In 1966, American film director Richard Brooks needed a hit. He had recently made Lord Jim, an epic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel which had opened to poor reviews and a worse box-office return. His plan to get back on top surprised Hollywood insiders: he would adapt A Mule for the Marquesa, a recent Western novel by Frank O’Rourke. Released under the title The Professionals, Brooks’ new film would go on to become one of the most profitable Westerns of the 1960s, taking $9 million in the US alone.
Today, The Professionals is often overshadowed by other classic American Westerns of the 1960s, not to mention the best of the Italian Westerns that came to prominence at that time. It is sometimes described as a merely “crowd-pleasing”, or “undemanding” film - one that delivers excitement but asks little of its audience. In fact, The Professionals is more than just box-office dynamite - it’s a gripping but also thoughtful movie, with a terrific script that reflects Brooks’ ideas about life, death, loyalty, and revolution. It’s this combination of action, humour, solid craft, and big ideas that make the movie an unmissable Western.
There’s another world, parallel to our own - one made up of hidden or decayed places, built by people but used only by a few or abandoned altogether. We are separated from it by a few metres of concrete when we walk the streets or use a subway; it’s just above or below us in the mechanical floors of hospitals and universities; we can see it in the empty industrial buildings visible from canals or from moving trains. These kinds of spaces are all around us, and yet rarely seen. Some, like steam tunnels, are the blood vessels that keep towns and cities alive. Others, like the ruined factories of Detroit, are the parts of the urban landscape abandoned by people and capital and left to fall apart.
These eerie locales have a grip on the imagination of many people, not least the urban explorers who venture into and photograph them. They also have a powerful hold on fiction, which often imagines a life driven out of the light by some catastrophe and into the dark places, often underground. This trend has been particularly strong in videogames, where the hidden and decaying areas of cities provide a venue for post-apocalyptic struggles. Numerous games have mined this territory, but few have done so as effectively as the 2010 survival first-person shooter Metro 2033.
Hostile Waters has both an unusual premise and unusual gameplay. It is a war game set in an utopian world that has abolished war altogether; and it is a strategy game in which the player is not limited to giving orders, but can actually directly control units on the battlefield. In both its story and its gameplay, Hostile Waters requires players to re-learn war.
Like Populous: The Beginning, Hostile Waters was the product of a veteran British games developer entering its final years. The similarities don’t end there - Hostile Waters also failed to receive the recognition it deserved upon release in March 2001 - at least from consumers - and sold poorly. One likely reason is the lack of multiplayer, which was to be added in a patch which never saw release. While not much discussed even today, Hostile Waters has been called “one of the best games you’ve never played”. This minor cult reputation is built on the satisfying combination of those two key elements - the game’s unusual story, and novel gameplay.
By 1998, Bullfrog Productions were one of the most successful, innovative and respected games development studios in the world. With games like Syndicate (1993), Theme Park (1994) and Dungeon Keeper (1997), the British studio had built a reputation for creative and original releases, known for their humour and novel game mechanics. However, dark times lay ahead. The company’s acquisition by Electronic Arts and the departure of co-founder Peter Molyneux to found his own studio would endanger the company. Within a few years numerous projects would be cancelled, and Bullfrog would be gone, absorbed to become just another cog in the EA machine.
Despite these ominous signs, 1998 saw the release of one of Bullfrog’s most important, and sadly underrated games: Populous: The Beginning. The game is a unique hybrid of two distinct gameplay styles: the god game, which Bullfrog had pioneered with the original Populous in 1989; and the real-time strategy, which was then enjoying its first major boom of popularity in the mid- to late-1990s. While The Beginning is primarily an RTS, it draws significantly from the Populous series, to which it serves as a loose prequel. While the earlier games put players in the role of a mighty god overseeing the advancement of a human civilisation, The Beginning has them guide a powerful shaman struggling to achieve godhood. While at the time critics were muted in their response to the game - frankly confused by its radical new gameplay style - Populous: The Beginning is an extraordinary strategy game, easily one of the most unique and engaging ever made.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a golden era for strategy and management games of all kinds. Whether you wanted to build ancient Rome, fight your own version of World War II, or establish colonies in another star system there was at least one game to suit your purposes appearing on the shelves. One way for developers to compete in this crowded market was to combine and hybridise strategy genres - as British developer Firefly Studios did with their first game, the enduring success Stronghold.
Firefly were well-placed to advance the fusion of city-building and real-time strategy gameplay. Their founders, Simon Bradbury and Eric Ouellette, had both worked for the successful developer Impressions Games, which had been acquired by Sierra in 1995. There, they had worked on the successful Caesar series of city-builders and the medieval strategy series Lords of the Realm. These would each be a strong influence on Stronghold, which was developed in a single rented room in South London and eventually released by Take 2 Interactive in October 2001.
In 2011, Jookabox announced their fourth album and at the same time announced that the project had been wound up. As the band's PR put it at the time, they had "written their own epitaph", their "last cryptic transmission". To release an album from beyond the grave was a perfect fit, given the group's sense of humour and affinity for all things morbid and supernatural. These same aspects make their music worth returning to in the otherworldly and anxious circumstances of a global pandemic.
Formed in Indianapolis by David "Moose" Adamson, the group was originally known as Grampall Jookabox and released a first album, Scientific Cricket, in 2007. A kind of warped, lo-fi folk record, it bears little resemblance to Adamson's later work but did help secure a signing to Asthmatic Kitty Records, which maintains an office in Indianapolis.
It was on the second album released under the Grampall Jookabox name that a lasting sound would begin to take shape. Ropechain was released by Asthmatic Kitty in 2008, and showcased a more electronic, varied style taking in alt hip-hop, rock, and psychedelia. Adamson's surreal lyrics and extensive use of pitch-shifted vocals combined with a home-made, basement feel creates a distinct personality. Even an amusingly sneering Pitchfork review captured this its description of the album as "the desperate product of being alone for too long"; something easy to understand in an era of lockdown.
The sudden and unexpected announcement of a new XCOM game provoked a wave of speculation. Fans of the series, which was rebooted to tremendous success by Firaxis in 2012, pored over the trailers. Chimera Squad was variously described as a sequel, a spinoff, a testbed of ideas for a forthcoming XCOM 3, and even as a "glorified DLC".
The wait to find out was not long, however, as the game was released just days later on April 24, 2020. Chimera Squad turned out to be a very interesting prospect indeed. Just as the heroes of this new entry in the series are a mix of human, alien and hybrid members - hence the title - the game itself is a strange mix of familiar and new elements. This remixed formula is mostly successful, and should appeal to a hybrid audience of XCOM veterans and newcomers to the series.
In 1991, the release of Sonic the Hedghog was a watershed moment for Sega's flagship console of the time, the Megadrive (or Genesis, as it is known in North America). The lightning-fast platformer cemented the success of the console, and launched a huge series which continues to this day. By 1996, however, the Megadrive was reaching the end of its lifespan and there was time for just one more Sonic game on the platform before the series moved fully onto its successor, the Sega Saturn.
That game was Sonic 3D Blast, which had versions released for both the Megadrive and the Saturn. The game was actually developed primarily in the UK, by British developer Traveler's Tales, who were given the task by Sega in the days before they were consigned to a hell of their own, developing only countless Lego games. Over the years, 3D Blast has been one of the more divisive games of the series for its unusual isometric perspective and for gameplay which is much slower than the other Sonic games of its era. These aspects have long provoked a mixed reception, but there's a case to be made that Sonic 3D Blast is if not the best Sonic game on the Megadrive, then at least the most playable.
Due to a number of stars that exploded in its vicinity, the planet Pyrrus is rich with valuable radioactive ores. A fortune can be made by anyone willing and able to exploit this resource - unfortunately, every last living creature on the planet is fanatically dedicated to killing humans. So goes the premise of Deathworld, and by the time the novel opens the human colonists have been fighting a brutal war with the whole ecosystem of Pyrrus for 300 years.
Published in 1960, Deathworld is the first novel by Harry Harrison (1925 - 2012). After a stint in the US Army Air Corps, Harrison worked as an illustrator and comics artist - notably for the controversial and influential EC Comics in the late 1940s. This experience would prepare him for his career as a science fiction author, which he began in earnest in 1951 with his first story sale. Deathworld establishes the style Harrison would become known for, being a fast-paced adventure infused with intriguing themes.
Today, Arthur C. Clarke is best known for his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Stanley Kubrick film version which was made concurrently. The project drew heavily on a short story, “The Sentinel”, which had been published in 1951. That same year, Clarke published a novella called “Earthlight” in the American pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories. This, too, was expanded into a novel.
Published in 1955, the novel Earthlight is every bit as engaging as 2001 and can be seen as a significant step in Clarke’s development towards his magnum opus. The two novels are set in fairly similar futures, where spaceflight has become relatively routine and humans are increasing their mastery over the solar system. Where Earthlight differs is in its focus on interplanetary political tensions, in a situation whereby societies on other planets are altered radically by their disconnection from Earth.