20 Years On: A Super Mario Bros Experience…

Super Mario

The video game industry has garnered a reputation from the uninformed masses of creating big-budget ephemeral forms of entertainment that are quickly lost to the annals of history. How likely are you to re-enter the 8-bit worlds of Super Mario Bros now that the Call of Duty phenomenon is in full swing and Mass Effect is sat on your shelf, enticing you in with a number of incredibly detailed HD environments to explore?

The introduction of services like XBLA and Nintendo’s Virtual Console breathes new life into past classics and new titles from independent developers. Games that would have been entirely absent from store shelves now enjoy the longevity of other forms of entertainment media, as they sit on virtual store shelves waiting to be discovered by a new generation.

This past Sunday this technology afforded me the opportunity to delve into an old childhood classic, the original Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Advances in technology meant I was no longer required to complete the game in a single sit through, I could now save my progress once I beat that challenging level or reached that unexplored area.

New technology was giving me access to content that I would never have been able to see. The glorious levels that had been painstakingly constructed 28 years ago were being newly discovered all over again. As a five-year-old Goomba bashing child, my skills simply were not up to the challenge of Bowser’s castle or avoiding the countless flying Cheep-Cheep. I would spend countless hours grinding through the same experience only to come unstuck at the same point… Occasionally I would succeed and catch a brief glimpse of the world beyond that cursed castle, only to fall off of a mushroom and find myself thrust back into familiarity.

As I walked into the final room of that final castle this past Sunday, the younger me was watching over my shoulder, sharing a moment that neither of us thought we’d see. I doubt any other game will ever hold as much weight in my life for such a long period of time.

This was one for the team. A chapter of my childhood finally put to bed.

@jordanmarsden

J.J. Abrams is Directing Star Wars Episode VII

Star Wars

Last night saw the Twitterverse explode with news that J.J. Abrams will direct the next episode of the Star Wars saga. Recent reports had claimed J.J. had declined the offer, so yesterday’s revelation that the Spielbergian director of Lost and Super 8 will be taking the reigns of George Lucas’ space opera immediately sent anyone with even a remote interest in the property into a state of jubilation.

J.J. is a great choice to continue the Star Wars legacy, having already demonstrated his science-fiction / fantasy chops with 2009’s Star Trek, a movie that borrowed a number of beats and themes from A New Hope and effectively served as a Paramount funded showreel to shoehorn himself into the thoughts of Episode VII’s producer, Kathleen Kennedy.

Ultimately J.J. Abrams just gets it, and that is probably the most important part of this appointment. There are countless directors that could have brought success to the franchise, but the benefits of having someone that truly loves the series and understands what makes the original three movies great cannot be underestimated. J.J. will bring a level of respect to Episode VII that other directors would have been incapable of delivering.

It will be interesting to see whether J.J. is contracted for one film, or whether Disney has signed him up to oversee the entire trilogy of Disney produced Star Wars films. Having one director for the entire project would be beneficial in terms of consistency, but part of me hopes we’ll get to see another director influence the direction of the Star Wars universe, mostly due to Ben Affleck’s current resurgence as one of the most gifted and consistent directors in Hollywood. Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and 2012’s Argo were all critically acclaimed and lauded by moviegoers; if given the reigns to a project the size and scope of Star Wars, I believe Affleck would deliver something truly special.

Hypotheses aside, there were very few lists that weren’t topped with the name of J.J. Abrams. With a proven director and self-confessed Star Wars fan being backed by a corporation that has a track record of good service to beloved franchises (the Marvel movies, the Muppets, etc.), I have no doubt that Star Wars: Episode VII is in some of the safest hands we could have hoped for.

What if the next Star Wars film turns out to be better than the originals… Surely that can’t happen?

@jordanmarsden

An Advocate: Demolishing The Used Games Market

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

My game of choice for the last couple of months has been The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim… This is a game of epic scope, boasting a map that stretches for countless miles and incorporates a plethora of incredible environments and sites to behold.

Epic, grandiose, operatic adventures that require budgets that seem entirely ridiculous on paper… Games like this are the reason why the supposed plans from gaming giants Sony and Microsoft to restrict the use of pre-owned games on its next generation consoles fills me with a sense of hope.

It seems like not a day goes by without some faint murmurings of another established game developer’s struggle to stay afloat. The THQ affair has been stretching on for months, maybe even years, and recently came to a head with the revelation that they will be selling off their studios and IPs, effectively bringing an end to the company that once provided me with one of my childhood favourites: WWF: No Mercy on the Nintendo 64.

Therefore, taking a few bank notes out of the cash registers at GAME and putting them in the pockets of the people that actually brought the game into existence seems a far more attractive proposition in my eyes. Sure, a few kids will have to save their pocket money for a few extra weeks, but gaming is an expensive hobby and if you can’t afford a Ferrari you buy a Prius (Okay, no one buys a Prius, but you get the idea).

As a result, the gaming community will continue to be treated to these colossal RPG experiences and big budget AAA titles. On the flip-side  some independent developers may also benefit from the pocket money of those less fortunate, and the talented developers that create games like The Walking Dead, Limbo and Fez will see an even greater financial reward. Surely this is only good for the industry?

@jordanmarsden

Returning to Android and the Galaxy Nexus…

Android Jelly Bean

I’m a bit of a nomad when it comes to technology. I ricochet between platforms, seemingly seduced by the exclusive functionality of each one, and champion their cause until the novelty wears off and I go searching for pastures new…

I’ve done it again.

I was an early adopter when it comes to the new generation of smartphones. I had one of the earliest iPhones, and it was a long time before I knew a single person who had joined me on Apple’s pure-white and chrome bandwagon.

I recall demonstrating the functionality of this exciting new toy to my sister right before her upgrade was due. It was a totally revolutionary device – I loved it – but the magic was seemingly lost on her and she insisted that it was ‘too big’. Fast forward 9 months and the iPhone is a mainstream sensation with skyrocketing popularity while she’s burdened with a pink Blackberry Pearl that she absolutely hated. It was incredibly satisfying to revel in my technology foresight.

As a fan of Nottingham Forest fan of football club, rooting for the underdog comes naturally and explains my decision to jump ship to Google’s fledgling Android platform in the height of the iPhone’s popularity. My initial choice of Android handset was an HTC Desire HD, but I quickly became frustrated with HTC’s bloated Sense software and replaced it with Google’s own Nexus S. I loved it and began to champion Android as much as I had championed iOS previously. Then Apple announced the iPhone 4S with Siri and, once again, I found myself charmed by Apple’s magical product unveilings and ability to make established technology and functionality seem revolutionary and magical.

My main issue with the iPhone nowadays is the lack of change that has occurred since it was first released in 2007. Sure, the features have improved and the operating system has matured immeasurably since the early days, but in order for a platform to keep my attention it needs to dramatically morph and grow. Sure, don’t fix what isn’t broken, but I need more than just a glorified app launcher to keep me excited, especially with a device that I am required to use every day. In contrast, Android contiues to grow at an alarming rate, and the UI improvements of the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade combined with the UX improvements of the recently released Jelly Bean update has, at least in my opinion, launched Android to the forefront of mobile Operating Systems.

So here I am with a Galaxy Nexus that I’ve had for just over a month and it is far and away the best phone I have ever owned. Jelly Bean addresses so many of the issues that I had with Android while using Gingerbread on my Nexus S. Jarring transitions when swiping between homescreens have been ironed out, simple improvements like expandable notifications and the automatic re-positioning of apps have been introduced and Matias Duarte’s influence is prevalent throughout, bringing an iOS Level of polish to Android’s user experience. As a result, Android can finally be considered on par with iOS, maybe even surpassing Apple’s operating system in a number of key areas.

Ultimately, my experience has simply cemented the fact that every platform has its merits and weaknesses, and pledging allegiance to the product of any global corporation only serves to limiting your own experience of technology. We should all be nomadic and encourage competition by investing our money in the products we enjoy, especially those that encourage innovation. Let’s not allow any company to become complacent as a result of their fan’s loyalty or the install base of their products.

@jordanmarsden

Summer of Super Heroes: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

What a summer it has been for comic book movies. Kicking off the summer nicely with the epic Marvel adventure that was The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble), followed by the massively underrated The Amazing Spider-Man, and finishing up with the colossal conclusion to the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

For a comic book geek like myself, summer blockbusters don’t get much better than these big-budget adaptations of some of my most beloved franchises. The Avengers was one of those films that Marvel fans had always wished for of but never truly believed it would come to fruition; surely blending all of these characters into one cohesive vision, ensuring none of the characters gets short-changed but still keeping the film concise in a limited 2-and-a-half hour time frame was impossible? Well Joss Whedon has exceeded all expectations and created a compelling summer blockbuster epic that manages to remain kid friendly, while appeasing the pedantic attention to detail of die-hard Marvel fans.

Having seen the movie for a second time this past Thursday, I have concluded that The Avengers is not the masterpiece it has been touted as, but it is a very good movie and up there with Iron Man as the best Marvel movie to date. That being said, the beginning of the movie drags its heels for far too long, and large portions of the second act are held up solely by Robert Downey Jr.’s flawless performance as Tony Stark.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Avengers for the sheer ambition of Joss Whedon’s project and how it makes me feel to see these characters that I have loved for so long, interacting on the silver-screen, but The Dark Knight still takes the crown of ‘Best superhero movie’.

The Amazing Spider-Man seems to have suffered the opposite fate of The Avengers. I’m a big fan of (500) Days of Summer and, upon hearing that Marc Webb had been given the task of rebooting Sam Raimi’s severely tarnished Spider-Man franchise (I’m looking at you Spider-Man 3), I was extremely excited. I’ve lost count of the number of times (500) Days of Summer has graced my blu-ray player, and the prospect of seeing Peter Parker’s high school dramas and relationships portrayed with a similar focus, dynamic and sense of humour to that of Tom Hansen, seemed perfect for the trials and tribulations of an adolescent Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Man received middling reviews from both critics and the movie-going public, and I really can’t see why reception was so muted. The way the movie shamelessly pays homage to Brian Bendis’ ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ series, and the inevitable Uncle Ben scene (the cornerstone of any Spidey origin story) struck me in a way that the emotional beats in Raimi’s trilogy never quite managed. It wasn’t perfect, Rhys Ifans’ Lizard was more miss than hit, and some of the plot points that were introduced and concluded within the last 5 to 10 minutes seemed jarring and unnecessary, but this is undoubtedly the best Spider-Man movie we’ve ever seen and it exceeds on an emotional level that The Avengers never quite matches.

Speaking of ‘emotional beats’ in films, The Dark Knight Rises! This film was a complete onslaught on the senses. TDKR is two-hours-and-fourty-minutes of intense heart-wrenching cinema that you have to experience in theatres to truly appreciate. This is how successful cinema is supposed to make you feel… Completely invested in the characters and the emotional steaks that they face.

Sure, there were flaws and plot holes, but the experience was far too satisfying to justify picking apart the tiniest faults. It even managed to provide some semblance of fan service, something that I don’t expect a director like Nolan to pursue with much intent.

Tom Hardy should be commended for his take on the Bane character. Stepping into the role of Batman’s arch nemesis after Heath Ledger provided one of the most iconic performances ever seen on the silver screen must have been a daunting task, but Tom Hardy delivered emphatically and should be commended for his Sean Connery / Darth Vader inspired take on the Bane character.

Overall, 2013 and Warner Bros’ Man of Steel are going to have to pull off something pretty spectacular to beat 2012’s stellar showing of summer epics.

My Take On Mass Effect…

Mass Effect

The last few weeks have seen me tearing through the Mass Effect trilogy of video games  with a vigour that I haven’t experienced for a title since The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.

This is a game for which story is of paramount importance. To play this trilogy with a lengthy break between each installment would simply be the wrong approach. In order to experience Mass Effect at its very best, you have to digest the story as a cohesive whole, one body of work from beginning to end in much the same way as the Lord of the Rings ‘trilogy’ is really one gargantuan book.

Make no mistake about it, Bioware’s epic science fiction space opera is one of the definitive examples of the video game medium as an art form (and believe me, video games ARE art, despite what Roger Ebert will have you believe), even with its giant space robots and copulating alien creatures.

From your first visit to the flagship human colony of Eden Prime, gazing at the horizon on the Asari home planet of Thessia, or your first encounter with one of your colossal space adversaries ‘The Reapers’, every locale and every moment in is so beautifully constructed and realised that you may even find yourself frustrated at the intangible nature of these worlds.

While most visually stunning video games will be content with their visual accomplishment as their main selling point, Mass Effect delivers on many fronts. The storyline is as incredible as the visual presentation, and is supported by some of the most intriguing back story and lore that I have ever experienced within any medium. There is the ‘Morning War’ that resulted in the entire Quarian species being exiled from their home planet, the Salarian engineered Genophage virus that has rendered the majority of the Krogan species infertile, or ‘The First Contact War’ between Humans and the Turians. These examples are never explored directly within the trilogy, only referenced and discussed; their sole purpose is to create a deeper more involved world for players to immerse themselves in. It feels like the Star Wars encyclopedias; packed with information that is not necessary to enjoy the films or understand the story, but the information is there for the few die-hard fans that want to hurl themselves into the vast pool of content, improve their experience and digest every succulent morsel of story that this universe has to offer.

A great story is nothing without great characters, and Bioware delivers some of the most likable video game characters of the last decade. Each character’s expertise have to be recruited to your team, and this requirement serves to increase the freedom of experience, and to give the player an emotional investment in each individual. The ‘Suicide Mission’ at the end of Mass Effect 2 was one of the most exhilarating and intense experiences I have ever had on a dedicated console, and the relief and sense of accomplishment I felt when I managed to orchestrate the mission flawlessly (and get the ‘No One Left Behind’ achievement in the process) is one of my fondest memories of the series, and would not have been possible without some form of emotional investment in these characters.

Some of my main grievances with the series stem from the transition from the first game to the second game. While the combat system, the vastly superior handling of load times (no more 5 minute elevator rides), and fewer glitches throughout made for a better experience as a whole, the removal of some of the series’ more detailed role-playing and customisation elements seems like an odd choice in a game that focusses so heavily on player choice. Surely being able to choose precisely which armour and attributes your character has serves only to further the immersion and complement the dramatic story decisions you are faced with?

Now that this particular trilogy is concluded, I would love to see a spin-off following a new hero and exploring the intricacies of the First Contact War, playing out as a Star Wars / Independence Day hybrid. I’m sure that this has probably already been covered in one of the many comics or novels that have been released following the massive success of the franchise, but I started my Mass Effect adventure with video games and I would like to be able to further that experience without having to drop the controller and venture away from the medium that introduced me to this world.

I would even go as far as saying that the world of Mass Effect rivals the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings franchises when it comes to successfully creating a detailed and captivating world of its own, and maybe even exceeds it in some areas. If the upcoming feature film doesn’t bomb, then this genuinely could be one of those trilogies / franchises that defines a childhood and becomes ingrained in popular culture. Whether it will is anyone’s guess, but at least you can be sure that you will never see a Krogan on a Vodafone advert (ala, Yoda).

@jordanmarsden