Mental Health and Other Demons

So. Mental health. It’s a conversation that comes up quite regularly in video gaming circles, and one that I’ve avoided joining in until the past few days. I used to meet the comments I’d read on Twitter with a healthy dose of skepticism. I was half convinced that a good portion of the people claiming mental health were using it as a badge of honour, perhaps even pretending to be “depressed” for the attention that inevitably follows. Well, I’ve changed my stance significantly on this matter, and whilst I don’t doubt there are those who exaggerate their condition, I recognise that a lot of my own life’s issues have been cause by depression and anxiety issues, and so I felt compelled to write about it here, to add my thoughts to the ongoing discussion.

This being a gaming blog, my main focus in these thoughts is on my friends in the gaming community of Twitter. It surprised me a week or so ago, when I casually mentioned my ongoing struggles with anxiety, how many people joined the conversation, and others like it. It seems that a large number of my peers suffer from their own demons, including anxiety, depression, or “worse” conditions. I’m not about to betray their privacy by discussing individual cases here, so I thought I’d write down some thoughts as to why these conditions seem to be so widespread in gamers – if we assume they’re not as widespread in our society at large, which they might well be.

The obvious answer to me is that video games provide an escape. That cliched t-shirt, which reads “I don’t play games because I have no life, I play because I want many” (or something like that), sums up the appeal of gaming to many of its fans – the ability to absorb yourself in a world that is not the real one. For many people this is not simply for entertainments sake, but also for the therapeutic nature of removing yourself from a place for a while, perhaps leaving your baggage behind. Relieving stress by shooting enemy soldiers, or by focussing your mind on steering a car at 200mph around a track, or even a good puzzle game that exercises your brain. Enjoying a second life in a massive Role Playing Game such as World of Warcraft or… Second Life, where you can project any personality you see fit, being someone else for a while. The film Reign Over Me explores this idea with some success, following a character who lost his wife and child and copes by withdrawing into Shadow of the Colossus.

Video games can soothe depression, or associated feelings of worthlessness, by creating a sense of purpose in a virtual life. Overcoming the odds, defeating evil, saving the world are all noble pursuits that may be out of reach to us mortals, but gaming gives us the tools to achieve.

Besides anything else, video games are a hobby. Hobbies have long been used to pass the time, and ours is no different. Simply occupying yourself with a pursuit that you find fun can have tremendously positive effects on the human mind. Simply staving off boredom can have powerful, positive effects. A side effect of hobbies is the ability to share them with others of like mind. Particularly in this day of online social media, those of us who may struggle with the idea of going out to a hobby group have an opportunity to communicate and to be part of something – another important facet of recovery, or at least of coping.

I’ve struggled through my life as a fan of video games as something of an outsider. Even those friends who play games do so as a casual time waster on a Sunday evening, and don’t understand my desire to experience as many games as possible, and certainly can’t grasp the concept that I will eventually buy every console of a period so I can experience every game that I want (such as right now, when my PlayStation 4 is my main console of this generation, the one for which I buy most games, yet I have also a Switch and an Xbox One to enjoy those games only available on those systems. It’s no different to the fact that I used to have a little hot hatch that lived in our garage, for a weekly spin into the countryside, whilst keeping a less-thirsty daily runner on the drive for daily use. It’s no different than the fact I have several guitars, each tuned differently depending on which band I’m using it with. It’s no different to having a biro for writing and a drawing pen for drawing. Yet just about everyone I know perceives it differently, and as such in a weird way video games have isolated me further from the world, which kind of detracts from a point I made above…

The point is, I suppose, that mental health is a complex issue. We sufferers can have a hard enough time understanding what is happening in our minds, without the stigma attached that makes people shut their feelings away instead of at least trying to deal with them. It’s great that people have a platform, and feel comfortable to discuss these things in the modern day, but from my own experience I can say there’s a long way to go. My own doctor once laughed when I said I thought I was suffering depression. She said I didn’t look depressed. I left, wondering what on earth I was to do, when even the person who is there to care doesn’t. I tried to speak to my own mum about it, but she didn’t understand. It made her uncomfortable, and she wouldn’t acknowledge what I was saying.

Until we can have an open, frank discussion on this matter, I don’t think we’ll find the answers. I’ve struggled for nearly four decades, mostly alone, and I’ve seen friends and family suffer too, whilst hearing derisive comments under the breath of those who should care. I do believe it’s fear rather than disgust that fuels the negative reactions, a similar fear that makes people afraid of people who have a different skin colour, or some from a different culture, or who simply dress differently. A fear rooted in a small mind then, but unfortunately a common one.

In closing, I just want to ask one thing of you, reader. When someone mentions a mental health issue, don’t assume they’re making it up, as I once was prone to do. Don’t reject them out of fear or lack of understanding of the issues they face. You honestly don’t need to understand. Just be there. Be a friend, listen to them, and you may just be doing something incredibly kind – letting them talk about their feelings without ridicule. That could be the best thing you ever do for someone.

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RetroRam’s Game of the Week 19th November 2017 – Ori and the Blind Forest (Xbox One)

Well, Game of Last Week I suppose; I’m a day late after all!

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I recently picked up Ori and the Blind Forest in Xbox’s Black Friday sale, for the princely sum of €10,00. This being the price for Gold members, which I wasn’t, it was a pleasant coincidence that a month of Gold was also on sale for only €1. €11,00 total for this beautiful game is quite a bargain.

Previously I owned this on Steam, and was impressed for the short time I spent with it – I wasn’t much in the mood for its slower pace, and then I replaced my Mac and haven’t bothered to install Windows this time around. I bought my Xbox One two and a half weeks ago, and this was the first exclusive game I wanted after Forza. Waiting for pay day to pay the €19,99 asking price, the sale was an even sweeter surprise.

The game starts off very slow, with a semi-interactive introduction sequence showing your land of plenty facing unexpected destruction, leaving you alone and hungry. A forest spirit calls out to you, and so begins your adventure.

Sitting proudly in the “Metroidvania” genre of adventure games, you jump, climb, and shoot your way through the different areas, upgrading your abilities to unlock progress. Enemies change and toughen up as you move on, and are then rebalanced as you upgrade your firepower. You don’t shoot directly, being a creature of the forest, but instead utilise the power of a sprite who flies along by your side, and shoots fireballs on command.

An upgrade tree follows three paths, all of which hold useful upgrades to your abilities. Killing enemies is the main way to earn experience points to spend, and you will also find bonus XP around the levels.

The art direction is where the game truly shines, with beautiful use of light and colour and a well-animated world to explore.

Sadly by the time you read this the sale will be over, but even at the full asking price this game provides many hours of beautiful exploratory fun, a moving story, and a compelling reason to own an Xbox One in the first place.

Review: Super Mario Odyssey (Switch)

Mario’s first game on Nintendo’s Switch. An “open-world” adventure, harking back to Super Mario 64’s multiple goals per level. TRIGGER WARNING: This is not a whitewash. I give my honest opinions, no-one has paid me to overlook the game’s shortcomings, and nor do I feel the fanboi well up inside me when I think bad things about it. If you feel you might be offended by having your worldview crushed, look away.

It’s been a while now, three weeks, since Odyssey came out, and I’ve played a good amount of it in this time. Like everyone else, I was quite excited to play this new Mario game. I’ve enjoyed just about every entry in the series, with the recent Super Mario 3D World and 3D Land being highlights of the guy’s exemplary career, and the two Galaxy games before them being my favourites of the whole series.

Unfortunately I was left a little unsatisfied, and I’ll try to explain why – with some bullet points to make it easier for you.

  • “Forced” motion controls. OK, so you can beat the game with a minimum of Joycon wiggles, but some important moves are only possible by various shakes of the controller. This is almost forgivable unless you are using the system in its ever-popular handheld mode, when you will have to shake the whole console, losing sight of the screen in the process.
  • The large levels are quite empty. This feeling stuck with me throughout the first few levels, the first half of the game really. Right up to New Donk City there just wasn’t much going on in each stage, with few enemies and little challenge to block progression. Any environment puzzles were easy to overcome. I felt the same way about Breath of the Wild (except that game’s enemies often presented substantial challenge, particularly in the early stages of the game.
  • There is little to no challenge. Of course we’ve all heard by now that there is no Game Over screen in the game. This isn’t a problem, any Game Over screen in the last 20 years simply means continuing from your last checkpoint as if you have infinite lives anyway. This isn’t the problem. What is a problem is that it’s very seldom you even die. There are so few obstacles to progression that you will rarely struggle through a level. With lack of challenge comes lack of reward. The whole thing starts to feel like a slog; I often felt like I had to get through a stage, through the game, without really feeling compelled to do so.
  • The bosses are recycled over and over. This is inexcusable, given the wealth of boss characters in Mario’s universe. The annoying Rabbid wannabes, the Broodals, repeatedly return to slow down progress with the same attack patterns and requiring the same strategy for defeat. Some stage bosses show a greater sense of effort in their design, and some great humour is found in them. How about taking over an ice boss’s hand and flying it straight at his nose to teach him a lesson? Awesome. But these moments are scattered far and wide, with too many Broodal fights in between the fun times.
  • Costumes are pointless. Coins come in two flavours – standard gold coins, and special purple coins. The purple ones are unique to each stage and all must be found to 100% the game. Shops exist in each world that allow you to buy costumes and decorations for your space ship – some are purchase with gold, some with purple coins. The costumes mostly add nothing to the game, besides each world having a door that can only be opened when you don that world’s special costume.
  • The game is too short. This of course depends on how you define “the game” but the main story can be done in a few short, easy hours. Which leads into the next point:
  • The game is too long. Once you defeat Bowser and free the idiot Princess Peach just before their marriage is consummated, you unlock the postgame. A total of 500 moons are now available for you to find. Moons are the items you receive for completing stages, completing stages, or sometimes just by stumbling upon them by accident – equivalent to Power Stars in other Mario games. 500 of them. Less the ones you found to progress to bowser, you’ll still have around 250-300 left to get, for no reason. There are new zones to be unlocked with enough Moons, including Dark Side which takes you to Pink Floyd’s home on the other side of the moon for a boss rush. That’s right, you can fight the fucking Broodals AGAIN.

So, unless I think of some more and come back to edit this post, these are the main points that make this a less-than-perfect game for me. I started with the negatives because I felt there needed to be some balance for the blind praise heaped on the game (game of the year? fuck off), however there are of course things I enjoyed, and to bring balance to this review, here’s another list of the good things!

  • The platforming is, for the most point very enjoyable. Jumping around to shouts of “wahoo!” is hardly going to be dull in and of itself, is it!? Mario controls very smoothly, as you’d expect. Ignoring the motion controls mentioned about, Mario remains the pinnacle of 3D game controls.
  • Nintendo’s inventiveness shines at times. Besides the boring first half, the game has plenty of fun little nods and winks at the past. Some pipes take you into the wall (a la The Legend of Zelda A Link Between Worlds), reverting Mario to his Super Mario Bros self and tasking you with some fun 2D platforming sections. These are not as inventive or challenging as similar sections in Super Mario Galaxy (such is the theme here) but are a fun look back in a modern setting. Later in the game you may find yourself in a familiar zone from a game that this one tries, and fails, to follow, with graphical flourishes to add to the nostalgia. The use of Cappy as part of the platforming feels extraneous, but his use in possessing creatures is a great central mechanic to this game. It’s just a shame that the possession of a T-Rex is so short-lived and ultimately pointless.
  • Presentation is, by and large, great. Of course the game looks great. Nintendo know how to create a beautiful cartoon world, regardless of the hardware. The music, too, is wonderful, adding to the atmosphere of fun that permeates each area.

That’s about it. My thoughts on Super Mario Odyssey. It doesn’t follow the “script” and for that you’ll just have to forgive me. What about you? What are your thoughts on this game? What are your thoughts on my thoughts?

Thanks for reading.

RetroRam’s Game of the Week 12th November 2017 – Wolfenstein: The New Order

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I realise that my blog is a little underused, and I’d like to rectify that – initially by starting a regular feature. Weekly in fact. Every Sunday henceforth, I intend to highlight a game from my collection that has been taking my time in the past few days.

Today the accolade of first weekly game goes to Wolfenstein: The New Order on PlayStation 4. I’ve tried to play it before, but got stuck on one particular section only a couple of levels in. This week I started again, needing a break from Forza 6 (almost game of the week, but I decided on this one), and made it to the same place. This time I remembered the advice I’d been given mere minutes before, and used a cutting tool to make a path through the wire fences, avoiding the gun turrets that had made progress previously impossible.

The game has a certain feel of the last generation, being also available on PS3, but overall presentation is very good. The graphics and textures sit well with other early PS4 titles, and the game runs smoothly. More importantly, the gameplay is wonderful. Weapons have a real weight behind them, the sound effects and deft use of controller rumble aiding the effect. The Nazis are presented as perfectly deserving of your hatred, as you’d expect, whilst BJ Blazkowicz is in his way a likeable avatar.

Set in an alternative post-war 1960, in which the Nazis have won and spread their totalitarian empire across the world, you escape after 14 years in an asylum and (with the help of a small resistance group) must fight to remove them from power. Besides variations on the standard FPS armoury, you will encounter various “futuristic” weapons, including laser guns and the like, which come in handy against the large robot monsters that come for you.

It’s a lot of fun to lay waste to the nasty Germans, sometimes employing stealth to sneak up and despatch them from behind.

I haven’t been quiet about my distaste for Call of Duty WWII on Twitter, and Wolfenstein is WWII done right. Historically-inaccurate, politically-incorrect, it pulls no punches and makes no apologies for what it is – tremendous, tight enjoyment.

On a side note, its expansion, Old Blood, is also very good….

Online Gaming: Well, My History Of It

Today’s cool kids are growing up seeing online multiplayer as the main part of many a game, with single player campaigns all-too-often feeling a bit tacked-on, serving more as a brief introduction to the controls and lore of the game than anything that will give you value for your money by itself.

Back in the day things were different. For a start there was no online gaming, nor indeed any online… at least not for Joe Bloggs at home. Any game you bought was based around a single player taking on the challenge, with perhaps space for a second player to join in and provide support. There were games that were better enjoyed with multiple players, such as Street Fighter 2 and Super Bomberman, which required you to go for dinner at a mate’s house after school and sit next to them. Fancy that.

This article will detail my own story with relation to online gaming, beginning with Sega’s Dreamcast and Phantasy Star Online.

So, Dreamcast. It came with a modem built in! Around 2000 I had my own disposable income, and paid British Telecom to install a phone line in my bedroom. Signing up to AOL with a CD that had been posted through my door, I had my first experience of the internet since searching Yahoo! for images of naked ladies that took 5 minutes to download. 56kbps, high speed internet. Yum.

Around the same time a friend had a Dreamcast and sold it to me for not much money, along with a selection of games. Phantasy Star Online was one such game, and I loved it! Plugging my Dreamcast into my phone socket, I’d spend hours roaming about the land, joining parties to take down the beasties. Well, that career was short-lived for one reason you may not believe – way back in the days before ADSL, you connected to the internet by using your modem to dial a phone number, which connected you to your Internet Service Provider’s servers. The problem? BT charged for these numbers by the minute. Not by the Megabyte, not even by the month, but by the minute! Needless to say my first post-PSO phone bill left me housebound with no beer money for the following month!

It was a while later that I recognised that I could change ISP, and found one that charged a flat monthly fee, giving you a freephone number to dial, avoiding further fees. Besides getting deeper into PSO, I had also noticed an online mode in one of my favourite games of recent times – Half Life. Slow-paced Phantasy Star Online had not struggled with my 56kbps connection, so I had no idea what I was about to experience! Let’s just say it wasn’t enjoyable. I would die before I even knew I’d spawned, watching something equivalent to a 1 frame per second movie of my attacker approaching and wasting me. So I had to restrict my online gaming to Yahoo! games and the like.

So, it was a couple of years before I was able to upgrade to “broadband” ADSL, with similarly flat-rate access, but at a considerably improved speed. My first connection was rated at 512kbps, though I received about half of that. Still, it was around 5 times as fast as I’d previously been used to, and thoroughly changed my online world. I had a USB modem, which meant my computer was required to access the internet, which meant to use my newly-purchased Xbox online, I had to connect it via Ethernet to my computer and forward ports and all that nonsense.

It was worth it though. This was my first real attempts to enjoy online gaming, and I’d spend evenings playing Links 2004 (golf) with my mate Mike over the internet, a relaxing was to while away the dark winter. Rainbow Six 3’s terror hunt mode was another we enjoyed.

With Xbox 360’s release, and the sudden need to pay for online gaming, I instead put money into my PC, building a pretty decent system in around 2007 – with 8 dual Nvidia 9800GTX cards, it even played Crysis! It was around this time that I began World of Warcraft, and its expansion The Burning Crusade. Oh my. I won’t go on about it, but I played it a lot over the next few years, spending hundreds of hours on the main storyline from the angle of several of the game’s races. I was never into PvP, preferring instead to explore the land and its lore alone, sometimes entering dungeons with real life friends. After my brief experiences being screeched at, threatened with rape, and all the usual things we’re suppose to endure in the online realm, I didn’t have time for it. I continued playing, and replaying, WoW up until I played through the Mists of Pandaria expansion, by which time I was bored and wondering what else I could have done with the money I had paid for server access.

In late 2008 something big happened, that changed my life. Literally. And not necessarily for the better. Left 4 Dead!

I’d been hyped for the game for some time, from magazine articles in which the four playable characters looked considerably different to their final versions. Knowing that I would play as one of four zombie survivors, and that upon my death I could be a zombie… well, that was enough to get me on board from day one. My Steam library at the time was more or less empty. I’d only opened the account because I was forced to by Half-Life 2, which I’d been bought for my birthday by friends in 2004 – incidentally that game served to force me onto, and put me off of, Steam for years, because it took an hour to install the game, then several hours for it to “confirm” my copy was not pirated, when I had the disc! But I digress. Left 4 Dead was MASSIVE in my life for about three years. I joined my first clan, The Art Of Warfare, accompanying them for their weekly sessions. It was tremendous fun, and I learned a lesson about the difference between playing with randoms or people you know. It wasn’t long before skills were sharpened, and knowledge of the game’s levels and mechanics were committed to memory.

Over the course of my first year or so, I “rose through the ranks” and ultimately came to lead the team. This was a good time, coordinating practices with my colleagues, using custom training maps and little contests for everyone to try and keep things fun. We also had a competitive team on the side, and we won a European ladder at one point, but no one wanted to make the effort to take it to the next level so ultimately it fell apart – especially when I rubbed the grand masters of TAW the wrong way somehow and was unceremoniously ejected….

Which led to those of us banned from the old group forming our own, which we called Digital Delinquents, stylised as >>Đ². We expanded our games list to include Trackmania (two of us spent a particularly large amount of time in this game, dominating the leaderboards of the servers we visited – one time we came joint first with the exact same time!) and a couple of others, which I forget now. Actually, we also ran a Minecraft server, which was a lot of fun for a time, set to Creative mode most of the time, we would build for weeks on end before switching to survival and seeing how we did against the world, hanging out in our massive fortress. We started in earnest, but it didn’t last very long before it folded. I still wear my D2 tags on Steam though, just because. Well, just because I haven’t logged into Steam for years….

Since then I’ve not really partaken of online gaming, it just doesn’t interest me any more. I played a little GTA Online on PS3 when it was in its infancy, but every time I was making my way to my goal it seemed everyone else was already there, and so I became frustrated. A few races on Blur and Gran Turismo with my cousin and his son, and that’s about it. I maintain my PlayStation Plus subscription, partly for the included games ever month, but also because I keep thinking I’ll try GTA Online again, and Gran Turismo Sport is coming up. Otherwise I do quite enjoy Dirt 4’s daily/weekly contests, coming in the bottom 2% most of the time.

You may find it strange that, whilst I maintain an online persona (and a couple more you don’t know about), online gaming doesn’t particularly interest me. What about you? Do you play online? How often? Is it your main source of gaming entertainment, or do you prefer to go single player, or prefer “couch multi player”? Let me know in the comments below, or look me up on Twitter for a chat.

What Does Nintendo Mean To Me?

Nintendo Nintendo Nintendo.

Everybody loves Nintendo. Except the hardcore elite who naturally point to the technical specifications as proof that the games couldn’t possibly be as good as those on PlayBox One Pro, which itself has twenty three trillion gigaflops of VRAM.

Well, I’m not one of them. I too love Nintendo. Their games (generally) bring a joyful experience, tight controls, fantastic music. Yet they’re not perfect. Here’s a bit of my history with the Big-N.

It all began at the tail end of the 1980s. Game & Watch had taken over the playground, with various LCD games featuring Donkey Kong, Zelda (with Princess Link) and even Super Mario serving to introduce us British kids to the world of Nintendo. Far superior in every way to the Systema games we’d all been accustomed to (F1 being a favourite of mine), we were easily hooked. Wealthier friends had several of the games, while I was satisfied with Gold Cliff – one of the few games of the time that I haven’t ever felt like selling.

Despite what or American cousins will tell you, the video game market was not in danger of disappearing, and Nintendo’s NES was certainly not having a particularly big effect on it. At home, micro computers ruled the roost, with most homes having some sort of Spectrum or Commodore computer (we had a Commodore 16 and later an Amiga 500+). The games cost from £1.99 to about £9.99, and very few people were interested in giving Nintendo several times that amount for their cartridges. I knew three people who owned a NES. Two friends from school and one family friend, and these were where I got my first taste of the Nintendo home consoles.

Visiting said family friend was a once or twice a year affair. They lived in Bovingdon, a few miles out of Watford, and not so far from our home. Their eldest child was a couple of years younger than me, but we were the only boys – both families had two daughters – so while our sisters did their thing we’d sit in his room with his NES, playing such things as Battletoads, Super Mario Bros 3 and Zelda 2: Link’s Adventure. It was fun. It was a few years later, in 1992, that I started my Secondary education and met my new best friend, Ben. He too had a NES and we’d spend hours playing Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers and WWF Wrestlemania after school.

It was around this time my mum bought me a Gameboy with that mostly unknown pack in title, Tetris. I played that for so many hours that even now, I can sometimes see Tetris blocks falling in front of my eyes. I still revisit it regularly. Later on I received Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins as a Christmas present from my stepfather and had my full introduction to the character – playing the entire game at my leisure, instead of odd bits of it with that friend in Bovingdon. That was it for my Gameboy back then, I couldn’t afford other games. I remember some years later, when I had a paper round and a regular income (£17.50 a week!!) I had a SNES and Gameboy Player, so I bought Earthworm Jim in Gameboy. I finished it over a weekend and returned it, using the refund towards Yoshi’s Island!

Ah the SNES. This was a present in around 1993 for me, with Super Mario All Stars packed in. I played that set of games over and over for days, and it remains my favourite collection to this day. Again, being poorer than some, I couldn’t buy many games. I had my paper round money coming to me weekly, but much of that we spent on CDs, but prior to my paper round I had £1 a week pocket money from my mum – I remember saving for 13 weeks to buy a Boglin! Over the several years I owned that SNES I bought two more games – Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Last, from Beatties and SRS in Watford respectively. Again, both games sit comfortably in my most favourite games of all time, even to this day. Otherwise the only way to experience more games was to swap with friends, or go to their house for dinner after school and play. And so I have fond memories of several great games – Stunt Race FX, Donkey Kong Contry (which my mate Patrick lent to me with the awesome Go Ape music CD which introduced me to Radiohead and Pop Will Eat Itself), Super Mario Kart, Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Super Metroid, Secret of Mana and Street Fighter II Turbo amongst others. I even had some bad swaps – such as contender for worst game ever Ultraman.

I sold my SNES in 1998. I’d discovered two things far more enjoyable than video games – girls and music. I was at the time spending several hours of every day getting good at guitar, and so N64 passed me by completely, apart from a few games played with friends. Snowboard Kids, Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye stand out as happy memories. One hit kills, 3 vs1, and I’d still win 😉

When GameCube and Gameboy Advance came around I had a job, a (slight) disposable income, and a need for escape from life’s responsibilities, and son had more and more games. The for me is the golden era. Super Mario Sunshine (which you will be surprised to hear was mocked at the time), The Wind Waker (which you will be surprised to hear was mocked at the time), Mario Kart Double Dash (which you will be surprised to hear was mocked at the time) are amongst my favourites in their respective series. The controller, unlike that if the N64, was wonderfully designed and comfortable to use, and the analogue shoulder buttons added a new dimension to the few titles that used them.

Then came the Wii… well, it took a while to find one, but once I did a new love affair began. I had an Xbox 360 already, which took up a lot of my gaming time, but with such titles as Super Mario Galaxy, No More Heroes and Kirby’s Epic Yarn, there was much to love. Later came Skyward Sword, perhaps my favourite (3D) Zelda title, and the one and only special edition game I’ve ever purchased – in part due to the enclosed orchestral music CD, but mostly because I didn’t have a Motion Plus Remote as required for the game. These days my Wii has a soft mod and a hard drive with all my games in it, which is nice.

Around the same time of course, the DS was a thing. And what a thing! So many fantastic games on here, and whilst the touch screen and dual screens were at first awkward, it soon came into its own as a great handheld system. New Super Mario Bros and Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney and some very good adaptations of Tony Hawks Pro Skater were amongst the best the system offered, but there were other games that used the system’s strengths to create new experiences entirely: Hotel Dusk presents itself as a visual novel in a literal way, and Wario Ware Inc’s entry on DS uses the touch screen to great effect.

By the time 3DS launched my disposable income had shrunk somewhat due to life responsibilities, and I admit I was unimpressed by its first incarnation, trading it in for credit just before I would have been granted “ambassador” status. Ho hum. Some years later I invested in a New 3DS, and have ended up with quite a library for it. None of the games particularly stand out to me this time, but the opera,, experience is fun.

Wii U was a harder sell for me. It largely passed me by until one day when I was browsing 3DS games and moved sideways to the Wii U shelves, seeing a number of interesting titles. Super Mario World 3D (I’d very much enjoyed its 3DS incarnation, Mario Kart 8, and others helped part me with some more money, and again it’s turned out to be a great system with some real fun games. About a week after I bought it, Switch was announced. I waited six months before getting one, and whilst it is well made, and the games I have are fun, it’s still early so many of the games aren’t here yet. Let’s see how it fairs in the next couple of years as the favourite series come to visit. I suspect it will be fun in the end, if limited.

So, that’s a brief look at my history with Nintendo. I’ve owned all of their systems at one time or another, though in the case of NES and N64 I bought them long after their time. People often complain, as the are with Switch now, that Nintendo consoles have too few games, or use the lower sales figures compared to the competition to prove that the quality is lacking. Sure, I have far fewer games in my collection for Nintendo consoles than any others, but the experience of any of these is far purer than on the others.

Nintendo has a magic that I can quite explain. Whilst the company itself is guided unarguably by the mighty yen, it still manages to infect their games with something compelling. It will take a lot to stop me buying their key franchise, and I look forward to their next Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Kirby games as much as the next person.

SNES Mini – Alternatives For When You Can’t Get One Because They Didn’t Make Enough

Following on from my earlier article concerning my thoughts about the SNES Mini hype train, here I discuss your options if you are unable to get hold of a SNES mini without selling your organs, or your body. Don’t worry, it’s easy as pie to enjoy the best games of the 16-bit golden age.

1. Emulation

SNES emulation has been close to perfected for years. 20 years ago ZSNES and SNES9x were all but finished, and are available on a wide range of devices, including smartphones and tablets, PSP, PS Vita, 3DS and Wii. I personally use OpenEmu on my Mac, which includes amongst others emulators for SNES, NES, Gameboy, Gameboy Advance, most Sega systems, and PlayStation.

Coupled with a decent controller this provides a close to authentic experience. I use a Wii U Pokken Tournament controller, which has a SNES-like button layout and feel. It’s also very comfortable, well-made and inexpensive. I’d recommend avoiding the cheap USB SNES-styled controllers on eBay as they don’t respond as well as I’d like. These days you can even use a DualShock 4, Xbox One controller, Wii Remote and attached controllers on your PC – so even if you can’t get a SNES Mini, if you can get one of the controllers (yeah right) you’ll be able to use it with the Wii Remote for the closest thing to the original.

Emulators have the benefit of various filters, which can adjust the video output according to your taste – smoothing sprites, changing colours, or adding scanlines (which, contrary to popular belief, were not much of a thing on PAL TVs of old). Otherwise, you can output your games in crisp, HD loveliness, depending on your chosen emulation system.

An interesting development in SNES emulation is Higan, which started life as bSNES, but now includes emulation for other consoles. It aims to create 100% accurate emulation of the chips of the console, rather than taking shortcuts as other emulators do. Well worth a look if your PC is up to the task.

2. Raspberry Pi

Yeah, mention SNES Mini on Twitter and you’ll likely receive at least one response from one clever parrot along the lines of “Just build a Raspberry Pi”.

For a start, there is no just build a Raspberry Pi. It takes certain skills that you may not possess, or you simply may not want to. It’s like telling someone who is desperate for a poo, away from a comfortable place to take care of it, “just build a toilet”. Besides the building of the computer, you need some knowledge to install the software, and then you need a case. You can buy kits online to help you achieve the goal more easily, but it’s not just building the Raspberry Pi.

Still, should you build, or buy, just such a machine, you will find that you are able to emulate all the systems that a Windows or Mac PC can, on a system the size of your smartphone. Which is kind of neat. So, if you’re are so inclined, consider this a worthy option.

3. Clone Console with Original Cartridges

There are many clone consoles available that play original SNES cartridges. They can be hit and miss with the more complex cartridges that had additional hardware built in (such as Starwing/Starfox‘s Super FX Chip), but can make up for this by supporting multiple systems in one machine, such as Hyperkin’s Retron series of consoles. The Retrons use emulation anyway, downloading the ROM from your cartridge. This brings the benefit of emulators, such as video filters, to your games whilst using the cartridges.

There are also handheld versions available if that’s your thing (Supaboy), and of course there are dozens of clone consoles out there that are less “mainstream” than these options.

My personal opinion of these is that they have no place. If I want to use the cartridges, I’ll use a real SNES. If I want to emulate, I’ll do that. The middle ground is a strange place that I see no real point to.

4. Original Console and Cartridges

Of course, you can always play the games on a real SNES. I mean… obviously.

There are two problems with this option. One is the price – a SNES console is not cheap today, and is unlikely to be in particularly good condition. Many of them have yellowed with age (which can be rectified, if you really want to), and the controllers are likely to be wearing out. You may get lucky though, but I’m still looking for a worthy replacement to the one I sold in 1998. The second problem is the way these games work, or more importantly don’t work (so well) with modern HD televisions. The technology in the 1990s was quite different, with Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) TVs being the de facto thing on which we consumed our visual entertainment. These used RF inputs (coaxial), or SCART (in Europe) and S-Video (in USA), none of which are designed to provide the crisp, colourful picture we’re used to today. Until very recently, HD TVs were sold with these connections available, though increasingly the connectors will be unavailable.

There are means to convert these inputs to HDMI, though this ads (a lot of) cost to things, and so are not necessarily practical for the average user. They also add a brief moment of latency to the video which isn’t game-breaking for 1990s gaming, but may bug people who notice it.

Then there’s the cost of the games. Many of the more popular games are quite affordable still, though prices are rising as more hipsters people join us in our hobby. Some other games, though, have ridiculous asking prices. Sometimes even games that aren’t rare can sell for hundreds of monetary unit, such is the world we live in.

Still, there’s a certain charm to having the original hardware, swapping cartridges to play your different games, and there’s also something to be said about a nice collection on your shelf, which you don’t get from emulators.

To make the experience perfect, consider investing in an older CRT TV. Perhaps someone you know has one in their loft for some reason that they won’t miss, or perhaps you’ll find one for cheap (or free) on local marketplaces.

5. Virtual Console

An interesting compromise is the Virtual Console service. Available on Wii, Wii U and 3DS, and soon coming to Switch, Nintendo’s Virtual Console provides an official emulation source. Limited to the games they decide to make available, and priced high in my opinion, it is, nonetheless, a route to enjoying some old classics from their vast library without legal concerns. A few of the games (Earthbound) are not easy to get otherwise, and you gain some benefits of PC emulation – games save their current state when you exit them, and you will be able to enjoy the higher resolution of your chosen system (HDMI included on Wii U and Switch, plus the ability to enjoy games off-screen while someone else watched TV).

There are faults with the Wii U rendering of some games, more noticeable on NES, where the palette is very dark and washed out. SNES games generally fair better though, and that’s what we’re talking about today. 3DS is my favourite option for SNES Virtual Console, emulating the games beautifully and with a worthwhile selection.

Conclusion – my choice

Absolutely my favourite option is emulation. Ignoring the politics of such things, it enables access to your games where you want, when you want. You can carry the entire SNES library (and many many more) on a Micro SD card. The image displayed is crisp and beautiful, maximising the wonder of what software developers achieved with such low power (compared to today).

As for where I prefer to play these emulators, I’m going to go with my Wii. My Mac does it better, in 2K resolution, but my Mac is on a desk in my office, whereas my Wii is connected to the TV in the living room. Cheap component cables allow it to output at 480p on my 42″ TV, which looks nice enough, and produces a somewhat softer image that is great for the older games.

Easily soft-modded these days, it can then run games for every single Nintendo console from NES to Wii, including the handhelds up to Gameboy Advance. The only system that struggles is N64, which runs with a very choppy framerate on the Wii. Go one step further, and do the same thing to your Wii U if you like, though it’s slightly more involved and I haven’t bothered.

A Wii can be purchased for half (or less) the cost of a SNES today. The Wii Remote controller works perfectly as a NES or Gameboy controller, and the Pro Controller plugs in an functions nicely for SNES and other games. A Wii U fight pad that plugs into the Wii Remote covers your Gamecube needs (apart from analogue shoulder buttons). A USB hard drive is inexpensive, and can hold all the games you need. Just make sure when shopping that you buy an early Wii – one with Gamecube controller and memory card ports. Later ones without can be used, but the early ones make it easier, and allow you to use proper Gamecube controllers.

The questionable legality affects many peoples’ decision on whether this is the route to take. That’s your responsibility. Stick to downloading ROMs for games you own physically and I see no reason for anyone to be upset. Gamecube and Wii games can be installed to the hard drive directly from the discs in your collection. I’ve spent thousands of monies on Nintendo products through the years. Several games have been purchased multiple times, therefore I don’t see any harm me having those games in a “grey” format.


So, what do you think? How do you enjoy your SNES (and other classic) games? What are your thoughts on emulation and the downloading of ROMs? Hit me with a comment below, or look me up on Twitter to chat!