Well, I must say, it's been very enjoyable gaming for me the past few days, despite having limited time to really get into anything at any length. I'm still chomping at the bit to sit down and play MLB '07 The Show from Sony for the PS2, which I've only had time to dabble in so far, and I only just took a few hours this morning to actually do my family's taxes, as well as there being the ever-present 800-pound gorilla ("the book") in my life and needing to finish organizing my videogame and computer collection (adding to many other things).
So, while these are not in-depth overviews, I wanted to quickly and specifically talk about LifeLine (2004, Konami, PS2), the infamous adventure game driven mostly by voice commands, and Jetpac Refuelled (2007, Rare, Xbox 360), the latest ~$5 release for Xbox Live Arcade based on a classic game.
LifeLine was highly anticipated - including by me - when it was first announced by Konami in 2003 for release in 2004, when it came out. Think a typical survival horror adventure game, except instead of having direct control over the game's protagonist, you're in a command center watching from surveillance cameras and you give your comely virtual partner voice commands about what to do next. While she's her own individual part of the time, for the most part you do tell her what to do next. While superficially it seems like a typical adventure game, I'd liken it more to a classic text adventure where instead of typing full sentence commands into a keyboard that's then interpreted by an Infocom-like parser, you speak those same type of commands into a USB headset. In other words, instead of typing, "Flee, then stop, turn left, then shoot the right eye", you'd actually speak it. My choice of input device was my usual Logitech PS2 USB headset microphone, which also pulls double-duty as a static-free PC USB microphone (too bad the cord wasn't longer - I really need 10 feet+ and this is maybe half that!).
Obviously what makes or breaks this game is the accuracy of the speech recognition. Back when the game was first released, I subscribed to the now defunct "Official US PlayStation Magazine", which always came with a handy demo disc. They actually had a demo for LifeLine on it, which I tried and ended up being quite frustrated with. It simply didn't respond to voice commands well at all. I heard other reports at the time from those who actually purchased the game that the speech recognition worked pretty well, but the demo basically dashed my hopes of ever getting and enjoying the game. Enter GameFly.
With the rental service GameFly, I've been renting PS2 games fast and furious to test compatibility with the HD Loader software, which allows you to back your games up to a hard drive installed in the expansion bay on the original (full-sized) model of the PS2. Some games don't work when attempting to do that (no dual-layer or CD's, for instance), but those that do take on a new life, with greatly reduced load times and smooth access. Now, I certainly need to compare performance from the game running from the disc versus the game running from the hard drive, but whether it was the fact that I was running the game entirely from the hard drive or the fact that it was the full product with presumably the full recognition engine activated (and going through the short test sequence in the beginning), I actually found recognition accuracy to be very, very high, and in fact perfect in the 10 minutes of the first part of the game that I played through. The best part was I actually felt like I was playing a classic text adventure, except by giving voice commands (your commands need to be calm and clear - yelling seemed to affect accuracy during the test sequence). Fun, fun, fun and highly recommended for those who had any interest in the game and were disappointed by the demo like I was, or heard bad things about it. Rent this, or, if you can get it cheap enough (less than $20), buy it. Of course you need a good USB headset (one compatible with the PS2) for this game to work, as even though you do make some use of the controller, the voice commands are an integrated component of the majority of the game (and in fact, it doesn't even start if a headset is not detected).
As for Jetpac Refuelled, the original Jetpac was made before Rare was Rare, when they were called Ultimate. The original platform was the Sinclair Spectrum computer, with the game released to critical acclaim in 1983 for its smooth play and interesting angle on platforming and shooting concepts. Eventually it was ported to other platforms like the C-64 and spawned a number of sequels, clones and offshoots. Wildly popular in the UK, but less so in places like North America, it's a title a lot of us - myself included - were not exposed to as much as some other noted classics (I have a vague recollection of playing the C-64 version and I'm sure I have still have it on disk somewhere - I've since acquired but had yet to try the Spectrum tape version). In any case, being introduced to the game for what seems like the first time anyway, I can say it's another Xbox Live Arcade winner. In fact, I immediately spent the points and purchased the game after only a brief play-through.
For those who never played it, the basic concept is that you view the action from the side and in the first stage your goal is to collect the pieces through judicious use of your jetpac to build and then fuel your rocket ship, while avoiding and shooting the nasties. There are platforms to rest on and avoid and the action is fast and furious, while playing in a very smooth manner (very easy to control and no response lag). The updated HD widescreen visuals and sound are quite pleasing. Normally I can take or leave these visual updates as I can better appreciate the charms of classic looks since they tend to be less gaudy (less is often more), but in this case, I think they did a bang up, appealing job on the facelift. Perhaps the only thing I would have liked to see were slightly smaller visuals so one screen fit on the whole widescreen without any scrolling, but it's still OK.
For purists, the original Spectrum version is included and is either a tweaked emulation or very good simulation. The Spectrum never did a great job with colors, and all the color overlap and unintentional blending are intact. The game screen itself is in the original 4:3 perspective, with the typical illustrated borders as filler for the widescreen orientation. This plays great as well and is just as much fun as the update, prompting me to want to seek out my copy of the original to experience it for real. Again, this is another winner for Xbox Live Arcade (and yes, has all the standard leaderboard, achievement, multiplayer and online play features), despite what some may consider a "lighter" or relatively unknown game (which sadly has been bizarre criticisms of past classic releases). I think if you read Armchair Arcade, you would certainly love this game in any form, so no need to preach the joys of the easy-to-pick-up arcade-style gameplay...
Well, that's about all I have to say on my personal discovery of these two gems. [By the way, just a few more days until we all get a chance to buy Konami Classics: Arcade Hits (2007, Konami, Nintendo DS), which features a long-awaited portable Pooyan (woo hoo!)! Now I just need a portable Satan's Hollow and I'm golden...] Happy gaming!
I also downloaded and bought Jetpac and was pleased to see that my first play after this many years gave me a slightly higher high score than Bill!
"color overlap and unintentional blending" were simple called "Colour Clashing" in the 80´s as I remember correctly. It feels like an emulated game, will investigate further to see if it is not a pixel perfect conversion after all. It´s running a little too smooth to actually be Spectrum I say. But the graphical glitches and Colour Clashing does seem very genuine.
A great game and definitely worth getting is my opinion! The updated game is a little easier since there is more room to move about and you don´t bang into the nasties as quickly as on the "speccy original".
It strikes me as a cross between Nodes/Arc of Yeshod and defender. :)
Mark Vergeer - Editor / Pixelator
Armchair Arcade, Inc.