a winding path through a clearly wide open area, heading straight into every enemy and obstacle in sight for no apparent reason.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is the last hurrah of Spyro – or at least, the good Spyro games – and of its kitchen-sink platformer ethos. En vogue in the PS1/N64 era, the platformer that prized collecting whatsits by besting constantly shifting, widely varied challenges died off shortly into the PS2’s life cycle. The game’s challenges are defined by casual, radical shifts in genre and mechanics that you must adapt to in order to find every egg. The minigames in Year of the Dragon frequently dive into genres you rarely saw on the PS1: beyond Agent 9’s early-90s throwback first person shooting, which calls out Doom by name, you’ll engage in top-down SHMUP gameplay with Sparx, sidescrolling platform and a tank battle that harkens all the way back to Atari’s Combat.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the variety of this type of game, up until you find yourself unable to progress because you can’t figure out some minigame, to master skills that you’ll never see again. I’m playing Final Fantasy VII at the moment and that game has a similar focus on making you do almost everything – not in a cutscene, not in a button prompt, but by throwing, say, a CPR mechanic at you that you’ll never see again. A game like this needs to move, and to get momentum this type of design needs to be paired with good execution of dozens of mechanics, dozens of challenges – and here, it isn’t.

The storybook aesthetic of the Spyro games, its gentle pastels and flat colors, has aged magnificently where many PS1 games haven’t, as has the percussive score by Stewart Copeland. When Year of the Dragon works, it works, but it’s the weakest of the PS1 installments due to its scattershot focus on underheated challenges and a cast of newcomers that are, at best, a dull distraction from why you’re here. And it’s glitchy as hell too, not just in the routine, fun, do-this-and-you-can-swim-through-air way but in gamebreaking ways. A gem can fall into a swamp and become irretrievable; one of the flight stages must be beaten in full on your first visit, or you can never recover every egg.

Year of the Dragon hails from 2000, the Playstation’s last relevant year. You can tell this by the obligatory bullet time gag. Matrix parodies infected seemingly all media until about 2002; it makes you long for the days-long meme cycles of today. At the least, seeing a Matrix joke made me think, oh, this game is old, much like we all are, or will be, until we crumble into dust. But I can’t place a grim reminder of mankind’s mortality on this game’s shoulders. When it hits, it hits: Spyro’s aesthetic, and the particular movement of its quadrupedal protagonist, still looms large in the crowded genus of Mascotus Animalwithattitudus. And at least it’s good to finally say I’ve found every gem, every egg, beat the vile bourgeoisie bear Moneybags and redistributed his wealth. That I’ve seen the super final final stage, the easygoing playgrounds that are the hallmark of completing a Spyro game. And that I’ve beaten the game…117%?

Obligatory E3 Post

E3! It had several Good Things and no Embarrassing Things. No, I didn’t see the EA or Ubisoft conferences, why are you asking?

Bethesda

Bethesda opened with Doom. This incarnation of Doom is maybe too gory, with bloody executions that just look like they slow it down unnecessarily. Are shotguns not enough for this crazy modern world??? And why are the fiery depths of Hell so…brown? Why does the trailer end with a monster killing the hero?

Bethesda also showed off TF2-like Shooter #73 and a short film called Dishonored 2 before getting to Fallout 4. Fallout 4’s crafting looks great and so does THAT DOG. OH MY GOSH LOOK AT THAT DOG. WHO’S A GOOD DOG? WHO’S A GOOD DOG? TODD HOWARD’S A GOOD DOG. I MEAN DEV. OH MY GOSH DOGGGGG.

Bethesda: the only developer who can announce a free-to-play mobile game and receive earnest hype in return!

I think they may have announced a card game or MOBA.

Microsoft

Microsoft opened with a short film call Recore. It was about a robot dog and it ended sadly. I assume every dog movie ends sadly until I learn otherwise. Then there was an Halo? I think? Halo features no dogs.

There were two tactical military shooters and TF2-like Shooter #84 and a sequel to the gritty new Tomb Raider reboot I forgot existed. Gears of Four is a military shooter starring a protagonist who touches an alien pod for…some…reason? Every demo ends by showing the main character in mortal peril. It’s a cliffhanger, of a kind, except not really since the resolution will be “you kill/escape it like you do every monster/challenge in the game”.

Rare returned with a collection of their old games and a game of their own that involves very little dancing. Fable Legends is a MOBA but I don’t think they announced any card games. There was a car.

The best part was their montage of indie games. Cuphead looks amazing! Ashen looks WHERE ARE THEIR FACES AHHHHHH. And of all games that could get a spiritual successor, I didn’t consider Army Men as a likely candidate. Yet there it was: an Army Men game slid into the montage.

(If I had kept doing 32 Bits, I would be playing at least two Army Men games in 1999 alone. They became an almost monthly thing.)

They did a demo of the impressive Hololens technology for Minecraft. Then they showed us how it looks to anyone not wearing a hololens: a guy dorkily gesturing at a table. Dorkishness has always been VR’s biggest flaw.

Nintendo

Oh fuck Nintendo still has to do theirs, right? Well the World Championship was fun until Cosmo, the Wizard-that-was-promised, struggled on the final stage. New games included Super Kaizo Mario and Blast Ball, a form of gun soccer. The host joked that this is what it takes to make soccer popular in America. Well, I see plenty of soccer fans here in my corner of the United States. They like Chelsea, Manchester United, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea or Chelsea. I saw a family of Newcastle fans once and I felt so bad for them. Anyway Nintendo was good and also gun soccer?

Sony

Holy fuck.

Horizon: Zero Dawn pits cavemen against robot dinosaurs in a post-apocalyptic future. It feels like a concept you’d see in a twelve-year old’s scribblings, and that’s wonderful. Horizon is so fucking metal.

There was more information on No Man’s Sky. This game lets you fight in space and explore planets in a huge galaxy. It is also very metal. The pan back through thousands and thousands of unvisited planets is magical.

I don’t know what Dreams is. It is not metal at all, but it’s pretty cute. Firewatch looks interesting, but its metal-ness is not quite certain yet.

I didn’t see most of this one. But I heard of it. Of The Last Guardian‘s triumphant return. Holy shit it’s real. It exists. Nothing can top that. Nothing. Nothing can top the reveal of that wonderful hyenagiraffebirddog.

Well what else is there besidFINALFANTASYVIIREMAKE!!!

I’ve seen grumbling about this because the best choice you can make is choosing to shame people for being excited. What if the game turns out to be bad? I saw someone on Twitter once compare it to not smiling in your wedding pictures because you’d look like a fool if you get divorced later.

Apparently we’ve given in to our past, or regressed somehow, by remaking Final Fantasy VII. This is garbage. Retro remakes are hardly a new trend. When Final Fantasy VII was new, remakes of 80s games like Frogger, Asteroids and Pong sat beside it on the shelf. You don’t remember them, though. Just like how everyone who lived in the 70s remembers seeing The Godfather in theaters, not Airport ’77. The present’s everything is being judged in comparison to the past’s highlight reel. Anyway, Final Fantasy VII is still very popular and Square can make all the money by remaking it.

Saying that HD re-releases of old games, as I’ve seen said before, is somehow destroying the industry is outrageously stupid. It’s like telling Universal to stop restoring Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil because those dollars would be better spent on a new movie. To spin any attempt to revive old games as a nostalgia ploy, to attack old games as unworthy of our attention, is to devalue gaming’s history.

I do worry about them changing the tone. Final Fantasy VII is a broad melodrama with strong elements of camp. It features bizarre enemies, a boss fight interrupted by the boss being hit by a truck, and mandatory cross-dressing. Its party members include a robot cat on a robot Moogle and a giant red wolf thing. The trailer seems pretty grim, and more in line with the tone of the game’s terrible sequels.

The Shenmue III thing is garbage, however. All these Kickstarter game revivals are garbage. They lead fans to believe they’re funding the game, where they’re funding maybe 1-10% of a game funded by a traditional publisher. But for a company to announce a Kickstarter at an industry conference? For a company to demand $2 million to see if there’s “interest” in the game? The original Shenmue, for the Dreamcast, was the most expensive game of its time, at $47 million ($67 million today). Shenmue III will take so much more money than that. $2 million is nothing. I’ve seen people ask why Sony, or Sega, isn’t funding it themselves. They are, and your 2 million Kickstarter funbucks won’t fund much of anything.

The only part of the stream I saw? The Uncharted demo…so I missed the announcements of Shenmue, Final Fantasy, and The Last Guardian, and instead saw a glitched, unmoving Nathan Drake. At least the car chase seemed fun.

Ubisoft

The Last Guardian, Shenmue, Final Fantasy VII remake, Fallout 4. We’re just a Beyond Good & Evil 2 and Half-Life 3 away from knowing the status of every high-profile, mysterious, long-unreleased game (a group of games in development hell is called a Nukem, by the way) I can think of.

I have no idea what they announced. I only watched the end, where they announced Gritty Open-World Shooter #183. I guessed that it was Ghost Recon, but who can even know with these games?

I wish open worlds would stop being the norm. It’s too easy for them to become tedious and repetitive, and an open world isn’t necessarily a more memorable world. We need more smaller, detailed worlds.

In An Alternate Timeline

Sega’s press conference was amazing. The Dreamcast 3 has so many great exclusives. Man, these Sonic games. They’ve just been so good for the last decade. That one in 2006, wow. Such great physics and hardly any glitches. And that new Nights Into Dreams! And a new Panzer Dragoon! A Skies of Arcadia remake! Shenmue…5! Sega has such a bright future in consoles.

Mass Effect

The trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda shows Mass Effect 1-style planetary exploration. I’ve always been sad that the series abandoned this exploration; Mass Effect 2 had a handful of sidequests, but Mass Effect 3 removed all real exploration, with the sidequests not involving a former party member or recycled multiplayer map reduced to simple fetch quests. Why this trailer is set to Johnny Cash, I don’t know, and I hope that armored character isn’t Shepard, who died melding synthetic and organic life, dreaming of her beloved Garrus. Oh, Garrus

HYPE RANKINGS

  1. Fallout 4
  2. Cuphead
  3. No Man’s Sky
  4. Horizon: Zero Dawn
  5. The Last Guardian
  6. Super Mario Maker

BEST SHORT FILMS

  1. Recore
  2. Dishonored 2
  3. Final Fantasy VII
  4. Mass Effect: Andromeda

32 Bits

I fell behind and eventually just stopped updating this series. I finished the last game, even, and never wrote about it.

Well I will be bringing it back. I started to use video in the second season of 32 Bits to show off the game, and that’s the direction I’ll continue with: I’m going to do it as a Youtube series…starting, ideally, in September.

Written reviews will probably continue. I’ll have to restart from the beginning, so maybe I’ll post re-written reviews here. This time around I’ll be including some games I couldn’t, or didn’t, play the first time around. And when I catch up with where I was and go forward, I’ll likely keep doing both, just so I can expand on what I say in the video.

Don’t know what it is? Curious why so many posts have gone missing? It’s a mystery…