What NBA 2K21 Could Learn From NBA Live 96: Or, How Dennis Rodman’s Hair Dye Made Me Love Basketball

When I first turned on this year’s NBA 2K21, I did the same thing I always do with a new NBA game; started up a match with the 1995 Chicago Bulls. This has been my tradition since the classic teams were added, to hit the court with Rodman, Jordan, and Pippen first. I use that order specifically, because while Jordan is clearly the star man, Rodman is the reason the Bulls are my team. I’m part of the Dream Team/Space Jam era of international NBA fans, but what actually got me into basketball was NBA Live 96.

Like most ’90s sport sim games, the player models were incredibly basic. They came in two varieties; Black or white. The only player who stood out was Dennis Rodman, who had his famous coloured hair. From then on, it was always the Bulls for me. Finding out later that they also had Michael Jordan – Mike was absent from NBA Live 96 because of licensing issues – was a bonus. They had Dennis Rodman, and that was all that mattered.

Obviously, NBA 2K21 is a better game than NBA Live 96. The mechanics are much smoother, play is faster, there’s more to do, and pretty much every player is photorealistic. And I know we never love things as much as we loved things when we were kids, this isn’t just pointless nostalgia complaining about the good old days; there are real lessons the restrictions of NBA Live 96 could teach the 2K series, and by extension, that all sports sims can learn from looking to the past.

When I reviewed NBA 2K21 for TechRadar, I compared it to The Flu Game, with Jordan the gameplay and VC the flu. The currency holds the game back, not only because it can lure fans into spending hundreds in a game they already paid a premium for, but the way the coins go both towards Junior in MyCareer and your MyTeam packs, forcing you to choose, the way it restricts the MyCareer difficulty, and generally seems like the main aim of the game. These days, MyTeam is what NBA 2K is all about. With FIFA and Madden, it’s the same story with Ultimate Team.

I understand that some people love MyTeam, and that there’s a real sense of excitement and anticipation in getting a great pull from a random pack. But the game’s absolute focus on MyTeam holds it back from building something creative, from really selling young fans on the sport. In NBA Live 96, all it took was ‘Dennis Rodman has coloured hair’, and I was on board. The fact he was a part of the greatest team of all time – that’s on god – and a brilliant rebounder to watch in real life certainly helped, but NBA Live 96 got me hooked. Players in MyTeam are inherently disposable. You might develop a bond with a player who unexpectedly delivers the goods a few times, but the fact you’re constantly changing lineups and managing contracts makes it hard to really connect with them. I don’t care about any of my MyTeam players.

It’s not just that I’m too old to care about basketball players in a video game either. I care about the story of the rookies I sign in MyGM, or about the random transfers I pick up my FIFA’s career mode. But MyTeam doesn’t feel like it’s built for any meaningful connection, it’s just a cheap thrill you have to keep putting money into over and over again to enjoy. An expensive cheap thrill at that.

NBA Live 96 was severely held back by technology, but one simple thing – Rodman’s hair – made it stand out. NBA 2K21 has no such technical restrictions, but it has no interest in taking advantage, because MyTeam makes money. As long as the sports sims continue to be wildly profitable, more and more attention will be funnelled away from the sport and the stories and the characters – for in a video game, that’s what they are – and will head towards the money. Even as MyCareer spins an good narrative, you can’t truly use the game mode as a storytelling device, because failure – a key cornerstone in any sports saga – is not permitted. You have to succeed all the time, otherwise you’re not generating coins for MyTeam, which as much as it’s dressed up with Idris Elba or Jesse Williams, is all MyCareer was ever designed for.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe everyone else does love MyTeam, Ultimate Team, Super Duper Spend All Your Money To Get Players You Can Use In Other Modes For Free Team. Maybe there are kids out there who got hooked on the sport because they pulled an amazing player in MyTeam and wanted to know more about him. I really hope there are, even if the games no longer feel designed to make you love basketball.

All I know for sure is, I’ll always be grateful to whoever it was at NBA Live 96 that said “why don’t we give Dennis Rodman coloured hair?”

Jorji, The Cop From Coffee Talk, Is ‘A Cop’

I started writing this piece shortly after the death of George Floyd, and the resulting (and, despite the news having moved on, continuing) protests over police brutality and systemic racism. I worried then that it was too tongue in cheek; jokes like ‘people who have pineapple on their pizza are cops’ feel off these days, when we’re in the midst of certainly the biggest conversation on racism within the police force in my lifetime.

I even pitched this article around a few places, more interested in the response than the commission, which I felt unlikely for a niche take on an indie game. Usually a response is a yes or a no, and if it’s a no, we shake hands and move on. This time, however, I wanted to dissect the reasons behind the no. I fear, in my haste to prove this had something real to say, rather than a joke at the current conversation’s expense, that I rambled too much and the rejections were boilerplate. Probably the places I sent this wondered what in the hell I was talking about.

Does any of this matter? Well, I suppose that’s for you to decide. Feel free to travel back in time and skip over these opening paragraphs. The point is that Jorji, the cop from Coffee Talk, is a cop.

Coffee Talk is a pretty great indie game by Toge Productions, released earlier this year. Essentially a visual novel where you make various coffees, teas and hot chocolates, it’s set in a fantasy world with pixies and orcs and elves. It does go a little bit Bright in that the orc character, Myrtle, is coded to be Black, but at the same time it clears Bright’s low bar by having her be a computer programmer and giving her a more rounded personality, unlike the stereotypical depictions of Black culture in Bright.

This, however, is one of the key ways Jorji shows himself not just to be a cop, but ‘A Cop’. Racism, as we know it, does not exist in Coffee Talk. Freya, a pixie and author, even mentions writing a novel about a world of only humans, where people are treated differently because of their skin colour; the other characters are incredulous. At the time, Freya is taking inspiration from an elf and succubus whose families are keeping them apart, but this feels less like real world racism than it does classism, perhaps inspired by religious prejudice, mixed with traditional fantasy tropes. A closer look at Coffee Talk’s world building, however, reveals that racism is very much alive.

Every day begins with a newspaper. This is the only part of Coffee Talk’s world we ever see, aside from the coffee shop’s interior. While a decent chunk of the headlines discuss events linked specifically to the characters – Rachel’s music festival, for example – the rest discuss the orcs. Headlines include ‘Stop Workplace Racial Profiling’: Orcish Union Demands and Protests Arise Over Government Treatment Of Atlantic Immigrants, with the orcs clearly being analogous to a combination of the Black community and immigrants. Given the classic idea of an orc is a powerful creature of low intelligence, the comparison to Black people definitely feels uncomfortable. You could argue that’s offset by Myrtle, but it still feels like a lazy comparison, one ignorant to the decades of racist narratives around Black people.

Nevertheless, one thing we can take from it is that racism definitely exists in Coffee Talk. While Myrtle and Jorji have no significant interaction, the fact we know both systemic racism and police brutality exist in Coffee Talk positions Jorji’s role as a cop in a new light. At the very least, he’s complicit in this system.

Then let’s look at how Jorji actually acts. For one thing, he’s usually still on his shift when he visits the coffee shop. So he might be positioned by the game as one of the Good Cops (TM), but he’s certainly not a damn good cop, Jim Gordon.

Then, of course, there’s the way he’s a good cop. When Rachel is nervous about traveling home at night, he takes her in the car. I have no complaints with this; it’s exactly what the police should be doing. Helping those in the community in need, with no threats of violence, no abuse of power, and nothing asked in return. If that was the only cop-like thing he’d done, I don’t think these thoughts would ever have formed in my head.

Jorji ends up talking to Rachel’s father, who is concerned about the record producer Rachel is associating with. Jorji, abusing his position as a police officer, runs background checks, investigates the producer’s history and begins a small scale investigation. Of course, the producer is a dirtbag, Jorji rises as the hero and Rachel enjoys a happy ending with her father. I say of course because, well, of course. When was the last time a fictional cop’s hunch turned out to be wrong?

On TV, cops detain suspects without cause all the time, get strung out for it, then later on evidence turns up and they’re lauded for proving the doubters wrong. Criminals don’t change on TV, and cops know it. They know you’re up to something, and they’ll find out what, just you wait. Jorji has what you might call Big Brooklyn 99 Energy.

Again, Jorji was right. The producer was a dirtbag. But he’s right in the fictional world Coffee Talk has constructed, a world which tells us racism doesn’t exist while showing us that it still does. He’s right in the way fictional cops are, in the way which gives actual cops God complexes that tells them their hunches, their guts, their racial biases, are correct, because they are cops and cops are heroes.

Coffee Talk is an enjoyable game with an interesting storyline, albeit one which relies on the tired ‘what if Black… but orc?’ trope. However, the presence of Jorji, the only character with no significant personal arc, only reinforces the problematic ways police are ‘saintwashed’ in fiction, and the fact he’s a nice, relatable character only makes his abuse of power all the more haunting. We are all aware that the phrase is ‘one bad apple spoils the bunch’, right?

Lara Croft And The Shaky Foundation Of Video Game Heroines

Lara Croft is one of the iconic characters in video games, with the same level of pop culture penetration as the likes of Mario, Pikachu and Sonic. She’s a legend of the medium, and a trailblazer for her gender. However, her success might have come at the cost of those around her, and her 2013 reboot shines a light on the way heroines have always stood on rockier ground.

First, let’s go back to the start. Tomb Raider released in 1996, and by putting a woman front and centre of an action game, marked a big step forward for gender presentation in video games. She was not the first – Samus already existed, alongside a handful of others – but because Lara also brought with her the action adventure genre which would go on to define single player video games for more than a decade, it’s difficult not to see her as the most important.

Initially conceived as a cold, militaristic, every woman, aspects of her personality were tweaked during development, drawing inspiration from Indiana Jones and James Bond to give her a more fleshed out persona. This made her feel like she was a real person, not just a collection of polygons there for you to shoot and climb with.

Things were not plain sailing, however. While Lara clearly had agency and existed with a forthright purpose – not only to be leered at or seduced – an apparent coding error gave her breasts increased by 150% rather than 50%. Had her head, hands, or feet been increased so disproportionately, it’s difficult to imagine the team just leaving things as they were.

Another problem arose from Lara Croft: she was too successful. Any attempt to introduce another female starring character through the ‘90s and early ‘00s was viewed as direct competition with Lara, and few elected to take on such a titan. Why would you, when creating a male character was less controversial, and despite the plethora of male characters, was viewed as having less direct competition?

Whenever players discussed the idea of having more female characters in games, the response was always for their opposition to point to Lara. You have one of the biggest stars on the planet… why do you need another one?

In a way, these detractors had a point. Though ‘90s gamers had less of a hair trigger when it came to the ‘politics’ of women in games, the marketing of games was still highly male centric; Nintendo even marketed the GameBoy as an alternative to masturbation. It was a man’s space, and the fact that a woman got to rule it was progress in itself.

Things were not perfect. The space in which she existed was, if not outright misogynistic, then at least enough of a boys club for the rise of sites like Nude Raider and for Lara to evolve into gaming’s number one sex symbol by virtue of being the only woman in the office. In fairness though, the Tomb Raider games never referenced this environment and always sought to present a well rounded character whose priorities were the success of her mission rather than the titillation of her viewers.

In short, it’s complicated. Though her presentation was imperfect, she was ahead of her time. Her runaway success proved to everyone that female characters could carry a successful franchise, but the fear of competing with her meant she couldn’t fully live up to her ‘trailblazer’ tag.

The success of Tomb Raider as a genre probably had more immediate impact than Lara Croft as a character, though her going first took some of the pressure off Faith Connors, Aloy, Senua and the rest.

In many ways, Lara Croft is the foundation video game heroines who came after are built upon. To explore that most effectively, we need to look at her 2013 reboot.

After taking the world by storm in her first few entries, Lara Croft seemed to stumble a little, through titles like the vastly under appreciated Legend and the wayward Angel Of Darkness. By 2013, the character remained a legend, but was mainly trading on her name rather than any recent success. The new trilogy, which launched in 2013, galvanised and modernised the character, offering a fresh start, a grittier reboot and an almost completely different version of Lara Croft.

Any links to her suave and cocky Indiana Jones/James Bond personality were shorn away to make her a generic ‘Last Girl In The Horror Movie’, reinventing her from the ground up. No, Lara Croft wasn’t born with a shaken, not stirred dry martini in her hand, but this casual wiping of her legacy to rebuild essentially a new character in her place has never sat particularly comfortably. We’ve seen plenty of male characters go through soft reboots recently – Kratos, Thor, very shortly we’ll see Batman – but these characters retain the core principles of their characters. Tomb Raider (2013) was a very good game with a fairly interesting character and some intuitive gameplay. But Lara Croft? Not really.

It trades on Lara’s name to tell an entirely different story. She is the archetypal female lead in gaming, and to see her backstory and established personality be wiped away is careless enough… to then replace it with a generic and vague trauma storyline just feels rather pointless. Even by Rise Of and Shadow Of, while Lara had at least crawled out of just trying to survive a horror movie, she still hadn’t really recaptured that charm. Yes, the writers may just have been trying to do something different, but a) I fundamentally feel like they stripped away too much for this to be an acceptable excuse, and b) what exactly was that ‘something different’?

Seriously, other than being good at raiding tombs, what precisely is Lara’s character in Rise Of and Shadow Of? That she’s a fairly nice lady? Hardly the stuff of legend.

The only tangible thing from pre-2013 which the reboot keeps is Lara’s loss of her father and fixation on living up to his name, a plot point which doesn’t even originate from the games, but from the Angelina Jolie led movies.

By slicing off everything recognisable about Lara Croft’s legacy, the Tomb Raider reboot highlights the lack of care given to the history of female characters in gaming, and the lack of originality when it comes to writing their stories. With the trilogy now concluded, we may get some stronger, more fitting directions in the future. Hopefully the next game will be Tomb Raider, and not just some lady who raids tombs.

Trying To Teach In Fire Emblem: Three Houses

You might have seen the videos like ‘We Showed A Bank Robber GTA V’, ‘We Showed A Lawyer The Bird Law Scene From IASIP’ and, my personal favourite ‘We Showed A Priest ‘God Is A Woman’ By Ariana Grande’. Playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses was a similar experience for me.

I used to be a teacher; it feels like it was a lifetime ago, even if reality suggests it was only a handful of years ago. I knew relatively little of the game when I first dove in, not even that it took place in a school or that you took charge of your own class of pupils. I’d never played a game where teaching was so central to the story, and so while the tactical combat was compelling and the characters were engaging from the start, it was the teaching which immediately dragged me in.

Fire Emblem is not a teaching sim, and the physical act of teaching is little more than deciding which stats you want each character to max out. Viewing it as a teaching sim, however, it became clear that only certain students actually needed a teacher.

Even in the monastery down time, there’s more to that side of the game than teaching. It’s on you to explore the area, speak to your students, fellow teachers, and friendly gatekeepers, as well as completing activities like cookery, greenery and fishing to both increase your stats and add depth to your experience.

The romance angle I found a little icky, even though it only really develops post timeskip. And yes, while your age is never stated you’re implied to be around the same age as your students, but there was still a clear authority imbalance in play, especially with students who weren’t Edelgard, Claude or Dimitri.

The discomfort over romance can be chalked up to my personal interpretation, however, with nothing of note happening until post time skip. On closer inspection though, what the romances revealed was the biggest flaw at the centre of playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses as a teaching sim. Some of the students are adults, and some of the students are children.

I don’t mean by their ages, or anything to do with the time skip. What I mean is that some of the characters are written perpetually as teenagers, and others as fully grown adults.

I’ve been in enough classes to know that a range of maturity levels are normal; I’ve mediated discussions about how Mr Birling represents the folly of capitalism while telling other students to stop drawing willies in their books. But when I told the willy drawers off, the Mr Birling discussers would giggle. If I caught Caspar or Hilda doodling obscenities, I don’t think Edelgard or Dedue would chuckle, and that’s a problem.

The likes of Edelgard and Dedue (there are more, I’d say it’s 40/60 in favour of the immature ones by eyeballing it) don’t really feel like they need a teacher, aside from someone to tell them to clean out the stables or focus on their axe work to gain skill points. There’s enough to the cutscenes – especially with the two major characters in the example – for us to get to know them, but it feels much more like you’re meeting them as peers.

There are a handful who straddle both camps. Sylvain, with his confidence around adults yet clear immaturity and Big Fuqboi Energy, feels more like a college student than a high school senior, and Lorenz goes from awkwardly trying to act like a grown up pre timeskip to becoming a more reflective and perceptive adult post, but mostly it’s one or the other.

It’s in meeting the more immature students where the game really shines as a teaching sim, and wish there was more of it.

For example, coaxing Bernadetta out of her shell, even helping her expand her confidence by inches, drove to the core of what being a teacher is. The more vulnerable, less assured students like Bernie, Marianne and Ashe need your hand to guide them. If Hubert or Felix fell in battle, well, more fool them. If Bernie was struck down by an arrow though, it was a personal failure on my part.

This vulnerability wasn’t exclusively expressed through shyness or lack of confidence as it is with Bernie, Marianne and Ashe, however. Caspar and Leonie seemed irritating at first, but my respect and affection for them grew when it became clear they desperately needed a mentor. Petra and Mercedes too had the inner maturity of a Head Girl, while lacking the same assuredness outside of their immediate vicinities.

It’s the fact that the game is peppered with such wonderfully real bouts of teaching which make the absence of it elsewhere so disappointing. Cyril is like that kid you never taught but always see around school. You get to watch him grow from the guidance of others, and that can be just as rewarding. Ignatz has an infectious but cluttered enthusiasm, and needs you to point which way to go.

Dealing with Edelgard, Dedue, Dorothea, Claude etc barely felt different from dealing with Manuela, Hanneman or Shamir. As characters, most of the students are fascinating in one way or another. But as students, there’s a palpable imbalance. Maybe it’s nostalgia for my days as a chalk jockey, but I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed it just a little bit more if my students actually needed me there.

Game Review – Saint’s Row: The Third Remastered

It’s one of my biggest pop culture pet peeves when someone holds up a game, movie or TV show and quips “you wouldn’t get away with that these days!” It’s even worse when what they’re talking about is something incredibly tame, like when Steve Carell said it of The Office. They get away with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia these days; a show which features blackface, molestation jokes and an exercise bike with a dildo attached to fist the user into exercising harder. They get away with South Park. They get away with GTA V.

So when news of the Saint’s Row: The Third’s remastering emerged, my rolled almost out of my skull hearing people hot take that “ooh, this won’t have aged well.” Playing it though, I found that in fact it had not aged particularly well, just not for the reasons I – or anybody else -would have thought.

The game is wacky. That’s it’s whole deal. It has explicit, gross out humour; it’s the kind of game Dane Cook would comb out of his armpit hair. But these are all huge positives for the game, and while you could argue it’s presentation of women isn’t perfect, it features highly charged sexual imagery of men almost as often, allows your player character to be female and places several powerful women front and centre. So while I get that parts might seem distasteful, I don’t think that’s any more true now than it was at release.

However, its position in the Saint’s Row universe has changed drastically since it first came out, and that’s why revisiting it wasn’t as much of a blast as I’d hoped. Initially, the game spun away from the ‘GTA but a bit silly’ identity of SR1 & SR2 and established itself as an open world carnage simulator. Saint’s Row 4 picked up that mantle and ran with it, adding aliens, superpowers and sex with Kinzie into the mix. Now, especially so hot on the heels of the SR4 Switch port, you don’t notice everything that got so much bigger from Saint’s Row 2, you notice everything that’s so much smaller than Saint’s Row 4.

Perhaps this is a tad unfair. The game might exist in a wider series, but should mostly be judged on its own merit. With Saint’s Row: The Third, what it boils down to is very simple. It’s a very fun, easy going game that lets you go wild and blow shit up. But far too often, this flow comes and goes as the game struggles to struggles to organise the chaos.

Saints Row®: The Third™ Remastered_20200516141320

The side quests come in three main difficulties; easy, long, and hard. While that’s suggestive enough to sound like Saint’s Row’s dialect, they’re actually called easy, medium, and hard, thought long is more appropriate. The side quests are supposed to twist the madness up even further, but the easy ones have no challenge, the medium ones have no challenge but ask you to, say, bomb the streets with a tank for literally six unbroken minutes, and the hard challenges as the same, but there’s a decent chance you’ll fail and have to try again.

The mechanics are all just a bit too fiddly to put up with in a game that’s supposed to be about running wild, and the remaster hasn’t fixed the niggles that we excused in the original.

If you just play the main storyline, however, you’ll notice this far less often. It’s jam packed with marquee moments, and teaches the side quests how its done. Within the first ten minutes, you’ve robbed a bank while wearing a mask of your own merch, literally stolen the whole vault because you couldn’t break into it, jumped out of a plane, machine gunned goons while skydiving, and jumped back through the windshield of the same plane. Your first big raid on another gang’s turf is all set to the soundtrack of Kayne West’s Power, and despite the lack of superpowers, the main missions do everything they can to make you feel like you’re a superhero.

The only real issue the main quests have at all comes between the transition of Act 1 and Act 2. Act 1’s finale is meaty enough, but that’s fairly fitting as a bookend to the game’s intro. The problem is that Act 2 begins with three separate missions (recruiting Kinzie, Zimos and Angel) which must be completed immediately, with no chance of running off to have some side quest fun in the middle. You’ve already unlocked a sizeable chunk of them by that point, so it just seems like a strange, deflating direction to take the game in.

As for the characters themselves, you might not have remembered Angel, but that’s because he’s so flat and lifeless you had no reason to. As for Zimos, he’s memorable in all the wrong ways, with his throat microphone, autotuned voice shtick getting old incredibly quickly. Kinzie is the highlight, be doesn’t really come into her own until you take on Matt Miller’s simulation towards the two-thirds point of the game. Most of the characters are like a 10p mixup. They’re fun and colourful while they last, but not particularly memorable.

All in all, it’s a pretty fun game with some great bursts of humour, but it’s difficult to recommend this when Saint’s Row 4 exists. It’s a new gloss of paint for the fans to enjoy, but as a starting point, it includes parts 2 does better and parts 4 does better. While the original was exciting, the remaster feels like a forgotten middle child.

SCORE: 7.5/10

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla Might Finally Be The Sequel Black Flag Deserves

The Assassin’s Creed continuity is… spotty at best. Early entries into the series still took an alternate view of history and featured some magical elements, but were firmly grounded in their era. Origins and Odyssey, the two most recent instalments, have swung for the fences with suspension of disbelief, and have opened the world up so much more, refreshing the series.

These have been welcome changes, and seemed to have reinvented Assassin’s Creed’s identity. Black Flag, the pirate focussed, swashbuckling title, looked destined to a life of relative obscurity as the black sheep. Now though, while Valhalla is certain to take some cues from Origins and Odyssey, it seems to be throwing Black Flag a lifeboat.

The obvious link between Black Flag and Valhalla is the focus on naval conquest, with Viking boats featuring heavily in what we’ve seen of Valhalla so far. In Black Flag, the game gave you your own ship and placed massive emphasis on using it, for transportation, exploration and combat. Though the famous – or, infamous – Ubisoft towers were still present, large parts of Black Flag were Assassin’s Creed in name only. So much so that while the naval features were well received, they were completely cut out of every subsequent game. It’s even speculated that a lot of features will be recycled in the upcoming new Ubisoft IP Skull & Bones.

Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was not really an Assassin’s Creed game, and it doesn’t seem like Valhalla will be either; neither of the Ezio variety nor the Kassandra. Fans have already reacted with mild surprise and disappointment that the hidden blade, a staple of the franchise, is set to feature. It doesn’t seem like it belongs in Valhalla, even if Evior wears their blade proudly rather than hiding it away.

Valhalla feels like a more action packed game than perhaps any AC previously; a title it will snatch from long time holder Black Flag.

Valhalla’s narrative director Darby McDevitt has already said we’re in for a much smaller map this time around, made up of little pockets of action rather than one big, sprawling world. This means not only scaling back the scope of Origins and Odyssey, but also returning to the sea faring nature of Black Flag. It also gives an opportunity for some form of return to the naval sieges, tweaked to include landings and an assault on foot.

While it’s been confirmed that naval warfare won’t be present in the game the way it was in Black Flag, boats will still have a huge significance to the gameplay and won’t just be for set dressing in cutscenes. This though is part of why Valhalla feels like the perfect sequel to Black Flag: it’s not about recreating every element of Black Flag as it is about capturing the spirit.

We don’t need to have big naval battles in Valhalla, because that’s very clearly a pirate thing. As long as Valhalla commits to the essence of being a Viking, it will emerge as Black Flag’s true sequel.

While the Assassin’s Creed series breathed new life into the action adventure sandbox, the series has come in various different shades over the years; especially if you include the spin offs. Black Flag tends to hover around the top or the bottom of fans’ personal rankings, rarely in the middle, because the swashbuckling, blood splattered gameplay is so different to series usual modus operandi. Love it or loathe it, Valhalla looks set to follow suit.

Mario & Sonic Is The Best Rugby Game Ever, Or: Why Rugby Games Fail

Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games 2020 is destined to become Figure 19.2 in a future textbook about the cultural impact of Covid-19; or at least it would, if textbooks weren’t soon to go extinct to be replaced by educational TikToks. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games being delayed by a year, the game is now a relic from pre-Covid times, but unfortunately that’s all it will likely be remembered as.

While it is, for the most part, a fairly typical Mario & Sonic Olympics game – that is to say, some great events, a lot that lack polish, and a couple which seem impossible to figure out – the rugby game is in a league of its own. Mario & Sonic is usually at its best when it’s a party game, when the events are raw and simple like the 100m. The rugby sevens however, being an arcadey riff on the sport and played with buttons over motion control, flies in the face of all that.

It isn’t what people pick up Mario & Sonic At The Olympics for, and that means it’s largely gone unnoticed. That’s a real shame, because it’s easily the best part of the game and fills a massive gap in the sport sim world: there has never been a good rugby game until now.

There’s something free flowing to the rugby event, something difficult to get right at the best of times, but especially given that it’s not even the focus here.

Rugby actually made its debut in 2016, though it was a little rough around the edges. Here, it’s much cleaner, while keeping the frantic pace real rugby has but virtual rugby often sacrifices. Passes will always go level or backwards, so you can’t trip yourself up on the confusing rules; rugby being one of the few ball sports where a pass forward is not allowed. Scrums are included but simplified to a question of whoever has more players nearest the scrum will win, and to keep a lightning fast flow, players can leap over tackles and build up a charge meter which offers either a unstoppable burst of pace or an inescapable power tackle.

Stats even feature too, though in the most accessible of ways. Wario and Robotnik make the best tacklers, while Daisy, Shadow and Sonic are speedsters. Blaze builds her charge faster, Amy and Mario are all rounders and Peach has the best distribution. It’s easy to build a dream team without knowing what type of skill set works best in which position. Rugby sometimes even prides itself on being obtusely difficult to understand, but Mario & Sonic break it down for beginners.

The football (soccer, I suppose) event has been part of the series since 2012, and brings the same chaotic energy, stripping down to five a side instead of the usual XI to make the game more cartoonish and less rigid, while also giving the characters room to breathe. There isn’t too much reason to shout about the football mini game though; it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the likes of FIFA Street, Sega Soccer Slam and, of course, Super Mario Strikers. Rugby though has never had anything close to this before, and once you dig into other rugby sims, you start to see why.

Rugby is part of the Holy Trinity of British sport, but is notoriously difficult to right in video game format. Football, with a fast flowing style, adapts to the virtual world easily, while cricket is slow and methodical enough that it invites a more measured gameplay. Rugby, however, has the fast and furious pace of football mixed with the hyper specific rules of cricket. There’s a certain appeal to that sort of sport, no question, but it doesn’t easily translate to video games. Just ask… literally any rugby game ever.

Rugby is a sport with a deep respect for the rules. In football, if you can bend the rules a little bit to your advantage, you’ll be lauded as a wildcard. In rugby, you’re a pariah. The rules are less invasive in football, but they’re also less sacred. If a rule gets in the way of FIFA, the game finds a way to cheat around it. Obstruction is rarely called, the keeper auto clears to avoid the six second rule, etc. Rugby games don’t have this laissez faire attitude to the rule book, and that’s to their detriment.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, a rugby sim isn’t going to waste time teaching you.

Rugby is a more stop-start game than football, and for fans of the sport, this off and on explosive nature is very much a part of its charm. Football can get bogged down too – just go watch Sunderland and you’ll see – but that’s a reflection on the quality of the players and the manager’s approach to the game, not part of the game’s very design itself. This means that football sims, by putting a lot of stock in pacey players, skill moves and offensive tactics, can recreate great football matches without needing to resort to arcade style, Princess Daisy leapfrogging Bowser as she charges down the byline.

Rugby might not need to either, but right now, rugby games seem far too scared to find out.

Rugby games simply don’t have the appeal of football games, and they likely never will. Football is a truly global sport, while rugby only has a major following in a handful of countries. This means that FIFA and PES have a mass appeal outside of fanatics and season ticket holders, but rugby games are likely only going to sell to hardcore rugby fans. This is why they get overloaded with minutae, why every pass, kick and tackle is a tactical ordeal. Because the games were designed to appeal to those who live and breathe rugby, the developers have convinced themselves that each action needs to be precise and meticulously planned.

They’re wrong.

I love football. It’s one of the things I miss the most about our pre-pandemic lives. It goes ‘seeing my family’, then ‘football’. Newcastle are still in the FA Cup, man! Tactics Steve is gonna windmill us to Wembley!

While I love football probably more than the average FIFA player, what I love most about FIFA is how it captures the simplicity of the sport. Give ball to Saint-Maxmimin. Run.

Rugby games completely miss this spirit of simplicity in a weird gatekeeping exercise which serves only to put off people who’ve already bought the games. Yes, rugby is a complex sport, but when you’re playing a match as the All Blacks, you’d think they’d be able to string three passes together without much fuss. For most rugby sims though, because they insist on putting you in control of everything, a simple pass becomes an exercise in long division. Just. Pass. The. Ball.

Perhaps because it wasn’t made for rugby purists, but instead for everyone to be able to pick up the egg and run with it, Mario & Sonic avoids these pitfalls. They’ve made the first truly enjoyable rugby game since, well, since themselves in 2016. After that though, you’d struggle to find another one which was even remotely fun. Mario & Sonic succeed where others failed for one simple reason: it didn’t take rugby too seriously.

Inside Slavic Time Travel Game The End Of The Sun

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla isn’t the only time travelling Northern European adventure game coming this year. The End Of The Sun, built off Slavic imagery and built by a core team of just three developers, has been in the works for the past three years and next week its Kickstarter is going to officially launch. Over at Indie Game Website, I’ve previously spoken to the game’s director and writer Jakub Machowski about the process of creating a wooden carving in real life in order to scan it into the game, but for Hammer Space, Machowski gave us an even greater insight into the game itself, and the story it seeks to tell.

Where Valhalla is built on violence, bloodshed and conquest, The End Of The Sun is based around exploration and adventure in the purest sense of the world. You play as the Ashter, who has the ability to travel through time, with the game using non-linear storytelling between four periods of your lifespan. This means who will encounter some villagers as they are young, and be able to skip forward to key moments in their life, while others will start the game older, and will pass away as you move forward in time.

Each era is illustrated by a season; Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, mimicking the path from birth to death.

This ability also gives you a unique influence, with decisions made in the past directly impacting the future, but also things learnt in the future potentially changing how you might act in the past.

The lines between reality and myth seem to blur together, as you are tasked with unravelling a mystery full of weird and wonderful riddles. It’s a game of precise detail, so it’s no surprise the team put creating a living, breathing environment at the heart of their creation.

The statue of Svarog was the focus of the Indie Game Website piece, but as Machowski explained, the process went far beyond one statue. “To get unique graphics, we visited ethnographic museums where we scanned hundreds of objects and entire buildings, so you can admire them in the game the way they actually are. We also scanned the elements of the natural environment in order to get the most European Slavonic climate possible.”

The environments are dynamic too, with lighting and time of day changing before your eyes.

The result is a unique artstyle with a level of detail unheard of from such a small team. The aesthetic leans away from the warrior laden history Slavic and Norse games are usually pigeon holed in, with a much warmer, more homely, village feel to it.

Slavic culture has clearly had a huge impact on the game too, as various myths and legends are at the heart of the mystery you must uncover. Each time period you jump to is set during a different Slavic festival, and the game is filled with long forgotten daily activities from traditional Slavic villager life.

Isn’t Slavic a fun word to say?

Check out the 20 minutes of gameplay the team have released below, and follow the links for their Kickstarter, Steam page and official site.

Inside The FIFA Quaranteam Tournament Keeping Us All Entertained While The Premier League Is Away

The outcome of the current football season is still up in the air. Will Liverpool win the title? Will Villa stay up? Will the season resume to see Newcastle continue to windmill their way to FA Cup success? Hey, stranger things have happened. While we wait for play to resume, Leyton Orient have been making sure we don’t get too bored. After tentatively putting out an appeal for a FIFA tournament – the Ultimate Quaranteam – it quickly ballooned into a 128 team tournament stretching across the globe, including a four time world champion e-footballer in Bruce Grannec, Premier League pro Todd Cantwell and Leyton Orient’s own goalie Sam Sargeant.

“We discussed content ideas simply for fan engagement – we looked at different countries going head to head in games of Connect4,” Dan Walker, one of the organisers of the tournament for Leyton Orient told me, recalling the Twitter match-ups between the likes of Hull City and Bayern Leverkusen, “That was good content but it would quickly die. FIFA is huge, and gaming is a great escape for many right now. It just made sense.”

The game might be huge, but Walker was still surprised at the response from the footballing world. “We aimed for 64 [clubs] and very quickly achieved that, so we soon went for 128. In terms of expectations I think we’ve massively overachieved. With respect, we know we’re a League Two club. So putting that tweet out was far more of a risk than if, say, Liverpool put it out! We’re delighted!”

Speaking of Newcastle winning a trophy, while the FA Cup may be a pipe dream, there’s a real chance for them in this. Bruce Grannec, that four time world champion? He’s already been knocked out by Newcastle’s own PlanetToast, care of an Andy Carroll winner. All of PlanetToast’s goals have come from Carroll, and he described what it was like to have a local hero doing the job for him. “Big Andy has scored all four goals for me so far. I made sure to run over to the camera for the celebration when he scored [in the last minute] and the entire chat on my livestream was going mental. I’ve always been a big Andy Carroll fan, hopefully he can recreate this scoring form when Premier League football comes back.”

Lofty ambitions perhaps, but PlanetToast’s plans to win the Quaranteam are seemed much more likely. He kept clean sheets in his first three games; even more impressive considering he’s not playing on his usual system. “This tournament is on the PS4 when I play on Xbox, it’s a factor that not many people have taken into consideration but I’m not used to the PS4 controller at all.” After beating Gillingham and Grannec’s FC Nates though FC Sion and Cobra proved too much for him, with the e-pro knocking PlanetToast out 2-1. Yoshinori Muto provided NUFC’s goal for that one.

One of the best things about the tournament is the weird and wonderful ties they’ve thrown up. “Walsall v Roma has to be the best one, what a fixture that is! Walsall then went on to win. Incredible scenes!” Walker said. All clubs are set to a default 85 player rating for added balance.

Another one of the huge glamour ties was Ajax v Mansfield, with a last minute winner seeing Mansfield knock out last year’s Champions League semi-finalists. AC RedLac is representing the Stags, and as another player representing his local team, he spoke about the passion of the Mansfield fans. “Mansfield fans are coming in the stream and supporting me, which makes it even more special than just playing as my local team. I wanna take the fans as far as I can, because they’re definitely enjoying it!”

What awaited AC RedLac after his beloved Mansfield knocked out European giants Ajax? A home tie to… Rotherham. “It’s less glamorous but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a tough game,” AC RedLac said, but after conceding only one shot on target in both games against Ajax, he was confident he could do it on a rainy night in Rotherham as well as he can at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. A 2-1 victory proved him correct, with a tie against Premier League Wolves and their official eSports up next. Wolves wound up the eventual tournament champions, knocking out Mansfield and everyone else in their path.

It all ran smoothly, save for some early drop outs who were quickly replaced. By Walker’s own admission though, that’s more by luck than judgement. “Trying to get in touch with 127 other football teams and get them all on the same page was quite difficult! As a club, e-sports is something we have never explored, so using Twitch was a new experience.” With so many streamers involved, Walker and Leyton Orient have given a bit more agency to the players. “After every round is fully completed, there’s then a 48 hour window when the two clubs have to contact each other and arrange a time both players can agree on,” PlanetToast explained, “Then I set up the stream five or ten minutes before and kick off and Newcastle have been kind enough to tweet it out too so loads of fans are coming to watch.”

Norwich’s Todd Cantwell is the biggest name in the tournament, but Walker is confident he’ll be joined by a whole host of stars next time around, saying an all pro footballers tournament “will happen 100%.” Mason Mount has already spoken about his interest, and Walker expects more will come aboard, “It’s such a simple and engaging idea. The reach these people have across social media will encourage people to get involved.”

It could be a while before the Premier League is back in action, but until then, we’ll always have FIFA.

Animal Crossing Is A Westworld Hellscape

If you’ve had Animal Crossing since launch, you’ll likely have played it long enough to have made your island your own. That might mean creating mazes, building football stadiums, or re-enacting horror flicks. It’s even reached the level of popularity for Business Insider to harvest hate clicks by explaining how it’s a dumb game for babies, you dumb baby.

It’s time to grab onto your tin foil to block out those brainwaves, because Hammer Space is about to break the scoop of the century: Animal Crossing is a Westworld hellscape.

You know Westworld, right? The first season was amazing but the second season was too confusing, but none of us can admit that so we’re still watching, hoping we can figure it out? Before the show, Westworld was a book and a movie, the book written by Michael Crichton and the movie directed by XXXXX. It told of an amusement park filled with robot cowboys, where you could pay to play out your Wild West fantasies. The show took things darker, and updated the campy ‘70s robots into humanoid androids, but the concept remained the same.

Animal Crossing may be filled with these very same androids.

First off, it’s undeniably odd that in a game called Animal Crossing, you cannot be an animal. You’re a human, the only human, and the other creatures simply exist for your amusement. But there is far more to this theory than that alone.

The darker side of Animal Crossing has been written about before. Cow skin rugs, barbecues with meat kebabs, the fact insects and fish are put on display but ducks, mice and zebras can wander the village freely… these have always been mentioned as the slightly strange, perhaps even amusing parts of Animal Crossing’s ecosystem. Now, after thorough investigative reporting including an undercover trip to an Animal Crossing island itself, Hammer Space can reveal that these are not random oddities, but in fact part of a deliberate and consistent process of psychological torture designed by the masters of the island to keep the animals in line.

Why exactly do they need to be kept in line if they’re robots though? Well, as the Westworld show proves, even robots can rebel. In fact, in the world of Animal Crossing, they already have.

Stitches was not always a teddy bear with a button eye. Sprocket did not always have his machine parts on display so obnoxiously. Where psychological conditioning was enough to keep most of the villagers in line, with Stitches and Sprocket they needed to resort to physical violence.

It may be that the animals are not androids, but have instead been captured and forced to perform for our amusement. Hammer Space could not confirm the nature of the animals at this time.

You may have noticed that the animals used to be a lot more sassy and sarcastic. This was the small amount of rebellion they had, and as their overlords have exerted greater control, this has been crushed out of them.

What does all this mean for the major animals on the island though? Tom Nook started out as a simply shopkeep, before moving up in the world to be a property magnate and now the owner of his own travel company, a company which for some reason also makes phones. Tom Nook climbed the ladder by finking on his fellow beasts to his overlords; he may be a tanuki, but he’s also a rat.

He can’t be all bad though, taking in his orphaned nephews Tommy and Timmy, right? Bah! You mean the children he puts to work for him? And besides, they aren’t his nephews, they’re his clones. Once they come of age they will fight to the death for the right to take his place.

Whether Tom Nook is a charitable socialist letting you fund your house through whatever means manageable or a cold hearted capitalist looking to wring every last bell out of you has been debated endlessly. The answer is meaningless; it’s a deliberate distraction ploy. Nook’s motivations matter little. What matters is that you keep paying, or rather, that you keep earning.

Does it not seem odd that Nook gives you such ample, interest free time, while also encouraging you to spend bells and Nook’s Cranny or Able Sisters? What you buy is irrelevant; it’s by harvest bells, whether that’s from pulling weeds, chopping wood or hitting stones with rocks.

These violent delights have violent bells

The big question you might still have is why. Why anything? Well, much like The Matrix or Rick & Morty’s microverse, we believe that whoever really runs the island is using you, both to gather resources and to generate energy. On a large enough scale – a scale covered by the amount of AC players – the energy needed to construct this hellscape is offset by the energy generated by each players wilful participation in it.

The presence of the bugs and fish in the museum serve to remind the animals that they could just as easily be captured and put on display if the masters willed it. The fact the younger villagers like CJ & Flick have adjusted to this reality quicker and have even found a way to profit off it highlights how the animals are having to resort to extraordinary means to keep from going unhinged.

Isabelle remains a mystery. She’s clearly working with Tom Nook, but is she actually working with him, or instead a double agent working against him? She’s reluctant to discipline other villagers and is in a position to influence your behaviour, but Hammer Space struggled to get a consistent read on her.

So there you have it. Animal Crossing may be a fun larf, but for the villagers it’s a non stop psychological nightmare where they’re forced into constant happiness to keep you entertained. Think about that the next time you go fishing, you dumb babies.