Today’s Art (28th December 2014)

Well, today’s painting is another landscape based on some photos that my parents took of Dorset for me when they visited there a couple of months ago.

I’m not quite sure how long this short painting series will be (for starters, it’s still kind of strange to paint scenes set during the day), but it’ll probably go on for at least another day or two.

As with the previous two paintings in this series, I’ll also provide the original lineart for this painting as a blog exclusive too.

As usual, the two images in this blog post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Dorset - Four Of Wands" By C. A. Brown

“Dorset – Four Of Wands” By C. A. Brown

And here’s the lineart:

"Dorset - Four Of Wands (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

“Dorset – Four Of Wands (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown

Advertisements

Review: “Bio Menace” (Freeware Retro Computer Game)

2014 Artwork Bio Menace Review sketch

Despite being both a massive fan of action platform games and of classic Apogee/3D Realms games ever since I was a kid, I didn’t actually play “Bio Menace” for the first time until I was about eighteen. Yes, I know, I should have been playing this game when I was eight – but I unfortunately hadn’t heard of it back then.

Anyway, I was trying to clear some space on my hard disk when I rediscovered my old copy of “Bio Menace” and decided to review it. You can get the full version of the game as freeware from the 3D Realms website – although you’ll probably need to use DOSBox to play it. Although 3D Realms now seems to be hosting a revamped version of the game on their site, this review is of the original version from the early-mid 90s.

Although I played “Bio Menace” quite a bit a few years ago, I only really had a chance to re-play it (using my old saved games) for about an hour before writing this review – so this review reflects both of these facts.

Anyway, let’s get started:

Yes, this game is gloriously retro AND badass!

Yes, this game is gloriously retro AND badass!

In “Bio Menace”, you play as a CIA operative called Snake Logan, who is ordered to fly a plane into Metro City (*cough* Escape From New York *Cough*) in order to stop an evil scheme by the fiendish Dr. Mangle .

Dr. Mangle formerly worked with the US government on an secret project called Operation Bug Glow, which was a series of experiments aimed at enlarging various insects for unknown reasons. However, Dr. Mangle “spliced some very violent genes into the mix” and has used his newly-created army of evil mutants to take over Metro city.

But, as Snake flies his plane into Metro city, it is shot down by one of Dr. Mangle’s robots and he must fight his way through the city and rescue as many survivors as possible.

Ah, remember the days when the story was an add-on to the gameplay rather than the other way round....

Ah, remember the days when the story was an add-on to the gameplay rather than the other way round….

Like most of Apogee’s games, “Bio Menace” is split up into three individual episodes – so you basically get “three games for the price of one” when you download this game.

Another cool feature is that you can “practice” any level in the game- this is basically a level select feature which allows you to select a level and play it for exactly 15 seconds. The time limit is kind of annoying, but I guess that they didn’t want people to feel that they’re cheating.

Yes, you can select ANY level... for only fifteen seconds.

Yes, you can select ANY level… for only fifteen seconds.

It also seems like “Bio Menace” uses the same game engine that Apogee used for “Commander Keen 4 -6“. How do I know this? Well, in case you haven’t noticed yet, just take a look at the game menu. It’s a heavily modified version of the one from “Commander Keen 4”:

But WHERE is "Paddle War"?

But WHERE is “Paddle War”?

The gameplay is, as you would expect, classic action platformer gameplay. You have to explore non-linear levels, fight monsters and find keys in order to progress.

One interesting feature of this game is that you also have to rescue a survivor in every level too.

Like this one.

Like this one.

And, before certain well-known critics on the internet start complaining that this is a “damsel in distress” game mechanic – there are a fairly equal mixture of male and female survivors that have to be rescued. Yes, the company that created “Duke Nukem” can actually be more progressive than some critics give them credit for.

See!

See!

The level design in “Bio Menace” is reasonably good and there are a moderately interesting variety of settings on offer here – such as cities, forests and robot bases.

But, whilst this game features the kind of non-linear level design that makes 90s games better than most modern ones, the levels are all relatively small when compared to some other Apogee games (eg: the old 2D “Duke Nukem” games). So, by 90s standards, “Bio Menace” is a fairly easy game – even if it’s still a fairly challenging game by modern standards.

But, the small levels are made up for by the many fiendishly difficult adversaries that you will have to fight. Many of these are fairly tough and require a decent amount of firepower to destroy, some can only be killed by grenades and some are best dodged rather than fought.

...And if you've seen the movie "Critters", you'll recognise the creature at the bottom of the screen.

…And if you’ve seen the movie “Critters”, you’ll recognise the creature at the bottom of the screen.

Another interesting feature of “Bio Menace” is the sheer array of weaponry that you can find throughout the game. Your default machine gun can only fire in short bursts, but you can find a powerup that will give you 100 rounds of fully automatic fire.

This can be combined with another power-up that quintuples the damage that your bullets do (although this power-up can be used on it’s own too). Plus, you can also find a power-up that converts your machine gun into a laser gun.

There’s also a secret weapon too – if you hold the “up” arrow for long enough, you will hear a strange sound – if you then hit the “fire” button, Snake will fire a large green energy pulse out of his gun. This is cool, but it comes at the cost of several health points every time you use it:

It's SO awesome, that you will actually disappear for a second when you use it!

It’s SO awesome, that you will actually disappear for a second when you use it!

But that isn’t the coolest thing about the weapons in this game. No, you get grenades too. This is literally the only 90s platformer (for the PC, at least) that I can think of where you can actually throw grenades at things.

Yes, you can throw grenades here. (And.. wow... Cosmo the alien has really let himself go in this game)

Yes, you can throw grenades here. (And.. wow… Cosmo the alien has really let himself go in this game)

As well as “ordinary” grenades, you can also find incindiary grenades which will set fire to anything within a certain radius and land mines that you can place on the ground too.

Although the text that appears when you pick up the land mines for the first time is probably, well, slightly ill-advised from a modern perspective:

"Cool! Land Mines!" ... Yeah, this game probably would be made these days....

“Cool! Land Mines!” … Yeah, this game probably would be made these days….

Still, “Bio Menace” absolutely littered with cool easter eggs. Although I didn’t get round to rediscovering most of them when I briefly re-played it for this review, you can find references to most of Apogee’s other games hidden in each episode. And, for a 90s geek like myself, this is absolutely heavenly!

Awww... It's a yorp! :)

Awww… It’s a yorp! 🙂

Even though, like most Apogee/3D Realms games, “Bio Menace” thankfully doesn’t take itself very seriously – it’s slightly more “gritty” than most early-mid 90s action platformers are.

In fact, this game was one of the earliest games to include FPS-style ludicrous gibs whenever you kill a monster. Every creature that you destroy will explode into a satisfying pile of bones and body parts – seriously, not even the old 2D Duke Nukem games included this!

Splatterific!

Splatterific!

In addition to this, the very first level of the game is literally littered with the corpses of everyone who didn’t survive the initial assault by Dr. Mangle’s mutants. Seriously, for a kids’ game from the early 90s, this is refreshingly dark and it just makes me wish that I’d actually played this when I was a kid in the 90s even more.

Yes, kids. Alien mutant invasions aren't all fun and games...

Yes, kids. Alien mutant invasions aren’t all fun and games…

All in all, “Bio Menace” is a game which sums up why games from the 90s are still much cooler than most modern games are.

Yes, in terms of level design, graphics and/or gameplay, it isn’t quite as good as other games from the time (like “Duke Nukem II”), but it’s still an incredibly fun and cheesy game which is worth checking out if you love platform games.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Today’s Art (27th December 2014)

Well, since I still can’t think of any good ideas for new paintings, I’ve decided to turn these paintings of Dorset (based on some photos my parents took for me when they visited there a couple of months ago) into a small art series. And, yes, I know that they are brighter than my “normal” art is.

Anyway, this is another rural landscape painting and – as a blog exclusive – I’ll also provide the original lineart for it in this blog post.

As usual, these two images are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Dorset - Giant Garden" By C. A. Brown

“Dorset – Giant Garden” By C. A. Brown

And here’s the lineart:

"Dorset - Giant Garden (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

“Dorset – Giant Garden (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown

On Romanticising Your “Early Days” As A Writer Or An Artist

2014 Artwork Romanticising Old Stuff Article Sketch

Even though this is a pep talk about both the benefits and perils of romanticising your “early days” as an artist and/or writer, I’m going to have to start by talking about my own “early days” for a while.

There’s a reason for this (as well as an uplifting message at the very end of this article too) and I’m not just writing about it for the sake of self-pity or anything like that.

A while back, I was looking through my DeviantART gallery for one of my old pictures, when I started to notice some of the art that I’d made back in 2012 just after I’d decided that I’d produce at least one picture per day.

At first, I laughed because it was hilariously terrible compared to my modern stuff and it made me wonder why I’d stuck at it for so long and seen myself as an “artist”, when I was producing things like this on a regular basis:

"Aristocracy" By C. A. Brown [24th July 2012]

“Aristocracy” By C. A. Brown [24th July 2012]

Then I remembered the feeling of carefree joy that I had when I made art every day back then, when it was still a “new” thing to me. I remembered the optimism and joy I felt when I produced each picture and how I’d often eagerly produce 2-5 small drawings every day. And then I felt kind of sad since, although I still really enjoy making art – it doesn’t quite hold the fascination that it did back then.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, with the art that I produced early this year – when watercolour pencils were still a new art medium to me and I was still fascinated by the idea of being a “painter”.

Back then, I was keen to copy old paintings, to paint from life and to see watercolour painting as something “special” rather than “ordinary”. Some of you might remember this, but it was the time when I produced stuff like this:

"From The Chair By The Door" By C. A. Brown

“From The Chair By The Door” By C. A. Brown

It really was a truly magical time in some ways.

But, when I’m not feeling confident about my current art, it’s easy to look back at the art I produced during those early months and think things like “Wow! I’ve really got worse since then!“. Of course, I also tend to ignore all of the fairly mediocre and/or crappy paintings that I also made back then – like this one:

"Random Mountains" By C. A. Brown

“Random Mountains” By C. A. Brown

And don’t even get me started on my writing – I tend to think that I peaked as a fiction writer back in 2008 -10 and that it’s been downhill ever since. Although, saying that, I used to write fiction far more regularly back then than I do now. So, there might actually be some truth to this.

So, why are any of these melancholic introspective ramblings relevant to you?

Well, if you’re writing fiction regularly or taking yourself seriously as an artist and practicing regularly, then it can be easy to get nostalgic about your early days. And this isn’t a bad thing, after all – it can help you to feel better about yourself as a writer and/or artist, if you have your own “personal mythology” and can categorise your work based on when it was produced.

I don’t know why, but it can make you feel like a historian or an expert on your own work. It can help you to feel closer to the more well-known artists or writer that you aspire to be like, by having a history and a list of works like they do. It can help you to rehearse the interesting stories about your “early days” that you will tell interviewers when you eventually become “well-known” or whatever.

In emotional terms, romanticising your “early days” isn’t a bad thing. However, it isn’t always an entirely good thing either. This is because you can sometimes end up looking down on all of your current work, because it doesn’t live up to the rose-tinted “perfection” of your old stuff. But, I’ll let you in on a secret.

In a couple of years time, you’ll probably start getting nostalgic about what is now your current work. I mean, back in 2012, I used to worry that my art wasn’t as great as the art that I produced on an irregular basis back in 2010 and 2011. So, why is this relevant?

Well, in case you haven’t guessed already, this means that you will end up getting nostalgic about the things that you are making right now. In a few months or years, you’ll look back to now and think “Wow! Those were my glory days!.” And so on and so on….

So, if you ever worry that your art or writing doesn’t have the quality or “energy” that it used to, just remember that – in the future – you’ll think exactly the same thing about this moment in time. It’s just like something from this classic Iron Maiden song.

In other words, you’re in the middle of your “glory days” right now! Enjoy it 🙂

———

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (26th December 2014)

Well, since I couldn’t think of any good ideas for a painting today, I decided to make a painting based on one of a few photos my parents took for me when they went to Dorset a couple of months ago (which is why *gasp* today’s painting is set during the day. I don’t know, most of my paintings usually tend to be fairly gloomy).

This may well end up turning into another short art series of some kind over the next few days, until I start to feel inspired again. Anyway, as a blog exclusive, I’ll also provide the original lineart for this painting too.

As usual, the two images in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Dorset - Patchwork Landscape" By C. A. Brown

“Dorset – Patchwork Landscape” By C. A. Brown

And here’s the lineart:

"Dorset - Patchwork Landscape (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

“Dorset – Patchwork Landscape (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown

To Fascinate Your Readers, Think About Their Literary “Backgrounds”

2014 Artwork Literary Backgrounds Article Sketch

Although this is an article about what makes some types of fiction fascinating for different people, both in terms of writing it and reading it – I’m going to have to talk about about a book that I haven’t really read for a paragraph or two. And, yes, there’s a reason for this.

Anyway, A few weeks ago, Kate Robinson mentioned a book to me called “The Bees” by Laline Paull.

It’s a novel that is apparently mostly set within a colony of bees. I haven’t got round to getting a copy of it yet (it still seems to be pretty new and expensive at the time of writing this article), but I read the preview on Amazon and I was quite impressed. But, this isn’t a review of a book that I’ve only read six pages of – no, it’s an article about why I found the extract so instantly interesting.

Within a few seconds of reading the chapter set inside the beehive, I recognised what I like to call “the darkness”.

This is an ineffable quality which, if it’s present, draws me deeper into a story – and, if it isn’t, usually makes me less interested. It can include things like visceral and slightly creepy descriptions, a vaguely ominous and/or nihilistic atmosphere, dystopic politics, meaningless deaths and/or cynical protagonists.

Noticing this quality in the first few pages of a story about bees, of all things, made me wonder why I’m drawn to this quality in stories that I read (although I’ve noticed that it hardly ever seems to appear in the very few times that I’ve written any fiction in the past year or two – although this could be down to self-censorship more than anything else).

Then I suddenly realised that it was because, when I first really got into reading fiction that wasn’t written for “young adults” I was seduced, bewitched and entranced by horror fiction. Splatterpunk fiction, to be precise.

I read my first splatterpunk novel (“Assassin” by Shaun Hutson) when I was about thirteen and it was like nothing that I’d ever seen before. Needless to say, for the next couple of years, I scoured every charity shop and market that I visited when I was shopping for more old splatterpunk novels from the 80s and 90s.

Also, of course, I was also fascinated by dystopic sci-fi when I was a teenager too. In addition to discovering splatterpunk fiction at the age of thirteen, I also read George Orwell’s “Ninteen Eighty-Four” ( we were shown part of a film adaptation of it in an English lesson at school, and I was so fascinated by it that I decided to read the book) and it was also like nothing I’d ever read before. Alas, good dystopic sci-fi was harder to find than good horror fiction was back then….

So, anything which contains the qualities that can be found in the first two genres that I truly loved almost automatically grabs my attention. Even if it’s something that is totally unrelated on the surface – like a novel about bees, or even a series of fantasy novels (eg: G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels – and, yes, I still haven’t got around to finishing reading “A Dance With Dragons” yet).

So, why is any of this relevant to you?

Well, all of your readers have their own literary “background”. Maybe they grew up reading “Mills and Boon” romances? Maybe they grew up on military thriller novels? Maybe they were a fantasy geek when they were younger?

Whatever it is, one or two types of fiction will have had a critical formative influence on your readers’ tastes. It will shape how they see all types of fiction, in some subtle way or other, for the rest of their lives. It’s kind of like something from the chorus of this Bad Religion song.

What this means is that, as I alluded to earlier, if your story contains any of the qualities that are found in these kinds of stories – then it will instantly grab their attention. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing in a totally different genre to the one that they’re used to, if your story still contains the same essential elements that make their “formative” genres so interesting, then they’ll be drawn to your story for reasons that they can’t usually quite explain.

I’m not quite sure what the practical applications of this are, but it’s certainly something to think about….

—–

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Mini Review: “Doctor Who – Last Christmas” (TV Show Episode)

2015 Artwork doctor who last christmas review sketch

Since I’ve just finished watching the Christmas special episode “Doctor Who”, I thought that I’d write a review of it. Since I’m in kind of a hurry at the moment, this will only be a short review (compared to the ones I wrote for the last series of “Doctor Who”) and it probably won’t contain too much of a plot summary.

Before I go any further, I should also point out that this review will contain SPOILERS. You have been warned.

Like many Christmas specials, “Last Christmas” initially starts out as a story where the Doctor and Clara have to team up with Santa Claus (played by Nick Frost) in order to save Christmas.

The Doctor, of course, isn’t a huge fan of Santa Claus – but, even so, it seems like it’s going to be like any one of a thousand other Christmas specials for a thousand other programs.

However, when the TARDIS touches down near a research facility at the North Pole where half of the scientists there have fallen victim to facehugger-like creatures called “dream crabs” (who kill their victims by slowly dissolving their brains whilst distracting them by inducing a dream-like state), it soon turns out that things aren’t quite what they seem…..

Normally, I’m extremely sceptical about Christmas episodes of “Doctor Who”, since some of them have been mediocre at best. So, when I saw that this was an episode involving Santa Claus, I didn’t exactly have very high hopes for it. However, I quickly realised that I had seriously underestimated this episode. This is probably one of my favourite episodes of “Doctor Who”. Ever.

As well as the similarities to “Alien” ( and, yes, one of the characters actually mentions this during the episode), this is an episode about the whole concept of unreliable realities.

Unreliable realities are one of my favourite things in both the sci-fi and horror genres and the entire episode is filled with lots of wonderfully surreal moments and lots of confusion about whether the characters are dreaming or awake. In other words, it’s a horror episode. And it’s a really cool one.

Not only are the “Alien”-like scenes in the North Pole base really cool and suspenseful, but the special effects in these scenes are remarkably good too. The creatures actually look like something from a Hollywood horror movie and they are some of the best “Doctor Who” creatures that I’ve ever seen – even if they are pretty much just a rip-off of the facehuggers from “Alien”.

However, there is at least one major plot hole. Near the beginning of the episode, the Doctor at least implies that if someone is attacked by a dream crab, then forcibly removing the crab will probably kill them. Yet, by the end of the episode, he is somehow easily able to remove dream crabs from people’s faces just by stunning them with his sonic scredriver.

But, for all of the wonderfully-directed horror scenes and chillingly dark plot twists in this episode, there’s a surprising amount of humour too. Seriously, the scenes with Santa Claus and his elves are absolutely hilarious and casting Nick Frost as Santa Claus was an absolute stroke of genius.

Plus, the episode handles the subject of whether Santa is real or not in a far more mature and intelligent way than I had expected from the brief preview of the episode that was shown during “Comic Relief” a few weeks ago.

All of the supporting characters in this episode are surprisingly good too and my favourite character is probably one of the scientists at the base called Shona, who is wonderfully sarcastic, eccentric and cynical.

However, one of the other scientists (I can’t remember his name) was so obviously unlikeable – albeit in a subtle way – that it wasn’t really a huge surprise when it turned out that he doesn’t survive the episode. Seriously, as soon as you first see him, you just know that he’s not going to survive to the end of the episode.

But, apart from this one predictable thing, the rest of the episode goes in all sorts of gloriously unpredictable and dramatic directions.

Not only that, Danny Pink also makes a wonderfully poignant cameo appearance in this episode too.

All in all “Last Christmas” is an absolutely brilliant episode. It’s intelligent, it’s creepy and it’s hilarious. Let’s hope that future Christmas specials of “Doctor Who” are up to the same standard as this episode.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.