Monday 13 November 2023

RPM - Issue One - Review

RPM: The Unofficial Retro PlayStation Magazine is the latest creation by Sandeep Rai, a name you might be familiar with if you're a fan of the PlayStation Vita or the PlayStation 3, as he has previously written tomes about those consoles. With RPM, however, Mr Rai has chosen to focus on the wider gaming catalogues of every Sony console from the original PlayStation to the PS3, as well as Sony's handhelds. Funded via Kickstarter, the well packaged first issue arrived in a timely manner, so let's have a look at what he's offering. 

The first feature is a round up of the launch titles for the PS1 for both North America and Europe. Each game is given space for a brief write up, a handful of screenshots, and a couple even get case art too. This is followed by a short history of Gran Turismo over the generations, with twelve pages dedicated to the racing sim. There are plenty of screenshots, and the text isn't just a puff piece - criticisms of the series are noted. 

Syphon Filter gets some time in the spotlight next with an eight page interview with lead designer Richard Ham, followed by a two page review of the first title in the series as it's available on the PS+ service. The interview is really interesting and provides some great insight into not only the trials of a games developer in the 1990's, but also the hazards of developing a title in a specific genre when a bigger name is also due out. It's a series worthy of a re-master/re-make, although to be fair, the controls would probably be an area requiring improvement. But I digress. 

There are four more PS+ reviews, covering The Legend of Dragoon, Killzone: Liberation, Rain, and God of War: Ascension. A good mix of genres and periods, each is scored out of ten. It's not all older titles though, as a Retro Revival piece brings Ratatan to the fore. A spiritual sequel to the Patapon series, this new release is due out in April 2025 following a very successful Kickstarter campaign. 

The Five Times Table feature covers the most notable games from five to twenty five years ago on the various Sony platforms. Great for those who wish to reminisce, less so for those who are reminded that Metal Gear Solid hit the PlayStation 25 years ago. Pass me the Seven Seas cod liver oil and Ibuprofen!

A second interview takes up six pages as Nagato, one of the developers for Sony's online community Home, details the origins of the project. This is also an extremely informative interview and more than justifies its inclusion in this issue. To finish off the magazine, we have two retrospectives: Ultimate Spider-Man and Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. 

As an extra, a Photo Mode booklet was also included, twenty eight pages of rather excellent captures from Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It's a nice add-on.

The physical quality of the mag is faultless and the design is spot on too - not too busy yet not leaving massive amounts of blank space either - credit to Jason Maddison for that. As for the magazine as a whole, this is a cracking first issue - varied in topics and well written. 

Fans of the printed word should rejoice at RPM. I look forward to seeing what Sandeep and team have in store for future issues and I will be happily backing future Kickstarters. You can pick up your own copy of RPM from Sandeep's Etsy store here

Sunday 5 November 2023

Magazines of Yesteryear - MacUser Vol. 9 No. 1 - 8 Jan 1993

To 1993 now and a change in format as we delve into the pages of a fortnightly publication for the Apple Mac. Yes, gentle reader, thirty years ago, the computer magazine market could handle a fortnightly title for a format that, whilst not quite niche, was still pretty small compared to the Windows/DOS market, especially n consumer circles. It wasn't until the launch of the Mac Classic in 1990 that you wouldn't need to spend four figures to join the Mac party, and with an ABC figure of 30,072 for Jan-Jun 1992), it seems that Apple's attempt at bringing the Mac to the masses had kind of worked. But how were things going in early '93?

Well, this issue is a bit of a side step from the usual order of business. There's still the regular news section, and the labs feature is about the entire Mac range, but the rest of the 124 pages are pretty much dedicated to a buyers' guide for current and prospective MacUsers (couldn't resist, sorry). 

The editorial focuses on an early demo of the Newton technology and a comment that there were 60 new computer models expected that year. 60! That's an insane number, then and now. But as Apple proved in the mid-90's, when the going got tough, the tough spaffed even more cash on trying to sell kit that just confused buyers. But I digress.

£399 plus VAT for a Classic - still not a bargain.

In the news, Apple were launching a Colour Printer for £1,995 (£1,495 to education buyers), along with a Colour OneScanner for £1,145/£845 respectively. There's a piece about a delay in deliveries, with Apple having something like a $1bn order backlog. Education purchasers benefitted from a price cut for many models, whilst the Mac Classic and LC ranges were in short supply after pre-Christmas price cuts saw the former hit just £399. A bargain (for a Mac), but as the group test will show, not a bargain in general.

Ah, the group test - every Mac model available in the UK at that time, from the Classic to the IIvx, Quadra's 700 and 950, plus the ever-growing portable range - Powerbooks 145, 160 and 180, plus the then brand new Powerbook Duo 210 and 230. Each machine range gets a bit of a write up, there are group tests (the synthetic benchtests using the Classic as a base of 1, a feature table and a final report card. And what a report card it is.

The 68000-powered Classic was the cheapest of the desktops and for good reason. Slow, mono only and lacking expansion options, it might have had a list price of just £525 but it wasn't worth it. Just like the base Amiga A600 could be had for about the same money (but including separate colour monitor) that machine had been superseded by the 68020-toting A1200. The Classic was obsolete tech, as was arguably any 68000 powered desktop in 1993. If you wanted some sweet 68020 moves, the Mac LC was your only bet in the entire range, and with a price of £825 including a monitor, was worthy of consideration but for one thing - every other Mac and portable Mac were packing at least a 68030, so the base LC model was likely soon to meet its end. 

Both the Classic II and LC II rocked 16MHz 68030's, so your choice was simple - mono and no expansion with the Classic II, colour and only limited expansion with the LCII. Prices were around £700 and £925 respectively. Essentially though, these were just tasters for the poor people. What Apple really wanted you to do was get on board the Mac II range. The Mac IIsi and IIvi occupied the £1500-£2000 price point, whereas the IIci and IIvx were £2,200 plus. If money really wasn't an issue, the Quadra 700 started at just over £3,500, and the top of the range Quadra 950 was £5k plus. That's more than £10k today, adjusted for inflation!

Portables were split into two ranges - the Powerbooks 145/160/180 and the Powerbook Duo 210/230. The former were the main sellers, offering a low/mid/high mix of spec for £1395/£1695/£2645 respectively for their base configs. Colour wasn't an option yet but that would soon change. It was the Duos, however, that were really interesting. Take a subnotebook style Mac, slot it into a dock and you had a desktop Mac that was also a portable. The Duo's were priced in line with mid-tier Powerbook 160 (£1,695 and £1,925) but to partake in the technological raison d'etre, you need the accessories. The Floppy adaptor (as they contained no removable drive as standard) was £90. A MiniDock would set you back £395, whilst the full Dock was an eye-watering £845, and that didn't include a monitor, keyboard or mouse - items that were essential given the whole Duo slotted into the dock like a video cassette. Sure, the Dock offered expansion options beyond even some of the desktop models, but a Duo 210 suitably kitted out would take over £3k from your bank balance.

Naturally, having a computer meant that you'd need accessories and software, and this is where some of the most dramatic changes in pricing have occurred since the early 90's are shown in the Buyer's Guide.

It has to be remembered that MacUser catered not only for personal users but also for professional and semi professional bods. This explains the prices quoted for some of the kit in the Guide. For example, the cheapest black and white scanner listed comes in at £795. Want a flatbed scanner? £1000. Many options head into five figures, with the most expensive coming in at £55,450!!!


Printers didn't seem so bad, crapping out at about £18k for a top of the range specialist mono job, although most were low four figures. Want colour though? IRIS offered two 300dpi colour models in this guide: the 3024 PS for £81k and the £3047 for £112k! Again, consumer level stuff was much, much cheaper, but a high quality HP DeskWriter was still £425. The initial price barrier for these things was much higher back in '93. Storage was much the same story - hard drives per se weren't covered as there were too many options, but removable drives were: the Iomega Lasersafe erasable 650Mb drive was a couple of golden beer tokens off £4k. And yes, I am reliably informed that beer was around £1.50 a pint at our local, despite me been a couple of years shy of proper (Sorry, Eric!).

Monitors were also something else - but then this was the golden age of the cathode ray tube. A "hi-res" 14-inch Apple RGB display was listed at £395 (640x480 resolution - so high it'd give you a nosebleed!), the 16-inch model was £995 (832x624 plus audio connectors), whereas the 21-inch model cost £2,695! That gave you 1152x870. Pricey, but compared to the 9-inch squint box Classic, pure nirvana. 

Of course, it is easy to jest now. technology has advanced, prices have tumbled and specifications that looked tremendous thirty years ago now seem charmingly quaint/how the fuck did we live with that (delete as applicable). 

Software next and this, more than anything else, demonstrates how times have changed. I am typing this on a 2020 Macbook Air M1, and with it came literally every application I could possibly want aside from games. Back in '93, you had to buy stuff, and software wasn't exactly cheap. 

ClarisWorks, an integrated office package had a list price of £195. Claris Office was £595. In comparison, Microsoft were running an advert for MS Works (with a free copy of MS Flight Simulator chucked in) for £145. CAD/CAM (Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Modelling) packages were a specialist market to themselves. AutoCAD, a one time market leader, came in at £2,500, and MacDraft (an entry level drawing and drafting program, cost £295. Even good old MS Word 5.1 came in at more than half the price of a Mac Classic at £295. Some dealers bundled software though, and an advert from Micro Anvika offered an LC 4/40 with colour monitor and Claris Works for £892.77, a saving against the £825 simply for the machine listed above. 

Games were a thing on the Mac, despite appearances to the contrary, although the market was hampered by the lack of decently priced colour machines for many ports. Still you had point and click adventures like Loom (£30) and The Secret of Monkey Island ($99) mentioned. Real time strategy game Harpoon is listed in the Adventures section strangely - an "electronic submarine techno-thriller." No, MacUser, that is really not what it was. There are a few other titles mentioned, but the range is pretty limited. There again, the UK Mac leisure market was pretty small compared to contemporary PC and Amiga's. That didn't stop one reseller bundling MegaDrive's to entire potential customers...

Don't forget to add VAT to these prices at 17.5%

There we have it - not an exciting issue by any means, but one that gives valuable insight to the Mac market in the UK of the time. This was before the real push into the consumer market (Argos catalogues included), clones and the near destruction of our fruity friends, and shows that the company itself was transitioning much like Commodore had from their original 8 and 16-bit machines to a 32-bit future. Unlike Commodore, Apple then were still big enough and ran just about well enough to survive the early 90's. Mid 90's Apple, well, less so. 

Next time, we'll check back in with a Computer Shopper issue from early 1994.

Saturday 14 October 2023

Legends of 16-Bit Game Development by John Harrison - Book Review

Treasure Co are a company who, since 1992, have created some of the most finely crafted shooter experiences on any platform. You may be more familiar with their later games (Radiant Silvergun, Bangai-O, Sin and Punishment, and Ikaruga), and fine works they are too, but when I saw John Harrison's Kickstarter for a book about their earliest titles on the Mega Drive/Genesis, it was a very simple decision to back it. Little did I know. 

Like most projects begun in 2020, there were delays, and the estimated September 2021 delivery date passed by all too rapidly. Mr Harrison, however, was very timely in his updates and re-assurances as to what what going on, what he was doing next and what his longer term plans would be. Truly, this in one of the few massively delayed projects that always felt like it was still coming (cough, Vultures, cough - and still waiting on volume 3...). As it was, when the book was delivered, alongside its companion volume, I dropped everything else and started reading. Oh boy.

Legends begins with the origins of Treasure and the travails of Masato Maegawa in a) getting into the competitive Japanese software industry in the late 1980's and b) forming his own company. Through the foundation of Treasure and the support Sega heaped upon the company (as well as just pure blind luck), the author follows the ups and downs as the fledgling team try to get a first title released. That game, Gunstar Heroes, is still a fantastic shooter today, and after finishing the books, I revisited Heroes just to remind myself of its brilliance. In fact, I did the same for each of the titles covered. Emulation is definitely your friend considering the availability and cost of Treasure's 16-bit releases (although some of these were included in the region specific Mega Drive mini-consoles released last year). A quick check on CEX in the UK showed a boxed copy of Gunstar Heroes for £100 (mint condition for £180), whereas Alien Soldier is £270 and £340 respectively! Far cough! 

Alongside Gunstar Heroes, the author has covered McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure, Dynamite Headdy, Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen, Alien Soldier and Light Crusader. Throughout each chapter, there are quotes and comments from the developers from contemporary publications, as well as in-depth appraisals of the development process for each game and what happened post-release. The are multiple box outs featuring snippets from Beep! Mega Drive magazine and copious illustrations and screenshots, all of high quality, the usual (and entirely understandable) exception being some of the period photography. 

This really is a hugely informative tome, and by the time I had finished it, I had a very solid understanding and appreciation of who Treasure were during the Mega Drive/Genesis years, the struggles they faced developing these titles for a machine that, whilst Japanese, also had to cater to a primarily US audience, and how they maintained their ethos. Indeed, the sections describing the fate their games suffered due to Sega of America management politics were eye-opening. It remains a truism - corporate is gonna corporate. However, it is also true that Treasure's legacy is assured, a legacy founded on these six corkers.

That's not all, however. There are two appendices: the first detailing the technical side of the Mega Drive's graphics capabilities. This is clearly written and very much of interest to me. The second is a list of the developers who worked at Treasure during the period covered by this book and which games they contributed to. Finally, there is a comprehensive references section and a list of Kickstarter backers.

The fun doesn't end there yet though. A companion booklet contains interviews with the development teams of five of the games featured, as well as re-prints of interviews with Mr Maegawa. 

With high quality writing and excellent production values, this duo will be of great value to anyone with a yearning to know more about Treasure and the Japanese software scene in the early 1990's. It is a credit to Mr Harrison that all of his hard work (and translation skills, for he did most of it himself) has resulted in a publication that was well worth backing and definitely a keeper. Well done, sir!

If you want a copy yourself, as at the time of posting, there were some physical copies still available from Raster Scroll here. You can also follow the author on X/Twitter by searching for the username @MegaDriveShock. 

Sunday 8 October 2023

Magazines of Yesteryear - What Personal Computer Issue 29 - December 1991

The tail end of 1991 and Brian Adams had finally been dethroned from his sixteen week domination of the UK singles chart. City Slickers, The Fisher King and Point Break gobbled up cash at the cinemas, whilst on the goggle box, Murder Most Horrid, Noel's House Party and the forgotten gem that was Dark Season kept those indoors entertained. Meanwhile, Amstrad was trying to make a comeback. 


Hitting the shelves in mid-November, the December issue of What Personal Computer from EMAP displayed Amstrad's latest and greatest on its cover with a headline that wasn't exactly flattering. Features on DR-DOS 6, Publisher for Windows and how to PostScript your printer may have appealed, but Alan's latest baby was front and centre.

A side note first and one of the funny things about picking up old computing magazines is that researching them is a bit hit and miss. EMAP at one point published numerous video games titles as well as more serious computer related ones, but could I hell find out much about WPC. For a title that had, as of this issue, an ABC figure of 42,318, it is a sad situation that it is almost lost in history. Sure, people remember Computer and Video Games, but mention of their serious output is surprisingly rare.

£999 for a multimedia PC? A bargain! 

Anyway, onto the news, and the main piece concerned the arrival of big name word processors to Windows, this being a time that DOS still ruled. Windows 3 was making in-roads though, and this was further evidence that the times they were a-changing. Seikosha were dipping their toes into the low-cost laser market - their OP 104 was released at just £904, whilst Philips were launching a range of multi-media PC's - the 20MHz 386SX model at £2,499 would be available in the first half of 1992 (4MB RAM, 80MD HD and SVGA graphics), but those too impatient to wait could have a 40MB 286 model for £999 (which also included Wing Commander). Remember that price...

Arguably yes. History says not.

It was also the time of Comdex Fall, the report of which crowed about Apple's new Powerbooks, IBM's continued delay of OS/2 version 2 and a colour Dell 386 laptop for under £3,000! In Shop Talk, Diamond Computer Services had opened a new shop on Tottenham Court Road. Diamond were a common advertiser with their superhero themed Captain Diamond persona, and Tottenham Court Road was, at one point, the place to go for tech in London. It had dulled a little by the time I managed to wander down it in early '98, but back then, retail was still king.

What can I say? It was the 90's.

A fascinating piece talks about the future of Intel. the rise of Unix, the ACE (Advanced Computing Environment) consortium - Wiki entry here, and the threat posed by Sun and their SPARC chip. Ah, the 90's - if only you'd known that Wintel was unbeatable, at least for that decade. The arrival of the Internet and the changing means with which people interacted with computing technology would mess up/make things interesting as the new millennium arrived. With thirty years hindsight, little did they know...

As befits a December issue, "Oh, no there isn't!"

Anyway, to the cover story and just plain Alan (he would be knighted in 2000), was trying his luck with a new range of machines to recapture the glory days of his budget PC empire. The 5000-series used a tiny case in the same style as its previous 4386 "executive" desktop, designed to be a simple unit you plugged in and never opened. Although it lacked spare drive bays, it wasn't entirely expansion free - two half-length 16-bit slots promised not very much - and if you got the 1MB model, zero free SIMM slots, but what else did you need? The 0.29 dot pitch VGA monitor could handle 800x600 rather well, and it worked, albeit a tad more slowly than other similarly specc'd 286's. The problem was the price. £999. If you recall, Philips would happily drop a multi-media equipped 286 on you for that. Amstrad was no longer cheap and cheerful. A competing machine from Chipset (who are they???) would give you Super VGA with a 1MB Trident card capable of 1024x768 for £899. Another clone manufacturer was Atomstyle, whose colour VGA option came in at just £715. It had room for two 5.25" drives, four spare SIPP memory slots and a free 16-bit card slot, as well as two 8-bit slots if you needed them. Things didn't get better for Amstrad either. 

Nope, you could buy better for less.

A couple of pages on there is the 5286 Games Pack review. Taking the compact desktop as before, switching the monitor to a slightly lower quality one and packing in speakers, a joystick and three games, this was an £899 package that, as the reviewer put it, was decent for someone who couldn't be bothered but you could find better DOS-based value elsewhere. Against the Commodore Amiga upgraded to match the features included, it was decent, although not spectacular, value. It should also be considered that both the A500 and the 286 processor were rapidly approaching obsolescence. What was interesting about the software pack is that as time passed, the same bundle would be attached to other Amstrad models in a manner that suggested that they massively overestimated demand at the time. Needless to say, the 5286 Games Pack bundle was quickly discounted and would end up being something of a missed opportunity. 

Moving on, we have a bench test of communications software featuring some of the best 90's tech names you've can imagine. SmartCom III, Trans-Send (see what they did there) and DynaComm (surely an evil corporation with that name?) fight it out with the more mundane Datatalk 4, WinComm and Relay Gold 5 (a 70's tribute act if ever there was one) in getting users on to bulletin boards and multi-user dungeons. Such an innocent time.

Por favor?

DR-DOS 6 gets a five star review for being better than MS-DOS 5, in a repeat of how DR-DOS 5 was miles ahead of MS-DOS 4.01, although that particular Microsoft product was indeed terrible. However, questions over compatibility when running alongside Windows 3.1 remained and MS were nasty bastards/legitimate hard-headed business people - delete as applicable. It was only ever going to end one way. 

A review of the Canon Ion RC-260 digital camera is an interesting read. For £490, you got a fun little camera that could take up to fifty images and store them on tiny 2 inch floppy drives (not the same format as the 2-inch floppy's Zenith tried flogging with their laptops) that cost £5.10 each. You could preview your images on your TV, save them to your PC (using the £496 connection kit), and then re-use the storage. As a review, it lacks details on the sensor and battery life (tiny lead-acid unit, a sure sign of the times), but the reviewer really does like it. They do recommend saving the images to VHS cassette via your TV rather than on your PC as a full 50 images when de-compressed onto your hard drive would take up 60MB! Thinking of the price, the reviewer states that if you are struggling to justify the cost for professional desktop publishing purposes then knowing the kid'll love it should clinch it for you. Wait! What? £500 (that's over a grand today!) for something to hand to the kids to play with??? 

The author remembers that children are given mobile phones that can cost a similar amount these days. Shakes fist at clouds then returns to laptop.

One final regular feature before we get to the adverts is the Consultancy section. Companies could apply for £1,000 of free consultancy regarding IT equipment and be featured in the magazine. Only the first £1,000 was free and at £100 per hour, that could get quite pricey. Still, makes an interesting read about a fabrics company that got shafted by a supplier and how a definite lack of knowledge damaged the company. Reading between the lines, it looked like the consultancy form used by the magazine was a) going to have a decent payday considering the mess they found and b) earning their pay rather well.

As for the rest of the mag, the back contains various hardware and software review directories, a yellow page small ads section and 16-page pink section devoted to shareware. Anyway, now it's onto the fun stuff - the adverts!

Multiplex - but do they include an operating system?

Amstrad have a page dedicated to their 20MHz 4386SX (4MB RAM, 80MB hard drive) - £1,699 ex VAT for the colour model, £1,499 ex VAT for the mono model. Leaving aside the minuscule 10" display and the small case, Multiplex a few pages on could sell you a 386 SX 25MHz with 4MB/115MB for ££1,099 ex. You got both 3.5" and 5.25" floppies too, but possibly not DOS or Windows (ad doesn't say and doesn't give prices either but say add on an extra £100 ex as this was the time that many companies advertised headline prices without an OS to make offers look even cheaper - and yes, it was a shitty way of doing things). The case would be much bigger, but so would the monitor at 14'. If you wanted to spend the same amount as Amstrad wanted you to, then for £1,699 ex VAT, Multiplex would give you a big box 486 DX 25MHz with 115MB of hard drive storage and 8MB of RAM. Sure, adding an OS would bump that up but it just shows how... misguided Amstrad's attempts were at this point. 

Amstrad do include the OS but at that price, they bloody ought to!

Commodore were still trying to flog DOS PC's, rather that focussing on what should have been their core product, the Amiga. A top tier 486 model would set you back over three grand exclusive of VAT, a 286 portable came in at £1,199, and their base 16MHz 286 cost a lowly £689. 

Time was a reseller of note for most of the 90's, and their business-focused advert neatly shows that the 286 was the budget processor of choice - £600-£700 ex for branded machines, whereas if you had a grand upwards, the 386 was your best bet. Portables were also a thing, and a budget Sanyo 286 for £849 wasn't bad. 

Don't care if the printer is free, I still don't want it.

Evesham Micros were venturing into their own range of desktops, but would still sell you Amstrad and Olivetti desktops. Not sure how popular a single floppy drive 12' mono monitor equipped 5086 for £399 inclusive was, but hey, you got a cheap dot matrix printer thrown in. Whether you'd want the trash that was the Amstrad DMP3160 is another question. Even for 1991, this was a terrible package. You could get discounted 2000-Series Amstrads which seemed decent, until you realised that the 086 models are obsolete and the 286/386 range come with DOS 4.01. And as for that twin drive PC1640 EGA model for £349 inclusive, well, as a retro fan, hell yeah. As a sober adult, not a chance in hell, even then. 

These are NOT the bargains you're looking for.

Silica Systems (an almost constant presence in the ST and Amiga Format publications amongst others), had the Goldstar range on show (Lucky Goldstar is now better known as LG). They might look cheap (and to be fair, they were decent value), but those prices exclude the monitor. Still, a secondhand GT-212 model was my first DOS machine and it was a good little runner.  Silica also had some portables on show, and I still like the idea of that PC XT notebook, even if adult me realises it would have been an ergonomic and practical nightmare to use. 

They may include the OS, but screens are extra.

I so wanted one of these - even if they were shite.

So there we have What Personal Computer. An issue that's at that slightly awkward point in PC history where the 286 was just starting to fade away as the 386 muscled into the sub £1,000 market. There are still the old '086 holdovers but their days were numbered, as were those of Amstrad. It would take another five years or so before they retired their computing range (the Pentium P75-powered PV/TV combo Integra range was I think their final attempt), but the days of selling via dealers were ending. Direct was the way forward, and price conscious clone makers were leading the way. Alongside the 386, Windows was becoming the default means of interacting with your PC - DOS was still the OS, but Windows was getting there. Wherever there was.

But what if you didn't want the kludge that was the DOS/Windows mash up? There was always the Mac, but that's for another time. 

Saturday 30 September 2023

The Best Non-Violent Video Games by James Batchelor - Book Review

Video games and violence, that old chestnut, eh? A favourite of tabloids and politicians throughout the last five decades or so, numerous studies have shown that there is no causal link between playing a video game and committing violent acts. There are age restrictions in place to protect children, yet every now and again, the same old tropes get wheeled out because someone who has little or no experience of playing video games thinks a five minute session in Doom will turn you both psychotic and into an expert at wielding firearms. It will do neither, but nor is gaming all about violence, and this is where James Batchelor's volume from White Owl Press comes in, highlighting The Best Non-Violent Video Games.

Over 160 or so pages, Mr Batchelor (a long standing video games journalist) provides us with a guide to just a handful of the many non-violent gaming titles that are out there. I say just a handful, yet over three hundred are featured out of nearly 4000(!) suitable games (at the time of writing) that the author has collated in the research for his Non-Violent Game of the Day blog and X(Twitter) account. One thing is sure - whilst you may find familiar favourites included in this volume, it's more than likely you'll think of a game he hasn't included - PS2 flight adventure sim Sky Odyssey springs to mind - but having said that, it is also certain that you'll discover more than a few new games to try from this collection.

As befits the subject, the foreword is supplied by John Romero, indelibly linked to violent video games through his design role at id Software and the likes of Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake amongst others, and raises some very fine points. There is a brief note on what qualifies as a non-violent video game before we move on to the main section and the games proper. Readers of previous White Owl publications will know the layout by now - two games per page (entry size varies but the format doesn't change), details on who developed and published the title, its year of release and its platform availability. Every entry also includes a screenshot, and the write up provides not only a description of the game but also fun snippets and details on any follow ups. Each one is interesting and written in an entertaining yet informative style. placing a lovely focus on the appreciation the author has for the genre of non-violent video games. 

Everybody's Gone To The Rapture - aka Tantobie on a Sunday afternoon.

Starting with Pong because, well, it's Pong and it's definitely non-violent, the rest of the entries are in alphabetical order. There are some familiar personal favourites: Forza Horizon, Dear Esther, Loom and PowerWash Simulator, as well as titles that I had maybe seen and thought "oh, they look good" and many that had just plain passed me by. From Townscaper to Lake, Before I Forget to Heaven's Vault, I now have a revitalised list of titles to get round to. 

Mixing big studio efforts with small scale Indie releases, VR extravaganza's with now lost mobile games, this volume is a treasure trove of information and recommendations that will not only suit interested parents but also gamers in general. The Best Non-Violent Video Games is yet another superb publication from White Owl and reinforces the concept that games do not have to be violent to be supremely enjoyable or worthwhile. 

You can pick up a copy direct from the publisher here, or at the usual online and physical book shops. I got my copy from Forbidden Planet in Newcastle, who also stock a decent range to Bitmap Books titles too. 

Saturday 23 September 2023

The Dreamcast Encyclopedia by Chris Scullion - Book Review

Much like birthdays, Mr Scullion's "Gaming Encyclopedia Emporium" (otherwise known as the White Owl imprint of Pen and Sword Books), makes its annual appearance to deposit yet more gaming history on suspecting (if they'd pre-ordered it) members of the general public. Indeed, it was on this weekend last year (well, 20th September 2022) that I posted a review of his excellent N64 volume, so for the 2023 edition of "What's Scullion been up to?", we tackle his unofficial guide to Sega's final home console: the Dreamcast.

Ah, DC, you sweet little plastic and metal box of joy. Born from Sega's internal politics, killed by the very market it sought to compete in, this was a games machine that spanned the changing of the guard. Four controller ports for local multiplayer, compact design that would practically hide on a shelf (keeping one side open for that fan), yet also packing a built in modem for online play and internet connectivity, as well as the Visual Memory Unit that promised (but kinda failed to deliver) new gameplay wonders. There were, however, wonders in its gaming library - and it wasn't that huge a library either...

This latest book from Mr Scullion is a tad thicker than usual, taking as it does a look at the over 600 titles released for the Dreamcast. This is a worthwhile decision as it provides the reader with a one stop shop for all games Dreamcast. You might think you know about the various visual novels that Japan experienced, but Chris has had to experience all of them. You must buy this now just to help him afford the therapy! Truly, the section on Japan-only releases is... well... "interesting'... shall we say.

Given the extra coverage, you might expect there to be fewer single page entries, but no, plenty of titles get that full page loving. From the obvious (Virtual Fighter 3TB, Jet Set Radio and Sonic Adventure(s) 1 and 2), to the more eclectic (Alone in the Dark, Ducati World Racing Challenge and The Nomad Soul), the depth and richness of the Dreamcast's library is lovingly handled by the author. The ever-present additional facts are cherries on the top. And yes, there are bad jokes too, but hey, it wouldn't the same without them!

A classic in my humble opinion.

For me, the most educational part was the Japanese-only section, and whilst I have never played a "visual novel" (cough, 'onest, Guv'nor, cough!), I feel as if its a genre that perhaps will remain outside of my in-depth experience. I'm not saying never, but, well, yeah...

The soundtrack for this game remains immense even today

As the Dreamcast is one of my favourite consoles of all time (both hardware and the library), flicking through these pages brought back many a memory from 20-plus years ago. The first time I got to ride the motorcycle in Headhunter, the awe at seeing London in all of its glory in Metropolis Street Racer, and the sheer amount of visual gags in Fur Fighters - good times were had, although they weren't all positive - the control malarkey with Starlancer, the not-so-simple (yet marvellously fun and addictive) joys of Toy Commander and, perhaps the ultimate achievement for me at the time, completing Shadowman for the second time but seeing it as its best, not through the fuzzy filter of the N64.

I loved/hated this game back in the day. 

However, this tome is more than just a memory-fest for those of a certain age. This is a valuable guide to how seriously good the Dreamcast's legacy is. The last of the "traditional" home consoles that begged you the gather friends for some four player Powerstone, the first of the "next-gen" home consoles that allowed you to play against friends across the world (citation needed, but that's how I see it), the Dreamcast had pretty much something for everyone. It wasn't enough at the time, but at least this excellent and informative encyclopedia allows you to experience the glory that was Sega's 128-bit swansong.

You can follow the author on X/Twitter/that old social media company that died in 2023 (@scully1888), and pick up a copy of this excellent volume direct from the publisher here. It's also available from the usual online and physical bookstores too. 

Saturday 16 September 2023

Worlds Beyond Time - Sci-Fi Art of the 1970's by Adam Rowe - Book Review

It is said that you should "Never judge a book by its cover" yet when it comes to science fiction novels, particularly those published from the 1960's to the 1980's, the cover was one of their stand out features. In this lavishly illustrated tome, Adam Rowe showcases some of the best of 1970's SF art. 

Over its more than 220 pages, the author takes us on a journey through the various Science Fiction sub-genres using the medium of artwork and featuring some of the most famous names to contribute to the form. Each section gets a write up, artist biography or commentary on their work, as well as well-considered criticism. A side benefit for me was relearning about the many SF authors of the period covered, then diving online to find physical (or much cheaper digital) copies of their works. Seriously, some original paperbacks go for silly money! And as for a Spacebase 2000! I lost my original copy years ago, and yet even at close to £50, I'm still tempted to pick up a second hand one... 

A foreward from Vincent Di Fate (an artist of some note himself), sets the scene perfectly, that this is a scholarly work, one that draws the reader into its subject and aims to mesmerise you with the frankly stunning imagery included. From the lived-in SF of Chris Foss, to some of the more abstract work of Don Ivan Punchatz, and the disturbing visions of Philippe Caza, there really is something that will appeal to everyone, such is the variety provided by science fiction. There is great educational value here too, and I admit to having spent a considerable amount of time searching online for more work by many of the included artists. To throw out another cliche, I don't know art but I know what I like, and it turns out I like a lot more SF art that I was aware of. For that realisation, Mr Rowe, thank you.

This is a deliberately short review, and one that will let the pictures do the talking. If art or SF is your thing, then Worlds Beyond Time needs to be on your bookshelf. I cannot find a single flaw with this volume. Check out the author's link tree here, containing lists of where to buy this fantastic book as well as their social media presence. In the meantime, here are some pictures to whet your appetite...