2014

2014: Game of the Year

I’m stretching my usual definition of both ‘Game’ and ‘of 2014’ here, but this is undoubtedly the game I’ve played most of over the past 12 months, the one that’s given me the most pleasure, and the one that has most dominated my thoughts in idle moments. Kate ‘Mac’ McCaffrey had been building up her rig for weeks, feeling the hot glare of Jinteki’s spybots on the back of her neck the whole time. Working a several-levels-below-her-abilities data job to build up a stock of credits, surviving on cheap energy drinks while she built up a fearsome rig. Click, click, click, until… It was finally time. Welcome to Netrunner, a two-player card game set in a dystopian future of mega-corporations, hackers and elevators to the Moon. For anyone who has already taken Netrunner‘s red pill, the above won’t be too difficult to translate into a rough version of what’s going on at the table. Otherwise, I appreciate it’s probably impossible to visualise this as some cards on a table, so let’s try and lay it out: It’s early in the game, the fourth turn. The Runner player, who picked Mac from a broad roster of hackers, has spent the majority of her turns preparing for the moment we’re picking apart here. The most notable cards she has played thus far are the ‘Armitage Codebusting’ resource card, which sits on the table waiting to be tapped up for money, and a sturdy suite of three Icebreakers – we’ll get to those in a minute. This turn, she has used up three of the four ‘click’ actions she gets every turn to take six credits from Armitage Codebusting, and her prep is complete. It’s time to run. Mac rammed the cable into the port where her spine met her skull, tapped the ‘enter’ key, and she was in. All of Jinteki’s servers and defenses were neatly visualised, laid out before her. Without a moment’s hesitation, she went right for the company’s HQ. On their turns, meanwhile, the Corp player on the other side of the table (representing Jinteki, a Japanese mega-corporation best known for manufacturing clones) has been playing a very different game. While the Runner plays all of her cards openly, the Corp’s are kept face-down until revealed. This is what runs are for – hacks into the Corp’s servers, a risky foray into enemy territory to reveal their plans. There’s not just one game to master here, but two neatly interlocking ones. While the Runner player is constantly on the offence, the Corp plays defence. It’s not all they do, but the top priority is protecting every card they have from these hacks. And I mean every card: not just the ones they’ve decided to play into ‘Remote Servers’, but also their discard pile (aka Archives), the deck they’re drawing from (R&D), even their hand of cards (HQ). Jinteki’s defence systems stayed dark, letting Mac float right past. Suspicious, maybe, but no time to wonder why now: the files were in sight. Suddenly, there was a buzz down the line, that telltale sign of a rez command. BOOOOOM. The Corp protects their valuables with ‘Ice’ cards, stacked on top of each server – their hand or deck or a card ‘installed’ on the table – for the Runner to approach one by one. These can block entry, or charge a toll, or do some truly nasty things to intruders, and the Runner doesn’t have a clue which it will be until the card has been flipped over. Ice is played face-down too, and during runs the Corp has the option to ‘rez’ – activate the Ice’s defenses by paying a set cost – one at a time. In this case, our Jinteki player has three pieces of Ice in front of their HQ. They peek at the ice card nearest to the Runner, then consider the Runner’s line-up of Icebreakers – each of which can break through certain pieces of Ice at a cost, negating their effects but not damaging the Ice itself – and the state of their own finances. This gamble is Netrunner‘s heartbeat. For the Runner, hitting the wrong piece of Ice can be disastrous, but failing to run will eventually cost them the game. For the Corp, it can be tempting to rez a piece of Ice, but doing so will deplete their resources in a game where everything costs money, and give the Runner an extra piece of information. With all this in mind, the Jinteki player declines to rez their first and second pieces of Ice. When it comes to the final layer, with Mac getting dangerously close to the precious cards in their hand, they finally flip one over, revealing it to be a Data Mine. Back in the real world, a spot of blood dripped from Mac’s nose and splashed onto her console’, obscuring the loading bar that slowly filled on its vidscreen. She felt the metallic heat on her tongue as half-written programs combusted, and knew corners of her brain would never be the same again. Still, she’d managed to snatch a single file from Jinteki’s HQ – vital evidence. Normally at this point, the Runner could pay a couple of credits to stop the effects with one of their Icebreakers, depending on the type of Ice in question. If it’s is a Codegate, they’d need a Decoder; for a Barrier, a Fracter; for a Sentry, a Killer. But Trap cards like Data Mine are an exception, without a corresponding breaker type. There are ways, but they’re not common, and Mac doesn’t have any in her armoury – catching her out to the cost of one point of net damage. Netrunner isn’t a combative game, in any straightforward sense, but Runners can get hurt. The Corp can broadcast brain-damaging signals through the net, or just trace the Runner back to their poky flat and blow their entire building to smithereens. Reading the largely incomprehensible rulebook, this was the moment I fell […]

2014: Film of the Year

Happy New Year! Why not celebrate the start of 2015 by spending a bit more time looking back over 2015? I’ll be posting a Best Of thing every day for the next week or so, starting today with a spoiler-rich piece on…   My favourite film of 2014 was much easier to pick than my favourite game, album or any of the rest. Of all my selections, though, it was also the one which gave me the most pause. I’m aware of how few films I saw at the cinema this year, and how that affects my decision. I have no problem with naming a kids’ film as my favourite, but there is the fact that The Lego Movie is now the cornerstone of a big lumbering franchise about which I’m not too excited – and, you know, the whole argument that it’s a feature-length advert. I think at the time of The Lego Movie‘s release, people focused far too much on that last thing. The number of reviews which locked the film down into ‘good for what it is’ – meaning, good for a film produced as a piece of marketing, or good considering it had to negotiate the whims of a major corporation. It feels like a typically grown-up way of approaching something that’s so full of joy.   It’s hard to deny that this in the mix, and one of the many things that is interesting about The Lego Movie is how it puts that conflict at its core. After all, the film’s main villain is named ‘President Business’, whose nefarious plan involves drawing strict lines between each world, separating cowboy Lego from castles-&-knights Lego from Star Wars Lego – pretty much Lego’s business model over the past decade. People have accused Lego of stifling kids’ creativity as its sets become increasingly reliant on building a single thing, with instructions and exact quantities of serial-numbered pieces. That’s right there in the film too, with the contrast between the freedom of the Master Builders’ creations and main character Emmett’s inability to stray from the instructions. So, yeah, it’s kind of impressive that Lord & Miller managed to use Lego’s license to create a 90-minute review of the product that isn’t entirely positive. But if that’s as far as you get with The Lego Movie– either boo consumerism or yay sticking it to the man– I’d say you weren’t paying enough attention.Even if you insist with engaging with the film purely on that level, it’s not just the Lego corporation that is under examination here: it’s the users too. The whole film engages in this, showing three distinct ways of playing with Lego through the Master Builders, Emmett, and President Business, but by the time it switches to live-action, this isn’t even subtext any more. Let’s just grab some sample dialogue from the Lego-enthusiast dad (and Lord Business alter ego) played by Will Ferrell in these segments: “This isn’t a toy! … It’s a highly sophisticated inter-locking brick system! … The way I’m using it makes it an adult thing!” Yeah, it’s not exactly subtle, and at this point we could branch off into a rant about the insecurities of fans of games, comics and a thousand other niche nerdy pursuits, but again I think it would be missing what’s actually important about these scenes, namely the father-son interactions. Initially, the ‘real world’ is shot like a surreal horror film, but it slowly morphs into a low-key family drama which manages to be incredibly heart-warming given the short amount of time we spend with the characters. That it’s just a secondary strand of the narrative, which doesn’t undermine the reality of the animated Lego world and characters, is much more impressive to me than the biting-the-hand-that-feeds stuff. This third-act twist, if you can call it that, makes absolute sense. The entire film has the joyful energy of a child at play, constantly wanting to show you the latest thing it’s come up with, so it makes sense that it would turn out to be authored by an eight year old boy.   Here’s an amazing vista rendered in coloured plastic bricks! Oh, here are some police alligators! Hey, you might want to freeze-frame this bit to check out all the background jokes! Oh look, here’s Superman and Shakespeare and Gandalf and Milhouse from The Simpsons all just hanging out! Cool! This seems like an apt time to mention that the film is gorgeous. It uses deep focus in a way that’s reminiscent of photography, so that I had to check whether the animation was entirely computer-generated or if it used stop-motion models. It has endless fun with the restrictions of Lego, both for gags – characters pulling off their hair to put on a new hat, horses that leap around without moving their legs – and for spectacle – meticulously constructed fight scenes; handmade title cards; the way that the Lego sea moves. The Lego Movie is absolutely packed with these moments of unique spectacle, and if pressed, I’d probably identify spectacle as the single thing I want most from cinema. …No, wait, Batman! That’s the main thing I want from cinema. I’ve heard people point to Will Arnett’s Batman as the best depiction of the caped crusader ever seen on the big screen, and it’s kind of hard to argue with them. I love that the film’s Bruce Wayne is more Christian-Bale-in-American-Psycho-businessdouche than Bale’s actual portrayal. Plus, the self-centred older boyfriend with his own car who writes songs about his tortured soul is an excellent unspooling of the ‘Batman should be grim ‘n’ gritty’ argument. (You can make your own connections back to the “The way I’m using it makes it an adult thing!” here, if you wish.) At the same time, though, The Lego Movie also shows what is great about Batman. It features probably the best-ever version of That Scene where the whole Justice League gets taken prisoner but Batman escapes to save the day later […]

2014: Tim’s Person of the Year

We all have a favourite Christmas/New Year tradition. Maybe it’s a Christmas Eve drinking session with people you don’t see as often as you like, or a Boxing Day family walk. For me, it’s Tim Maytom‘s Person of the Year. We’ve recognised five Persons of the Year on this blog, given a boost by the fact that Tim’s a dirty cheat, and last year picked both Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick. This year, I’ve managed to keep his rulebreaking to a minimum. So who will wear the Alex-Spencer.co.uk Sponsored by Tim Maytom Person of the Year crown for the next twelve months? Let’s find out. Taylor Swift is by far the most famous person I have awarded the much-coveted title of Person of the Year to. The previous four entries were far from unknown, but to one degree or another, you had to be interested in them to know who they were. Even Amy Poehler, 2012’s PotY, has a tendency to disappear into her characters, and certainly has a lower profile here in the UK than she does in the States, where SNL put her on more people’s radars. Those kinds of qualifiers don’t apply to Taylor Swift. Even if they’ve never heard her songs, the vast majority of people will have heard of her, thanks to the tabloid machine. And the number of people who haven’t heard at least one of her songs must now be a considerably thinner wedge of the pie chart, thanks to 1989. Swift’s fifth studio album wasn’t the catapult that sent her into the mainstream consciousness (that was 2012’s Red, with its peerless “We Are Never Getting Back Together”, and the press at the height of their ‘who’s Taylor Swift dating?’ mania) but it is the one that cements her position as a global pop sensation. Much has been made of 1989 as her first true pop album, and while there’s elements of truth to that, with guitars swapped for drums and synths and a sound steeped in the legacy of acts from its title year, Swift has always been a pop star, it’s just now she’s embracing that. In the liner notes that accompany 1989, Swift writes about change and coming into her own, addressing the foreword from “the girl who said she would never cut her hair or move to New York or find happiness in a world where she is not in love”. For all the effort people put into working out which ex-boyfriend every given song is about (answer: all of them, none of them) that seems to be the true theme of the album – Swift realising that she has changed and that she enjoys her new status quo in the spotlight. In “You Belong With Me”, from her second album Fearless, Swift pines for a boyfriend from afar, criticising his current girlfriend and singing that “she wears high heels, I wear sneakers”. Now, Swift is the one in short skirts and high heels, happy to add a few more inches to her 5’10” frame so she towers over others. It’s worth noting, though, that even back in 2009, Swift played both her ‘self’ and the girlfriend in the video and cover art for “You Belong With Me”. 1989 is a record about confidence and comfort. That’s reflected in the masterful video for “Blank Space”, satirising those who would accuse her of being a vengeful ex. It’s reflected in the absence of duets with artists who can’t compare with her, two of which dragged down Red (fuck off, Ed Sheeran). It’s reflected in the final three bonus tracks on the deluxe version, demonstrating her song-writing process to all of those who complain she’s a manufactured star. And it’s reflected in the build-up to the album’s release.‘Authenticity’ is one of those ridiculous terms that crops up in music criticism with a cyclic regularity, and Taylor Swift manages to carve through that with impressive assurance. Are her Instagram and Tumblr accounts cynical ploys to engage with the teen girls who form the core of her audience? Was inviting fans to a sleepover at her house and listen to the album ahead of time a marketing strategy?Whether Taylor Swift is actually the global megastar who still manages to be the cool girl next door, or if it’s just an act, does it really matter? 1989 and everything that surrounds it is a resounding “hell no” to that question. So often, our artists arrive fully formed, aesthetic and style set in place from the word go. Watching Swift evolve from country singer to true pop sensation hasn’t been an evolution, it’s been a camera coming into focus, refining what was always there until it shines through clearly. It’s been the act of a young woman embracing her power, her status and her agency, and showing the world exactly who she’s become. It is customary to begin this biog of Tim Maytom by pointing out that he is always my Person of the Year, but that has been aggressively true in 2014. As well as setting up a joint blog about The Wicked + The Divine, we now work together. As a result, I am treated to his witticisms daily – watch out for future bestseller Maytom/Spencer: The Skype Conversations (2013-15) – as well as Twitter, Tumblr and occasionally his own blog. Jealous? You damn well should be.

2014: Track of the Year

Playing my Songs of 2014 mix in the family living room this Christmas holiday, I’ve come to realise: gosh, rather a lot of these songs are about sex. But arguably none more than my single favourite of the year. Before we get into it… I’m listening to this track on Spotify right now, and it’s marked EXPLICIT. We might as well go right ahead and say the same thing about the blog you’re about to read. So stop now if we’re related or something, okay? FKA Twigs – Two Weeks Enthusing about Two Weeks to friends this year, I’ve tended to call it the best pop song ever written about oral sex – a title for which, of course, there’s no shortage of competition. Honestly, in terms of what the song means to me, I could stop this blog right there – but why use forty words when you could use four hundred, eh? Besides, there are a lot of other things going on in Two Weeks which I feel like I should address. The song is a) a triumphant taunt after a break-up, b) a masterful kiss-off to a guy who’s with someone else anyway, c) an irresistible seduction because fuck that someone else, anyway. I genuinely do believe in all those readings, but frankly I don’t have much use for any of them. Anyway, whatever your take on the song, there’s an undeniable common thread: two people, one metric tonne of sexual tension. Because Two Weeks is a genuinely tense song. It begins with indistinct looped vocals that sound like a summoning chant played backwards. On top of that come these incursions of bass, and finally Twigs singing “I know it hurts” with a sense of forced restraint. It’s electrifyingly tense, and one that the song spends its running time breaking and then building back up. The end of the first verse is delivered in a series of staccato gasps, building to “that chaste mouth open like [extended vowel sound describing inexpressible pleasure]”. Suddenly, the music all floods in at once, the song blossoming into chorus. (There may be some subtext here. Speaking of, I love the way the song’s is literally buried under the main vocals, an obscured “I can treat you better than her” in the first verse switching to “I can fuck you better than her” by the second.) But even then, there’s never any sense of a true climax. Two Weeks is Tantric pop, if I can be that gross – the feeling of fingers tracing along skin, of toes bunching together, of involuntary shudders. Over the course of four minutes, precisely who we’re talking about here shifts. The song’s front end promises pleasure, the second half promises she’ll take it from you. Compare and contrast the “I’d quench that thirst” at 00:25 and “I’ll quench your thirst” at 03:17. I guess, basically, the thing I love about Two Weeks is that Twigs keeps telling you that she’ll put you first, but it’s so incredibly clear she actually doesn’t mean it. That applies equally to interpretations a, b, and c but, more importantly, to the other thing. “Get your mouth open,You know you’re mine.“ Oh, and before we go, a quick mention of the video, which is simultaneously: an incredibly confident introduction to an artist emerging fully-formed like Venus; a reaction to Kanye West’s Power video; a spectacular trompe-l’œil, 2014’s foremost incursion of The Wicked + The Divine’s pop-mythos into reality (excepting possibly the Kate Bush gigs); and a perfect encapsulation, in its teasingly slow zoom out, of what makes the song great.

Songs I Loved in 2014 (Actually From 2014 Edition)

It’s Christmas Eve, which in some cultures I believe is actually the main day of gifting.So in that spirit, I’m slipping a special little something into your aural stocking. Forget about tomorrow’s books and sweets and alcohols, here’s a present you can unwrap right now – a playlist of my favourite songs of 2014 (in no particular order except the one I think sounds best). Listen on Spotify here, or using the widget thing below. (Fair warning: the last couple of tracks don’t work unless you already own them. But you really should do anyway.) Or, if you’re not into the whole Spotify thing, here’s the tracklist: Beyoncé – Drunk in Love (Kanye West Remix) Tinashe – 2 On CHVRCHES – Dead Air Hello Saferide – The Crawler Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting On You) Robyn – Tell You (Today) Run The Jewels – Oh My Darling Don’t Cry Rustie – Attak (feat. Danny Brown) Röyksopp & Robyn – Do It Again Kitty – Miss U How To Dress Well – Repeat Pleasure FKA twigs – Two Weeks Nancy Whang – I Was Made for Loving You – Extended Version Alvvays – Archie, Marry Me Zola Jesus – Dangerous Days Lykke Li – I Never Learn The-Dream – Wedding Bells Taylor Swift – Blank Space It’s a pretty good overview of a year. As ever, I haven’t always been as engaged with the Hot New Music as I wanted, which I’m constantly being reminded as I pick through other people’s Best of 2014 lists – but there were at least a dozen songs I deeply loved this year, and that’s all I ever really need. I’ll be going into depth on my absolute favourite of these tracks next week, but for now, happy listening, and merry Christmas!

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Invisible Inc, OlliOlli, Peggle

Our final bit of catch-up blogging on every game I’ve played this year. After the laser focus of the last two posts – on Friday I wrote about the multiplayer games I’ve most enjoyed while drinking with friends,on Sunday I talked about my unexpected love for the Wii U – there’s no real pattern connecting the remaining games I wanted to talk about. So, I proudly present: The Rest of What I’ve Been Playing Permadeath, hacking and cartoony visuals. Random generation, of levels and baddies. XCOM‘s turn-based strategy, mixed with Splinter Cell‘s stealth. These are a few of my favourite things. Actually, when it comes to games, these are pretty much my absolute favourite things. Invisible, Inc has them all, plus a moody soundtrack, cyberpunk-meets-Mission:Impossible style, and the impressive pedigree of developer Klei (also responsible for the excellent Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve). Stealth is traditionally the preserve of third-person and occasionally first-person games, like Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid or Thief. Switching the perspective to the god’s eye view of something like XCOM is an unusual decision, which abstracts the experience slightly. Then again, with their light meters and vision cones, stealth games were hardly the most naturalistic to begin with. It also shifts the focus away from the moment-to-moment tension of being caught, and the voyeuristic thrill of watching from the shadows, towards careful planning. Information is still limited, but you’ve got much more to work with – I went back to Dishonored recently, and after playing Invisible Inc, the constant obfuscation of its first-person sneaking just felt wrong. With that extra information, and less concern about fiddly execution, it makes it easier to come up with an interesting idea – hey, if I distract this guard with a noise and lead him over here, I can sneak behind him, hack this panel, then switch the targeting on that turret so it takes him out. Without the potential for a fudged button press causing chaos, all that matters is that you have a sound plan. This gets even better when you consider that the game lets you control two agents simultaneously – or even three, if things go well. It allows for some great moments, as you close the patented ‘Clever Girl’ manoeuvre on an unsuspecting guard. Best of all, Invisible Inc is a work in progress. You can buy it on early access, with updates every couple of weeks – meaning the finished product could well make another appearance on these lists next year. My only encounter with a real physical skateboard ended with me running over my own arm, but as a kid with a chipped PlayStation in the early ’00s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is written deep into my gaming DNA. OlliOlli is a minimalist demake of those games, flattening its levels into a linear two dimensions, but keeping the sprawling objectives. These are often mutually exclusive, sometimes explicitly so: pull off this difficult grind; reach the end of the level without doing a single trick. It’s an encouragement to endlessly replay levels, bail after bail after painful bail, until the memory of every gap and rail is locked into your fingers. …Or something like that, anyway. Honestly, I find OlliOlli difficult to write about because the experience of every session washes away as soon as I close the lid of my laptop, but also because, while you’re in it, the game is so absolutely consuming. Any stressful thoughts you might be carry unspool in the face of hitting a grind just perfectly, that satisfying kiss of axel on rail, and the inevitable failure that follows it, your avatar’s face meeting pavement for the hundredth time in a row. OlliOlli is the most frustrating relaxation game you’ll ever play. After a years-long drought, 2014 was blessed with not one but two installments in the Peggle series. Peggle 2 is essentially a bigger, brighter remake of the original – itself a shinier version of pachinko or pinball, with a single aimed ball leading to all sorts of unintended consequences as it pings between pegs – with all the production values pushed up to next-gen levels. Peggle Blast, on mobile, pares back the Peggle formula so it fits into a free-to-play app. If pressed, I’d tell you Peggle Blast is the better game. The free-to-play model brings out the nastiest side of Popcap. The game gives you a limited number of lives that refill over the course of hours, it’s constantly pushing extra shots or power-ups in exchange for cash or watching an ad – but it also forces them to to be more inventive. Peggle 2‘s biggest trick is giving each of its five characters a different theme song. As your ball bounces around, it triggers a chime which gets higher and higher with each peg you hit, building up to the pay-off when the screen is finally cleared, rewarding you with fireworks and a climactic blast of soundtrack. Given how much Peggle has always been about disproportionate audio-visual feedback for its challenges, this certainly isn’t insignificant – especially as it manages to find songs as triumphant as the original’s Ode to Joy,and, in the case of Hall of The Mountain King, even more so. However, as Peggle Blast seeks to make the game harder and more addictive, in an attempt to pilfer pennies from players’ pockets, it has to keep finding new tricks. Secondary objectives; boss fights; pegs with different properties; colour-coded keys that unlock certain parts of the screen; even goo-spreading gnomes, for some reason. One of the original Peggle‘s charms was that it felt like no other videogame out there. Peggle Blast goes the other way, giving it the feel of an arcade game – and one that, for all my problems with in-app purchases, doesn’t actually require you to pop in a single quarter to have fun. So that’s everything I’ve played this year, pretty much – with one notable exception. We’ll be talking about that next week, though, when […]

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Wii U

Another installment from my attempt to document everything I’ve played this year. On Friday I wrote about the multiplayer PC games I’ve most enjoyed as an accompaniment to alcohol, today I’d like to focus on the small black box which started occupying a space beneath our TV this summer – and in my heart not long after. Me & The Wii U   The most common reaction from people when I told them I’d just bought a Wii U was: Why?. The implication being, I think: Why didn’t you buy a PS4 or an Xbox One? Or, depending on the person, and given that I was in the middle of buying my first home at the time: Why didn’t you just stick with the frankly ridiculous number of consoles you already have? The former is easy to answer. A larger quantity of pixels isn’t something I desperately crave, and the unique experiences on offer is only now starting to exceed what I could count on one hand. The latter… not so much. I’ll concede that the Wii U’s key selling point – that tablet-style controller – is slightly silly. Very few games have actually made good on its potential and, as even my 50-something parents (who have now inherited my original Wii, as hush money) pointed out, the chunky plastic controller looks rather ungainly and old fashioned in an era of iPad Airs. And yet, I can’t remember building such an emotional relationship with a piece of technology, not for a long, long time. Why is that? Well, it’s certainly not the selection of third-party games. I own two, ZombiU and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, both relics of Ubisoft’s early dalliances with the console. Black Flag is a wonderful opportunity for period tourism across a string of 18th Century Caribbean islands, hamstrung by the tedious day-to-day of Assassin’s Creed games. ZombiU actually uses the controller better than most Nintendo-crafted games, pulling your attention away from the main screen and towards the smaller one you’re holding in your hands to create tension, while you rummage through a bag as the undead shamble ever closer to your delicious, delicious brain. Combined with the wonderful specificity of its East London setting and the RTS-vs-FPS multiplayer, it’s a nice addition to the roster for the sub-fiver prices you’ll find it for, but far from the reason to recommend picking up a Wii U. Maybe my love for the Wii U is driven by nostalgia, then? Nintendo Land provides probably the best evidence for this argument. At launch, the game filled the same role for the Wii U as Wii Sports did for its predecessor – a bundled-in package of mini-games built to show off the unique capabilities of the new controller. This means squeezing in features like the controller’s built-in camera, used to display the player’s hilarious facial contortions on the big screen, or touchscreen, to draw a line between obstacles that you can only see on the TV, or its microphone, to …activate a fan by blowing. Some of these inclusions are more successful than others, but the best games take full advantage of the second screen to keep the player using that controller more clued in than their opponents on the Wiimotes. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion (or ‘Cheeky Ghost’, as it’s known round our gaff) uses this to make one player the ghost, sneaking up unseen on four ghost hunters, armed only with a torch, and provoking some of the best jump scares I’ve ever seen in a multiplayer game. As in Wii Sports, each mini game in Nintendo Land – there are a dozen of variable quality, but with three stone-cold classics – is simple but surprisingly deep and satisfying, with the caveat that you need to be playing them with friends crowded round the TV. But, tellingly, where Wii Sports created a new setting – admittedly, a rather blank one – for its games, Nintendo Land dresses up each in the patchwork clothes of a familiar Nintendo franchise. There’s a Zelda-themed archery game, an F Zero X racer, a Metroid arena shooter, all of them using a sort of cargo-cult version of the series’ own aesthetic to fit the charmingly wonky house style, where everything is apparently handmade out of recycled cloth and clockwork and crayons. The effect is to make Nintendo Land a virtual museum of the company’s history. This is literalised by its setting, which frames each mini-game as an attraction in a theme park. You can explore this Nintendo Land on foot, littered with statues and familiar iconography and jukeboxes that bit of menu music you played as a kid, which are awarded to you for playing an old-school pachinko machine. It helps that (some of) the attractions contained within are so enjoyable, but somehow this isn’t anywhere near as awful as it sounds like it should be. I wouldn’t identify myself as a nostalgic Nintendo fan, despite the Gameboy and N64 being my first consoles as a kid, but it would be impossible to deny that the characters have built up a reserve of goodwill with me over the years, which Nintendo Land taps for everything it’s worth. Overall, though, the most honest answer to that Why? is simply this: Mario Kart 8. The Mario Kartgames have always been an indispensable part of life in the Spencer-Dale household, so buying the latest a new installment… well, there wasn’t really much question of us not buying it. Looked at one way, MK8 is just the latest in a long line of chunky, accessible racers. But looked at another… Who the hell doesn’t want that? MK8 is broader than any other Mario Kart game before it, and polished so much it practically glares. It still feels exactly right to tug the controller left and right to steer your kart around corners, the way most of us did anyway in the days before motion controls, tongues sticking out in concentration – and even the parts which sounded gimmicky in the […]

2014: What I’ve Been Playing – Drinking Games

For a while this year, I was convinced I could blog about every single game I spent a decent amount of time with. Then I remembered how life works. Playing something in 10 minute sessions over the course of months, or multiplayer with friends, isn’t really conducive to writing about it. So, over this weekend, I’m planning to post three breakdowns of the remaining games I failed to write up, split into rough categories. Starting with… Drinking games Games and alcohol, eh? The two are a reliable cocktail, one I’ve mixed in various ways over the years. When I lived at home, games were a accompaniment to pre-drinks – Peggle, WWE Superstars, B.U.T.T.O.N. – with loose drinking rules draped over them. In our London flat, they were for the morning after – Worms, Spelunky, Mario Kart –  a roomful of people hiding their hangovers behind competitive multiplayer. This year, especially since moving out to a bungalow in the far reaches of London, I finally cracked the post-pub game. Simple thrills that don’t lean too hard on your brain functions, that keep you awake with bursts of laughter. I’ve written about Nidhogg before, and that has stayed in healthy rotation over the course of the year, but there are also some new challengers for the 3am gaming crown. Towerfall: Ascension is possibly the purest example of the form. Four players battling on a single screen, each armed with a bow and a limited number of arrows. A single hit means death. Kill or be killed. That’s an incredibly simple formula, but the little details manage to make it feel complex. Arrows embed themselves into the scenery, pin crumpled bodies to walls, waiting to picked up by someone who’s prematurely emptied their quiver (it happens to the best of us). While players scrabble towards this errant ammunition, they have one weapon left in their armoury: a simple Mario-style jump onto an opponent’s head, as fatal as an arrow through the chest. That’s not the only lift from Nintendo’s leading practiser of turtle-head parkour. As in the original Mario Bros, each arena loops infinitely, so that dropping off the bottom of the screen will, bamf, have you immediately reappearing at the top. All this gives Towerfall the feel of a deadly bouncy castle. A typical game moves moves in bursts. After an early exchange of arrows that’s likely to fell the first player or two, the survivors will cautiously circle each other for minutes. But when it’s time, Towerfall‘s action happens faster than your conscious brain can really track – just your bare muscle memory versus your opponent’s. And so the tension builds slowly, and is quickly released, which is where all the laughter comes from. This is the same basic mechanism behind most verbal jokes and it’s also, I reckon, the secret of Nidhogg and Broforce. Broforce is the cheap thrill of a Steven Seagal film in the early hours on Channel 5, or of a just-before-the-shop-closes box of fried chicken, in the form of a co-operative shoot ’em up for up to four players. At first glance, the game looks like a no-frills remake of Contra or Metal Slug. In tandem with its roster of knock-off ’80s action stars with dodgy pun names (Rambro, Brominator, B.A. Broracus), you might expect Broforce to rely on retro nostalgia. Being completely honest, it does lean on these pleasures – but vitally, the game is also packed with smart and fresh ideas. The levels you shoot your way through, for example, are entirely destructible. Over-zealous deployment of explosives can make it impossible to reach the end, meaning that your own weapons are as much of a threat as the thousands of balaclava wearers you’ll run into. The way that the game juggles its enormous playable cast of ‘bros’ is pretty remarkable, too. Getting your hands on each new character, they feel just right. A Will-Smith-in-Men-in-Black bro comes equipped with a kickback-heavy Noisy Cricket, plus a Neuralyzer for stunning enemies. The twin Boondock Bros move, shoot and die individually, like Smash Bros’ Ice Climbers. A bro version of Rose McGowan’s character from Planet Terror propels herself through the air using her gun leg. But what’s even more impressive is the way these characters are built into the game. Levels are peppered with cages, which can be broken open to rescue the bro inside. This gives you an extra life, but also switches you to a random bro. It turns something as simple as a 1-Up into an interesting decision: if you’re currently playing as your favourite, do you take the life and risk getting Indiana Brones (arguably the best action hero, but inarguably the worst bro)? (In the multiplayer, if a fellow player is currently dead – which, given the chaos that ensues when four people play together, they will be – it simply brings them back to life. This is less interesting, though much more helpful.) Meanwhile, the game acts as a broad parody of jingoistic action movies, pitched somewhere between Team America and Hot Shots Part Deux. Each level ends with you blasting a besuited Satan then hitching a ride on a chopper as the level explodes below you, all to the soundtrack of a screeching guitar solo. It’s just funny, basically, especially to a brain that’s spent the last six hours pickled in long island iced tea. These trappings certainly help but, again, it’s the play itself which is funniest. Broforce is the rare kind of game where enemies not only hugely outnumber the player, but actually take more shots to kill. A single bullet ends your life in a sudden splurt of red pixels, and that’s funny enough, but watching a friend single-handedly master the rest of the level with Indy, only to be crushed by a falling square of concrete right on the finish line? That’s hilarious. I wanted to talk about The Jackbox Party Pack here, too – a compendium of five quirky quiz games, played on the PC and […]

Songs I Loved in 2014 Not Actually From 2014

It’s my birthday! So, before we begin our two-week look back over the past year, let’s go deeper still into the past. A fortnight ago, I would have told you I’d listened pretty much exclusively to brand new music this year. But then, in preparation for these blogs, I started looking into my play counts, and discovered a whole bunch of tracks from before the year began. So here are 11 songs, released as recently as December 2013 and as long ago as 1985, all of which I fell in love with for the first time during 2014. I picked up in the fire sale of last year’s ‘best of’ lists. Songs from old favourites which had somehow passed me by until now. Songs that have been sitting around for a while, just waiting to click in my brain. Listen to the playlist in the widget below, or find it on Spotify here. Charli XCX – SuperLove Flume – Insane (feat. Moon Holiday & Killer Mike) Star Slinger – Mornin’ Kate Bush – Cloudbusting Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise  Burial – Hiders  Kanye West – The New Workout Plan  Moderat – Bad Kingdom  Schoolboy Q – Hands On The Wheel  Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M. Bat For Lashes – Laura

The Playlist: Q1 2014

There is a clubnight which exists only in the space between my headphones and spinal cord. Where people dance all night, even to the songs you can’t really dance to. For the months of January, February and March 2014, this was that club’s setlist. Charli XCX – SuperLove This passed me by first time around, until Sam ‘Afternoon Delight’ Willet chucked it my way on Facebook. And ka-clunk, it was the soundtrack to the next month of my life. And look, I talk about the imaginary clubnight, but this was the one song that made me want to actually take my creaky, clumsy body out and find a dancefloor where it’s playing. Every time I hear it, I want to grab the right friends just as it kicks in and shout the wrong words and debut the private macarena I’ve been practicing in bathroom mirrors. And mouthing “I think your hair looks much better pushed over to one side/How do you feel about me?” to my reflection in a particularly shiny shop window, I’ve caught myself figuring out exactly how much work it would be to set up that clubnight for real. Belle & Sebastian – Suicide Girl I love when Belle & Sebastian talk dirty.  Suicide Girl – which I first encountered on their rather uneven collection of B-sides and rarities The Third Eye Centre – takes the typical brittle indie-boy unrequited romance and reconfigures it into something more physical. The song asks the age-old question: Would you photograph your crush naked so the pictures could uploaded onto the internet for the enjoyment of strangers? “Once she takes off her clothes, we’ll never be the same again”, the song concludes as it reaches an all-too-sudden climax, just two and a half minutes in. Well, quite. Joanna Gruesome – Secret Surprise A song that sounds like it could be taking place inside someone’s chest cavity. Whether sweely whispering or all-out screaming or divebombing between the two, Alanna McArdle’s vocals constantly draw attention to the breath each line is using up. The drum is a basic pounding heartbeat, building to a minor attack by the end of the track. Each stab of guitar is like a shudder running up your spine, the whole messy thing echoing off the inner walls of your ribcage. Secret Surprise takes that all-too-familiar unrequited love subgenre and flips it so our protagonist is the object, rather than the subject. Or, maybe it’s an entry in the fairly new suffocating-your-other-half-with-a-pillow-while-they-sleep subgenre. Broken Bells – Holding On for Life/St. Vincent – Digital Witness Two songs for which I have to thank the BBC Radio 6Music playlist. Remarkably, despite 6Music being my office’s station of choice, meaning while they were playlisted I heard these tracks three or four times a day without any choice in the matter, neither has really worn out its welcome. It helps, I think, that they both sound slightly alien in their own way, whether it’s Holding On for Life‘s pitch-shifted Beegees chorus or the bits of Digital Witness that sound like they’re being played backwards. Sophie – Bipp The lyrical heart of Bipp, “I can make you feel better”, is half a promise being made by the narrator to you, the lover, and half a contract the song is making with you, the listener. A few dozen listens in, it’s a guarantee Sophie is yet to break. Johnny Foreigner – In CapitalsIn Capitals has me reaching for the toolbox of music journalism clichés. It’s an absolute Frankenstein of a song, pieced together from scraps of four or five other half-songs. It’s a rollercoaster of a song, repeatedly climbing to a peak, sitting on the ledge just for a moment, then plunging down, slowing and starting over. It’s a finely-tuned firework display of a song, a series of little explosions, big and small, working in perfect concert. Just because I can’t talk about it adequately doesn’t mean the song isn’t great, mind. Ibibio Sound Machine – Let’s Dance (Yak Inek Unek)“1, 2, 3, 4. Let’s dance.” As far as I can tell, those are the only English words in the whole track. Frankly – and this would be the case even if the rest wasn’t in Nigerian Ibibio – they’re the only ones that matter. I’m a sucker for songs that are this explicitly instructive, as long as they’ve got the beat to back it up. And this really, really does. 1. 2. 3. 4… Chromatics – LadyListening to Lady, I sometimes feel like I can hear through the song itself to the instruments it’s made out of, great fictional instruments which fill the sewer systems of entire cities, which were built at great human cost, entirely for the purpose of making an androgynous love song and giving me something to dance to when I’m in the flat on my own. I don’t know about you, but I like that kind of arrogance in my synthpop. Neneh Cherry feat Robyn – Out of the BlackRobyn’s the reason I listened to Out of the Black enough to put it on this list (I just miss her, that’s all), but she’s not the star. Honestly, she might be the weak link. I love the way her voice braids with Neneh’s on the chorus, but the way she delivers some lines (“I’m Robyn on the microphone, into the speaker”) is actually quite ugly. No, the star here is that beat, sneaking, oppressive, a shadow looming in your peripherals. Delicious. Burial – HidersHaving read some reviews of last year’s Rival Dealer EP, Hiders seems to be consistently singled out for its accessible. Or, if it’s that kind of publication, a bit too pop. A bit tacky. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that’s it the first Burial track to make any real impression on me. There are moments throughout where Hiders constantly threatens to crystallise into a spectral pop song, before moving on, shedding the skin of the last hook to drop in a new voice, a new sample, some environmental sound tweaked just so. By doing that, it manages to […]