Four Reasons Why 1970s/80s Horror Fiction Is So Cool

Well, although my next book review will be of a more modern horror novel (“Empire Of Salt” by Weston Ochse), one of the cool things that I’ve re-discovered after getting back into reading regularly are 1970s/80s horror novels (like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, Richard Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” etc..).

Back when I was a teenager during the 2000s, I absolutely loved reading second-hand copies of novels like these and I considered them to be the coolest genre of fiction in the world. And, even as a slightly more jaded and cynical adult, I still think that these novels are pretty cool. But, why are they so cool? Here are a few reasons:

1) The cover art: One of the awesome things about old 1970s/80s horror novels is that you can always tell when you’ve found one. Why? Because they have some of the coolest and most distinctive cover art that I’ve ever seen. They look like this:

And, yes, the Shaun Hutson cover is a 2000s reprint. And I haven’t reviewed “Cabal” yet – mostly since I already read it twice when I was younger [Edit: Expect a review of “Cabal” in mid-August].

Not only do these novel covers understand the value of good visual storytelling (seriously, something dramatic is happening in each of them!) but they also use lighting in a really cool way too.

If you’ve done any reading into art history, you’ve probably heard of Tenebrism before – this is a historical style of art (used by artists like Caravaggio and Joseph Wright Of Derby), milder forms of this style also are often called “chiaroscuro”.

Anyway, this is where an artist deliberately adds lots of darkness and shadows to their art in order to make the light/lighting stand out much more boldly by contrast. You can also see this technique on some old heavy metal album covers too. And it looks amazing 🙂

As a side note, although I’m painting realistic landscapes at the moment [Edit: Expect ordinary paintings to start returning more regularly from mid-June onwards], if you ever want to know where I learnt my approach to lighting in most of the art I’ve posted here during the past couple of years, then one of the major influences has been old horror novel covers. So, yes, the cover art from these awesome books can be very inspirational:

“Metal Returns” By C. A. Brown

“Haunted Mansion” By C. A. Brown

2) Splatterpunk: I’ve talked a lot about the splatterpunk genre recently and it never gets old. If you’ve never heard about splatterpunk before, it is a term for a trend within horror fiction during the 1970s-90s that involved moving away from leaving stuff to the reader’s imaginations and towards describing all of the gory details instead.

And, yes, these 1970s-90s splatterpunk novels are gruesome. Seriously, some of them make the “Saw” movies look like Disney films by comparison. But, why is splatterpunk fiction so cool?

There are a few reasons. The first is that it was a brilliantly rebellious reaction to the stricter film censorship of the 1980s (eg: the “Video Nasties” moral panic in the UK). The second reason is because this emphasis on gruesome horror often lends the stories a surprisingly timeless quality (again, modern horror movies seem fairly tame in comparison to some splatterpunk novels).

The third reason is because splatterpunk fiction had an influence on the horror genre as a whole. The fourth reason is because they often had a rather rebellious/subversive attitude towards authority. Finally, they combine the atmospheric narration of traditional horror fiction with the slightly more fast-paced storytelling of an old-school thriller novel.

3) Their popularity: If you’ve done any online reading into the history of horror fiction, you’ll have probably heard of the “horror boom” of the 1970s-90s. This was a time when horror fiction was actually a popular genre of fiction.

And, if you ever saw the woefully slender “horror” shelf of a major UK bookshop during the 2000s/early 2010s (or the way it is sometimes lumped in with “sci-fi & fantasy” – both of which should also get their own dedicated shelves- these days, if it even appears at all), then this history will fill you with both sorrow at the current state of the genre and the hope that one day it will return to it’s former popularity, like a zombie rising from the grave.

Plus, it’s just cool to read horror novels from a time when they were almost mainstream literature 🙂 Seriously, I still can’t get over how cool this is 🙂

4) They’re still very readable: Although some 1970s/80s horror novels haven’t aged well, most of them have aged surprisingly well. One of the really interesting things about a lot of old horror novels is that they rarely seem that “retro”. They often read like more modern stories that just don’t include modern technology.

Although a few of them seem either wonderfully retro or horribly dated when read these days, most of them stand the test of time surprisingly well. This is because, at their core, they are often timeless tales of human drama and/or survival. Likewise, they are often structured in a vaguely similar way to an old-style thriller novel (albeit with a few different narrative techniques) which really helps to keep these stories compelling.

In addition to this, the writing style used in many of these older horror novels is descriptive enough to be atmospheric but “matter of fact” enough to be read at a reasonable pace. Although this writing style is probably a little bit “formal” when compared to modern horror/thriller novels, it is still astonishingly readable even to this day.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting

Three Random Tips For Modern 1970s-Style Storytelling

Although I’m much more interested in the 1990s than the 1970s – I happened to read a novel from the 1970s recently. Although I read a few second-hand 1970s novels when I was a teenager (during the 2000s), this was the first one I’ve read in quite a few years.

So, this made me think about what sets stories from the 1970s apart from more modern stories and, more importantly, how modern writers can tell 1970s-style stories.

1) Narration: When telling 1970s-style stories, the narration shouldn’t be as hyper-formal as something from the early 20th century – but it shouldn’t be too “modern” either. In other words, you should probably focus on including slightly more complex narration and descriptions (but in a slightly understated way).

To give you a comparison, here’s a descriptive sentence* from “Iceberg” (1975) by Clive Cussler: “He slowed his movement, spellbound by the strangeness of the dark colour beneath the vast shroud of blue-green water.” Notice how this is a single, longer sentence that is filled with slightly more complex language – yet, it is still very readable.

Now, here are two modern descriptive sentence from “Zero Hour” (2013) by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown: ‘Kurt noticed the hue of the water. Pink at the top but darker red as the light was absorbed.‘ Notice how this description is split into two shorter sentences and uses slightly more matter-of-fact language, yet it still manages to achieve the same level of description as the sentence from 1975 does.

So, when telling 1970s-style stories, your narration and pacing should be very slightly slower and more formal. Your sentence length should be a little bit longer too.

The thing to remember here is that books were a popular form of entertainment during the 1970s (since things like VCRs, the internet, videogames etc… weren’t widely available back then) in a way that they aren’t these days. As such, writers and readers had slightly different expectations in terms of formality, pacing etc… during the 1970s than they do today.

(* And, yes, the quote is from a UK edition of “Iceberg”, hence the spelling of “colour”. The original US edition probably uses US spellings. Interestingly, spelling localisation in UK editions seems to be less common these days than it was in the past.)

2) Content, censorship and moral standards:
Ok, this is a little bit of a complicated one.

Basically, the 1970s was a decade where book censorship was no longer a major issue (in Britain at least). However, when writing modern 1970s-style fiction, you need to make a distinction between traditional censorship issues (eg: profanity, horror, violence etc..) and modern moral standards (eg: about discrimination etc..) because the two things have to be handled in very different ways.

When it comes to traditional censorship issues like horror, violence, drug use, scenes of an adult nature, profanity etc… you can be as intense or as subtle as you would normally choose to be. Official censorship of these sorts of things in literature ended in Britain with the “Lady Chatterley” trial in 1960 and, of course, the US has the first amendment too.

If you don’t believe me, then read “Crash” by J. G. Ballard (1973) or “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson (1971). The toned-down 1990s film adaptations of these 1970s novels still have an “18 certificate” to this day (and the adaptation of “Crash” was even banned from some cinemas in London) – so, the 1970s certainly wasn’t a prudish or censorious decade with regard to literature.

However, “historically inaccurate” as it may be, it is a very good idea to apply modern standards to topics like discrimination, prejudice etc.. when writing new 1970s-style stories. This is because your modern 70s-style stories are still modern stories and will be judged by modern standards by a modern audience.

So, if you’re just writing a 1970s style story, it is best to leave 1970s-style attitudes out of it altogether. If you’re writing a historical story set in the 1970s, then the generally accepted rule seems to be that, whilst 1970s-style attitudes can be described/shown, they must be presented in a critical way (and, usually, shouldn’t be held by the main character). Likewise, whilst you can critically show dated attitudes, avoid using dated language (eg: insults etc…) wherever possible.

3) Technology: Yes, technology was less advanced during the 1970s. However, if you actually read stories from the 1970s, this is barely mentioned at all. After all, why would it be? I mean, most modern stories don’t include characters bemoaning the lack of futuristic holograms, cyborgs, flying cars etc….

So, when telling a 1970s-style story, just be a little bit subtle or understated about the technology. Just treat 1970s technology in the same “ordinary”, understated way that we often tend to think about modern technology.

After all, a lot of the underlying elements haven’t changed that much – I mean, a newspaper and a news site do basically the same thing. A landline phone and a smartphone both allow for phone calls. Cars fulfil the same role today as they did during the 1970s. The military, some police officers, hunters/farmers, violent criminals etc… still use guns (which haven’t really changed mechanically in decades). A vinyl record and a MP3 file both contain recorded music. A document can be typed on a typewriter or a computer. People still drink in pubs/bars etc..

Yes, you might have to make the occasional substitution, but it isn’t as difficult as you might think. For example, if a character hears an important piece of breaking news then just show them hearing it on the radio or the television (or have another character tell them the news), rather than showing them seeing it on the internet. I’m sure you get the idea.

Not only that, the technological limitations of the past can actually result in better stories. For example, detective stories where detectives have to rely on clever questioning and Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning rather than just using modern forensic technology. Or thriller stories that are more suspenseful because the main character can’t just call for backup on their mobile phone etc….

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Another Three Thoughts About Making 1990s-Style Art

Well, whilst making the next digitally-edited painting in an upcoming series of paintings set in abandoned and/or semi-abandoned American shopping centres (after being inspired by seeing Youtube footage etc… of these places), one of my upcoming paintings ended up having even more of a 1990s-style look than I’d planned. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 14th August.

So, since it’s been a little while since I last wrote about making 1990s-style art, I thought that I’d give a few more tips about how to make this awesome style of art.

1) Timelessness and subtlety: One way to give your art more of a 1990s-style look is to focus more on relatively “timeless” things, and only add a few subtle 1990s-style elements to your art. The thing to remember about the 1990s is that, stylised nostalgia aside, it was a fairly “ordinary” decade in a lot of ways.

For example, the shopping centre in the painting I showed you earlier could have existed in the 1970s-2010s. The generic camera that the woman on the left is holding could be an old film camera from the 1960s, or it could be a modern digital camera. Likewise, most of the fashion designs in this painting could have come from any time between the 1970s and the present day.

The only distinctively “1990s” details in the painting are the fact that the woman on the left is wearing a sweater like a belt, and a few of the stylised shop hoardings in the background. Even then, floppy disks and audio cassettes also existed during the 1980s too.

So, yes, focusing mostly on relatively “timeless” details and only adding a few subtle 1990s-style details can be one way to give your art a more “realistic” 1990s-style look.

2) Getting in the mood: One of the things that can sometimes help with making 1990s-style art is to get in a nostalgic mood beforehand. Reminding yourself of why the 1990s are such a fascinating, optimistic, feel-good and just generally cool decade to get nostalgic about can give your ’90s-style art a bit of extra energy and atmosphere.

Of course, 90s nostalgia is a personal thing – so, what works for you will probably be different to what works for me. But, one of the reasons that the painting that I made ended up going in more of a ’90s style direction than I expected was because I had a very vivid moment of nostalgia after playing one of the old “The Incredible Machine” games and listening to the soundtrack from one of the other games in the series.

This then made me think of both the old and modern versions of “The Crystal Maze“, which then made me think of this episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and then the song “Caribbean Blue” by Enya, which just made me feel even more nostalgic.

In particular, it made me nostalgic for the opulent weirdness of the 1990s. How a lot of popular entertainment and/or educational things at the time used to focus on stylised tropical, futuristic, art deco, Aztec etc.. style locations, often with a slightly innocent sense of wonder. It also made me think about how strange gadgets were a much cooler thing during the 90s. I could go on, but this is one of those qualities that is difficult to put into words.

But, however you do it and whichever “version” of 1990s nostalgia you choose to experience, experiencing a vivid emotional moment of 1990s nostalgia before making some 1990s-style art can really improve your art.

3) Bold colours (and contrast): If there’s one thing to be said for the 1990s, it is that bold primary and secondary colours used to be more popular back then.

This might have been because of a cultural hangover from the 1980s or possibly due to 1960s nostalgia at the time, but using 1-3 complementary pairs of bold primary and secondary colours can be a way to give your art more of a 1990s-style look (for example, the painting near the beginning of the article uses orange/blue, red/green and purple/yellow pairs).

This is especially true when these bold colours are contrasted with gloomier areas of the picture. I’ve mentioned this many times before, but a good rule to follow for 1990s-style lighting is to ensure that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of your painting is covered with black paint. This will give the colours in your painting a bolder look, in addition to being similar to the lighting in many films, TV shows etc.. from the 1990s too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Making “Old Future”-Style Sci-Fi Art

The day before I originally prepared this article, I watched the first episode of a TV show called “Philip K.Dick’s Electric Dreams“. The episode was called “The Hood Maker” and it was a dystopian sci-fi story about a future where telepathy exists.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about the set design in the episode was that it went for an “old future” kind of look – which looked like a mixture between “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, “Blade Runner” and 1970s Britain:

This is a screenshot from episode one of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (2017). Notice how there are typewriters instead of computers in this “futuristic” police station.

Although I could spend quite a while talking about why “old future”-style sci-fi is such a fascinating genre, I thought that I’d do something a bit more practical and give you a few tips about how to make sci-fi art in this awesome genre:

1) Materials: Whilst you can make this style of sci-fi art with any type of materials, it’s probably a good idea to include at least a few traditional materials (eg: paints, inks etc..). This is because traditional materials have a very slightly “imperfect” look to them when compared to pristine digital artwork, which can help to add a bit of an “analogue” look to your ‘old future’ art.

When making digital art or digitally-editing scanned artwork, one approach to take is to “leave the glitches in”. If you stick to using the more basic features in your image editing program and over-use them slightly, then they’re probably going to result in some interesting-looking glitches (but, MAKE A BACKUP COPY FIRST! I cannot emphasise this enough).

Carefully select the “glitches” that actually look good and leave them in. The trick here is to give the impression that your art was made on an older computer, or has been taken from a VHS tape or something like that:

If you look closely at this painting of mine, you can see some colour glitches on the ground. These were partially created by spamming the “Hue Map” (saturation shift +25 / lightness shift -3) option in an old image editing program called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6”.

Likewise, using older image editing software or messing around with the “noise” options in your image editing program (eg: a low level of RGB noise with more red can give a picture a “grainy old film” look) can also help to make your sci-fi art look a bit more “old”.

2) Location design: Whilst I can’t tell you exactly how to make an “old future”-style location (you’ll have to find your own interpretation of this), I can give you a few pointers. The first is simply that the technology in your art should ideally be about 20-30 years out of date – in other words, things like CRT monitors, phone boxes, audio tapes, VHS cassettes, bulky machines etc..

“Antique Shop” By C. A. Brown

Likewise, try to give the locations in your artwork a slightly “run-down” look too. In addition to this, try to focus on things that have been a part of everyday life for a long time but which are slowly becoming “obsolete” in the modern world (eg: traditional high streets, cinemas, phone books, notepads, chequebooks etc..).

Another important thing to remember is to make your indoor location designs look somewhat detailed and “cluttered”. After all, old places tend to accumulate quite a bit of kipple over time..

3) Fashion designs: A lot of what makes “old future” artwork so distinctive are the fashion designs. There are at least a couple of approaches you can take to this – the classic one is to focus on including vaguely 1940s/50s-style clothing such as trenchcoats, trilby hats, pencil skirts, sharp suits, glamourous dresses etc..

“Nova Street” By C. A. Brown

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

A slightly more subtle and updated approach to this is to include fashion designs and hairstyles from the 1970s-90s that look obviously “old” by modern standards. These can include things like voluminous 1980s-style hairdos, garishly patterned shirts, 1990s-style floral dresses, trainspotter cagoules/ shellsuits, sweatshirts used as belts, sleevelss dresses layered over T-shirts, cargo shorts/skirts, bulky plastic sunglasses etc…

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

The thing to remember here is that your fashion designs shouldn’t be too old though – since, although 19th century fashions can work with some subtle alterations, they tend to look more “steampunk” than “retro-futuristic”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Does Current Art Often Look Slightly “Old”? – A Ramble

Well, at the time of writing, I’m busy preparing a series of gothic paintings set in Aberystwyth. One of the interesting things about this art series is that each painting seems to be set in a slightly different time period.

There are some set in the mid-late ’00s, there’s one set in the early 2010s, there are some set in the 1980s/1990s and there are even a couple of paintings set in a cyberpunk-style future. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview of a cyberpunk-style painting of a corridor behind the Hugh Owen building on the town’s university campus. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 11th June.

This naturally made me think about art and time. This is mostly because, although artists often don’t explicitly state when their paintings are set, they’ve usually got a fairly good idea. And, with the exception of obvious historical pieces and sci-fi/fantasy art, you might be wondering why current artists wouldn’t set all of their art in an accurate version of the present day.

There are a lot of reasons for this. The first one is that art isn’t meant to be accurate or realistic. If you want an accurate realistic picture of the modern world, take a photograph. Art is about the blending of imagination and reality. It’s about seeing the world filtered through someone’s imagination. So, many artists might use artistic licence (such as adding slightly old or unrealistic elements to their art) in order to create a more distinctive and interesting picture.

For example, in this other painting of Aberystwyth from earlier this month, I deliberately used a rather unrealistic 1980s-style colour scheme, mostly to reflect the old music I was listening to during the time period (eg: the late 2000s) that this painting is set in. Which brings me on to…

The second reason why artists don’t always set their work in a realistic version of the present day is because art allows us to re-visit interesting memories and to depict the world based on rose-tinted versions of parts of history that we get nostalgic about and/or are interested in. It allows us to paint or draw a more stylised version of the world that seems better, more reassuring and/or more visually interesting than a more “realistic” one would be.

For example, here’s a painting from life (a first-person scene showing me drawing a small sculpture of a tortoise) that I made last year. Although it is technically set in 2017, I’ve deliberately added some slightly 1980s/1990s-style lighting and colour combinations to it in order to make it look more dramatic and visually-appealing than a starkly “realistic” depiction of the scene in question would be.

“Drawing A Tortoise Still Life” By C. A. Brown

The third reason why artists don’t always set their art in an “accurate” version of the present day is because of artistic inspirations and influences. Generally, the things that have inspired or influenced an artist are probably going to be slightly older things.

They’re probably going to be things that, say, an artist first discovered when they were younger and then studied in more depth when they got a bit older. Even if an artist is somehow only inspired by “modern” things, then those modern things are probably going to be inspired or influenced by older things in some way or another. So, artistic influences usually come from the past in some way or another.

Finally, it’s an interesting artistic challenge. There’s something enjoyably challenging about making something in the present day that looks like it could have come from the past. In order to do this well, you need to have done a fair amount of research and have a good understanding of what made the recent past (and art from back then) look the way it did. For example, here’s a digitally-edited painting of mine that was inspired by the old early 1990s computer games I played during my childhood:

“Marina” By C. A. Brown

Although this painting includes some elements of early 20th century Art Nouveau and 19th century Japanese Ukiyo-e art, I also tried to replicate the more garish and limited colour palettes used in some old computer games. I used bold high-contrast lighting (which gives anything an instant 1980s/90s-style look) and I also tried to make sure that the fashion designs and hairstyles in the picture looked like something from the early 1990s. Likewise, I made sure that the background design was as random and eccentric as the location designs in old computer games often were.

So, yes, making current art that looks like it could have come from the recent past usually involves a fair amount of research and thought, so it can be an interesting artistic challenge.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Partial Review: “Legend Of Kyrandia – Hand Of Fate” (Retro Computer Game)

Firstly, I should probably point out that this isn’t a full review of “Hand Of Fate” (for reasons I’ll explain later, I haven’t completed the game).

But, since this game holds a lot of nostalgia value for me and because I’d planned to review it about three weeks ago, I felt like writing a review of what I have played. So, although this is slightly more than a “first impressions” article, it is far from a full review.

That said, I have a lot of nostalgic memories of playing the CD-ROM version of “Hand Of Fate” during my early-mid teenage years. Although it was already a retro game by the time that I found a budget re-release of it in a game shop, it was a game that would actually run on the ancient Windows 98 machine I had at the time. However, being terrible at point-and-click games, I quickly got totally and utterly stuck on a relatively early part of the game.

Fast-forward to last summer. It was a hot day and I was grappling with of the more difficult levels of “SiN“. I also wasn’t in a good mood and I needed something to cheer me up. Then I remembered “Hand Of Fate”. But, from my memories of digging out my CD-ROM copy of it a few years ago – I knew that it wouldn’t run on my current “ancient” PC. However, since GOG was having a summer sale at the time, I decided to re-buy a discounted digital copy (that actually works on PCs from the 21st century) of it for less than £2.

Of course, history has a funny way of repeating itself….

Anyway, that said, let’s take a look at “Legend Of Kyrandia – Hand Of Fate”:

It could be YOU!

“Hand Of Fate” is a comedic fantasy point-and-click game from 1993. The game takes place in the mythical land of Kyrandia, where random objects are mysteriously disappearing. The kingdom’s magicians are absolutely baffled by this turn of events:

Yay! Piles of books! I KNEW there was a reason why I loved this game 🙂

After a lot of discussion and research, they decide that the problem can be resolved by finding a mythical Macguffin of some kind or another (an “anchor stone”, I think). Of course, despite being magicians, they somehow haven’t developed powers of teleportation. So, it is up to a cynical magician called Zanthia to go on an epic quest to find the Macguffin and restore order to Kyrandia.

Well, after dealing with the obligatory “local idiots” first.

One of the very first things that I will say about this game is that it showcases both the very best and the very worst elements of early-mid 1990s point-and-click games. But, I’ll start with the good stuff…..

The first thing that I’ll say about this game is that it is hilarious. Like a lot of games from the time, this one has it’s own distinctive personality. Not only is the game’s fictional world filled with all sorts of random things and surreal characters, but all of this is filtered through Zanthia’s hilariously cynical perspective.

Seriously, I cannot praise the dialogue in this game highly enough. It’s hilarious!

There’s even a little bit of Monty Python-style humour too.

There’s also a vaguely “LucasArts”-style segment with poetry-reading pirates

Zanthia is, by far, one of the best comedic game protagonists that I’ve ever seen. This is mostly because she’s this brilliantly contradictory mixture of a tough adventurer, a typical down-on-their-luck adventure game protagonist and a spoiled aristocrat.

All three of these elements of her character are combined in a way that is both absolutely hilarious and brilliantly distinctive. Seriously, I’ve never seen a character quite like Zanthia.

WHY don’t they sell mineral water here? What is this, the middle ages?!

All of this character-based humour is supplemented brilliantly by several other types of humour such as slapstick comedy, surreal elements, funny storytelling, a mixture of modern-style stuff with historical fantasy settings etc.. Seriously, as a light-hearted comedy game, “Hand Of Fate” is absolutely brilliant!

And there are zombies too. Zombies! (Well, sort of..)

Likewise, this game’s artwork looks absolutely brilliant too. If, like me, you’re a fan of early-mid 1990s pixel art, then you’re in for a really nostalgic treat here! Seriously, just take a look at some of these locations:

Oooh, this place reminds me of the cave level from “Super Castlevania IV” 🙂

“Wonderful!” sums it up perfectly! I LOVE this place 🙂

In addition to the amazing artwork, cynical dialogue and hilarious characters, another reason why you’re going to enjoy hanging out in Kyrandia is probably the music and voice-acting in the CD-ROM and GOG versions of the game. Seriously, I cannot praise these elements of the game highly enough. This game is funny, atmospheric, unique and gloriously retro 🙂

However, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the actual gameplay yet. Although it is mostly typical “point and click” gameplay (with an additional potion-mixing mechanic and lots of inventory slots etc..), it is typical of everything that is wrong with old-school “point and click” games.

Not only did some of the puzzles I encountered border on “moon logic” but, even with frequent walkthrough use, it is still possible to get stuck in an unwinnable state if you aren’t careful. For example, if you forgot to note down a sequence of flashing lights that you saw earlier in the game or make a foolish decision, you’ll get stuck here:

Fun fact: During my original attempt at playing this when I was a teenager, this is where I abandoned the game in frustration. I remember that gloating octopus all too well!

Yes, a lot of this is mitigated by the fact that the game contains a real saving system (where you can save anywhere an unlimited number of times). However, it is easy to make a mistake that requires lots of tedious and repetitive backtracking. This is the exact opposite of “fun”. Which, if you’ll remember, is why people play computer games!

In fact, the reason why I didn’t finish the game on my current playthrough (even though I was using a walkthrough very regularly) was because I accidentally threw away a seemingly useless tree branch at one point in the game.

It was only after repeating a highly-convoluted puzzle (which I don’t know how anyone could work out on their own) and traipsing back-and-forth across the map three times that I realised that I actually needed the branch. Needless to say, “ragequit” is probably an apt description of my subsequent actions.

Yes, solving this ultra-convoluted and hyper-repetitive puzzle won’t do you any good if you accidentally discarded a random branch that you found here earlier in the game. *Facepalm*

All in all, this is a game that is worth playing for everything except the gameplay.

If you want to hang out in an interesting fictional world, then this game is worth getting. If you want a hilarious game that really doesn’t take itself seriously, then this game is worth getting. If you want a quintessentially 1990s game that showcases the sheer amount of personality, imagination and uniqueness that defined games from this golden decade, then this game is worth getting. But, if you’re interested in gameplay, this game isn’t worth getting.

If I had to give what I’ve played a rating out of five, it would get five and a half for the characters/art/dialogue/voice-acting/atmosphere etc.. but maybe two for the actual gameplay, if I’m being charitable.

Review: “SiN: Wages Of Sin” (Expansion Pack For “SiN”)

As regular readers of this site know, I reviewed a very nostalgic cyberpunk-influenced FPS game from the late 1990s called “SiN” recently. And, because I bought a direct download of the “SiN Gold” collection (when it was on special offer on GOG last summer), it also came with an expansion pack from 1999 called “Wages Of Sin” too.

If you’re too young to remember expansion packs, they’re kind of like modern “DLC” but larger and more impressive. Often, they would be anything from one to two thirds the length of a full game (but, there are exceptions) and they would originally be sold as boxed CDs. So, yes, “Wages Of Sin” is pretty much almost a full-length game (with 15-20 levels or so). In fact, I’d even go so far to call it a sequel to the original game.

Still, you might possibly need a copy of the original “SiN” to play “Wages Of Sin” (although the in-game menu gives you the option to play the original game) but if you get the “SiN Gold” collection on GOG, then this is included anyway.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Wages Of Sin”:

Taking place a while after the events of the original game, John Blade is still hunting for Elexis. However, he has other things on his mind.

And not just dramatic car chases!

There have been reports of strange creatures killing people on a construction site, not to mention that it seems like the local Mafia boss – Manero – seems to be up to something too…..

One of the very first things that I will say about “Wages Of Sin” is that it is way better than the original game in so many ways! The difficulty curve is fairer, the combat is more enjoyable, there’s a greater degree of visual variety between levels, there’s even more humour, there’s better level design, there’s a much greater variety of enemy types and it’s just, well, cooler.

Even some of the loading screens look more badass too!

You also get some cool night vision goggles in one level too!

To give you an example, the first level or two of the expansion are genuinely creepy horror-themed levels that take mostly place in gloomy, claustrophobic subterranean tunnels (but, unlike the gloomy areas in the original game, you actually have a torch this time!).

Seriously, this one little change improves the game so much! No more stumbling around aimlessly in the dark! Plus, although the torch has a limited battery, it’s so large that you’re unlikely to run out.

Not only are there monsters that are reminiscent of the “Licker” monsters from Resident Evil 2 but, when you shoot some of the bloated “zombie” enemies that you encounter, a mutant spider crab creature will sometimes burst out of their chests in a very “Alien“-like fashion. Seriously, this expansion starts out really well. These early levels even reminded me a little bit of “Doom 3” in some parts.

And “Resident Evil 2” too 🙂

And those are just the first few levels- there’s also an art gallery, a laboratory, a nightclub, an opulent casino, a swanky penthouse, a shipping terminal that is split into three segments etc…

Seriously, the variety of locations here is so much better than in the original “SiN”. Yes, I’d have liked to have seen more neon-filled cyberpunk locations, but the focus on more opulent locations helps to give the expansion a slightly “Duke Nukem“-style atmosphere too.

Always bet on Duk… I mean, Blade.

Unfortunately, this cool-looking nightclub really doesn’t appear for anywhere near as long as it should!

Amusingly, there’s actually a silly cutscene if you jump out of any of the windows in this room.

There’s even possibly a slight nod to the “Blood” games here too, with a level where Blade witnesses an ominous robed man giving a dramatic speech to a horde of mutants. The level that precedes this cutscene is fairly short, slightly repetitive (since you sort of revisit an earlier area) and kind of random – but it features some astonishgly epic music that reminded me a little bit of the original “Blood“.

He doesn’t appear anywhere else in the game and seems to be part of the set up for a sequel that never really came to fruition, but this part of the game is still really cool 🙂

Plus, true to the original game (and 90s FPS games in general), there’s a good dose of humour here too.

Not only does Blade get a few new lines of dialogue when he defeats his adversaries (eg: “Barney Miller is back!”, “Cleanin’ up the gene pool” etc..), but the hilariously sarcastic radio conversations between Blade and his assistant JC also return in abundance too 🙂 One stand out comedic part of the game is probably the art gallery level, where Blade and/or JC will make comments when you stand near many of the paintings:

And I’m guessing that this is probably a cameo from the developers. JC seems to think that they’re rock musicians though.

Not only that, the levels also seem to be far more well-designed too, with most of them being non-linear enough to require exploration but linear enough to prevent you from getting lost or stuck too often. Yes, I got stuck once or twice – but it didn’t happen nearly as often as it did in the original game, not to mention that it wasn’t that hard to work out what to do (which is just as well, given the near-total lack of walkthroughs for the expansion on the internet at the time of writing).

Likewise, the enemy placement in “Wages Of Sin” is much fairer than in the original game. Yes, there are a couple of “trial and error” segments but this expansion avoids many of the cheap tricks used in the original game (eg: placing snipers behind the beginning of a level etc…) and the combat just feels fairer. Yes, it’s still thrillingly challenging – but it rarely becomes frustrating. Likewise, the couple of levels that could be *ugh* stealth levels actually make the stealth parts totally optional too 🙂

For example, if you get spotted by a camera in this level, Blade will just shout some (bleeped) dialogue and you’ll have to fight a few more henchmen, but you DON’T automatically fail the level.

The combat in this game is also improved by the fact that “Wages Of Sin” is a bit more generous with both health and ammo placement too, which also helps the game to feel a little fairer (without reducing the challenge too much either).

Not only that, the larger variety of enemies (various mutants, Mafia members and a few enemies from the original game) helps to add some much-needed variety to the combat.

Yes, THESE guys return – but there are only a few of them and plenty of other types of mutants, robots and henchmen too.

However, there is one “cheap” new enemy here – in the later parts of the expansion, you’ll encounter tiny flying robot drones. They blend into the shadows slightly and have a powerful laser attack (which you only have about a second to dodge at most). Given that your health will probably be below fifty for large parts of the game, trying to shoot small, rapidly-moving flying robots whilst also dodging their powerful attacks can be frustrating to say the least.

And, if they’re difficult to see in this screenshot, then imagine what it’s like in game!

The boss battles in “Wages Of Sin” also follow a much better difficulty curve than in the original “SiN” too. In the first one, you have a large monster and a medium-large arena. In the second one, you have to fight two waves of large monsters in a medium-sized arena.

Although I don’t know whether this really counts as a “boss battle” or not. Still, given that you don’t encounter these monsters anywhere else in the game, I’d say that it does.

The final boss battle, against Manero, is the most challenging boss battle in the game – as it should be. Not only do you have to shoot down his helicopter, you also have to fight him when he’s wearing a “photonic shield”, when he is using a cloaking device and when he isn’t.

And yes, the “Photonic Shield” just happens to make him look like the T2 from the second “Terminator” film…

Still, even this fiendishly difficult boss battle is beatable if you use the right strategy (hide under the platform at the beginning of the level, crouch and shoot at his helicopter with rockets. Once he’s left the helicopter, jump off the platform when he gets near you, wait for him to jump off, then run up the ramp and wait for him to run up the ramp – whilst he’s doing this, shoot at him. Rinse and repeat.)

This strategy even works when he’s using the cloaking device. Although JC annoyingly tells you to use the night-vision goggles you found earlier in the game – however, I didn’t have them during this level!

“Wages Of Sin” also introduces a few new weapons too, some of which are useful.

The stand-out weapons are probably the dual pistols and a plasma crossbow that can be used to either one-shot enemies or as a device for laying timed plasma mines (eg: the crossbow bolts explode after a couple of seconds if they get stuck in the floor or a wall).

There’s also a mediocre flamethrower, a recharging concussion gun, a nuclear rocket launcher (which you get to use three times and that’s it!) and a remote control that fires a burst of about five small missiles. These weapons are cool, but you probably won’t be using them that often. Still, it’s good to see an array of creative new weapons on offer.

Not only does this weapon look cool, but you also get a decent amount of ammo for it too. However, it’s lack of accuracy and the fact that the rocket launcher is a better long-range weapon mean you probably won’t use it that often.

All in all, compared to the original “SiN”, “Wages Of Sin” is a major improvement – it’s fairer, more spectacular and just generally more fun. On it’s own merits, it’s a reasonably solid late 1990s FPS game that takes heavy influence from mid-1990s FPS games (like “Duke Nukem 3D” etc..) in terms of humour, location design etc…

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

Review: “SiN” (Retro Computer Game)

Like with “Blood II: The Chosen” and “Shogo: Mobile Armor Division“, “SiN” is one of those games that I first discovered on a magazine demo disc when I was a lot younger – but only got round to actually getting the full version nearly two decades later. If I remember rightly, I thought that the demo was kind of cool, but didn’t really get into it that much. Then again, I was playing it on a Pentium 166 computer, so it was probably a bit slow…

Still, when I noticed that the “SiN Gold” collection (which also contains the expansion “Wages Of Sin” that I’ll review in early April) was on special offer on GOG last summer, I just had to get the full version of this half-remembered game. Although the extras for the GOG version of this game aren’t spectacular, the manual is definitely worth reading just for the hilariously immature 1990s style humour. Yes, even the manual contains comedy!

Plus, although I rarely directly recommend one game site over another, the version of this game that is available on GOG is closer to the original game than the version available on Steam. This is because the Steam version apparently contains some censorship (eg: the removal of suggestive content, marijuana references and/or pop culture references from some of the game’s textures), whereas the GOG version seems to be the original uncensored version.

Anyway, this review has been nearly two decades in the making. So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at “SiN”:

“SiN” is a first-person shooter game from 1998 by Ritual Entertainment, which uses a modified version of the “Quake II” engine. Set in a dystopian cyberpunk future, you play as John Blade – an elite member of a private security organisation called HardCorps (pronounced “Hardcore”, because it’s from the 1990s).

Being from 1998, Blade only looks THIS realistic during the game’s few pre-rendered cutscenes though!

After a report of a robbery at the local bank, Blade goes to investigate – with a sarcastic ex-computer hacker called JC providing remote support for him. Of course, what begins as a routine “shoot the bad guys” mission quickly turns into something much larger and much more menacing…..

One of the first things I will say about this game is that it contains some of the best and some of the worst elements of 1990s FPS gaming. It is a game that you will hate to love, or love to hate or both.

For everything it gets right, it also gets something wrong. For every moment of gameplay that is brilliantly fun, there will be another one that will frustrate the hell out of you. Let’s just say that I’m glad I got another two decades of FPS gaming experience before playing the full version of this game!

Seriously, don’t let the easy on-rails turret segment at the beginning of the first level fool you, this is a challenging game!

Yes, this isn’t an easy modern FPS game! Even on “standard” difficulty, this game is hard. HardCorps, even! Sometimes, this challenging difficulty is achieved in enjoyable and fair ways (which fans of other challenging old FPS games like “Final Doom”, “Blood”, “Duke 3D” etc.. will love). When it is at it’s best, the combat in this game is thrillingly challenging, and well within the traditions of 1990s FPS gaming.

Yay! Late 1990s FPS gaming 🙂 Seriously, there will be very few combat-based screenshots in this review because the game’s combat requires your full attention and reflexes!

Plus, this game contains a proper saving system – with none of that annoying modern “checkpoint saving” rubbish either! So, remember to save regularly! Seriously, save your game once every minute at least! I’m not joking here…

Seriously, you’ll be seeing this death animation (and hearing the accompanying voice-over from JC) a LOT! So, save often!

But, for all of the “good” difficulty, a fair amount of the game’s difficulty is also achieved in all sorts of cheap, borderline unfair and/or annoying ways.

This can include things like placing long-distance snipers directly behind the beginning of a level (and it’ll take you several deaths before you work out where they’re shooting from), sending infinitely respawning waves of henchmen at you during one level, extremely gloomy areas with few to no light sources, a *ugh* stealth level, a (thankfully optional) vehicle segment, occasionally stingy ammo/health/weapon distribution etc…

Yes, a stealth level! One of those boring, frustrating, slow-paced levels that has no place within a thrilling FPS game!

The game’s difficulty curve is also a little bit uneven too – with earlier boss battles being considerably more difficult than the final boss battle at the end of the game, to give one example. Likewise, some of the game’s more difficult levels occur earlier or during the middle of the game, rather than consistently towards the end.

So, yes, you will need the kind of perseverance and determination that can only be gained by playing other fiendishly difficult retro FPS games and/or modern fan-made levels for “Doom II” in order to complete this game. And, yes, it can be completed! Just don’t expect to do it in a single weekend though!

Like a lot of old FPS games, “SiN” is a full-length game! It’s up to you whether you consider this to be either “good value for money” or “Oh my god! This game is so long! I’ll never finish it!“, but it contains something like 20-30 challenging levels – with some larger levels being split into two halves.

However, the quality of the level design is extremely variable. For every great, interesting-looking, thrillingly fun and/or inventively non-linear level – there’s also a level that you will probably get completely and utterly stuck on.

Often, you’ll be able to work out what to do after you’ve spent 10-80 minutes wandering around in circles. But, occasionally, you’ll find yourself so stuck that you’ll actually have to look online for a walkthrough – only to find that the solution is seemingly “obvious”, but implemented in a way that doesn’t make it obvious to the player.

For example, all you need to do to lower this lift is to press a little button. Yes, that tiny little thing shrouded in shadows that is really, really easy to miss if you don’t know to look for it! *shakes fist angrily*

I almost had to check a walkthrough for this bit. Fortunately, I eventually happened to look upwards and notice a crane on top of a tall building nearby that I was supposed to shoot.

Still, that said, some areas of this game look really cool. Yes, there are a lot of generic-looking levels, but this game can get really creative sometimes – including locations such as an oilrig, a vaguely “Goldeneye”-style jungle segment, a surprisingly good underwater segment, futuristic areas with cool lighting, a creepy mansion etc..

Seriously, more of the game should look like this!

Finally! An underwater level that I DON’T hate!

The weapon and enemy designs in this game are acceptable, but not quite as creative as many FPS games from the mid-late 1990s. Although the later levels give you some slightly more interesting weapons and include a greater variety of enemies to fight, many of the early levels mostly involve just fighting almost identical henchmen (who are very vaguely similar to the Strogg from “Quake II” but with different graphics) with the standard pistol, shotgun and assault rifle. *yawn*

Still, there is a certain element of skill to the combat, since this game allows for headshots (which you’re going to have to use regularly, since the henchmen are bullet sponges otherwise). Likewise, in the earlier parts the game, enemies will occasionally shoot your weapon out of your hands.

However, you have to manually pick up any ammo etc.. that enemies drop by pressing the “use” button. Yes, you’ll get used to doing this after a while, but it can be confusing at first.

Even so, the later parts of the game are certainly better, and the monsters on offer include robot spiders, robotic zombies (the Strogg again?), large muscular mutants and even a monster who reminded me a bit of the Bandersnatch mutants from an early 2000s Playstation 2 game called “Resident Evil: Code Veronica X“:

Yay! Survival horror 🙂

“SiN” also comes from an age where FPS games weren’t dreary, “realistic”, ultra-serious things. In other words, this game actually contains some creativity and humour! Whether it’s the numerous sarcastic conversations that Blade and JC have over their radio or lots of silly background details, this game doesn’t take itself ultra-seriously.

For example, the bad guys in the first level quite literally kiss their asses goodbye when they die.

Yes, this humour might not be to everyone’s taste, but it really helps to add some light-hearted fun to the game, not to mention that it also keeps the player’s spirits up during some of the more frustrating and/or annoying parts of the game. For example, whenever Blade kills one of the monsters, robots, mutants or identical henchmen you’ll face throughout the game, he’ll sometimes say a vaguely “badass” line such as “Ha! Schooled ya!” etc… Seriously, this is wonderfully 90s 🙂

However, I should probably also point out that this game is a bit “politically incorrect” by modern standards. I have mixed views about this.

On the one hand, the game’s immature humour can still be absolutely hilarious at times. However, some other parts of the game do seem a little uncomfortable by modern standards – such as the game’s “men vs women” theme (eg: Elexis’ speeches, Blade’s frequent use of the word “bitch” etc..). So, yes, this game can be somewhat eyebrow-raising when played these days.

In terms of music, this game is reasonably good. Although some of the music is kind of forgettable, some of the music – especially in the later levels – is fairly good, and it really helps to add some atmosphere to the game. Seriously, I’m kind of annoyed that GOG didn’t get the rights to include a MP3 copy of the soundtrack for this game as a bonus (like they’ve done with some other games).

The voice-acting in this game is absolutely brilliant too. Whether it’s Blade’s gloriously cheesy “tought grizzled action hero” dialogue, or JC’s constant sarcasm over the radio or Elexis’ melodramatic “sophisticated villain” dialogue, the voice acting is wonderfully fun 🙂

All in all, this is both a great and a terrible game. If you’re looking for 1990s nostalgia, you’ll find it in abundance here. But, don’t even think about playing this game unless you’ve had a couple of decades’ worth of FPS gaming experience! This is a game that demands perseverance, and which will barely play fair with you sometimes. Likewise, the level design is of varying quality too. Still, it’s imaginative and silly and creative and… well… FPS games don’t really do this kind of thing any more.

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

Today’s Art (14th March 2018)

Well, despite making two pieces of fan art (this one and this one) last month, I found myself in the mood for making fan art once again (the line art for this cartoon can be seen here).

Surprisingly, although I managed to include references to “Gremlins 2: The New Batch“, “Lois & Clark“, “The X-Files” and (if you look carefully) “Dilbert“, I annoyingly didn’t have space to include any characters from “Twin Peaks” and “Heathers” (I was originally vaguely thinking about making a comic about how James and Donna from the first series of “Twin Peaks” and J.D. and Veronica from “Heathers” look uncannily similar, but eventually settled on the idea of making a cartoon about how offices in classic 1990s US TV shows/movies often seem to be very strange places).

Since this is fan art, this painting is NOT released under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

“Fan Art- 90s Office Fun” By C. A. Brown

Three Quick Ways To Make “Retro” 1980s/90s-Style Art (If You’ve Never Made Retro Art Before)

Well, the day before I wrote this article, I needed to make some art in a hurry. I was also in the mood for making 1980s/90s-themed “retro” art too. Of course, having done some research into these decades (since they turn up a lot in the things I create), I didn’t feel too overwhelmed. But, I ended up wondering how anyone can make art set in these time periods if they haven’t done this kind of prior research.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips about how to make “retro” 80s/90s-style art if you haven’t really made this type of art before and need to make some in a hurry. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you already know a few basic art skills.

1) Still life painting: This is what I used to make a “retro” style painting quickly the day before writing this article. Basically, I found an old audio cassette from the 1990s/ early 2000s that was lying around my room and used it as the basis for a more stylised still life painting. Here’s a preview of the painting in question:

This is a reduced-size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th April.

Yes, this technique relies on having random old stuff lying around. But, it can be a quick way to make a “retro” painting without too much planning or research time.

If you don’t have something from the 1980s/90s nearby, then two ways to quickly and cheaply solve this problem are either to go to your nearest town and take a look through the charity shops there (they’ve probably got lots of cheap old stuff, especially in smaller towns etc…) or to do an image search for something retro and then, using multiple reference images as a guide, come up with a new and original painting of the thing in question that doesn’t look identical to any one reference image.

Plus, like in the painting I showed you earlier, you can also give your still life painting even more of a “retro” look by doing interesting stuff with the colours and lighting. Generally, it can often be a good idea to contrast bold colours with gloomier lighting. Likewise, if you limit your colour palette somewhat too (eg: using something like a complementary colour pair) then this can also give your artwork slightly more of an 80s/90s-style look too.

2) Fan art: Another easy way to make “retro” art quickly, without lots of extra research and planning, is simply to draw on the “research” that you’ve already done. Yes, you know more than you think! Even if you only have vague memories or no memories of the 1980s and/or 1990s, then you’ve probably watched, read and/or played a lot of older things when you were growing up.

I mean, although I have no memory of the later parts of the 1980s and only relatively vague memories of the 1990s, my teenage years during the ’00s were filled with old DVDs, videos, books, CDs etc… of stuff from the 80s and/or 90s. Likewise, old stuff tended to get repeated on TV quite a bit too. The same sort of thing is probably true if you were born more recently.

So, you know more about the past than you think. So, if you need to make “retro” art quickly, then just make some (non-commercial) fan art based on the things from these time periods that you really love. For example, here’s a preview of a fan art painting that will be posted here tomorrow evening that is based on both “Gremlins 2” and “Lois & Clark“:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here tomorrow evening.

3) Materials: This one is a little bit more subtle, but one way to give your art a little bit more of a “retro” look is simply to change the materials that you use. The thing to remember here is that whilst digital art was a thing during the 1990s (eg: one of the image editing programs I use is from 1999!), the 1980s and the 1990s were the last decades where traditional art materials were king.

So, if you use more traditional physical materials, this will instantly give your art a very slightly “older” look. If, like me, you want to use traditional materials in conjunction with digital image editing, then try to stick to using the more basic features of your editing program. I’m talking about things like cropping, brightness/contrast adjustments, hue/saturation adjustments, RGB noise effects etc…

Yes, this won’t make your art look too “retro” but, if you’re someone who usually makes digital art, then the switch to more traditional materials and more basic image editing techniques will at least make your art look slightly “older” than usual.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂