Top Ten Platformers….with a twist


Well, the second edition of our Top Ten with a twist will be going up very soon. We have some great writers working on it and our topic of discussion is very interesting and throwing up some great choices! So for those who haven’t seen the original feature I have combined the two parts into one so you can have a long read of it in preparation of next weeks. Enjoy!

First up, is part one, featuring five games by five writers; Christos Reid, Matt Armstrong, Lauren Wainwright, Sinan Kubba and John Cranston.

Psychonauts – PC, XBOX, PS2

Christos Reid – Freelancer – For The Gamer Good

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When calling into question the various reasons I’d choose Psychonauts as my personal platforming masterpiece, you may think me slightly psychologically unhinged. The prospect of delving into the various aspects of a person’s subconscious, represented aesthetically as a rather neon-filled platforming arena, isn’t so much a visual representation of the Jungian “shadow-subconscious” as a mess filled with bright lights and even prettier bright lights.

But we’re forgetting one vital organ in this body of work – Tim Schafer. Time and time again, the man has proven that storytelling is key in helping the player to overcome the loss of realism they encounter on a second-by-second basis inside the game world. In the case of Psychonauts, we follow Raz, a psychically gifted young individual who sneaks into a summer camp for children with other brain-boosted abilities of varying degrees. Simple enough, but when their tasks involve solving the inner hurt inside each other by slapping a small door on their target’s head and jumping in, it begins to fall down the rabbit hole so very enjoyably.

And it’s down this rabbit-warren of a game that Psychonauts shines – the boss characters can be anything from a suppressed memory of an abusive parent, grown monstrous in size due to the infantile concept of the parent allowed free reign in terms of evolution and growth, to censorship itself. That’s right. Censor representatives are the meat you’ll grind inside the subconscious, attempting to both boot you out of the subconscious you’re so happily jumping around and punching things in, and sealing away the more hideous, real problems that really do need to be dealt with.

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Don’t think of yourself as a player, think of yourself as a therapist. You have the ability to save these people, and if you can’t, well, things are going to go sour pretty quickly. Some are heartbroken, and some are mentally scarred – The Milkman in particular is an interesting example, his subconscious a suburban neighbourhood infested with intelligence agents disguised as residents, a visual representation of the conspiracy theorems and paranoia that have driven him into a single-minded, boring profession, delivering milk that no one ever drinks to an insane asylum.

Your abilities rely largely on Raz’s uncanny evolution above the other camp-fiends – he takes the best aspects from the various X-men cookie-cutter stereotypes around him and turns them into weapons, defences and boosts to his own puny physical abilities. Telekinesis, pyrokinisis and more, all blended into the body of our saviour, “the boy who dreamt.” The only thing you are barred from doing is reading the minds of others, and why? Because you’d know the bad guy in the first half an hour, and hiding him is the very reason you stumble around the repressed urges and scars that comprise the platformer’s landscape.

This is beyond a game that simply requires the collection of coins and saving a princess; this is a masterpiece of Schafer’s, the devotion to the suggestion that, through exploration of the psyche we can finally explain all the military stereotypes, the derogatorily oversexed female icons, and of course, ourselves.

Sonic The Hedgehog – Every blinking platform

Matt “SnakeLinkSonic” ArmstrongMisanthropic Gamer

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Through design, Sonic the Hedgehog has always been served to me as a rowdy, impatient, and delinquent little mascot. It’s a common understanding these days that those of us who grew up with a Sonic preference (as opposed to a certain Italian plumber) have dwindled to nothing more than an abused bunch of fanboys. From what I’ve been able to conclude however, the most responsible catalyst for this abuse was not so much Sonic’s shift to 3D (that was just an after-effect), but the fans/developers ineptitude to recognize the problems he had in a 2D plane to begin with. That’s not really such a bad thing though, considering we were all young at the time and were absolved of trying to pick games apart to the degree that we often tend to now.

One thing of interest though is how the young mascot fares today, within wavering titles of varying enjoyment. Despite problems that have even been recognized by Sega themselves, Sonic still sells. This could easily be seen as the problem I skated around above simply repeating itself. Children and young adults have now been presented with problematically designed 3D games that will continue to move forward without evolving, which is exactly what the 2D games did in the first place.

A lot of people have either simply given up on the franchise or are content enough with it to keep buying into it as a game without serious fault. Spoiled and neglected at the same time, the games will continue to travel down a slippery slope until somebody decides to catch it (or at least attempt to do so). I personally find the whole process fascinating because as a platformer, Sonic has always been an explosive experience; far off kilter from what his once-rival Mario always seemed to offer in a far more well-rounded package.

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A perpetual problem for Sonic has also been centered on developers somehow raising his game’s design to match our hyper-acuity for what we don’t like. Unfortunately, there has been little discipline to fundamentally reestablish his stance in the ‘big picture’ because there are multiple parties contributing to his overexerted legacy:

1 >>> New fans, which are primarily children that are repeating the same mistakes that many of us made when we were young.

2 >>> Old fans that refuse to admit that there may not be a problem with the games.

3 >>> Those of us who grew up and have resorted to calling foul on every single thing that the titles don’t absolutely nail.

4 >>> Developers that continue to pedal the games to groups 1 & 2, while condescendingly (albeit silently) ignoring the third group.

5 >>> The marketing folk that are amusingly distorting his image slightly askew since they know that group #1 are what still put meals on their tables.

6 >>> Did I miss anyone?

I love Sonic because he and his games have baggage in the truest sense. That’s something I can’t get with any other platformer, so I stand behind it finding some sense of solace in design, appearance, and reception…someday…maybe?

~sLs~

Tomb Raider – PS1, PC, Saturn

Lauren Wainwright – Writer – Viera.nu

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In 1996, a game called Tomb Raider was released to an audience of salivating males and impressionable girls. Its lead, a large breasted-British-brunette, not only managed to conquer the hearts of millions with blend of witty charm, and sexy looks but also became the most successful video game media darling of all time.
It’s 2009 now and Joe publics’ excitement for Lara and her dramatic archaeological discoveries has dwindled. She’s now played by more female gamers than ever before and her breasts are getting marginally smaller by the year.

Time warp back to 1996, I was 10 or 11 and life was pretty simple. All I had my video games, family life and an awkward school life to deal with. Suddenly, Lara Croft becomes an important icon in my life, and even as I hit my 23rd birthday, I still get as excited about a new Tomb Raider game as I did back then.

What was so special about Tomb Raider anyway? First of all, I had never really sunk my teeth into a decent action adventure title for quite as many hours as I did with the original TR. I really felt I have full control over Lara, even if she was dubbed as a tank. I spent hours playing around in her newly moved in mansion, the reception filled with giant brown crates to climb over. The glorified swimming pool where I developed severe Aqua Phobia, watching as Lara twitches to death and float lifelessly in the pool.

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Even small touches like holding the R1 button (PlayStation version) when Lara hulks herself up on a surface to pull off a rather pointless, but at the time highly amusing, handstand. Tomb Raider just blew me away!
The main reason Tomb Raider really captured my heart was that I really felt I was there with Lara, exploring these long forgotten tombs. Everything felt so unique and real and it really brought out the collector in me, spending hours swimming in small pools looking for secrets and medipacks.

I jumped when wolves and tigers appeared out of nowhere, when those bloody bats hit me just when I was about to take that jump over the pit, resulting in a frustrating death. Sat mouth wide open and marvelled at the intricate level design, and sheer size of environments.

Oh and remember that MASSIVE T-REX!? That thing was going to eat me and I was having none of it! Running backwards, occasionally jumping, all while pummelling lead from my trusty dual pistols until it finally dropped dead. Now I look back and laugh a little, the T-REX is quite cute now.

It really depresses me that the Tomb Raider machine has lost a lot of its public momentum. I can honestly say, bar 1 or 2 titles, the series has been fantastic so far. The latest game, TR: Underworld is probably one of the most beautifully designed adventure titles I have played in the last 2 years, and even though it reviewed well it still has sold less than the first Tomb Raider.

And you know what? I really miss walking to the edge, jumping back and taking a run up. Those were the days!

Rainbow Islands – Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Amiga, NES, Master System

Sinan Kubba – Writer and Features Editor – You Have Lost! and TheGameReviews

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There may well be 2D platformers better than Rainbow Islands. It lacks the accommodating difficulty curve of Super Mario World, instead opting for an intimidating surge of impossibiltiy in its final quarter. Rather than featuring Bionic Commando’s array of stirring 8-bit beats, it settles for something repulsively bubbly and then sets it to loop. But when it comes to individuality, sheer eccentricity, and clandestine depth, nothing beats Taito’s 1987 arcade classic, even to this day.

What was most distinctive about Rainbow Islands was its base mechanic, namely the player’s ability to shoot rainbows. These were used to defeat enemies and as the platforms for moving up – yes, up – through the game’s levels. This unusual form of both movement and ability gave Rainbow Islands an edge over the wealth of competing platformers that were aligning themselves with the successful Mario template at the time. As the sequel to Bubble Bobble, it’s unsurprising that Rainbow Islands replicated that game’s unusual platforming elements.

And just like its predecessor, Rainbow Islands was nauseatingly cute, right down to the cutesy enemy critters that moved around with the trademark bobbing eyes and shuffling feet. But, as someone who played Bubble Bobble, I knew that Taito didn’t specialize in simplistic, childish platformers. Like Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands betrayed its charming visage with depth, vigour and mystery. In those regards, however, Rainbow Islands made Bubble Bobble look like childsplay. For me, it remains the most intricate, secretive platformer ever made.

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Its bottomless depth lied primarily in its power-ups. On my first play through Rainbow Islands, it felt like it was handing out its items randomly. But every third item that appeared was tied in to the player’s actions. If you killed a certain number of enemies, you’d get a certain item. If you walked a certain number of steps, if you’d jumped a certain number of jumps, if you’d collected a certain number of a certain item – you get the idea. For a game made in 1987, the code within Rainbow Islands must have been disturbingly complicated. To this day there remains speculation on the requirements on some of its vast array of power-ups. And as for the power-ups themselves, they were simply awesome. The game became transformed by the ability to shoot lighting bolts across the screen, having a potent pixie bodyguard, or even being able to fly right to the top.

Then there’s the game’s wealth of secrets, way too many to go into here. If you thought Super Mario 3 had lots of secrets, then you simply haven’t played Rainbow Islands, and only the very skilled were able to unlock the Narnia held within the secret doors of each Rainbow Islands world. But for me, just completing the game was an achievement. The final two worlds represent some of the most challenging gaming to be found. I’ve only ever completed the game once, and I never will again. But I’ll keep on playing Rainbow Islands regardless, because every time I do I can’t help but let out a knowing smile. Maybe the best summary of the game’s eccentricity is its sixth world, entirely an homage to the classic game Arkanoid, and its boss is a giant Tron-esque, computerized head that shoots blocks at you. Like I said, there may be better games than Rainbow Islands, but when it comes to personality it’s right up there with the best.

Super Mario World – SNES

John Cranston – Writer – Johnus Maximus

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I won’t lie to you, in my early gaming days I was a complete Sega (ergo Sonic) fanboy, swearing that anything to do with moustachioed plumbers, mushrooms and princesses was nothing but utter tat. All that changed when I played Super Mario World.

In the halcyon days of the early 90’s, before Britpop and girl power, there used to be an exciting TV show for gamers – Gamesmaster. It was on that show that I remember watching clips of SMW with envy, thinking how it amazing it looked and wondering how many paper rounds would I have to do to get my hands on a Super Nintendo.

In the summer of 94, I was finally able to come to mutual understanding with a playground friend that allowed me use of a SNES for two weeks during the school holidays, and so was finally able to play what I now consider one of the most timelessly exciting and fun platform games in the history of video gaming.

I remember fondly that whimsical introduction music and a few lines of text to set the scene – Mario is in Dinosaur Land and wouldn’t you believe, that crafty rascal Bowser has kidnapped Mario’s favourite female friend. Okay, so no points for originality in the plot (boy meets girl, boy loses girl to giant dinosaur, boy goes on quest to get girl back), but it was the many other aspects of the game that just blew me away.

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The environment art, the sprites and the animation were so beautifully vivid and really brought each stage to life, from the Donut Plains to Chocolate Island. Accompanied by Kōji Kondō’s enchanting soundtrack this was a revelation in 16-bit gaming. The sheer volume of missions, side quests, bosses and unlockable secrets was enough to keep you busy for hours on end (thank the gods for the robust save-game system).

There were Ghost Houses with creepy music and terrifying Boo’s, Switch Palaces to make previously unattainable paths possible, hidden exits which led to Star World and Special World that upon completion altered the game in many strange ways, yellow capes to let Mario fly and glide round the stages, challenging boss castles with plenty of traps and home to the Koopalings, the dastardly Reznor and of course Bowser in his clown-like flying machine.

But let’s get on to the best bit – the unsurpassed enjoyment of riding Mario’s epic mount Yoshi. During the second stage you are greeted with the site of an egg cracking open and a small green dinosaur appearing. Similarly aggrieved by Bowser they form an alliance, allowing Yoshi to eat Mario’s enemies to gain special powers and letting Mario stomp on enemies that would previously have killed him.

To say that this game changed my life is an understatement; it changed my fanboy ways forever and opened my eyes to loving all games, no matter the system. Thanks to Shigeru Miyamoto and the fifteen other people that worked on it, I will cherish its memory always.

And, here’s part two!

Here’s five more games for you to absorb. Writers this week include; Scott Munro, Lewis Denby, Me, Sam Morris and Barry White. Enjoy, you lucky people!

Knytt Stories – PC

Scott Munro – Journalist – Kilted Moose

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From the subterranean treasure collecting of Manic Miner on the humble ZX Spectrum, to the crayon-daubed beauty of the Super Nintendo’s Yoshi’s Island, I’ve spent the past 25 years indulging my passion for platform games.

However, it’s Nicklas Nygren’s magnificent Knytt Stories on PC which holds a special place in my heart.
Nifflas – as he’s better known – has produced several wonderful games, such as Within A Deep Forest, but it’s Knytt Stories which transcends the others with its simple play mechanics, attention to detail and spellbinding atmosphere.

To merely call the game a platformer would be doing Knytt Stories a great disservice, however. While it is true your character performs standard platform moves and learns new abilities as progress is made, Knytt Stories is there to be savoured, not rushed through.

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You see, the real draw of the game is in the remarkable and beautiful atmosphere it evokes. Exploration is part of the fun, and you will want to explore every nook and crannie in the hope of finding a new shiny bauble to enhance your character’s abilities.

Visually, the game is simple, but full of charm. Cheery villages and verdant forests give way to dank passageways and cavernous chambers, while soothing acoustic strings, chilled-out electronic soundscapes and the gentle sound of falling rain wash over the player, bringing to life the stylised visuals.
While the game won’t last long, dozens of new player-created levels are available to download to extend the experience, each one bringing a new take of Nifflas’s vision.

It may not be one of the most recognisable platformers ever made, indeed, many will never have had the joy of experiencing Nifflas’s masterpiece.
However, it’s free to download, so there’s really no excuse not to give it a go. It even manages to eclipse the darling of the indie scene, the mighty Cave Story.

In a console generation where smaller developers are being encouraged to show off their wares via downloadable services, wouldn’t it be nice if either Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo were to take a chance on this wonderful title, thus bringing it to a new, larger market.
We can but dream.

Braid – 360, PC

Lewis Denby – Freelancer – Resolution Magazine (and about a thousand others)

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Braid is wonderful.

It’s wonderful for a whole host of reasons. There’s the much-touted – and baited – depth to its story, which is probably one of the most obvious things about it. It’s a game about a man searching for his lost love. It’s a game about the atomic bomb. It’s a game about the videogame itself. But none of it is ever too mysterious. Leaving the big reveal to the end works wonders. It’s like a modern day fable. You don’t learn the moral until the end, and when you do, it has all the more effect for your wait.

It also ties its story so wonderfully into your actions within the game that I almost want it to go even further. I don’t know how that would be possible, but there are a couple of occasions where the link’s… well, not /breaking/, but straining a little. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s a game about regret, and wanting to change the past and shape the future. What better method through which to tell such a story than evolutionary time-shifting mechanics? That’s a slice of genius in itself.

It’s wonderful because of how utterly beautiful it looks and sounds. Its distinctive, hand-painted style always did strike a real chord with me, and the music flows beautifully with the theme of each individual area. When time first reversed, and the music did too, I think I let out a little squee. It’s that sort of attention to aesthetic detail that lifts Braid up even higher.

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It’s superlative as a platformer because, well, it’s not /really/ a platformer. I mean, it is – in one sense, it’s totally a platformer, riffing entirely off Mario and assorted others and providing a clever spin. But really, instead of just running and jumping, it’s about careful planning, about lateral thinking and environmental observations. It’s about learning to work within the template provided; about understanding your limits and how to play within them. That in itself is a brave move in a genre so commonly associated with carefree gaming.

Honestly, though? The real reason Braid is so wonderful is just the default on. As in, there’s nothing actually wrong with it.

Oh, a couple of the puzzles grate a bit compared to others. And yeah, it’s quite short. Some might say it’s pretentious, but they’d be being the worst people in the world (“pretentious” is an ugly, cowardly word, in its most common usage). But if you really take the time to think about things that are actually /wrong/ with Braid, as opposed to just things you didn’t like about it… well, I’d be really interested to hear what people would come up with. I don’t think I could name one actual problem.

It’s a masterfully crafted game, one that knows exactly what it’s set about to achieve. It understands the genre it’s evolving. It fully comprehends the effect it’s having. Every single element of Braid is in place for a carefully considered reason, one that contributes towards its ultimate messages – be they about love, regret, obsession, evil or the nature of the medium within which this glorious work has been created.

Braid is wonderful. If I didn’t need some sleep, I’d totally be heading off to play it right now.

Super Mario Bros 2 – NES

Daniel Lipscombe – Editor of Hi-Score and Freelancer – This very site

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If anyone said to me, hypothetically of course, that they want me to choose ONE Mario game for them to play it would be a tough choice. In terms of adventure and game mechanics I’d have to side with Mario 3. In terms of breaking barriers and marketing Mario to a wide audience whilst delivering superb platforming, Super Mario World would be the one. So why oh why would I want to say Mario Bros 2 for the NES?

As a child I spent a lot of time playing Mario 2, I’d loved the original side scrolling platformer and Mario was becoming a favourite of mine. However the second game in the series would defy all logic and flip the series on its head. Changing the standard jump on a head to pop the baddie to picking them up and throwing them around. We were given new characters to play with, namely Toad and Princess Toadstool, each of the characters had a graphics overhaul and featured great detail.

It was in these new characters where the game mechanic of jumping on enemies changed, each character had different play styles. Mario was an all rounder, Luigi could jump the highest, Toad was the fastest and Princess would float through the air. Princess was my favourite as a child, mainly because she made the game slightly easier for my little hands. But it wasn’t just the characters that changed the game so to say.

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We still had themed levels but now they had plants to pull up and use as projectiles, 1up blocks from the first Mario Bros reappeared to shake the ground of enemies and all drainpipes were removed in favour of tall vases. Of course you also had the shadow world in which you entered via magic potions smashed on the floor, in this world you would collect your coins (gambled in slot machines at the end of each level) and use mushrooms to gain sections on your energy bar.

All of this of course is drastically different to the first NES game. I think this is why it appeals to me so much, it’s the black sheep of the family, the bastard child that should be standing in the corner but instead stands proud. With a radical art style and bosses that seem to have walked in from the end boss reject society, it’s a wonder anybody likes this iteration of Mario. – But there is a reason.

Charm, you have no choice but to smile coyly at the mention of Super Mario Bros 2. It dared to be different; Nintendo slapped your face and pulled the rug from under you. It’s all so pleasant and lovely, a wonderland of bizarre creatures, a true adventure. So if that person ever asks, to hell with convention, I’d say Super Mario Bros 2.

PixelJunk Eden – PSN/PS3

Sam Morris – Writer – Nidzumi

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In Modern times the Garden of Eden is looked upon either as a metaphor that symbolises God’s love or an idealistic view of Paradise. This game wasn’t brought to you by Criterion though, rather a smaller bunch of developers known as Q-Games. The didn’t conjure up this masterpiece within seven days but they’ve definitely created something that could be likened to the work of… Actually let’s cut the biblical references and hyperbole. Pixeljunk Eden is just a brilliant experience.

One second within a level though and you’ll realise you aren’t playing a game you are having an experience. Mainly one brought about by Baiyon who designed the visuals and especially the audio for Eden.

Well-sustained calming synths play over a calm menu that mimics the in-level experience its self. Don’t get too comfortable though. The soft appeasing sounds are suddenly broken when you enter a level. It starts with kick drum and then soon the initially simplistic audio builds along with the volume, stage and challenge.
That’s kind of a mantra that the whole game follows, evolution.

The levels start off simple, almost barren, until you sprout the first seed. Soon you are climbing up and growing more platforms until you reach your goal. These aren’t just throwaway rectangular platforms however, as from each seed grows an underwater-plant inspired ladder that realistically sways and moves as it reacts to the wind and your movement.

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You would be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed after the first few stages as they strictly stick to these basics. They are simplistic, calming, learning areas, tutorials if you will. They let you feel comfortable with the controls and the swing mechanic without beating you over the head with pop up messages and childishly voiced training exercises. The reason they don’t need to do this because Eden is so instinctive and rewarding for curious minds that it doesn’t have to. Either that or they thought maybe we should actually treat people as an adult playing a platformer for the first time since… well ever.

Once you’ve gotten to grips with the basic premise of collecting pollen to fill seeds, which allow you to collect the seldom seen Spectra, you are ready to evolve. Or at least the game is ready to evolve with you. Moving platforms, transporting holes, switches, wind, gravity and anti-gravity make up just a few of the game changing alterations you’ll encounter. It keeps the game moving and gives each stage it’s own unique premise that you’ll want to rush ahead to experience.

Experience along with evolution must have been the first two words on the white board for this one. The truth is that they’ve nailed both of them to a tee.

You simply won’t play a platformer like Pixeljunk Eden for a long time. One that treats you as an adult, one that let’s you learn in your own time, one that evolves in new and interesting ways. But more importantly, Pixeljunk is one platformer that indulges you with a unique experience built upon instinctive familiarity.

That’s why I love Pixeljunk Eden. And I didn’t say audiovisual once…

Bionic Commando Rearmed – 360, PS3

Barry White – Freelancer – Creeds Blog

(which looks strangely familiar, hehe)

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People complain that this game is too hard. Rubbish. It only appears hard to anyone not lucky enough to have played the original Bionic Commando on the NES back in the day. Now there was a hard game – ruthless, unforgiving and at times totally unintelligible. I owned it and I hated it. Compared to Super Mario Bros., which was about the only other game I had, it was a horrible trial and error mess where the slightest mistake would see you dead and your progress reset. It frustrated me for months. The game would kill you without hesitation and it acted like it didn’t ever want to see you to succeed. Rearmed has no truck with than attitude, managing to be one hundred percent less horrible than its predecessor.

As a nostalgia piece, it’s impeccably put together. Your magic extend-o-arm is still your weapon of choice, able to take out enemies and grab power ups as well as fling you about levels. The wonderfully muddled communiques are still present, as are the tactical map progression and (still) slightly pointless ground engagements mid-transit. The new tweaks like puzzle-based hacking slot seamlessly in, giving the whole package a much needed modern twist. It’s still big and bold and unashamedly silly mind, and it’s an excellent blueprint to follow for any modern adaptation of an older game – the important bits are preserved and polish, the rest ripped out and replaced with buckets of HD sheen and a thumping modern soundtrack. It was a joy to play and I still rave about it to anyone who gives me a chance.

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But I love it for the co-op. In one fantastic weekend the girlfriend and I sat down and absolutely blitzed through BC:R with callous disregard for anything else that might have been going on. I’d always struggled to find games that we could play together, and had great success with Team Fortress 2, but when it came to games that we could both enjoy while sitting on the couch together there were precious few options at the time. Rearmed was the perfect solution: once you got past the characterful idiosyncracies (no jump button, for a start, which inexplicably infuriates some people), it was extremely easy to pick up and play. And it really let you work co-operatively too, with certain enemies and bosses much easier to take on when you worked together. It could be tremendously funny too, with portraits of boss enemies clutching lollipops and recurring awkward exchanges between an enemy commander and his subordinate, all smothered under a massive chunk of cheesy. Oh, and the final boss is a resurrected Hitler in a fighter jet whose head explodes gruesomely when you finish him. Absolutely lovely.

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