Mario Kart 64: A Retrospective

Delaying Mario Kart 64 couldn’t have been an easy decision. Much had been made of the Nintendo 64’s four controller ports, one-upping (or rather, two-upping) the upstart Playstation and ensuring that games like Bomberman and Worms could be played the way nature intended. By sacrificing team members to the timely completion of Super Mario 64, Nintendo were leaving themselves without a title that supported multiplayer of any kind, least of all their promised utopia of four friends battling for supremacy.

Launching in Japan in late 1996, it became  apparent that the game – which had once been obliquely dubbed “Super Mario Kart R” – may have lost its SNES prefix, but the gameplay was an evolution, rather than a reinvention, of a title that had overcome critical indifference and become an enduring classic. Nips and tucks had been made: coins were the most notable casualty, though few lamented their passing. Additionally, the game’s four-tiered driver stats had been reduced to three, inadvertently ensuring that arguments over who got to play as Toad would last for the rest of the console generation.

Welcome to Maaaario Kart

Mario Kart 64’s title screen would change as players completed objectives, but most content was available to dive into right away.

It was to be two under-sold mechanics that would go onto define not just the Mario Kart franchise but also shape the wealth of copycat karting games to come. In this new edition, pushing a power-slide to the very brink of catastrophe and then slamming the analogue stick in the other direction would see your smoke trails turn from white to orange, netting you a handy burst of speed when you exited the turn.

While the intricacies of drift-boosting would change in the games to come, here was an implementation that allowed skillful players to boost several times around even the gentlest of bends, opening up a whole new level of depth. Slipstreaming, while curiously redundant in a game so heavily weighted towards dragging your items as shields, was also introduced in Mario Kart 64 and has made a number of reappearances (to much better effect) since then.

While there were relatively few new items considering the imagination that the Mario series has always been famous for, the headliner of Mario Kart 64‘s arsenal became one of its most notorious. The blue shell would zoom around the circuit at high speed, blatting aside anyone unlucky enough to get in its way before seeking out the first-place player and exploding in a ball of polygonal fire. Gifted surprisingly rarely considering the reputation they’ve come to earn, the blue shell was either a canny way of levelling the playing field between players of different skills, or a punishment for doing well and the downfall of Western civilisation – a view that normally depended on whether you’d just been on the receiving end.

Real or fake? Fake? Real...? Real.

“Fake” Item Blocks made their first appearance, and were far harder to distinguish than in future installments.

The blue shell was also one of the few weapons that could push past the stockpile of goodies players built up as they raced. Not only could single items be tugged along behind your kart to absorb the impact of an attack, but shells now came in orbiting packs of three, meaning that just brushing your opponent could be enough to send them tumbling. Seeing players armed with six red shells wasn’t uncommon, a frustrating arsenal that would later become the special weapon of just two characters in Mario Kart: Double Dash. Weapons were retained during collisions, which led to protracted exchanges of fire between human players and should have been enough to see off the CPU opposition… were it not for one of Mario Kart 64‘s most divisive decisions.

While the running order was no longer determined by the player’s own character, certain drivers would once again be picked out to act as the player’s rivals. Unlike Super Mario Kart, however, these opponents were artificially and continually placed to snap at the player’s heels – a mechanic usually referred to as “rubberbanding”. These rivals would buzz around your character so closely that they’d inevitably crash into, and deduct from, your defensive items over and over again, spinning out of sight only to return unscathed a moment later at speeds any human would find impossible.

While rubberbanding in racing games was not uncommon – some claimed it provided an action-packed race regardless of your skill level – the approach had become increasingly criticised as control systems gained the fidelity to emulate the skill of real driving. Even on 50cc settings, being jostled and harassed often diminished any sense that the player was improving, as well as making attacks seem powerless and feats of skill unimportant. It was also a decision that could wreak havoc in a two-player Grand Prix; a trailing human player would get caught up in the rabble trying to fight past particularly aggressive AI for a stab at first place. Sadly, it would be a dilemma Nintendo would continue to struggle with in years to come.

In a series renowned for its visual polish and art direction, Mario Kart 64 contained a number of interesting quirks and oddities, some of which showed Nintendo’s experimental design process at work. For one, the game had three completely different HUDs that the player could switch between at any time; the (now standard) Player List & Map combo, an all-but-useless speedometer and an abstract representation of each player’s relative position. Additionally, player actions were overlaid with bizarre onomatopoeia, with “Boing!”, “WHIRRR” and (a personal favourite) “Poomp!” accompanying hops and impacts.

"Dear Mario, please come to the castle!"  "Nice-a try, Princess!"

Coming so soon after Mario 64, seeing Peach’s Castle tucked away as an afterthought was an impressive display of horsepower.

Other unusual features included the ability to dynamically adjust the music volume, a feature mapped awkwardly to the L button and therefore barely accessible during normal play unless the player owned a friendly octopus. Equally redundant was a single control meant to move the camera further back from your kart – but since the player effectively was the camera, all this did was rapidly (and nauseatingly) fiddle with the field of view. The rear-view mirror, sadly, did not make a reappearance.

Looking back, it’s clear that Nintendo were determined to use every last polygon to explore a wide variety of terrain for their track designs. While the environments themselves stuck to familiar motifs, the diversity of their layout and how they made use of “true” 3D was impressive. Unfortunately, with so many ideas on display, it was perhaps inevitable that some would fare better than others. Highlights included the bumpy, Motocross-inspired terrain of Wario Stadium and the almost SNES-flattened ground and right-angled turns of Bowser’s Castle, while Yoshi Valley (a tangled maze of intersecting routes) simply didn’t work. One route was demonstrably fastest, so experienced players would sail onto the second half of the course (an inexplicably barren meadow) leaving newcomers confounded and annoyed.

Equally infuriating were the courses that set you back a full minute for taking a hit mid-jump, or ones that delighted in simply blocking the way ahead with a train or giant egg. It culminated with DK’s Jungle Parkway, a track which sped its racers across a huge gap only to leave them facing in the wrong direction, necessitating an awkward about-turn from each and every player. The game’s soundtrack was consistently enjoyable, at least, with first-time composer Kenta Nagata contributing several themes that would go on to become series staples.

Much like its forebearer, Mario Kart 64 relied on its multiplayer to make the most of what were, at its core, still inherently fun and compelling gameplay mechanics. The N64’s first four-player game required a few technical sacrifices – there was no music, and the lack of a frame rate lock meant that some tracks ran at almost twice the normal speed – but the battle mode in particular benefitted greatly from a 3D overhaul. The most successful courses were those that were practically shooter-like in their construction, allowing for multi-level assaults and quick escapes.

DON'T TAKE ALL OF THE POWE-- you took all of the power-ups. Grr.

Toad’s Turnpike made good use of 3D, squeezing players between looming vehicles that could change lanes on a whim and send you tumbling.

While battle mode remained a highlight, it didn’t have the lasting impact of its ancestor. Super Mario Kart remained something of an oddity within the SNES library, which meant that battle mode did too, but the youthful N64 would soon offer many ways to step out of the go-kart and hunt your friends down in first-person, all of which challenged Mario Kart for the multiplayer throne. In years to come, the console would also see more technically accomplished racing games attempt to topple the series – usually substituting in hot property like the newly born South Park in their efforts to do so.

Yet despite the suddenly crowded playing field, Mario Kart 64 was once again a sales success – and this time, the critics were on-board. While the game received a solid string of 8s and 9s from the press, it was noted that compared to the N64’s launch titles – games Mario Kart 64 had once been planned to sit alongside – there was little evidence of radical thinking. While Super Mario 64 had just redefined the platformer and Pilotwings 64 had taken full advantage of all that 3D space could offer, Mario Kart 64 had done little more than (as one critic put it) “soup-up” the original without addressing some of its fundamental problems.

Yet for all its faults, the game laid the groundwork for modern Mario Kart titles – not for nothing did other companies chase its popularity and charm well into the dying days of the N64. Rough and ready in parts, gloriously future-thinking in others and sometimes just plain baffling, Mario Kart 64 did a lot with a little – for better or worse – and set the series on a course that would remain largely unaltered for the next eighteen years.


(Images taken from

Posted in Gaming

Super Mario Kart: A Retrospective

Don’t talk to strangers. Never drink from anything that has a skull and crossbones on the label. Avoid bananas while driving. If you grew up alongside a Nintendo system, the odds are that Mario Kart‘s quirky rules will be etched indelibly into your brain. The series’ legacy is so entrenched in gaming culture that it can be tricky to remember the days before we learned  to power-slide, to drag a defensive shell behind us or to clench reflexively at the ominous trill of a blue shell.

Racing a la Mode.

The child’s doodles in the background of some screens form an odd thematic bridge between Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island. Coincidence? Probably.

Each new entry has become an expectation; whether you’re surrounded by friends in front of a TV or wedged uncomfortably on a crowded train, you know that sooner or later there’ll be a Mario Kart to enliven your evening or shorten your journey.  The titles have a unique advantage that make them immediately comfortable — by making Mario and his chums so ubiquitous, Nintendo has taught us all a convenient shorthand to understand the games it brings us. Whether it’s karting, golf or soccer, Bowser will never be anything less than a lumbering powerhouse and stars will always be things to covet and strive for. With Mario games, we appreciate something of the strategies available before we’ve even begun to play.

In 1992, attitudes at Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters were very different. Rules around Mario’s presence in a game had relaxed somewhat, but his inclusion wasn’t being automatically considered. Instead, Hideki Konno and his team were busy prototyping a racing game that could deliver two-player simultaneous play (the recently released F-Zero had been a solitary affair) and were focusing largely on the implementation of this idea and the exploration of mechanics that would eventually become Super Mario Kart’s battle mode. Had the portly plumber not been added as an experiment, we might have been dodging oil cans as an overall-clad mechanic instead.

Mario’s inclusion didn’t sit well with critics of the time, either, with a few of the more cynical reviewers pondering what random pastimes Mario might be wheeled out to front in the future. In fact, the game as a whole received what Metacritic might call a “mixed reception”; UK stalwart Total! gave the game a grudging 50th place in their Top 100 Games, and other reviewers joined them lamenting the title’s perceived simplicity — although the battle mode was generally better received.

I took this shot from the attract mode. IT'S A SECRET FROM EVERYONE.

Coins remain one of the most divisive features in the series, rewarding certain racing lines but punishing poor players by slowing them down.

While it’s easy to dismiss these early judgements in the light of the series’ massive success in the decades that followed, with Super Mario Kart itself going on to become one of the SNES’s best-selling games, it was clear that while huge effort had gone into creating a deep and nuanced two-player game, the experience in single-player left a little to be desired. The AI drivers behaved in ways that far outstripped the abilities offered to human players.

While flesh-and-blood participants did battle with a limited supply of power-ups (placed sparsely compared to the game’s sequels) computer opponents were willing and able to unleash an unending supply of fireballs and other weapons. On higher difficulties they could be often by spotted sending projectiles out at right-angles to their direction of travel, or landing them effortlessly on the player’s head before avoiding a retaliatory assault using superhuman leaps and bounds.

Couple this with a baffling Rivalry system, where the “best” opponents were pre-ordained based on the player’s choice of character — any attempt to sabotage the running order would see the victims graced with impossible speed until they were back where destiny intended — and playing single-player Super Mario Kart could feel like bringing a sword to a gunfight. The aggravation that ensued was a precursor to the more-recent frustration felt when you’re scuppered by a blue shell launched by some inscrutable AI drone rather than the person sat next to you.

The quirks of the Grand Prix races were apparent even then, and revisiting Super Mario Kart today they’re even harder to overlook. Add a second player to the mix, however, and the result is transformative — you immediately start to see where the team spent the bulk of their time. The zip boosts and extra power-ups, eternally ignored by the computer, suddenly become hotly contested as you hurtle around the first lap looking to seize the low-hanging fruit; the dwindling coin supply adding to the frantic, grasping nature of each short race and turning otherwise unremarkable corners into risk/reward-driven dilemmas.

Koopa Troopa is better than Toad. #DealWithIt

Yoshi’s mouth is permanently open whenever he’s viewed from the side. 22 years later it’s still deeply unsettling.

Even with the power-ups, a Super Mario Kart contest relies more on pure racing nerve than any other entry. Over time you’ll realise that the seemingly innocuous hop can carry you over oil slicks and even bananas, learn the different engine classes and the way they overhaul the worth of a particular racer (on 50cc, Koopa Troopa and Toad can actually be better off cutting across the grass) and be ready to memorise and sabotage the racing lines of your opponents.

While it’s possible to attribute at least some of the critical indifference to beleaguered journalists reviewing the game alone, there are a few other design choices that have quietly slipped away from future installments. In Super Mario Kart, just like F-Zero, players will lose lives if they don’t place in the top four — on the one hand this offers a do-over to prevent those last-minute accidents from ruining an otherwise flawless race, but it can also lead to an rookie player staring disconsolately at a greyed-out screen, inanimate in a supposedly “multiplayer” mode.

Not that a Grand Prix was necessarily the best way to spend an evening with friends. Time Trials may have offered long-term bragging rights but the game’s battle mode was a revolutionary experience for SNES owners. It preempted Doom and Marathon alike by bringing a form of deathmatch that only a few titles, like Faceball 2000, had even attempted — least of all on a single screen. Battle mode’s popularity has dwindled over the years, with the rise of the first-person shooter providing more elegant ways to hunt down your friends, but the value of its inclusion in Super Mario Kart should not be underestimated.

With its tight turning circles, lazy drifts and relative paucity of weapons, Super Mario Kart can seem twitchy and impenetrable to players used to more recent entries – the same entries scorned by the sort of purists that bemoan the series’ tendency to level the playing field. In its day, though, it was one of the more inclusive titles in the SNES’s catalogue — certainly the only video game I can remember my parents playing together — and for at least part of that we must look beyond the talents of the team, to Mario himself. From the visual distinctiveness of the characters to the intrinsically understood properties of outlandish elements like fire and ice, the tenets of visual design that underpin the Mario universe are as important to Mario Kart as the racing mechanics themselves. Oil cans? I’ll take bananas any day.

Posted in Gaming | Tagged ,

Games of the Year – 2013


Let’s start with the obvious one. So tarred is the GTA series by its controversies, its cantankerously misogynistic plot lines and its own undeniable success that including a Grand Theft Auto in your Game of the Year list can almost feel like a shameful admission. Yes, part of me did enjoy running over that granny – but that’s not the reason it’s made my list; nor, I suspect, the list of anyone who’s of an age and disposition to write about the games they play.

GTA V simply oozes ambition (so a quick wipe with a cloth is recommended before you put the disc in) and while that ambition doesn’t always crystalise into quality, it reaches the player through a sense of scope and opportunity that GTA IV, its gloomy younger brother, rarely managed to attain. Someone recently expressed a desire to me that games media stop awarding points for “effort”, but I’m not sure I agree; I think players can both apprehend and appreciate a sense of hard work, even if it isn’t quite the same as craftsmanship.

GTA’s shooting mechanics are functional, but never exceptional. Indulging in cars with multiple headlight settings and fold-away canopies leaves the player cortorted horribly around their controller trying to change the radio station. There are collectables, but only the most obsessive players will care to find them without the checklist so thoughtfully provided by Rockstar themselves. The characters brush against defining events before stumbling back towards the status quo. (Trevor and Michael lose and gain loved ones at the whim of a mission structure, without any real agency from either the characters or the player.) There are few occasions where the moment-to-moment gameplay of GTA V is anything more than “solid” and yet there is such a banquet, such a wealth of sight and sound available at anyone time, it’s a remarkable accomplishment that even satisfactory results have been achieved. After all, there are games that don’t even succeed in aping just one of the diversions Los Santos tosses casually onto a tennis court or shooting range.

GTA’s ambition is exciting because, with minor stumbles, each iteration noticeably improves and refines what’s gone before – cruising out around Mount Chiliad at sunset, it’s not hard to imagine a day when these cars will feel as good as a racing game, the gunplay as weighty and satisfying as a finely-tuned FPS, and the characters we interact with as likeable and nuanced as the anti-heroes we indulge in elsewhere. Maybe you don’t consider GTA worthy of such a lavish stage on which to play out its chauvinistic mafia stereotypes and bellowed satire, but its ambition is infectious and the game becomes engrossing through the sheer scale it asks you to consider and the choices that scale provides. And in the future, well, maybe we’ll surpass the am-dram and see the same sprawling canvas turned to tales that really do engross and decisions that matter. Anything can happen on a stage, after all — and no-one builds a theatre like Rockstar.


Indeed, it’s testament to the opportunities afforded by an open-world “stage” that both GTA V and the fourth installment in the Saints Row series could come out a couple of months apart and provide substantially different experiences. Described quite fittingly by Ben Croshaw as “Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad”, this is a series that has deliberately tuned its core mechanics to be biased, unwaveringly, towards the player. This isn’t to say that the game isn’t occasionally frustrating, mind you, but the intention is clear – keep the player feeling powerful, keep the objectives ridiculously clear and encourage experimentation.

It’s the superpowers that help keep the game firmly out of GTA’s bailiwick, of course. It’s interesting to see how carefully separated the new abilities are from the Saints Row of old; stick to traditional activities like shooting and driving and you’ll level up, as the Saints always have, and unlock better things to shoot and drive with. Superpower upgrades, by contrast, are solely out in the world and it’s physically running and jumping that lets you upgrade… well, mostly your running and jumping. It’s a neat solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist; when you’re able to reach your destination with a few Kryptonian bounds, you won’t be climbing back into a pimpmobile any time soon. It’s for this reason that the initial disappointment at finding the city recycled from the previous game soon becomes irrelevant; the buildings and landmarks are little more than blurry platforms or distant targets and the meat of the story missions take place elsewhere.

A game that does its best to avoid the player having to work hard at anything could go disastrously wrong, but makes it ideal fodder for people who don’t get much time to play games – at times, it feels rather like having an in-built Game Genie. Even when you’re stripped of your superpowers temporarily, there’s a generosity of design that lets you nip around the corner to get your health back, or spam the big gun until you stumble out the other end.

The truly unexpected heart of the game, though, comes from its characters. Freed from narrative expectations, they’ve gradually established themselves as real people and, even better, real friends. There’s no defining moment in the series where this happens, but the game takes pains to point out how far we’ve all traveled together by giving Shaundi an unexpected plot arc of her own that pulls no punches with the series’ own shortcomings and, implicitly, vows to do better. When all is said and done, you can believe that The Boss and Pierce are lifelong friends in a way that never quite rings true with Michael and Trevor.

Oh, it’s really bloody funny, too. It seems like that should be taken as read, but in a generation of space marines popping out from behind monochromatic chest-high walls, any game that can make you laugh is doubly welcome, especially when a lot of the laughs aren’t scripted but from the sheer joyous energy of your own absurd situation and the exaggerated impact of your actions. It turns out that absolute power is actually really good fun.


If I were a 90s gaming magazine, this would be the space for a tenuous segue: I’d claim Saints Row and GTA to be twisted mirrors of each other, and then use that to feed nicely into discussing the dual-dimensionality of A Link Between Worlds, right before some art editor ruinsed my grand simile by putting a massive screenshot in the way and forcing the player to hunt around the page for the next paragraph.

Like this.

Like this.

Then again, if I were a 90s gaming magazine I wouldn’t have been at once so intrigued and concerned about the prospect of an out-and-out sequel to Link to the Past. Yes, LTTP was fantastic and still gets played regularly, but that was rather the problem… wouldn’t I, not to put to fine a point on it, know where everything was? The answer turned out to be “sort of”.

Even after more than 25 years in the company of the Zelda series, familiarity isn’t necessarily inevitable. Skyward Sword introduced plenty of new gadgets and some truly devious dungeon mechanics, not to mention taking advantage of the Wiimote’s most reliable gestures to add subtleties like bomb bowling. By deliberately hanging their hat on LTTP’s Hyrule this time around, Nintendo were making a choice; acknowledging that this was retreading old ground and taking the opportunity to play with expectations. In some ways, it was like returning to a childhood home and seeing it transformed by an eccentric millionaire.

While the game never managed to bridge the gap between modern Zelda cutscenes and the pace of the gameplay (Ganon was given particularly short shrift) the story could have been told by glove puppets and it wouldn’t have mattered. This wasn’t a world to stand around and drink in the ambience, like Ocarina of Time – it was a childhood dash around a theme park, a dozen glittering secrets all beckoning simultaneously. The dungeons were generally satisfying and occasionally wonderful, with the Palace of Darkness a particular highlight.

In all honesty, though, the removal of the map and the dungeon items FROM the dungeons seemed to do away with a vital “tipping point”. There’s a moment in the best Zelda dungeons where you go from being a bit lost and slightly baffled to having a “click” in your head – suddenly, you understand how everything fits together and the rest of the dungeon is now yours to enjoy conquering. More recent Zelda games have relied on the dungeon item for these moments; you pull a weird gizmo out of a chest, wave it about, and the revelation of its function is accompanied by recollection of half-a-dozen other places it might also be useful. By contrast, dungeons in LBW were often an enjoyable march towards an obvious destination, with all the tools already at your disposal.

The success of the item rental system is debatable, but either way, it was a gutsy decision to dust off something so coated with childhood nostalgia and serve it up in the cold light of 2013. Hyrule was never going to seem so labyrinthine, dangerous or imposing as it did when I was ten, but the joy of finding a hidden door or dashing about with the Pegasus Boots may well be ageless, in both senses of the word.


For those not in the know; The Stanley Parable is a first-person adventure in which the player guides Stanley through his office building to discover why everyone else has disappeared, with their actions being called out by a narrator. As the narrator generally explains what Stanley’s going to do before the player obliges him, they have the option to pick the wrong door, start backtracking and generally doing all of those things players can do that makes storytelling in games so difficult… and the narrator will attempt to outwit them in return.

How and where you impose your free will upon the game (if you do so at all) will cause a number of reactions, each of which acts as a discussion, deconstruction and – at times – game-endingly bleak acceptance of the problems reconciling a coherent, sensible narrative with a player’s desire to, well, play.

Not since “THE CAKE IS A LIE!” has the dynamic between a player and the antagonist struck such a chord, and it makes sense. In some ways, Stanley Parable and Portal are bedfellows; they both take place in a dystopian and seemingly endless office environment, both GlaDOS and the Narrator view the player’s refusal to do what’s expected as a personal affront and both respond with a passive-aggressive assault on the player’s worth. Yet where Portal uses its titular gun to deconstruct the expectations of movement and space in gaming (but remains resolutely a game), The Stanley Parable tears down the walls of the world itself and asks why we even need them.

Despite moments of introspective nihilism, The Stanley Parable is incredibly funny, blending Monty Python’s surrealism and antagonised monologues with A Bit Of Fry and Laurie’s penchant for metahumour. You can tell a game’s done something right when people are quoting it at you and reviewers are trying to ape its stylings when they talk about it. The fact that people WANT to talk about it speaks volumes. It’s been stated “it’s exactly the kind of thing Steam was made for” but the truth is that the more people who are exposed to this sort of thing, on as many platforms as possible, the better off we’ll all be. Not just for the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about the nature of the games we play, but because they’ll almost certainly think it’s really funny too.


Yes, yes, I know. It’s not cheating because it wasn’t available to buy as a UK release until 2013, so there. While it’s true that some of the aspects that made Earthbound so unique back in the 90s, like its modern-day urban setting, aren’t so unique nowadays the general plot is so bonkers and endearing that it scarcely matters.

While it’s tricky by modern standards, Earthbound is actually fairly forgiving as long as you accept the simple truth: you will grind. The only real penalty for death is losing what cash you had on you, so tenacity can take the place of RPG experience and leave players free to enjoy the simple things in life, like beating up a giant monster made of sick.

Earthbound’s a story about childhood, and the way that children perceive what they see and hear. Adults can get taken over by invisible forces and act crazy; boys use baseball bats as weapons while girls get better results with frying pans. Homesickness is an actual debilitation and must be forestalled by phoning your Mum. Animals can talk and bars are gateways to weird, alternate universes where adults say weird stuff and it’s hard to get to where you’re going. The truly remarkable thing is that so much of this is implicit, waiting to be discovered or ignored by players as they fancy. It’s a far cry from the heavy-handed philosophising of RPGs afforded the luxury of cutscenes, even when the game actually slams the brakes on with a trippy interlude and invites the player to consider how much they’ve accomplished so far.

It can be hard to make time for games like Earthbound, especially with the instant gratification of a Saints Row or a Mario 3D World within your grasp. No other game has quite mirrored its atmosphere, nor provided such a weird and unsettling final battle (which, when researched, becomes even more unnerving in retrospect). Most certainly the hardest game on this list to love, Earthbound was worth the wait nevertheless.

Posted in Articles

National Poetry Day

I wanted to write a poem like Michael Rosen
For National Poetry Day.
So I hemmed and hawwed.
And hawwed.
And I got cross because
I just couldn’t seem to capture his style
And I looked out of the window at the zoo instead.
I thought about the zoo.
I thought about the lions
All mane and roar
Locked in their cages together
Like a big gold puddle that wants to eat you up.
I thought what Michael Rosen would have to say
About lions.
But I never really got it right
And got back to making video games instead.
Sorry lions.

Posted in Writing

The Star Trek Annual

I’ve inherited the 1968 “Star Trek Annual”; a slightly battered hand-me-down from my Mum, who was young enough to have drawn all over the inside cover with callous disregard for the future invention of eBay. That’s okay, though – I keep it around not for its pristine condition or resale value, but because it’s bloody hilarious.

For a start, the annual’s creators have clearly never watched the show. They’ve got the names and roles of the characters down, certainly, but that’s where they ran out of space on the cocktail napkin. 1968 was the height of the show’s popularity so it’s not as if the staff had to wait for VCRs to be invented, either – but instead of the thought-provoking stories and moral dilemmas of the series, we get things like this:

There are at least some token "space facts" to make up for the giant vacuum plant on the next page.

There are at least some token “space facts” to make up for the giant vacuum plant on the next page.

Each of the three adventures is taken straight from 50s pulp fiction; a planet of rogue construction machinery, a world of predatory plants and an prison asteroid whose leader just is Ming the Merciless. And it’s clear the writers haven’t even been told anything about the Enterprise beyond the name of the ship – the crew are packing “blast-rays”, Janice Rand spends the mission running around with a red beanie on her head and Spock commands that Sulu “Fire all rockets!”

In fact, Mr. Spock is my favourite part of the annual. Witness the deftness with which they’ve captured his stoic, unflappable countenance:

It! Should be! Shatner! Talking like this!

It! Should be! Shatner! Talking like this!

Yes, all they know about Mr. Spock is that he’s clever. Clever enough to casually order the extinction of an entire world simply because the predators are, well, predatory:

"The blast-rays are taking too long! Fire all rockets!"

“The blast-rays are taking too long! Fire all rockets!”

For anyone with the slightest knowledge of the show, every page is packed full of delights. Even the inside cover has its share:

The grafitti can only hide the pain.

The grafitti can only hide the pain.

For starters, just who is that in the Captain’s Chair? I thought at first it was meant to be a chubby Sulu but he’s wearing green, like Kirk. Perhaps he’s aboard to check all of those clocks above Uhura’s station – you know, clocks that would tell you what… the time is… on different… planets…

Either way, that thing Kirk’s holding is obviously a medical device he’s about to use to fix Spock’s burned and swollen hand. That, or he’s about to break into his spoken-word version of ‘Rocketman’.

It’s easy to mock the broad strokes and simple plots of the annual, but then, it’s hardly the first show to suffer low-grade tie in merchandise, especially when it’s stuff aimed at kids. The stories are simple and cliché, but they make sense within themselves and the drawing, on the whole, is pretty–

Vulcans long ago abandoned emotion in favour of excessive foreshortening.

Vulcans long ago abandoned emotion in favour of excessive foreshortening.

Huh, I guess his left hand is just ALWAYS that big.

Posted in Articles

Book Review – Shada

Shada, bless it, has been knocked about more times than Ben from LOST. The original script, penned by Douglas Adams (you might possibly have heard of him) fell victim to strike action and was never produced.

Since then it’s been resurrected in many a form. Adams himself reused aspects of the story to underpin the first of his Dirk Gently novels, raw footage was pillaged and swirlified for use in The Five Doctors and the story was retrofitted to the Eighth Doctor (you’re less likely to have heard of him), albeit as a bizarre audio-play-but-also-flash-animation-is-this-really-where-our-licence-fee-goes-auntie… thing.

And now it’s a book. A book based on a script about a book, no less, and one penned by Gareth Roberts – he’s written several of the series’ more light-hearted episodes since its 2005 return and the bombastic, don’t-stop-running-to-think-about-it tone he deployed in those episodes certainly has the potential to fit the Fourth Doctor’s manic frame like a particularly well-woven scarf. But then, you probably knew that much if you were reading this.

What’s surprising about Shada is not the Hitch-Hiker’s references or the period catchphrases; rather, it’s the delight it takes in being a 70s Doctor Who story written forty years after the fact. Roberts plays gleefully with time, seeding the narrative with sly nods to the bit-players and quirks of the Doctor Who universe that, were you reading this while ringing in the 1980s, you’d have to wait three decades to fully appreciate.

More than that, though, the spacey-wacey attitude of the older episodes is given a good lick of paint courtesy of modern television. In an era where your oldest episode is only a weblink away, and the angle of a man’s hat is imbued with deep philosophical intent, you can’t afford to take the slapdash approach that classic Who did to its own audience, and many of the nuts and bolts that form the “how?” of the story are given a quick tighten along the way – luckily, without ever dissolving into technobabble.

The backbone of the story remains largely unchanged, of course – at its core, this is still the tale that Adams wanted to tell – but for all that, Roberts seizes the gift of narrative introspection. The characters think, feel and remember in ways that a screen or audio play could simply never have accommodated, and these moments provide a refuge for many of the new jokes, sly references and likeable character traits that bring the book its fullness.

I’ve gobbled up every scrap of Shada over the years, and yet I still found many things to like about this book. It may not be the definitive version – there was only ever one man who could have written that – but it’s a fine addition to the bookshelf, a contented romp across familiar fields, and a far more confident adaptation of another man’s work than the sixth Hitch-Hiker’s book ever managed.

Also, it made me fancy Romana. I’m not too late, am I?

Posted in Uncategorized

The Christmas Spirits


‘Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the house
Came their screams, and I quaked
In my bed like a mouse.

An old threadbare blanket
Hid me from sight
It alone could sustain me
To last through the night.

Just one glimpse, just a fraction
Of fingers or head
Would bring forth the monsters
To drag me from bed.

I knew not their names,
Nor the form that they took,
No nursery rhyme claimed them,
Nor child’s picture book

Yet some older instinct
From ancestral caves
Compelled me to hide
And stay still as the grave.

I knew without reason
These rules for survival
As surely as I
Could divine their arrival.

A singular curse,
Just my burden to bear
As my parents could never sense
Anything there.

‘Twas my childish fancy,
They chose to believe,
That the ghouls came to claim me
On each Christmas Eve.

Posted in Writing