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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Rising Stars

Bub Bob PSP, Rainbow Islands, Snowboard Kids and Pilot Academy.

Strolling through a chilly Green Park last week, on my way to a hotel to take a look at some of Rising Star's 2006 line-up, I was treated to the sight of strange men in complex harnesses hacking away at the branching tendril-like claws of the tops of trees with chainsaws, gradually revealing a murky grey skyline pockmarked at its thinnest by the promise of sun. It seemed like a good, wanky introductory paragraph just waiting to segue into reflecting on the publisher's first twelve months.

Rising Star seemed destined for a warm welcome on these pages. It wanted to "identify the best Japanese titles", localise them and release them in Europe "on or ahead of their native release [dates]". It set out its stall in a February 2005 press release pledging four Harvest Moon games within the calendar year.

However, as appeared the case in Green Park, much is set in opposition whether you have a chainsaw or a line-up of Harvest Moon games or whatever. Those Harvest Moon games haven't materialised yet, for a start, and the company's reinventions of classic titles like Bubble Bobble and Space Invaders haven't done very well at all critically. Swords of Destiny, the other, PS2 title mentioned in RSG's opening literature, appears to be out in Japan but I haven't heard much about it.

But enough of that. On the evidence of what I found in RSG's suite overlooking Green Park's battle to release the sky, 2006 should be an improvement. Harvest Moon DS and Harvest Moon Magical Melody on GameCube, though neither was present, are both due out in spring. Atlus' Snowboard Kids, already out in the US, looks like a decent Mario Kart-on-snowboards style DS affair. Rainbow Islands Revolution could make up for the mistakes of its Bubble Bobble and Space Invading precursors. And on the PSP, the 'Evolution' version of Bubble Bobble looks interesting, if a little raw, while Pilot Academy, an adaptation of a popular Japanese series underway at UK developer Kuju's Sheffield office, looks and feels more like Pilotwings than Flight Simulator.

Vive la Rainbow Islands

The difference in philosophy between Rising Star's PSP and DS remakes of the likes of Bubble Bobble is, according to producer Tony Byus, largely a reaction to the hardware. The 'Evolution' games on PSP are in the hardest position - up against people complaining about rehashes of 19-year-old games and people who complain when remakes of 19-year-old games stray from the original formula. The DS series of 'Revolutions' can reinvent themselves without especially having to; the introduction of new control schemes built around stylus and occasional microphone input, adapted to work across a pair of screens, do a fair job of shaking things up regardless. That's the theory, anyway.

Such is the case with Rainbow Islands Revolution. Here the goal is to negotiate Bub or Bob's bubble-bound flight to the top of a platform-dotted level, split over both screens, by dragging them around platforms with the stylus, drawing rainbows to destroy or encircle enemies and power-ups, and keeping an eye out for air currents that could send the player hurtling into rows of spikes and evil flapping birds.

As you kill enemies and collect power-ups, you feed a meter on the bottom screen that gives you the ability to perform more powerful special rainbow-moves. By holding a shoulder button and drawing a triangle on-screen, you can suck in and destroy enemies, while filling the meter and drawing a five-pointed star - much like RSG's own logo - clears both screens of enemies in one slightly fiddly fell swoop.

Progress is slow to begin, but improves with power-ups and demands vigilance. Air currents often propel you exactly where you don't want to go; you'll have positioned Bub carefully underneath a platform to slow his ascent and then moved the stylus tip off to slash through birds - whose unrestricted movement through platforms is of constant concern - only to realise that Bub's being dragged to his death, leaving you to scramble him clear and weave past whatever else now presents a problem. Without air currents, the game is challenging; with them, it's enough to raise your heart rate considerably.

RSG's Tony Coles tells us that there are as many stages in Revolution as there were in the original game, spread over the original islands too (including the secret one), and that multiplayer modes will factor in. The original game won't actually be included on the cart, we're told, but RSG has alluded to another single-player mode. We'll probably hear about that soon. In any case, the game's due out in March, so there's not long to go until we can see what lies at the end of the Rainbow. Concerns? Nothing so dreadful as that appalling rainbow pun just there, you'll be pleased to hear. Sometimes, when you try to draw a rainbow too close to Bub, the game confuses this for your trying to take control of him, which creates problems when things get too heated, but that's it. I was genuinely downcast when they told me I couldn't take the cartridge away with me.