Retrovania | Disney’s Action Game Featuring Hercules

This month Retrovania returns to the good ship Infinite Robots after an extended break. To celebrate we take a look back at one of the most underrated platformers on Sony’s original PlayStation – Disney’s Action Game Featuring Hercules!  It’s 2D! It has a ridiculous title! It’s Retrovania!

HerculesWhen you we say the words ‘PlayStation One’ you’d probably say “Lara Croft”, or “Tekken” or “How did you survive with only 32-bits, Grandad?”. If we said the word platformer you’d probably think of Spyro, Crash Bandicoot or one of the many other platformers that took off with Sony’s record-breaking 3D platform. You might not, however, immediately associate a 2D side-scroller based on a Disney movie.

Despite its obscurity Disney’s Action Game Featuring Hercules is one of the console’s hidden gems and stands as one of the best 2D platformers of the last fifteen years. Harking back to the simple but intuitive platforming mechanics of Aladdin (MegaDrive/SNES, 1993/1994) Hercules was more than just a last hurrah for a dying style.  It was a celebration of what made 2D platformers great in the safe & familiar animation of the Disney universe.

Whereas hand-drawn, 2D spites have seen something of a renaissance in recent years – thanks to the success of downloadable platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, Steam & the PlayStation Network – back in 1997 it was an antiquated hallmark of the early nighties console war. Hercules wore its Disney charm with a certain sense of pride and the soundtrack, voice-over work & in-game lighting managed to create an experience that felt like a seamless addition rather than a parody or cheap tie-in.

Hercules
The faux-3D sprites helped create a unique sense of depth to Hercules

The platforming mechanics have a much lighter feel than many other platformers from previous generations, with a focus on nuanced transitions between platforms & interactive elements. It also used the animation style to create multiple layers of terrain that ol’ Herc could move between with specifically placed connecting paths. It was a neat way of utilising the 2D animation in a way that didn’t stray too close to the third dimension running riot elsewhere.

From urging you to explore these layers to find collectables & extra health to evading enemy projectiles, these elements were even utilised in on-the rails-sections that saw Hercules racing third-person through ‘gauntlet’ style stages. It was pure Sonic Special Stage but it was still an authentically 2D feature.

Hercules
One of the many ‘rush’-style gauntlet levels

Even the combat of Hercules was more than just single strike of old. You could throw punches, swing a sword or throw a mean uppercut that could shatter pillars & send bosses flying off the screen. Herc’s sword could also be suped-up with the power of the Gods from lightning strikes to fireballs. Being Ancient Greece the many levels of Hercules, from the city streets to the depths of Hades, were filled with some pretty nasty enemies so these power-ups were never in danger of overpowering the Demigod hero.

Even now, fifteen years after its release, Disney’s Action Game Featuring Hercules is still a ridiculously fun game. The hand-drawn animation style is, and always will be, a timeless presentation so it’s dated only by that tell-tale PlayStation intro we all remember so well. Being a PS1 game it can be downloaded off PSN & played straight off your PS3 but on a handheld device like the PSP or the Vita Hercules really shines like a treasure waiting to be rediscovered. Pure vintage platforming.

Eurocom | Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Last month veteran British developer Eurocom was sadly forced to lay of 75% of its staff due to poor sales & a largely negative reaction to its latest offering 007 Legends.  So how did one of the UK’s oldest independent studios go from working on so many global licences to a lean outfit focused on purely mobile gaming? infinite robots takes a look at the storied history of one of gaming’s most wayward developers…

Back in the Day

Back in 1988 when everyone was walking the dinosaur & John McClane was shooting his away around the Nakatomi Plaza, a group of British games developers came together with the aim of making games that would stand out in an industry on the brink of mainstream breakthrough. Two years later and with the nineties in full swing they released Magician (NES, 1991), a side-scrolling adventure with many of the hallmarks of RPG gaming such as item management & spell-casting. And whilst it was no A Link to the Past, for such a small team it showed a desire to tread new ground in an industry ruled by the mighty platformer.

Disney’s Hercules managed to be faithful to its source material and offer hours of intuitive platforming shenanigans.

By the mid to late nineties the Derby-based studio had established itself as a jack-of-all-trades with everything from a ports of Sensible Soccer (Game Gear, 1993) & Dino Dini’s Soccer (SNES, 1994) to straight-up tie-ins such as James Bond Jr. (NES/SNES, 1991) & quiz game Family Feud (PC/3DO/Mega Drive/Genesis, 1994). By never really focusing on one genre or style for more than a single release everything from their arcade ports of Mortal Kombat 3 (PlayStation One/Saturn, 1996) to their version of Duke Nukem on the N64 (1997) all felt devoid of any true sense of self.

Diamonds in the Rough

And whilst it’s sadly churned its fair share of forgettable duds over the last twenty five years, Eurocom has also given us some of gaming’s most balanced & well remembered contributions. Disney’s Action Game Featuring Hercules (PlayStation One/PC, 1997) may have one of the worst titles you’ve ever heard but it’s still a fine homage to 2D scrolling platformers at a time where Tomb Raider & Spyro were riding high in 3D. Embracing the beautiful 2D animation that Disney has sadly forgotten in recent years, Hercules managed to be faithful to its source material and offer hours of intuitive platforming shenanigans.

Even their arcade port of Mortal Kombat 4 to the N64 (1998) was faithfully identical to the coin-up version (no mean feat considering the amount of raw data squeezed into 16 megabytes of cartridge).

When the millennium swung round it gave us the third Pierce Brosnan Bond outing The World Is Not Enough and with it the latest video game tie-in. Eurocom were given development duties on Nintendo’s powerful N64 console whilst the development of the PS1 version fell to the now defunct Black Ops Entertainment. And whilst the PlayStation version ended up as a bug-ridden mess that took a critical mauling, Eurocom gave us a well-rounded shooter that took full advantage of the N64s extra horsepower. It didn’t quite have Goldeneye 007’s sense of character but it boasted competent enemy AI & a decent multiplayer mode. It impressed enough in sales & scores to bag Eurocom an affiliation with the franchise for another twelve years. Even their arcade port of Mortal Kombat 4 to the N64 (1998) was faithfully identical to the coin-up version (no mean feat considering the amount of raw data squeezed into 16 megabytes of cartridge).

New IP vs. Established Franchise

Arguably one of Eurocoms biggest failings has been its lack of original IPs. Over the sixty odd games it’s produced on twenty separate platforms staggeringly only three have been IPs originally developed by Eurocom itself. Everything else has been a franchise tie-in or a console/handheld port of an existing game code. From Earthworm Jim (Game Boy/Game Gear, 1995) & Super Street Fighter II Turbo (PC, 1995) to Predator: Concrete Jungle (PlayStation 2/Xbox, 2005) & Dead Space: Extraction (Wii, 2009), Eurocom hardly endeared itself to critics by rarely breaking new ground or risking a new IP.  Eurocom simply became the go-to developer for licenced titles turned around in enough time to dual launch with another medium. Unlike other British developers/publishers such as Rare or Eidos, Eurocom has never managed to create a style or level of quality that was ever uniquely their own.

The Occasional Risk

When Eurocom did step out of the shadows with something new it showed us glimpses of brilliance that was sadly mired by poor sales or negative reviews. Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy (GameCube/PlayStation 2/Xbox, 2003) was a release that clearly showed Eurocom had learnt from its mistakes with 40 Winks (PlayStation One/N64, 1999). Embracing the principles that had seen the platformer take something of a revival on the sixth generation of consoles, Sphinx was a brand new character with original environments, interesting characters and a solid core of gameplay.

On the GameCube Mario was always destined to remain king & Sphinx, like so many other ‘mascots’, failed to find a proper fit on Mircosoft’s Halo-centric first console.

The Egyptian setting & detailed textures made for a genuinely great platformer. Even critically it faired positively with scores ranging from high-80s to low-90s. But even with Crash Bandicoot & Spyro relegated to a bygone era, other franchises such as Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter had already rooted themselves into the PlayStation 2 brand. On the GameCube Mario was always destined to remain king & Sphinx, like so many other ‘mascots’, failed to find a proper fit on Mircosoft’s Halo-centric first console. Sphinx, for all its quality, was simply buried alive in a crowd of louder competitors.  And with its “sluggish sales” it put paid to any future plans Eurocom had outside established franchises.

The Future for Eurocom

So what does the future now hold for Eurocom as it heads through its third decade? Well with 75% of its staff forced into redundancy it seems a focus on the mobile market will be Eurocom’s new battleground. With considerably smaller budgets, shorter development cycles & the ease of digital downloads, moving into this lucrative market will be their smartest option bar folding completely. In a recent statement Director Hugh Binns expressed his frustration at the downsizing and his new direction for the company: “We’ve fought to try & save as many jobs as possible, but the steep decline in demand for console games, culminating in a number of console projects falling through in the last week, left us with no option.”

He added “Eurocom has retained a core staff of just under 50 employees and will be focusing mainly on mobile opportunities going forward”. With the shadow of 007 Legends’ spectacular failure – a game we mercilessly reviewed back in October – firmly behind them, perhaps the time is nigh for Eurocom to find its true voice & rise from its own ashes triumphant.

[Sources: Games Industry International, IGN]

Dom Reseigh-Lincoln is the Content Editor for infinite robots. You can find him muttering in his own little corner of Twitter @furianreseigh.

What We Want To See | 007 Legends

October is the month of Bond! This month not only sees the return of the cinematic superspy to cinemas in Skyfall, but Bond’s first video game outing in almost a year – 007 Legends. To get you in the mood for a little cinematic FPS action 007-style we lay down what we want to see from the latest pixelated exploits of Britain’s suavest psychopath…

Don’t Overdo the Nostalgia

One of the main reasons 007 Legends even exists is to celebrate 2012 as the 50th anniversary of James Bond’s debut on the silver screen, and this key to the kingdom could be 007 Legends biggest failing. The game is split up into six mini-campaigns based on six iconic outings in those fifty years as a filmic icon, with a seventh – based on the new Skyfall flick – arriving as DLC two weeks later.

Expect Eurocom’s mix of classic & modern design styles to make a return…

 

If 007 Legends simply goes for video game versions of classic scenes with no innovation or originality it will kill the game dead. 2011’s Goldeneye Reloaded showed some genuinely fresh takes on the classic Goldeneye framework & with Bond scribe Bruce Fernstein returning to pen this title 007 Legends could surprise us all.

Avoid the Call

We have enough games like Call of Duty, hell we have enough Call of Duties so we don’t need another addition to that locker room. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution & Dishonored have proved that stealth gameplay can work in an FPS environment so embracing the covert world of MI6 is the surest way for this new Bond game to find its own flavour.

Let’s hope this scene isnt too much like Modern Warfare 2…

Developer Eurocom have proven that they can replicate the set piece theatrics of Infinity Ward & Treyarch, so expect some big firefights & even bigger explosions. We just hope Eurocom can find a balance that’s uniquely different to survive in a very crowded genre.

A Multiplayer Experience with Teeth

If you’re an FPS in the modern era having a single-player campaign is all well and good but it’s in your online arena that the real metal is shown. If Goldeneye Reloaded’s multiplayer had one fault – and sadly it had many – it was its lag. Soul-destroying, game breaking lag. The big hitters like COD & Halo are always going to attract & hold a consistent community of cycling players but the issues with the demon of lag thinned lobbies like a wildfire. If 007 Legends can provide a smooth & consist experience it can at least overcome the failings of its predecessor.

The Moonraker missions sees the return of some familiar villians…

We want to see dynamic character models that clearly shift between stealth & full-on animations, none of this stiff-backed rubbish from back in the day. The character models from Goldeneye Reloaded were practically lifted from Counter Strike everything needs to be new, shiny & aware of the progress of others in the genre. Keep in the mixture of game types & the great arsenal of weapons & the lobbies will fill up again. At least until November 13 anyhow.

Embrace the Bond

This a game set in the 007 universe so let’s see all the hallmarks of the series. Gadgets, chase sequences (sadly, we don’t hold much hope on this one), feisty female leads & malice-filled villians. We want to see bags of action from the off with all the intensity & character we’ve seen from this licence. With Daniel Craig providing voice talent once again as well as fan favourites like Jaws & Hug Drax returning this could be a refreshing mix of old icons & the Bourne-esque gritty realism of the Craig era. If Eurocom embrace the rich canon of James Bond then this licence with a global brand could be the x-factor 007 Legends needs to be a legitimate success.

So there you have it, just a few of the things 007 Legends needs to do right to keep its head above the water in the shark pool that is the FPS genre. Will you be picking up 007 Legends or is this one James Bond game too far? Comment & let us know, you know the drill!

Retrovania | Batman Begins (Xbox/PS2/ GameCube)

To celebrate the release of Chistopher Nolan’s epic conclusion to his Batman saga The Dark Knight Rises, infinite robots bring you a special edition of our retro review feature Retrovania. This week we swoop back to 2005 with Eurocom’s ill-fated Batman Begins

Continue reading Retrovania | Batman Begins (Xbox/PS2/ GameCube)