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Josh Sawyer on building Pillars of Eternity

Game designer Josh Sawyer is best known for his work on Icewind Dale II, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. In 2015 he became project director and design lead on Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity.

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Pillars of Eternity Artwork

Game designer Josh Sawyer is best known for his work on Icewind Dale II, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas. In 2015 he became project director and design lead on Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity.

The game was inspired — and deliberately intended to evoke — Bioware’s classic Infinity Engine RPGs such as Icewind Dale and Baldurs Gate. The game’s fundraising was a huge success with over $4m raised from 77,000 Kickstarter backers.

In his talk at GDC Europe, Sawyer spoke about the challenges of creating a modern RPG that shares its DNA with much-loved classics from the past.

“We did not think making such a game would be possible until DoubleFine Adventure launched on Kickstarter,” says Sawyer. “Then we decide we definitely has to make a game like this. It took a while to convince our owners that this was a good idea but they relented and we decided we were were going to make an Infinity Engine style game. We wanted it be a combination of elements from Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.”

Nostalgia

Sawyer attributes the success Pillars of Eternity’s Kickstarter to many factors but one of the most important was nostalgia.

“It’s about passion and a longing for a time when we remember playing the games that we love and how great they made us feel,” he says. “And it’s about the (gameplay) challenge presented by a lot of older games. You can find games made today that are still challenging but it’s not as common.”

The danger for Obsidian was that by following such a fondly remembered design lineage it would prove difficult to please everyone. In trying to evoke the past it’s possible to hit the wrong target, design for the wrong audience, or create a game for a niche audience that no longer exists.

“If you over-design to appeal to one tiny niche, you’ll never broaden your appeal at all. The reason why you get a lot of people interested in retro revival games in the first place is that they’re very passionate about the games themselves,” says Sawyer. “And if it doesn’t really have the feel or doesn’t evoke the nostalgia the players are looking for, then we’ve failed.”

The most important thing to capture — above any game mechanic — is the soul of that made the original games so special, explains Sawyer.

“Soul is a very ephemeral thing. When people remember the things that they love, their memory can be selective. It can gloss over a lot and most of what they remember is their emotional attachment to it. So when you modify things you have to be very careful about what you’re modifying. You could tweak one tiny thing that turns out to be a key component that made that something very cool.”

Pillars of Eternity

Art and design

It was decided early on that the right visual approach for Pillars of Eternity was to use 2D hand-touched environments but to make them come to life with 3D lighting.

“A lot of the art that we looked at for inspiration was from the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” says Sawyer. “This meant using less saturated palettes and relatively realistic weapons.”

There was never any debate about retaining the classic isometric look and feel of the Infinity Engine classics, but subtle tweaks were made to allow for a broader environmental canvas.

“For Pillars of Eternity’s isometric style we wanted dynamic lighting, and of course we’d raised the resolution quite a bit,” says Sawyer. “We used a lower angle for how we rendered exteriors. Most players don’t even notice because it’s only a 7.5 degree difference but what it did was allow us to emphasise a lot of vertical structures.”

GUI

Replicating the classic user interface of the original Infinity Engine games also presented a challenge. Obsidian decided to retain the skeuomorphic look – that mimics real world textures such as wood, metal or stone – for Pillars of Eternity and lay the GUI across the bottom of the screen in one block.

“We wanted to use a layout that borrowed from Icewind Dale II and Planescape: Torment,” says Sawyer.

There was no negative feedback from reviews regarding the GUI but some Kickstarter backers hated it. Eventually — after much online debate — fans modded the layout and reintroduced the classic U-shaped format used in Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II.

Another element that was missed by fans were the elaborate and detailed sketches of in-game items.

“We wanted to mimic cursors and icon style but we didn’t have time for item sketches,” says Sawyer. “Item sketches were in all the Infinity Engine games and a lot of people really enjoyed them — and they missed them.”

Item sketches were eventually introduced for Soulbound items the The White March expansion to positive response.

Pillars of Eternity

Game mechanics

The game mechanics for Pillar’s of Eternity were designed to be AD&D-like but with fewer arbitrary limitations. The team wanted to allow the player a large degree of freedom to express themselves in the game.

“We didn’t limit what races you could be, or classes. We didn’t limit who could use certain types of gear,” says Sawyer. “And overall we didn’t rely on hidden heart-pounders that would take players a long time to learn.“

The pace of combat was also something Sawyer was keen to increase, certainly in the game’s early stages.

“This was done to address problems we had in earlier Infinity Engine games, where combat could be very slow. Each round was on a six second timer and each character performed one action, so at the beginning of the game combat moved very, very slowly. It could be very boring.”

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The flip side to speeding up combat was that once a player had five or six party members the on-screen action became hard to follow.

“It was exacerbated by the fact we had visual effects that were very over-powering,” Sawyer admits. “So people almost all wound up defaulting to a slower pace after a few hours of gameplay. That was not really the way we wanted it to go. We over corrected in that regard.”

The combat model was revised and is something that will continue to be developed future, says Sawyer.

“We’re looking at adding back in layers of combat complexity. Once you’ve been playing the game for three or four hours you can add in a new layer of complexity. If you’ve been playing the game for twenty hours, you can add in more layers of complexity. That’s why it’s interesting making RPGs; you have a lot of hours over which to introduce new concepts.”

Voice acting

Another cause for concern upon the game’s release was voice acting. Players were confused by its inconsistent use across characters and scenes, the result of a slender audio budget.

“We allocated our resources and spread them out across a lot of characters in a strange way. People played the game and it seemed very random,” Sawyer says. “Random lines would come in, a conversation would start and people would say three lines and the they wouldn’t talk any more. And so it seemed like a bug. But then, in another conversation, they would talk through the whole thing.”

“That was us looking at the resources and dicing them up way too far apart. The lesson we learned was when you have limited resources, don’t spread them too thin.”

Pillars of Eternity

World building

In keeping with the objective of evoking past Infinity Engine classics a traditional fantasy setting was used for Pillars of Eternity.

“Our world is a pretty traditional, pretty standard fantasy setting but we wanted to change a few elements. So, we didn’t have halflings, or gnomes, or orcs. But we had elves and dwarves — a lot of people want to play as those,” says Sawyer. “We decided on a Eurocentric style and setting. A lot of fantasy settings are in this vaguely 12th-15th century, English, French, German kind of place. We wanted to set it in the 16th century with a renaissance zeitgeist so we could capture the feel of a world in change.”

Player feedback

In comparison to other Infinity Engine Games the tone of Pillars of Eternity was rather serious and straight-faced. Much of the feedback from players after release was for the introduction of more silly and funny elements to help lighten the mood.

“Players or reviewers had mixed to favourable reactions about the world and the lore. A lot of people wished there had been more experimental or crazy things, but that’s not really what we set out to do. And a lot of players missed the light-hearted and fun moments that were in the Baldurs Gate games.”

Sawyer concluded by returning to the main challenge of creating Pillars of Eternity, capturing the essence of the game’s inspiration and then dealing with the feedback from a passionate and committed fan base.

“Not every choice that you make when you are developing these games is going to actually get at that soul,” he says. “You have a bunch of ingredients that are going into this mix and if you’re not tasting the sauce once in a while, you don’t really know how it’s coming together.”

And no matter how brutal the feedback can be, Sawyer recommends listening to your fan base.

“Listen to as many of your players as you can,” he advises. “Don’t ignore the vocal minority and also don’t ignore the larger player-base. They are all people who are interested in playing the game.”

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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Hob, Pokémon Shield and Baba is You.

Features

2K teaches EA a lesson in Nintendo Switch game pricing

The upcoming ports of Bioshock, Borderlands, and Burnout Paradise show how two big publishers are getting Nintendo Switch pricing right and wrong.

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Bioshock and Burnout Paradise - Nintendo Switch
Thumbsticks / 2K / EA

The upcoming ports of Bioshock, Borderlands and Burnout Paradise show how two big publishers are getting Nintendo Switch pricing right and wrong.

The dark art of Nintendo Switch pricing has long been a source of frustration for players, with games often costing more than their PS4 and Xbox One equivalents.

There are a few – not wholly convincing – reasons for this. Firstly, if a game is released physically and digitally, Nintendo dictates that the digital version of the game has to have price parity with the physical release. Due to the apparent high production costs of Switch game cards, this can lead to games costing more than disc-based alternatives at retail, and therefore bumping up the digital price on the Nintendo eShop price. Tequila Works’ Rime was a notable early example, and although the issue is not as prevalent as it once was, it still happens.

Secondly, publishers set their own prices. And while Switch owners are seeming happy to pay these premiums to get portable versions of games, publishers are equally happy to charge them. One example is Capcom’s iterative release of the first three Devil May Cry games, rather than the full HD trilogy seen on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

All this is to say that the Switch is generally not as competitive on game pricing as other platforms.

This is particularly true for third-party releases from big publishers, and a crop of upcoming remasters shows how 2K and Electronic Arts are taking decidedly different approaches

At the end of the month, 2K is bringing three new collections to Switch. The Borderlands Legendary Collection features the first two games in the series and the Pre-Sequel. The Bioshock Collection includes all three games and a wealth of DLC. The XCOM 2 Collection features the base game, the War of the Chosen expansion, and four DLC packs. Each release is priced at $49.99 in the US and £39.99 in the UK.

Your appetite may vary when it comes to last-gen Switch ports, but there’s no arguing about the generous amount of content in each of these collections. Using the Bioshock pack as an example, the Switch release compares favourably with the PS4 version’s launch price of $59.99.

Meanwhile, EA and Stellar Entertainment are putting the finishing touches to the Switch release of Burnout Paradise, one of the best racing games of the last fifteen years and a game I’ve wanted on Switch for years.

The game’s Xbox One and PS4 remaster launched in 2018 at $39.99/£29.99, and is currently less than $20. When the game arrives on Switch in June it will be priced at an eye-watering $49.99/£44.99.

We don’t know the development cost of these remasters – and all publishers are entitled to make a profit – but when you compare with their PS4 and Xbox One counterparts, it’s hard to shake the feeling that EA is only interested chasing a quick buck with Burnout Paradise. In contrast, 2K is releasing three value-packed compilations at a friendlier – and I would say more appropriate – price, given the vintage of the games in question.

For players of my age, revisiting last-gen experiences on Switch is a peculiar pleasure. It’s my favourite console generation, and I’d love nothing more than to build up a library of old gems that I can play on the go. If a publisher can position a port or remaster as an impulse purchase, I’ll happily hit the buy button for a trip down memory lane. And that’s what 2K is doing with Bioshock, Borderlands and XCOM.

EA’s history with the Nintendo Switch is hardly a history at all. It’s just a handful of second-tier FIFA games and some EA originals. But, in the company’s last earnings call, it confirmed that “multiple titles” are coming to the Switch in 2020. It’s a welcome change of direction, and even if it only results of ports of Peggle and the Mass Effect trilogy, I’ll probably be happy.

Ultimately, EA needs to make better decisions on pricing if it wants these games to be a success on Nintendo Switch. It certainly wouldn’t do the perenially unpopular publisher any harm, winning back some goodwill from the game-buying public.

Perhaps, when this is all done, EA may just learn a thing or two from 2K’s upcoming remasters. Maybe. Stranger things have happened.


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Is Gears Tactics worth playing?

Gears Tactics is a new turn-based tactics game from Splash Damage and The Coalition.

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Gears Tactics
The Coalition

Gears Tactics is a new turn-based tactics game from Splash Damage and The Coalition. Like Halo Wars before it, the game attempts to transfer a franchise known for its visceral action into a whole new genre.

You can’t read about Gears Tactics and avoid the spectre of XCOM. Comparisons between the game and the beloved Firaxis franchise are numerous, but also favourable. Critics across the board are mostly positive about the game, which wears its influences proudly.

Gears’ trademark cover-based combat appears to be better suited to turn-based tactical gameplay than Halo‘s FPS mechanics are to real-time strategy. The game’s Executions system is also widely praised for bringing something new to the tactical party.

In summary, Gears Tactics is a welcome and worthy addition to a consistently strong series. Here’s our pick of the game’s reviews.

Gears Tactics review round-up

PC Gamer

“While it first looks an awful lot like XCOM, which has inspired a wave of strategy games this decade, Gears Tactics plays differently. Every turn in XCOM is about the tension of how few moves you can make, the dramatic risk of missing a single shot and scrambling for a backup plan. Gears is more freeform, giving each of the four soldiers you take into a mission three actions per turn; any combination of moving, shooting, and special abilities you want. Every time one of your soldiers performs an execution move on a near-death enemy, the rest of the squad gets an extra action point for the turn, the game design equivalent of a platoon shouting Hooah!”

83/100 – Review by Wes Fenlon

Eurogamer

“There are moments in which Tactics does manage to be the successful marriage between Gears of War and XCOM that you might have hoped for, but as a whole package, I’m not convinced it’s ever quite as good as that. I applaud it for experimenting with some brand new ideas, as well as providing another solid entry point into the turn-based strategy genre for those who’ve not been convinced in the past. But with the likes of Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 having paved the way before this, Tactics had some big shoes to fill and not even Sid Redburn (who looks to be a size 16, at least) could quite manage it for me.”

No scored – Review by Chris Bratt

Polygon

“The fundamentals of Gears Tactics work, but Gears 5 did much more than just work. It pushed the formula forward. Moving and shooting and cutting up Locusts is a good time, even in a turn-based system, but that’s not enough to sustain an entire game. Every other element of the game — from the class system to the perks, to the way that missions and UI elements are designed — needs more refinement and care.

This is a near miss, but as anyone who has ever played a turn-based game will tell you, a near miss can be all the enemy needs to take you out. This is an interesting, but hardly essential, addition to the Gears family. ”

No scored – Review by Charlie Hall

GameSpot

“Nearly every single mechanic and system from the core series appears in a turn-based form, and most of them fit remarkably well. Downing enemies (then executing them) becomes vital, as it awards your squaddies extra actions. Rushing in with the Lancer chainsaw is an aggressive way to clear a path through an enemy, but only if you can reach them without taking overwatch fire. Not only do the mechanics and stylistic flourishes of the Gears series make sense in a turn-based environment, but you can build strategies around them.”

8/10 – Review by Mike Epstein

IGN

“No matter where you move or what you do, Gears Tactics really does look spectacular – nearly up to par with Gears 5 itself. Character models are fantastically detailed and the ruined, mostly urban environments of the planet Sera are elaborate. Animations are top-notch as well; coming from XCOM 2, I was impressed to never see anybody appearing to fire in the wrong direction or hover in the air for a moment before moving. Virtually everything looks and sounds like you’d expect a flashy Gears game to, including gory Lancer chainsaw kills that leave both chunks of Locust and blood splatter on the environment. Occasional cinematic camera shots zoom in on a wall with textures that don’t bear scrutiny up close, but other than that Gears Tactics is polished to a thrilling shine.”

8/10 – Review by Dan Stapleton

Destructoid

“There’s a smart experience here, one that feels both authentically Gears and tactics. That’s the best possible outcome. Gears Tactics is a great Gears game and a great tactics game. This 90% doesn’t miss.”

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9/10 – Review by Brett Makedonski

USGamer

“I’ve played a number of games that have come for XCOM‘s throne over the years, from Phoenix Point to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics. To me, Gears Tactics is the best of the bunch so far. It’s a fantastic-looking title that not only gives the tactics genre a slightly different focus, but stays true to its origins in a way that Halo Wars, for all its strengths, does not.”

4/5 Review by Mike Williams

RockPaperShotgun

“You’re always massively outnumbered by your enemies, with the locust horde coming at you by the dozen, and there’s an increasingly punishing array of enemy classes mixed in as the game goes on, from scampering bomb-creatures that move closer when you miss a shot at them, to anvil-faced priests who make the troops around them nearly invulnerable. But you never feel bullied, for lack of a better word. I’ve come across a few missions that stopped me in my tracks repeatedly, but I never got to the point of swearing at my screen, or throwing my hands up in appeal to an invisible referee.”

RPS Bestest Bests Review by Nate Crowley

Kotaku

“The mission loop is fine at first but is a little tedious by the end. Each chapter consists of a half dozen or so missions and side missions, though there’s little variety to them. About halfway through the game, I stopped encountering new types of missions and new areas. By the end, you’ve done a lot of the same type of missions. I started to feel burned out on guarding supply drops or blowing up Locust stockpiles. Thankfully, the combat is so good that this wasn’t a dealbreaker.”

No scored – Review by Zack Zwiezen


Title: Gears Tactics
Developer: Splash Damage, The Coalition
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Release date: April 28, 2020 (PC), TBC (Xbox One)
Platform:  PC, Xbox One


Visit our new releases section for more on this week’s new video games.

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We ranked every fictional video game in The Simpsons

We ranked every fictional video game featured in The Simpsons. Why? Because lockdown does funny things. It changes you.

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fictional video games in The Simpsons
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We ranked every fictional video game featured in The Simpsons. Why? Because lockdown does funny things. It changes you.

From the over-the-top 80s action of McBain movies to the legitimately brilliant Planet of the Apes – the musical, not the planet – The Simpsons has parodied a wide array of 20th/21st century pop culture. But as you can (hopefully) tell by the name and content of the site, we’re here to talk games.

There has been a lot of video game-related stuff on the show over the years, from parodies to completely fictional games – check out some great Nintendo references here – but what if these fictional games were real? What if we had access to a certain slipper-wearing Professor from the year 3000’s fabled ‘What If’ machine?

We’ve scoured 31 years of history to bring you a ranking of every fictional game in The Simpsons.

Disclaimer: Only games that have clear footage and a name have been included. That sadly means no Nuke Canada, no Assassins Creed Summer of Love, or the retro game Bart plays with Grandpa. Zii Sports and Dance Dance Evolution weren’t included either as they are too close to their real-world counterparts.

So join us as we rank the various fictional games in The Simpsons as if they were real.

40. Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster

A fun retro curiosity, but considering this deposited some cash into Billy Graham’s heavenly bank account, let’s just move on.

39. Word Jammers

Take my word for it, this game is definitely not your jam.

38. Astro Blast

It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to work out that this game is a ripoff of Asteroids.

37. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld

More like Dull-as-Dishwaterworld and a rip-off to boot. A game to avoid.

36. Bowling 2000

Having 2000 in the title doesn’t do much for this mediocre Game Boy bowling game.

35. Frosty The Hitman

The only hit you’ll get with this game is the road.

34. Mixed Martian Arts

This game doesn’t have anything positive to say about it to warrant the “mixed Martian bag” joke I so desperately wanted to say.

33. Grand Theft Walrus

I am the egg man. They are the egg men. I am the Grand Theft Walrus (an insignificant game not worth remembering). Amazing how many of these titles are built purely around a pun, isn’t it?

32. Low-Blow Boxing

As entertaining as giving yourself a low blow. Maybe less so.

31. Fruit Shoot

A simplistic light gun game that’s not worth one of your five a day.

30. Rocky III vs Clara Peller

Why does this game exist? The only adequate answer I can come up with is so that I could write the following sentence: Clara Peller found her beef… and it’s with Sylvester Stallone.

29. Baby Blast

Nintendo tried to nuke this unlicensed baby boomer from orbit, but alas failed. It lives on through various Gameboy emulators.

28. The Iceman Killeth

Met with an icy reception when it released on the Xbox 360, it’s best to give this abominable snowman FPS the cold shoulder and move on.

27. Marching Band

After the success of Guitar Hero and Rockband, Activision stumped the world with Marching Band. The E3 reveal is still one of the most baffling moments of the trade shows history, up there with Mr Caffeine and the vitality sensor.

26. Dash Dingo

Dash Dingo ate my Crystal Baby. That’s all you need to know about this average 3D platformer that belongs with the rest of the Z-list heroes from the fifth generation. Maybe in an upside-down Downunderverse, Dash was as successful as his bandicoot brethren, but sadly, not in our world.

25. Tandem Bike Ride With Your Mum

Released on the ill-fated Gizmondo handheld console – and if you can get past the just passable gameplay – Tandem Bike Ride With Your Mum earns some respect for including a mother into a medium that favours fathers.

24. Stickball

The old arcade game Stickball would be a good candidate for a modern-day remake. Imagine a fully realised downtown New York that replicates the feeling of playing street baseball with a ragtag selection of neighbourhood kids.

23. Plague Station 3

Much like how the 2003 third-person shooter Armed and Dangerous is only remembered for the gun that shoots land sharks, Plague Station 3 will only be remembered for the gun that shoots monkeys that claw at the enemies face.

22. Waltz Waltz Revolution

Although not very successful, the using of a dance mat to teach actual dancing was a novel idea.

21. Bar Brawl 4: Final Fracas

The only memorable aspect of Bar Brawl 4 is that it introduced a slipping mechanic into a fighting game a full year before Super Smash Bros Brawl would do the same. Was Sakurai inspired by this game? Anything is possible.

20. Halloween Hit & Run

Halloween Hit & Run is what happens when you take the infamous hit and run scene from Troma’s Toxic Avenger and make a whole game out of it. Not to be confused with the Halloween level from the not-in-universe Simpsons Hit and Run.

19. Cat Fight

In spite of all the stereotypes this game perpetuates (and some rather questionable language) it contains far less sexualisation of women than your typical fighting game, and as a result, must be commended.

18. Virtual Doctor

Released for PC in 2000, Virtual Doctor was a passion project of Yuji Hori, the creator of Dragon Quest. Unfortunately for Hori, Virtual Doctor was a huge failure and coupled with the delays of Dragon Quest VII and later Dragon Quest Monsters 2, left publisher Enix badly bruised. Thankfully, the merger with Square Soft in 2003 allowed Enix to recover – just what the (virtual) doctor ordered.

17. Earthland Realms

Unless someone asks you for a much better alternative, the MMORPG Earthland Realms will not make you say “wow.”

16. Cereal Killer

Have you ever felt the need to take out your anger on a bunch of whimsical breakfast cereal mascots? If so, then Cereal Killer is the game for you. It’s also the only FPS (out of barely 20) on Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance that lets you wield two weapons at the same time. How’s that for going against the grain?

15. Triangle Wars

An ingenious blend of Asteroids and Tetris, Triangle Wars had a surprisingly deep plot. The three warring factions of the Isosceles, the Equilateral and the Scalene all attempting to reach the furthest point of the Euclidean Galaxy to ascend to the realm of higher dimensional beings, the Simplex.

14. Death Kill City II: Death Kill Stories

Usually abbreviated as DKC (and confused with a certain Nintendo 2D platformer series) Death Kill Stories II is known for its shocking plot twist. In an attempt to out edgy its rivals, the first level in DKC II destroys all life on earth. A race of vampiric robo-mutants arise from the depths of the ruined earth and become your next target. Considering the first DKC was simply a GTA clone, this new post-apocalyptic setting was a nice change of pace.

13. Hockey Dad

Probably the only hockey/fighting game hybrid in existence, Hockey Dad should be applauded for its genre-defying antics – oh and introducing drunken dad Chuck Shadowski into the pantheon of great games characters.

12. Guts of War II: Entrails of Intestinox

After God of War 2 director Cory Balrog left Santa Monica Studio to hone his craft on his creative walkabout, he was asked to work on the sequel to Guts of War. Originally hesitant to work on a franchise so similar to his previous work, he came to the conclusion that the intestinal weapons of Guts of War protagonist, Kranus, were different enough to give the game its own personality. Entrails of Intestinox was fairly well-received but criticised for its notorious short length and for allegations of a strenuous crunch period the developers went through.

11. Escape from Grandma’s House

It’s rumoured that Escape From Grandma’s House was the inspiration behind Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis. Capcom has yet to confirm this.

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10. Yard Work Simulator

The original plans for Yard Work Simulator included far more controllers than the final product’s garden shears and rake controllers. One can only imagine what the planned wheelbarrow, garden hose and long-handled spade shovel controllers would’ve brought to this fairly simple virtual reality experiment. (And how much landfill they would’ve produced, like so many Wii peripherals and plastic guitars.)

9. Panamanian Strongman

A peculiar arcade game where you try to keep balance on top of a skyscraper whilst fending off the US Military’s fighter planes. Kojima, take note: This is how you integrate a fun balance mechanic into your game.

8. Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge

Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge was one of the few games to have its cartridge enhanced by the 3F07 chip. This allowed the game to have an abundance of digitised voice clips recorded by Lee Carvallo himself. By no means the best golf game of this era, it was unique in that it felt like Carvallo was right there in your living room, helping you perfect your swing with his insightful suggestions.

What seemed like a death knell – releasing at the same time as the mighty Bonestorm – was actually a surprising boon. Many a parent opted for Carvallo as a runner-up prize when they realised that Bonestorm would be sold out long through the Christmas period.

7. Larry the Looter

Before Grand Theft Auto, there was Larry the Looter. A fairly difficult arcade loot ‘em up, you’ll have to have fast reactions to avoid the shotgun blasts of the poor shopkeepers protecting their property. The genius of Larry the Looter though, was it’s lack of exposition; it never bores the player with an explanation of why Larry’s world was tormented by mass riots and instead leaves this to the player’s imagination. You dropped into this mad world as your primal instincts kick in and force you to stick it to the man.

6. Disembowler IV

Much like how Luigi’s Mansion originally started out as a fishing game prototype, so too did Disembowler IV. After the success of Doom and Mortal Kombat in the early 90s, many companies tried to cash in on this violent video game craze, and Disembowler IV was born. The eponymous rusty hooks that the cast of convicted criminals use are a callback to the game’s origin. Don’t be fooled by the sneaky Roman numerals, however – there was no Disembowler I, II and III. This was merely a marketing gimmick that actually led to significant sales.

5. Touch of Death

Initiate the dreaded ‘Touch of Death’ and exorcise the ghost from your beaten enemies corpse in this classic arcade fighter. Touch of Death’s popularity was due to it’s simple yet accessible control scheme with its three attack buttons – oh, and ninjas. Everyone loves ninjas. Although Touch of Death has a reputation as a Mortal Kombat klone, it actually released two years before the first Mortal Kombat.

4. Super Slugfest

In a lot of ways, Super Slugfest was superior to Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! – just take one look at the graphics – but a lack of celebrity endorsement meant it was always second fiddle. Mike Tyson carried Punch-Out!! to incredible success, which was a shame for Super Slugfest as it had a highly entertaining multiplayer mode that its Nintendo counterpart lacked.

3. My Dinner with Andre

The phrase “ahead of its time” has been overused aplenty, but the licensed video game adaptation of Louis Malle’s 1981 classic My Dinner with Andre is undoubtedly ahead of its time. In an era where a film would translate into a 2D run-and-gun or beat ‘em up, the ambitious developers of My Dinner With Andre explored new territory with this interactive dialogue pioneer that predates Mass Effect, Telltale, games and various immersive and dating sims. “Tell me more” indeed.

2. Escape From Death Row

It should come as no surprise that Escape From Death Row was made by the same developers as Larry the Looter. You can see their anti-establishment DNA all over Death Row, from the prison escape scenario to a conservative judge as an antagonist you must overcome. Although the platforming was fairly weak compared to its contemporaries, the ‘change of venue’ system was an interesting mechanic that gave the player a risky last-ditch effort if they felt there time was nearly up.

1. Bonestorm

The iconic fighting game that sent many a parent/guardian to hell with its boisterous “Buy me Bonestorm or go to Hell!” marketing campaign, Bonestorm led to a gory Christmas for many in 1995. As the name suggests, Bonestorm is a cacophony of blood and guts and probably the best Mortal Kombat klone in existence (sorry, Killer Instinct). The only blemish on this ultra-violent fighting game is the archaic eight-letter limit for choosing a name.


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The Final Fantasy VII Remake steals its best ideas

The Final Fantasy VII Remake is a magpie of ideas, pilfering the best bits of four generations of 3D RPGs. (And that’s precisely why it works so well.)

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Final Fantasy VII Remake Cloud Jessie
Square Enix

The Final Fantasy VII Remake is a magpie of ideas, pilfering the best bits of four generations of 3D RPGs. (And that’s precisely why it works so well.)

Remaking Final Fantasy VII, the beloved PlayStation roleplaying game from 1997, is an unenviable task. It’s almost a zero-sum game, where the best you can hope for is not to besmirch the memory of a classic. And the worst? Well, it rolls downhill from there.

Then there’s the logistics of how you actually do it.

Luckily, Square Enix has had the visual template sorted for years, at least. Gone are the super-deformed homunculi of the original, replaced with the ultra-high resolution characters from the Anthology of Final Fantasy VII, from the PSP prequel, Crisis Core, to the aftermath CGI movie, Advent Children. It’s astonishing to think that the realtime-rendered, gameplay graphics of the Final Fantasy VII Remake are superior to a pre-rendered movie.

Final Fantasy VII Remake sector 1

There’s no need for “not in-game footage” disclaimers on trailers for the Final Fantasy VII Remake, that’s for sure.

That astonishing increase in detail doesn’t just apply to the visuals. It also shows in the scale of the environments and the scope of the game’s story. It’s hard to understand how a seven-hour stretch of the original game could translate into a 30-hour remake until you experience it for yourself. Then every segment of the story, with some details fleshed out and other gaps filled in, is given lashings of care and attention.

On the mechanical front, however, things become trickier. Compared to modern gameplay sensibilities, the original Final Fantasy VII – with its side-on, semi turn-based combat – feels more like massive ships firing cannons at one another broadside until someone sinks. That’s not a criticism. I unironically love classic J-RPGs. But general tastes have changed and Final Fantasy as a series has changed, too.

Over the years, Square Enix has picked up a few tricks. Its development teams have learned what works and – at great cost as games were cancelled, delayed, and repurposed into something new – what doesn’t work.

This shared experience, from different development teams across two decades of RPGs, is woven into the fabric of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. The game works so well because the magpies behind it have stolen all the best bits from other Final Fantasy games. It’s like a supercut of the best systems, all killer, no filler.

But which bits of the previous games have been begged, borrowed, and stolen to make the mechanical mosaic in the Final Fantasy VII Remake?

Final Fantasy VII (1997)

Final Fantasy VII scorpion

Duh. Obviously the biggest influence on the Final Fantasy VII Remake is the original game it reimagines. Let’s do a totally non-exhaustive, whistlestop tour of the key bits:

  • The setting (Midgar, of course, but the rest of the world will follow in subsequent parts)
  • The storyline (generally, though with more fleshing out to suit the extended runtime)
  • The goofy (yet charming) dialogue
  • The characters
  • The monsters
  • The really bonkers enemy designs (you know the ones)
  • The (even more bonkers) sidequests and minigames
  • The weapons and equipment
  • The Materia system (for magic)
  • The ATB system (in a fashion)
  • The Limit Break system (even if some of the limits themselves are a little different)

That’s quite a comprehensive list for a game that many – Thumbsticks included – worried wouldn’t be faithful to the original. You can’t pinch ideas from the game you’re remaking, though. That’s just, er, remaking it. That’s where the rest of the series comes in.

Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

The Final Fantasy VII Remake doesn’t borrow all that many ideas from the eighth instalment in the series, but the one it does – the idea of fighting summon monsters to recruit them – is a good one. It makes for some impressive boss-level battles outside of the regular story flow. (Even if it does mean you have to spend more time talking to Chadley, the insufferable wiener.)

Final Fantasy IX (2000)

Like the game that preceded it chronologically, it’s only a small mechanic that’s pilfered from Final Fantasy IX. In the ninth instalment, characters can use abilities of weapons only when they’re equipped. But if you use the weapon for long enough and build up enough experience with it – that’s Ability Points in IX, or Proficiency in VII Remake – you can permanently learn the ability and continue to use it, even if you no longer equip the weapon.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy X sunset

We can’t think of anything in the Final Fantasy VII Remake that’s borrowed from Final Fantasy X. Sorry, Blitzball fans.

Final Fantasy XII (2006)

The final PS2-era Final Fantasy game was a big departure for the series. It didn’t feature a traditional overworld map, which felt weird. Its Gambit “programming” system was interesting, if a bit flawed. But most importantly, it introduced a system for additional side-quests that would feel more at home in an MMO or a Bethesda game than a J-RPG. Final Fantasy XII features a series of hubs, complete with factions and radiant quests, which you’ll find replicated in the expanded slum areas of the Final Fantasy VII Remake.

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Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

Final Fantasy XIII is not looked upon fondly by most fans of the series. Yes, it gets better once it opens up from a series of interconnected corridors, but most people got bored before then. And yes, it’s very pretty, but it’s also fatuous and overblown.

But there’s one key system from Final Fantasy XIII that’s been stolen by the Final Fantasy VII Remake: the Stagger system. If you hit an enemy with enough damage in a short period of time, particularly if you target its weaknesses, it will be stunned. This makes it more vulnerable to damage and will stop it from fighting back. You’ve got the 13th instalment to thank for that system.

Oh, and the weapon upgrade system in VII Remake looks remarkably like the character upgrade system in XIII.

Final Fantasy XV (2016)

Final Fantasy XV the boys

We were all worried about Final Fantasy XV: Crusin’ With the Boys, especially given that it was built out of an abandoned Final Fantasy XIII sequel. But like the Final Fantasy VII Remake, it actually turned out pretty great.

The recent remake borrows a lot from Final Fantasy XV: Lads on Tour, but it’s not all entirely unique. That’s perhaps a sign of the iteration that went into that game, as well. The questing system is a further expansion on Final Fantasy XII’s, but spread across a large, open world. It also features a Stagger system, but it’s more based on defence than attack. These ideas weren’t born in XV, but they were developed upon further in the Final Fantasy VII Remake.

But it’s the action-based combat, with the ability to leverage different character abilities and playstyles, that’s the biggest bridge between the two games.

The summoning system – where summon monsters dramatically “arrive” towards the later stages of particularly difficult battles, like the arrival of Gandalf at Helm’s Deep – is also featured in the Final Fantasy VII Remake. Giant godlike monsters arriving to save you is a very literal interpretation of deus ex machina – if anything, it’s a bit on the nose – but it works.

Bonus: Kingdom Hearts

Depending on who you’re playing as in the Final Fantasy VII Remake, it changes the feel of the combat. If you’ve got Barret or Aerith selected, for instance, then it plays more like Final Fantasy XV, with a simple, press-and-hold to attack. And if you’re playing as Cloud? It’s just like Kingdom Hearts.

But instead of hitting things with a massive key, it’s a massive sword. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.


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The 10 greatest Nintendo references in The Simpsons

Here’s a list of the 10 most perfectly cromulent Nintendo references In The Simpsons. We hope it embiggens your spirit in these dark times.

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8 best Nintendo references in The Simpsons
Disney / Thumbsticks

Here’s a list of the 10 most perfectly cromulent Nintendo references in The Simpsons. We hope it embiggens your spirit in these dark times.

Although Nintendo has been around since the time of your great grandparents, it was the late ’80s when the company as we know it today really took off. Less of the Hanafuda cards, taxi rides and love hotels (no, really) of the past, and more of the Italian plumbers, tunic-wearing heroes and intergalactic bounty hunters that defined them.

It was during the golden age of NES, SNES and N64 that a certain four-fingered family with what seemed like a severe case of jaundice took over the world. The Simpsons and Nintendo; a match made in ’90s kids heaven.

So join us as we head to the planet Nintendu 64 – sorry, wrong Matt Groening franchise – and delve in the best Nintendo references in The Simpsons. To preface, I must apologise to golden era Simpsons fans for including a few picks from the series’ less-than-stellar later seasons. But rest assured, the business end of the list features some classic Simpsons episodes.

10. Mario vs Homer (Kong)

The writers of season 16’s Homer and Ned’s Hail Mary Pass sadly didn’t do their homework as Mario is seen arriving on a bus for ‘Italians Touring America’. Mario is Italian American, not Italian Italian. Or is he from The Mushroom Kingdom? It’s unclear. At least the parody of the arcade Donkey Kong scene where Homer throws garbage cans at Mario is funny.

9. Gameboy Advance cameo

The Gameboy Advance made its first and only appearance in the season 20 episode, Dangerous Curves, which happened to be seven years after the handheld released. Talk about late. But the best part was the game Bart happened to be playing: the can-someone-please-make-this FPS, Cereal Killer, where you take down a bunch of bright-eyed breakfast cereal mascots. A game that would most certainly be loved by kids (and probably not approved by their parents).

8. Human Super Mario Bros.

A quick blink and you’ll miss it in the season 23 episode A Totally Fun Thing Bart Will Never Do Again reveals a fun cruise activity titled ‘Human Super Mario Bros’. Now working out what this activity entails is certainly a conundrum. Is this a game of Super Mario Bros. where real people act out your inputs as you press a button? Or is this some kind demented stomping ground free-for-all where you crush your enemies (literally) by jumping on them?

We’ll never know for sure. The itinerary also includes ‘Xbox with PS3 controllers’, which makes more sense, and ‘Real-life Tetris’, which is just as confusing as ‘Human Super Mario Bros.’ to be honest. Maybe even more so.

7. Bart watching Digibots

As Bart attempts to do some homework in season 21’s Postcards from the Wedge, distraction kicks in and he watches an episode of Digibots, a show that sounds like Digimon but looks suspiciously like Pokémon. In the episode, we see both Ash Ketchum and Pikachu on-screen, while Bart ponders to himself, “Wow, how does this show stay so fresh?”

6. Funtendo Zii Zu

The Wii was a phenomenon. We were bound to see parodies of it. But The Simpsons deserves credit for following up its Wii parody with the Funtendo Zii Zu. To see the severely underrated Wii U recognised by something so mainstream is nothing short of a miracle. Sadly we only saw a quick glimpse of it being unveiled at the E4 expo in season 23’s The Food Wife, meaning we didn’t get to look at the Zii Zu’s launch titles, Funtendo Land and ZombiZu.

5. Milhouse will kick your butt… at Nintendo

In the downright radical Lemon of Troy, Milhouse threatens his Shelbyville doppelgänger to “Step over this line and say that! I’ll kick your butt! …at Nintendo.”

Although hilarious – and a great influence on how I conduct my threats – it made me think of Patrick H Willem’s great analysis video, where he discusses how this episode is basically about masculine insecurity. Funny and thematically appropriate? This episode was well ahead of its time.

4. Coconut Nintendo System

“Martin, draw up plans for a coconut radio and, if possible, a coconut Nintendo system.”

You can’t deny Bart’s leadership prowess with his main priority a radio for help escaping a deserted island, and only then, a coconut Nintendo system for their entertainment while being stranded on said island. Das Bus, The Simpson’s take on Lord of the Flies, originally aired in 1998. The question is: which Nintendo system is Bart talking about? As the N64 released in 1996, it’s likely that’s the console Bart is referring to, but for some reason (Mandela effect?) I’ve always had the image of a coconut SNES in my head.

Quite frankly, I’m shocked and appalled there isn’t even as little as an image of this alluring Coconut Nintendo System on the internet. For shame internet. For shame. [Maybe with some Donkey Konga bongos? – Ed.]

3. Donkey Kong’s still got it

He’s the leader of the bunch, you know him well and he’s finally back to kick some tail in season 8’s X-Files mashup, The Springfield Files. You’d think an opportunity to meet Donkey Kong in person would be a fascinating prospect, but no one turned up to the Noiseland Arcade to meet him.

The sarcastic clerk bemoans the fact that the cranky looking DK has lost his draw only for DK to throw a barrel at him arcade style. It just goes to show that no matter what, DK is always a barrel of laughs.

2. Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Lee Carvallo and Sonic

Four of gaming’s most legendary icons (and Sonic) join forces to influence a ten-year-old to steal the thrill(house)ing videogame Bonestorm in season 8’s Marge Be Not Proud. Try and save yourself from not laughing at the gloriously dopey Yogi Bear-like Donkey Kong voice and what seems like a hyper-caffeinated Sonic.

Fun Fact: the hilariously off-putting Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge is based on an actual NES/arcade game called Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf.

1. Super Nintendo Chalmers

“Hi, Lisa. Hi, Super Nintendo Chalmers.”

Season 10’s Lisa Gets an A gave us one of the best and most memorable jokes in the history of The Simpsons – Ralph Wiggum mistakenly calling Superintendent Chalmers “Super Nintendo Chalmers”. But it doesn’t stop there – it also gave us another cheeky video game reference in Dash Dingo, a blatant nod to Crash Bandicoot, and Homer’s pet lobster, Pinchy.

There’s really no explaining why Super Nintendo Chalmers is quite so funny, but it makes me chuckle every time I hear it.


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Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.


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