Technology and Devices

I Now Own Far Too Many Consoles

It started with the PS2. I wanted one. I was 20 and this was nearly two years ago. I’ve owned a PS4 since 2014 but now I wanted a PS2 as well. Finding one on eBay was a trivial matter and I found mine for about £40 with a bunch of PS2 classics like ‘BRATZ: Forever Diamonds’ and ‘Charlies Angels.’ PS2s are cheap because of how ludicrously successful the system was back in the day – the christmas after the PS3 came out the PS2 was still the best selling console. I had no idea what path I was walking down, and how easy and tempting each step is. My name is Henry Vincent, and I have a retro-console problem.

CEX is a good shop. Hull has two of them for some reason. I would go to both of them everytime I could be bothered to walk into town. I wouldn’t buy a game every time I visited, I just wanted to look at all the games they had and got excited about what I found, so then I’d have to convince myself that I don’t need the Futurama game because I remember it being bad and not in a fun way, and other people seem to agree, but it’s still just so tempting. Although sometimes when a really bad game is exactly 25p I won’t be able to stop myself.

How could I turn away from such a awe-inspiring sight?

One fateful morning, a few months after getting my PS2, during a typically self-inflicted student-life sleep-deprived state, I wandered into the now-defunct Hull branch of Granger Games to find – to my amazement – a PlayStation 1 behind the glass. Now, the PS1 isn’t that rare in itself, but this was the very first original PAL version, with the RCA jacks on the back, RF video support (lol), and – most importantly, the PlayStation controller. Not DualShock, not even Dual Analogue – the first PlayStation controller, with no analogue sticks and no vibration. I’d never seen one before. I was barely aware of their ever having existed to be honest; we always had DualShock when I was a child. And all of this for a mere £22. I couldn’t believe it. I should have gone to sleep; I was exhausted – but instead, I bought the console.

Okay, yes – obviously, I already had a console that could play PS1 games perfectly well (even better you might argue) – the PS2. But that never seemed right to me. It seemed to me that if I can play PS1 games on an actual PS1, that’s better isn’t it? Apparently that makes me what’s known in the retro console community as an ‘original hardware person’. I don’t want backwards compatibility or emulation when I can experience a game authentically, on the hardware it was built for, experiencing the quirks of the system, using the actual controller the game was designed to work with and the actual disk – the full experience that is more than the game itself – there’s an important meta side to the game. No matter how complex and technically accurate your emulation experience gets, you’ll never have the true feeling of pushing the power toggle button in, hearing the clunking and whiring, and seeing the bootup animation, and then hoping the game will actually load past the PlayStation logo because sometimes it doesn’t so you need to try with the PS1 upside-down. You can’t beat that feeling with any kind of backwards compatibility or emulation.

You’d think that it would be annoying that you sometimes have to turn the console upside-down to get it to detect the disk – but I love that about it; it’s such a bizarre quirk that you don’t get with modern hardware. I mean – I don’t want that to be a ‘feature’ of my PS4 but I think it’s cool on the PS1 as a charming oddity of my model of the system. Although I would like to get the slim version (confusingly called the PSOne) which doesn’t have this problem (it also looks cool as frick).

After a month or so of being perfectly happy with the quality of my gaming experience with the then three PlayStations I owned, ‘the algorithm’ got to me. Youtube recommended me a video titled “Getting the Best Picture from your PlayStation 1 Games”. I was mortified; I’ve been playing PlayStation games as a scum-lord using disgusting, dirty composite video. It was lucky then that my room had a TV with a SCART input that supported RGB. I could use a nice RGB video signal from both my analogue-only consoles. It required me to buy some slightly expensive new cables, but the video quality was quite well improved – so I was happy.

Needed to make sure my two new boys got home with me nice and comfortable.

A fool I was! As soon as I was content again, I watched NakeyJakey’s Halo videos. Great – now I need an Xbox. Furthermore, it occurred to me that I had every PlayStation apart from the PS3, so now I need one if only to complete the set and not have a weird gap in my collection. I didn’t even have a particular game I wanted to play on it! Then one of my housemates had an Xbox 360 which he didn’t want anymore, so of course I bought it off him! What do you think I am? Some sort of person who wouldn’t do that and would instead be satisfied by the things they already have? I’m not some sort of Buddhist who seeks satisfaction from within, I’m exclusively about external pleasures.

Okay, then I took it to a level of ‘OG hardware’ that was too far. I sourced a CRT TV in Hull for £20 which accepted RGB input and seemed to be decent quality. Because ultimately, you’re not getting the full experience if you’re not playing these games on a display from the time. I was pretty happy with it for a few months. It looked okay and it gave me the nice tingly feeling of better times gone by.

Am I taking this too far? Or not far enough?

But… you know… it is quite big… and everything looks fairly fuzzy on it. It didn’t even have the blessed scanlines coveted by the retro console community. I mean if it were a Sony Trinitron I’d be fighting people off with a pointy stick, even if they weren’t fighting me – but this display ultimately just disappointed, so I sold it for £25. So at least I’m an entrepreneur. 

I think I’ve worked out what all of this is about. Some number of years ago, my cousin got some vinyl records for a Christmas present. I remember my Mum and my Aunt asking why he’d want records in the modern day, considering that we now have CDs and streaming services which are quite obviously better in all possible ways. He said that they’re ‘just nice to have.’ I catch that drift. In a world where more and more of our lives exist digitally, it’s a becoming a novelty to actually own real stuff – especially entertainment stuff. Holding a vinyl record in your hands and realising that this thing contains the sound you’ll listen to and nothing else… it feels authentic. In some ways, these old consoles have that same sense of authenticity. The PS1 plays PS1 games. That’s all it does. That’s all it’s designed to do. It was built from the ground up to process polygons and draw an image on the screen, play some sounds and accept user input. Playing these same games on my PC – a device that was designed to do any number of different tasks feels sort of not real. A game was not made specifically for this hardware, nor just for this kind of input. It’s hard to explain, like trying to describe what it means for sound to be ‘warm.’

I know that it’s probably just a phase, but it’s one I’m enjoying right now. I now have way too many games to play and I’ll probably never get through them all because the library is expanding faster than I can consume it, but in some ways just owning some of them is nice enough for me. Playing older games has given me an appreciation for the design choices of modern games, and for how much things have improved and also how much has been left behind over the years. Games of today are better than games of twenty years ago, not exclusively, but generally, and I can say that now. I got over the nostalgia of it all ages ago – now I’m just playing these games and appreciating them. I gave up on the CRT because once the nostalgia wore off, I realised I didn’t really like it, but these consoles and these old games are pretty cool if you ask me even after nostalgia has faded. Thanks for listening and have a nice day. I will one day learn to end these things well. Until then, peace out.


The Library Level Should Have Been Cut From Halo

Halo is a pretty good game – to put it mildly. That is not a controversial statement; almost everyone who has played Halo: Combat Evolved loves it. It’s one of the (many) reasons the Xbox brand ended up being so successful. Indeed, the name Halo is almost synonymous with Xbox. It’s one the best first-person shooters on a console even to this day and one of the first to introduce so many game mechanics we consider standard today. Aim-assist, regenerating shields, even the standard FPS controls – all introduced or heavily innovated by Halo. It’s safe to say that Halo is a historic game and has had an astonishing and undeniable impact on the console gaming world. But it is definitely not without its flaws.

The Library is the seventh level of ten and represents an absolutely disgusting lapse in quality during such an otherwise high-standard game. If you can, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you skip this level; it adds nothing but half an hour of tedium and frustration.

In order to fully understand the failings of this level, it is important to examine the rest of the game as a whole. Halo’s other levels are vast, expansive and varied. In most missions, there’s not too much of a sense of repetitiveness about them (apart from when there is). In an age of endless corridor-shooters, Halo stood out as a game with huge sandbox levels that were both fun to fight in and also nice to look at, with only a few endless corridors. Each level has its own purpose – whether the purpose is to convey some story element or to teach the player about a game mechanic, most levels feel required and useful, which is important to the player’s enjoyment of a game like Halo.

What, then, is the purpose of The Library? I’ve seen it said in forums and comment-sections that The Library is used to convey the overwhelming nature of the Flood. As the Master Chief moves through the level, he must fight the ever persistent Flood, which come close to overwhelming him by their sheer numbers. It, in theory, sounds like a good way of conveying why the Flood are so feared and a disaster if they get off the ring while following the story-telling rule of ‘show – don’t tell’. But wait – hasn’t the game already done this? Level 6, ‘343 Guilty Spark’, is the level which introduces the Flood – and does quite a good job of it, too. In that level, Master Chief delves deep into an installation looking for Captain Keyes, only to find both Covenant and Human soldiers dead as if they had been mutilated, and no signs of the Captain. Suddenly the Chief is hit by a wave of Flood – and another, and another. The only way he can survive this is to run away as fast as possible through the corpses of his companions and enemies, it is not required of him that he kills all of the Flood, buts that’s up to the player. Sounds to me like this idea of the Flood being overwhelming and almost undefeatable has been conveyed quite well, while also providing an entertaining experience for the player. So, bearing that in mind, what is the library for? Is it to reinforce the plague of the Flood idea? If it is, it is done quite ineffectively, makes the level ultimately feel redundant, and takes away from the impact of the flood because too much time is spent on conveying that one idea without expanding it or giving the player any new information – it’s all just repetition. The player learns not to fear the Flood, but to be frustrated and bored by them.

So the level has no point, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anything; it could still be fun and simply act as padding to make the game another half an hour long. And that would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that this level is awful owing mainly to the almost comically-bad level design. The level starts by putting you in a corridor. Run forward for a bit while you get attacked by a wave of flood. Wait for Guilty Spark to open an unnecessarily oversized and slow-moving door. Congratulations – do that for ten more corridors and you’ve done the level. Three groups of corridors are broken up by two also very large lifts, and a couple rooms where you get locked in and have to fight the Flood for a bit. Every corridor is an exact copy of the last – obviously literally copied and pasted to make the level longer, but occasionally a slight alteration is made, making the level feel extremely repetitive. The result is a player who feels like they have been going around in circles for 30-40 minutes. A feeling of being lost is very common in this level, which was probably not deliberate.

It all just screams laziness – Bungie made a couple of corridors, a lift, and the final room and then just seemed to settle for looping them over and over again until the level felt long enough. The whole level design is boring because you’ve seen the whole thing about 30 seconds into this half-an-hour level. This is especially bad because Halo was supposed to be a game that moves away from closed in corridors and into vast open levels, so The Library feels a bit counter-intuitive in that regard, being a level almost entirely composed of corridors. The level gets completely boring about two minutes in, and carries on for over half an hour.

The level design may be bad, but that alone isn’t what makes this level so hated. The other main problem is the combat. The Flood are awful to fight. It’s hard to imagine anybody actually enjoys fighting the Flood, and if they say they do, they are wrong. The Flood are essentially zombies with guns and therefore have no regard for their own safety, and as a result, the Flood fight you stupidly. They’ll ignore cover, they’ll run straight at you to hit you a lot or stand still shooting endlessly. You’d think this makes them easy to fight, but you’d be wrong, because in order to make them a challenge, Bungie made them do a frankly over-the-top amount of damage, and also put what seems like a million of them in a level at once, completely surrounding the Chief. They don’t try to keep their distance or try to defend themselves like the Covenant do – they get closer, they sneak up behind you and blow up to take your shields out (à la creepers from Minecraft fame), they hunt the Chief down and run at him – making trying to hide from them almost impossible. Exactly one gun is effective against the flood – the shotgun. You can fight them with other guns but you’re not going to have a good time doing it – although, you’re not going to have a good time whatever you do, but it’ll be much better with a shotgun. This means that the best way to fight them is to run at them while they run at you and shoot as you go, except they’ll overwhelm you if you do that so you have to sort of run around in circles, trying not to advance too much at once and clean-up the level as you go. All of this combined makes them very challenging – but not in a fun way, and after you’ve died to them a few times you’ll start getting suicidal over how tedious this whole act of fighting them is.

The combination of a boring, uninspired, repetitive level design and an enemy which is painful to fight in great numbers makes this level possibly the worst level in Halo history. So what should have been done about it? I like to take the ‘brutal editor’ approach to this and would suggest cutting the level entirely and replacing the little storytelling it conveys with extra lines of dialogue in other cutscenes, or even create a new cutscene where the level previously was; it wouldn’t have taken very long and would have drastically improved the overall quality of the game – and, incidentally, this is precisely what Bungie did multiple times while developing Halo 2 (although that was because of ridiculous time constraints rather than anything else). The level could also have been drastically shortened and altered, but this would have to be to the effect of pretty much completely changing the level design, structure and even the objective – essentially the same as cutting the level, except a new one would be put in its place.

The game would have arguably been seriously improved if the Flood were more fun to fight, however that could run the risk of losing the emphasis of how the Flood will destroy the entire universe unless wiped out, and thus the main driving force behind the whole plot would be lost. The Flood are at their best when the player is running away from them, not when the player is forced to kill them all; it both makes more sense in terms of the plot and world-building that has already been established, and can provide quite dramatic and memorable sequences.

The Library level is hard to enjoy, even for the most veteran Halo fans. It’s boring, it’s tedious, and it’s far-too brutal. If it were just boring but not very hard, the player could just zone out while playing it and it would be forgotten, but when it’s both boring and difficult, the player must focus on a repetitive slog through a seemingly infinite set of corridors. This level takes place in Halo’s second half, which is often said to be where Halo starts going downhill in terms of quality, but The Library is a rather sheer cliff-face of a drop-off. The quality recovers immediately after but never quite reaches the same standard set at the start of the game. Halo is a really fun and historic game which everyone with an Xbox should play – just skip The Library if you can.