About 10 years ago, a wonderful genre of video games began to die. Seemingly crushed by the twin forks of Call of Duty and Battlefield, the rich palette of the strategy FPS genre has now seemingly atrophied down to a single game: Arma 3. In memoriam, we were offered Rainbow Six Vegas and its sequel, and then almost nothing. An entire genre, which was once rich and vibrant and thought-provoking and important, has slipped away, leaving a singular behemoth to carry the torch, albeit with an emphasis on the great outdoors. Gone were games that celebrated tactical thought and restraint in combat. Gone were games that promoted planning (with dedicated planning interfaces). Gone were games with a dedicated button for shouting. Gone were games where the stakes were so high, the Rambo run-and-gun method was akin to button-mashing in Streetfighter.
Koei's Musou series is 14 years old. That's older than GTA 3 and Call of Duty (even if you're so inclined to include Medal of Honor: Allied Assault), so at the very least it's a mark of endurance if not some fundamental, unique quality. Starting with a curiously educational setting in ancient China, the series has diversified by shifting its pseudo-historical locales to Japan and Europe. It's even spread into totally separate IP universes, adding manga/anime greats such as Gundam, Fist of the North Star and One Piece. As Nintendo joins in the melee for the upcoming Hyrule Warriors, it looks like the mega-series is about to enter a golden era of wider popular acceptance. What makes the Musou template so great that Nintendo was happy to offer up one its most cherished IPs to the altar of highly iterative en-masse brawling?
It's raining. You're racing through a capital city at 120 miles per hour. You're in a Maserati 250F, a car that made legends of Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio (who in a single race, broke the Nurburgring lap record 10 times with one). You're powersliding like a bastard, and it's brilliant. You can only be playing Project Gotham Racing 4, a game that sings with its adroit refinement and howls with its exhaust notes. PGR2 may have made the legend and 3 took it into a new generation, but PGR4 cemented its reputation forever.
Trace a line back from today's open-world 3D games and you run through the likes of Grand Theft Auto 3 and Morrowind, via Ultima Underworld, to end up at Elite. However, there's one stop-off that's too commonly ignored.
Nearly all retro-heads of a certain age have an enduring romance with the 1980s arcade. We reminisce about the rows of machines blaring out for attention and credits, their screens illuminating a dark cave that smelt of hot electronics, cigarettes and spilt drinks. I increasingly think it sticks in the mind precisely because it had a smell. These days, we have only the scent of a freshly opened game, rather than places of magical discovery and competition. My deepest feelings of arcade romance are for the mid-80s carnival of JAMMA, where the Japanese megabrands such as Sega, Capcom and Konami cemented their growth into industry legends. It really was a splendid time, where new arcade games seemingly arrived on a weekly basis.
Back in the spring of 1994, there were plenty of astonishing things to catch your eye at the Trocadero. Galaxian3 showed the glorious peak of Laserdisc games. There was a Virtua Racing multiplayer cab that had cockpit cameras showing the players' faces. There was the sprawling 8-player Daytona USA (which would sit in place until the Trocadero's bitter end), a silky smooth racer complete with a 3D Sonic carved into a cliff face. But all this was nothing compared to what sat at the top of the escalator: a full-size Mazda Eunos Roadster in front of a giant screen, which was showing the most astonishing video game graphics I had ever seen. As an excitable man shouted the game's name, a red car flung itself around a coastal metropolis rendered in fully texture-mapped 3D graphics, all at a beautifully smooth frame-rate. I stood agape, knowing I was witnessing the future.
One of the first PC games I got addicted to was Solitaire on Windows 3.0. My actual first was Ultima 5, but my love affair with that open-world RPG hasn't lasted as long as my enduring bond with Klondike Solitaire. I'd boot Windows just to play it, and sit for hours in search of a win and those marvellous cascading piles of triumph. Since then, it's been a constant companion - Solitaire is the first game I install on any new phone, and the only game that stays on it until I get an upgrade. Other games have come and gone, but I've been playing Solitaire more or less constantly for 20 years. It's a game more intimately integrated into my life than any other.
How often have you gone back to a game you thought you'd exhausted, only to find it full of prospects and potential? In a fallow period for vast open-world RPGs, a lazy visit to see my Skyrim house opened more than furniture filled with hard-earned goodies. Nostalgia took hold and prompted a look at my open quests list, and from there I was picking up the threads of a game that had laid dormant for a good 18 months.
The fine achievements in car dynamics and mastering of car control to win a million races aren't the only source of fun in Gran Turismo 6 - anyone can undertake a side quest to get the perfect picture in photo mode.
Bangai-O was once destined to be a generational cast-off. It was a quirky Dreamcast hit and an obscure N64 import around the same time, so it straddled two generations pretty easily. 2008's Bangai-O Spirits made sure Treasure's demented freeform puzzle-shooter would live through another. This was fabulous news when the game was announced, but even better news was that Bangai-O Spirits wasn't seeding its continuation by adding more content or updating the graphics. It did it by blowing its entire concept wide open, removing all traditional restrictions and shipping the game with a fabulous construction kit.
One of the simplest rewards in GTA 5 is the clicking of a free-wheeling BMX as you glide down a giant hill. It may have (once upon a time) cost me actual health to get to the top of it, but mounting the summit and beginning that leisurely cruise to the bottom is a blissful thing.
I remember it well: it was the spring of 1988 and the fair was in town. The arcades were singing with sounds from JAMMA's finest era - Double Dragon's coin drop noise punctuated the chatter of Operation Wolf's plastic Uzi. Magical Sound Shower blares from a stand-up OutRun, sitting right next to a dog-eared Hang-On cabinet that no-one ever plays. But there was something new - a brand-new sit-down with a jet fighter control stick and a throttle lever. It was 50p a credit, but it was glorious. It was After Burner.
It's often assumed that all of Tecmo Koei's Musou titles are largely the same game. You're some powerful warrior, you run around chopping at large groups of cannon fodder, then beat up some tougher opponents with names over their head. When you've duffed up enough of them, you've won. You do this over and over until the game has nothing left to give, and that's that. This is, perhaps, the most reductively shallow and inaccurate appraisal in video games history. It's akin to saying racing games are just pressing two buttons and moving left and right to be faster than everyone else, or that shoot 'em-ups are nothing but holding down the fire button and avoiding bullets.
"8" seems like such a small number when you consider that this new Dynasty Warriors game is really something like the 35th title in its lineage. Tecmo Koei's massive battle series is an unsung hero of the middle tier, proving that a fanbase can sustain a vibrant bloodline throughout an entire console generation without having to compromise its central values and peculiarities.
I was once told a great urban myth about Sega's greatest visionary, Yu Suzuki, and one of his greatest games, Virtua Fighter. When Tomonobu Itagaki was designing the first Dead or Alive (which ran on Sega's Model 2 hardware), he got Yu Suzuki drunk in an attempt to extract the secrets that made Virtua Fighter so glorious. The legend goes that the AM2 boss spilled the beans, but only half of them. Suzuki kept the most important info to himself and Dead or Alive's fighting system was doomed to an eternal fourth-tier status below Sega and Namco's 3D fighters, despite adhering to the three-button control mandate and a rock/paper/scissors structure that seemed to be Virtua Fighter's key to excellence.
The R-Type series needs little introduction. From its stunning arcade debut in 1987, R-Type captured the hearts and minds of a generation by combining novel mechanics with a distinctive Giger-inspired biomechanical aesthetic. A grand sense of spectacle was matched by a challenge equally imposing, and although reliant on the learn-by-rote methodology that underpinned all shmups of the day, Irem's craftsmanship created a horizontal journey with a unique imagination. 26 years later, R-Type's Force and charge shot still feels like a genius twist on the genre's norms.
Always a halo product for the PlayStation brand, Gran Turismo's reputation as the top-tier console racer has remained the same since its debut. Developer Polyphony Digital's not shy of reminding you of its status either, subtitling Gran Turismo 5 as the "real driving simulator." It wasn't quite received as such at launch, but Gran Turismo 5 maintained its godlike aura by virtue of its peerless handling simulation and that staggeringly vast 1,083-strong car catalogue.
The promise was grand and manifold: a real-world locale, a vehicle list filled with exotica, thousands of kilometres of open road and a thriving population of actual humans to race against. For the most part, Test Drive Unlimited delivered on its promises, but Eden Studio's greatest game set a milestone that few racing titles even dare to attempt: allowing virtual driving to be an open-ended, self-determined and leisurely pursuit.