Elite Beat Agents

eba.jpg If Full Spectrum Warrior can be used to train soldiers in the US Army, I don’t understand why crisis negotiators and bomb disposal teams aren’t using Elite Beat Agents to train their new recruits. No other game comes close to teaching you the importance of staying calm under pressure like EBA.

Elite Beat Agents is the English-language version of Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, a cheerleading game which appeared on the DS in Japan a while ago. It’s basically a rhythm-action game, requiring you to tap the screen in the right place, in time with the music (the unbearably cute J-Pop of the original replaced with unbearably cute western pop in EBA). Simple, right?

Wrong.

The whole time you’re playing, your “Elite Meter” is trickling down. Tapping the screen at the right time will top this up slightly (How well you tap the screen in time with the music affects the amount that this gets ‘topped up’). Miss a note and your Elite Meter drops slightly. If your Elite Meter drops to nothing, it’s game over.

There’s a point, roughly halfway along your Elite Meter where it turns from yellow (fine) into red (danger!). Once you cross into the red, your on-screen cheerleaders stop cheering. They stand there, panting, until you manage to bring the Elite Meter out of the red. With all its liveliness and constant movement, the sight of your cheerleaders standing completely motionless, is the most distracting thing in the game.

If you get into the red, it’s very easy to drag yourself back out: all you need to do is score some perfect hits and boost your Elite Meter. But when you realise your cheerleaders aren’t dancing, you panic. You start keeping one eye on your Elite Meter. Then all sense of rhythm goes out the window and it’s virtually impossible to get the perfect hits you need. In other words, if you panic and lose focus, it’s game over. It took me a long time to learn this. Frustration almost drove me to shove the stylus through my DS while trying to crack “Jumpin' Jack Flash”, but I got there in the end.

So if you ever see a guy defusing a bomb and humming ‘Sk8r Boi’, don’t worry. You’re in good hands.

So far, Elite Beat Agents hasn’t been given a UK release, but DS games aren’t region-locked, so buy a copy from eBay and enjoy.

{games, nintendo, DS}

Technorati Tags: ds, games, nintendo

Island at the Top of the World

Something I love about my family are the weird, idiosyncratic movies that have been with us for as long as I can remember. I’m sure your family has them too. The kinds of films that are almost a family institution, like the post-Christmas-dinner nap/singsong/fistfight, yet barely appear on anyone else’s radar.

For example, Murder She Said is a major deal within my family and this had a major impact on my development. Do you know what it’s like to be 6 years old and be able to rattle off every line of a 30-year-old black and white Miss Marple movie? Compare this with the kid in my class who knew every line of The Terminator and would frequently reenact the entire movie in school. I bet that guy is making millions now.

Then there’s also The Scarlet Pimpernel (starring a young Ian McKellan), which is a useful tool for defusing family arguments. When things start getting out of hand and everyone’s voices are booming a little more than they should, you just need to drop a mention of this movie and everyone’s eyes glaze over and a happy smile appears on their faces like their medication has finally kicked in. This is the film that taught me the cruel reality that videotape starts to really lose its quality after a couple of hundred viewings.

For me though, nothing can match The Island at the Top of the World. This movie had such a profound effect on my youth that it has become the yardstick by which all adventure movies are measured.

Rather than try to bluster my way through a summary of the story, here’s the blurb from the back of the box:

An American archaeology (David Hartman) joins a rich English businessman, an eccentric French inventor, and an Eskimo trapper (Mako, from Rising Sun), on an awe inspiring expedition to the Arctic. They're looking for a missing son, but they discover a world forgotten by time -- a world of 10th century Vikings, erupting volcanoes, and the legendary whales' graveyard.

The film itself has an impressive array of talent attached to it: directed by Robert Stevenson, who also directed many of Disney’s most popular live-action movies including Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, the screenplay was written by John Whedon, grandfather of Joss, and the music was composed by Maurice Jarre, father of Jean-Michel.

It’s not the cleverest movie you’ll see and at times it will push your suspension of disbelief to breaking point. But it’s a kid’s movie. Y’know… for kids! And that’s just par for the course for kid’s movies. Show me a kid’s movie that doesn’t require a conceptual leap of faith and I’ll show you one dull kid’s movie.

What makes Island at the Top of the World stand out is the charm with which it goes about telling its fantastic story and the spectacular, if slightly contrived set-pieces dotted throughout the movie. For example, at one stage, the characters outrun a flow of lava. If you leave your ‘real-world logic’ at the door and forget about things like “second degree burns”, this is a lot more enjoyable; after all, this is a Disney movie, and you’re only in trouble if the Lava actually catches you. As a child, this scene blew my mind and the sight of Donald Sinden being chased down by red-hot molten rock will stick with me forever.

And balls to people who complain about the special effects. More balls to people who try to give up excuses like “they were good for the time”. The effects in Island at the Top of the World are incredible. In terms of the the spectacle they create and the sense of scale they help achieve, it’s easy to look on Island at the Top of the World as some proto-Lord of the Rings. The sight of the airship (the Hyperion) coming out of its hanger is just one example. I almost had a fit when I saw Disney had recreated this image for a restaurant in Disneyland Paris.

Also, I have to question some of the so-called “mistakes” in the special effects. For instance, in a scene where the evil high priest is blue-screened in front of a giant fire, his blue eyes meant that you could see the flames in his eyes. Is this really a mistake? Or another kick-ass idea in a movie full of kick-ass ideas? I’m suggesting it’s the latter. If you pay close attention to this scene (and I have, believe me), you’ll see that this effect gets more pronounced as the priest gets angrier.

It’s almost a quarter-century since I first saw this movie. Watching it now is a weird experience. I used to know every line of this movie off by heart, but this useful knowledge has been buried under mounds of useless trivia (did you know you can tell a whale’s age by cutting its earwax and counting the rings?), so I get this weird, comforting, giddy sense of deja vu. Great times.

Now if you don’t mind, I think it’s time I watched this again.

Buy Island at the Top of the World on Amazon.co.uk

Silent Hill 2

silenthill2.jpg

Much as I love “survival horror” games, I have genuine trouble playing them. I like to think this is because I become so engrossed in the game and commit myself to it so completely that the scares are extremely effective on me. But others might say that it’s because I’m a complete pussy. I’ll let you decide which theory you want to subscribe to. When my girlfriend announced that she’d had enough of the ‘cutesy’ games I’d been pushing on her (the risible “Hello Kitty” game being the proverbial straw) and wanted to try something meatier, I realised it was time to bit the bullet and bring out Silent Hill 2, a game that had been lying untouched since I bought it almost two years ago. The idea being that she would play most of the game, handing (read: throwing) the controller to me whenever the action got a bit much for her.

Throughout the course of the game, you realise how much the game loves to fuck with you. It’s true that most survival horror games like to fuck with you in some way - the cheap-but-fun parlour tricks of “Eternal Darkness” making you think your controller had become unplugged, or the twisted self-referential jokes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 - but Silent Hill turns this into an art form. The static on your character’s hand-held radio being a particularly good example. It warns the player that an enemy is close, but doesn’t give any indication of exactly where it is. And there’s only one thing scarier than something you can’t see: something you can’t see, but know is there.

By the middle of Silent Hill 2, you’ll have collected most weapons and found plenty of ammunition for your arsenal. Even on “normal” difficulty, the enemies aren’t particularly troublesome. The ones you can’t kill are easy to avoid. At this stage, even my girlfriend was taunting the enemies. I’m pretty sure I heard her smack-talking Pyramid Head.

And that’s when the game pounces.

Inside a hotel, you come across a lift. You have to go down a couple of floors and pick up some items. Unfortunately, when you step into the lift (the only way down), an alarm goes off. A helpful sign informs you that the lift, in true videogame logic, has a weight limit of exactly one person. I spent five minutes shouting at the TV. “You sneaky fuckers! There’s someone else in the lift with me! Someone on the roof! Someone I can’t see!? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?!!” Eventually, I discovered what it wanted me to do: my inventory was weighing me down, so I’d have to dump all of my guns and ammunition and go in unarmed. It wouldn’t even let me carry a stick to club potential enemies with.

And with that, my shouting went up a notch. I paused the game and shrieked at the TV for a good ten minutes. I knew that I would be in a cramped basement filled with the worst kinds of brain-spew this side of a Francis Bacon painting (see what I did there?). And I would be completely defenceless. In the end, I spent more time bitching and moaning about what I had to do than I spent actually doing it, but that’s entirely beside the point.

Not long after the game was finished, myself and my girlfriend went on a late-night tour of Kilmainham Jail, a special one-off tour as part of heritage week, given by a friend of ours. It was all about execution within the jail, taking us through some of the places not shown on the ‘normal’ tour. I don’t think anyone was as freaked out as us - the whole thing was exactly like something out of Silent Hill, right down to the creepy map on the wall.

So now, if anyone asks me if Silent Hill 2 is a good game, I tell them about walking through Kilmainham Jail, constantly checking over my shoulder for zombie nurses. It takes a truly spectacular game to mess you up long after the computer is turned off.