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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!

My Top Ten of 2015 – Albums

As mentioned in my last couple of posts, not sure why I decided to do this, but throughout the year I’ve been keeping top ten lists of games, films and albums. Here’s the albums one to complete the set. 

 

1. Slayer – Repentless

You know exactly what you’re getting in the first few seconds of this album. It’s unmistakably Slayer, and there can be little more that any fan could demand of a new Slayer album in 2015. The first few tracks hint at the speed rush of Hell Awaits, then interludes emerge nodding more to the more oppressive tone of South of Heaven. Yes, that means more of the same, but that also means more of Slayer, and this year there’s been nothing else that can touch that.

 

2. Satyricon – Live at the Opera

Whether live or on record, no other progressive black metal band offers polish, accessibility or innovation like Satyricon. And all three are present by the bucket load when they team up with the Norwegian Choir here. On the surface an odd mash-up but just imagine the soundtrack to The Omen then you’re not that far away from the peerless intensity and devastation summoned up in Satyricon’s recent past. If you’re going to lie in the dark with a decent pair of headphones on with anything, do it with this. 

 

3. Swervedriver- I Wasn’t Born to Lose You

Swervedriver were a huge part of the soundtrack to my young adult years, and after all these years they returned to where they left off, somewhere between shoegaze, garage rock and early grunge. Maybe not enough for some, but I couldn’t ask for more. 

 

4. Violet Cold – Desperate Dreams

Post-black metal with synths by a one-man outfit from Azerbaijan doesn’t really do this justice. It is the earliest example of why I quickly converted to Apple Music though – served it up on a beautiful, expressive plate to me when I first started using it for music discovery. From the opening piano track to the immersive, bleak wall of shimmering guitar, keyboards and black metal vocals it develops into, this is a wonderful piece of work. 

 

5. Killing Joke – Pylon

A relentless, pounding industrial war cry from the outset. While the youth seem content with whining, lacklustre, easy listening that you used to hope you’d never grow into, the Youth and his cohort continue to do anger like it never went out of fashion 35 years ago. Middle aged is the new punk. 

 

6. The Black Ryder – The Door Behind the Door

Great piece of late 60’s / early 70’s inspired psychedelic progressive shoegaze… Did I just coin a new genre? This is ambitious and arrogant, just like rock bands used to be.

 

7. Froth – Bleak

A bit like the aforementioned Swervedriver, this is driving music for those with a mindo of their own – a bit of that Sub Pop style lo-fi, a bit Mary Chain, a bit garage. Very melodic, very West Coast US. Very good. 

 

8. Venom – From the Very Depths

Thankfully some things never change. If you are the type that’s going to buy a new Venom album, you want a Venom album, and that’s what this is. It was never going to capture the energy of the early releases that revolutionised metal all those years ago, but the passion is still there. 

 

9. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts

This is Depeche Mode with guitars instead of synths, which makes it a completely different prospect but a very appealing one. What a solo project should sound like. There’s a couple of really outstanding tracks on there too. 

 

10. Cradle of Filth – Hammer of the Witches

Vintage Filth – hugely produced, extremely polished orchestral black metal. From eerie soundscapes to pompous thrash, it’s all present and very correct. 

My Top Ten of 2015 – Films

As mentioned in my last post, not sure why I decided to do this, but throughout the year I’ve been keeping top ten lists of games, films and albums. Here’s the films one, which is slightly influenced by the lack of new films I’ve seen this year. But I still love my films, even if 2015 was dominated by re-watching favourites on Blu-ray, so wanted to record them for posterity. Games you will find posted elsewhere already, albums to follow.
 
1. Star Wars – The Force Awakens
 
This was going to have to be a real shocker not to top this  list, but from the first trailer I never thought there was much chance of that. The prequels didn’t really offend me as much as they did others, but they never really felt like Star Wars. This one does, and from the very start anyone of a certain age is going to feel something they didn’t realise they hadn’t for over thirty years. Every piece of fan service is meticulously crafted to slot into a new – albeit familiar – story with new characters that I took to far more than I expected to. Yes, there’s a hundred plot holes, and you may have seem some of it before (even if the First Order clearly haven’t), but it’s space fantasy and it’s Star Wars so who cares. 
 
 
2. Deathgasm
 
By metal nerds for metal nerds! And a wonderful gorefest to boot, reminiscent of the old Peter Jackson films before he went mainstream. Completely undemanding and utterly entertaining! It’s got everything – from vandalising a lawn with “Hail Satin” written in napalm, to the homemade video for Deathgasm’s “Intestinal Bungie Jump” which pretty much pulls apart every black metal video cliche in the space of thirty hilarious seconds. And not forgetting the variety of creative ways black metal demons get killed with a box of sex toys!
 
 
3. Mad Max – Fury Road
 
I love that this film has no pretensions of a plot – exactly how a great action film should be! Just a huge post-apocalyptic car chase full of stunts and explosions and general chaos. This is my favourite Mad Max film (all of which I watched in the week before watching this) and one of the best mindless action movies in years.
 
 
4. Mission: Impossible  – Rogue Nation 
 
Some incredible action scenes that never take themselves too serious – in the midst of all the mayhem there are some really intentionally bonkers moments! The pace is unrelenting, the story provides plenty of intrigue, and Cruise rides a motorbike without a helmet faster than ever before. 
 
 
5. Spectre
 
It’s a proper Bond film! Ludicrous opening sequence, bonkers car chases and a scrap on a luxury train. There’s still the emotional grit that’s been part and parcel of the Daniel Craig era, but Spectre brings back a bit of that classic Moore panache. Goes on a bit but you only really notice how much time has passed when the credits roll. 
 
 
6. Avengers: Age of Ultron
 
Nearly two and a half hours of eye-popping action scenes – mostly over-powered fighting – interspersed by a few nice moments of character-based humour, without much dwelling on unnecessary character development, and dream sequences that are thankfully short enough not to get dull before they turn into another fight scene. I hope the brain lady (as explained next…) gets her own movie too. 
 
 
7. Ant-Man
 
I remember when this was first announced, and I announced it to my family (in Byron, in Cambridge). They thought I was making it up. I’m not a big Marvel nerd, but unlike them I had heard of Ant-Man, though I did share their scepticism about a miniature superhero with super strength working in a movie. It turned out to be a lot of fun and great platform for the character to develop further though. The size thing was well worked as part of the story and worked convincingly on screen too. If only more of the audience had appreciated the helicopter scene with The Cure in as much as I did then the world would be a better place. 
 
 
8. Jurassic World 
 
Big, stupid, mega-budget monster movie, which all adds up to AAA fun. Maybe doesn’t have the suspense factor or the impact of the original, but there’s some imaginative touches, great set pieces and a real Spielberg feel, with more than a nod to Jaws. 
 
 
9.It Follows
 
Could have been a bit creepier, but an original concept, well polished, and unusually a horror film that clearly had a reasonable budget that was not designed for 12-year olds or people that don’t like horror films! Similar vibe to Nightmare on Elm Street, and a refreshing change. 
 
 
10. Ex Machina
 
Easy to watch sci-fi exploring humanity through artificial intelligence via a simple plot mechanic, complemented by an equally simple but high production visual style and some really nice robot effects.

My Top Ten of 2015 – Games

Not sure why I decided to do this, but throughout the year I’ve been keeping top ten lists of games, films and albums. Here’s the games one. Possible use for it is nostalgia in the future. Others to follow, with other potential uses. 
 
1. Journey (PS4)
 
Wow. In 35+ years gaming, nothing has ever gently drawn me in then completely sucked me dry like that did. Unbelievable experience. Simply stunning in all respects. Nothing more to add, except the PS4 version came out this year and I’d never played it before, so it counts!
 
2. Rocket League
 
Online gaming came too late for me; my reactions still feel okay at 43, but I’ve never had the time to pour hours into the likes of Call of Duty or Destiny and become truly competitive. I think I’ve second-placed in a couple of deathmatches but generally I’m happy not to be last! Then along came July PS+ game Rocket League to change all that. It takes a while to get the controls and the slightly off-kilter physics (which you can’t really complain about in a game involving jumping cars playing football with a giant futuristic baseball), but once you have, the game plays to a level of maturity, understanding it’s nuances, reading what’s happening and biding your time. With this in mind, my trepidation about heading online turned out to be completely unfounded. Whilst others generally seem to be frantically chasing the ball – very much like an under-8’s football team might – I’ve found myself not only contributing to my team (for once) but also being the match winner! Also enjoying season mode and local multiplayer with my 8-year old son (who’s recently moved on from the moths to a flame approach to football). The game runs great, looks good, and is as much fun as you think a cross between Speedball and the original Twisted Metal might be (complete with Sweet Tooth if you stick with it). And last but not least, I got my first ever Platinum Trophy on this – all it took was playing it to death!
 
3. Star Wars Battlefront (PS4)
 
If you’re a Star Wars fan carrying all the gaming implications of being a 43-year old dad, this could be one of the greatest games ever! Yes, as bemoaned in all the reviews by twenty-something veterans, it’s shallow, there’s not many maps, loadouts are simple and anyone can pick up a perk. But if you’ve got an hour or so every couple of days to do your gaming thing, these “inadequacies” are a right old bonus, especially when the visuals and audio simply scream Star Wars! And if you have a kid, give the split screen co-op survival missions a whirl. It’s great fun, and the most immersive Star Wars experience since some of us sat down in a certain arcade cabinet over thirty years ago. 
 
4. Pac-Man 256 (iOS)
 
When I heard another version of Pac-Man was coming in 2015, this turned out to be the game I wanted it to be. Endless high score chasing with some great opportunities for strategy with power-ups, multipliers and learning the behaviour of each ghost. Controlling just like Crossy Road, with the hours I’ve spent on that, was a bonus too! Having a fairly unintrusive free to play model also helped.
 
5. Alto’s Adventure (iOS)
 
This has been my go-to game on the dozens of flights I’ve made this year; I might start with something else but always end up coming back here. Gameplay wise, it’s an endless runner on a snowboard with a nice scoring mechanic and a progression system based on unlocking new characters with different skills to help you progress through objectives, which can take hours to complete at the later levels. The trick system is simple but requires skill and the physics system demands risk calculation and timing. The real draw are the visuals though – it looks stunning, with dynamic weather effects, the passage of time through day and night, and incredible attention to detail in the terrains and backgrounds. And when you combine this with the easy-on-the-ears soundtrack and effects that sound like a board on snow, it’s very easy to get completely lost in.
 
6. Batman Arkham Knight (PS4)
 
Didn’t grab me like the two previous games I’ve played – at no point did I see an air-con vent in real life and prepare to get inside it like in Asylum! But it’s a hell of a game. Looks stunning, the story doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the combat and the gliding feel as good as ever. Lots of people seem to have disliked the Batmobile; I had no problem with the Batmobile, but absolutely detested the later drone / tank missions involving it! Don’t often turn down to easy, but there’s only so many times you can restart something before you ditch it (which very nearly happened even on easy) or put a controller through the TV. In retrospect it didn’t really detract from a great experience though.
 
7. OlliOllii  2: Welcome to Olliwood (PS4)
 
This was a free monthly PSN game early in the year. I never got around to the first one, always believing it would end up as a PS+ freebie, then lo and behold the sequel appears on there first. It’s one of those games where there’s a good chance you’ll delete it after ten minutes, especially when it’s free, but persevere and the controls start to click, and after a while you start to master them, then as unnatural as they probably are, they become second nature. That said, it never stops treading a very fine line between frustrating – mainly due to forgetting to press a button at the right time – and utterly addictive, and getting five stars on every level can easily become an obsession. 
 
8. The Order: 1886 (PS4)
 
A couple of massively frustrating stealth and enemy spawn-a-thon circle-strafe sections aside, where I’d die too many times for it to still be enjoyable then repeat over and over again from a far too distant checkpoint, I very much enjoyed the story, setting, atmosphere and steampunk environment… Despite the continuous references to Jack the Ripper, who didn’t actually appear until 2 years after the game is set. Not sure why they didn’t call it 1888 – much better marketing angle too!
 
9 . Shooty Skies (iOS)
 
This is to Galaga what Crossy Road is to Frogger. Absolutely fantastic arcade shooter coupled with a load of chunky pixel characters to unlock if that’s your bag. The single finger touch controls work perfectly, especially the risk-reward long press explosions. Game Center leaderboards combined with the accessibility mean that there’s a good chance you’ll have some scores to chase against people you know too. Great free to play model too, especially if unlocking stuff isn’t your bag!
 
10. WWE Immortals (iOS)
 
When I started playing this, I’d have never believed I’d spend the hours and hours I did spend getting to the end of it, without paying a penny, much like I did last year with Trials Extreme on iOS too. There’s very little strategy to the simple combat, other than knowing when is best to tag in and out to make best use of special moves. The real strategy is in playing the free to play model, knowing what class of characters to spend your in game currency on and when, then which moves to unlock and when… This was the real joy in the game that kept me hooked. That said, the identikit Mortal Kombat version that came later really did nothing for me.
 
 
Other notable games that I’ve enjoyed this year, but are not strictly 2015 releases, include Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor, which clocked in at around 50 hours, such was my enjoyment. Wolfenstein The New Order, which almost never got completed thanks to a really frustrating lack of checkpoints in a boss battle at half way. Crossy Road, which I dread to think how many hours I’ve put in! Monument Valley, care of a free code from Starbucks; not generally one for puzzle games, but it wasn’t that taxing (i.e. it was logical), looked beautiful and was ultra-intuitive. A bit like Limbo, care of PS+.