Grand Thrash Auto: Ivan Belcic (Kosmogyr)

If you’ve been reading Astral Noize for a while, Kosmogyr are probably a band you’ve heard us gushing about in the past. The black metal duo’s enigmatic blend of lush melodies and biting blastbeats makes for a subtly unique take on the genre, one that makes their debut record Eviternity an absolute must-hear. As we gathered when we spoke to the band for our piece on the connection between the Soulsborne series and heavy metal (which was later printed in full in our Soulsborne zine), the band are also gamers with a particular fondness for Bloodborne. Given that we’ve already discussed that game at length (and let’s be honest could probably drone on about it forever), though, the tagline for today’s Grand Thrash Auto is “Kosmogyr’s top five games that aren’t Bloodborne”.

Today we’re chatting to one half of the band in Ivan Belcic, with other member Xander Cheng set to feature in this series sometime in the future. All of Belcic’s picks are first time mentions in the series, and in his picks we’re reminded of those experiences we had growing up with gaming, when the platforms and games we had access to were dictated by our parents and our knowledge of the industry as a whole was limited, making those games you did encounter all the more exciting. In his discussion of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time we’re reminded of those games that felt special because you would only encounter them at friends’ houses or arcades, whilst his discussion of his favourite Grand Theft Auto title will have you reminiscing about those games you used to hide from your parents.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time

Turtles In Time: simply legendary. The IP appeal of this game was obvious for me as a Turtle-obsessed kid, but there was a super-solid beat-em-up behind it that made it way more than the easy cash grab it could have been. I didn’t have an SNES at home — my first console was the PlayStation — and so my choices were either making a beeline for it whenever I saw it in arcade form, or diving in at a more leniently-parented friend’s place.

The game felt almost ahead of its time, from the polished graphics and fluid character movements to the ability to chuck a Foot Soldier into the screen and literally shatter the fourth wall. Being the first to pull that off in a given level was an affirmation of skill, something to be cherished while envied in others, just as inadvertently hogging a pizza when a fellow Turtle was low on health was the hallmark move of an abject scrub, a lumbering buffoon with no sense of cooperative spirit and lacking the grace befitting a suitable adventuring partner. These things carried weight when you were seven and Shredder needed stopping.

I loved how each of the Turtles had their own feel — I always went with Donatello for his extra range with the bo staff. I can still hear the sinister whine of Krang’s android as he laser-eyed his way across the screen in the opening level, or the cries of the Turtles as they stubbed their toes in the sewers or succumbed to shell shock. “My toe, my toe!”

There’s a new Turtles In Timeinspired sidescroller coming out sometime, ideally soon, and I cannot wait to pick it up, sink into some couch co-op with my wife, and toss some Foot Soldiers through the TV.

Star Wars: Dark Forces

The golden age of LucasArts, which dovetailed perfectly with my childhood Star Wars obsession, is filled with A-list games, from the OG Rebel Assault through the X-Wing (and TIE Fighter) series all the way to the gold-standard RPG Knights Of The Old Republic. But the one Star Wars title that sunk its claws more deeply into me than any other was Dark Forces, aka DOOM in Star Wars cosplay.

I loved Dark Forces because of how un-mystical it was. You weren’t a hotshot pilot or a Force-wielding Jedi (yet), but simply a man named Kyle with a gun and a bone to pick with the Empire. It’s the same reason Rogue One is my favourite of the more recent Star Wars movies. Barring one character, you’ve got a team of entirely mundane people just as capable of kicking Imperial ass as Luke and all the other Chosen Ones in the mythos are, and it’s superbly satisfying to watch them do so.

No moment in Dark Forces came close to the first time you’d stand face to face with a Dark Trooper. These black-clad beefcake emissaries of destruction were original to Dark Forces — they’d never before appeared in any Star Wars media — and so there was no way to prepare for the shock of seeing, and fighting, The Hulk in murdered-out Stormtrooper armour for the very first time. This triggered an ongoing quest lasting years to find and own this Dark Trooper action figure, but I was never able to get my hands on one.

Protagonist Kyle Katarn would go on to cultivate Force abilities in Jedi Knight, the game’s sequel, and although it was sort of a caving-in to the “all Jedi all the time” issue that Star Wars can have, the game also ruled. Complete arrays of Light and Dark powers meant that your alignment mattered, and it was just as much fun to carve foes up with a lightsaber and sling them around with the Force as it was to mow them down with your blaster.

RIP LucasArts, Star Wars gaming hasn’t been the same without you.

Twisted Metal 2

Is this one too on-the-nose for this column? Maybe, but too bad.

Twisted Metal 2 was a glorious exercise in over-the-top carnage, a pre-MOBA decades before MOBAs were a thing, the vehicular concept more window dressing than anything else to convey the core arena brawler experience. After Twisted Metal — a left-field PlayStation launch title — proved that the IP and car combat genre could be successful, the sequel capitalised on this momentum with tightened controls, more nuanced level design and a greater emphasis on strategic gameplay.

I can remember spending countless hours engrossed in split-screen chaos with my friends. The game introduced fighter-style D-pad combos that lent an extra layer of skill and flair to the onscreen madness. It felt awesome to deflect a missile, jump over an obstacle or freeze an opponent in place, because it meant that you were good enough to pull that off in the heat of combat and could rub that in your buddy’s face accordingly.

For ten-year-old me, the game’s cartoonishly sinister aesthetic and monkey’s paw story twists were plenty dark and shocking — and you had actual endings this time, as opposed to the wall-of-text conclusions in the first game. Much of the appeal revolved around the charismatically off-the-wall characters: series mascot Sweet Tooth, Thumper and his flame-spewing candy-pink low-rider, the skeletal Mr. Grimm with a special attack that was as powerful as it was tricky to land, or the tormented Axel —literally a human axle strapped between two gargantuan wheels. Most levels featured destructible environmental Easter eggs, most memorably the option to blow up the Eiffel Tower and transform it into a rooftop access ramp. Fucking sick.

The series took a dive after TM2, with 989 Studios taking over for the next two games. Original Twisted Metal 1 and 2 developers SingleTrac were also behind another of my favorite PlayStation franchises: Jet Moto. When the hoverbike racing series transferred from SingleTrac to 989 for its third game, the results were similarly disappointing as with its combat-oriented cousins. Fortunately, Twisted Metal’s redemption arc would ultimately kick in with the deliciously grimdark Twisted Metal Black on PS2.

SSX Tricky

The SSX formula is simple: do tricks to fill your boost meter so you can go faster, do bigger tricks, and win. The outlandish characters and maxed-out, over-the-top energy of the levels in the original SSX immediately drew me in, and I quickly became obsessed. Add Rahzel as the game’s commentator reacting in real-time to your tricks and interactions with the other racers, and it’s a compelling package. And I was pretty good at it.

But it’s SSX Tricky that makes this list because it’s not so much a sequel as a pseudo-remake of the first game turned up to 11. SSX left realism and its trappings of “conventional physics” to more staid developers — it wasn’t a snowboarding game so much as an absurd tricking game with snowboarding as the vehicle for achieving said tricks, and SSX Tricky jabbed the original with a shot of adrenaline to the heart to appropriately recenter the experience in the heart of trick city.

Everything was revamped to incentivise full use of the game’s exaggerated trick system. The “remixed” tracks were given crazier layouts, and the SSX aesthetic was cranked up into even further reaches of early-2000s extreme. The game knew exactly how to encourage maximum fun at all times, and it gave you the tight and responsive controls you needed to take full advantage. I still preferred the races to the trick-focused modes, but that’s not to say I wasn’t dishing out plenty of “Uber Tricks” in pursuit of that first-place finish.

With Run DMC’s ‘It’s Tricky’ ringing out every time you’d fill up your boost meter, that hook is as ingrained in my brain as the “!” from Metal Gear Solid.

It’s tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that’s right on time, It’s trickayyy~~

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

I wasn’t allowed to own the Grand Theft Auto games, and though that rule evoked much consternation from adolescent me, in retrospect my parents made the right call. That series is no place for a kid. But I didn’t let it stop me.

Before the release of Grand Theft Auto 3, there was the Driver series, and I had the first two. In addition to being excellent games in their own right, Driver and Driver 2 also served as my GTA camouflage. If I was elbow-deep in a GTA session and Mom walked in asking what was up, I was playing Driver. There’s a car on the screen and I’m driving it — no more questions required.

I can’t remember how I got my hands on GTA 3, but looking back nearly 20 years later, I can still remember going to buy Vice City on launch day. My friend Mark and I shared a lunch period with two upperclassmen also eager to pick it up, and one of whom had a car. We all went and, bless that retail worker’s heart, each bought a copy of the brand spanking new Vice City, no proof of age required.

Vice City was the first game in the series to feature a protagonist with an actual personality, but it was extra-significant to me for another reason: it was also the first GTA game to let you ride motorcycles. I’ve had a thing for motorcycles since developing the brain capacity to grasp the concept of what they are, and though I’ve never quite been able to steer my life in the direction of owning one for more than a month or so at a time, the passion is no less real. One day.

Before Stranger Things repackaged ‘80s nostalgia for generations that had never experienced it firsthand, there was Vice City, and what a ride it was. In contrast with Scarface, its primary and very blatant point of inspiration, Vice City lacked the karmic twist that comes for Tony Montana in the end. Rather than being gunned down in your beyond-opulent drug mansion at the height of your criminal prowess, you end the game living in said mansion on top of the city’s underworld, master of your domain, untouchable purveyor of drugs, sex, savagery and death.

I can still close my eyes and imagine Tommy Vercetti ripping up that straightaway along the city’s eastern shore, Hawaiian shirt or unbuttoned blazer billowing behind him, A Flock Of Seagulls and Foreigner blaring on the radio. From the way the missions were folded into the organic world to the details that brought it all to life, Vice City never once let its veil of immersion falter.

The game was drenched in mood, and though I’ve enjoyed all the games in the series since GTA 3, it’s Vice City that still reigns supreme for me.

Click here for more Grand Thrash Auto pieces. 

Kosmogyr’s Eviternity (and its accompanying remix album) can be picked up here.

Intro: George Parr

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