2021 Gaming Highlights

Well, 2021 was another slightly strange year wasn’t it? I know i’ve been a bit quieter than usual on the creative front so here’s some things that have been keeping me entertained over the last 12 months instead:

The Force is With Respawn

One of the big benefits of Gamepass is having the option to simply jump into titles without having to find out anything about them first. I downloaded Jedi: Fallen Order purely on the back of the brilliance of Titanfall 2 and I wasn’t disappointed. Seeing Respawn i expected something first-person orientated but Fallen order turned out to be a Star Wars-themed Tomb Raider clone – an absolutely inspired mix of license and genre. Fallen Order absolutely nails the mechanics of allowing your character to feel like a deft and able climber without the process feeling artificial and becoming devoid of peril. The inevitable lightsaber dueling feels involved and rewarding, and allows you to create some epic fighting sequencers. As I went in blind, I even managed to be unaware of the reputation it had garnered for having chronic performance problems on older hardware. Playing on a current console, the only bad things I could say is that the boss fights are a bit dull and the “unexpected” ending is entirely predictable, which are far from the worst things you could say against a game.

Return to Persia

Last year was my first time playing through the Mega CD version of Prince of Persia in almost 30 years. Bloody hell! It arguably represents the best AND worst of the platform: essentially a Megadrive game at heart, it benefits from a more atmospheric soundtrack and terribly lip-synced animation. Underneath it’s the same fantastic game as the Apple 2 original, though it might be intolerably frustrating if you’ve not encountered its individual style of game design before.

Die, Die and Die Again

A bit of an unpolished and underappreciated gem, Linear FP slash’em’up Ghost Runner takes the crown of Decemeber 2020’s least-bugged cyber punk game. A frustrating but fulfilling joy I found this a fun challenge that definitely improved my multiplayer Titanfalling skills. Probably best played on a PC/Series/PS5 mind you. You’re going to be reloading a lot.

Here Doggy Doggy

I’m not sure what it was about Shadow Dancer, but in my Speccy owning days it was one game I really, really wanted. As was often the case, however, I couldn’t find it anywhere: the arcade machine couldn’t be found at the local arcades/corner shops/swimming pools and the Spectrum port wasn’t even available in WH Smiths or Boots. Boo.

Having long since tried out the title’s various incarnations via the joys of emulation, last year I put in a decent effort into finishing them (well the ones that matter to me anyway. Sorry Amiga.) Overall, they make for an interesting collection of titles. The original arcade plays so close to its predecessor it almost feels more like an upgrade for Shinobi rather than a true sequel. Mind you, the addition of a canine companion is a master stroke. Being able to temporarily incapacitate enemies that are hidden behind cover makes Shadow Dancer a far less frustrating experience to play than Shinobi. Plus dogs are really cool too.

As for the homeports, The Megadrive version’s differences to the original title are of course well known, and it feels like an important bridge between the original arcade games and the titles produced for Sega’s consoles. The Master System is closer to the original arcade game in layout but is interestingly butchered. Not only is the action stodgy and lumpen but surprisingly the game cuts the hero’s canine companion entirely. My coveted Spectrum port, on the other hand, turns out to be a sure-fire winner. Though unfortunately rendered in the inevitable Spectrum monochrome, it makes up for it by including all of the details from the arcade – bosses, furry friend and bonus stages. Where many Spectrum games simply copped out with a simple ‘Congratulations!’ message at the end, Shadow Dancer even had an animated epilogue. Well done Software Creations!

Virtually Brilliant

I’d always enjoyed Sega’s Virtua Fighter games in a casual sort of a way, but I think this is the first year I really felt like I understood the mechanics from a design angle. From the first time I played the game at a service station in 1994 i’d always hated the series silly moon jumping, but I have to admit that it does lead to much more grounded combat than you’d find in the 2d fighters of the era. I really enjoyed getting Super Model up and running on my Raspberry Pi this year and Virtua fighter 3 was my go to test game. It’s definitely one of my favourite fighters of all time.

More Like A Dragon Than You’d Expected

When Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio announced that the next Yakuza Would switch to turn based combat, I let out an internal groan. Traditional RPGs aren’t my favourite genre, so this seemed like a step in the wrong direction. I should have had more faith: Not only is the new cast of characters analogous but refreshingly different from the normal crew, but the battles had a dynamism about them i really wasn’t expecting. One of my favourite games of the year.

A Real Marvel

An unfortunately-named Namco arcade platformer, this is a game that definitely needs to be experienced in its original arcade form instead of the Megadrive port. Though the Megadrive title is (to be honest) better-balanced as a game, the original’s imaginative use of contemporary scaling affects is a real sight to behold. It’s just a shame its designers felt they had to deploy so many cheap tricks to yank the coins from your pocket.

Space Invaders ’95

On paper you probably wouldn’t expect much from a cheap 2d Space Invaders sequel in 1995, but ‘Attack of the Lunar Loonies’ is a fantastic playful take on the series in the vain of Parodious. The classic gameplay is still intact and backed up by some imaginative stages and boss battles. Well worth a try.

Horace Goes to Cyberspace

If someone’s heard of Aussie developers Beam Software at all, it’s a name they’ll most likely associate with the Horace series on the Spectrum. However, the company went on to survive through the 80s and 90s. Back in the 90s, they produced two classic titles based on cyberpunk properties owned by FASA. Mechwarrior is a Mode 7-based Mech RPG that sees the player taking contracts as a mercenary in order to track down the unit who murdered your family. The game features relatively deep mech customisation and the action is good fun – if a bit simplistic by modern standards. Shadowrun, meanwhile, is an action-based point and click adventure. The combat doesn’t work very well, but the exploration, hacking and (heavily Neuromancer-inspired) story are top notch. Both definitely hold up today.

Shine You Crazy Shining

Shining in the Darkness was one of those intimidating titles that came with its own hint book, and I didn’t get more than a third of the way through sequely-spinoff Shining Force at the time. I’m pleased to have finished both (and Shinging Force’s 16-bit sequel) in 2021. Though Shining Force is a classic of the ‘tactics’ genre, I really enjoyed the dungeon crawling of the largely-unconnected original. I was a little unimpressed with Shining Force 2 mind you.

Microsoft’s Late Double Bill

Both very late entrants, it’s difficult not to be impressed with Microsoft’s ‘triple A’ titles, Halo Infinite and Forza 5. Well actually that’s not true Halo’s multiplayer is a bit disappointing to be honest with you – the netcode seems to be from 2004 and forcing Xbox players to play with PC-based individuals was a colossal mistake – but Forza 5 is an absolute joy and the two make up a significant part of December so they both get in by default

Well that’s a rough chart of my gaming highlights from last year. Let’s see what 2022 brings!