TOCA_Touring_Cars_Championship_logoMy impromptu and frankly shockingly produced episode of Bald Plays featuring Overboard! has set me off on a bit of a PS1 nostalgia trip. So, as a nostalgia junkie, it’s time once again to rev up the engine, oil up the pistons, and get fired up for bad introductions to rubbish articles, it’s time for the Retro Review!

Yes, there is a reason I started using bad car analogies there, as today we’re looking at TOCA Touring Car Championship for the Playstation 1 (PSX).

First, a little background. Back in the mid-1990’s, Touring Cars, a form of motorsport involving modified saloon cars, was becoming big in the United Kingdom. F1 was starting to become a little stale, and the British Touring Car Championship was the hot new thing. On the back of this success, a video game tie-in was inevitable.

11905-toca-touring-car-championship-windows-screenshot-renault-meganeThere was also hunger for a decent racing game for the PlayStation. Gran Turismo was in the works but still a spec on the horizon. We needed a stop-gap, a decent racing game to really show off what the PSX was capable off.

Enter Codemasters. TOCA Touring Car Championship used officially licensed cars and tracks from the 1997 British Touring Car season. Voice over was provided by racing legend and Top Gear presenter Tiff Needell. It looked and sounded spectacular (for the time, of course) – and it included many innovative new features for the racing genre.

The gameplay was split across four main modes, Single Race, where you choose a track and race as many laps as you specify, the main Championship Mode, a Time Trial mode complete with ghost car feature if I recall, and, for the special amongst us who had two PS1’s and a datalink cable, you could even play a multiplayer link-up game! Sadly there was no split-screen multiplayer in this and, of course, online play wasn’t really a thing at the time unless you had a PC or a Sega Mega Modem….. for some reason….

The main bread and butter of this of course is the Championship Mode. As you race a full season of Touring Cars, which takes place in the United Kingdom, there isn’t a great deal of variation in the setting. Although the tracks themselves are wildly different, some are full of curves, some are bumpy and hilly, and so on; visually, you’re in the middle of a field in Yorkshire pretty much every time. This is compounded somewhat by the fact that you may end up racing the same track multiple times in a typical Touring Car season. There is a wide verity of weather modes, however, which allow you to mix things up a bit, and the rain and thunderstorm effects are particularly impressive.

The physics and handling in this game are great, though. Each car has it’s own handling style based on the real cars themselves. There’s no tweaking of things like tires or suspension, but personally, I never bother with those things anyway. There’s also a very realistic and somewhat awesome damage system, allowing you to crumple and damage every body panel and window, although unfortunately the damage is purely cosmetic and does not hinder the handling of the car in any way.

11916-toca-touring-car-championship-windows-screenshot-cheat-codesThere was some fun elements to this game too, though. The cheat codes provided some hilarious modes, including the ability to race a tank that actually fired, and even a pink Cadillac!

Gran Turismo took it’s rightful spot as the number one racing game when it came out a few months later, and this game never really took off in other markets due to it’s very British nature. But in the United Kingdom, for a period of time, this was the best selling racing game of all time, and still held it’s own against Gran Turismo. It also spawned not just a great sequel, but an entire franchise which is still going on today under the Race Driver GRID branding.

All in all this is a fantastic racing game for the PSX and the source of many happy childhood memories.

Danny’s Retro Rating:

vglFinally, after many years of waiting, Video Games Live has come to Manchester. Obviously, I had to go. So I did. This is some sort of ramble about how it went and what I thought.

Just to get my moaning out of the way, the one thing that annoyed me, and this is more the venue (The o2 Apollo) than Video Games Live directly, is the fact that the tickets said doors at 6.30pm. They didn’t actually open until closer to 7.30. Either the clocks going back confused somebody or something got delayed but, I really hate standing around for over an hour in the freezing cold. Also, the completely pointless priority line for customers of o2, which was completely unmonitored and didn’t actually do anything at all since the doors were opened for both lines simultaneously.

Anyway, enough of that. Once we were in the venue started to fill up nicely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a complete sell out. The Apollo is a smaller venue which seats around 3,500, and we were in “The Circle” which is basically the upper tier. It’s a nice small venue so even right at the back you feel nice and close. The acoustics are fantastic in there too. The benefit of this was there was a bunch of empty seats further forward which meant we got a better view than we paid for plus got to spread out a bit. Big big bonus for captain long legs here. I don’t think this mattered too much as all the lower tiers and standing areas were fully packed. It’s a shame though because they deserve a sell-out. I’m surprised they didn’t get a bigger turnout considering how popular gaming is in Manchester.

First to come out is Tommy Tallarico, a legendary video game composer and creator of Video Games Live. Tommy then introduces us to the orchestra for the evening, the Hungarian Virtuosi Orchestra. Tommy is a great MC, as well as lead guitar in many songs, and his passion for the show is self-evident. The fact he’s been doing this for so long and still clearly loves being out there every time is a testament to this.

So, time for the music. I’m only going to cover the songs that I really connected with, as there were a few games in there I’d never played or know anything about, so I’ll be skipping those. But we start off on a strong note, as we’re introduced to a video package from Konami legend Hideo Kojima.

Metal Gear Solid was fantastic, and Tommy pretending to be Snake in the box was hilarious. We’re in for a great night, folks.

Another personal favourite next, and one of the major highlights of my evening, as Yuji Naka takes to the big screen to introduce us to Sonic The Hedgehog. The orchestra played a medley of songs from the first game, Sonic The Hedgehog 1, based loosely on the end credits Medley.

A little bit of a surprising rendition next, as Tommy tells us that for every single show, he polls people on Facebook as to what they would like to see. Inexplicably, the people of Manchester love The Secret Of Monkey Island, which is an old LucasArts game for the Sega CD, MacOS, DOS, Amiga and I think a few more properly obscure platforms. It’s a bit of an odd point and click adventure type effort.

We’re then later introduced to video game tribute band, Random Ecounter. They appear a couple of times that night, playing largely Zelda songs. We’re treated to a Medley from The Legend Of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time. This band is really really good, so, props to them for apparently flying out to the UK at their own expense to play for us.

Throughout the evening we’re treated to little comedy shorts between songs, such as Sonic vs. Pacman, where Sonic just spindashes through the level and clears it in 3 seconds, or Contra vs. Duck Hunt, which, well, you can imagine how that ended. They were all created by a great guy named Dane Boe, and you can find his YouTube channel and watch the shorts at http://youtube.com/daneboe

Next Up is Earthworm Jim, a fantastic Mega Drive game, the soundtrack to which was composed by non other than Tommy Tallarico himself. A great soundtrack and an hilarious video package to go along with it.

After a 20 minute intermission, it’s time for Act II, and as expected, the big guns are now brought out. We start with Mass Effect, one of the most successful video game franchises of the last decade.

After that, one of my personal highlights of the evening, yes, it’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I’ve been playing this game for years and still haven’t seen and done everything there is to do. I think it’s a work of video game art, and the theme music is wonderfully done here. One of the best things about the night for sure, and I’m really glad at this point. All the games I really hoped to see have now been represented, so, fantastic. Everything after this is a bonus.

And oh boy, what a bonus. We take it back old school a little bit as we’re treated to a rendition of Street Fighter from the Sega Mega Drive. Wonderfully performed and really topped things off.

At the end of the show, we’re greeted with a continue screen prompting the audience for an Encore, which was already desperately being pleaded for by the fantastic crowd, and we’re treated to some bonus songs, including a sing along of the Mario theme!

But the grand finale, and one of my personal all time favourites, singer Riva Taylor (who had appeared earlier that night for a game I don’t recall or care much about) and Tommy lead us in a rendition of Still Alive, the classic ending theme from Portal.

So there we go, a great night, absolutely loved it from start to finish. Tommy and the musicians went out to the lobby to do a meet and greet with everybody, something that you’ll seldom find most performers doing, and it’s just another testament to his dedication and love for the music and the fans. We go out into the cold November evening and scramble for the nearest bus out of there.

Video Games Live is a brilliant, epic, fantastic, so many words I can’t even being to fathom level of awesome show, and I really heartily recommend that you go if you ever get the chance. We’re really hoping that Video Games Live is back in Manchester soon.

 

Welcome once again to the Retro Review, the column that takes your childhood memories and transforms them into nightmares.

dr-robotniks-mean-bean-machine
Today, we’re going to take a look at Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, which was released on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis), Master System, and Game Gear. It was a curious oddity, being an import of an obscure Japanese puzzle game, as well as featuring a curious tie-in with a certain terrible (yet adorable) kids cartoon series, but despite this, the game is utterly wonderful, especially when played with others.

The origins of this game start back with the 1991 release of Puyo Puyo in Japan. A column based puzzle game, Puyo Puyo requires players to align four or more Puyo’s of the same colour together to eliminate them. By stacking them in certain ways you can create combos or chains, where Puyo’s of different colours are eliminated one after another as they fall. The larger the combo’s you can create, the more duff or colourless Puyo’s you can drop into your opponents column. The aim of the game is to stay alive until the other person’s column is completely full.

It’s a bit tricky to explain, so here’s a video of the game tutorial, which will briefly show you how this works;

It was immensely popular in Japan, but, being very much tuned in for that audience, it was unlikely to catch on in the western world. The main character was an anime girl who went around with a small starfish named Carbuncle, fighting Sailor Moon style enemies, like fish with arms and legs, and a frog that’s sat inside of a rice bowl instead of having legs, that uses a leaf as an axe to intimidate his foes. This crazy shit just wasn’t going to fly with western audiences in the early 90’s. These days it’s much more common, and recent Puyo Puyo series games have been released in the west essentially unmodified.

But Sega needed a way to make this game more friendly to the western market, and they turned to one hell of a strange source.

Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog was a batshit insane Saturday morning cartoon show. It featured the exploits of Sonic & Tails as they tried to save the planet Mobius from the evil plots of Doctor Ivo Robotnik, who is aided by his incompetent ‘Super Sonic Search and Smash Squad’, Scratch, a cookoo chicken robot, Grounder, who is essentially Barney from The Flintstones on tank tracks, and Coconuts, who is an unfortunate monkey robot, who often just ends up mopping up the floor. This cartoon was just, crazy. It was badly animated, badly written, starred Jaleel White, AKA TV’s Urkel, in the starring role, and, well, again, it’s just hard to describe. Press play on this little hum-dinger for me, and you’ll get the picture.

So, yeah, this is the level we’re working on here. There was a second Sonic The Hedgehog cartoon, now known as SatAM, which was far more popular. Why they didn’t use that show as the basis of this license of a license, I don’t know. Sonic wasn’t the only franchise to become involved with Puyo Puyo, however. The game was also released on Nintendo as Kirby’s Avalanche, and it even got a Windows 3.1 and Macintosh release under the title ‘Qwirks’

The game itself, however, is another story. The gameplay is just wonderful. It’s a game of speed and skill which really comes alive when played against another human player. If Tetris was solitaire, then this is poker. They’re both card games, but nothing alike. The single player mode in this game is certainly serviceable, and the difficulty levels can certainly prove challenging, but this isn’t the strength of this game.

I will always have fond memories of playing this game for hours and hours with my brother, a genuine contest of who would win. Best of 20’s, best of 50’s, sometimes it would go on all night. And that’s why I think this game is so fantastic, it’s just addictive puzzle game action that’s fast paced and awesome to play with friends.

Tetris was never really something that held my attention for long periods, and neither was solitaire. I think the fact this game was designed for two players really is what makes it so special.

Puyo Puyo lives on to this day. When the original developer, Compile, who made a lot of 3rd party software for Sega, including some Sonic compilations and titles, went out of business, Sonic Team took over the rights. Most recently, a Puyo Puyo Tetris game has been released. I’ve not tried it yet, but I may check it out for a video soon. It’ll be interesting to see what the differences and similarities are there.

So all in all, I would certainly recommend a trip to your local flea market to download a rom of this in person.

Danny’s Retro Rating: