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The Curiouser Top Ten Games of 2019

Also published on my retro gaming site, Retro Arcadia.

The best games released in 2019 were obviously the Switch versions of Elevator Action, Bomb Jack, Track & Field, Hyper Sports, Yie Ar Kung Fu, Virtua Racing and Out Run (which I finally finished after decades of trying, then obsessed over finishing every possible route). I also played and finished the seminal Final Fantasy 7 for the first time, also on Switch – still tells a great story and plays fine even if it’s not the looker it once was. Just like me! The Konami Contra, Castlevania and Arcade Anniversary Collections were also fantastic, giving me all sorts of fun, especially with my old flames Scramble and Nemesis, as well as TwinBee, which I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on since about 1985. And with SNES arriving on Switch, after 35 hours in just 10 days following its launch, found all 96 exits in Super Mario World.

Everything else is just filler, but as it’s new(ish) filler…

1. Baba is You (Nintendo Switch)

Fiendishly clever logic puzzler that gives you the ability to manipulate the rules of the level to reach a goal. Baba is You, Water is Defeat, Wall is Stop, Flag is Win, etc. All written in the single screen environments as individual words for you to push about and change, so if Flag is Win and Wall is Stop and the flag is surrounded by a wall, how about pushing “Win” around so Wall becomes Win and you can just move your little guy to the wall instead! I’ve never played anything so creative, so brain-busting and so satisfying when you eventually work out a puzzle – and quite how they came up with so many is beyond me. Absolute genius! And the hugely simplistic art style, which works great because it keeps you focussed on the puzzle, reminded me of the rubbish Eastern European cartoons you’d get on kid’s holiday TV in the 70’s, which I’d completely forgotten even existed!

2. Bleak Sword (Apple Arcade on iPad)

This is an absolute dark fantasy joy! One of the first games I picked up during my Apple Arcade trial, thanks to being grabbed by a screenshot of its super-minimalist monochrome art style that, combined with some great sound, somehow manages to invoke real atmosphere on a big iPad screen. It plays simply and beautifully on a PS4 controller, now supported on iPad with the release of iOS13. Very addictive, and the equally minimalist RPG style has a wonderful flow to it, whether played in bitesize chunks or extended sessions. Unlike its influence Dark Souls, it had me completely hooked within ten minutes, and it very quickly became clear this was coming from out of nowhere to become one of my favourite games of the year!

3. Resident Evil 2 Remake (PS4)

I played this almost immediately after finishing the original Resident Evil Remaster on PS4 – a game I bought day one decades ago on the original Playstation but barely ever scratched the surface of. Its old stylings had definitely outstayed their welcome by the end, but only heightened my appreciation for this full on remake of its sequel. I’d loved the 30-minute one-shot demo before release, and the full game didn’t disappoint – looks great, sounds great, and together with the game’s brain-testing narrative quickly builds up this incredible horror atmosphere and tension that just gets worse (in a good way). Especially when that big dude starts following you about. It doesn’t control like a 90’s nightmare anymore either!

4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill (Xbox One)

I took up an incredible £1 for almost five months of Game Pass offer on my son’s Xbox One, which included this equally incredible game that I’d previously been fully prepared to go full price on for PlayStation or Switch. You’re riding down a series of increasingly tough but beautifully stylised descents on your mountain bike, completing various levels of challenge on each. It is a bit like Trials from a different, low-polygon perspective as you explore every inch of each mountain to optimise your ride, with similar levels of infuriating difficulty and addictiveness. The controls are so tight, and the exploration, experimentation and general obsession needed to achieve the expert times is just brilliantly realised.

5. Graveyard Keeper (PS4)

If you asked me what ingredients would make my perfect game, Stardew Valley in a graveyard would be high up on the list. And this is pretty much that, once you get past the sometimes overwhelming busy work that’s teaching you (over many hours) about the tools you need to tart up your graveyard, morgue, house, crematorium, church and pretty much everything else in your surroundings whilst running an endless supply of often intertwining quests; all in a bid to get back to your real world. Nowhere near done with this yet but this beautiful world is inhabited by a definite graveyard keeper.

6. Trials Rising (PS4)

Speaking of Trials, here’s a great new entry into the Trials series with big production values and wonderful attention to detail; the most high fidelity controls you could hope for as you delicately juggle weight, brakes and gas across a massive variety of courses and challenges; and some great slapstick moments resulting from the hard as nails gameplay. I just wish I was playing it on Switch rather than PS4, but unfortunately there was simply no comparison, at launch at least.

7. Konami Pixel Puzzle Collection (iPad)

I came across this in Retro Gamer mag when I was on holiday in July. I’d never worked out what Picross / nonogram / etc. games were all about, but the fact that this went back through Konami’s 50 year history made it worth finding out. It’s completely free with some very unobtrusive static ads for recent anniversary collections, PES, etc. when you compete a puzzle, of which there are about five hundred, from simple to serious time-sinks, that all reference every Konami game you can think of and more. Great tutorial too if you’ve never tried one before – after which I got obsessed and spent about 50 hours on this, then Picross on Switch, Mario Picross on Game Boy… a whole new genre to love!

8. Cuphead (Nintendo Switch)

The hand-drawn and hand-animated 1930’s cartoon style graphics are probably the most stunning (and often most surreal and sinister) I’ve ever seen in a game. The 3-hour live big-band soundtrack is expertly played and fits that theme perfectly. But normal people will have torn their hair out long before they see most of any of that because it’s also one of the most brutal games you’ll ever play. You spend hours learning every nuance of the boss’ movements and attacks, and you’re still not good enough to beat it; then, of course, you get close enough to think it’s possible, and more hours later you do it, just to start again at the next one! And it’s perfectly suited to the Switch rather than the pervert platforms it first came out a couple of years ago.

9. Wargroove (Nintendo Switch)

I’ve tried these turn-based strategy games many times over the years and have always been crap at them, but always looked at Advance Wars and thought it might have been the one that hooked me had I not completely missed out on it. Then along came Wargroove, effectively giving me the same opportunity to find out. It’s clearly a great example of the genre and worthy successor to Advance Wars, but as much as I enjoyed it, I still don’t really get it!

10. Speed Demons (Apple Arcade on iPad)

Another great advert for Apple Arcade, this is a gorgeous top down racer with huge nods to both Spy Hunter and Super Sprint that feels absolutely fantastic to play on the touchscreen, less so on a PS4 controller. Split into loads of chapters, each with Burnout-style challenges from simple races against Speed Demons to takedowns and escapes, all taking place on a packed, neon-infused motorway. Not much to it but who cares when it’s this much fun.

The Curiouser Top Ten Films of 2019

What no Avengers Endgame? Yes, it caps off the dozens of films we’ve watched in occasionally spectacular fashion, but that’s all it does, and it goes on way too long. And it doesn’t feature any of my heroes like Motley Crüe or Charles Manson or Godzilla or John Rambo…

1. Star Wars Episode 9

Don’t care what anyone else says; I’ll watch this a hundred times just like the best of the rest of Star Wars. I don’t need things slowed down or spelled out to me, and I’ll happily spend years exploring the fallout. Brilliant lightsaber scraps, space battles and other spectacles delivered too. More than happy!

2. The Dirt

I was lucky enough to see Crüe live on their farewell tour, and a bit closer to their prime, so had high hopes for this. For years! This is a great translation from one of my favourite books ever to screen, is well cast, and manages to capture enough to tell the tale more or less intact and in a coherent way in under two hours. And what a tale! The highs and lows, the debauchery and lunacy of being the ultimate rock stars in a time when rock stars were rock stars and not members of Coldplay. Very, very enjoyable watch.

3. Godzilla King of the Monsters

It’s a proper Godzilla movie! Great-looking monsters in great-looking locations having great-looking fights. They all have their own theme music like wrestlers too. And loads of people that are so stupid they deserve everything they get! This should be the template for all films made in future ever!

4. Charlie Says

Banged-up Manson girls facing the music for their crimes, interspersed with loads of back story with the last watchable Doctor Who playing Charles Manson, and once you get over that, he’s a great fit! He’s enigmatic, creepy and a bit dim-witted all at once, and his hippy ranch backdrop is everything I imagine it to have been in real life; it’s really well set in terms of location and period. Loved the appearances of Dennis Wilson too – I’ve always been fascinated with The Beach Boys’ links to this nut-job!

5. It! Chapter Two

It can’t touch Chapter One for raw enjoyment, and it’s not as scary as it thinks it is, but it’s still as slick, with some really nice imagery and some great set pieces. Just drags on way too long, which would be fine if the extra minutes were for crazy clown action, but unfortunately it’s all there for getting dark and serious about the cast with stuff from its predecessor’s cutting-room floor, which I could have happily skipped. Still, that probably makes it feel more like authentic Stephen King, and Pennywise is great, and there’s a full length film in there somewhere that is a blast!

6. Rambo: Last Blood

More Commando than Rambo but it’s alright. Even if it’s not really Rambo. When Rambo eventually escapes the confines of the plot and goes Rambo, there’s some great violence and inventive set-piece kills in his home-made network of tunnels that even the Saw fella would be proud of. A reminder of how action movies used to be – a relic, yes, but Rambo will always a welcome one. That will probably do for Rambo sequels now though… it’s time that Cobra finally gets the one it deserves.

7. Lords of Chaos

Keep in mind it’s a movie and not a documentary – particularly if you’re a fan of black metal like me – and this will keep you entertained and quite often amused for the duration; the “inhaling death” scene is a personal highlight! It is shallow, it’s not especially accurate (read the book of the same name if you want a bit more factual) and tries too hard to shock at times, but otherwise you’re getting a Hollywood take on the beginnings of a scene and the somewhat tragic, deluded characters involved; a scene that I’m so glad will always be the opposite of Hollywood. And it’s alright.

8. Book of Monsters

This is a fantastic love-letter to low budget, funny, gory 80’s monster movies, with some of the best creature designs and practical effects bringing them to life that you’ll see all year. And the creativity behind the huge parade of monsters wreaking havoc at the teenage party setting (of course!) is all the more impressive when you consider this was beyond low budget. Great fun.

9. Crawl

Really fun part-monster, part-disaster movie involving a big alligator getting its kicks in a Florida hurricane. Everything looks good, the effects are convincing, there’s some nice gore, and everything is as ludicrous as it needs to be. It’s no Piranha, but what is going to be in 2019?

10. Captain Marvel

I’m increasingly disinterested in Marvel stuff, was in no hurry to watch Endgame, and was in no hurry to watch this, but it turned out to be alright! Not as self-important as it’s made out to be – just a decent superhero origins story, decent set pieces, decent 90’s nostalgia and a fit hottie in a tight superhero outfit… sorry, I mean empowered female lead. Samuel L Jackson puts in one of his better Marvel performances too. Apart from Rambo, my favourite superhero movie of the year.

The Curiouser Top Ten Albums of 2019

Once Swervedriver drove over the horizon again, nothing else was going to top it, but after so many black metal big hitters last year, I was properly surprised by the strength of what emerged again this year. Special mention to some incredible deluxe rereleases by The Doors and Prince’s 1999 too – that transition from the title track into Little Red Corvette is still one of the most thrilling musical moments ever!

1. Swervedriver: Future Ruins

Close your eyes and it’s 1991 again. One of my favourite bands ever, still creating the best adrenaline-injected grungy shoegaze rock of any decade. Never buy your dad one of those cringeworthy driving anthem CD’s for Father’s Day – get him this instead. On vinyl and not CD of course – it ain’t really ‘91.

2. Gaahls Wyrd: GastiR – Ghosts Invited

Hugely innovative, experimental black metal from one of its masters that oozes evil and manages to invoke a mental and physical feeling of darkness and foreboding from start to finish. It really is deeply affecting! And Carving the Voices is one of the most mesmerising, haunting tracks you will hear this year. Incredible.

3. King Diamond: Songs for the Dead

Fantastic set of two live albums comprising two shows, Live at the Fillmore in Philadelphia and Live at Graspop Metal Meeting. And both feature one of my top ten albums of all time, Abigail, in full, as well as a bunch of other King and Mercyful Fate classics that never sounded better than they do live here. Awesome and essential.

4. Mayhem: Daemon

Punishing and hypnotic in equal measure, this is essential listening for any fan of black metal – even those that thought Mayhem might have been the original, but haven’t been the best for a long time. Composition, performance and production are all as good as it gets through the entire unrelentingly intense experience. This is proper, evil, nasty black metal, and proper Mayhem!

5. Slayer: The Repentless Killogy

Career-spanning live farewell from the greatest metal band of them all. And one of the most powerful live bands in history, which is why it’s not further up this list. Let me explain! Watching Slayer live is (was) like being pummelled by a wall of energy from the stage. There’s no experience like it, including trying to capture it on record, so as good as this sounds and as wonderful as Slayer’s greatest hits live might be, it’s not the full story. However, stick on some noise-cancelling headphones and whack up the volume on Raining Blood, and when the drums properly kick in you’ll feel like you’re getting a pretty good hint at what you’re missing.

6. Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock

Whether in Husker Du, Sugar or solo, Bob Mould has always been an unbelievable but often overlooked songwriting talent, and this reaffirms that’s never likely to change. Soaring guitars, huge melodies and great production make for one of the best alternative rock albums since his last one.

7. Enthroned: Cold Black Suns

Everyone was happier when it was alright to be offensive. Enthroned are a beacon of light in this regard, without a care for wrapping this assault on the senses and sensibilities in cotton wool. This is a masterpiece of contemporary satanic black metal, with layer upon layer of sonic brilliance demanding your full attention and more. Oh yeah, closing track Son of Man is one of the most epic black metal songs ever written too!

8. Darkthrone: Old Star

Another Darkthrone album that (predictably, now) takes us in all kinds of new directions that all still have that distinct, sinister Darkthrone sound at their heart. This time there’s an aggressive doom-like quality, nods to old school thrash, and a generally epic feel to proceedings. Everything sounds really great too. And some of those riffs…

9. Dawn of Ashes: The Crypt Injection II (Non Serviam)

Heretical blackened industrial metal, full of signature electro bombast and massive blast-beats over some very competent melodic black metal guitars and horror-laced vocals. Its more of the same from Dawn of Ashes, and it’s exactly why I’m such a big fan!

10. Abbath: Outstrider

This man knows what he’s good at, and he’s better at it than almost everyone else. And I’m not just talking about corpse paint and wearing suits of armour! Fantastic collection of very, very good Norwegian black metal with the odd frill, but mostly it’s just the great songwriting that made him so influential, harkening back to his later work with Immortal, the odd hint of Slayer around Hell Awaits, and the kind of epic pacing Bathory would have been proud of.

The Curiouser Top Ten Games of 2019

Previously posted on my gaming page Retro Arcadia.

This year my SNES Classic Mini was finally joined by its previously impossible to buy NES sibling, plus a C64 Mini and almost a PlayStation Classic – I cancelled the day before it was shipped, not because of the controversial games list, but it just sounded like the finished article was very bare-bones and the emulation was crap. On the ones I didn’t cancel, I’ve loved pretty much everything on them more than anything that will ever be released again. On a similar note, I also love most of the old NES stuff that came with the Switch online service – especially the wonderful Tecmo Bowl, Balloon Fight and Mighty Bomb Jack. And on another similar note, I’ve loved playing a ton of the Switch Arcade Archives releases of Donkey Kong and 10-Yard fight, as well as ACA NEOGEO Super Sidekicks 3, and the fabulous Megadrive and SNK collections. And with a Switch now in my possession, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Golf Story from last year, and of course, Breath of the Wild, which I sandwiched between Ocarina of Time and the original Legend of Zelda (which I played on two different platforms almost in parallel).

Hovering just outside this list would be the Williams packs on Pinball FX, featuring some of the best tables ever produced; last-gen racing powerhouse Burnout Paradise Remastered on PS4; Castlevania Requiem (if I’d played a enough of either game included in time); and a game I’ve seriously been waiting 25 years to play, Night Trap on the Switch, which might not be the most mechanically-varied game ever, but was a technical marvel at the time and is still a fun romp today. I’m sure that had I played it yet, Red Dead Redemption 2 would be somewhere around the top, but finally playing and completing Mad Max just before it was released only confirmed I’m a bit done with open worlds at the moment, and I’ve more than enough to keep me going until they finish patching it and the price drops. And I’d have loved to have Tetris Effect on here, but after fifteen minutes of my first game on the beta, the motion sickness began…

As always, the rule here is if it’s been released for the first time on a platform this year, it’s fair game…

1 Gris (Switch)

The very last game I bought in 2018 (at time of writing on Christmas Eve at least). If you ever wanted to convince a non-gamer that gaming is an art form, you’d show them this, because it really is a wonderful piece of art in anyone’s language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen (and probably heard) anything quite as stunning as this on any platform, and maybe aside from Journey, anything as powerful. It’s a dream to play, and a dream to experience as it becomes more and more beautiful as you progress, and subtly more complex. A genuine gaming masterpiece.

2 Minit (Switch)

I avoided buying Minit when it came out on other platforms in the hope it would appear on Switch one day, which seemed like the right place for it, and that day came but a few horrendously hot months later. Bizarre premise of your hero living for only sixty seconds in an old-school Zelda-esque black and white pixel art rogue-lite world, doing simple quests, solving puzzles and killing monsters. Sixty seconds at a time. But it really works! It begins with almost no context or instruction, but you soon work out how things work to progress your story, planning out your next sixty second life as you carry out the next set of activities for this one. Fantastic game, very different, and perfect on the Switch. And when you’re done with the story, there’s a couple more hours picking up the stuff you probably missed then new game plus where sixty becomes forty. Future cult classic!

3 Moonlighter (Switch)

That wonderful Stardew Valley vibe where minutes are actually hours. But with more fighting. Moonlighter is a greeat rogue-like by night, and shopkeeper-sim by day, where you kill for booty to sell to buy armour, weapons, upgrades, better shop stuff and things to liven up your town so you can access new dungeons with better booty. Fantastic to play day or night.

4 Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! (Switch)

I searched Tokyo in 40 degree heat and 90% humidity for this bundled with the physical drum controller. I failed, but not long after it was all announced for European release and everything was well in the world again. I can’t remember the last time I had a stupid grin on my face playing a game, but there’s little here not to smile about, from the real drum you play along to a huge, bizarre playlist with, to the completely bonkers visual feast that could only come out of Japan happening on the screen. The ultimate party game, even if you’re the only one invited.

5 Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)

I never played Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Colour or Advance, so don’t lament the depth of their story modes apparently missing here. I did, however, sink dozens, if not hundreds of hours into Tennis (featuring Mario as umpire) on the original Game Boy. Jump into an online tournament on Mario Tennis Aces on the Switch, and that’s what you’ve got, dialled up to eleven with trick shots, specials, bullet-time and more, and all against real other people. There’s depth here too – after a few hours you start to notice little things that stack up to make all the difference; you work out how to properly use the trick shot or the blue glow around the ball or the star that sometimes appears on the ground or a dozen other minor things; and then you start winning one in five matches, then one in three, then two, and you’re reaching (and occasionally winning) tournament finals… Stunning looking game, polished to hell, full of character, and utterly addictive. Who cares about story modes (which is actually pretty enjoyable too)!

6 Hollow Knight (Switch)

Specifically here for the first 30 hours, then another 15 hours after 36 hours, then a few more after 53 hours. I absolutely hated everything in between and deleted the game twice in disgust at two bosses I just couldn’t beat. Until I did. Very few games over the last almost forty years have hooked me like this gorgeous looking, vast metroidvania did – even when it was gone, it kept dragging me back. 80% love, 20% pure hatred, and probably the best £7.99 I ever spent on a game.

7 Alto’s Odyssey (iOS)

I’ve played the original Alto’s Adventure more than any other game on mobile (or tablet in my case). It’s the perfect, premium mobile game, and has been my go-to time-passer across thousands and thousands of miles on plane journeys over the last few years. Alto’s Odyssey swaps snowboards for sandboards, but is more of the same, and then some. The new desert backdrop is stunning, and the day/night cycles, variable weather – especially the storms – and multiple biomes to explore make for some outstanding eye-candy. And the one-touch, backflipping gameplay remains as challenging, skilful and perfect as ever.

8 Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch)

Old-school Castlevania in all but name with some really clever character-switching mechanics, atmospheric old-school graphics and sound that make me want to live in it, and plenty to explore and go back to when you’re able. In the five hours or so to complete first time, it gets progressively more tricky, but aside from a few frustrating sections (generally involving moving platforms in the late game), it’s all do-able after a few attempts and some experimentation with the characters, even on veteran mode. My only gripe is the checkpointing on the double final boss battle – going back to the very start is a real pain while you’re dying over and over again to learn how to beat the second part! Once you’re finally done, definitely worth playing the newly unlocked nightmare mode to explore those places you couldn’t before you had the right characters available. Great game with a lot of retro-love oozing out of it.

9 Mega Man Legacy Collection (Switch)

Much like Zelda, I’d never played a Mega Man game before this year, and now I’ve played and finished three of them; 2, 1 and 3, in that order. I’m particularly proud of finishing Mega Man 2, over a period of months, as I completely avoided all the quality of life enhancements like rewind and save in-progress that come with this wonderfully presented collection of games 1-6 in the series. It’s not just the games though, most of which are bonafide hardcore classics; those enhancements, the mass of settings options and the museum of art that accompanies every game make it one of the best compilations I’ve seen. And it’s the reason why Mega Man 11 is missing – I’ve played the demo dozens of times and it’s awesome, and would certainly deserve to be here in place of this from what I’ve seen, but I’m going to be busy with games 4-6, as well as the Mega Man X game on the SNES Classic Mini, for some time yet!

10 Owlboy (Switch)

There’s still pixel-art everywhere this year, but this really is a marvellous lesson in pixel-art design, and a great Metroidvania game to boot. The sky islands you navigate in this vertical platformer are diverse and stunning. Controlling your owl boy feels great. The evolution of the game mechanics works brilliantly as you meet new partners in crime. And those characters are ones you really care about as you make your way through the thought provoking story. Another brilliant Switch indie.

The Curiouser Top Ten Albums of 2018

Clearly, The Doors’ Live at the Isle of Wight Festival is the best album released in 2018, but in the spirit of giving new artists (such as The Damned and Superchunk) a chance to shine, I’m going to stick to albums actually recorded within the last year, or failing that, at least within my lifetime! I’ve also just noticed it appears to have been quite the year for black metal…

1 Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse

As soon as this as announced last year, I did have an inkling that this, the first release I picked up in the first week of 2018, might become my favourite album of the year, but I wasn’t expecting what it turned out to be. From being heirs-apparent to Satyricon’s “mainstream” black metal throne with their last release, they’ve gone right back to their underground roots with something more comparable to Marduk’s decades old masterwork Panzer Division Marduk. It’s a twisted journey through many intertwining layers of ferocity, and it’s an incredible one.

2 Violet Cold – Sommermorgen, Pt. I: Innocence, Pt. II: Joy, Pt. III: Nostalgia

Without doubt the best triple album of the year, as well as being the most uplifting and emotional rock album(s) of most years! Completely instrumental; part shoegaze, in no small part thanks to consistently wonderful soaring guitar lines that might even make Slowdive look on in awe, and part post-metal, though in a distinctly un-metal way. Absolutely fantastic set of albums that I’d have taken any one of in any given year, that have been in non-stop rotation since they all appeared. Just wonderful.

3 Marduk – Viktoria

The opening track, Werwolf, confirms this as a classic Marduk black metal blitz. It just blows your socks off every listen, and whilst the band do offer the odd melodic respite throughout the album, this is pretty much what you get for the duration. Great musicianship, true to form subject matter that will offend all who deserve to be offended, and just a wonderfully cold, cold record.

4 Immortal- Northern Chaos Gods

Masterful mix of raw aggression and more ambient moments, and a masterwork in black metal songwriting throughout, none more so than in 10-minute album closer, Mighty Ravendark. Special mention to some fantastic use of clean guitars that somehow add even more grimness to the mix. Exquisite.

5 Ghost – Prequelle

When Abba met Kiss… or as the recently outed mastermind behind Ghost, Tobias Forge said, sounds like the band from the seventies you never heard. Another slice of bonkers dark glam rock that is more stadium than occult now, but is still sinister (loosely themed as a concept album about the Black Death), is often strangely hypnotic and is as catchy as hell.

6 Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest

This is some complex, heavy satanic black metal! There’s choirs, chanting, operatics, orchestras and ambience, but those are all just finishing touches to a vision of hell that it’s hard to tear your ears away from. They’re not really pushing any boundaries, but their evil excellence makes that totally irrelevant.

7 Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins

Always a band I look forward to hearing something new from – progressive (as in progressive, not prog) as ever, often epic, doom-laden, Celtic folk-tinged black-ish metal! As always, the bleak lyrics come across as a call to war, complementing a highly atmospheric, crushing and elemental album from these masters of their art.

8 The Damned – Evil Spirits

Despite being a band I’ve been into since a very early age, and one that created my favourite album ever in Phantasmagoria, I’ve always maintained that you could probably make one decent album out of everything The Damned has produced since Anything in 1985. Then along comes Evil Spirits, and it’s not only a decent album, but a very good one indeed! It does hark back to Anything, with a very 80’s multi-layered production style, and the band once again tapping into their more psychedelic influences. It might not be very punk anymore, but they still know how to write a catchy, angry tune!

9 Ihsahn – Amr

Incredibly polished, atmospheric and almost cinematic, just like every release since Ihsahn emerged from Emperor. And with every release, he’s moving the boundaries further from what started as black metal with some clever embellishments, to some mind-boggling songwriting that touches all kinds of genres, metal and otherwise. There are so many layers, so many things going on and so many contrasts that on first listen you have no idea where he’ll go next, or even where the sound will come from next if you’re listening to this in headphones! Bonafide genius.

10 Venom – Storm the Gates

There’s nothing more heartwarming than a new Venom album dropping out of nowhere, just in time for Christmas when I thought this top ten was complete (sorry Superchunk). Cronos still sounds great, as does the trademark blackened, dirty thrash. The rawness is still there despite production they could only have dreamed of when the classic records were made. And despite the classic lineup being long since gone, it still sounds like classic Venom.

The Curiouser Top Ten Movies of 2018

Some of it somewhat predictable, but a few nice surprises this year. It’s a shame there’s no new Halloween movie in here, but it left me as cold as Michael Myers’ eyes. And no Jurassic Park or Ant-Man (and his saucy wasp lady) either because at the time of writing on Christmas Eve I’d still not seen them, though I will have by the time you read this…

1 Deadpool 2

Brilliantly violent, offensive and funny. If it was none of those things, it would probably be winning Oscars. Thankfully that’s not the case! Watching Ryan Reynolds’ anti-hero is like watching blue stand-up comedy in a car chase. Genius.

2 Solo: A Star Wars Story

There’s probably no need for this film to exist, but with every watch I enjoy it more and more – and I enjoyed it a lot the first time! It’s got all the fan-service you want, has a great cast and the story works. Great action film in space even if it’s not the best Star Wars film ever.

3 Avengers: Infinity War

If there was a world record for blockbuster movie, this would be the new record holder. A stunning big old fight between a ton of superheroes and super-villains, all held together by a surprisingly engaging story that’s been many other blockbusters in the making.

4 Mission Impossible: Fallout

Thrill-a-minute action ride with some incredible stunts and set pieces that gets the adrenaline pumping for the duration. I really hope that real-life spy stuff is as bonkers as this!

5 The Meg

Jason Statham playing The Rock against a really good-looking giant prehistoric shark. With explosions. Great to have a decent serious shark movie again.

6 Pacific Rim: Uprising

The first Pacific Rim barely registers in my memory, so this one being as good as it is properly caught me by surprise. Good robots, good monsters, good robots and monsters fighting, and loads of explosions (always a marker for the quality of a film in my eyes). It all makes for a fast-paced, big budget B-movie treat.

7 Rampage

Rampage, the film of the game I loved on the ZX Spectrum then the Atari ST. And the arcade version in the Midway Lego Dimensions level pack on PS4! A gorilla, a wolf and a crocodile are mutated into giants, hell-bent on destroying everyone and everything in their path, and it’s up to The Rock to stop them. Just like it would be if it happened in real life. I’m not usually into animal movies but I make an exception with this blockbuster.

8 The Nun

Its predictable and by the numbers. It’s superficial – all fur coat and no knickers. But I love a creepy nun and it looks like a modern day take on a Hammer film, so I had my fill from it even if I wish it was as scary as it thinks it is.

9 Hellraiser: Judgement

I love Hellraiser, but like most fans, don’t love what seems like dozens of crappy, low-budget sequels that have appeared in about 25 years since Hellraiser 3. I expected more of the same here, but actually this one seems to have been made by a fellow fan, for fans. It follows a decent detectives hunting a serial killer storyline with a great closing sequence, is chock full of gore and squelchy nastiness, and for once the latest incarnation of Pinhead isn’t offensive at all to those of us that love him.

10 Batman Ninja

I’m not a massive fan of the Batman (or many other) animated films, but I’ll always give them a go, just in case! And what a case this is – a complete headcase, albeit an absolutely stunning one! Batman and co are somehow transported to feudal Japan at the start, and the rest is a completely bonkers story of Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Joker, Harley Quinn, etc. reimagined as Samurai, ninjas and Japanese warrior lords. With monkey assistants. You’ll have no idea what’s going on for the rest of the film, but the nonsensical plot doesn’t make it any less enjoyable! It’s an absolute visual masterpiece, with the most vivid colours, wonderfully reimagined character designs and incredibly creative Japanese art-influenced detail that are worth the asking price alone.

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Albums of 2017

Obviously The Doors’ Strange Days remaster is the best release of 2017, but anything touched by the hand of Morrison transcends mere lists and is therefore not eligible for inclusion at number one, though my favourite living band are definitely worthy alternatives…

1. The Afghan Whigs – In Spades

I love this band. I listen to their entire, almost thirty year long, back catalog incessantly. There’s simply nothing else out there like them, and nothing this year like this. Soulful, sleazy, multidimensional alt-rock with the most talented vocalist of several generations serving up all the grizzled drama and heartache you’ll need until the next time.

2. Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep

These guys continue to transcend Norwegian black metal with this. Every track is just of such high quality, both in musicianship and sound. And big choruses. Each offers its own variety of polished darkness, with the band never afraid to experiment, whether it’s just dropping the heavy chugging and ferocious blast beats for some (admittedly equally heavy and ferocious) finger picking, going orchestral, operatic or even throwing in some kind of Arabian sax. Just genius.

3. Black Anvil – As Was

Exquisitely produced, sophisticated black-prog metal that came early in the year but from first listen was clear to make this list at the end of it. Very atmospheric, very complex, very heavy, and a real hypnotic joy to listen to, especially through an expensive pair of cans! What Venom might have been if they’d had the money.

4. Moon Duo – Occult Architecture, Vol. 1

The best new romantic psychedelic garage I’ve heard in ages! Given I only grabbed this from Apple Music on the basis of the word “occult” in the title, what a find! And there was a Vol. 2 this year too! Definitely look both of them up for a mesmerising, entirely legal high.

5. Marilyn Manson – Heaven Upside Down

I didn’t realise how much I missed the old Manson until I listened to this for the fist time. Back in his black glittery box full of bombastic, stadium industrial obscenity. Exactly where I like him. The Halloween party that keeps on giving all year long.

6. The Black Angels – Death Song

A wonderful slab of dark, threatening, noisy garage psychedelia from Texas. Or 1968. Which I’ve just noticed spells out where they got their name from! More 13th Floor Elevators than Velvet Underground though. Anyway, it’s their best album to date and a great listen.

7. Gary Numan – Savage (Songs From a Broken World)

This album could be rubbish and would still have to be on here to mark yet another milestone from the man that invented music in 1978. Fortunately it’s anything but rubbish. He’s ditched the silver jumpsuits of old for a messianic take on Mad Max in a post-apocalyptic Middle East; there’s really no stopping him! Mixing synth-industrial with exotic trinkets, The Numanoid continues to bring electronic theatre to the miserable like no one else.

8. White Ward – Futility Report

Black metal infused with lounge sax. It really works! These Ukrainians know their Norwegian heritage, they know their instruments, and they know how to craft an incredible, haunting, depressive journey.

9. Myrkur – Mareridt

Black metal infused with folk – not quite up there with a sax, but it also really works! This album is absolutely stunning. A one-woman odyssey from synth-tinged folk-doom to guttural modern black metal and back again over and over. She’s got serious potential to climb high on my self-indulgent lists in the future!

10. Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay

Much like their last album, this isn’t the best Cradle of Filth album but it’s a very good one. Actually, it’s very much like their last album, but that’s no bad thing. All the elements are there – melodic black metal padded out with orchestral gothic drama; the musical equivalent of a generic Hammer film. Meaning there’s more than enough to love here no matter how many times you care to listen.

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Albums of 2016

I’m regularly lambasted for being old and out of touch, but I’m quite proud to prove that at least one of those accusations wrong with at least 90% of this list! Not a Metallica or Rolling Stones in sight, though I’m still fond of this year’s output. And I still don’t like Bowie. 
  1. Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – Jesu & Sun Kil Moon. When you’ve got a name that catchy, I think it makes sense to use it on your album too!  Amazing how adding one element can make everything so different. It’s never been such a stretch to associate previous Jesu stuff to Justin Broadrick’s Godflesh past, but Kozelek’s ultra-slacker vocals unexpectedly shift this right into Red House Painters territory (more so than his Sun Kil Moon incarnation), rather than the post-rock shoegaze you’d expect, even though it’s often still there in the background textures. I love Jesu, I love Red House Painters, this is a very unlikely dream come true!
  2. Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow. More shoegaze, but this time I’d call it post-hardcore shoegaze! There’s some really incredible soaring and shimmering guitar at play here, but with an occasional hint of heaviness to it that sets it apart from the likes of my other favourites Klimt1918, Swervedriver or My Vitriol, veering towards early Smashing Pumpkins. That heaviness applies even more to the lyrics though, nodding to the band members’ hardcore past and echoing Ian Curtis with a bit of disease and decay sprinkled on top.
  3. Desert Mountain Tribe – Either That or the Moon. Driving, melodic psychedelic rock that can really suck you in and mesmerise you for it’s full length. Multi-layered and complex, great vocals and some really captivating instrumentals. One of my new finds of the year!
  4. Black Angel Drifter – Black Angel Drifter. I know I wasn’t actually there, but this takes me right back to my beloved early seventies Texarkana swampland; look up The Legend of Boggy Creek on YouTube! Feral, gothic, sparce Americana about murder and addiction and stuff, just like I plan to make one day!
  5. Dawn of Ashes – Theophany. I listened to this more than any other [new] album this year. Intense but accessible modern industrial black metal, only let down by an unnecessary Nine Inch Nails cover at the ends, but that’s very easy to avoid. 
  6. FEWS – Means. My annual breakthrough psychedelic post-punk act, and these Swedish-Americans definitely outshone anything else in this admittedly specialist genre in 2016! Literally 20 seconds of Apple Music preview was all it took me to know I’d found one of my albums of the year. Emotive guitar lines, a driving, almost hypnotic bass and a lovely air of playful gloom. Great album. 
  7. The Besnard Lakes – A Coliseum Complex Museum. I think this was the first album I picked up this year and one I had high expectations for. I’ve been a fan since their first album, and always seen them as a bit of a throwback to something, but it’s hard to pin down what – the late 60’s and The Beach Boys; some proggy thing from the 70’s that I’d probably claim I’m not familiar with even if I was; early 90’s shoegaze… For anyone else that’s followed the band, it is a bit by numbers, albeit feeling slightly more “dense” than the more dreamy last couple of albums. That said, they live in their own grandiose, atmospheric world, and I was more than happy to visit it repeatedly through 2016 with this album.
  8. Dinosaur Jr. Pure comfort food for anyone that lived through grunge and was intelligent enough to peek below its surface. Perfect summertime forty-something nostalgia!
  9. Ihsahn – Arktis. Intensely atmospheric latest release by the man from Emperor. Moments of dark ambience, prog and electronica perfectly complement an emotional black metal masterclass.  
  10. Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree. Beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Just put it on through some decent headphones and listen to every word. He deserves nothing less. 

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Films of 2016

If a Star Wars film doesn’t continue to top my annual list for the rest of my life, I’ll be very unhappy. But apart from that predictability, this year has produced some unexpected horror gems and decent action fare, the appearance of which here might also have not been predicted by some. 
  1. Rogue One – A Star Wars Story. I’ve watched The Force Awakens at least once a month since it appeared on blu-ray so had big hopes for this. Didn’t disappoint at all. Stunning film (and female lead, which has a lot to do with it being at the top this list). Great story, great characters, great visuals. And easily Peter Cushing’s best performance since he died. 
  2. The Greasy Strangler. This film is insane. Nothing else in my collection of 2000+ films comes close. The premise of the killer is ludicrous enough, but the backdrop of a bizarre father and son disco walking tour takes it to another level. It’s cringeworthy, filthy and there’s a couple of moments that still make me laugh just thinking about them now. Everyone should see this; it’s a life changer!
  3. Night of Something Strange. If Porky’s had absolutely no moral compass, and was a bad early eighties zombie movie, it might have turned out like this. It’s gratuitous, obscene and doesn’t know when to stop. Like zombies with VD… The kick her in the vag scene was a particular favourite!
  4. Deadpool. I didn’t really know much about this guy until I saw the film, but it’s everything an adult superhero movie fan that’s realised that 99% of everything from now on is being dumbed down for the Pixar generation could hope for. It’s funny, has some great nods to other films and is just a fun action film from start to finish. 
  5. The Conjuring 2. I’ve often criticised stuff like Paranormal Activity for being horror for people that don’t like horror films, similar to Nickelback being rock for people that don’t like rock music. One of my biggest bugbears with this stuff is telegraphing the scares from a mile away; leaving a special space on the screen for something to jump out at you. What makes The Conjuring 2 so different is that you’re left wondering where on almost every frame something is going to jump out at you! It might happen, it might not, and this makes for incredibly tense viewing, winding you up to the point that you’re even left wondering whether you saw the old man sitting in the chair as the camera panned past, or simply imagined it. If you are aware of the Enfield poltergeist case, you just need to be a bit willing to excuse how “based on a true story” it really is – my understanding is that the two Americans these films are based on did turn up in England at the time but were sent packing much more quickly than the film suggests! But otherwise this is a great horror film; the best proper one of the year easily, if not the last decade.
  6. The Witch. Wonderfully bleak and unsettling tale of black magic and possession. Beautifully shot with fantastic attention to detail, and one of the more original horror films you’re likely to catch this year. 
  7. Blair Witch. I’d just watched the first two again – both of which I love – when this one had its surprise announcement. It retreads familiar ground but for someone into the Blair Witch lore that accompanied the original, it adds a bit to the story and does justice to the source as a decent horror film. 
  8. Suicide Squad. I’ve got no problem with shallow characters if there’s big explosions involved. This probably won’t appear in many top ten lists, but I enjoyed it loads!
  9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. Megan Fox dressed as a slutty schoolgirl. No further review needed. 
  10. Doctor Strange. Another Marvel character I’d heard of but had no clue about. Quick backstory was more than enough to fill in the blanks though, then straight into a visual thrill ride. 

Steve Norman’s Top Ten Games of 2016

The majority of my limited gaming time this year seems to have been spent in last year’s The Witcher 3, which eventually got finished just before Christmas. Absolutely loved it but had had my fill after sixty hours. Also want to mention Until Dawn, which would have been near the top of last year’s top ten had I played it in time. I got my first platinum trophy with another favourite game from last year, Rocket League, and finally got to play and complete something even older when Grim Fandango appeared as a PS+ freebie. Here’s games that actually came out this year; it’s a bit mobile heavy, mainly thanks to the above, and moving to an almost medieval house with an equally medieval internet connection. 
  1. No Man’s Sky. It didn’t take me that long to work out that just beyond the technical marvels lies something very shallow, but as someone with very limited console gaming time, and no interest in cooperative or multiplayer play, this is pretty much all I want from a game. There’s a story of sorts if you want it, but the joy of this for me is making my own story at my own pace. Beautiful achievement. 
  2. Crashlands. This game knows exactly what’s fun about exploration, crafting and survival games, and lets you concentrate on the fun, rather than learning arduous systems or recipes. Really nice progression, whether you choose to follow the story, the side quests, or just enjoy mooching around for new stuff to make. I’ve literally lost hours and hours on this recently, usually stopping only to recharge the battery on my iPad. Incredible mobile gaming achievement. 
  3. Lego Dimensions Midway Arcade. Not strictly a game in its own right, and quite a bit different from the mass of other packs we’ve collected over the last year in that it’s as much of a retro gaming compilation as a standard level pack. And it includes some of my favourite games ever! 720, Spy Hunter, Toobin, Rampage, Super Sprint, Paperboy, Gauntlet… Unbelievable, as is the Lego Spy Hunter car, which I only wish I’d owned thirty years ago!
  4. Tomb of the Mask. This one came early in the year on iOS but I’m still playing it. It looks like a Spectrum game, plays like a casual mobile game, and like Downwell before if, is deceptively sophisticated and very addictive.
  5. Trackmania demo. That’s right, a PS4 demo has made if into my list! I’m sure had I felt the need to buy the game yet, the full version would be here instead, but I’m still more than happy dipping in and out of this, trying to better what I’ve done before and enjoying the insanely high speed, highly polished arcade racing. 
  6. Galaga Wars. Last year my high score craving was satisfied by Pac Man 256, and this year it’s another modern take on ancient history with this. Plays mostly like the original, albeit with a bit more freedom of movement, looks great, and employs a very fair and unobtrusive free to play model. Frantic and addictive. 
  7. PinOut. Fantastic endless pinball game on iOS. Mechanically it’s normal pinball, but you’re flipping the ball up the screen to the next set of flippers against the clock. A lot of fun, very addictive, and a special mention for the extremely stylish eighties-esque neon look
  8. Clash Royale. For a game I grew to hate after about twenty hours, I continued playing it for over one hundred more! The height of gaming addiction, and whilst I never spent a penny on it, I can fully appreciate it sitting at the top of Apple’s top grossing charts! 
  9. Atari Flashback Console. Okay, also not strictly a game, and I’ve only owned it for less than a week, but it’s endless Atari 2600 action in my filthy mitts! This is pure gaming history, and whilst of course there are duds in the sixty games pre-installed, the classics like Frogger, Missile Command, Centipede and Asterois deserve to be mentioned in top ten lists at every opportunity.
  10. Tricky Towers. A PS+ freebie in the summer, and one that probably has a permanent place on my PS4’s hard drive. Essentially Tetris, with frantic and fast-paced challenges in single player mode, but where it really shines is in local two player, where you race to build your tower to a certain height whilst trying to scupper your opponent’s. Great to play with the kids, though if you’re a past Tetris master just remember not to go too nuts for the first few goes!