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Growl

Don’t be fooled by the key art depicting the game’s protagonist as some sort of Indiana Jones inspired bad ass. You won’t be raiding tombs and seeking treasure but instead taking out poachers and freeing captured animals. Basically the human equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog. Lest you get hippy notions of peace and happiness and frolicking with animals the game is actually pretty brutal and gory and takes a very, uh, “strange” turn towards the end that No One will see coming. Gameplay wise this is a classic beat em up in the Final Fight mold although not as nuanced as that game; think of it like Bayou Billy if it didn’t suck. Growl was not a standout game in the arcade but was well designed and fun while it lasted. Taito’s Genesis port tries to capture what made the game so good but comes out flawed in the process.

There are four characters all with varying stats but let’s be honest, they don’t matter. It all comes down whether you want the cool looking dude with the pink shirt and sunglasses or the very obvious Indy rip off. Gameplay is pretty simple as the game only makes use of a simple three button setup, punch, jump, and special attack. There are a variety of attacks you can perform however there is no set button combinations to pull them off which is pretty frustrating. That is also leads into one of the game’s biggest flaws.

The largest flaw with this version of Growl is the slowed attack speed. Normally in most brawlers once you start your attack combination enemies cannot counterattack. Here though there is a delay between punches which leaves an opening to get smacked in the face. This makes regular attacks useless. It almost seems as though the game were designed with this in mind as there are always weapons present, to the point where you will rarely ever be without one. This isn’t like traditional brawlers where they disappear if you drop them too much; so long as you pick them up within 7 or 8 seconds you can keep the same weapon indefinitely.   The whip in particular is almost game breaking as it hits enemies both in front and behind simultaneously.

This is a far cry from the typical game in the genre as it isn’t afraid to fill the screen with as many as 12 bad guys at once. Granted they’ll go down after a few hits but it isn’t a sight you see too often. There are plenty of weapons to bludgeon the bastards with and you’ll be surprised to see how gory it gets as rocket launchers and bombs blow them up into chunks. As cool as it is thought Growl also blows its load far too soon. By the end of the first level you will have seen nearly all of the enemies you will face throughout the length of the game which gets repetitive fast. The large numbers distract from this a bit but rarely does the game vary up the combinations they appear in. Some of the arcade’s better set pieces have also been cut from the game which cuts down on the variety as well.

Despite the numerous enemies that attack all at once you’ll be surprised to find how easy the game is overall. Your life bar is comprised of four bars but you can take a large amount of punishment before it ever dips. Life restoring food isn’t common but it almost seems unnecessary since you’ll have to actively go out of your way to die. Although you only get one life per credit it’s entirely possible most will complete the game with the default 3 but you can increase it to 7 in the options menu which is overkill. With that in mind you’ll blow through the game in about twenty minutes and never feel the need to ever play it again.

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For its Sega debut Growl’s graphics were completely redrawn and unfortunately it is ugly in comparison. The sprites are about half the size of the arcade and completely lacking in detail. The beautiful backdrops fared even worse. You’ll visit many of the same locations however they are barely recognizable to their arcade big brother. About the only real noteworthy feature I can mention is that this version manages to retain the same amount of enemies on screen with no slowdown but considering how many nondescript the sprites are it would be shameful if they couldn’t manage that much at least. The music is completely unmemorable and nearly all of the voice clips have been removed as well. Honestly I shouldn’t be so surprised that this port turned out so bad; it was early enough in the system’s life that developers were not aware how hard they could push the system but it is still disappointing in the end.

With its lacking gameplay, repetitive enemies, and lack of multiplayer (a staple of the genre) there is no reason to bother with Growl considering there are far better brawlers available for the system. It’s a damn shame this port turned out so bad as it could have added some needed variety to the genre. Oh well.

6-out-of-10-1

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Operation Wolf

I’ve always appreciated light gun games from afar but was rarely interested enough to spend my quarters on them for various reasons. Light gun games back then were typically always a quarter more than everything else and when it came down to it I’d rather spend my 2 or 3 quarters on Street Fighter or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles than a game of Lethal Enforcers that usually ended in less than a minute. That and some random asshole would somehow break the damn machine making it worthless. Operation Wolf, alongside Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, and the awesome Terminator 2 was one of the few gun games I bothered to try in the arcade. I liked it, which made me anticipate the NES port. Unfortunately as much as I wanted to like it the control options and the game’s high difficulty make this not worth a purchase.

Operation Wolf, despite its status as a light gun shooter ranks up there with Bubble Bobble and Chase HQ as one of the most heavily ported games of all time, hitting every possible platform of the time. Most of these systems lacked a light gun which presented an interesting challenge in terms of retaining the same experience at home but the NES and Master System did not have that problem. This a game that I only managed to play using the NES Zapper a few times. Let’s be honest, the Zapper wasn’t the most accurate light gun in the world (oh the wonders of 1980’s technology) and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that once the novelty of Duck Hunt and the few other games that supported it wore off it went into the closet never to be seen again. Luckily the game is perfectly playable using the traditional controller although it is less than ideal. This NES version is an adequate port of the arcade hit but I feel it could have been better with a little bit of balancing.

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Surprisingly using the normal NES pad works out far better than the Zapper. The cursor moves at a decent speed (but not fast enough, more on that in a bit) but the most important factor is that you can press the button repeatedly for rapid fire. Once you’ve exhausted your supply of grenades you’ll have no choice but to pepper the tanks and helicopters with bullets and the Zapper with its slow calibration simply can’t keep up. This is absolutely mandatory in the late game as the game becomes sheer chaos and will chew you up in seconds. It isn’t perfect however as the hit detection is loose and will cause you to waste many precious bullets.

Operation Wolf differed from other games in the genre in that the goal of each level wasn’t to simply make it to the end. Every stage has a set number of soldiers, tanks, and helicopters that must be destroyed. Once those parameters were met the level ended, meaning it could take a few minutes or up to 10-15 depending on your skill. The NES port retains that but differs even further by playing the levels in a set order. In the arcade you could tackle the missions in any order and there was some strategy to the order chosen such as hitting the ammo dump before tackling the tougher airport and concentration camp. You could even skip half the game if you wanted. Here there is a set order which to an extent presents a difficulty curve but in the end the game is particularly brutal no matter what.

Regardless of which control scheme you end up using Operation Wolf is a tough game, especially in the later stages. The Zapper suffers from its lack of rapid fire and by the middle of the game that is crucial to survival. While the cursor moves at a decent clip with the controller it can’t keep up with the sheer numbers of enemies that litter the screen later on. As the missions require you to kill more and more soldiers and helicopters on top of saving prisoners it starts to feel all but impossible to survive longer than a few minutes. If the game weren’t so stingy with health power-ups it would be manageable; you’ll be lucky to ever see more than one per stage and it doesn’t even heal you that much. With just a few small tweaks I would actually recommend this as I do still like it to an extent but not so much to overlook how frustrating it is.

Perhaps the high difficulty was to mask just how short the game is. This is still an arcade game at heart which means it is designed for short bursts of play and to suck the quarters out of your pocket. Each of the six missions can be completed in a few minutes if you are good enough. While the requirements for completion increase it can’t hide the fact that the game is only thirty minutes long. The chances of anyone beating the game that quickly is low without an insane amount of practice though.

Taito certainly tried and succeeded somewhat in replicating what made Operation Wolf great. However it is painfully obvious that this should have stayed in the arcade. Pass on this one.

6-out-of-101

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A Brief Hiatus

The holiday season is coming and I’m taking a little break.  I like to kick back and enjoy myself too you know.  I’ll see you all in the new year!

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Super Nova

I wonder why Taito decided to rename Darius Force when bringing it to the US. Did Darius Twin leave such a bad impression that they wanted to distance themselves from it that bad? While I found that game middling it still had its good points. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this: Darius II was renamed Sagaia for some strange reason I’ll never know. Darius Twin borrowed heavily from both the original and its sequel and in that regard Super Nova is a much better exclusive effort and one that I recommend to fans of shooters in general.

When it comes to weaponry the series has always been a bit reserved which is to say it has been pretty lackluster. Thankfully that has been overhauled here. You have your choice of three silverhawks much like R-Type 3 although the difference in weapons isn’t as pronounced as that title. The green Silverhawk comes from the original Darius, the blue mirrors the ship in Darius II, but the most interesting is the new red Silverhawk. The three ships come with one primary weapon and two side weapons that can be changed with R. Each ship can upgrade its weapons to level eight at which point it changes dramatically. Personally I still found them to be a little weak (or maybe the bosses are insane bullet sponges) but you’ll needed that increased firepower as well as a shield to survive more than a few seconds in each level.

Unlike the other games in the series the way both bombs and your primary cannon are handled is different. Both weapons are upgraded at the same time here which is a plus as the game can be a bit stingy with power-ups. However using bombs reduces your main weapon’s power by one level when in use. It’s an interesting trade off and one that requires some nuance but I like it although it does make an already difficult game harder. Switching between bombs and lasers is a bit finicky in the heat of the moment but certain bosses almost require it due to positioning, adding even more strategy.

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The Darius series has always marched to the beat of its own drum it terms of pacing and Super Nova is no different. This is one of the slowest paced shooters I have ever played but it is no less intense than some of the bullet hell games that have taken over the genre. Unfortunately part of that comes from the game’s reliance on enemies that spawn from behind far too often with no warning which is a petty tactic to take your lives. There is a rarely a moment when the screen isn’t crowded with 10-15 enemies as well as an array of bullets. Literally. There are plenty of enemies that explode into the stuff. You’ll never encounter any slowdown due to the pace although oddly enough you might wish for it for the second or two it would buy you to dodge fire. If you can survive long enough to reach the end level bosses you’ll be treated to multi-phase battles against all manner of crustacean that are one of the game’s graphical highlights.

Where Darius Twin scaled back the amount of choices when it came to picking a path through the game Super Nova has stepped it up. There are 15 levels altogether with a single run usually consisting of six or seven stages. Usually when there is a choice between two stages they will still share the same end level boss however the creators have given them unique attacks and patterns for the sake of variety which is really cool. Another cool feature is that there are a few stages with branching paths mid-stage! There are three critical paths to the end each with a separate ending which gives the game huge replay value for those skilled enough to actually reach the end as this is one of the hardest games in the series.

The series has a reputation for being challenging but I found Super Nova to be particularly brutal. Until you’ve upgraded your weapons to a moderate level (I would say about level 3 or 4) you’ll be hard pressed to take out every enemy in a formation and unfortunately it is necessary for items to drop. Enemies spawn from behind routinely which is completely unfair and I’m not exaggerating when I say that once you lose your shield death is not far behind. This is the only game in the series to feature checkpoints, one mid-level and another once you’ve reached the end level boss. It isn’t as much of a blessing as it sounds however. You lose all weapons upon death and starting off from mid-level where things really become hectic like Gradius often leaves you in an impossible situation. I wasn’t expecting it to be this hard but it is doable, you just won’t be finishing the game in one afternoon.

Super Nova tends to get lost in the conversation whenever SNES shooters are spoken of. While it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of say Axelay or Space Megaforce it is certainly one of the better games in the genre for the system and in my opinion one of the best in the series.

7-out-of-10-1

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Seirei Senshi Spriggan

Games like Seirei Senshi Spriggan are the reason I wish the Turbo Grafx-16 were more popular in the US. Even taking into account the glut of shooters released in the 16-bit era Spriggan would have stood out. With the masters of the genre Compile behind the wheel that should be expected but even still Spriggan is still amazing even by their high standards. If you are both a fan of the genre and don’t mind imports (it’s not as though you are missing an award winning story) you should seek this out if you can somehow avoid the high price it commands.

As an offshoot of the Aleste series Spriggan should be familiar to anyone who has played M.U.S.H.A or Robo Aleste. For the less fortunate expect large giant robots juxtaposed against a Japanese setting although in this case the Japanese influenced design is traded for a high fantasy. You’ll spend more time fighting sorcerers and other fantastical demons rather than massive mechanized ships although those are still present. While it does share a similar look to that series Spriggan differs considerably in terms of gameplay.

In terms of weapons the list is kept short at only four. Each of the four colored orbs (red, blue, green, and yellow) correspond to a different elemental alignment and a unique power such as an extremely powerful spiraling ball of wind or a water shield. Aside from the elements the occasional smart bomb is dropped and you can also sacrifice your current weapon to use as a bomb as well. The game is extremely generous with power-ups with new drops appearing every 10-15 seconds. The frequent weapon drops will allow you to take advantage of the game’s greatest asset.

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On their own each weapon is adequate and will provide a secondary shield that will protect you from one hit. What truly puts it over the top is the ability to mix and match weapons and combine their effects. Like Soldier Blade you can hold up to three weapons at a time however all three are activated simultaneously and depending on the combination will produce wildly varied effects. My favorite combination is red, blue, and green which provides a circular shield, and multiple large bursts of fire in a zig zag formation that covers over 50% of the screen. Some of the effects produced are actually pretty surprising and the system encourages experimentation. While the cut scenes depict the mission as a two-man team your partner will only occasionally fly in to assist in dealing with enemies but it isn’t long before she is shot down.

In stark contrast to most Compile shooters Spriggan is surprisingly easy. The game’s hit detection is extremely generous allowing you to brush up against the largest demons without taking a hit. All of the game’s weapons are overpowered and while some enemies can soak up damage most will go down in a few hits. Weapon drops are so frequent you can even spam bombs continuously since another item will appear in less than 10 seconds to replace it. Coming from someone who more or less expects shooters to crank up the difficulty this is a welcome surprise although it does mean even the worst gamers will complete this is one or two runs.

As this was part of Japan’s Summer Carnival competition it also comes with a two-minute score attack mode. More so than some of the other entrants in the competition Spriggan truly manages to pack its two minutes with intensity as the opposition is relentless in order to build up as high a score as possible. It is in this mode that your choice of weapon will truly matter since you need to concentrate more on destruction rather than staying alive. Normally I don’t bother with the score attack in shooters but the game is so compelling I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised.

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Spriggan bears many surface similarities to its predecessor M.U.S.H.A. but differs in a number of ways visually. The medieval setting means you’ll spend more of your time flying around castles and dungeons rather than mechanized Japanese temples and such. But seeing as they are both loosely part of the same series the mech designs are still relatively the same. The beautiful parallax scrolling so present in that game is largely absent here but the game more than makes up for it with large sprites at every turn and a generally crowded screen that rarely slows down. The cutscenes are kept to a minimum compared to something like Macross 2036 but are still pretty cool as a reward for completing a level. The pulsing techno soundtrack benefits from CD audio as the sound quality is high, allowing you to enjoy the excellent soundtrack.

When stacked up against the more than plentiful shooters that fill the system’s library Spriggan still manages to stand out due to its setting, pacing, and awesome weapons system. Even though you will complete the game in short order it still remains fun and replayable since the challenge isn’t so high. I would still recommend this to those who have experienced shooter fatigue as it is just plain awesome.

9-out-of-10

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DJ Boy

What the hell happened here? How could Kaneko mess up a simple port of DJ boy so badly? Let’s be clear, I’m not holding up DJ boy as some paragon of the genre. It was simply an enjoyable brawler with a unique aesthetic and well within the Genesis’ capabilities. This sad home port loses most of the arcade games charm and is simply a bad game.

Donald J. Boy is well known in the streets and when he hears about the Rollergames, a street fighting/racing competition he decides to sign up. However the Dark Knight gang say uh uh and kidnap DJ boy’s girlfriend Maria. It’s the typical save the princess shlock we are accustomed to and a far cry from the coin op.

That plot is wildly different from the arcade and if you can believe it only slightly less dumb. In it Michael Jackson and DJ Boy are break dancing to Beat It when a couple of Prince fans steal their boom box. Apparently they were angry that everyone thinks Thriller is better than Purple Rain and said enough is enough. The chase then ensues.

Alright I made some of that up but the difference in “plot” is only one of the changes made to the game. I call this a port in the loosest sense of the word. The Genesis version of DJ Boy is more inspired by its coin op big brother and that wouldn’t be a problem if the game were actually good. But between the terrible level design and flat gameplay I wonder why they bothered. This should have turned out so much better.

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Mechanically this is a pretty simple brawler. Your offense is limited to simple punches and kicks with a jump kick and really weird double punch making up your roster of moves. Punches are drastically inferior to kicks due to limited reach. If you build up some speed and kick few enemies will ever be able to counterattack. It’s simple but what makes this so interesting is that it all takes place on roller skates. Skating around and building up momentum could have been an interesting mechanic but the limited move set means you’ll simply button mash all day. It also doesn’t help that the hit detection is suspect, rearing its head most often during boss battles. Where the standard enemies are brain dead idiots the bosses require a bit more finesse. Like your typical beat em up they have a life bar that dwarfs yours and can kill you in a few hits. Each will require a specific form of attack to take down making these probably the only engaging parts of the game.

New to this version is the shop in between levels where you can spend the coins dropped by defeated enemies. The store offers a variety of power-ups to spend your coins but outside of replenishing health and buying an extra life they are mostly useless. Supposedly you can increase the power of your attacks but I did not notice a significant difference.   Increasing your skating speed sounds useful but lining up attacks is already unwieldy due to momentum and the viewpoint. The game would have been better off if these items dropped during the levels instead of wasting your time.

There have been some changes to the game, mostly to tone down some of its more offensive elements. The first boss, Big Mama, was an offensive black stereotype nanny who farted constantly for no reason. Here her skin color has been lightened and she throws pies instead. The fire breathing homeless man (!) who undressed to reveal his Chippendale body is now fully exposed from the start. Some of the more….outlandish enemies that resembled flamboyant Village People have also been removed. But the largest and unfortunate change comes in the level design. While thematically similar they differ drastically and not for the better in my opinion. Stage 2’s Subway featured a large variety of enemies to battle but here has been reduced to a high speed run through the underground with an ill-advised segment that limits your view to a spotlight. The construction site of stage 4 is similar with none of the cool background interaction. There are good ideas in here buried under bad execution unfortunately.

If for some god forsaken reason you actually want to see this to its conclusion you’ll have your work cut for you. In the beginning when your life bar is do short it is pretty rough. As you progress however it gradually expands so that you can survive longer. But getting to that point is a hassle. The game is stingy with the burgers that refill health and the kids that drop them are easily missed. Worse than that however is the fact that there are no continues and you only have one life. It’s beyond stupid and will make you question if they wanted anyone to even play the game.

If you are brave (or stupid) enough to persevere and finish the game you will be treated to an overly dramatic and badly translated ending that is the perfect conclusion to a terrible game. I liked DJ Boy in the arcade and to see the game butchered so badly is just sad. This is among the worst Sega Genesis games I’ve ever played.

4-out-of-101

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Sunman

I can distinctly remember reading about so many NES games in Nintendo Power that were scheduled to be released in the US but were cancelled for one reason or another. For the longest time once a game was cancelled that was that and you would never hear about it again. But in these modern times those lost games can be unearthed and enjoyed by all thanks to thanks to kind folks like the guys over at the lostlevels.com.  Sunman was never even officially announced before it was cancelled so the fact that a more or less complete version of the game is available is a miracle. Sunman appears to be an innocuous release at first but it doesn’t take long to realize that this is really a Superman game under a different name.

I imagine the thinking behind Sunman was to do for Superman what they had already done for Batman. After the dire Superman game from Kemco anything would be better. But somewhere along the way, whether the license was unavailable or if they had cold feet when considering the NES market in 1992, Sunsoft changed gears and turned this into an original property. That wasn’t an unprecedented move for them; Journey to Silius was originally a Terminator game and changed for similar reasons. But to a greater extent than that game it is fairly obvious what Sunman originally started out as. Maybe that is why it was cancelled. While I’d like to say we missed out on a lost gem in all honesty Sunman has issues and would have needed an overhaul to make it more interesting.

Despite being developed by two separate companies Sunman is eerily similar to Taito’s Superman game for the Genesis which in turn was loosely based on their own coin op of the same name. The two games even have near identical first levels that begin on the rooftops before transitioning to a fast paced scroll up the side of a building. Both games severely limit their protagonist in terms of abilities except in Sunman’s case it is even worse. Aside from the ability to fly at any time you’ll have to rely on your fists to get by. Heat vision is restricted to specific boss battles which is incredibly lame. I wouldn’t have minded this so much if there were items or anything to break up the monotony but you get nothing at all, not even extra health. Combine that with stiff controls and the game is already off to a bad start.

The game’s Return of the Joker DNA is apparent in terms of the level design with many sequences seeming very familiar. Both games feature a level that takes place aboard a train and the many auto scrolling shooter stages further attest to this. At the very least these segments are enjoyable if not familiar. However the rest of the game’s level design isn’t as strong and is rendered moot since you can fly. The elaborate platform challenges and traps can simply be flown over although some of this seems to be intentional.

In spite of the game’s brevity actually making it to the end is a task in itself. The lack of any power-ups is a bad decision all around and makes the game incredibly frustrating, not to mention boring. Combine that with the short attack range and relentless swarms of enemies that attack at odd angles and you can die in seconds. You’ll have to either memorize each level’s layout completely or play to perfection since you can’t afford to make mistakes. The last two levels are especially brutal with a ridiculous number of enemies thrown in your path. Those two credits will disappear fast. Considering the game is so short I can see why Sunsoft bumped up the difficulty but it doesn’t make an already flawed game any more endearing.

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With its large sprites, multiple layers of parallax, and bass heavy soundtrack its obvious Sunman is using the same engine as Return of the Joker. That means the game looks fantastic although not to the same extent as that game. Partially because this is short there isn’t as much variety in locales. The grittiness of Batman’s world lends itself to the NES’s limited color palette. The visuals presented here look as though they should be brighter but it is clear the artists were working against the system’s limits.

I can see the kernel of a good game buried in Sunman but it needed a lot more work. Chances are even Sunsoft knew this and weren’t willing to commit the time to get it right. We didn’t miss anything special.

6-out-of-101

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Top 10 Underrated NES Classics

 

As with any console there are plenty of games that slipped through the cracks on the NES.  Considering the state of the industry at the time and the lack of publications extensively covering the system at first it should come as no surprise that some truly great games have gone unappreciated.  There were so many games to choose from I could make 3 or 4 of these lists (there’s an idea).  These are in no particular order and just some of the games I feel deserve more love.

 

 

Bucky O'Hare (U) [!] 201208281726140 1. Bucky O’ Hare

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=5494

Though the Bucky O’Hare cartoon was short lived gamers reaped the benefit as it survived long enough to produce a cool arcade game and this excellent, excellent platformer. To a degree you can view this as Konami’s take on Mega Man as you have free reign to rescue the members of your crew in whatever order you choose. The quest isn’t done once they’ve assembled as the game still has plenty of fun yet challenging levels to test your skills against. Konami once again work their magic with the NES hardware to produce one of its best looking games with an awesome soundtrack to boot. Unfortunately the game was released at the tail end of 1992 when the 16-bit war really heated up and so was overlooked. Don’t make the same mistake as everyone else and seek out one of the NES’s finest.

 

little-samson-201301020642256 2. Little Samson

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=7002

There were a slew of really great NES titles released in 1992 that flew under the radar and Little Samson might be the best one. This might be Taito’s finest game for the NES as it combines the best elements of many classics such as the character switching from TMNT and the tight platforming of Mario to create one phenomenal adventure. All four heroes will see their share of uses throughout the course of this lengthy quest and their mechanics will ensure that you can tackle the many levels in numerous ways. It also doesn’t hurt that this is probably one of the top 10 best looking games for the system. It sucks that it’s a bit rare so if you see it at a decent price snatch it up fast.

 

image062 3. Monster in my Pocket

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=5975

No not Pokemon. The confusion is warranted as I’m sure Pokemon would have been called Pocket Monsters if this did not exist. As a series of popular figurines and a card game Monster in my Pocket was ripe territory for a video game with Konami doing the honors. The concept of little characters in a big world has been done to death at this point but MIMP still manages to be entertaining through its nuanced platforming challenges and veritable rogue’s gallery of creatures. To some extent this is what Castlevania would be if Simon Belmont didn’t control like a senior citizen. Wow that came out worse than I thought. Regardless MIMP was not a popular game and can be found dirt cheap, which is a bargain in my book considering its quality.

 

 

image056 4. Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=5455

Yes that is Jackie Chan throwing a hadoken at a frog.  I foolishly avoided Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu based purely on its goofy commercial and super deformed style. That turned out to be my loss as it is one of the better action games for the platform, easily keeping company with Ninja Gaiden and Shatterhand. The large variety of martial arts moves at your disposal keep the game fresh as you punch and kick your way up the mountain to save your sister. The only real criticism I can lobby at the game is its short length but it doesn’t matter as you’ll more than likely play through it again and again since it’s so much fun. The stylized look not only gives the game a distinct look but also allows for larger sprites and better animation. For my money this was Hudson Soft’s best NES game.

 

image140 5. Vice Project Doom

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=3292

Talk about obscure, there are still plenty of gamers who have never heard of Vice Project Doom. Released to little fanfare Vice Project Doom is basically what Ninja Gaiden would be if it traded ninjas and mysticism for good old fashioned spy espionage. Even that description is selling it short. The game covers quite a range of genres such as the driving of Spy Hunter, platforming and the first person action of Operation Wolf all while the story unfolds with cut scenes in between levels. But its primary focus is still its side scrolling action at which it excels. Why the game is still so underrated is a mystery but don’t pass it up as it is excellent.

 

image067 6. Panic Restaurant

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=9737

A chef fighting waves of angry food come to life might sound ridiculous but it’s no more absurd than an overweight plumber stomping on goombas and eating mushrooms. Panic Restaurant takes its silly premise and runs with it, using its combination of responsive and balanced weaponry to create an enjoyable romp that’s over a little too soon. Chef Cookie will pick up various dining instruments to use as weapons such as a fork, spoon, and even dinner plates. The difficulty is perfectly balanced with a suitable curve that ensures that you won’t simply breeze through it. Sadly this is one of the rarest NES games and usually goes for hundreds of dollars.   But! If you somehow find a sucker selling it cheap go for it!

 

 

image013 7. Kickle Cubicle

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=7845

I love a good puzzle game every now and then and Kickle Cubicle is excellent. Residing in the same category as the Adventures of Lolo Kickle Cubicle tasks you with collecting all of the red dream bags in a single screen puzzle room. Unlike that game however there is a timer to add that extra bit of tension. Rather than pushing blocks and eggs like Lolo instead you’ll create and manipulate ice for numerous effects. The level design is downright genius at times and with a little bit of creativity there is often more than one way to solve a particular puzzle. There are even boss battles for that extra touch to make an already good game great.

 

image165 8. Magic of Scheherezade

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=1421

My favorite RPG for the NES and in my opinion one of the system’s best the Magic of Scheherezade combines the action of Zelda with a turn based battle system in a strange combination that works. As the unnamed hero you are on a quest to defeat the evil wizard Sabaron and find your one true love. The adventure will remind you of Chrono Trigger as there is time travel involved and combination spells during random battles however Scheherezade came first. The Arabic setting is still unique within the genre and the bevy of features and mechanics all add up to one of the most memorable 8-bit adventures I embarked on.

 

gargoyles-quest-2-201304141345350 9. Gargoyle’s Quest 2

http://www.retrogameage.com/?p=7827

We all love to hate the red bastard Arremer in the Ghouls n Ghosts series yet his solo adventures are so god damn good. Starting with his original Gameboy adventure Firebrand takes center stage as he fights to save the Demon World from disaster. His NES outing is criminally overlooked do once again to its release in 1992. As a combination action game with RPG trimmings the game excels in both fields has plenty of optional content to extend what is already a decently lengthy adventure. Structurally it bears some similarities with Metroid as more areas of the demon world are accessible once you’ve gained certain abilities. Capcom rarely disappointed in the 8-bit era and Gargoyle’s Quest 2 is another feather in their cap.

 

Shadowgate 201403301946344 10. Shadowgate

Kemco ported a number of point and click adventures to the NES and while I’m particularly fond of Déjà Vu I recognize Shadowgate as the better game. The game is dripping with atmosphere, from its ethereal and foreboding soundtrack to its tale of a lone hero sent to save the world from an evil warlock. The puzzles are downright clever at times but what really made the game stand out were its at times graphics death scenes. This was released when Nintendo of America were at their worst in terms of censorship so the fact that so much of Shadowgate’s content remained intact is a miracle. Shadowgate’s success would also lead to Déjà vu and the Uninvited, with all three being surprisingly playable despite the limited interface.

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Robocco Wars

I really miss Taito as a publisher. I realize that technically they still exist as a part of Square Enix but between their arcade output and console games they were once a known quantity worldwide and that has been lost. They were somewhat underrated back in the day too; everyone knows Capcom and Konami but Taito were right there releasing classics like Bubble Bobble, Shadow of the Ninja, and Little Samson. One cool little game we didn’t get was Robocco Wars, an action game starring a transforming robot and its human pilot. The premise sounds reminiscent of Mega Man but gameplay wise it is anything but. Despite its Japanese exclusivity there is very little text so anyone can enjoy this little gem.

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The best way to describe Robocco Wars is a platformer/shooter hybrid. Of the games nine worlds the focus is clearly on platforming as you control your mech as this comprises the majority of the game but you also take flight in ship form, and travel by sea as a submarine. Unlike most titles that span multiple genres equal attention has been given to all three parts making this an enjoyable ride from start to finish. While there is no standout feature Robocco Wars is still worth tracking down.

When in robot form the game is a standard platformer, albeit one on wheels. Since you have treads instead of wheels the physics are a little different with momentum playing a factor. Once you adjust you’ll find great level design along the lines of mega man. There aren’t many power ups to make things more interesting however your default weapon is plenty powerful as is and only gets stronger as you progress. It should be noted that they had to get a bit creative in terms of enemy designs considering these levels are comprised of land with train tracks. The level design is varied and creative, with multiple routes to the exit, vertical drops, and tunnels. It gives off a similar feel to Kirby’s Adventure although this was released a year or two before that game. Even the stage names such as Sweet Castle, Selena Island, Rainbow Syrup, Starlight Smile, and Mysterious Dream are evocative of that series. In my opinion that’s good company to be in although this isn’t nearly as varied.

When it’s time to move on to the next island you’ll transform into an airplane or submarine for some quick shooting action. These sections are nice diversions if a bit simple. Mechanically they are sound but compared to other shooters on the market they are a bit simple, especially the submarine. Granted the only thing to compare it to is Sqoon but they could have jazzed up the underwater portion of the game a little bit. Perhaps that is why there are only two sub levels compared to three plane sections.

Partially because of its excellent pacing but mostly by design, Robocco Wars is pretty easy overall. Your life bar starts at three hearts but every platforming stage will increase it by at least one and up to a maximum of eight. That is overkill in my opinion. Generally life restoring hearts drop regularly and the few tough bosses still have easy to recognize patterns. Not even limited continues poses much of a deterrent to most reaching the end in short order. The easy difficulty will make the game’s nine stages fly by, making you wish there more.

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The simple visual style is bright and colorful along the same lines as Kirby’s Adventure but obviously not as great as that title. The presentation seems heavily tilted towards the shooter segments as it seems the artists really put a lot of work into making these levels look great. The backgrounds here are highly detailed and sometimes abstract and just look great. The lone outlier would be the submarine portions which are a bit bland. You can’t even use the excuse that it is underwater; Capcom’s the Little Mermaid did an awesome job of providing visual variety in the same environment. I found the music to simply be decent; there are a few catchy tunes but for the most part the soundtrack is simply unmemorable.

Robocco Wars would have been a cool addition to the NES library had it been released worldwide. Granted in 1991 some truly standout games in the action genre were released so it might have been lost in the shuffle but at least it would have been exposed to a wider audience. There is no language barrier to overcome so for those plumbing the system’s library this is an easy sell.

7-out-of-10-1

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Don Doko Don

You know I’ve never stopped to really examine just how much I really like single screen platformers. In my mind it is easy to dismiss the “genre” since I got more than my fill of it during the Atari 2600 days. But later games such as Bubble Bobble, Snow Bros. and even Joe & Mac Returns really brought the genre into the modern era kicking and screaming. Where these games largely disappeared on consoles they still flourished in the arcade with the occasional console port. Taito’s Don Doko Don is a game I only learned of in recent years and have grown to love since then. Don’t let the similarities to Bubble Bobble fool you, Don Doko Don can stand on its own and is excellent.

You can’t really blame Taito for using their Bubble Bobble blueprint when creating Don Doko Don. The two games are near identical in gameplay with a few exceptions. Bob and Jim don’t blow bubbles but instead use mallets to flatten enemies. Once pancaked you can pick them up and toss them at a wall or their friends to take them out. It’s actually kind of funny in that you can pick up three or four at once and chuck them simultaneously. If you wait too long flattened enemies will get regain consciousness which is similar to the bubbles bursting in BB. Although the mallet is your only weapon it can also be used to destroy parts of the environment which will topple and crush anything below (hint, hint).

Defeated enemies drop fruit for points while random power-ups spawn in the center of the screen. The list is far smaller than Bubble Bobble unfortunately but no less potent. Potions will increase your movement speed and power. Power is actually a useful stat as it allows you to throw enemies through walls and multiple objects in one toss. The different hammers don’t show up until later, which kill enemies in one hit or allow you to toss them for some ranged attacks. The Book of death stops time and kills all enemies and surprisingly crops up often. The book of Smash will flatten everything on screen for a short while. One last element from Bubble Bobble has carried over; there is an invisible timer and if you take too long a winged imp arrives and seeks you out. It’s easier to avoid him here since he moves in a figure eight pattern but is no less nerve wracking once you hear that sound.

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Since the brothers don’t have the power set of their contemporaries or the variety in power-ups the game has to impress through strong level design, which it has in spades. The game has a rich cast of enemies that changes every few stages. That’s long enough to introduce their special attacks than place them in uniquely laid out rooms that will see you rubbing up against the invisible clock frequently before moving on. That it managed to keep up this pace on excellent fashion right up to its conclusion is a rare sight. As much as I wish there were a few more items s o you weren’t stuck with the stock hammer the varied level design made it a non factor since I was still having fun.

Because the levels are less gimmicky than in similar titles Don Doko Don is easier and moves at a faster clip. There are many levels that provide the all powerful book from the start that eliminates all enemies in one swipe. It’s not uncommon to wipe out every enemy with a well placed throw either. Not that I’m complaining; I’ll take this over bullshit like stage 58 in bubble bobble any day. The boss battles are the only real source of frustration in my opinion. You would not expect such large and stationary creatures to pose much of a threat but the time limit is short and the game isn’t very forthcoming with extra lives. You can still zerg it but what self respecting gamer enjoys doing that?

Don Doko Don follows a similar structure to Capcom’s Snow Bros with 5 worlds consisting of 9 single screen levels followed by a boss battle. While I do somewhat miss the content overload of having 100 levels 50 is more than adequate and from a pacing perspective better. Sometimes less is better as the game does not overstay its welcome. For those that want more there is an alternate path after the first world that leads to the Reverse World, another set of 50 levels. Not that I want to get your hopes up to much but these are simply arrangements of the main game but at least there is an alternate ending for your trouble.

Don Doko Don turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I’ll be the first to admit that if I had seen that box art in Toys R Us back in the day I wouldn’t have given it the time of the day. I probably also ate glue back then so that shows what I know. I had never even heard of the original arcade game so I came to this blind. What I found was a game similar to many beloved classics yet unique enough to stand on its own. Platforming fans have another one to add to the list.

8-out-of-101

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Mamono Hunter Yohko: Makai Kara no Tenkosei

Mamono Hunter Yohko: Makai Kara no Tenkosei (Devil Hunter Yohko: the Seven Balls) is a game that has managed to slip under the radar for quite some time which is surprising considering how loyal the Sega fan base has been over the years. I’m surprised the game was never localized, especially as Sega of America and the game’s publisher NCS were not so discerning in the Genesis’s early years. After playing the game however I can kind of see why. This isn’t necessarily a bad game but we didn’t miss out on a long lost classic either.

Loosely based on the OVA series of the same name Devil Hunter Yohko: the Seven Balls sees the titular heroine as she takes up the sword as the 108th devil hunter in her family line. It’s been decades since I’ve watched the show but I have vague memories of it being a little bit silly as Yohko swooned over boys as much as she fought monsters. However the game plays it dead seriously and considering the game’s ridiculous level of challenge I can see why. I can appreciate a difficult game when done properly but unfortunately this is not one of them. The comparisons to Valis can be made but I found that series to be far more engaging than the frustrating design of this game.

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I made the comparison to Valis and to a certain extent it can’t be helped. Yohko only has one weapon, a short range melee sword that if you’re smart you will never rely on. Your primary attack will be the shield erected once you hold the attack button. This shield serves two functions: obviously it will protect you from projectiles but it can also be tossed in any direction. The barrier isn’t infallible; it isn’t strong enough to guard against head on collisions and too many bullets in a row will cause it to weaken and break. It’s an interesting mechanic, having to choose between attack and defense and one that serves the game well.

The primary thrust of the game is platforming and unfortunately this is where it stumbles. Imagine playing Super Mario Brothers with the rigid controls and physics of Castlevania. The thought alone almost made me punch my monitor and that is regrettably what you get here. Yohko isn’t as stiff in her movements and runs at a nice clip but once airborne you are locked into that action. The level design calls for precise timing and placement which you can manage as enemies swarm constantly. The collision is also spotty and so you’ll fall through ledges that you have clearly landed on. The late stages of the game place a heavier emphasis on this which makes it all the more frustrating that it isn’t as tightly designed as it should be.

Devil Hunter Yohko is brutally difficult, not just through its design but because it feels as though you are ill equipped to deal with the amount of crap thrown your way. Using the shield as a projectile is a double edged sword in that it will deal with distant enemies but they attack in packs and the melee sword is pathetic in comparison. For the stronger enemies it is nearly impossible to get away without taking a hit which feels cheap. The lack of any power-ups aside from health beads is dubious considering in the OVA Yohko was equipped with numerous weapons to exorcise demons. Their absence is pretty glaring and makes an already difficult game that much harder.

At just five stages the game is pretty short but you won’t be seeing the end of it any time soon. Despite what may seem like a generous amount of time in most cases you’ll reach the bosses minimal time to spare. It’s not that the levels are a maze or have many nooks and crannies to explore but the fact that it is optimal to move slowly and deal with enemies one at a time. Surprisingly I found the bosses to be pushovers provided you can actually 1. Reach them and 2. Have enough time. But that last stage is a summation of nearly everything wrong with the game and can eat my ass. Seriously.

In a strange way I put Devil Hunter Yohko in the same category as Earnest Evans; a game that had potential but falls flat in the end. This is certainly not as dire a train wreck as that game but playing it to appreciate its finer points will just end in frustration. You are better off with Valis III or Castlevania which are both cheaper and far better in every way.

6-out-of-101

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DinoCity

For years I avoided DinoCity, not because I heard that it was a bad game but because I had preconceived ideas about it. The few reviews I read painted it as a shallow platformer for kids and to a certain extent they are right. Looking at the screenshots and that god awful box art I’ll admit I jumped to the same conclusion. But upon renting it I found a competent platformer that is better designed than you would expect. DinoCity isn’t a lost classic but a good game worth your time.

As an interesting bit of trivia DinoCity was loosely based on the long forgotten movie Adventures in Dinosaur City. It’s a strange movie to base a game around, especially for a Japanese developer but for all I know it could have been a huge hit over there. Personally I get it confused with the TV show Dinosaurs but I digress. Timmy and his friend Jamie are accidentally teleported to a world of anthropomorphic dinosaurs by one of their dad’s inventions. Unfortunately the Rockey’s, a group of Neanderthals, steal one of the key components needed to send them back. Two friendly dinos, Rex and Tops offer to assist them and the journey begins.

At its core this is a pretty simple game. You can only jump and punch and there are no secondary weapons or items to collect aside from eggs and hearts. Before you conjure up images of Yoshi’s Island eggs only grant extra lives. One notable distinction is that Jamie and Tops attack with projectiles which make the game easier. Timmy and Jamie ride on the backs of their prehistoric friends who do the heavy lifting. However at any time you can hop off in order to lower walls or clear a path for your larger friend to move onward. Now that I think about this does bear a resemblance to Super Mario World in the way the kids ride the dinosaurs like Yoshi. That’s pretty much where the comparisons end however.

While I’ve mentioned the simple mechanics it should be noted that DinoCity is deceptive with its challenge. This borrows liberally from the Mario series and while it isn’t half as accomplished as Nintendo’s classics it is much better than overhyped trash such as Bubsy. The levels are well designed with deliberate enemy placement and platforming that is very measured. Oftentimes you’ll see a ledge or floating platform and jump for it only to have that enemy you ignored suddenly jump in your face. It isn’t perfect and I found some of the situations to be incredibly cheap but overall I liked it. The game is only let down by the unresponsive controls. There is a slight delay after performing an action before you can do another with this cropping up when attacking enemies. Usually they will eat your first attack but the game won’t register your second button press leading to a cheap hit. It’s frustrating; let’s just leave it at that.

As much as I do like the level design the game’s simplicity does work against it. Your punches and butt bounces work fine but you won’t shake the feeling that there should be more. Taking control of your human companion is a cool feature and really should have been worked into the game a bit more as it would have made this a bit more unique. Also at just six levels there is far too much repetition involved in the latter half of the game.

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The presentation is actually pretty great for such a low key release. The game’s environments are packed with detail and very imaginative. The sprite work isn’t as impressive; think Joe & Mac minus the good art. While I do like the graphics the presentation is marred by repetition and some embarrassing slowdown. There only seem to be around 5 or 6 backdrops that are repeated throughout the game with slight variation. Sometimes you’ll cycle through 3 or 4 of these in one level! Anytime the game employs Mode 7 the frame rate drops into the single digits and it does have an impact on gameplay. It is a bit sad that the otherwise solid graphics have these flaws.

What little expectations I had for DinoCity were pleasantly shattered. What I initially dismissed as a game for kids surprisingly has some teeth, not through bad design but smart level design. This is a solid second tier release after you are done with the numerous classic platformers available for the SNES and is far better than some of the mascot tripe that garnered far more attention.

7-out-of-10-1

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Aldynes

While the PC Engine was a solid number two in Japan its aging hardware was starting to fall behind the Genesis and SNES. Clever programming tricks allowed its games to shine but it was only a matter of time before consumers moved on. The Supergrafx was supposed to be its successor, boasting true 16-bit hardware to allow it to better compete alongside those titans but in the end it would go on to become one of the industry’s biggest failures alongside the 64DD and Virtual Boy. The system failed so badly that only seven games in total were created for it with two of these also being backwards compatible; even the Virtual Boy eventually had a library of almost 50 games in Japan.

Of its seven total games Aldynes is one of its highest profile. At its core Aldynes is a standard shooter of which the PC Engine had plenty but the added grunt allowed it to show off many tricks not possible on the older system and served as an excellent showcase of what the Supergrafx was capable of. It also doesn’t hurt that the game itself is fantastic.

The number of weapons is kept small but all three have their uses throughout the game. The typical laser is the most powerful but starts out thin but with further power-ups will increase in size dramatically. The rebounding laser travels along the floor and ceiling in an arc making it perfect for enclosed spaces, less so for boss battles. Lastly the spread gun fires in a wide arc that covers a good portion of the screen but lacks power. Curiously if you hold the shot button you’ll power up a shield that will absorb bullets but can also destroy smaller enemies on contact, not that it’s a safe option.

Speaking of options you can have up to four which isn’t impressive on its own but they are bigger and more versatile than in most other shmups. They can be set up in 3 different formations: the standard focused fire option where they supplement your attacks, a rotating shield by holding down button I and to follow your ship. The last option is the most useful. Here they move up and down and will aggressively attack any enemies within their range. Having up to four options simultaneously is almost game breaking yet the game still manages to balance them out. Even though Seek mode is the best option it isn’t completely infallible. The game throws so many targets once that they are easily confused and with the bigger ships they are more or less useless unless you switch to focus fire mode. Also changes in terrain can potentially leave them separated from you and vulnerable.

You’ll still need expert flying skills to dodge the hordes of bullets that pepper the screen let alone survive against some of the tougher bosses. You won’t have an easy ride to see the end credits as the game picks up significantly after the first few levels. The singe hit deaths are soul crushing since they send you back to a checkpoint with no weapons and any shooter veteran knows this is usually an impossible situation to recover from. Somehow in spite of that the game is still fair in its challenge.

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Visually the game is spectacular, far beyond almost any shooter released for the stock Turbo Grafx. Despite lasting a scant seven levels the game manages to avoid the typical gaming clichés of an ice level, fire level, etc. with most of the game taking place in industrial environments. The scrolling is often seven or eight layers deep which is truly amazing to see in action. Stage three in particular is insane as its background layers stretch back as far as the eye can see with multiple screen filling warships and bullets flying everywhere. Sights like these aren’t uncommon and there is no trace of slowdown whatsoever.

The bosses are all gigantic mechanical monstrosities that leave little room to maneuver; at this point the designers are basically showing off. There are even gratuitous scaling effects present throughout the game. The game has the look of a late era Genesis shooter like Lightening Force except with more color (at times) yet it was released in 1991. If the intent were to sell gamers with its production values the developers definitely succeeded.

Even the music is pretty catchy; the sound hardware is the one area the Supergrafx did not really improve on the Turbo Grafx yet the composers have graced the game with a great soundtrack. Unfortunately the sound effects lack any impact which dulls the overall aural component.

Aldynes is a great game but unfortunately it is hard to track down let alone play. Because the Supergrafx never left Japan and was a flop it sells for large sums of money on Ebay (usually over $300). The game itself it cheap in comparison but your best bet is to buy it on the Japanese PSN. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does offer a glimpse of what could have been if the system were actually successful.

8-out-of-101

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The Adventures of Little Ralph

The Adventures of Little Ralph is the type of platformer those of us naive as to where the industry was headed expected to see more of. As 16-bit waned we as gamers were treated to a feast of future classics such as Donkey Kong Country 2, Yoshi’s Island 2, Sonic & Knuckles and many others. It isn’t far fetched to say that most expected a healthy amount of beautiful 2d stuff alongside the new 3d games and when we saw titles like Astal and Gunner’s Heaven the future looked bright. But publishers had other plans in mind and nearly abandoned 2d altogether. This wouldn’t have stung so much if so much if that early period of 3d gaming wasn’t so bad. We went from tight mechanics to publishers charging us $50 for whatever aborted fetus of an idea they managed to cobble together in 3d as they learned the ropes.

However! As damning as that sounds it didn’t take long for things to get better. While they floundered at first they eventually got it right and I would say by 1998 3d games came into their own. That makes Little Ralph’s release a bit of an anomaly in 1999. This accomplished little gem would not have stood out against titles like Metal Gear Solid or Soul Reaver but that doesn’t make it any less great. As a reminder of what made games like Actraiser classic and just on its own merits the adventures of little Ralph is an amazing adventure for anyone that loves platformers.

The story is a little bit interesting. A village is under attack and Ralph, an unknown warrior, is doing his best to protect the townsfolk. Unfortunately the leader of the monsters casts a spell that turns Ralph into a child. Before they can finish off Ralph a woman steps in to save his life. The demons don’t care however and pull a Double Dragon, leaving little Ralph to find some clothes and rescue his savior.

At its core the mechanics are as simple as can be. You have a standard sword slash but can also charge it up to send enemies flying to bowl over their compatriots. Even the few power-ups keep it simple. You can collect two kinds of sword upgrades, one to increase its range and another to shoot fireballs. You also get a little white……I don’t know what the hell it is but the little bastard supplements your attacks with bombs of his own.

Little Ralph doesn’t try to wow you with revolutionary gameplay but instead through tight level design that makes excellent use of your skills. The game is filled with all sorts of clever platforming challenges along the lines of the Donkey Kong Country series with trap filled mine cart chases, collapsing platforms, and nailing multiple enemies in sequence to progress. You’ll visit a wide variety of locations like British castles, Egyptian pyramids, sewers, and even take to the sky. Almost every stage has multiple paths, an easier higher path that takes skill to reach or the low road which has more enemies and tougher platforming challenges. It’s nice to be able to somewhat tailor the game to your level of skill.

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Just when you think the game has shown you all of its cards about halfway through a new element is introduced as it becomes a full fledged fighting game during boss battles. Ralph returns to his normal form temporarily and gains a full complement of special moves executed by Capcom style button combos. These are a nice distraction and change of pace although you shouldn’t go into it expecting a deep combo system.

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Don’t let the beautiful aesthetics fool you as this is probably more difficult than many of the games we grew up on. This is the kind of game where every jump is measured and enemy placement is meticulously planned out. Ralph moves at a brisk clip and it is tempting to stay on the move but guarantees a swift death as enemies spawn everywhere. This is the type of game that will place items within reach to entice you into jumping early or forgetting to keep your hand on the attack button only to die because a shark hit you in midair and I Iove it. That being said I do think single hit deaths are a bit harsh. The optional shield that will absorb one hit doesn’t start to show up until the game’s midpoint which makes the early stages a brutal game of trial and error. Even a simple three hit life bar would have done wonders to ease the difficulty but that is just my personal gripe. Infinite continues make this more than manageable if frustrating.

I would have loved to have seen this get a worldwide release but I’m sure Punky Skunk failing to light up the charts scared publishers off. It doesn’t matter though as the game is import friendly. The only problem will be finding it as the game is rare but worth it. To that I say good luck.

8-out-of-101

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X-Men: Children of the Atom

As a lifelong comic book fan seeing my favorite characters take to the streets and engage in fisticuffs was a dream come true. And with Capcom doing the honors there was little to fear. X-Men: Children of the Atom was an awesome game when released in the arcade in 1994 and its home ports would have been welcome if they were a bit timelier. The Saturn version didn’t hit until close to 1997 and the pathetic PS One game wouldn’t see day light until 1998. In that time the genre had not only moved forward but the quality of arcade conversions did as well with many games going above and beyond to even improve on the original game. This home port is adequate but a bit bare bones and while still a good game also faced stiff competition.

X-Men: Children of the Atom in many ways can be viewed as the progenitor of the later versus games seeing as almost the entire game’s roster would later go on to co-star in such games as X-Men vs Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom. Christ even Omega Red, a character most have never heard of got a lot of mileage to say nothing of how broken Sentinel would later become. It offers many of the same features that gamers were familiar while at the same time introducing many elements that would be used throughout many of Capcom’s future games. Although the port was a bit old at the time of release it was still impressive. At least on the Saturn.

The roster does a good job of mixing fan favorite characters along with a few oddball choices. There would have been riots in the streets if Wolverine and Cyclops were not included and they are the go to choice for beginners. Cyclops is the game’s Ryu and surprisingly there is no Ken surrogate. Ice Man, Psylocke, Storm, and Colossus round out the good guys with a motley assortment of villains rounding it out. A Sentinel (a Mark V at that) is included and would go on to be drastically overpowered in later games. Spiral and Omega Red are odd choices but their move sets make for some interesting play styles. Silver Samurai is probably the oddest inclusion as he isn’t as popular as some of the villains they could have used like Apocalypse or Mr. Sinister. Magneto and Juggernaut are reserved as bosses and certainly live up to the title.

Veterans of most standard fighting games will be able to jump right in as this uses the familiar six button setup of 3 punches and 3 kicks. The standard Street Fighter style button combinations apply making this even more accessible. COTA brought a host of additions to the genre such as super jumps (which I’ve never been a fan of) and dash rolls. The move list for most of the characters is pretty small however the game makes up for it by allowing you to control the direction of many special attacks and a very free form combo system. Special moves can be chained together at the end of standard combos and throws for a few extra hits and it isn’t uncommon to see combo strings of 7-10 hits once you learn the system. The X-power gauge is essentially a super meter that can be used in two ways: one for an X-attack which only consumes a small chunk and second for a Hyper X-attack, a devastating move that consumes the whole bar and might as well be an automatic win button because it is so cheap.

The AI is aggressive even on the default setting but most won’t have trouble working their way through arcade mode. Extras are a bit light: the bosses are playable with a code as well as Akuma who surprisingly doesn’t look out of place. There are a variety of extra modes such as group battle and survival to extend the game’s life but compared to arcade conversions like Tekken 2 and Soul Blade this pales in comparison.

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At the time of its release COTA was simply incredible. The animation, even when compared to titles like Capcom’s own Darkstalkers was in another league and was joined by multi-storied backdrops that sometimes changed 3 or 4 times during a single match. The sprite work was really something else as both Juggernaut and Sentinel were larger than any other fighting game characters to date. Most of these sprites would be recycled well into the next millennium, for good and for worse. Cramming all of this splendor into the Saturn’s meager ram would have been impossible but the developers have done a good job of keeping it somewhat close. What is left is still a visual feast for the eyes that shows off the Saturn’s prowess with 2d.

The PlayStation version in comparison is a complete abomination. It didn’t take long for most of us to assume that most ports of 2d fighting games would suffer on the PlayStation but this version of the game is atrocious. There is significant loss of frames in animation, sometimes hovering close to 50%. Beyond just the beautiful artwork and backdrops Children of the Atom had astounding animation surpassing even later games from Capcom but you won’t find that here. And the load times are completely unacceptable. You can’t blame it on the platform either; Capcom did a fantastic job with the various versions of Street Fighter Alpha but developer Probe (the fine folks behind the Genesis ports of Mortal Kombat 1 & 2). This version of the game released four years after the arcade at which point I doubt anyone even cared anymore and this was the result. Sad.

Considering the original arcade release was in 1994 it’s amazing that the game was still impressive in 1996 when the Saturn port was released. Despite the various games in the “series” that introduced various gameplay elements Children of the Atom still has a unique feel of its own. That being said however I would say this falls lower on the totem of fighting games for the system no matter how well it turned out due to strong competition.

7-out-of-10

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Rendering Ranger: R2

Whenever Rendering Ranger: R2 is mentioned the first topic of discussion is its exorbitant price. With a low print run due to its late release in Japan the game can sometimes run well over a thousand dollars. It’s insane that any game can ever sell for that much but the mystique surrounding RR is something else. With Manfred Trenz, one of the designers behind Turrican at the helm its pedigree can’t be denied. But I don’t think anyone expected the game to be such a graphical tour de force. Rendering Ranger backs up its ridiculous technical accomplishments with excellent gameplay and if you can find it for a decent price buy it as soon as possible.

Make no mistake Rendering Ranger is a Turrican game in almost everything but name. The protagonist is different but those who are familiar with the later action oriented games in the series will find the side scrolling segments here to be very similar. However the levels are strictly action focused, ditching the wide open exploratory nature of those games. In that regard Rendering Ranger most resembles Super Turrican 2 but on steroids if you can believe it. The split between Contra style action and shooter segments does make the game feel wholly separate in my opinion.

This is a game of two halves with both sides given equal billing. The side scrolling levels are just like Contra. The four weapons cover the usual staples: red spread, Blue spear, green rebound, and the yellow pulse. The names are self-explanatory with the exception of the yellow pulse which fires in almost every direction at once. Unlike most action games you keep all of your weapons when picked up and can switch at any time. In fact knowing when to switch is absolutely crucial to making any headway in the game. Certain weapons perform better against different bosses to say nothing about taking out enemies from a distance. You’ll also need to abuse the game’s bomb system as boss battles run a bit too long. Bombs regenerate after use and differ by weapon. Hoarding them is flat out stupid as the system is devised for constant use.

Once you take to the sky things change. The weapons carry over and are also joined by satellites (or options). Although this isn’t a dedicated shooter it’s still probably some of the most intense shooting action on the system. At its most frantic the game will throw 20-30 enemies at once with no break in between and it never slows down. Ever. This isn’t a nonstop thrill however as the levels vary their pacing consistently. I like that the levels scroll in every direction as it presents unique challenges for the genre. It does get a bit cheap once the game asks you to navigate tight corridors and mazes at far too great a speed. Sequences like this feel like they were designed specifically to sap your extra lives but maybe that’s just me.

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Throughout all of these trials and tribulations prepare to see your SNES do things you never thought possible. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most technically accomplished games of that era. This really could pass for a Saturn game. The pre-rendered graphics are simply amazing, calling to mind Donkey Kong Country but with even more detail as the sprites are higher resolution. Nearly every level is filled with jaw dropping moments that will have you scrambling to replay the game just to experience it all over again. Stage 7 features a dizzying city raid that scrolls both left and right at a rapid fire pace as an innumerable fleet of ships attack at every turn. The use of Mode 7 and rotating sprites can seem a bit gratuitous at times but when the experience is this incredible I wouldn’t blame the developers for going even more over the top.

A lavish amount of attention was garnished on both sides of the game with the shooter levels coming across as even more impressive since there is never a hint of slowdown no matter how hectic the game gets. And trust me it borders on insanity at times. There are maybe 2 or three times you’ll see some flicker and all things considered I’m flabbergasted that it isn’t worse. The soundtrack is suitably excellent; Manfred Trenz pulls out a score that is reminiscent of Turrican yet still unique. There’s some deep bass going on that you don’t normally hear out of the SNES while still managing to sound symphonic.

To see all of the game’s visual splendor however you are going to have to work for it or cheat as the game is brutally difficult. You only have 3,5, or 7 lives to see the game through to its conclusion and they drain pretty fast. Even with passwords you’ll be hard pressed to make it a few levels in without running out of lives. As much as I like the weapons they feel woefully underpowered in the face of the massive bullet sponge bosses. This is the type of game where dying removes any enhancements to your currently selected weapon and it is very possible to lose everything, at which point you might as well start over. The later levels are especially cheap as they descend into navigating mazes with little margin for error and multiple boss rushes. The difficulty is a massive impediment but not a deal breaker; far from it. But if the game were more balanced it would have been classic.

Even if you were to judge the game by its individual parts it would still be fantastic. When taken as a whole Rendering Ranger is a phenomenal game and one of the best action titles of the 16-bit era. The only problem is finding it; the game was severely undershipped with few copies in circulation. The few times it does show up for sale the game runs in the hundreds or sometimes well over a thousand dollars. Your best bet is to buy a reproduction cart as paying that much for a game is simply retarded. If you love action games than you absolutely will not regret buying Rendering Ranger: R2.

9-out-of-10

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Renny Blaster

When Rondo of Blood was passed over for a US release I was dismayed to say the least. As one of the lone Turbo Grafx owners in my neighborhood it was supposed to be the game that justified owning the damn system in the first place (at least in my mind) but it simply wasn’t meant to be. Let’s ignore the fact that I sure as hell didn’t have the three or four hundred dollars needed to play it if Konami did release it here at the time. Action titles like Dracula X weren’t in great supply on the Duo so any game in that vein got my attention and Renny Blaster seemed set to scratch the itch Rondo had left many years ago. But ultimately the game is an expensive letdown and only slightly above average.

As a late PC Engine CD release in 1995 Renny Blaster commands a high price as it is difficult to find due to a low print run. Unfortunately it is definitely not worth the hundreds of dollars it commands on the aftermarket. Despite its slick cut scenes and at times enjoyable gameplay the game suffers from a bit of an identity crisis as it can’t decide whether it wants to be a straight up brawler or the Castlevania inspired action game its art and graphics would suggest. While decent overall you can spend the exorbitant amounts of money the game goes for buying multiple similar and better titles on the same platform.

Renny Blaster initially gives off the impression of a Castlevania style adventure but is in fact more of a beat em up in the vein of Double Dragon or Streets of Rage. The two protagonists differ wildly in terms of their move set and abilities, to the point where playing as each is a radically different experience. Fujiro utilizes hand to hand techniques to dispatch enemies while Seishiro has numerous spells for long range combat. To sort of balance it out Seishiro is physically weaker but his ranged attacks still manage to make the game far easier for beginners.

You’ll have to get used to the controls as the buttons are reversed but once you’ve gotten over that bit of stupidity its fairly easy to pull off the numerous attacks at your disposal. Using simple button combinations will enable different moves and spells and the variety is pretty large for a brawler. In addition by holding down the attack button you can charge up one of three elemental attacks that are pretty devastating. The cool thing is aside from the charge time you can spam them as much as you want! New spells are learned through scrolls found throughout the game with the option to switch them around between levels; some trial and error is required here due to the language barrier.

While Renny Blaster starts out as a well accomplished brawler there is a sudden shift in tone and design about a quarter of the way through that is unnecessary and hurts the game overall. The city streets and airports of its early stages give way to gothic cathedrals, clock towers and castles that wouldn’t look out of place in a certain Konami series. The ill-advised swerve in that direction also means the enemies change to follow suit and the combat system is clearly not set up for you to deal with enemies brandishing weapons. If you are using Fujiro be prepared for much aggravation since you’ll have to take damage to get in range to deal punishment. As Seishiro your attacks deal little damage and have such a long wind up that most enemies will simply block. There’s usually one attack that each enemy is susceptible to but be prepared to chip away at these bastards for a while towards the end. There’s also some light platforming that, while inoffensive, seems really out of place in the game.

I don’t know why the tonal shift happened but it leaves the game feeling like the generic clone its art suggests rather than the inspired beat em up it starts out as. The game would have turned out far better if it stayed the course with an even difficulty curve as stronger enemies are introduced. As it is it will remind you of the far better games that it obviously drew inspiration from.

Regardless of my frustration with the reversed controls the game overall is insanely easy. Most enemies barely inflict any damage with their hits allowing you to ascertain the best attack to take them out easily. Most levels aren’t heavily populated so combat is minimal. Health restoring food is usually placed after the challenging bouts with the more troublesome enemies, not that you’ll need it. The game conveniently refills your life bar after moving on to the next level segment. The mid and end level boss battles are the only areas that put up a fight but can be brute forced provided you have extra lives as you respawn immediately. The whole game can be completed in a little over an hour but with four endings decided by your choice of characters through the game there is some slight replay value but not much.

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Visually the game is uneven and definitely does not seem like a late era release for the platform. The art itself is well done with incredibly detailed backgrounds although the lack of any scrolling is really inexcusable considering the system was in its twilight years. There’s a noted shift in the game’s tone as the environments become more gothic and derivative of Castlevania with the enemies following suit. The sprite work leaves something to be desired as the animation on enemies is stilted. The lengthy cut scenes feature exquisite art that looks fantastic although there is no animation aside from slow pans of the camera. The soundtrack is also excellent, full of creepy macabre tunes that set the appropriate mood. There’s an extensive amount of voiced dialogue that unfortunately is lost on non-Japanese speakers.

Good production values however do not make a good game however. Renny Blaster has some interesting gameplay ideas that are executed well but unfortunately the game itself is not good enough to support them. If the game were significantly cheaper maybe I could recommend it but the exorbitant price you’ll need to pay to own it means you are better off playing something else like Kaze Kiri or Rondo of Blood.

6-out-of-10-1

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Crusader of Centy

While RPGs were not as plentiful on the Genesis the ones it did receive were generally excellent. Everyone is aware of Phantasy Star and the Shining series but the system’s action RPGs enjoy a lower profile. Crusader of Centy was a late 1994 release that snuck onto store shelves with little fanfare. That is unfortunate as it is an excellent little hidden gem that serves as a perfect Sega counterpart to A Link to the Past. Fans of the genre should definitely track this down.

In the town of Soleil by law all boys that come of age at 14 (!) are required to gear up and train for battle. On Corona’s 14th birthday he receives his father’s sword and shield and sets out to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Unfortunately his simple ambition will eventually place him at the center of the centuries long conflict between humans and monsters, one that will force him to learn some harsh truths about the world in the process.

The story is surprisingly involved considering the game is targeted at a younger audience. I won’t go so far as to say that it is deep but it does bring up numerous philosophical points such as prejudice against demons and will actually make you wonder who are the actual villains in the story, the demons who simply want to make a place for themselves or the humans that relentlessly pursue them. You get to see it from both points of view which is actually pretty unique if a bit heavy handed. The plot is split into two halves with the second half of the game seeing you revisit previously cleared areas. Normally this is padding of the highest order but it is kept brief and there is a good story based reason for it.

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There is no getting around the fact that Centy resembles Zelda a little too closely but to call it a clone would be doing the game a disservice. Aside from the overhead view and Corona’s outfit the two games have a wildly different focus. Whereas Zelda manages to evenly place an emphasis on action and puzzle solving Centy is more combat focused with some light platforming sprinkled in. Corona will eventually gain the ability to throw his sword and jump early on but the controls still feel a bit clunky. His movement is slow and the sword attack swings in an arc which doesn’t always connect with enemies even when they are right in your face. Most of these problems are fixed with the animal helpers, the game’s most unique element.

Throughout the game different animal companions will you join you in your quest, bestowing different skills and abilities, some combat related and others more oriented to puzzle solving. Some like Chilly the penguin and Inferno the lion will add ice and fire to your attacks. Flash the cheetah increases your movement speed and monarch the butterfly will allow you to control your sword’s movement once thrown. With some creative thinking some of the more exotic partners can be used to further trivialize certain parts of the game; you can use Wong to make a clone of yourself to lure bosses and attack freely or utilize Drippy to completely avoid AOE attacks. In total there are 15 that can be used in pairs that can increase their power or produce totally new skills. These animals function like items in a Zelda dungeon with the entire game relying on their use.

I’ve probably given the impression that each of the game’s dungeons and caves will involve heavy use of your companions when in reality that isn’t true. The game’s puzzles are incredibly simple, even simpler than the block pushing in Zelda. More often than not you are simply stepping on switches or at most utilizing one unique skill every so often to create a path or activate a distant switch. Areas like the Tower of Babel and the final dungeon, which see you utilizing nearly every one of your partners are rare and offer a glimpse of what the game could have been if the designers were a little more ambitious.

All in all the quest will take you 10-12 hours to complete which seems an appropriate length. That’s just enough time to fully explore all of the game’s mechanics and take you to some interesting locales without the game wearing out its welcome. The game is insanely easy; not that your typical action RPG is ever difficult but even with the absence of any life restoring items to bring into battle (outside of one follower) you’ll rarely die. Even if you were to completely avoid collecting the golden apples your life bar will become absurdly long by the end, allowing you to make many mistakes. Between this and the overwhelming power of some of the animal combinations you’ll breeze through the game but at the same time enjoy it while it lasts.

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Crusader of Centy’s visual art style is far more vibrant than most Genesis titles and a welcome relief from the overly dark games that make up its library. While the surface similarities to Zelda are there the overall tone is a bit cartoonier. You’ll also spend far more time in outdoor environments than stuffy dungeons that share a similar visual style. There’s a great deal of variety in the lands you’ll visit and while they do run the gamut of video game tropes they all look excellent. The soundtrack is generally solid; there are no stand out tracks but what is there is pleasant to listen to.

Crusader of Centy might be light on originality but it succeeds where it counts most; fun. The game moves at a brisk pace and introduces new elements often enough that you will rarely ever be bored. It’s brevity will make you wish the game were a bit longer but you’ll have so much fun with the content the game does provide that it won’t matter.

8-out-of-101

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Dragon Scroll

I’m always kind of amazed that with the popularity of the Legend of Zelda the US and Europe received very few of the games that were inspired by it in Japan. Over in Japan there is quite a large volume of action RPGs that have almost the exact same structure (as well as more Dragon Quest clones than should be legally allowed) with some of them being actually really good games. Konami’s Dragon Scroll sits somewhere in the middle; there’s a lot to like about the game but like Simon’s Quest there is also a shit ton of frustration to deal with as well. The game’s vague story and hints aren’t a result of a bad fan translation but were always there to begin with. Only those who can tolerate a ton of janky design decisions need apply sadly.

Long ago the factions representing the three headed Chrome Dragon and the Gold Dragon were at war with one another. To stop the fighting the god Narume put the Chrome Dragon to sleep using eight magic books. Centuries later after a period of peace three thieves steal the magic books, awakening the dragon and plunging the world into darkness. The god Narume sends the hero Feram to retrieve the eight books and hopefully stop the Chrome Dragon before all is lost.

This would not be Konami’s first attempt at infusing RPG elements into an action game. I made the comparison to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest earlier for a good reason as the two games share so much in common. Both games drop you into the world with no direction but where Castlevania more or less has some order in which you can accomplish your goal Dragon Scroll is completely nonlinear. There is very little keeping you from visiting late game areas early on aside from the fact you’ll die in seconds. The two games unfortunately share the same penchant for only providing obtuse clues as to where you should go or what certain items can do. I would even go so far as to say this might be even worse in that regard! Yet I still liked Dragon Scroll to an extent but unless you plan on using a guide don’t bother since you will never figure out some of the cryptic bullshit in this game otherwise.

At the start you are armed with a simple staff with a short attack range and your wits. Defeating enemies gains experience which will increase your life bar, magic meter, or attack power at set intervals. Unlike most 8-bit Rpgs the leveling curve is actually pretty fair and if you spend about 10 minutes grinding in the desert you’ll stay ahead of the curve for the rest of the game. There are only 2 other staves earned for the rest of the game but an assortment of secondary items that all serve some purpose in the game but you’ll be hard pressed to figure them out on your own.

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I can appreciate a nonlinear adventure as much as the next guy but at the very least they provide some guidance. Dragon Scroll doesn’t even give you that much. The only stated goal is to find the eight magic books and stop the Chrome Dragon but as for how you go about that task, good luck. In the Legend of Zelda the game kind of guides you to the first dungeon but here all you can do is walk around, kill random enemies and listen to the vague bullshit they have to say. I wish I were joking on that last point but I’m not. Constant references to landmarks and other zones are dropped but the game does not explicitly tell you where they are.

The various items grant spells that serve specific functions in the game that you’ll have to learn on your own. Some are obvious; the silver ring increases your walking speed and the crystal ball provides an auto map. The most important is the Yunke Fruit which will reveal hidden items and this is where the game really jumps the shark. Almost every crucial item is hidden within a stone pillar or part of the environment that you must hit with the Yunke fruit to reveal. The problem is you are never told where and when to use it and have to exercise trial and error. Occasionally it is fairly obvious; if you come to a dead end with a lone statue chances are its hiding something. But when there are rows of stone formations and such you don’t have enough magic to try all of them.

And it gets even worse. Remember in Simon’s Quest, having to crouch on Deborah’s Cliff with the Red Crystal equipped for a few seconds to gain transport to another region of the world? Sometimes you’ll have to stand between two statues for a few seconds to reveal hidden chests or teleport to a remote door here. The worst is the Illusion Tower. To access it first you must use the Rain Bell at a set point. Then you’ll need to use the Yunke Fruit to make the door appear. Guess what? There are no clues as to these steps within the game. Yeah.

God I could keep going on but you get the point. It’s as though Konami saw what Nintendo did with Zelda and did the bare minimum to replicate it but ignored all of the subtleties that made it great. The audible clues whenever you have successfully completed a puzzle, the direct hints and clues given out by citizens in dungeons and the world. It was a challenge but one that was doable because the game gave you enough hints to figure things out on your own and was at least obvious enough that you could guess if need be. Dragon Scroll is inscrutable by comparison.

This was a valiant attempt at an ambitious action RPG but is ultimately bogged down by being too open ended for its own good. Unless you plan on playing the game with a guide nearby don’t bother. While I wish I could say we missed out on a cool game in the end I think Konami made the right choice leaving it in Japan.

6-out-of-101

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Cabal

Nowadays I have little interest in military shooters but growing up I couldn’t get enough of it. Commando, Contra, GI Joe, I loved that shit. Cabal was fairly innocuous release back in the day but looking back it was pretty ground breaking. It’s actually kind of funny to think about it but Cabal was a pretty innovative take on the action genre popular in the 80s. Honestly I’m surprised this version of the third person shooter wasn’t more popular; outside of the unintentionally funny Nam-1975, Dynamite Duke, and the awesome Wild Guns it gained little traction. Damn shame too as despite their simplicity these games are intense in a way that most action titles can’t manage. The NES port is very well done and aside from a weird control setup (which is perfectly workable I just don’t like it much) is one of the better action games for the system.

When you boil it down Cabal is basically a shooting gallery with limited movement. You have a small space to move around in with the cursor trailing slightly behind. When firing you are locked in position but can freely target anything on the map. For defense every level has a few brick walls or other such objects you can hide behind for cover but much like Space Invaders it will gradually be destroyed. Once that happens you’ll have to master using the dodge roll; you’re invincible while rolling but it is easy to get hit by a stray bullet once it ends. Your only power-ups are a shotgun and a machine gun that last about 10 seconds; go wild! Grenades are in ready supply but due to the controls you’ll end up wasting a bunch of them.

With just two primary buttons it was a challenge adapting the arcade game’s setup to the NES controller and I don’t think they have done the best job of it. The arcade unit used a three button setup, one for shooting, one for grenades, and one for dodging. Here both grenades and the fire button are shared with the B button used for moving faster and dodging in combination with the D-pad. It’s less than ideal and will see you wasting grenades really fast.   It is at least manageable unlike Rare’s port of NARC.

Since this is essentially a shooting gallery length is a bit of a concern however overall this is a pretty meaty game. There are five main stages with four sub-levels each. The objective is to cause as much destruction and death possible to fill the meter to move on to the next stage. Depending on your skill these can last close to 10 minutes each or go by in as little as thirty seconds. Once you know the points where enemies will spawn on each map it’s easy to clear the screen to focus on destroying tanks and the environment which fills up the bar the quickest.

That type of ruthless efficiency is necessary as the game can be a bit of a challenge. It isn’t as cheap as most arcade games of the time but between the control setup and limited continues it will take some doing to get to the end. Overall I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly tough game but it does feel cheap at times as your cover is shredded within moments and there’s nothing you can do about it. I would say the roughest part is getting the mechanics down; the dodge roll isn’t the best survival mechanic even though I like it. The later levels tend to go overboard with the tanks, molotov chucking generals who can actually dodge just like you, and dive bombing jets. The boss battles I found to be easy in comparison; there’s usually a safe spot or two where you can sit and whittle them down.

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As a port Rare has done a pretty good job of recreating the arcade game’s look. Many of the background details have had to be redesigned but it’s all there and fully destructible. The NES reduced color palette does mean that the color is more garish and colorful than the dull grey and brown of its quarter munching counterpart. I will say that I’m surprised that there is no flicker or slowdown even though the screen can get busy in short order. Despite the staunch military setting the game comes across as a bit goofy; your commando is a little too happy at the end of every level having murdered the population of a small town and that end level celebration dance never gets old.

There isn’t a whole lot of substance to it but in the end I really liked Cabal. Maybe the simplicity of the genre wasn’t to everyone’s liking which is why more games in this style were never made which is a pity. This is a quality conversion of a good game.

7-out-of-10-1

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Castlevania III (Japan)

I’ve wanted to do a thorough review on this one for quite some time. For years I’ve read about the differences between Castlevania III and its Japanese counterpart, Akumajou Densetsu. Most of that information was concerning the music but rarely ever went into the gameplay changes between the two versions of the game. Some of the alterations are significant and worth noting and I will admit if given the choice I would definitely pick Akumajou Densetsu. But like Contra it’s not as though we received a broken version of the game. But the little differences do make it that much better.

Structurally this is no different than the game we received. As Trevor (or Ralph in this version) Belmont it is your job to stop Count Dracula and forces around the country of Wallachia. As the last game in the series for the NES this featured a host of improvements to the series standard formula and is commonly held up as one of the best games for the NES and the notable differences between the western and eastern versions are pretty striking, starting with the music.

Dracula’s Curse had an amazing soundtrack, one of the best on the NES. It’s hard to believe but its Japanese counterpart has even better music thanks to Konami’s custom VRC6 mapper. This custom chip added 3 additional sound channels to the system, two square wave channels and a pulse wave. What this means to the common man is a much richer sound filled with digital instrument samples and percussion. The difference is immediately apparent and worth checking out just to compare the two. Once you’ve heard the music in AD the missing instruments really do stand out. I will say though that Konami’s composers did an excellent job of recreating the music for the NES and even without chip it is still the compositions are fantastic.

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Compared to the sound there aren’t as many graphical changes. The most prominent are slight bits of animation here and there such as in the intro and backgrounds. There are some small bits of scenery that were censored in the US release, mostly naked statues and the harpy sprites. I’ve always been amazed that the series has been able to get its religious imagery past Nintendo’s strict censors back then but then again Konami was no ordinary third party at the time either. Some of the enemies are slightly different like the flea men but are no less annoying. I’m actually kind of surprised there aren’t more differences but I suppose the game was already pushing the system pretty hard as is.

Next to the music the one key area that Akumajou Densetsu differs from Castlevania III is in its challenge. The series is known for its crushing difficulty and this third installment was no exception. However passwords made it more manageable (and it should be noted the original Castlevania came on an FDS disc and allowed saving). Here all enemies inflict a set amount of damage from start to finish which evens out the difficulty curve considerably. For its worldwide release Konami made it so that enemies started off weak but became incredibly strong by the end making the final levels particularly nightmarish. Now however you can predict how tough a section might be. It also makes your supporters more viable; they all take more damage when hit and in US release would die in 3 or 4 hits near the finale. I’m not saying you’ll use Grant to fight Dracula but it’s actually a possibility.

Speaking of Grant, wow what a difference. In this version Grant’s default attack is a throwing dagger which is infinitely more practical than his weak melee dagger in the US version. For whatever reason Konami changed it and made using Grant for anything other than shortcuts not feasible. You still have to accurately target enemies and it is still weak but attacking from long range at no extra cost really is a god send at times. I actually kept him as my partner for the entire game rather than swapping him out for Alucard and it was probably my favorite run through the game.

I should note that this review was mostly to pique my curiosity. In no way shape or form did we get hosed; Castlevania III is still a great game and like our version of Contra worth whatever cheap price you’ll pay. But situations like these were rampant in the 8-bit era and are worth examining. Now if you had the choice of course I would say go for the Japanese version but you can’t go wrong either way.

9-out-of-10

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Crystal Beans from Dungeon Explorer

The SNES and Genesis shared many multiplatform games both stateside and abroad yet that wasn’t the case with the Turbo Grafx. The system’s shooter library shared many arcade conversions with the Genesis but none of its games saw a Super Nintendo release, at least in the US. In Japan it was the opposite with many Rpgs such as Emerald Dragon and Popful Mail (all three versions of that game are pretty awesome) hitting both formats. Dungeon Explorer II would receive a remixed port to the Super Famicom with mixed results. This isn’t a case of stuffing a CD game on a cartridge backfiring but more a series of baffling decisions that hurt the game overall.

The game’s plot differs pretty significantly. All ties and references to the original Dungeon Explorer are gone and we are left with a generic plot. The land of Grandol enjoyed a time of peace thanks to the power of the Miracle Gems, which were used to save the world once before. 100 years pass and an ominous cloud appears, spawning demon portals around the world and worse resurrecting the 15 demons sealed by the Miracle Gems. With no other choice the Heroes of Light are summoned to save the world.

The main area that the game has been improved is in its controls. With six action buttons rather than a mere two a variety of functions have been mapped to their own button. Both white and black magic are relegated to the shoulder buttons which is smart and snappy. New to the game is a melee attack that differs depending on your class. It’s useful to deal with enemies that are too close but is useless during boss battles. The better D-pad also makes aiming and movement a smoother experience. These are really simple additions but as a whole are one of the game’s few positives.

Calling Crystal Beans a port of Dungeon Explorer II isn’t entirely accurate.   This comes across more as a cliff notes version of that game rather than a simple conversion. The overall story is largely the same as well as many of the locations but there have been significant cuts during the porting process. The number of playable heroes is the same but the class upgrades have been removed as well as a number of hidden characters. Other than controls in terms of mechanics the two are identical.

One of the principal differences in this version is the removal of the overworld; you simply pick locations on a map. The absence of the overworld and any kind of exploration makes an already straightforward game that much simpler. Selecting your destination from the world map does wonders for the game’s pacing but also feels completely hollow. Although there were no weapon and armor upgrades there were many special items you could find by wandering off the beaten path but now all of that is gone. Those side quests added some much needed depth to the game as the level design is lacking. Most dungeons rarely offer anything more than one path to the boss which makes the game really feel like a heavily guided tour instead of a massive adventure.

In spite of all of the numerous subtractions I still found the game to be pretty easy. Potions drop frequently and monster generators are few in number. The only rough points are the bosses but that is due more to their cheap attacks. Many can either teleport or move so fast it’s easy to get trapped in a corner and smushed. Regardless most dungeons are only a few rooms or floors long so you’ll breeze through the game pretty quickly. I was able to finish the game in five or six hours whereas the CD version I clocked double that number easily.

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The one area that you would expect to see the biggest upgrade, the graphics, are ultimately unsatisfying. The sprites have been redesigned and are larger and sport a much brighter color palette. That also extends to the many towns throughout the game. However everywhere else uses the exact same graphics as its PC Engine counterpart only slightly brighter and the juxtaposition is jarring. The Dungeon Explorer games were pretty ugly but at least were consistent in their ugliness. I feel if they went to the trouble of creating new art for towns and such they should have gone all the way. Some of the more impressive bosses have been replaced with less ambitious creatures, probably because all of these encounters are in closes rooms now. This really should turned out better.

I will say the redbook audio soundtrack has been faithfully recreated which is amazing considering the gap in hardware. Usually synth rock doesn’t fare as well on the SNES and is the Genesis’ forte but the sound programmers have done a wonderful job adapting the tunes. The extensive and well-acted intro had to be sacrificed but that was to be expected.

When it gets down to it Crystal Beans from Dungeon Explorer is not an outright bad game but one that suffers from a few crucial flaws. This easily could have and should have turned out better. While it would have been nice to see it released worldwide honestly the better version of the game was localized.

6-out-of-101

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Dick Tracy

I remember the insane marketing blitz surrounding the release of the Dick Tracy movie back in 1990. I was too young to know about its origin as a newspaper strip from the 1920s and viewed it as a movie starring a colorful cast of villains like batman. With all the radio watches, fast food meals and other merchandise came video games of varying quality; the less said about the NES game the better. Its Sega counterpart fared better and outside of its steep difficulty is a pretty cool title but one that I have a hard time recommending because of it.

The 1990 film featured a star studded cast with the likes of Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Madonna lending their talents. It was one of the movie events of 1990 with Disney going all out to saturate the market in Dick Tracy products. To me it seemed as though they were going for the Batman audience and considering the surface similarities between the two you can’t blame them. It didn’t exactly pan out the way they hoped but some cool stuff came out of it. The Genesis game wasn’t a direct tie-in to the film but was close enough and featured the majority of Dick Tracy’s rogue’s gallery and a few unique gameplay hooks. However its execution lets it down. This is still a good game but it can be incredibly frustrating.

In terms of mechanics I’m reminded of Shinobi/Rolling Thunder. Your pistol has unlimited ammo and doesn’t need to reload thankfully. When up close dick will belt enemies with his fists. It’s a simple setup however you have to deal with enemies on two planes, including the background. For these you’ll bust out the Tommy gun. This is probably the coolest aspect of the game and its most distinguishing feature. It’s so unique in fact the enjoyable boss battles use this mechanic specifically.

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The level design bears out the similarities as well. Both are action games however you can’t blindly charge into either with guns blazing. Although the generic criminals here aren’t as, uh, “unique” as the Geldra they follow along similar lines, with specific enemies having specific forms of attack. Rarely are you ever walking in a straight line as there are boxes, crates, and support beams scattered about to hide behind for cover or just as a general nuisance. Being aware of your surroundings is crucial as enemies spawn in groups or roll in from off screen at any time. If you pay attention it is obvious where the next group will spawn although in what direction and how many is always a surprise.

Unlike Shinobi however you’ll find no power-ups to aid you whatsoever which is what makes the game brutally difficult in the end. The one concession the game makes is the bonus game at the end of every stage which is a shooting gallery where you can earn extra continues. Good luck with that however; it ramps up so fast you’d swear the designers purposely wanted to make sure you never earned your keep.

While the majority of the game consists of your typical side scrolling action it does break things up occasionally. For certain levels Dick Tracy will be unable to use his gun, forcing you to rely on your fists which is interesting in the later parts of the game to say the least. Also there are a few driving segments that see you perched on the outside of a police cruiser as you pick off rival drivers. These are interesting diversions but like the rest of the game tend to drag on too long. Some of the level themes repeat far too often

The challenge presented is pretty steep and not always for the right reasons. You’ll have a level or two at most before the game asks a little too much of you in my opinion. The rate enemies spawn is extremely high to the point where you are better off inching forward since there’s no telling where they’ll come. Without any items, even something as basic as health, the margin for error is extremely low and I’ll warn you now that most stages are long with no checkpoints.   While I can appreciate a good challenge every now and then it has to be fair and by Dick Tracy’s midpoint it crosses that line.

If that isn’t a deal breaker however the unique two plane action is engaging and rarely explored even today. With a little more polish this could have been a great game instead of a flawed gem.

6-out-of-101

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

There were many licensed games for the NES, some from pretty obvious video game fodder like Batman and others that even I question why they bothered such as Home Alone. But even bearing that in mind the Adventures of Tom Sawyer stands out. This sure as hell wouldn’t have been the first novel I would have turned to in order to make a video game adaptation. And yet there is not just the one but two games based on Mark Twain’s famous novel. But, uh, the less said about that other game the better, yikes. Now having said all that the game itself is strictly average which is no surprise; who in their right mind would expect a game such as this to compete with the best in the genre.

Tom Sawyer might seem like an odd choice to base a video game but when you think about it it’s not that farfetched. In the novel Tom Sawyer had a pretty active imagination which is used as the basis for the game’s many levels. This is actually all just a dream that the character is having as he sleeps in class which basically means anything is possible. I’ll admit I came into this with low expectations and my lack of enthusiasm was warranted. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from an exceptional game and is merely average. It is simply the fact that games based on unconventional licenses such as this usually turn out completely dreadful.

Your only weapon on this dubious adventure are an infinite supply of rocks. The only problem is Tom throws like a girl. Literally. Your rocks move in a large arc and I can’t tell you just how stupid this is considering the vast majority of enemies you’ll face are small animals. You could lobby the same complaint against Adventure Island except your attacks are sensibly aimed. Hitting something immediately in front of you is next to impossible as a result. Occasionally you’ll find a slingshot which shoots straight but ammo is limited so savor it while it lasts.

Generally speaking the level design is not very good. The stages are full of gotcha moments that are unavoidable and were typical of early platform games but by 1989 creators knew better and moved away from type of design. The one area in which the levels are memorable would have to be the game’s variety. Since this is all a dream you’ll visit a variety of settings, from a pirate ship, a forest full of overgrown mushrooms, and even a haunted castle. There’s even a brief shooting segment as you take apart a dirigible. Unfortunately the merriment is brief as the game is only six levels long and can be blown through in fifteen minutes provided you can tolerate the cheap difficulty.

Despite its appearance the game is a little more difficult than your average platformer and not always in a good way. The stiff controls will lead to a cheap death more often than not but that is the least of the game’s problems. A single hit equals death and it seems the vast majority of enemies move significantly faster than you. The game isn’t above pulling cheap shots either as enemies or traps have a tendency to appear without any warning. All games require some memorization but at least the good ones are fair about it.

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Normally I wouldn’t bother mentioning it but the visuals are pretty damn ugly and inconsistent. The game doesn’t start off on the best foot as you explore a non-descript pirate ship completely devoid of any character. The next level sees you drifting down the river on a raft and further fails to impress. However midway through you’ll visit an English castle that wouldn’t look out of place in Castlevania. It’s probably the game’s sole visual highlight outside of its large bosses, which are impressive considering the rest of the package.

As platformers go there are far worse available for the NES. But that isn’t exactly much of an endorsement for Tom Sawyer. This is a merely average on a system with tons of exceptional entries in the genre which means there is no reason to bother with this.

5-out-of-101

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Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems

I joined the 32-bit generation a little bit late and so had to make due with my Super Nintendo and Genesis until 1997. While I certainly had nothing to complain about as the later years for both consoles produced some true classics it did start to sting as the more advanced arcade games were no longer receiving 16-bit ports. Marvel Super Heroes was one of the last big arcade games I had the chance to play for a few years as arcades in my area around the country started disappearing. When I heard about Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems I thought it was a retitled port and Capcom was doing Nintendo a solid one last time. I certainly did not expect…this. I’m sure they meant well but War of the Games is not a worthwhile substitute for the awesome arcade game and inferior to the game it copies in every way.

The 6 Infinity Gems have fallen to Earth with Adam Warlock recruiting Earth’s heroes to find them before a nefarious entity combines them to rule the Universe. Supposedly the game is using the same story as the arcade game but in actuality it is an adaptation of the Infinity War storyline from 1992. In it Adam Warlock’s evil aspect the Magus unleashes an army of evil doppelgangers of Earth’s heroes to exact revenge on his better half and Thanos. It was a long convoluted mess that tried to recreate the magic of the Infinity Gauntlet storyline a year prior. At the very least the premise could have made for an interesting title if the designers were at all interested in putting more than the bare minimum effort to ship the game and is instead a question of what could have been.

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Make no mistake structurally this is essentially a re-skin of X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse. Your five playable characters this time are Spider-Man, Wolverine, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America. For those familiar with the arcade game each character plays very similarly in terms of their move set with easy to input commands. You select from five missions from a world map except this time around you have free reign to use any given hero on a particular stage rather than a stage tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. It really frees the game as there are definite favorites for each hot spot but the fun is in mixing and matching.

The Infinity Gems become usable items once you find them and each will grant a bonus that can seriously alter a character’s playing style. The bonuses range from the mundane such as a longer life bar and detecting invisible items and walls to the damn near mandatory such as a movement speed boost and double the attack power. Some gems seem like they were tailored toward a specific hero; the Incredible Hulk is painfully slow but with the Time Gem is twice as fast and can bulldoze nearly anything. Equipping Iron Man with the Space Gem and he can essentially fly. Regardless of how much you can narrow the system down like this it is still fun to play around with different combinations.

The Gem system adds some excitement to an otherwise boring action brawler. Despite sporting a robust set of powers and techniques there is precious little to use them on. Where Mutant Apocalypse had an equal mix of action and platforming the latter is the primary focus here. That wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t so basic. What little combat you’ll see is marred by repetitive enemies and brain dead AI. Get used to fighting Puck, Hawkeye, and the Vision as the game seems to push them out the most. The lacking enemy variety is made even worse by the fact that the story in the comic gave an excuse to have nearly the entire Marvel Universe show up in some form but Capcom cheaped out. Sucks too as the sprite work is generally well done.

The incredibly large sprites do come at the cost of interesting level design. For the most part each level is a straight line to the exit with only the occasional deviation to find a “hidden” item or such. The rare attempts at being creative such as long underwater segments are instead incredibly obnoxious due to your molasses like movement while submerged. Beyond the straightforward design is also the fact that the levels are also incredibly short. It’s pretty shocking that some locations such as the Asteroid Belt and the Amazon can be completed in seconds. That is mostly due to the fact that most levels are sparsely populated leaving your roster of attacks underserved. It gives off the impression that this was a project created as quickly and cheaply as possible as it bears none of the kinds of polish and depth you would expect from Capcom.

War of the Gems is not a bad game but I do wonder why it was created. By late 1996 16-bit was definitely on its last legs leaving the game with an incredibly low profile. What is here is decent but a definite step back from the game it is so closely patterned after. I don’t know that I would recommend seeking it out unless you are really hard up for another SNES action game.

6-out-of-10-1

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Chiki Chiki Boys

I can remember ignoring Chiki Chiki Boys for a long time during my Genesis owning days. For one I though the name was stupid. And two compared to the other releases for the system that year (Shining Force and Landstalker owned my soul) it seemed like a throwback. One desperate rental and I was pleasantly surprised. This is far from the greatest action game on the system but it is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.

The peaceful land of Alurea is attacked by monsters and its population decimated. The only survivors are the twin sons of the King who grow up ignorant of their homeland. When they are finally told of what happened to their kingdom the brothers set out to rid Alurea of evil. Released in the arcade under the name Mega Twins this was not one of Capcom’s higher profile releases. Yet in spite of its low profile the game was ported to a wide variety of platforms. The Genesis version published by Sega (as Capcom were still not a licensee yet) is a solid edition of a forgotten arcade game and worth tracking down for a few bucks.

This is a bit of an odd release for 1993. That was the year the Genesis truly hit its stride and I think of all of the titles that practically defined the system such as Gunstar Heroes, Streets of Rage 2, and Shinobi III, games that pushed the platform both technically and design wise. As a port of a 1990 arcade game Chiki Chiki Boys certainly looks out of place next to those beasts but that doesn’t matter as this is a pretty damn good port of Capcom’s quarter cruncher.

Both brothers are selectable but the distinction between the two isn’t so pronounced. The blue twin has a stronger sword attack as evidenced by needing only six slashes to perform a strong attack versus red’s seven. The red twin can hold more magic, 5 spells versus three. It sounds cool especially as magic is extremely powerful but to take advantage of it you’ll need to spend coins buying magic. That money would be better spent on sword and shield upgrades which increase the length of your life bar and attack power. With each new upgrade the blue twin becomes the better choice; with the final sword almost every attack is a strong slash. The coins you receive can also be used to refill health between levels, buy better equipment, magic and continues.

The game covers a lot of ground, from the depths of the sea, lush forests, to the multiple levels of Riepohtman’s castle. Though the individual stages are a bit short there’s a lot of variety to the game. This isn’t strictly a platformer at all times as you’ll also take flight every so often in sequences that resembles Capcom’s own Legendary Wings. To see the true ending you’ll have to do a bit of exploring in the game’s second half. Two dragon eye stones are required to truly complete the game with the first earned by default. You’ll really have to comb every inch of the levels using only vague clues to find the second stone, providing some incentive to replay the game multiple times.

In stark contrast to the majority of arcade games of the day this was a pretty balanced game overall and that carries over to the home port. Enemies spawn in large groups but health pills always seem to drop at the right moment. The bosses are large but sport easily decipherable patterns lessening their threat somewhat. They are a bit of an endurance test as normal sword attacks only chip at their health in the beginning but by the end if you have been buying upgrades it evens out. They do go overboard a bit with the respawning enemies but that is so you can build up a decent amount of coins. That money can then be spent on upgrades that make your life easier. The game is of decent length so even though you will probably breeze through it it still feels as though you got your money’s worth.

That being said I do have to question the lack of multiplayer. Who thought this would be a good idea? It sure as hell wasn’t for technical reasons. Maybe they figured with two players the game would be too easy? While I think that is true you can definitely tell something is missing and the game does suffer for it. It’s not as though the game couldn’t have done with a bump in difficulty to make up for it. Oh well, what a missed opportunity.

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Sega has done a pretty good job of bringing the bright visuals of the arcade game to the Genesis but not without some sacrifices. The arcade game sported large sprites against cute backdrops and for the most that is still intact. The color has taken a hit but is still a pretty close match. The environmental detail has taken the largest hit however. A good portion of the background decoration has either been removed or made smaller. A number of levels have been redesigned and while they sport a similar theme it’s not for the better.

I’ve only played Mega Twins in the arcade once or twice so this home port was practically a new game to me. The developers have done a great job bringing the experience home and while it is a bit simple compared to the platformers released around the same time this is still worth the few bucks it’ll cost to buy it.

8-out-of-101

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Great Battle Cyber

Trying to parse out which titles in the long line of super robot and sentai games that Bandai has put out are actually good is harder than you can possibly imagine. There are innumerable Gundam, Kamen Rider, and Ultraman games under strange names that I dare you to try and figure out. The Compati Hero series is a crossover between these three brands and on paper it should be awesome. However the reality is the games did not really find their stride until they hit the SNES. The Great Battle Cyber is evidence of these growing pains; for every element it gets right it also completely fumbles another. Unfortunately it has serious flaws that ruin what could have been a truly great game.

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What immediately stands out are the production values. The backgrounds are expertly drawn and though they repeat a bit towards the end are still fantastic. Great Battle Cyber has a unique look, not quite SD but not full sized characters either. The sprites are larger than in most NES titles and incredibly detailed but what is more impressive is the animation. The protagonists possess a nice range of extremely well animated attacks to a degree not common on the platform. It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise as developer Arc System Works are extremely talented as evidenced by their work with the Blaz Blue and Guilty Gear series.   This shows that that talent was always there.

The playable roster consists of Kamen Rider Black, Victory Gundam, and Ultraman Taro. The differences between each character aren’t as pronounced as you would think: Kamen Rider actually has the longest reach despite fighting with his bare hands. The Victory Gundam’s sword attacks in an arc which allows it to deflect airborne attacks and hit flying enemies from the ground. Ultraman…..you know what there’s nothing unique about him. To some extent he occupies a middle ground between the others but that leaves little reason to ever use him.

Combat is probably the game’s greatest asset. All battles in the game are one on one affairs involving a nice variety of opponents. Each character is equipped with a small arsenal of attacks and the back and forth nature of deflecting attacks and trying to find an opening is what keeps it interesting for the length of the game. Once you’ve defeated a particular enemy it becomes easy once you encounter them again however the game introduces new opponents drawn from all three respective universes right up to its conclusion. There are very few power-ups unfortunately; aside from various health items and extra lives the only weapon you’ll acquire infrequently is a gun that will allow you to breeze through fights. Abuse the hell out of it!

As much as I like combat the game’s controls are an issue. The largest problem is the delay between pressing a button and the game responding. Since some of the animation cycles are so long along with the delay you can’t make quick movements which results in cheap hits. Your movements are a slippery and imprecise which absolutely ruins the game when it comes to platforming. Where combat seems to take precedence early on halfway through the game platforming becomes the focus and it flat out barely works. By stage 7 the game ask a level of precision from you that the controls simply cannot deliver. Hopping from one hand rail to the next requires you to slap the jump button well in advance to hope that it will execute in time. Landing on a falling series of blocks and having to perform a rolling dash immediately after is just….no. I can honestly say that the second half of Great Battle Cyber is some of the most frustrating times I’ve ever spent with a game.

Because of the control issues what would have been a moderately challenging game is a Castlevania level nightmare. Once you have learned each enemy’s attack pattern running through a gauntlet of bad guys isn’t so hard even with the scarcity of health pickups. But anything to do with the jump button undermines that. Unlimited continues and passwords alleviate this somewhat but considering the game is 15 stages long you’ll feel frustration more than elation. The sad thing is there is some awesome level design toward the end of the game but I seriously doubt most will have the patience and dedication to ever reach that point.

I’m torn on this one. I like certain aspects of the game however the heavier emphasis on platforming in the second half almost completely ruins it. I wish I could say that those that stick with it will find some measure of reward but in truth it gets even more frustrating the deeper you progress. There are some good ideas in here but they are buried under shoddy execution.

6-out-of-101

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Faussete Amour

Faussete Amour is a game that I coveted for many long years. A random screenshot in a magazine is all I had to go on but it looked so awesome. As a fan of the Valis series (while at the same time acknowledging that they were OK at best) it looked set to scratch that action game itch missing on the US Turbo Grafx. But alas, it stayed in Japan like the majority of titles that would have made the CD add-on worthwhile. It would be many years before I landed a copy and after all of that anticipation the game is average at best.

Despite its surface similarity to Valis Faussete Amour has the pacing of a Castlevania game. Coruk’s baton is analogous to Simon’s whip though a bit faster. It can also be used to swing from ledges like a certain Capcom game. Taking another page from Capcom when hit Coruk loses her armor and is reduced to her bathing suit with one more hit spelling death. There are a few magic spells available although the homing thunder is so overpowered the rest can’t compete.

With all of these mechanics in place Faussete Amour would seem to be a mutant hybrid between Valis, Castlevania, and Bionic Commando. In other words the dream game I never knew I wanted. But in practice it is anything but. The controls surprisingly aren’t the greatest which makes no sense as this is a two button game. Pressing jump twice will extend your baton to latch on to a surface and swing. You have no control over the arc but can make a launching flip at any time (as a bonus you are invincible during it, abuse it!). This method is not the least bit intuitive. Even worse to activate magic you must first jump and then press down and attack which is just stupid. In spite of this setup you do get used to the controls even if they are less than ideal. One more button on the controller would have alleviated these issues but what can you do?

The level design is boring as it doesn’t present any meaningful use of your baton until the end game. The goal of each scene is to gather three crystals in order to face the boss, a feat that is never a problem. The early levels are incredibly straightforward with only a few higher platforms to explore for items. Speaking of higher ground there are far too many instances where you’ll need to make blind leaps and hope for the best. The lone instance where the swinging mechanic is used extensively is scene five which sees you climbing a tower to avoid rising lava. It comes as no surprise that this is the single best level in the game as all of the mechanics come together beautifully and will make you wish the rest of the game were put together so well.

There is an almost complete absence of any challenge despite the fact that you can only sustain two hits. Armor replacements are spaced within a few feet of each other at times which means you can be reckless and suffer little penalty. Extra lives are given out like candy; by the end of the first stage I had seven lives with barely any effort. Aside from stage five with its treacherous tower ascent and battle royal style boss battle you’ll be hard pressed to break a sweat. And I’m taking into consideration the odd boss fight and the random leaps of faith. As absurd as it sounds the lack of any difficulty is disheartening since you’ll breeze through the game so fast.

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The graphics are both pretty great for the system while also disappointing at the same time. The rich color palette makes the game pop like very few from that generation and almost gives it a distinct look. The sprites are large, well designed and decently animated with the bosses being the most impressive. The backgrounds are lush with detail but are also the presentation’s weak spot. With backdrops this gorgeous though it’s a shame that they are completely static.

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There are a number of cut scenes in between levels they are poorly animated, if you can even call it that. They seem to exist only to provide a ridiculous amount of fan service I guess to motivate you to press onward because let’s face it, the gameplay isn’t doing it. The camera angles frequently focus on Coruk’s ass and all of the female bosses can be seen in submissive poses once beaten. There’s a bit of nudity here and there as Coruk falls completely naked upon death and the end game boss seems to grow a pair of breasts during your final encounter. While I’m certainly not complaining it does seem out of place and completely unnecessary.

There are some good ideas buried under the lacking execution but even with that in mind Faussete Amour is not worth tracking down. Especially since the game is in the $150-200 range. Your time and money is better spent on better games like Valis IV or Rondo of Blood.

6-out-of-101

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Dashin Desperadoes

Next to Joe & Mac I would say Will & Rick (or Johnny & Tom) from Dashin Desperadoes/Spinmaster are the closest Data East came to having a mascot. Although they only starred in two games I could easily have seen them star in more, especially if they were of the same quality present here. Despite some frustratingly perfect AI Dashin Desperadoes is an interesting game unlike most in the system’s library that is better with a friend.

There is no story in the game other than the basic premise of Will and Rick fighting for the affection of love interest Jenny. It’s a bit silly the lengths the two go for the love of one girl as they toss all manner of bombs, ice, and electricity at each other to get the girl. I don’t care if she has the best personality in the world, something is wrong with Jenny. Rick straight up kidnaps her every third act out of frustration and yet she still turns around and promotes the competition between the two. But I digress.

Dashin Desperadoes could be viewed as a spinoff to Data East’s arcade game Spinmaster as it stars the same characters under different names. To some extent I do wish they would have ported Spinmaster as the game is awesome and only rich kids had a Neo Geo but I’ll take this instead. Rather than a normal action platformer like its arcade big brother this is essentially a foot race between the 2-players or the AI. The object is to reach the girl before your competition by any means which sounds simple but is anything but.

Using the same split screen view as Super Mario Kart and Sonic 2’s multiplayer mode you can keep an eye on your opponent to see how far ahead they are or if they are closing in. There are a number of obstacles in your path that can help or hinder you such as random animals, springs, and even volatile terrain. There are a nice complement of weapons to bludgeon your rival with, most of them designed to stun or otherwise deter for a few seconds. Fire, ice, you can even roll into a ball and trip them up! Every third act in each zone is a boss battle in which Rick decides to just kidnap Jenny and you must destroy his escape vehicle before he gets away.

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The split screen view has its uses but in my opinion it’s detrimental to the game. In the beginning when the level design is a bit simpler it’s easy to ignore it and focus on the little bits of platforming and such. But in the later stages of the game things become more complex and the narrow field of view becomes a drawback. You really do need to see far enough ahead to line up your jumps or even to avoid the simple mechanisms designed to trip you up. As a result you have to memorize the level layouts to even stand a chance in hell of even keeping pace with the AI for a few seconds.

The early levels ease you into it a bit as the main path is pretty much a straight line or you can take the high road full of power-ups. There’s a flow to the way everything is lined up that makes your movements seem poetic if you time it right. But all that disappears about midway through. Once the level design becomes more complex you can’t move as fast and you absolutely need to always stay in motion to beat the computer. There are way too many obstacles and traps to contend with, an issue the AI doesn’t have to deal with.

As a result this is an incredibly difficult game because the computer is a bit too perfect. It makes a few mistakes here and there, mostly when you get lucky and hit it with a bomb and it stumbles into a trap. But otherwise the AI will more or less perfectly navigate every ledge and platform at a speed you can’t keep up with. I dare say there might be some rubberband AI at play since the computer can overtake you no matter how far ahead you get. It seems like Data East recognized this to an extent and if they get too far ahead it will wait, not that it makes much of a difference. There are passwords and limited continues which do help somewhat but prepare to replay the same levels repeatedly in frustration.

Conversely this is a much better multiplayer game. I put this in the same category as Bomberman; the single player mode is competent but it is clear this was built with multiplayer in mind. The competitive stages are drawn from the same six stages of the campaign but there layouts are different. With an actual human behind the controls the playing field is level and it comes down to skill. There are some interesting variations on the standard race formula ad the game keeps track of stats and such. The same rubberbanding from the single player is present in the form of item drops to help you catch up but these can be ignored. I didn’t expect much from the multiplayer to be honest but it was a nice surprise when I rented the game back in the day.

This is a much stronger title with multiple players rather than dealing with the frustrating computer. It sucks as there is a lot to like such as the great graphics and good level design for the most part. I still think it’s worth it but you have been warned.

7-out-of-10

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NARC

I remember NARC as that ridiculously violent video game about drugs. After seeing a brief clip of it in the Ninja Turtles movie I wanted to play it badly because it looked really cool. The anti-drug message was lost on me as I didn’t care, I just wanted to shoot guys in the face with rockets and make them explode. The arcade game lived up to my expectations but the NES port was a huge disappointment. NARC deserved better.

NARC was released at the height of the War on Drugs, a period where every piece of media was urging kids to say no to drugs. Even the cartoons took the time out of their 30 minute fuckery to air special episodes designed to show kids the dangers of drug use. If I hadn’t grown up in a shit neighborhood I’d think all drug dealers dressed like the villain of the week on Miami Vice. Some of that stuff was downright scary man, I mean they straight up killed a kid on Bravestarr, how hardcore was that? NARC was similarly over the top in its messaging but in this case it was awesome, with great graphics, tons of gore for no apparent reason, and good controls.

At least in the arcade. The NES port by Rare went horribly wrong somewhere during production and is a terrible game all around. Between the awful visuals, screwed up controls and borderline insane difficulty nearly all of the charm of Midways’ arcade classic has been lost.

The absolute worst offender is definitely the controls. In the arcade Narc used a four button setup with a button dedicated to firing, jumping, crouching, and rockets. With only two buttons Rare had to be creative to adapt that setup but in my opinion they went about it in the worst way possible. Holding down B will fire your machine gun but to let off rockets you have to tap the button. Trust me, it almost never works consistently. The crouching and jumping controls work similarly; holding A will let you crouch while tapping it will jump. It’s even more frustrating in this instance but to the game’s credit you almost never have to jump and crouching is relegated to fending off dogs.

The world that NARC takes place in is one huge warzone where drug dealers and junkies engage in shootouts with the cops around the clock. Killed enemies drop bags of drugs that will grant point bonuses at the end of every level. Aside from that busting perps, by standing next to them for a second or two, is also a good source of points for extra lives. You really don’t want to bother with that option as it will just result in you dying amidst a hail of gunfire. Each level basically consists of moving from point A to B, entering a room and killing random criminals until a key drops and moving on to the next stage. It sounds simple but as with all bad games it is anything but.

Between the jacked up controls and the game’s relentless pace you’ll be hard pressed to move a few feet without dying in seconds. Enemies spawn infinitely and will never stop chasing you. While you do need the points to build up a stock of extra lives it is actually better to simply run for the exit immediately. The second part of each level is a brutal gauntlet where you’ll simply move back and forth in one long corridor killing anything that moves until someone finally drops the necessary key. The problem is this could take seconds or upwards of ten minutes if you are unlucky. You won’t last that long anyway because of the crushing difficulty.

With no life restoring items your extra lives are sapped quickly as syringes drain health in chunks, hard to kill gods pursue you and bodybuilders stick to you like glue. Pray you don’t run out of ammo (which happens frequently) since you’ll have to deal with one bullet every 3 seconds and hope a thug will drop more. If you have the stomach to stick with the game up until its conclusion the final boss battle is right up there with the Jacquio in terms of frustration as the hit detection on Big Boss is absolutely terrible. God I could go on for days but I think you get the picture.

Considering Nintendo’s stringent content guidelines in the eighties and nineties it’s an absolute miracle that NARC was released almost completely intact. All of the drugs are still here which makes sense as it would defeat the purpose of the game. Hitting enemies with rockets will cause them to explode in a shower of body parts, which I’m not sure how Akklaim got past the big N. It’s definitely toned down from the arcade which was a bloody spectacle. One curiosity is that you can’t kill animals; they merely shrink and run away when shot. Someone’s priorities were a bit screwed up here.

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There’s no sugar coating it; this is a hideous game. Midway did a bang up on the arcade game as it hosted some pretty revolutionary visuals and technology for its time. You’ll find no evidence of that here as the developers did a piss poor job trying to replicate that look. The backgrounds are heavily repeated and feature color choices so ugly I refuse to believe an actual human being okayed it. A large number of enemies were cut from the game so you’ll end up facing the same two or three drug addicts and pushers hundreds of times per level. And the creepy final boss that was one of most impressive things my nine year old eyes had ever seen? Let’s not go there. This had to have been created under a strict deadline or by the D-team at Rare as they did better work than this.

In every possible way this version of NARC is a huge disappointment. Both the developer and publisher are capable of far better than this which makes the fact that they released this turd all the more disappointing.

4-out-of-101

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Rockman & Forte

Up until recently a large number of current generation games were still seeing a release on prior platforms, one to leverage the large install base of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 but also because not many had moved on to the newer platforms. This phenomena is not unprecedented however as Capcom began work on a SNES version of Mega Man 8 for the same reasons. However it eventually became an original title and one of the few games in the series to remain in Japan until years later. With plenty of new features and much tighter gameplay than Mega Man 7 Rockman & Forte was an excellent swan song for the series on the SNES.

A year has passed since Mega Man defeated Dr. Wily at the end of Mega Man 8. The peace his victory achieved is interrupted when a new robot named King steals data from the Robot museum to create an army to rule the world. Mega Man is not the only one after King however as his rival Bass decides to destroy him in a bid to prove he is the most powerful robot of all.

You have a choice between Mega Man and Bass this time around and the two have wildly divergent abilities. The Blue Bomber remains unchanged from prior installments meaning the charge shot and slide make their return. Sadly this time around there is no Rush outside of an optional upgrade you can buy. Playing as Bass is a breath of fresh air as he has a number of powers Mega Man can’t compete with. Though he lacks a charge shot Bass can fire in seven directions. He can also dash and double jump.

The game seems heavily in favor of Bass as his double jump in particular sees plenty of use. Once you make it to King/Dr. Wily’s castle you won’t have to futz around with the special weapons to reach certain ladders or clear spiked pits as his dash jump is more than adequate. However he has enough weaknesses that offset his advantages. Bass takes more damage from hits; this is already a pretty tough game and the extra damage means bosses will tear him apart in seconds. He also can’t move and shoot and has a weaker mega buster. Essentially the choice comes down to easier levels (Bass) or easier bosses (Mega Man).

The structure of the game is different this time as all eight robot masters are not available from the start. After the intro stage you only have access to Cold Man, Astro Man, and Dynamo Man with more bosses opening up in pairs of two after each is defeated. It cuts down one of the best elements of the series, figuring out the best order to beat the bosses. It also means you’ll be stuck using the default mega buster to defeat a few of these bad asses since your options are so limited.

It’s an additional layer of challenge the game definitely didn’t need as it is hard enough as is. This is possibly the most difficult game in the series. As I mentioned before the level design leans heavily in Bass’s favor with Mega Man having a much more difficult road to each boss. There are more puzzle elements to certain stages that require a bit of trial and error that keep the levels from being a stale left to right affair as well as interactive background elements that require certain powers. Even if you have the weapon that a boss is weak against it still comes down to execution. Dynamo Man is weak against the Copy Vision yet the only advantage that gives you is that his attacks will focus on your clone. You still have to do all the work. Burner Man is incredibly mobile and you have to force the ice to push him into the spikes to do damage.

The item shop from Mega Man 7 makes a return and can slightly tip the odds in your favor. There are a large range of items and abilities to purchase with bolts such as extra lives, and character specific powers. These are awesome, such as an auto charging mega buster, super armor, or even regaining health when standing still. Also nestled throughout the entire game are 100 data CDs that offer profiles of all the robot masters and characters throughout the series. Some of the discs are cleverly hidden and will require the Rush search while a healthy number can only be collected by a particular character. The shop in addition to the data CDs is a huge incentive to replay past levels and go through the game twice, something the series has struggled with in the past.

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Although it was released after Mega Man 8 Rockman & Forte does an excellent job of mimicking that game’s graphical style despite being produced on weaker hardware. In fact many of the game’s sprites and background elements were lifted wholesale from that game which makes sense considering this started as a port of that game. Mega Man isn’t as large as he was in part 7 making precision jumps and such easier. The animation has seen a significant upgrade, especially the bosses. Tagging them with their weakness produces special animations, with some absolutely hilarious. Push Burner Man into the spikes and he comes flying out holding his bottom! The music is generally excellent as in all installments of the series although the lack of any voice acting as in part 8 is missed. Or maybe it’s better that way considering how it turned out in that game.

Rockman & Forte adds just enough to the series familiar formula to feel fresh and is an all-around excellent game. This is the game Mega Man 7 should have been but that is neither here nor there. The SNES game was fan translated years ago however the game was ported to the Gameboy Advance in 2003 and released in the US as Mega Man & Bass, either is a viable option for those wanting to experience one of the better games in the series.

8-out-of-101

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Bimini Run

Yikes, this game. I came into contact with Bimini Run when I made an unfortunate trade with someone at school. I won’t mention the game I traded away but let’s just say the other guy made out like a bandit. Bimini Run looks really cool on the box art but in reality is one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever dealt with. When you are young and new games are scarce you have no choice but to put as much time as possible into the games you have, terrible or not. I spent $50 for X-Men NES (it hurts my soul to this day) and you better believe I got my money’s worth out of it. But like that game I found no satisfaction in playing Bimini Run and came away from it with the sense that I had wasted my time.

The story is certainly something else. You are Kenji O’Hara, expert motorboat driver and secret agent. Your sister Kim is kidnapped by the evil Dr. Orca and it is up to you to brave the helicopter pilots and boat drivers hired by Orca to protect his lab in order to save the girl. Secret agent turned motorboat driver ranks up there with Keanu Reeves’ turn as an undercover surfer in Point Break in terms of cheese but I’ll let it slide. I like the idea behind Bimini Run but its execution is sorely lacking. This could have been a pretty cool and unique game with some semblance of balance.

Bimini Run is a hybrid action shooter with your boat sporting an array of weapons. There’s a machine gun for close range targets that can also be aimed high to deal with airborne targets using a separate button. As if that weren’t enough the boat is equipped with a bazooka to destroy radio towers and larger bases. Kenji is in constant radio contact with headquarters as they will alert him to updates in mission status; get used to hearing “Kenji, come in!” every few minutes. And yes it is just as annoying as it sounds. The controls are precise and snappy; good thing too because you’ll need them.

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Each mission will give you a specific task such as catching a specific target, destroying a certain number of radio towers or even tailing someone to their base. There is a bit of an open world structure as some missions allow you the freedom to travel anywhere on the large maps, fuel permitting. While it starts out varied the missions do start to repeat in the second half. I have to mention that while this starts off as a simple rescue mission as you deal with speedboats and choppers it does begin to get weird towards the end as you fight mutated sea creatures and follow mermaids. Bet you didn’t expect that last bit. That’s not to say it is bad; it just comes out of left field. Unfortunately however what is bad is the over the top difficulty.

Any enjoyment that could have been found within the game is completely ruined once you realize how viciously difficult Bimini Run truly is. It’s no exaggeration when I say this is one of the most aggravating games I have ever played, up there with Battletoads. One hit equals death and seemingly everything can kill you. The enemy boats and helicopters possess a level of accuracy with their shots that you’ve probably never seen before; I wager the majority of your time spent with the game will be dying every few seconds. It’s really that bad. And I’m only referring to the first few missions! It gets even worse in the second half of the game! By the fourth mission every ship you come in contact with will let off a spray of bullets you have no hope of dodging. You can slightly fudge it by moving them off screen but it doesn’t always work. The late missions really start to drag on far too long, almost as if they are daring you to simply give up. Considering the weak ending I was probably better off.

Maybe the reason it makes me so angry isn’t just because it’s ridiculous but because it completely ruins what is otherwise a fairly unique game for the time. The open world structure of the missions is different from most games at the time and who wouldn’t want to explore the open seas in a tricked out speedboat? Granted there’s nothing out there except numerous identical islands and an endless sea of enemies but it’s the thought that counts. If the game had a simple life bar or were actually balanced at all this would have been incredibly fun.

Perhaps the difficulty is so high because the game is so short. At six missions you could complete the game in fifteen minutes or so if there were any semblance of balance. But you are not going to because there is no reason to bother tracking down this game as any of its good points are ruined by shoddy execution. Cobra Triangle this is not.

4-out-of-101

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Contra Spirits

It’s interesting just how many unlicensed and bootleg variants of Contra are out there. There are enough for it to be its own subgenre at this point. I can see why: even though it was released early in the system’s lifespan Contra remains one of the NES’s best action games. Hell it is one of the few games that I actually enjoy playing in coop. While many of these unlicensed games are terrible Contra Spirits is actually pretty good for what it is and manages to capture a lot of what made the SNES game a classic. There are some pretty glaring flaws but I’d certainly rather play this than Contra Force.

You can forget about the extensive weapon list of the original as that is the first element that had to be cut back. Here you only have access to the spread gun and the laser. This is a huge blow and a step back from even the first Contra. In terms of their functionality the laser is the same but the spread gun has been neutered. Its radius is smaller at 3 waves of bullets rather than five. The rate of fire has been reduced and is inconsistent; sometimes you can fire a consistent wave of shots and others there is a slight delay. It’s still far and away the better choice but lost what made it so special. Contra veterans know that satisfying sound when you get up close and every individual bullet hits a target all at once. That has been lost. You can only hold one weapon at a time and the bombs are still present but are reduced in power.

Even with the reduction in power-ups the game is still playable. I’m actually surprised just how much they were able to keep from the original. Of the six levels only the fifth stage from the original has been cut and the level order has been rearranged. The third level is now the second and stage four’s motorbike sequence is now the third. The overhead view of stage 2 is the game’s midpoint and the final level is still the same. Jumping from missile to missile, the weird turtle beehive creature, even the rematch against Red Falcon’s new form from Super C is present. A few of the minibosses have been excised which does kind of give this version of the game a greatest hits feel to it.

For all of the praise that I’ve delivered you can clearly see where they cut corners. Levels 2 and five are identical aside from a mere palette swap and one new enemy. Obviously the heavily Mode 7 based overhead stages needed to be changed but from a technical standpoint they fare better than the rest of the game. You just can’t rotate the camera willy nilly. While it looks the same the layout has been so simplified you can simply run through it. The final level is severely cut short and gets right to the point as it tosses you into the final boss battles within seconds. Some criticized the original for being short but I think it was the perfect length. I can’t say the same here although the difficulty makes up for it.

The Alien Wars was noted for putting up a fight even on normal difficulty and this features the same it not greater level of challenge. However that comes from a few unfortunate factors. Some levels feature no weapon drops at all and it is painful to try to soldier on with the standard machine gun. Bosses take way too many hits to kill, to the point where I started to wonder if the game were broken. But possibly the biggest crime is the fact that you get no extra lives and there are no continues. Depending on the version of the game you can set your starting lives to 9 or 30 but that’s it. Don’t expect the satisfying ending you got for completing the game on hard either; what you get is actually pretty hilarious instead (for the wrong reasons).

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This remains incredibly faithful to the source material in terms of presentation. Obviously the Mode 7 effects are gone but you’ll hardly miss them. The backgrounds sport an incredibly high level of detail and a layer or two of scrolling. The enemies have been redesigned to fit within the NES limits and sadly barely resemble their counterparts. Nearly all of the boss battles are in, even the crazy creature at the end of Area 3 that rips through the wall in gripping fashion. It loses its visual impact but they at least tried. It isn’t completely positive though. The game suffers from heavy sprite flickering and the reduced color palette is pretty ugly in spots. Worst of all is the music; they’ve made some pathetic attempts to replicate the classic soundtrack of the Alien Wars but the music is so soft and subdued it might as well not exist.

Considering how drastically different most 8-bit versions of 16-bit games are Contra Spirits turned out surprisingly well. While it mimics the look though the “feel” is off. The many tiny details it gets wrong demonstrate why Konami were so beloved in that era. I give them a C for their effort.

7-out-of-10

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Metroid Prime

Metroid Prime should not have worked. When the game was first announced to use the first person perspective it would be an understatement to say that many expected the worst. It also didn’t help that its developer, Retro Studios, had undergone turmoil within the company leading to Nintendo having to step in and create order from the chaos. The series was known for its tight focus on platforming in desolate environments and to that point the first person shooters that tried (Turok) were dreadful. When the game was first demoed at E3 2002 it seemed as though everyone’s fears would come to fruition as the game was a janky mess.

But then a strange thing happened. In the time until its release that November the game came together in a way that is truly rare in this industry. What many failed to realize is that the pieces were there, they just weren’t assembled into a cohesive whole by the time of E3. Not only would Retro Studios create one of the definitive first person action games of its time but they would also establish themselves as a top tier developer. Metroid Prime brought the series back in style after its eight year hiatus and is nearly as great as Super Metroid. That’s high praise and I mean it.

Taking place between the original and the Return of Samus the story sees Samus intercepting a distress signal from a space pirate frigate under. The frigate is destroyed by her arch nemesis Ridley and it crash lands on the planet Tallon IV with Samus in hot pursuit. You could almost look at this as a prequel despite its place within the timeline considering how backstory the game gives about the Metroid universe itself and that’s part of why I like it so much.

Uncharacteristically for the series Metroid Prime is pretty story heavy. To many this would be a detriment as the series prides itself on its sense of isolation and silent storytelling. However just how much you would like to delve into the deeper plot is completely left in your hands. Using the new scan visor nearly everything in the environment can be scanned to provide background information. Every enemy and object is illuminated with history and data that can even reveal weaknesses. There are extensive space pirate logs that detail their behind the scenes machinations such as their attempts to mine the planet and also keeping track of your progress. Personally my favorite are the Chozo Lore carvings that reveal much of the history of the universe and even Samus herself. Aside from scanning specific background elements to activate elevators and open doors you don’t need to engage with any of this which satisfies both the camps that like being left to their own devices and those that like story.

The one thing that needs to be clear: this is not a first person shooter. Despite its viewpoint this is not intended to be twitch based action game nor should it be. Combat is merely a means to an end with adventure being the prime (heh) focus. The controls are adequate to the task but not to the standard of regular first person action games. The majority of the time you’ll simply lock on to a target and blast away and strafe if need be. Free look and aiming is only available by holding the shoulder button although you won’t need it much. I know dual analog is the default setup for first person games but I can’t stress enough that it isn’t necessary here.

That being said however the action does pick up once the space pirates themselves begin to appear more frequently. The indigenous lifeforms of Tallon IV possess their own quirks but very few are aggressive and dangerous as the pirates in all their forms. Aside from possessing at times variations of your own weapons they can inflict the necessary damage to pose a threat. But these pale in comparison to the many fantastic bosses spread across the planet. These battles are multi-stage affairs that will call on all of your current capabilities to win and become more elaborate the deeper you progress. These boss fights rank as some of the best in the series history.

With a functional combat system the focus is squarely on exploration and it is here that the game truly excels. The majority of the upgrades introduced in Super Metroid have brought over and work extremely well. The various beam weapons can be switched around using the C-stick, a feature the game calls on frequently. The morph ball is the only time the game will switch to a third person view which is a smart decision.

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Possibly the greatest addition to the game are the various visors. Aside from the scan visor you start with throughout the course of the game you’ll receive two additional visors that change your perception of the world. Aside from looking visually their uses in game are completely original. The thermal visor can track heat sources and enable navigation within dark environments. The X-Ray visor can see through objects as well as track invisible enemies. I can’t stress enough how cool they effects are and the way they are integrated into the game is genius.

The way all of the various suit upgrades are integrated into the game goes hand in hand with the expert class world design. Every individual room is specifically named which makes navigation easier. But the true star has to be the 3d map. Traversal around the huge world of Tallon IV is made easier by an increasing number of elevators and shortcuts that become available with every suit upgrade. There is some guidance provided as the game will note one or more locations that you should visit but leaves actually reaching that spot in your hands. Plus it can be turned off if you are that much of a purist. There are environment based puzzles everywhere that make use of one or more of your suit upgrades to figure something out. There are enough subtle hints to guide you with your every action being constantly rewarded. Missile and energy tank upgrades are hidden within the environments extremely and using the various visors in even the smallest rooms will usually yield something. Honestly I’m running out of words to praise the game with as it just screams of a top tier production in every facet.

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Speaking of which, wow. The art direction in Metroid Prime is some of the greatest I’ve seen in any title even to this day. Every single room has been individually crafted with no repetition of assets outside of shared look to each zone. The individual cracks, crevices, and distant details were all modeled rather than using fancy tech to simulate the effect which makes that ridiculous attention to detail even more insane. The various areas that make up Tallon IV are distinct and diverse and sport brilliant architectural design. The snowy peaks of Phendrana Drifts are in stark contrast to the desolate Phazon Mines or the plant like overgrowth of the Chozo Ruins. The special effects used for the visors are still so incredibly cool that I wonder why no game since has copied them; the X-ray visor in particular is just incredible. All of this visual splendor is running at a perfect 60 fps that never, ever drops. These guys are god damn magicians.

That isn’t to say the game is perfect. Looking back at it now some of the low polygon environments definitely stand out. Some of the texture work is garish up close but then again that applied to most games during that period. While it may seem like there are no load times the game cleverly masks it but will occasionally break. Doors will open a little bit slower than normal or won’t allow you to pass for a few seconds despite giving you a clear view of the next room. But if this is the tradeoff for everything else I’ll gladly take it.

The soundtrack by series composer Kenji Yamamoto is just as moody as Super Metroid and I would say even more diverse. The range of instruments is greater with guitar hooks, piano, and other synthesized instruments contributing to the oppressive mood. The sound is also dynamic; when you enter a room you’ll instantly know if there are space pirates present as the music becomes frantic and you’ll hear their guttural howls. Add in a large number of environmental sounds and you have an audio package that is almost as good as the graphics.

There’s nothing more that I can say that the mountain of game of the year and best game ever awards haven’t. Metroid Prime is currently one of the highest rated video games of all time and with good reason. All of its constituent parts come together to create one of the most memorable journeys I have ever embarked on. This is not just one of the GameCube’s best titles but also one of the best video games ever made. Classic.

10-out-of-10

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The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers

When you think of the Lord of the Rings you think of an epic adventure. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone from assuming that the games that would accompany the three Peter Jackson movies would probably be action RPGs but kudos to Electronic Arts for defying expectations and creating some of the best beat em ups released in years. From the nuanced combat to its slavish devotion to the source material I wish more licensed games were built with this much attention to detail. It’s a bit ugly now but this will still provide hours of entertainment.

Although the game is named the Two Towers it follows the plot of the first two films, albeit in a condensed form. Most of the key points of the two movies are touched upon and serve as excellent source material for the levels. It should be noted that EA only had the license for the films (Vivendi had the book license) and as such were limited in what they could use. While I can appreciate them using clips from the movie as framing devices it does come across disjointed as a whole. But let’s be honest, you’re not here for the plot.

Aside from the brief introduction in which you control Isildur the primary heroes are Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. While it is slightly disappointing that the other members of the Fellowship aren’t playable they do fight by your side in most of the levels. And besides, the trio are so fully fleshed out ability wise that the game would have seemed bloated anyway. The differences between the characters are significant and unfortunately Aragorn is too well rounded. Legolas is best with a bow as he attacks faster and is equipped with 60 arrows to start. However he is physically weak and will die in a few well-placed hits. Gimli is physically the strongest but outside of maybe one level is too slow to warrant constant use.

To start with you are armed with a fast attack, a heavy attack to break shields, and a few defensive moves to parry attacks or shove enemies out of the way. Each character can also perform a ranged attack of varying speed and strength. Knowing which attack to use when surrounded or when dealing with heavily armored attackers is key to keeping your combo strings going as you are graded on your performance. Like Devil May Cry your combos are awarded ranks with the best being perfect, which allows one hit kills for a brief time. Chaining attacks together without being hit is the fastest route to perfect status which not only helps clear the screen but awards the most points at the end to buy upgrades. Defense is also absolutely critical as a result; while the screen is never as crowded as in Dynasty Warriors it does get pretty busy. The smaller crowds do avoid the repetition inherit in those games as well.

The Two Towers avoids the flaw of a limited move set inherit in most brawlers by offering a substantial upgrade system after each level. There are a variety of techniques to learn, some requiring pretty complex button combinations and while you can pull up the menu at any time it isn’t necessary. One technique in particular, Isildur’s Swift Terror and its upgraded counterpart are so overpowered you don’t need to bother with anything else. That’s just my opinion of course but the depth is more than welcome in allowing some leeway in terms of how you want to play the game.

Over the course of the twelve missions the difficulty has a relatively nice curve. The initial few are easy and almost impossible to fail but once you reach Fanhorn Forest there is a sharp increase. The level structure is constantly shifting as well. Most levels follow a linear path but usually have a set objective to break from the monotony of killing the same goblins and Uruk-hai over and over. Some will task you with killing a set number of enemies, or even something as short as beating a few dire wargs and their leader. Only the last few stages drag on far too long but that is a small complaint.

There are a host of extras included as incentive to go back and replay stages to earn a better ranking. There are numerous interview with members of the cast as well as production artwork, and brief movie clips. Unfortunately the interviews range in quality as it is obvious which members of the crew have actually ever played a videogame in their lives. The true meat of the extras would be an additional playable character and a 20 floor tower that that will really test just how well you have mastered the battle system. There are also character specific missions that unlock once the game is completed, making a game that is already packed with content that much more fulfilling.

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Back in 2002 this was a pretty good looking game, like Dynasty Warriors if it had an actual budget. EA were able to seamlessly blend film footage and real time cutscenes together that was pretty impressive for the time. Despite the high number of polygonal models during battle there is rarely any slowdown. The character models are pretty ugly however, less so on the GameCube than PS2 where overall image quality is cleaner. The environments are incredibly detailed; because the camera is fixed most of the time the artists were able to deliver maximum visual impact. The soundtrack is largely the same as the movie which means it is stirring and epic.

The Two Towers remains one of my favorite beat em ups after all these years and outside of two-player coop I can’t think of anything it is missing. A decently long quest and a wealth of extras will keep you occupied for hours in what is one of the better licensed titles out there.

8-out-of-101

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Dynamite Cop

It’s no exaggeration to say that by the end of the 16-bit era the beat em up genre was a bit long in the tooth. At least on console. Even with that in mind it was a bit sad to see the genre all but disappear during the 32-bit days outside of a few really bad games. The sad thing is there many great arcade titles that were really moving the genre forward that would never see a home release. Dynamite Cop like its predecessor Die Hard Arcade nails the gameplay end but completely fumbles when it comes to creating a fulfilling experience. The game is over far too quick for me to recommend it even though I like the game.

With no license attached the game’s story is now completely bug fucking nuts. Antagonist Wolf Hongo has returned along with his group of “modern day pirates” and have stolen a cruise ship along with the President’s daughter. Except somehow she manages to escape and hides in a pink suitcase right behind the bastard with no one the wiser. It is your job as a member of a three man team to infiltrate the ship and save her.

The same great “battle” system from the first game returns and has been expanded a bit. With three characters comes a little variety although the differences between the three aren’t as pronounced as you would expect. It reeks of a missed opportunity but it also means that everyone starts on equal footing. The list of moves per character is staggering for the genre and almost overwhelming. New to this game are P-power-ups that boost your strength at max level and the ability to attack in every direction which is the only item missing from the first game and. It makes combat much more fluid; I likened these games to Virtua Fighter in a side scrolling environment and the comparison is apt.

Unlike most brawlers you don’t have the freedom to move around freely through the levels so much as the game guides you along the way. These aren’t really levels but more small arenas where you can use most objects lying around and even the environment itself as a weapon. There are no shortage of weapons to use to the point where you might rarely have to rely on your fists. It gets downright silly at times: you can beat people to death using giant fish or even a toilet plunger! Wolf Hongo’s men are just as wacky. These are some of the strangest collection of “pirates” I’ve ever seen and look more like a gang of circus freaks rather than cutthroat murderers. There’s a great deal of variety among the henchmen as well and you’ll rarely fight the same thug twice. The game moves at a brisk pace as it takes you from one set piece to the next and unfortunately that helps to highlight the game’s major flaw, its length.

As much as I love the core gameplay it still cannot hide the fact that this is an arcade game at heart, meaning it is incredibly short. A single run through the game can be completed in as little as 15-20 minutes which even by genre standards is low. Choosing a different entry point into the ship leads to an alternate route through the initial stage but that simply means you are going through the same rooms overall in a slightly different order. With infinite continues anyone will can beat the game and there aren’t enough extras like Zombie Revenge to make up for it. Sega were usually pretty good about expanding their home ports so it is apparent that this was not a priority release.

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Dynamite Cop was originally created using the Model 2 arcade board which by 1999 had long been surpassed by more powerful arcade boards. As a result the game is ugly compared to other Dreamcast releases and would look more at home on the Saturn. Character models are blocky and but the animation is smooth and the few explosions look laughably bad. The game does move at a brisk 60fps but let’s be honest; considering everything else that is the least it could do. The ship’s layout and the accompanying island base are varied in their layout, you’ll just wish there were more to the game. The music is epic and stirring and wouldn’t seem out of place in a low budget film; if they had kept the Die Hard license it would have fit perfectly.

As much as I like the Dynamite Cop series they always seemed just short of greatness. Combining the extended move system with a much lengthier quest would create one of the better brawlers in the genre, which the later Spikeout embodied. This would make a worthwhile downloadable title but as a full price release in 1999 it was a hard sell.

6-out-of-10-1

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Cruis’n USA

I remember when Cruis’n USA and Killer Instinct were shown off and allegedly were using Nintendo 64 technology. It was 64-bits! Fuck your 32-bits, they were leap frogging that shit! Both games seemed far ahead of their time and the prospect of arcade perfect ports of these two games on Nintendo’s future console made many salivate at what the future held. Little did we know it would be a shitty racing game. In the arcade Cruis’n USA when it’s all said and done was average; its graphics were what propped it up. 2 years is a long time when it comes to technology and much more advanced titles made it look old in comparison. When the home port eventually showed up it was ugly and a poor showing all around. Even if the port were better this would still be an average title.

The central conceit of the game is simple: this is a cross country race across the US with stops at a number of major cities such as San Francisco, Death Valley, Chicago, and Washington DC. A grand tour of the US should be exciting but it isn’t due to the incredibly boring track design. There are very few wide turns, no loops, or even split paths. Nearly all of the tracks are a mostly straight road to the finish which is incredibly boring. The only challenge come from the expert level courses, which introduce elements such as heavier traffic and narrower paths that actually make the game interesting. If this were applied to the other 70% of the game it might have been fun. Let’s not even mention multiplayer as the frame rate is just dire; god why did they even try?

I know this is an arcade racer and so realism shouldn’t be expected but the handling is completely unrealistic. There is no resistance or feedback when turning which makes it easier to navigate turns and such but presents little challenge as well. I know for some that will be a bonus but it doesn’t “feel” right. That isn’t the only issue I have with the controls. Collision is all over the place as though it wasn’t coded correctly. I have crashed into walls and other obstacles at full speed and aside from an occasional spin out or a little loss of speed was unaffected. Meanwhile I frequently ran into times where AI cars would simply bump me and it was a disaster. There’s no consistency. Speaking of speed maybe it’s because of the frame rate but I found the game lacking in that regard. At full speed

I will give Cruis’n credit, it has a lot more content than the vast majority of racing games of the time. 14 main tracks with a couple extra thrown in alongside an assortment of hidden vehicles is a lot to digest. It’s a far cry from the 3 tracks/5 cars bullshit publishers peddled for years. The good comes with the bad however as there has been some censorship applied to the game that was unnecessary. The bikini models that appear at the end of each race have been better dressed. Personally I don’t care but they weren’t gratuitous or anything so why even bother? Animals no longer stroll onto the road and present an obstacle which adds to the blandness. I remember mowing down cows and goats by the dozen in Super Offroad: the Baja and no one batted an eye. Ah well it’s not like it matters as I would still rather play Ridge Racer than this when it’s all said and done.

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When Cruis’n USA was first shown off in 1994 the game was a technical marvel and enjoyed wide spread popularity. The wait for the N64 version was high but a funny thing happened. By 1996 far better racing games had come along leaving the game outdated in comparison. The blurry, low-res sprites and roadside detail looked ugly in comparison to Daytona USA on the Saturn to say nothing of Nintendo’s own Wave Race 64. The frame rate is all over the place and there is some nasty pop-up going on in the background. Honestly this was the weakest N64 game that Christmas and it was embarrassing that it sat next to Mario 64 and Pilotwings on store shelves. As if the terrible graphics weren’t enough the generic butt metal soundtrack will have you reaching for the mute button in short order.

This is simply a bad version of an outdated game. In the 2 years following the arcade game’s release Midway should have done something to improve the game but instead opted for a sloppy port. The N64 was inundated with plenty of racing games with this sitting near the bottom.

4-out-of-101

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Darius Gaiden

As much as I have enjoyed the Darius games over these past decades to be completely honest the first few entries were merely solid games, more notable for their use of a triple monitor setup in the arcade than any interesting mechanics. Darius Gaiden changes all of that as it introduces a host of new features and could be considered the first truly great game in the series. If it weren’t for the ridiculous difficulty it might have been one of my favorite shooters. While it is a great game only the truly dedicated shooter fans need apply as the challenge borders on insane.

There’s been a bit of a shift in terms of the level design. While previous games have had an expansive grid of levels this is the largest to date at 28. However with that many stages they have become far shorter as a result. You can look at the brief intermissions between boss battles as a simple means to power-up for main event but in truth the relentless enemy swarms are just as intense as the bosses themselves. But in truth every boss is an event unto themselves and where the real meat of the game lies. These battles last as long as the levels themselves and right when you think it’s over the bastards transform and have an all new pattern of attack.

To help you deal with these threats the power-up system has finally been given a much needed overhaul. Rather than simply upgrading the useless missiles as in the prior games now your main cannon, shield, and missiles can be raised multiple levels. This is a huge boon in dealing with the aggressive enemies, especially your main guns. Power-ups are dropped frequently enough so that you are rarely left at default power and in addition death only sets you back one level of power.

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The fun doesn’t stop there either. Every level has a miniboss with a special circular ball located on its body. If you are quick enough and destroy you’ll “capture” them and they’ll actually fight by your side for a brief period. Trust me it’s hard to manage but at least worth trying as the boost in firepower is needed. Darius Gaiden has probably my favorite smart bomb of all time, a giant fucking black hole that sucks in everything on screen before exploding in a shower of lightning. If it sounds overpowered it is, at least against standard enemies. Your stock of 3 bombs is replenished when you die; do not be afraid to use them!

That’s because even with the new additions to the weapons system it still doesn’t feel like enough. Darius Gaiden is one of the most brutal shooters I have ever played and unfortunately the high challenge is a bit of a turnoff. There is some intricacy when it comes to the difficulty; collecting too many red power-ups will increase your rank and the game scales to match which kind of defeats the purpose of even having higher powered weapons. It makes little difference though; enemies attack from all sides and their appearances are so sudden that it feels a bit cheap. The boss battles feel like a war of attrition as they cycle through multiple forms and attack patterns and they either eventually go down or you run out of continues. Speaking of which you have a measly 2 credits to work through the game. 2! Thank god there are cheat codes but even with that only the best shooter fans will ever see one of the game’s multiple endings.

The ones that manage to soldier on and learn the game’s intricacies will be rewarded with the rare shooter that has a ton of replay value. The standard Darius level grid is present and has been massively expanded to cover 28 levels. One run will only cover seven of these so you are looking at six or seven separate runs to see everything the game has to offer. Granted some bosses repeat and there are a few stages that are only a slight variation on others but as an overall package there aren’t too many shooters that have this much content.

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In light of the 3d games that were starting to hit the market and the exquisite artwork of In the Hunt Darius Gaiden’s visual impact was slightly lessened. But even then this was still a pretty game. The 26 zones don’t feature the prettiest backdrops but every so often there will be a scaling or line scrolling effect that is particularly eye catching, such as Zone O’s line scrolling corridors. The massive screen filling bosses are certainly the visual highlight; you probably won’t ever see sea creatures rendered this good ever again. For my money the soundtrack is the true star; Taito’s Zuntata sound team have created a score that is both epic and somber in tone which sounds like it would be out of place in such an intense shooter but fits perfectly.

Next to G-Darius this is the best in the series. While I wish the game were a little easier (even easy mode will kick your ass) I still think the game is great. Both the Saturn and PlayStation versions are excellent ports of the game. The Sega version is easier to track down and cheaper but in my opinion you can’t go wrong either way.

8-out-of-101

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Darkstalkers

By the mid-90s SNK’s fighting game factory was running at full capacity, with a series to cover a variety of niches. Curiously Capcom did not follow suit and were content to pump out further iterations of Street Fighter. But it was only a matter of time and when they did finally pursue a new IP Darkstalkers was the result. Both visually and gameplay wise Darkstalkers was years ahead of its time and it would take the then new 32-bit consoles to contain its awesomeness. In a strange twist Capcom did not do the honors themselves; Psygnosis, probably Sony’s most important partner in those early years handled the port. Though far from perfect this version of the game is solid and only had the misfortune of coming a few months after the stellar Saturn port of its superior sequel.

Darkstalkers was about the point I realized that no way in hell a decent home port would be possible on my Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Now the later Street Fighter Alpha 2, flaws aside, would prove me wrong to an extent but I’m sure no one saw that one coming. As I was only fourteen and knew nothing about memory and animation frames you only needed to see the game in motion to know that it was on a different level than the Street Fighter ports Capcom were cranking out. The PlayStation would be the recipient of the first game and while it isn’t arcade perfect it was close enough to suffice back then.

The cast of Darkstalkers has as much personality as Capcom’s other game and in fact I would go so far as to say even more so. Now granted these are essentially all of the most popular B-movie tropes in one package but you have to give Capcom’s artists credit, they put their own spin on each and own that shit. The werewolf, mummy, vampire, creature from the lagoon, zombie, and Frankenstein are all represented with a few new ones added to fill out the roster. Their personalities are embodied in their animations; Demitri’s arrogant swagger, Bishamon’s murderous rage, even Victor’s exaggerated physiology, it says a lot more about their character than being a racial stereotype ever could. It’s a good thing the cast is so memorable as the story is the usual tournament garbage.

At is core the game is built on the back of Street Fighter as it uses the same six button setup and combo system. However there are a slew of gameplay techniques introduced here that would find their way into subsequent Capcom games. The always controversial air blocking made its debut here as well as dashing and a super gauge. The super meter works differently than you would expect; while every character does have a unique super move it can only be executed within a brief window while the gauge ticks down. Otherwise the meter will only perform an EX version of your normal special moves. I’m not a fan of this setup as It is very restrictive in that you have no choice but to use it as soon as possible lest it go to waste. Chain combos are also present but seem out of place; the combo system is already perfect as is I don’t see why it was necessary. Generally speaking this is much faster paced than even Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo and combined with its cartoony art style has a unique feel all its own.

For whatever reason Psygnosis made the AI ridiculously aggressive and punishing, probably to cover up the fact that as a package the game is feature light. On the default setting the computer is ruthless and will use every opportunity to punish the slightest misstep. Considering the game’s speed and exaggerated animations it’s easy to lose track of just what the hell is going on. While its manageable with long hours of practice there really isn’t any incentive to own the game if you don’t have friends over. You only have an arcade mode and vs mode to tide you over with no bonus content to unlock and in light of other fighting games like Tekken 2 it is extremely lacking.

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You can’t talk about Darkstalkers without lavishing praise on the visuals. At the time of its release no other game exhibiting the level of detail put forth in this game’s animation. In fact even today if you study the game you’ll realize just how far ahead of the curve Capcom were back in 1994. They were so far ahead that Morrigan sprite was trotted out up until 2012! Since the cast are not human the artists use plenty of squash and stretch animations to really exaggerate special moves or even simple movements. But at the same time everything remains anatomically correct down to the smallest detail. The game’s backgrounds are gorgeously rendered and accentuate the onscreen action rather than fight for your attention.

The PlayStation port is very well done but like nearly all 2d fighting game conversions it suffers from a loss in animation frames. It isn’t nearly as bad as later games such as X-Men vs. Street Fighter but to those with a trained eye it is noticeable. There are also annoying load times between matches and rounds; a feature that plagued many 32-bit conversions. It was a tough pill to swallow for those of us that grew up on a steady diet of cartridge games with instant access.

All in all this is a solid conversion of a classic game, especially one not handled by Capcom themselves. For a first effort this is really good and would only get better with subsequent releases. At this point though you are probably better off checking out Darkstalkers Resurrection.

7-out-of-10-1

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the Addams Family

While I have thrown my share of vitriol at Akklaim and LJN for their terrible licensed games I would be remiss if I didn’t get around to Ocean. In many ways Ocean were LJN’s European counterpart as they flooded the market over there with garbage. Thankfully we were spared the vast majority of their output and let me tell you, it was bad. However like the previously mentioned parties occasionally a good game would emerge from their stable. The Addams Family was tie in to the film that brought the characters back into the spotlight and while derivative is actually a pretty good game, especially as the movie doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to a video game.

While it doesn’t necessarily put it front and center the game is based around the film of the same name released in 1991. In the film Abigail Craven launches a plot to steal the Addams’ family riches using an imposter Uncle Fester. Since the game was created in a scant four months it only loosely follows that plot. Abigail has kidnapped the members of the family and hidden them around the estate. As Gomez you must save five members of your family and recover the stolen riches. Given Ocean’s output when it came to licenses the fact that the game is solid considering the accelerated development cycle is a god damn miracle. While it isn’t exceptional it is better than it probably should be.

Gomez moves with a nice little pep in his step and is a very controllable protagonist. His momentum can be an issue at times but the fact that you can stop on a dime and retain full control even when airborne offsets that. Offense wise your main attack is the staple butt bounce. A sword and golf balls occasionally show up but are lost when hit. In my opinion these items should have appeared more frequently given that you are moving in tight spaces so often and butt bouncing isn’t an option.

Although this is a platformer structurally it is a little different. As a squat version of Gomez the entire Addams mansion is available to you from the start. From the Hall of Stairs you have access to every corner of the house as well as a few outdoor areas. While the structure would suggest an adventure along the lines of Metroid it isn’t that. You’ll gain no new abilities or items aside from heart containers along the way and the order you go about rescuing each family member comes down to preference. Some paths are more difficult than others and you might want to stock up on extra lives first.

The level design, aside from the non-linearity, is the game’s greatest strength. Each section of the house is pretty long and broken down into multiple named sections that each seem to focus on a specific idea. Firing fish will challenge you to navigate large gaps using conveniently placed enemies and the projectiles said fish spew. Jester’s Jump is one giant hall that will test your leaping skills as you activate switches to progress to the exit. Some parts drag on but there are a ton of secret and more importantly shortcuts that will warp you around the “map” and cut down on travel. The game can be difficult but at the same time it is extremely generous with extra lives, almost as if the creators knew and were doing you a solid. Death will respawn you a few feet away so even that isn’t a deterrent. For a platformer that isn’t Super Mario World this is a bit long but I feel it ends before it wears out its welcome.

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I’m actually surprised at how much work was put in to the visuals considering this is a licensed game. The many different rooms of the house are all visually varied and packed with plenty of detail. The backgrounds are well drawn and can range from the creepy to silly. The scrolling is often three layers deep for that extra visual punch. That being said even in a game that takes place primarily in a mansion they still manage to incorporate some of the platforming staples such as an ice level (the freezer) and the fire stage (firing fish and the furnace). I can’t really knock it for that as nearly every platformer drew from that well but they really stick out here.

While the two games are nearly identical in terms of layout the graphics differ heavily. It is apparent that the game was built for the SNES first as the color choices used tend to blend together perfectly. The Sega version has taken a significant hit in this area with the choices used looking pretty garish. The scrolling backgrounds have been either toned down or outright removed which doesn’t make sense. It really comes across as though it were an afterthought rather than a priority.

Overall the Addams Family is a good game in a crowded genre. It is a bit generic but compared to Ocean’s typical licensed output but that is actually a positive in this case. This isn’t the first platformer that I would reach for to get my fix but it is solid nonetheless.

7-out-of-10-1

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Macross 2036

Macross 2036 was one of my first imports when I finally had enough disposable income to indulge my video gaming habit back in the early 2000s. An obscure PC Engine title might seem like an odd choice in light of the innumerable PlayStation games that should have come overseas. But I had just seen Macross Plus on DVD and it reignited my love for the series. While the game itself is solid it does have a few gameplay flaws that make it fall short of its wonderful production values.

The developers went all out on the game’s production as evidenced by the vast number of animated cut scenes in between levels and the fact that they hired original character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto for the project. Set in the period between Macross: Do You Remember Love and Macross II 2036 follows pilot Maria Jenius in her battles against a renegade faction of Zentraedi. The plot advances in between each level in fully voiced cut scenes that stretch for minutes at a time. Sadly it is lost on those of us who don’t speak Japanese but you can at least appreciate the effort spent on what is essentially just another shooter. Outside of its animation this almost comes across as a lost OVA episode of the series rather than just a game.

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Visually the game itself is pretty amazing. Like the rest of the game things start out pretty staid and become more spectacular as you progress. The backgrounds feature multiple levels of scrolling and become more daring, such as Mission three’s line scrolling water that features a reflection of your ship on its surface or the all-out war taking place in the background of Mission four. Boss fights often feature large screen filling mechs ripped straight from the series that really add a sense of awe to these battles.

The soundtrack is similarly incredible as it features perfect recreations of the show’s signature tracks, all in red book audio. The music is also dynamic and will adjust to the onscreen action. The game’s measured pace allows plenty of opportunity to build tension or to rally your forces. Even the sound effects pack an audio punch as explosions are incredibly loud if you have suitable speakers.

Where the production values are top class the rest of the package does fall a bit short. Macross does not make the greatest first impression going by its first stage. Armed with nothing but the standard cannon and missiles there is little excitement to be found as you go through the motions. Your only power-ups slightly increase the size and power of your shots. To an extent you could say this is to acclimate you to the games mechanics but there isn’t much to learn outside of boss battles.

The true breadth of the weapons system does not become obvious until the next mission. In between missions your experience grants access to a burgeoning arsenal of weapons that run the gamut of shooter staples with a few unique ones thrown in. Like Super Earth Defense Force you can only choose one and while some are more optimal for certain stages with skill you can make any of them work. All weapons are governed by a power meter that fills with use; at its max they overheat and become unavailable briefly. Each differs in terms of how fast they burn out and recharge with some like the laser having nearly unlimited use. But that is balanced by its lacking power.

While the game features a robust set of weapons overall it is a bit bland. This is as routine a shooter as they come as enemies pour in through their preassigned formations at set intervals with little in between to mix things up. The only seemingly random element would be the occasional fighter jets that rocket by and the game (wisely) telegraphs them in advance. Until the games final few levels there is very little reason to bother using your special weapons as what little opposition you face does not warrant it.

While you can’t freely transform into Battroid mode the game does make the switch during boss battles. Here the controls are different and require some adjustment. Auto fire is permanent with both buttons controlling your rotation as you freely fly about the screen. Once you’ve grown accustomed to the setup it does a fine job of recreating the space battles seen within the anime, albeit within a confined space. My only issue is that the bosses are massive bullet sponges that present little challenge which does kill some of the enjoyment of these segments.

It almost feels as though the games shooting portion is an unnecessary distraction needed to bridge the next extensive cutscene. That isn’t to say the game is bad but it is clear where the majority of the focus was spent. By the midpoint of the game it picks up considerably with more aggressive enemies, more elaborate level design and actually challenging boss battles. It’s just a shame that that amount of care wasn’t lavished on the entire production.

I would rate the difficulty as medium overall. The later weapons trivialize the game a great deal but luckily it’s balanced so that no matter how skilled you are you still won’t have enough experience until close to the end. Death holds little penalty since you keep your basic weapon upgrades and respawn in the same spot.   Despite the limited continues I doubt most will have trouble seeing the climax within an hour or two.

My thoughts about Macross 2036 are all over the place. On the one hand its bland opening stages paint the picture of a middling shooter designed to impress you more with its lavish cinemas than its game play. But midway through there is a spark that elevates it above mediocrity. That unevenness is what is so disappointing. There are better shooters available for the system but that doesn’t mean Macross 2036 is completely worthless; you’ll just have to temper your expectations, especially in light of its asking price.

7-out-of-10

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Dragon’s Fury

Pinball has never really been my forte. Over the years I’ve dumped a random quarter into any number of licensed pinball arcade units but aside from appreciating the novelty of smacking a ball around and ogling the craftsmanship that went into each table’s construction I’ve never found them engaging. Which is why it is so surprising that I love the Crush series of pinball games so much. Maybe it’s the darker theme of each game and the requisite visual pizazz that goes along with it but I can’t get enough of these games. Dragon’s Fury fulfills a lot of the wasted potential of Devilish and is one of the system’s best games regardless of whether you are a fan of the genre or not.

Dragon’s Fury is a port of the Turbo Grafx-16 game Devil Crush. Why that game of all the titles that could have been ported was chosen I don’t know but I will say that it is an extremely cool game nonetheless. Aside from some light censorship (and a silly name change by US publisher Tengen) Technosoft has done an excellent job of converting everything that made Devil’s Crush so great and even improving it in a number of ways. Pinball games for home consoles were not in ready supply so fans of that particular genre were more or less forced to accept whatever scraps they were given but even taking that into consideration Dragon’s Fury is still one of the best home pinball games of all time.

The medieval fantasy backdrop of the game instantly sets it apart from all other pinball titles and gives the game an incredibly unique look. The macabre theme inhabits every aspect of the game board with skeletons, knights, and evil sorcerers posing as the bumpers and obstacles. The most striking aspect of the table is the female knight, who begins to crumble and subtly transform into a dragon….thing as she takes damage.

This is a more or less straight conversion of the TG-16 game when it comes to the main table but there are differences. The Genesis game is noticeably brighter which clashes with the gothic theme and has less detail but due to the system’s higher standard resolution it has an additional status bar on the right side. Some light censorship has resulted in the pentagrams being altered but in the grand scheme of things is minor. The soundtrack has been recomposed to take advantage of FM synth and is actually pretty damn good. I honestly can’t say which of the two compositions I prefer as they differ wildly. A few extra music tracks culled from Technosoft’s other Sega games are hidden within the game but while they are a cool addition they definitely seem out of place.

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Where the presentation was truly overhauled is in the bonus rounds. There’s no comparison here as the Sega bonus rounds have been completely redesigned and boast some truly exquisite art that is breathtaking. These boss battles are the visual highlight of the game as you face off against multi-jointed demons that wouldn’t look out of place in a Treasure game. For all of the trouble you’ll go through to reach the hidden final “stage” it is definitely worth it just to see what can be achieved in a pinball title visually.

Unlike most pinball games the default table is three screens high with the screen scrolling in this version to keep the ball visible at all times. Sonic Spinball tried the same thing but that game is terrible and we shall not speak of it. There are three sets of flippers but you will rarely see the upper level of the table as it is near impossible to get the ball up there. While it is fun to smack the ball around randomly to score points to truly achieve the highest score you’ll have to continually enter the game’s six bonus stages which is a challenge by itself. There are specific criteria to enter each one and it will require a little more ball control than you are used to which I think is actually pretty cool.

This version of the game adapts somewhat of a quest like structure for those that need or want an end goal. Unlike its TG-16 cousin the bonus stages are more than just a cool sub area where you can score a ton of extra points. Beating the boss of each stage will unlock a seventh bonus area that is all new. This final boss is extremely hard and I wish I could say the ending you get for your trouble is worth it but it’s not. This belongs on a top ten list of disappointing endings for the amount of trouble you go through.

But the chances of you ever seeing it are next to nil. This is an extremely difficult game, which sounds kind of stupid and goes without saying considering the random nature of video game pinball. Regardless of what speed you set the ball it will still swing wildly out of your control to the point where the game almost plays itself. It is soul crushing to see a near perfect run end due to chance, and while it is part of the game it still sucks. If beating the six bonus stages proves too hard you can still reach the end game by racking up a score of a billion points or so, good luck with that as even passwords don’t alleviate the significant challenge that lies ahead.

Daunting challenge aside if you’re in the mood to just tool around and see how many points you can get Dragon’s Fury is more than adequate. This is probably the best pinball title for the system and an all-around excellent game to boot.

8-out-of-101

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the Little Mermaid

 

Of all of Capcom’s Disney licensed titles the one you probably hear about the least would be the Little Mermaid. I imagine creating a compelling 8-bit game of the seminal animated film must have been quite the conundrum. With Darkwing Duck they could easily ape their own Mega Man formula and Duck Tales practically wrote itself as the series had such a nice amount of high adventure. But the Little Mermaid? The movie about a mermaid who wants to become human and marry a dude? The standard action platformer wouldn’t fly here. Yet even with that premise Capcom have still managed to create an interesting title that is only let down by its brevity and lack of challenge.

They sure took their sweet time with this one: I remember watching the movie in Middle School back in 1990 and the game wasn’t released until 1992. I wonder why they went with the NES rather than the Super Nintendo? Can you imagine? The plot doesn’t follow the movie in order to better create something unique. Here Ariel has already been transformed into a human but upon hearing that Ursula is wreaking havoc under the sea she returns to the sea to her friends and family.

It’s quite clear that the game is aimed at the younger set with just how easy it is. Enemies do not populate the levels in great numbers although the few that patrol can be dangerous. Life restoring hearts aren’t in great supply because you honestly won’t need them. If you do even a little exploring you’ll build up a stock of extra lives, not that you’ll need them since the game is so short. At just five levels any reasonably skilled player will reach the end in less than 20 minutes, which is perhaps the biggest issue as the core gameplay is so well executed.

Ariel’s only means of attack are the bubbles that come from her tail. These bubbles will trap enemies for a brief time at which point you can carry them around to use as a projectile. More often than not however you’ll use bubbled enemies to find hidden items in the environment. While they start out weak there are two flavors of crystal that will increase their power and range, allowing you to encase even the biggest enemies. Aside from that there are rocks that can be pushed as well as shells to open the myriad treasure chests scattered about. In a way the setup and use of mechanics does remind me of Duck Tales.

Unlike that game however the Little Mermaid does not have the excellent level design that makes full use of your abilities. Most levels are a straight line to the finish with an occasional side area to find treasure and even the occasional excursion onto dry land which are pretty funny to see in motion. Trust me though, these are few in number. There are occasional puzzle elements such as figuring out how to maneuver a rock to open a chest that suggest that the designers were trying to be somewhat ambitious within the confines of the game’s ease of access. If this were longer and had more of these elements it could have been a much stronger title overall.

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The presentation has its moments but for a late 1992 release I expected more from Capcom. It starts out pretty great as the Sea of Coral and the Sunken Ship are both insanely detailed and up with there with some of the best on the system. However later levels such as the Undersea Volcano and Sea of Ice feature drab locations that lack the same visual pizazz and also suffer from garish color choices. The sprite work is also ugly which is uncharacteristic of Capcom. Clearly this was not a priority project and while I can understand that it is targeted at kids that doesn’t mean they couldn’t do better.

Difficulty and length issues aside I do really like the Little Mermaid but it fails to live up to its potential. With a few more levels this could have been the perfect game for kids but as it is the game is over far too soon to hold their attention.

6-out-of-10-1

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Metal Force

If one were to peruse the unlicensed and pirate game market you’d be surprised at the stuff you’ll find. Usually bootleg games show up long after a hardware manufacturer stops supporting a given platform which is how you end up with stuff like Somari and even an NES version of Final Fantasy 7.   These games 90% of the time originate from numerous Asian countries other than Japan and usually suck. Anyone who perused the shelves at Blockbuster video during the NES era more than likely came across Master Chu and the Drunkard Hu. If you were smart you avoided it but for those who were too curious and wondered how bad could it be, they learned: really bad.

But the rare pirate game turns out truly exceptional and Metal Force is one of those titles. Sporting production values that rival later games on the system and actual gameplay and graphics not ripped from some other title it is a bit of an anomaly but a good one. Metal Force will appeal to action platforming fans of all stripes and the only real negative I can mention is that you can’t readily find a copy of the game online. But that is little deterrent in this day and age as emulation exists.

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At first glance Metal Force practically begs to be compared to Mega Man. In actuality however the two games have nothing in common aside from a slightly similar graphical style. There is no stage select, colorful cast of bosses, or even a wide variety of weapons to choose from. What Metal Force does have however is a simple yet solid set of mechanics backed up with excellent level design. In fact I would go so far as to say Metal Force is far better than a large number of the games we consider NES classics now. It’s just too bad it was only released in Korea. That makes no difference though as the few lines of text are all in English anyway.

Your only weapons are a long range wave and a shorter boomerang that will follow you in a weird arc once thrown. Both weapons can be powered up two times although you won’t really notice an immediate difference. It is disappointing that there aren’t more options to play around with but both weapons are extremely powerful and worth using. Short range boomerangs don’t sound too great but the damage they inflict as they come back will save you from many a cheap hit. The wave only suffers in that it fires in a straight line and you’ll often have to be on the same plane as an enemy for it to hit.

The level design is generally excellent, with multiple paths to the end of each of its seven missions. You’ll recognize many of the same pitfalls and hazards from Mega Man such as corridors full of spikes as well as enemies that wouldn’t look out of place in a Capcom title. The game wears its influence well and is far better designed than something like the Krion Conquest. This is a much slower paced romp than the all-out action of Mega Man’s adventures with levels that are about the perfect length. If there is one criticism to make it’s that the game deserved a wider variety of mechanical foes as you’ll see the same five or six recycled throughout.

The difficulty is just about perfect which is surprising considering how few health items you’ll find. Enemies inflict varying amounts of damage yet it always seems fair. Both weapons are amazingly effective considering the difference in their range so it all comes down to a choice in play style. I hate to make the comparison again but like Mega Man checkpoints and health pills are usually placed right after particularly difficult sections of the game. It makes for a game that is very easy for anyone to jump into while still providing a suitable challenge for action platform veterans.

You wouldn’t normally expect it but the boss battles are actually the easiest parts of the game. Each boss has an incredibly simple pattern that anyone will discern in seconds and if you possess even a modicum of skill at video games it is possible to walk away from each unscathed. I can’t really count it as a negative against the game but it was unexpected. I’m used to bosses in these games kicking my teeth in and calling me a pussy for crying; this was a welcome reprieve in that regard.

Metal Force is a great game that easily stands beside the best in the genre on the platform despite its non-existent profile. With great graphics, a good soundtrack and tight controls more unlicensed games should have followed the example this game set rather than being cheap cash-ins. Finding a copy of the game is nearly impossible at this point so more than likely you’ll have to turn to emulation or a reproduction cartridge. No matter how you procure it this is an excellent hidden gem.

8-out-of-101

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Die Hard

Say what you will about Activision’s NES output but at least they tried. Most publishers at the time were guilty of putting out the cheapest tie-ins possible and hoped to coast on the brand alone but some thought was put into their licensed titles and they were at least somewhat unique. That however doesn’t mean they were good. Both Predator and Ghostbusters were some of the worst games I played in my childhood and unfortunately Die Hard isn’t that far behind. The ideas put forth behind each game were sound but it’s the execution where they all fall short. Die Hard is almost a decent game but in the end its structure is far too aggravating to deal with.

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Unlike the majority of the licensed games from LJN Activision and developer Pack-In Video tried something fairly ambitious here and it succeeds in some respects and outright fails in others. The game follows the movie’s plot pretty thoroughly and uses it as the basis of its gameplay. As John McClane you have free reign to move about the various upper floors of Nakatomi Plaza as you try to reach Hans before his men can unlock the vault and he escapes. In some respects I liken it to the Genesis version of Shadowrun in that there are many ways to reach your end goal and you don’t have to do them in any particular order. The game is so free form in fact there are as many as seven endings that take into account your actions with some ending in your failure. It adds replay value to the game but I seriously doubt anyone will want to want to revisit this after their first few failures.

The main reason being that nearly every other aspect of the game is frustrating. McClane can only move in four directions and the game practically demands 8-way movement as the enemies are under no restriction. There are only 34 enemies in the game (it keeps track) and all of them are aggressive and seem to possess machine guns that fire in a wide arc. Your movement speed is tied to how damaged your feet are (yes, the game even keeps track of that!) as broken glass can erupt from nearly every wall. As if that wasn’t bad enough ammo management is also a factor. If you run out of bullets for either weapon just start over as you’ll never survive long enough to get into melee range for it to be effective.

Time is the most crucial element in the game and what makes it both unique and also fail at the same time. Much like in the movie Hans’ men are working to break the locks on the vault and you can check their progress at any time by pausing. This is basically the timer for the overall game and once all 7 locks are cracked there is a countdown until Hans gets away. This aspect I like as you have to consider every move you make and it mirrors the frantic pacing of the film. Moving between floors takes up thirty seconds or so which also means you can’t simply louse about.

That being said however what ruins it completely is the fact that the clock moves far too fast. If you spend even 2 minutes or so exploring a floor one of the locks will be opened. For a game that gives you no direction putting such a strict limit on your actions and not letting you at least stumble into exactly what you’re supposed to be doing is game breaking. If you look at this as a rogue like in which each time you die you have at least learned something I guess it could work but to be honest you’ll never get that sense of satisfaction here.

The myriad number of issues is doubly disappointing because you can see the kernel of a good game beneath it all. The game goes out of its way to recreate nearly every aspect of the film in exacting detail. Downed guards will drop a radio that lets you eaves drop on Hans communications and the guards movements. Technically your goal is to gain access to 30th floor where Hans awaits and this can be accomplished in a few ways. If you can gain control of the express elevator before the hackers you can travel to the fifth floor and blow up the computer blocking access to the 30th level. The chances of that happening are slim as the window of time to perform these actions is insane. If you are brave enough you can simply wait out the clock at which point the floor opens automatically and the final countdown begins. Beware, as every enemy remaining will all converge on your location at that point. Just describing all of this makes it sound really cool but to even see a fraction of this stuff will require god level patience or a game genie.

I applaud Activision for trying something different but you only get credit if it works. Die Hard is a broken mess of a game that could have at least been average with a few small tweaks. As it is however its flaws are far too frustrating to deal with to get to its good points.

4-out-of-101

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Go Go Ackman 2

Go Go Ackman was something of a surprise for me. Much like in the rest of the world licensed manga and anime games are usually garbage in Japan yet GGA bucked that trend and was a surprisingly well done platformer. Especially considering the manga is only about 60 pages long and mostly consisted of disparate short stories. So imagine my disappointment when the sequel turned out bad. While it appears to be more of the same great platforming you loved originally there are plenty of small flaws that make Go Go Ackman 2 fail to live up to the modest standard of the first game.

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Just like its predecessor Go Go Ackman 2 has the same silly sense of humor. After his humiliating defeat at the hands of Ackman the angel Tenshi enlists the aid of the Metal Angels, an angelic rock band. That doesn’t sound so out of the ordinary except the band contains Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix as their members! The ridiculous story is one of the game’s best aspects as the antagonists are incredibly funny in their look and attacks. The Metal Angels definitely fit the tone established by the manga and are indicative of just how sound the manga’s premise is. Now if only they were in a better game.

The first was an enjoyable romp if a bit simple and the sequel aims to rectify that by adding some depth. Someone recognized the absurdity of having a sword strapped to your back that you can only use sometimes as you can now use it anytime with its own dedicated button. This leaves melee attacks on a separate button and the distinction is important for reasons I’ll get into shortly. The boomerang and gun return but are far too weak and limited in their actions to be worth using. Weapons can be temporarily upgraded to a second and third level but items are so sparse you’ll rarely get the chance to see these in action.

Where it succeeds in some ways it largely fails in others. A number of hand to hand moves have been added but they are largely irrelevant because they don’t work. There’s a melee rush attack that I still don’t know how to activate consistently. You can catch enemies in midair and throw them but outside of one boss battle it is never needed. Besides why risk taking a hit when a simple sword slash can do the same? Luckily you can completely ignore all of these additions and play the game exactly like the first.

For all of the game’s similarities to its predecessor there’s been a step back in its controls. The controls are not as responsive this time around which makes no damn sense in my opinion. Most of the issues lie with using weapons. There’s a delay when using weapons and sometimes your actions won’t perform at all. I would say 80% of the time it works fine but it’s that 20% that is incredibly annoying, to the point where you’ll simply use your fists and feet during boss battles.

The level design is less interesting this time around which is honestly a shame. The stages are much shorter and seem designed to herd you toward the next boss battle rather than provide nooks and crannies for you to explore for items. In fact there are far less items lying around in general which defeats the purpose of the expanded weapon system. The boss battles themselves have become a bit more elaborate and complex with a few that might actually make you sweat this time. Despite that however this is an incredibly easy game.

Possibly the game’s biggest crime though is that it is way too short. I hate to constantly compare it to the first game but it can’t be helped. The original was a good length at seven levels with multiple sub stages that made it feel like a complete experience. But at five measly levels the game is over far too quickly. All of the new additions to the game have no time to be fully explored as a result leaving the game feeling as though it was put out as quickly as possible to capitalize on the first game’s popularity. If true it shows as the game seems to lack the free spirit of that game and seems like a by the numbers sequel.

Out of the three Go Go Ackman games this second installment is definitely the weakest. With its short length, wonky controls, and lacking content there is no reason to bother with this game and I say that as someone who actually likes certain aspects of it. The fact that the third game was released a mere 5 months later also shows that the developers were disappointed with it as well. Your money is better spent elsewhere.

6-out-of-10-1

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Pulseman

I really love seeing the period at the end of a console generation when developers have more or less fully tapped each system’s potential and can produce truly phenomenal games. Donkey Kong Country 2 is one of my favorite platformers of all time; Resident Evil 4 might be in my personal top 10 games list and who could ever have imagined God of War 2 could be squeezed out of the PS2? Pulseman like Ristar and Vectorman was both creative and technically brilliant, the type of game that comes from years of working with the same hardware. While it only came to the states in a limited fashion that is no longer a barrier to anyone seeking one of the best 16-bit platformers ever made.

The story certainly is something else. In the future Doc Yoshiyama created the world’s most advanced AI, dubbing it C-Life. The C-Life was so advanced the good doctor fell in love with it and uploaded himself unto the internet so they could be together. Through unknown means the two combine their DNA and Pulseman is born. Unfortunately Yoshiyama becomes corrupted after so many years in the digital world and comes back to Earth as the evil Waruyama, ready to conquer the world with his Galaxy Gang. As the only being who can travel between both worlds freely it is up to Pulseman to stop his father.

As much as I love Pokémon I have to admit I miss seeing developer Game Freak put their unique spin on the platforming genre. Nearly every time they have stepped outside that monster brilliance has followed; HarmoKnight is excellent and 2005’s Drill Dozer might be the most underrated Gameboy Advance game ever. Pulseman was only released through the Sega Channel meaning very few had the chance to sample its innovative gameplay. There is a fan translation but that is completely unnecessary as the game was completely in English anyway. With its Virtual Console release now is the time to discover why Game Freak is a force to be reckoned with.

Obviously the game is all about manipulating electricity and as such Pulseman is armed with a wide array of abilities. Your basic punches and kicks are lightning infused but that is not all. By building up a little speed you will create a static charge which can be discharged as a pulse arrow. The distance needed for this is incredibly small and if need be double tapping left or right will accomplish the same. More importantly however that charge is used to power your Volteccer ability.

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The Volteccer forms a large crux of the game. Jumping into the air while holding a charge and pressing A will change you into a bolt of lightning that will fly through the air briefly. More importantly however smacking a wall will see you bounce around like a pinball, able to smash through walls and blocks. Tapping A next to a power line will also transform you into a bolt of lightning and allow you to “ride” it across distances. Needless to say the Volteccer is used heavily throughout the game in a large variety of ways that are insanely fun. I would say it is akin to Sonic’s speed or Ristar’s arms.

In many ways Pulseman does remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog. Not the speed aspect but the way in which the game delights in coming up with new ways for you to use your abilities. Almost every level introduces some new mechanic, whether it is zipping along a massive network of power lines, using your momentum in Volteccer form to smash bricks and squeeze through tight spaces or figuring out how to clear simple platforming challenges amidst a level of electricity cancelling water. That variety is the life blood of the game and never stops all the way up to the game’s conclusion. Sometimes the creative level design can be a bit too clever for its own good as you struggle to squeeze into a small gap or have to make blind leaps of faith yet the designers have kept these instances to a minimum. At seven stages with multiple sub levels the game is the perfect length but is so good you’ll still want more.

And the difficulty curve is perfect! Since you can only take 3 hits you have to be a bit careful as life restoring hearts aren’t in great supply. As a whole the worlds aren’t full of fodder enemies as the game would rather challenge you to apply your powers in navigating the levels instead. Yet it is still easy to run headlong into enemies or spikes if you try to treat this like Sega’s other IP. The boss battles are highly creative and offer up their own unique twists on the standard platforming formula. By the end of the game you’ll probably start to blow through the stock of extra lives you will have no doubt built up yet it always seems fair.

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The production values here are absolutely stellar. Ken Sugimori’s art direction has created a world bubbling with personality, whether it is the real world or cyberspace. All of the characters have very likable designs and Pokemon fans will notice all kinds of references to this game. Character sprites are large and have a more “grown” up appearance than most of Sugimori’s other work yet still remain appealing. This is an incredibly colorful title, more so than most games on the system and while it doesn’t make a push for out there special effects the art design, especially of the virtual worlds is fantastic. The electronica soundtrack makes excellent use of the system’s FM synth to deliver a score that is mechanical in feel and matches the half real world/half internet action. There’s even a decent amount of voice clips, surprisingly all in English with subtitles!

This truly has it all. Pulseman is not just a great game but one of the best platformers of that era. We truly missed out on an exceptional title. At least initially. Thanks to its re-release on the Virtual Console in 2009 gamers around the world can see that Game Freak are more than just a Pokémon factory. Buy this game.

9-out-of-10

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Space Harrier (Famicom)

While I found it strange growing up to see bootleg cartridges of Sega arcade games for the NES I will admit there was something pretty cool about playing the “other” guys games on your platform of choice. Alien Syndrome turned out pretty cool and Fantasy Zone was decent. It wasn’t all gravy however; the less said about Afterburner the better. Of all of Sega’s arcade games from the 80s I certainly never thought they would even try to port Space Harrier but they did! At least in Japan. The even bigger shock is that it’s actually pretty good all things considered. Why couldn’t this have been released here instead of that awful, awful version of Shinobi?

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The most important question is how does it look? The scaling tech Sega used in the arcade machine was pretty advanced for its time and there is no reasonable way the NES/Famicom could reproduce that faithfully. However that being said Takara has done an admirable job of simulating the game’s look. The checkerboard pattern of the floor has been simplified and all of the sprites have been shrunken dramatically. Otherwise the scrolling is some of the smoothest I’ve seen on the system and far better than something like 3D World Runner. It also beats the pants off the choppy mess that is the Sega Master System version which comes as quite a surprise.

There are some drawbacks to the presentation however. The game is prone to some truly awful slowdown and flicker which can be game breaking at times. The Harrier moves noticeably slower than the arcade which has an impact on playability. None of the voice samples have made it intact and the music isn’t the greatest either. In the grand scheme of things some of these problems are unavoidable while others are reasonable sacrifices to even get the game on the system.

Space Harrier was known for its blazing fast speed in the arcade and that element has been significantly toned down here. This is downright leisurely compared to the coin op and that is both a blessing and a curse. Since the game is slower you can actually react to bullets and avoid the random pieces of the environment that come speeding by. Unfortunately you also move a lot slower and I can almost guarantee will die to some not so random bullet far too often.

This was already a pretty difficult game due to the viewpoint and lack of any power-ups but this Famicom version takes it a step further. The slowdown and flicker really are pretty terrible and has a significant impact on the game. Although the game is less populated (be it enemies, bushes and stone columns) it still manages to be pretty intense which is a testament to its design that even when the elements that practically define it have been compromised it still turns out good. While I can appreciate the diversity in the game’s environments it does start to repeat itself by the halfway point. There are only a few bosses and standard enemies and the game simply shuffles them around the deeper you progress. Sometimes less is more.

For a rail shooter this is pretty long and I doubt most will see the end of this version of the game for a myriad number of reasons. Aside from the reasons outlined above you only have three lives to complete the game and that’s it. There are no continues, passwords, or battery back-up. The chance of getting any extra lives throughout the course of the game is practically non-existent; on my best run I received one extra life. One. Considering they managed to cram all eighteen levels into the game every stray bullet is terrifying; imagine reaching the 15th level only to die because a bullet that looked like it should fly by you hits you square in the face. I don’t because that’s exactly what happened to me. Its soul crushing on a level only old 8-bit video games can achieve but also makes this slightly less attractive as a package.

Considering the gap in technology this version of Space Harrier shouldn’t even exist. Yet it does and for what it is it’s actually pretty good. I’d have certainly played it had it left Japan.

7-out-of-10

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Sengoku

Sengoku was one of those Neo Geo games I always wanted to play in the arcade but because it occupied a spot in a four slot MVS unit that had Samurai Shodown it almost never happened. The one or two times I finally did get to play it I found a pretty good brawler that didn’t set the genre on fire but offered a few nice features that set it apart. I looked forward to the SNES port by Data East but it mysteriously never came out. It was probably for the best as this mostly only shares the same name and theme as SNK’s quarter muncher and is not as good.

Centuries ago two samurai defeated a tyrannical warlord but not before he vows to return in the future. In the present day that time has come and the task falls Dan and Bill, descendants of the two samurai to stop this ancient invasion. The story may be the same but in terms of content the Super Nintendo version of Sengoku only shares a loose theme. That doesn’t mean the game couldn’t be good; to be fair Sengoku wasn’t exactly a notable Neo Geo release in the first place. But the developers could certainly have done a much better job creating an “original” title using its framework.

Is a bit odd to take note of but there are some significant changes made to the gameplay to bring it more in line with beat em up standards. The majority of enemies in the coin op died in a single hit which is why they didn’t bother with life bars. It also meant you couldn’t unleash the standard punch, punch, punch combos or even take advantage of some of your other techniques. That has been changed so that the game more closely resembles Final Fight. With tougher enemies the various weapons have a greater emphasis. Unlike your typical brawler weapons aren’t lost if you are hit and last a decent amount of time. Not only are they strong but the can be upgraded to unleash various devastating projectiles. These power-ups also work in concert with your various forms.

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Sengoku’s sole defining feature are its transformations. Due to the samurai invasion our protagonists can invoke the spirits of the past. You can assume the form of a samurai with a long range sword, a spry ninja or for some god forsaken reason a wolf/dog hybrid that is useless. Seriously, why would you want to nip at an opponent’s ankles and get kicked in the face repeatedly? In the arcade these transformation could be triggered at will so long as you collected the corresponding orb but here it is immediate. The transformation lasts a brief period and is almost game breaking considering how quickly you can mop the floor with bad guys. Despite the change the orbs drop frequently enough that you’ll spend a considerable amount of each stage in a different form.

The level setup is both different and strange. After clearing a few round of enemies you will be teleported to a rift where the ancient samurai forces come from. These are long successions of enemies usually capped off with a mini boss battle before you are teleported back. This happens a few times per level and while it is different it isn’t particularly notable. That is because it is boring; regardless of setting you are still fighting the same groups of thugs in different arrangements and numbers. If unique enemies existed in these spaces it would have gone a long way toward making the game stand out.

While I won’t go so far as to say the game is easy it isn’t nearly as brutal as some titles in the genre. Although the game throws waves of 3-4 enemies at once it rarely feels overwhelming. That is mainly because power-ups are doled out regularly and you won’t spend as much time without a weapon or transformation. Despite lasting a brief moment with a weapon in hand or any form aside from the stupid dog you’ll clear the screen in seconds. Scoring is pretty generous and you’ll gain at least one extra life per level. I was almost able to clear this on one credit without putting in a real effort.

That being said however no matter how easy I found it the game is heavily repetitive, more so than is usual for the genre. Enemy variety is limited per level and so you’ll fight the same 3 types in 4 waves at a time. They try to keep things fresh by introducing at least one new opponent per level but that simply means they are cycled in to the rotation along with 2 other clowns. Combine that with your limited move set and it becomes tiresome by the third level. This isn’t the longest game in the world at six levels but with the number of enemies thrown at you in rapid succession it certainly feels like it.

While I was disappointed to find that this isn’t a direct port of the arcade game I was also willing to accept it for what it is if it were good. Between the repetition and subpar graphics however this version of Sengoku is strictly average and not worth your time when there are better games in the genre to buy.

5-out-of-101

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Superman

Sunsoft’s Batman was one of the first licensed games I truly fell in love with back in the day. When you’ve been exposed to a steady diet of LJN trash it’s hard not to become skeptical after a while. Yet this one little game completely my perception of what a licensed can and should be. As much as I loved their Batman games I wish they had given Superman the same treatment. This 1992 video game has been forgotten by gamers and with good reason; it’s bad. Though far from the worst game starring this character considering the pedigree of its developer it is not a stretch to say that Superman is a disappointment. The Man of Steel deserves better.

There is no overarching story to the game as each level drops you in with almost no explanation. About half way through the game Brainiac kidnaps Lois Lane for your classic save the princess moment but even then it seems haphazardly tossed in. Sunsoft didn’t exactly make very good use of the license in terms of including characters from the Superman mythos. A few villains are featured as bosses such as the Prankster and Metallo but you’ll be hard pressed to even recognize them in game. Curiously Lex Luthor isn’t part of this lineup but judging by Brainiac’s outfit this takes place during the Panic in the Sky storyline and the original Luthor is….indisposed.

In the comics Superman is one of the most powerful characters in the industry but you won’t find any evidence of that here. Forget any ideas about flying through the air and smashing bad guys left and right for the most part. This is mainly a side scrolling platformer with the emphasis on the side scrolling. Superman can only punch and kick bad guys. The large host of abilities the Man of Steel has are limited to only one at a time which is incredibly lame. This might as well star Ultra Boy from the Legion of Super Heroes. What’s even worse is that the selection of abilities is limited to just three: super punch, spin, and heat vision for the flying levels.

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The game’s greatest failing is that you don’t ever feel that super. By restricting your powers so heavily the game loses any sense of identity. The most damning fact about the game is that if you remove the costume this could just as well have been a game starring any other platforming hero. Something doesn’t sit right with me when it feels more satisfying to control Aero the god damn Acrobat than the premier superhero in the world. Being relegated to simple punches and kicks for more than half the game is dreadfully boring and lame.  The few times you get to cut loose are satisfying but fleeting; I’m Superman, I want to feel powerful!

That’s not to say that an interesting game couldn’t have been built around such limitations. You can see where Sunsoft sort of tried as there are obstacles and break points that require you a specific power to pass. However these are always in the immediate vicinity. If the levels weren’t so straightforward and had multiple paths or if there were a wider selection of abilities this could have been more interesting. As it is you’ll wonder why they even bothered. The second half of the game is essentially a shooter as you chase Brainiac and Lois Lane into space. It’s a change of pace and nothing overly spectacular but at least it breaks up the monotony.

The common complaint about Superman as a character is that he is too indestructible which makes his stories boring. You won’t be able to make any of those complaints here as the game is also excruciatingly difficult. The Man of Steel might as well be made of tissue paper as he takes large amounts of damage from some of the weakest enemies in the video game world. Not just because Superman is a gimp compared to the enemies you’ll face but also because non-powered items are rare. Health power-ups are sparse so you’ll be dying pretty frequently. You have exactly one life and two continues to complete the game and I’ll tell you right now that isn’t happening.

Why is it so hard to make a good game starring this character? From the Atari 2600 to the Xbox 360 Superman has been in some dreadful games with this ranking in the middle of the pack. There are few redeeming qualities to be found; you are better off looking elsewhere for your superhero fix.

5-out-of-101

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Hammerin Harry

I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese games that manage to retain their heavily localized flavor when brought to the US. There was a silly notion in the early days of the industry that gamers would be turned off by anything too foreign which is why publishers went out of their way to hide the fact that the games came from Japan. It was really stupid; you could have told children of the 80s that Super Mario Bros. was made by aliens and they wouldn’t have given a damn. That aside certain series like Konami’s Goemon would skip the 8-bit era in the US entirely for that reason. Then you have titles like Hammerin Harry, an innocuous arcade release from Irem in 1990. One look at the game and you can see that it is steeped in Japanese culture and apparently it didn’t do well enough for them to bother publishing the NES port in America. It did see a release in Europe however and is an enjoyable little romp that won’t set your world on fire but is still solid.

The story is so unmistakably eighties it hurts. The Rusty Nail Construction Company bulldozes Harry’s house. Why? Because fuck you that’s why. In response Harry takes up his only possession, a large hammer, to get some civilian justice. Originally released in the arcade in 1990 while Hammerin Harry’s “theme” of a disgruntled construction worker is universal the game is heavily Japanese flavored in its presentation similar to Konami’s Mystical Ninja series. I would imagine that is why the series has largely stayed in Japan.

The NES port of Hammerin Harry isn’t an exact match to the arcade game as some stages have been shifted or outright removed while new ones take their place. Aside from a few gameplay tweaks this maintains the same spirit as the original and is an enjoyable if short-lived platformer that somehow was released everywhere but the US. Speaking of which, dear god what were they thinking with that European box art? It’s nearly up there with the original Mega Man in terms of being a ghastly misrepresentation of the game inside.

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For a simple construction worker Harry is pretty bad ass. The hammer is a pretty effective weapon as it has decent reach and is large enough that hit detection isn’t a problem. It also doubles as a shield and can pound the ground to stun enemies. New to this version of the game is a life bar; no single hit deaths here although I don’t know if that is a good thing but more on that later. The one element that didn’t carry over is the ability to smack objects into enemies which sucks. There are still boxes and such lying around but they only carry the occasional power-up.

Items are few in number but incredibly strong. Chili peppers allow you to swing the hammer in a circle which is almost game breaking. The rare POW icon grants a massive hammer (seriously its comically huge!). The hard hit will absorb one hit and another new addition is a medicine bottle that restores health. If you have OCD and smash everything in sight you’ll rarely go without at least one item which does have an effect on the game’s balance.

While the power-ups are few they are extremely strong and unfortunately make the game incredibly easy. The 360 hammer means you’ll no longer have to time your swings or even aim properly. It is the most frequent and rarely will you ever be without it. The giant hammer is really cool but grossly overpowered but luckily it only appears in a one or two stages. Regular enemies are easy to deal with but even the bosses have simple patterns that you can outright ignore and spam attacks. The three hit life bar is probably the biggest contributor to the game’s ease though. The arcade game was designed around single hit deaths and while this isn’t a 1:1 conversion it still follows some of the same sensibilities.

The ease of difficulty wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the game were not so short. The game diverges from the coin op the most in terms of its levels. There are only five levels instead of six with two of them being completely original. They come at the expense of two of the arcade game’s levels which have been excised unfortunately and had they all been included this would have been a much stronger title. With 2 or 3 more levels it would have been the perfect length. It’s a lot like Panic Restaurant in that regard, another game with excellent gameplay that was also over far too soon. As it is you’ll blow through it in less than half an hour; you’ll enjoy that time but it is brief.

While the journey to take down the Rusty Nail Construction Company is brief you’ll enjoy every step of that process. Hammerin Harry is a good “loose” port of the unconventional arcade game and a solid title in its own right and makes a good second tier release once you are done with the classics of the genre.

 

7-out-of-10-1

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Panorama Cotton

It was commonly accepted as fact that the Genesis simply was no good at scaling sprites without the Sega CD. Early titles such as Super Thunder Blade and the sad port of Galaxy Force 2 were choppy disasters while later games such as Dick Vitale’s Awesome Baby Basketball and Red Zone showed that it could be done competently. Meanwhile Mode 7 was used in SNES games like it was going out of style. Fitting then that probably the most impressive example of that entire generation would be a little known Genesis game in Japan known as Panorama Cotton. PC belongs in the same conversation as Vectorman and Sonic 3d Blast as games that nearly broke the system. All of the technical wizardry in this case is backed up with a game that is awesome but really expensive.

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Beyond anything else Panorama Cotton is technically brilliant, to a degree that I would say makes it one of the best achievements of the 16-bit era. The game makes excellent use of scaling sprites like Space Harrier but is far smoother than that game could dream of. The backgrounds suffer from pixelization but are still clear enough that it barely matters. All of the technical finesse is married with beautiful art direction that brings the magical world of Cotton alive in a way we’d never imagined as the levels twist and turn in ways most games of this type avoided. This truly pushed the system to its limits and really showed what the hardware was capable of.

Cotton’s primary weapon is her magic shot which starts out weak but is upgraded through experience up to five levels. At each level it becomes more powerful and covers a wider arc however taking hits actually decreases your xp and can potentially downgrade your power. There is some nuance when it comes to rapid fire; holding down the button will produce a consistent stream but also makes Silk rotate around Cotton for a magic attack and stop your stream. Learning the timing of how long to hold the button and doing a quick release to keep the momentum going is key, especially in the later stages of the game where absolute chaos reigns from the start.

Shooting down groups of enemies will release gold bars that represent one of the three different elemental spells you can keep in stock. By shooting these bars three times you can change the color to gain a different spell, all of which have unique ranges and effects. To take it a step further by holding the attack button Silky will orbit Cotton, at which point using a spell will modify it for a new effect. Tricky to perform in the heat of battle but devastating when used correctly.

From a design standpoint this is the antithesis to every other game in the series. Whereas every other Cotton title moves at a measured pace Panorama Cotton is a blindingly fast epic journey. This is probably one of the fastest paced shooters for the system, with enemies and obstacles all streaming in at fast clip. At times the game might be a little too fast as there are times when walls and such open or close too quickly for you to react. But having said that I can’t picture the game any other way. The game’s breakneck pace never lets up as it moves from one set piece to the next and the visual variety as well as the new sets of enemies on every level go a long way towards keeping the game fresh throughout. Moments of calm where you can actually take your hand off the attack button are fleeting and brief and while that should be overbearing over a length of time it seems appropriate here.

Maximizing your point bonuses, be it through shooting parts of the environment or going ape shit during the tea time bonus after boss battles is key since there is no other way to restore health than score. Occasionally Cotton will roll after taking a hit when low on health; this negates any damage but is only randomly triggered. You only have one life and limited continues to complete the game but the game’s checkpoints are evenly spaced and the game even retains your attack level, experience, and magic! The viewpoint makes judging the angle of bullets and enemies troublesome but most will not have a problem completing the game in short order, ironically because the game itself is short.

The one big negative would be the game’s length. At only five chapters the game can be completed in about an hour and a half which is standard for most shooters. However as much as I don’t like to factor in a game’s price it can’t be avoided here. For the $1-200 you’ll most likely pay you’ll certainly enjoy the experience while it lasts and play through the game more than once just to ogle the graphics and amazing art direction. There’s also a cool bonus mode where you can play through the game as Silk with Cotton as your support “fairy”. It’s interesting since she has a smaller hit box but not a significantly different experience. One or two more levels would really have made this phenomenal.

Unfortunately this is one of the most expensive Genesis games ever as it suffered from a small print run. Shooter fans will more than get their money’s worth if they manage to track it down; to that all I can say is good luck! The game is excellent but not worth the potentially hundreds (yes, hundreds) it goes for; to that I say get a reproduction cart. This desperately needs to be re-released somehow.

9-out-of-10

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Psychic Storm

Psychic Storm was a game I bought blindly years ago after only seeing a few sparse screenshots and thinking the name was cool. Once upon a time I had more money than common sense but in this case it didn’t bite me in the ass. This is a pretty good game that only suffers due to the heavy competition in its genre on the system. Considering Psychic Storm is cheaper than the majority of those better titles it serves as a worthy substitute if you don’t like pricey imports and is a good game in its own right.

In the distant future Earth is under attack by a race of insectoid aliens who devour the planets in their path and integrate them into their bodies. The planet’s last hope of survival lies in the hands of four brave pilots, each with their own unique ship patterned after the very same aliens destroying the planet. It is up to you to guide Alex, Charr, Joe, and Nastasia with their Stormbringer ships and save the world.

Each character comes with their own unique set of weapons with half the fun coming from choosing the right hero for each level. Alex is your basic shooter hero with a standard Vulcan cannon and missiles. Joe is my favorite; his hellfire is strong plus his nuclear spread missiles explode on impact and linger for a second or two. Charr is the most disappointing which sucks as his weapons look cool. The psycho shell is the strongest but has the shortest range plus his missiles suck. Nastasia doesn’t fit into any particular niche. The ion laser is similar to the hellfire but smaller but her missiles aren’t as good. A separate bar automatically charges and allows you to also unleash a special attack when full.

What makes each ship special is its ability to transform. Each Stormbringer has a unique insect form that features massively increased firepower and a unique form of attack. Alex’s ship turns into a giant butterfly that releases waves of fire from its wings. Joe turns into a scorpion that can grab enemies and charge up energy in its claws for a massive burst of force. This form lasts a short time which can be replenished by picking up special icons. It is a bit of a double edged sword since your body becomes huge but is worth it since it’s so overpowered. You only get three of these per stage but trust me it’s more than enough.

Psychic Storm tries its hardest to be an intense shooter but overall the game is pretty easy. With your life bar you can sustain 7 or 8 hits which is pretty uncommon in the genre. Technically you don’t have lives but your 3 special weapons serve the same function. When your life dips too low one is automatically used which doesn’t seem like much of a punishment considering in your powered up form you can blaze through the levels and bosses while it lasts. While I can see how someone who decided to use them early on could be screwed there isn’t much reason to until a boss fight. Even playing half seriously I still managed to breeze through half the game before I died because I chose a bad character for a particular level. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve played through my share of cruel shmups so any game that is fair in comparison is welcome in my opinion.

With the game’s laid back pace and ease of difficulty it helps that it is pretty long. Each of the seven levels is split into two halves with each running close to 10 minutes or longer. After the second round you can choose your path through the game not that it has any real bearing. The long stage length is mostly due to the pacing which is a bit slow for my tastes. Enemy waves are slow to spawn and sometimes you’ll fly for close to a minute without being attacked. Not every game needs to be a bullet hell shooter but the game could certainly use a shot of adrenaline at times.

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Visually Psychic Storm has its moments but they are fleeting. The game begins on a high note with a beautiful flight over Tokyo at night, full of glittering lights and detail. But from there it’s a significant drop off with each subsequent planet featuring less exciting environments. It picks up again towards the end but still never manages to match its opening level. The one area that never disappoints would be the bosses. The antagonists are a weird assortment of insectoid creatures with the game’s mayors being the strangest of the bunch. Large, impeccably detailed and well animated these are the game’s visual highpoint. The soundtrack is a bit strange. The music is a series of symphonic arrangements that seem a bit out of place in a scrolling shooter and don’t match the action. It’s good but out of place.

Psychic Storm isn’t the greatest shooter for the Turbo Grafx but it doesn’t need to be. This is far better than some of the crap that was actually released here like Dead Moon and Deep Blue. Due to its low profile it’s also cheap by import standards. A worthwhile addition to any gamer’s library.

8-out-of-101

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Aladdin

It’s always amazed me how widespread bootleg and unlicensed video games are. Even as far back as the mid to late 80s I can distinctly recall seeing one or two Chinese NES carts that somehow crammed 50 shitty games in one package. The vast majority of these games are absolutely terrible but every so often you’ll come across one that is pretty great. Virgin Games released an official version of Aladdin for the NES in Europe but it was awful. However Hummer Team, a group in China, created their own version of the game that is actually one of the most impressive for the system and absolutely shames the official release.

Unlike Virgin’s ill-advised port of the Genesis version this is actually a port of Capcom’s SNES game. The Sega game was famous for its exquisite animation that I’ll admit they valiantly tried to recreate within the NES’s limits but it was disastrous and ruined the game. The SNES game wasn’t at the same level but I’m sure presented just as much of a challenge and yet Hummer Team have done a spectacular job producing a slightly stripped down version of the game. In my opinion it’s up there with the rest of Capcom’s licensed Disney titles (for obvious reasons of course) which is high praise and well deserved.

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The most striking aspect of the game is the look. Capcom did a wonderful job recreating the locations of the movie and the game has the same distinct vibrant look. The NES version is just as colorful, or as colorful as the system will allow. Much more impressive than that however are the sprites and character animation. The character sprites are some of the largest on the system and have most of the same animations that made the Super Nintendo game so great. In the latter parts of the game there is some heavy sprite flickering that gets pretty bad but that is limited to a specific level. That this level of quality came from an unlicensed game is pretty shocking as the vast majority are simple rom hacks or cheaply made.

The majority of the play mechanics have been brought over unchanged as well. Aladdin can still throw apples to stun enemies and perform a flipping toss to take them out. The timing on it is tricky and will be the cause of much frustration unfortunately. What is even more frustrating than that however is the cardinal sin of reversing the buttons; B jumps and A throws apples. Unlike say Bart vs the Space Mutants it isn’t that big of a deal here but whenever developers do this I question why. Sadly the parachute mechanic is gone but at least the levels have been redesigned so they aren’t as vertical so that its absence wouldn’t be missed.

The game follows the plot of the movie faithfully with some slight deviations just like its 16-bit big brother. The game is comprised of six levels that will take you from the streets of Aggrabah to the Cave of Wonders and finally Jaffar’s palace. The focus is on platforming and acrobatics rather than action and for the most part it nails it. Aladdin is incredibly spry even without the blanket to act as a cushion should you fail. As far as how this stacks up against the original the levels are less populated than before and have undergone some slight alterations, mostly to make up for the loss of the blanket. Only one sequence from the original has been removed, the second battle against Jaffar but it’s no great loss all things considered.

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The original was noted for being incredibly easy and that carries over to this version to an extent. The game showers you in extra lives but that is mostly because you’ll need them. Most of your deaths will come from the finicky jumping controls when springing off objects. Once you’ve leapt on an object you can execute a short or high jump off it but performing either consistently is hard. By the midpoint you’ll be called on to execute these in rapid succession so it sucks that you’ll suffer some cheap deaths in what are some of the game’s high points. Aside from that however you can avoid most enemies and there are only two boss battles so combat is not an issue.

Hummer Team has done an excellent porting over Capcom’s classic nearly wholly intact. Virgin should be ashamed of that piece of crap they put their official stamp on. It’s too bad the game was unlicensed and released far too late to be marketable worldwide as it is a really cool version of a great game.

7-out-of-10-1

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Breath of Fire

Of all the genres Capcom covered during their prolific days on the NES they had very rarely dabbled with RPGs. With the possible exceptions of Destiny of an Emperor (which is more of a strategy game) and Willow (action RPG) they seemed pretty content to more or less dominate the action category. As their first traditional RPG series Breath of Fire would go on to spawn many sequels across a variety of platforms but almost did not see a release in the US. With little experience localizing a project of this magnitude publishing duties were passed on to Square, who preserved what made the game so unique but produced a dry translation of the game’s story. In all honesty the story is not what made Breath of Fire special but its gameplay, which is still enjoyable today barring the high encounter rate.

The Light and Dark Dragon clans were once one but that peaceful existence is shattered when the Goddess Tyr appears, offering a wish to any who gain her favor. The Dragon clan descends into war, eventually splitting into two sides with the battle continuing until a lone Light dragon seals the goddess away using six keys. Thousands of years pass and the light dragons are on the verge of extinction with the Dark Dragons seeking to awaken the Goddess. The task of putting a stop to this menace once again falls on the shoulders of a light dragon as he gathers companions for the inevitable final battle.

As far as premises go Breath of Fire is fairly generic. Collecting x number of a particular item to defeat an ancient evil has been done plenty of times before and the game does little new to at least spice up that formula. The game’s localization is dry and has very little flavor in its text. Because of space limitations many names have been abbreviated or changed completely; a variable width font would have done wonders for the game.

What props up the game’s story is the world itself. Capcom had created one of the most unique fantasy worlds in gaming to that point, full of anthropomorphic species at every turn. The six clans that make up the population of the world are wildly different in look and abilities; powers that will become available to you once you start to assemble your party. The overworld and dungeons are full of areas that you can’t immediately access from the start and activities to participate in. Fishing might seem like a pointless waste of time but can yield some of the most powerful weapons and armor in the game. Hunting can alleviate the stress of buying healing items if you’re cash strapped, which actually happens at a regular pace. Revisiting old areas once you’ve acquired new party members will usually yield worthwhile items for the travel involved.

Your party members receive very little if any characterization during the course of the game; if you’ve been weaned on a steady diet of Final Fantasy titles than you’re a bit spoiled in that regard. However even without the sweeping character arcs associated with deeper RPGs the cast possesses an unexplainable charm, from Gobi’s cheapness and money obsession to Bleu’s laziness.

Almost everyone in the cast possesses an ability that you will need to use at some point. Whether it is a ploy to keep them relevant for the length of the game or not is irrelevant; some of these are really cool. Ox can break crumbling walls with his fists, Karn can pick locks, Nina gains the power to transform into a giant bird and fly, avoiding random battles (a godsend). Gobi can transform into a giant fish to access parts of the map the bird can’t land on. Mogu’s ability to dig through dirt can net some of the best weapons and armor with dig spots stretching as far back as the beginning of the game!

Aside from the translation the other issue with the game is its balance. Random battles are frequent and even with an auto battle option are still a chore to deal with. Equipment upgrades become exorbitantly expensive early on but the amounts of gold you’ll gain from battle can’t keep up. In combination with the high power of enemies in each new area you will end up spending far too much time grinding to keep pace with the game. With limited inventory space (a good chunk of which will be taken up by story items) reaching the end of the long dungeons with items to spare is the exception, not the rule. The boss fights are also tuned a bit too high. Unless you’ve spent time grinding away be prepared to see your attacks move their life bar by centimeters and not inches. Hell once you’ve depleted their life bar it’s still not over; every boss has a second wind which means the fight continues except you have no way of knowing when it will end.

The interface also has problems of its own. I’ve mentioned the inventory which can be alleviated by putting items in storage. Item names have been abbreviated which causes problems since you’ll sometimes be hard pressed to remember what the hell a SuedeCT is, who can equip it and what slot it goes in. You have no way of comparing stats on items before buying which sucks considering how expensive gear becomes later on. It sounds like I’m being harsh but this was released in 1994 (or 1993 in Japan), meaning it had to compete with Final Fantasy 6 but lacked features even FF4 had.

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Graphically Breath of Fire is fairly decent. Capcom’s art direction does wonders for the game’s world and it even has a day/night cycle which affects gameplay. In combat the sprites are medium sized but feature fully animated attacks to compensate. The various spells and transformations feature some nice effects which at least makes the frequent battles visually interesting to look at.   The game’s soundtrack is amazing with many catchy tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place in Ghouls n Ghosts, not that I’m complaining.

Overall in spite of its issues Breath of Fire is still a solid RPG. For a first time effort Capcom knocked it out of the park in some areas and had room to improve in others, which they would (without some more growing pains) in future sequels.

7-out-of-10

 

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The Adventures of Batman & Robin

Disappointing games are a dime a dozen, with many aiming for greatness and falling far short. Bad games are quickly forgotten yet it is the games that were on the cusp of greatness that seem to leave the most lasting impression. The Adventures of Batman & Robin is one of those games. There are so many likable elements to the game the fact that it falls apart so spectacularly in its second half is a god damn crime. Only the most patient gamers on the planet or those armed with a Game Genie will have the fortitude to see this to its conclusion which is a shame as it could have been truly special with some balancing.

Mr. Freeze has declared war on Gotham, with plans to freeze the city for…..reasons. As a distraction he enlists the aid of some of Batman’s most infamous rogues such as the Joker, Two-Face and the Mad Hatter. Going with Mr. Freeze as the main villain is an odd choice but certainly welcome as just about every other Batman game ends with a confrontation with the Joker. Here they get it right out of the way as he is one of the first bosses you’ll face. Not that the “story” actually matters of course but it is something different.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin came from Clockwork Tortoise, a relatively new developer comprised of former Malibu Interactive employees. I’ve played some of their prior work and none of it showed that these guys were capable of pushing the hardware to this extent. But great graphics do not make a classic game and if they had spent less time polishing the graphics and more on the gameplay this could have joined the greats.

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Having said that though, holy shit the graphics! Prepare to see your Sega Genesis do things you never thought possible. Even with technical monsters such as Vectorman and Toy Story on the same platform I’m still pretty confident in saying no other game pushed this aging hardware as hard as Batman and Robin. Line scrolling is used on almost every element of the game’s exquisite backgrounds, giving them a three dimensional look. Once you take flight in the Batwing and see this effect on all of the buildings and the view all the way down to street level your jaw will drop. The special effects don’t end there as there are scaling sprites, transparencies (well as good as they could manage on the Genesis), color cycling a la Chrono Trigger and incredibly realistic lighting. I don’t know who developer Clockwork Tortoise are but they must have possessed some kind of magic to achieve this level of finesse with their first game.

The art style is incredibly dark, much darker than Konami’s SNES game yet still manages to capture the stylized look of the show to an extent. The boss battles are especially a highlight as each of Batman’s rogues dons some manner of large contraption to do battle. Admittedly these seem incredibly out of place but you’ll be so awed by the production values that I’m pretty sure most won’t care. The sprites are small but that is so the game can pack the screen full of enemies without a hint of slowdown, which it does frequently. It is in this regard that the game stumbles considerably.

Unlike the typical brawlers that comprise nearly all of the caped crusader’s games this has more in common with Gunstar Heroes or if you go back even further, Revenge of the Joker. Both Batman and Robin use projectiles as their standard attack but will switch to a variety of melee attacks when in close. Weapons come in the form of batarangs, shuriken, and bolos (never, ever switch from bolos) which vary in terms of power and can be upgraded multiple levels. Speaking of power, when not attacking a small power meter fills up which increases the strength of your chosen weapon, usually allowing it to plow through multiple enemies at once.

All of that power means very little however as the difficulty is off the scale. I’m not joking when I say more than likely you’ll punch a wall or slam a controller in frustration. Enemies attack in large groups and never, ever let up from the moment the game starts. Even Gunstar Heroes and Contra Hard Corps are not this bad at their highest levels. At least initially if you take things at a measured pace you can make decent progress. Despite the constant horde of enemies the game is not stingy with hearts, weapons, and screen clearing bombs to help you out. The game is greatly varied in its first half as you swing from ledges and pummel thugs into the pavement and if it had maintained this same pace for all of its four multi-level stages than the challenge could at least be forgiven.

However while the early stages of the game are manic but manageable that completely goes out the window starting with level three. At this point there are so many enemies that require multiple hits to destroy that if you aren’t fully powered up you’ll die in seconds. It’s also evident that the developers had to rush to finish the game as the final two levels drag on way too long and recycle the same enemies to the point of absurdity. The spark that made the beginning stages so great is missing which sucks because the last levels are astounding from an artistic standpoint. Too bad they are such a slog to get through that you won’t even care.

The Adventures of Batman & Robin is not a terrible game, just incredibly disappointing. With its production values it had the potential to be one of the best games of the 16-bit era but is weighed down by terrible balance and pacing. The high difficulty will deter most from seeing all the game has to offer, to which I say slap in a few cheat codes if only to see what these developers managed to wring out of the system.

7-out-of-10

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The Adventures of Bayou Billy

The Adventures of Bayou Billy should have been a great game. And in fact it is in its original Japanese form as Mad City. But someone decided to screw with the game’s balance for…..reasons and ruined what should have been another feather in Konami’s cap. Bayou Billy is an aggravating game not just because it is insanely difficult but because above all the frustration you can see the awesome game underneath. However it isn’t worth pursuing unless you have a cheat device on hand or just buy the Japanese version.

“Bayou” Billy Lane’s girlfriend Annabelle has been kidnapped by Godfather Gordon and now he has to brave the numerous traps put in his path to reach Gordon’s and save his girl. Let’s not dance around it, Bayou Billy is Crocodile Dundee. And for those of you too young to know who that is look it up. Whether it was done to avoid buying the official license we’ll never know but I don’t blame Konami. The character of Crocodile Dundee and the film were ripe for a video game with numerous set pieces and kind of beat em up gameplay Konami would become famous for. But the increased difficulty for the international versions of the game ruin it.

For the vast majority of the game this is a beat em up in the style of Double Dragon. Billy is armed with a punch, kick, and a jump kick and that’s about it. Small range of moves aside once you encounter your first generic enemy the problems are immediately apparent. These bastards take far too many hits to go down, have an insanely fast recovery time and will counterattack before you can move. More than likely you won’t walk away from any encounter without losing some health and unfortunately they attack in groups of two or three. Defeated enemies drop life restoring chicken regularly but trust me, it doesn’t help. If you come across a weapon hold on to it for dear life, especially the whip. It isn’t just the side scrolling sections of the game that have been touched however.

While mostly a brawler Bayou Billy spans two other genres, driving and shooting. The driving portions puts you behind the wheel of Billy’s jeep as you race to the finish before time runs out. You have less time than in the Japanese version so you have to stay at full speed to reach the exit but that isn’t realistically possible. Unfortunately the slightest touch from anything causes the car to blow up, other cars, the posts in the road and the bombs constantly dropped by fighter jets. Once again, Mad City gave you a full life bar which made it manageable. Considering you only have a few continues they’ll disappear pretty fast.

Possibly the worst of all three styles are the shooter segments. Using the NES zapper the game more or less becomes Operation Wolf as you take out enemies while the screen scrolls. The odds are stacked against you from the get go: you only have fifty bullets with ammo drops being scarce. If you run out at any point you die. These levels are long with multiple stops that unleash a wave of enemies before you can move on. Every single shot has to count if you want to reach the end level bosses with enough ammo to last. I don’t get why they decided to reduce the starting bullet count from 150 to 50 but it was just flat out stupid.

It can’t be stated enough how ridiculously hard the game is but it wasn’t always like this. Konami raised the difficulty considerably in favor of the AI for no apparent reason and it hurts the game overall. I find it hilarious that there is a practice mode that has shorter versions of each play style as if that actually helps. If you play Mad City you’ll find a far more balanced game that is in line with Konami’s other NES titles which will allow you to appreciate the craftsmanship in the game.

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All of the game’s flaws are compounded by the fact that the rest of the package is still vintage Konami. The graphics are great; the sprites are large and well detailed and the backgrounds are spectacular. The game supposedly takes place in Louisiana but outside of the token swamps this could be anywhere. There is some sprite flickering at times but it is rare. Even the music is pretty catchy but the likelihood of anyone outside of those equipped with game genie’s bothering to see all of this stuff is small.

The Adventures of Bayou Billy is a rare misstep from Konami during a period where they were almost untouchable. Had the game came over in its original form we would all be singing its praises instead of tossing it in worst NES game of all time lists.

4-out-of-101

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Super Turrican 2

1995 saw the 16-bit generation go through a downward spiral as the promise of the new 32-bit platforms could not be ignored. 3-d graphics at home was a big draw along with all the new possibilities it could bring. This left the SNES and Genesis looking a bit long in the tooth as many gamers moved on. There were many brilliant games released at the tail end of their lifespans and Super Turrican 2 is one of them. Factor 5 pushed the SNES pretty hard to create this monster and their effort shows as it is a graphical force to be reckoned with. While it strays from what made Turrican as a whole unique the quality of its action makes up for it as it is one of the best pure action games for the system.

Super Turrican 2’s weapon selection is kept pretty light however that doesn’t affect the proceedings too much. The standard machine gun can be upgraded to a wider spread gun, the laser is more powerful and will slightly bend to follow a target, and there’s a flame thrower that I never found too interesting. There’s also a bouncing shot that moves like a slinky; it’s kind of weird as can also bounce in the air too. There are homing missiles, a shield, and smart bombs too but these are rarer. Two of the series staples, the freeze beam and the energy wheel, see little use however, to the point where I even forgot they were in the game. What does see heavy usage is the grappling beam lifted from Mega Turrican. The swing mechanics aren’t the most refined but you’ll have to get used to it as nearly every stage will force you to make extensive use of this feature.

The level design in the game is a huge departure from prior games in the series, focusing less on wide open expanses and more on action movie set pieces. Nearly every level is an event unto itself that keeps the game exciting at every turn. Jumping from worm to worm in the second level is a rush and is followed by a ride in the clouds on the undercarriage of a plane that is reminiscent of Contra III. There is one level that hearkens back to the series roots as you pilot a jet bike undersea in a nonlinear sequence to deactivate a series of shields.

The variety continues in the numerous vehicle levels that see you piloting a variety of craft through obstacle laden courses. There’s even a vertical shooting level that pays homage to Axelay with its viewpoint that is simply fantastic. True, the constant switching up of play styles can feel disjointed however they are all done extremely well at the very least and keep the game from falling into a rut.

Overall the game is pretty difficult due to myriad factors. I found the weapons aren’t as powerful as they should be leading to boss battles dragging on. Combined with a clock that seems to tick a bit too fast it’s not out of the realm of possibility to kill a boss without enough time to reach the exit. Not being able to shoot upwards or even diagonally is also extremely limiting and not in a good way. While the Mode 7 boss fights look impressive they are also extremely confusing to watch, let alone participate in. You’ll suffer a number of cheap deaths without knowing how or why. Lastly the limited continues mean starting over from the beginning is a bitter pill to swallow, especially as the game is pretty long.

While Super Turrican 2 has done an excellent job of bringing the action up to the level of other titles in the genre it has strayed from what made the series unique. All of the Turrican games have featured wide open levels for you to explore with plenty of secrets to make it worthwhile. There is only one set path through nearly all of the levels here, with the restrictive time limit doing its best to discourage any thoughts of wandering off that path. To those looking for a pure action title none of this will matter. But for long time fans of the series Super Turrican 2 will come across as a mild disappointment.

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What no one will complain about are the game’s production values. Factor 5 bring their technical prowess to the game’s art direction and have produced one of the best looking SNES games. The art direction and vistas are simply incredible and make full use of the system’s wide color palette to paint its beautiful backdrops. The cutscenes made use of pre-rendered art that was fairly impressive for the time, especially considering some of it is animated. Mode 7 is prevalent throughout the game in its numerous vehicle sequences and boss battles. Though heavily pixelated these segments are still impressive in their ambition if a little bit dated. The music is similarly fantastic, making rare use of Dolby Surround Sound to pump out its amazing soundtrack. It’s not to the level of its predecessor but this is still a damn find OST.

As the last official game release in the series Super Turrican 2 had a lot to live up to. On the one hand it fails to continue the series trademark features but at the same time keeps just enough to remain enticing to its fans. Either way whether you are a long term Turrican fan or just like action games in general there is plenty to like here as it is still an excellent game.

9-out-of-10

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Granzort

Keith Courage in the Alpha Zones was a middling experience at best, only remembered because it was the pack-in game with the Turbo Grafx-16. Let’s be honest, most of us would never have bought the game separately as it was just so bland. Despite outward appearances Granzort is not a sequel to that game but is just as disappointing. It isn’t unreasonable to expect games for a new platform to impress right out of the gate and Granzort fails spectacularly in that regard. The Supergrafx was doomed to failure before it launched and that exact reasoning more than anything is the only reason Granzort is even remembered at all.

Granzort is a licensed tie-in to the animated series Madō King Granzort and doesn’t so much follow the plot of the series as it uses its heroes to star in a side scrolling action game. In the series the Moon develops air that allows humanity to populate it and turn it into a tourist attraction. Soon however mankind realizes they are not alone and find themselves caught up in a war between two sides. 3 young boys are given weapons that allow them to summon mecha with special powers to help them fight.

The armored robots are the only interesting item from that premise and so the developers wisely chose to leave out their human counterparts. At any time you can switch between the three robots; red Granzort, with his sword and earthquake powers, green Winzart, with his bow and flight, and blue Aquabeat, equipped with a flail and the power to create a force field. The levels are pretty large with the path to the exit rarely being a straight line. Between the three robots the stages encourage exploration to look for power-ups or extra lives, especially since one hit equals death. If you’re looking for additional weapons aside from what each bot is equipped with you can forget it. The only things you’ll find most of the time are a shield to soak up one hit, invincibility and copious amounts of extra lives.

With their varying weapons and powers you would think the game would be set up to make you constantly switch characters but that isn’t the case. Winzart is just so much more useful than everyone else that I spent 95% of my time using him. Being able to snipe enemies from long distance is invaluable plus he can fire diagonally. If you manage your boost you can fly almost indefinitely and butt bounce enemies. The game is just heavily stacked in his favor. His attack power is weak which I guess is supposed to be his drawback but it doesn’t even factor. With turbo fire you can lock down enemies before they can move. Outside of one particular boss battle Aquabeat is completely useless and as much as I like using a sword it can’t compete.

It can’t be stated enough just how easy Granzort is despite the one hit deaths. The game literally throws extra lives at your feet if you do even the bare minimum of exploration. You’re not finding individual 1-ups but clusters of 3-6. It’s ridiculous. By the end of the second level I had 13 lives just as an example and toward the end of the game I had accrued 35. I suppose this is to make up for the lack of a life bar but anyone with some measure of skill will breeze through the game, especially if you rely on Winzart. Even the majority of the boss battles fail to provide any sort of challenge until the last few stages. You’ll have the game licked in 30 minutes and will never want to touch it again.

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The game’s production values are lacking in comparison to the best Hucard games and are barely any better than first generation Genesis or Super NES titles. The extra grunt provided by the Supergrafx is used to produce more colorful visuals and backgrounds with a layer of scrolling which is laughable considering games like Aero Blasters or Sinistron achieved the same feat. The game is noticeably dark with little enemy variety and the environments start to blend together in the game’s latter half. I’m struggling to find something positive to say but really this comes across as a halfhearted effort.

A middling quest, extremely low difficulty, and bare bones gameplay is pretty damning as the game is a little expensive due to its rarity. That’s not even taking into account that you’ll have to buy a Super Grafx as well, which I’ll just say good luck with that. As the flagship title for the Super Grafx Granzort disappoints on almost every level. Whether it is its sub par graphics, lacking gameplay or an overall combination of both there are many Hucard titles that put this to shame. At that point why even bother with the system upgrade in the first place? Like Keith Courage Granzort is merely a footnote in gaming history.

5-out-of-101

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Uchuu Keibitai SDF

I’d say we received a pretty solid spectrum of shoot em up choices in the US when it comes to the NES. There are some dogs but the classics outweigh them. But even with that in mind there were still plenty of classics from big publishers that slipped through the cracks. How bizarre is it that Konami passed on Gradius 2 and Parodius? Hal Labs was no stranger to the NES with nearly all of their games hitting our shores but one curious exception would be Uchuu Keibitai SDF, a really cool shooter that shames most of the genre on the system. This hidden gem backs up its exorbitant price with good design and is one of the better games for the NES if you can find it.

Collecting any weapon pod will attach two satellites to the front of your ship. These fire your weapons and can act as a shield to absorb a hit but can also be destroyed. At the touch of a button they can be sent to the sides where they will fire homing missiles rather than the current option. The weapon selection is pretty light and while serviceable I do wish there were a few more options. The laser is obviously the most powerful but suffers from a narrow attack radius. The wide beam fires in three directions but will also change to the opposite of your movements. It sounds confusing and it is which is why I don’t really like it. The spread shot is my personal favorite as it covers a nice arc but lacks power.   Honestly while all of them have their uses there is no overwhelming favorite that is ideal in every situation which can be attributed to the level design.

The game uses a wider playing field than normal which does take some getting used to. Generally the game does a good job of making sure off screen enemies will not attack you unless you are herded in their particular direction. The level design is a bit odd in that sometimes there are entire chunks that can be avoided if you stick to one side of the screen but more often than not you will be ushered in whatever direction the designers want you to go. Each stage tends to vacillate between open areas and tight corridors that forces encounters which is necessary as the more methodical pace can be a bit boring at times.

I’ve frequently mentioned stages but in this case that isn’t so clear. There are no traditional level breaks outside of the few times the screen fades to black and you are in an all new area. After defeating what are very clearly supposed to be end level bosses the game will simply continue on its merry way. Its odd and few games do this like Truxton. Uchuu Keibitai is decently long by shooter standards and if I were to hazard a guess I would say there are about 8 or 9 “levels”, plenty to keep you busy for a while by genre standards.

In terms of difficulty the game puts up a fight but is also fair. The slow pace doesn’t hide the fact that the enemies are pretty aggressive and attack in large numbers. Despite large swaths of the game taking place in open spaces there are just as many tight corridors filled with turrets which make your choice of weapon all the more important. Weapon drops are frequent enough that even if you die it will only take seconds before another power-up appears. Unlike most games I found the journey to each boss more challenging than the actual battles themselves; despite their imposing appearance the bosses are pushovers in my opinion. All in all the balance is about perfect outside of the incredibly cheap closing gates that give no indication that you will die if you are on the wrong side. Overall though I wish more shooters were more along the lines of this rather than being soul crushingly hard.

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Although it doesn’t look it at first glance Uchuu Keibitai SDF is a technically accomplished game. No matter how hectic the game gets (which is often) it rarely if ever suffers any slowdown. While it primarily takes place against an empty space background the times where you fly through enemy bases or planet side are filled with extremely detailed backdrops and even layers of scrolling on the same level as Crisis Force. The frequent bosses pit you against large motherships that are creatively designed and quite unlike any other shooter for the system. This is one of the better looking titles for the system let alone one of its best in terms of graphics.

Seeing as nearly every other Hal Labs game was released worldwide I’m surprised this never came to the US. It required no localization and was certainly better than similar titles such as Starship Hector and Image Fight. Without question this is one of the better shooters on the platform unfortunately its low profile also means it is also expensive.

8-out-of-101

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Kidou Butoden G-Gundam

I have mixed feelings about the various Mobile Suit Gundam series but the one thing I can say for sure is that I hate Gundam Seed. And that I kind of like G-Gundam. G-Gundam absolutely embraces its stupidity and whether I actually like it or not I can at least respect that. The entire premise behind this particular edition of the series was definitely inspired by the fighting game craze (namely Street Fighter) so of course a game would accompany it. Yet despite its foundations Kidou Butoden G-Gundam is only a slightly above average fighting game and one that cannot hold your attention for long. This should have turned out so much better.

In the world of G-Gundam there is no war. Instead a tournament is held every four years called the Gundam Fight in which each nation sends there representative Gundam to compete for sovereignty over all countries until the next tournament. Clearly this setup was inspired by a certain series about fighting in the streets and plays out just like an animated version of that game, complete with over the top attacks and ridiculously stereotyped mechs from each country.

The very concept of G-Gundam is practically made for a fighting game so the fact that it turned out so tepid is disappointing. Part of what makes this so average isn’t that it borrows so much from Street Fighter but that it doesn’t execute on those elements as well. From its imprecise recognition of button inputs to its small roster this really should have turned out better. What content is present is decent but you’ll quickly end up going back to far superior fighting games in short order.

The roster is small but manages to include the most of the popular characters from the show. The characters are mostly substitutes for your favorite Street Fighter personalities, with the Dragon Gundam functioning as your Dhalsim stand-in and the Bolt Gundam playing like a slightly faster Zangief. You’ll be surprised to learn that main hero Domon does not in fact play like Ryu. However! The game has that niche covered with God Gundam, his alternate which fulfills that role. With that in mind Gundam Maxter and the Master Gundam are the Ken to its Ryu. The rest of the cast are more unique with the fast moving and awesome Gundam Spiegel being my favorite. I just wish there were more of them.

The roster is my largest issue with the game. There’s no getting around the fact that nearly all of the Mobile Suits representing the various countries are offensive and borderline racist, taking numerous stereotypes to the extreme. Gundam Maxter of the US is an amalgamation of various sports equipment and that’s a tame example, don’t get me started on the Tequila and Zebra Gundam. That being said they would have made excellent fodder for an expanded roster. Unfortunately the game has a paltry list of 10 with 4 of those being clones of each other. I realize clones save time and resources but this is a bit extreme. Christ there were well over 50 Gundams in the show they could have tossed in, how cheap can you be?

Despite the surface similarities to Capcom’s classic the fighting engine here doesn’t quite come together. Hit detection is all over the place with moves that clearly should not connect registering a hit while others have insane priority. Because your moves don’t flow together combos are nearly non-existent; you’ll be lucky to pull off a two-in-one at most. Many of the special moves look pretty cool but suffer from such short range that they are next to useless. The timing of your button inputs has to be near perfect for certain special moves to execute as well. Because of all these flaws the game plays more like a brawler which is ultimately unsatisfying.

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In terms of presentation the game is in line with other similar games released in 1994. The Mobile Suits are larger than your average fighting game sprite with some decent animation. The show produced all manner of flashy special moves for each mech that have been faithfully recreated here. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed and go through a day time cycle with each round. Had the game been released a year before it would have been more impressive; by late 1994 the stellar ports of Super Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat 2 were on the market, making this less notable in comparison.

Overall G-Gundam is decent for what it is but the fact that there isn’t as much content and that the SNES has so many better fighting games makes it a less than attractive proposition. The broken fighting engine means there isn’t much depth to the game and you’ll be done with it in just a few hours, if that. There are far too many better options to bother.

6-out-of-10-1

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Outrun

I love Outrun and it’s funny to track my history with the series as I came to it in a backwards fashion. The pretty good Master System conversion was my first exposure to it and while good my mind was blown upon seeing the arcade game. The ridiculous number of scaling sprites was practically a revelation. Upon learning about the Genesis version years later my expectations were tempered; games like Afterburner 2 and Hang-on (which used the same tech) turned out pretty bad. My trepidation was unwarranted however as Sega did a bang up job with this port. Obvious technical shortcomings aside you would be hard pressed to see a better job on this hardware.

Creator Yu Suzuki billed outrun as a driving game rather than a straight racer. The exotic locations and especially the Ferrari Testarossa help sell the idea that you are on a leisurely drive at nearly 200 mph with your lady in the passenger seat. It’s a lot like Rad Racer (well I guess it’s the other way around) except far cooler. The deluxe sit down cabinet replicated the interior of the vehicle complete with gear shift and force feedback and is a machine I count myself lucky to have experienced once or twice. The game was a significant leap forward in the genre thanks to its technology that helped sell the idea of hills and undulating tracks convincingly. There were many ports of Outrun for nearly every platform but the Genesis version for the longest time was the best money could buy. Although stripped down this is still a pretty damn good game and one that is still incredibly fun today.

The goal of the game isn’t to come first against a set number of competitors but to simply reach one of the five end goals before time runs out. There is no set route but instead a massive number of branching paths with set checkpoints in between that you can choose from as you go along. These branches correspond to an easy or hard path with a suitable amount of traffic and lurching turns to match. All told there are 15 tracks with a single game comprising five stages. The nonlinear nature of each run gives the game far more replay value than your average racing title and is part of what makes the game so fun. While challenging there are six difficulty levels which makes this extremely accommodating.

The course design is generally excellent with a great amount of trackside detail and enough wild turns that will really test your driving skills.   Outrun more so than any other racing game taught me the value of switching from high to low gear in order to better navigate turns. I was the type of guy who preferred to barrel into corners at top speed and just barely avoid crashing by mildly tapping the accelerator to avoid losing too much speed. That approach can work here but isn’t optimal, especially as the game is pretty ruthless when it comes to time. There is very little margin for error and once time runs out it is immediately game over. While soul crushing any given run takes about 20-30 minutes on average so it doesn’t feel too punishing. The game is so fun that more than likely you’ll be itching to jump back in for one more game!

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Any home port of Outrun was going to suffer in translation however all things considered the Genesis version turned out better than expected. All of the crazy twists, turns, and hills from the arcade have been recreated in exacting detail. The numerous routes are all visually varied with some pretty unique settings that weren’t typical in games such as the Swiss Alps, rolling wheat fields, and even Stonehenge. While the look is faithful the scrolling is incredibly choppy in motion. The Super-Scaler tech Sega used at the time was pretty advanced so it is amazing that they were able to approximate the look at all. The choppiness is noticeable but not distracting; this conversion fared a lot better than Galaxy Force 2 and Super Thunder Blade in that regard.

You can’t talk about Outrun without mentioning its fantastic soundtrack. All 3 classic tunes (the dubiously named Magical Sound Shower, Splash Wave, and Passing Breeze) are here in their synthy glory with the genesis producing bass heavy renditions of each. There’s even an exclusive new track (Step on Beat) that is pretty good and fits in with the other three. The only negative in the sound department would be that the sound effects cut out at times which is distracting.

The Genesis version of Outrun is an amazing conversion of a legendary game, one of its better ports, and easily one of the best racing games for the system. While I would recommend Outrun Coast to Coast first to anyone interested in the series Sega did a spectacular job and the game is still worth owning today.

8-out-of-101

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Spartan X2

Looking back I have fond memories of Kung-Fu for NES. If you were there when the NES launched it was slim pickings for the first year so more than likely many played it and were done with it in an hour or so. At the time I was not aware it was not only an arcade port but also loosely based on the Jackie Chan movie Meals on Wheels. That last point is important as Kung-Fu received a Japan only sequel titled Spartan X2. I’m curious as to why no one picked it up for worldwide release; for God sake Master Chu and the Drunken Hu left China somehow! Anyway while Spartan X2 is improved in many categories it is simply above average when compared to many of the later brawlers released at the same time in 1991.

Like many Kung-Fu was one of the first NES games I ever played and while I might not have realized it back then its design had a huge impact on how I would approach games in general. Kung-Fu was a simple game but its use of enemies with different attacks, bosses with specific patterns and such was the first time I had ever encountered such design elements. The skills I built plowing through the game in record time have continued to serve me well in my gaming career (that sounds so corny.) as I can pick up on these elements in seconds in any game.

To an extent all of that still exists in Spartan X2 however it has been simplified even more. Thomas returns with all of his moves from the previous game with a few additions. By crouching you can build up a charge to unleash a mean uppercut that is strong enough to send even bosses flying back. The over the shoulder throw however is useless. It requires precise positioning and timing to execute and isn’t worth it when a simple kick or uppercut will suffice. Unfortunately there is little reason to use any other move than kicks as the brain dead enemies will simply rush you every time. Every now and again you’ll get some brave soul who will swing by on a chain but for the majority of the game this is what you’ll “deal” with. The subtlety of different enemy combinations is gone and with that the game is simply a mindless brawler.

Aside from the zombie like enemies the game is insanely easy. Your life bar is overly generous to an extent rarely seen in an action game let alone a side scrolling brawler. Getting hit or grabbed has little danger since you have so much health and you can get away with a lot of sloppy play. Part of what made Kung-Fu so challenging was the fact that if you screwed up and used the wrong attack on an enemy your life bar could be sapped in seconds. Prioritizing enemies played a large role as the knife throwing bastards or the midgets would get in cheap hits. Almost none of that is present as nearly every enemy walks into your fists in a straight line.

It isn’t until the latter half of the game that it picks up slightly. Here you’ll deal with soldiers that will attempt to tackle you, jet pack wielding bad asses, and even ninjas. They still go down in one hit but their placement and numbers might make you sweat. A little. The boss battles are just as easy as the rest of the game as it is pretty simple to trap them in the corner and wail away. That is with the exception of Murder Lin. This knife tossing bad ass was legitimately hard and almost made me slam my controller in frustration. I haven’t done that since the early 90s!

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I have my issues with the gameplay but the game’s presentation has seen a considerable upgrade. Your adventure is no longer confined to a single pagoda but instead is a worldwide drug busting tour. The frequent change in scenery does wonders to keep you interested in progressing as there is a suitable amount of detail in the backgrounds. The sprites are smaller but are far more detailed and better animated with the only black mark being some slowdown in a few spots. Even the music is excellent but repetitive as there are only a few songs.

Spartan X2 is not a bad game but also is simply unremarkable. Like its predecessor it is very short and can be completed in less than 30 minutes. Unfortunately it also cannot fall back on the excuse that there isn’t anything else out on the market to warrant replaying it multiple times. I will say however that I enjoyed the brief time I spent with it. For those interested in its story there is a fan translation although you can probably guess the plot either way as it is pretty standard police stuff.

7-out-of-10-1

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Darius Twin

When the SNES first launched it was kind of funny to see all of the shooters released with crippling slowdown. Some of these were absolutely dire like Super R-Type and Gradius III despite still turning out pretty good. Meanwhile the less ambitious games within the genre turned out alright. Darius Twin is a forgotten relic of that early period for a number of reasons. While decent it is also forgettable as it simply lacks the excitement of the many superior titles around that time frame like U.N. Squadron and Space Megaforce.

Calling Darius Twin a console exclusive is only half correct. In truth the game lifts many of its elements from both Darius I & II. About half of the bosses and even stage themes and backgrounds come from those prior games. Calling this Darius Remix would have been more appropriate. Still it isn’t all recycled content and the new levels created for the game do give a glimpse of what could have been if this were a completely new game. The game desperately needed that spark as it is pretty bland overall. Darius was notable for 3 things: its branching paths, the triple monitor setup in the arcade, and the fish themed enemies. Take away the monitor setup and a half assed branching path system and you are left with a slow game where you shoot robot fish. Doesn’t sound very exciting does it?

At its heart the game is pretty simple with very few weapon upgrades and a slow pace. That wouldn’t be damning in itself but the slower pace leaves the game feeling incredibly boring. Despite the steady stream of enemies they don’t seem the slightest bit interested in your presence. The occasional mid-level boss will pose a threat but those are generally slightly bigger regular enemies. The game simply moves at its meandering pace and even the inclusion of coop fails to generate any excitement.

One of the most crucial features of any Darius title, the branching paths, is present here but is implemented so badly that it is insulting. There are far less levels, cut down from a robust 28 to a mere 12. The few choices available on the map are largely irrelevant as both stages are almost always a simple palette swap of each other. The one or two times they differ you’re facing the exact same enemies anyway. It not only cheapens this feature but severely cuts down on the replay value as well.

The Darius series is noted for its difficulty with this game being somewhat of an exception. Despite the fact that the enemies seem to lack any drive in seeking you out they take many hits before death and attack in large groups. The game does a good job of making sure you are almost always equipped with a shield of varying strength which helps but once it’s gone you’ll die in seconds. Once you’ve acquired some firepower however it is easy to breeze through the game as the bosses are the only ones that pose a threat.

A large part of the difficulty comes from the lacking weapons. Aside from the primary laser and shield your only other option is a four way laser that is nearly useless. Between both weapons it will take until the middle of the game before they are sufficiently powered up to a decent level to make any real difference. The game wisely lets you keep all weapons collected upon death unlike nearly every other shooter otherwise this would have been impossible otherwise. The addition of at least one or two other choices would have made significant impact on the game and relieved some of the boredom.

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In terms of presentation the game is solid if a bit lazy. The fish themed adversaries are certainly unique although they do become repetitive in short order. The backgrounds are pretty lively and feature a decent amount of scrolling although some of these are lifted from prior games. Most importantly however there is no slowdown, which is a god damn miracle for a first generation SNES game. That is due in part to the game’s laid back pace than any technical wizardry however. The Zuntata soundtrack can be good at times but the synthesized music is not a good fit for the SNES and can be grating at times.

The Darius series relies on its few unique features to stand out in a crowded genre. Once those aspects are stripped away or implemented in a lesser form it exposes the generic game underneath. Darius Twin simply does not stand out among the SNES shooter lineup and is largely forgettable because of it.

6-out-of-10-1

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McDonalds Treasure Land Adventure

When Treasure exploded on to the scene with Gunstar Heroes they could do no wrong and for the smart gamers who played it I’m sure there was some anticipation as to what they would do next. Considering their pedigree as Konami veterans who had worked on so many of the classics gamers loved it shouldn’t have been so surprising. Even with that in mind I don’t think anyone expected their next title would not only be licensed but star Ronald McDonald. As if that shock wasn’t enough the game is actually pretty damn good! Much like McKids (I can’t help but chuckle at that name) if you look beyond the silly license you’ll find a good game underneath. McDonalds Treasure Land Adventure is a solid game and far better than you would expect given the subject matter and another notch in Treasure’s belt.

One day Ronald McDonald is out for a stroll when he finds a piece of a treasure map. This piques his curiosity and he sets off to find the other three pieces and discover the hidden treasure. Aside from the presence of Ronald, Grimace, and Birdie the Early Bird you’ll be surprised to learn that the game largely ignores its source material, if you can even call it that. This is a standard action platformer and while it is more restrained than your typical Treasure action game that still basically means it’s better than the majority of the mascot trash that littered the shelves during that era. Unfortunately it also comes across as a bit generic; you could just as easily replaced Ronald with another character and there would be no difference.

Ronald is armed with star magic to defeat enemies and a scarf that can be used as a sling to grab hooks, slide down wires, and grapple to higher ledges. The mechanics are simple but the way they are used can be pretty creative at times. The gold you collect can be used in the various shops scattered about to buy jewels to restore health, continues, balloons to save you from pits, and flowers that can absorb a few hits for you. The jewels are occasionally necessary for progress as one of Ronald’s friends will need some before letting you move on. The game throws so many around that it is rarely an issue however.

The game technically only has four stages but each is split up into multiple segments, sometimes as many as 8 or 9. While a lengthier game gives you more entertainment for your dollar the simple play mechanics do mean the levels feel longer than they should. This isn’t like Sonic the Hedgehog where the many situations in which you can apply your speed and stronger level design keep the game interesting. The few boss battles show some ingenuity and will make you wish there were more sprinkled throughout the game. If this were broken up into 6 or 7 stages of shorter length it would be much better.

The major criticism I have is that the game can be a bit too easy which leads to boredom. Considering this is a licensed title it’s understandable that it is targeting as broad an audience as possible but I feel the game is a bit too forgiving. Aside from finding life restoring jewels everywhere the game also practically showers you with hit absorbing flowers. If for some reason that isn’t enough the copious amounts of gold lying everywhere means you can just as easily walk around fully powered cheaply.

I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a flaw but a missed opportunity; the level design is so well done it’s a shame you’ll breeze through it so fast. Towards the end it picks up slightly but most of the challenge comes from staying interested in some of the longer stages. Global gladiators is a similar title with the same license and showed that it is possible to be g-rated and still have some teeth.

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The graphics are slightly reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog in its use of specific tile sets in its backgrounds except with a Treasure touch. The game is far more reserved in its use of special effects and instead focuses more on good art and great animation. The vivid color palette defies the hardware much like Treasure’s other work. The bosses are the one area the artists went a little nuts as they are all multi-jointed and animated extremely well. The music on the other hand is forgettable. They certainly tried as the soundtrack is loud and a little catchy but nothing you’ll remember once the game is done.

Difficulty and length aside it was startling to see a licensed game crafted with such care. The fact that you could replace Ronald with any other character and the game would still be great says it all. Once you get over the McDonalds thing (which isn’t even all that present throughout) you are left with a good game that had potential to be even better.

7-out-of-10

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Makai Island

As prolific as Capcom were on the NES there was always bound to be a few games that slipped through the cracks. The early years of their publishing saw a consistent string of arcade ports, almost all completely awesome. That would change with the release of Mega Man and more original titles would become the order of the day. Higemaru Makaijima: Nanatsu no Shima Daibouken was a sequel to one of their first arcade games and on the books for a worldwide release as Makai Island. Though complete it was cancelled but the complete English rom is out there.

As a sequel Makai Island only keeps the general gameplay and theme of the first game as the game is now a sprawling adventure rather than a single screen action puzzle game. In many ways you could say this series was the inspiration for Capcom’s later Goof Troop as the similarities are eerily similar. Makai Island stands out as it was Capcom’s first original title for the NES after allowing Micronics to butcher so many of their arcade ports. It was a nice precursor of what was to come and while it has a few flaws Makai Island is a cool little game.

Momotaro returns and retains the ability to pick up and throw objects in the environment, namely barrels and rocks. Rather than dying in a single hit you now have hit points that can stretch into the thousands. Despite the comparisons to Zelda there really aren’t any items or secondary weapons to help in your quest. Food and other one off items will boost your health but the only other quest items are keys, a lamp to unseal one particular island, and hidden items needed to get the best ending.

The world is pretty large with many islands and ships to explore but this has more in common with Zelda than other nonlinear adventure games. The wide open sea gives off the illusion of an open world which is true to an extent. There are plenty of random pirate ships out on the sea that you can board for a brief action sequence but for the most part the adventure is guided. Nearly every island is locked behind a gate or seal that will be unlocked in a specific order. The seven themed islands are basically Zelda dungeons without the puzzles leaving you free to head straight for the boss if you choose. Good luck with that as each is pretty large.

The game’s one main critical flaw is the lack of any real direction. Once you start you are just a ship in the ocean with no goal or guidance given. Through trial and error eventually you’ll stumble onto the one island you can actually access on the other side of the map but that is a long process. A map like Zelda would have done wonders for navigation since you’ll be forced to draw your own. NPCs give incredibly vague clues to your next destination and when you do actually get a map its at the end of the game. Whose bright idea was that?  The later MSX port had arrows that pointed out your next goal which I really wish were present here. Considering this was a 1987 release it can be excused somewhat as pretty much every developer was still learning though it doesn’t make it less frustrating.

In the early stages of the game things are pretty simple but in short order it gets pretty difficult. The amount of damage enemies inflict increases sharply and if you haven’t been diligent about looking for secrets you can die in seconds. You’ll need to develop some accuracy when chucking objects since your supply is limited to what is in each room. This is especially important during boss battles. Though hard the game is still far more approachable than some of Capcom’s other games in the same period.

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The game’s simple visual style belies the great deal of variety that lies underneath. Each island is distinct with its own set of enemies, architecture, and landmarks. Although the pirate theme is ever present the game doesn’t strictly rely on that as there are demons and otherworldly elements thrown in that still feel like they belong. Hebi Island is patterned after Ghosts N Goblins with all of its monsters and its boss taken from that game. It’s a cool homage and if you look close enough there’s even a cameo from Arthur. The only repetitive element would be the pirate ships which all share the same structure and merely reshuffle the layout of their barrels. The musical selection is just as diverse as the islands and fit each perfectly.

Makai Island would have fit in perfectly alongside Zelda and Capcom’s own Section Z as the type of long adventure games you could only get on a home console rather than the quick bite sized action of the arcade. The rest of the world missed out on a cool and ambitious title but that isn’t a factor anymore as the English rom is freely available online.

7-out-of-10

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Nexzr

When you have a genre that is as saturated as shooters on a console it is only a matter of time before the games start to blend together. I like a good outer space romp as much as the next man but good god was it run into the ground in the early to mid-90s. Nexzr bears more than a passing resemblance to Hudson’s Star Soldier series and while that would be damning in most cases the game is at least different to stand on its own. While not wholly original it is still a damn good game that is better than most similar titles for the platform.

In the year 2012 Earth comes under attack by a large invading space armada. As the pilot of the Slasher, the most advanced ship on Earth this is not just a matter of saving the world but a mission of revenge. Your female partner was killed by an unknown armored assailant who is part of the alien fleet. The extensive intro might lead you into believing this is a heavily story driven game like Macross 2036 but that isn’t the case. While the introduction is nice don’t expect to see any more cutscenes until the end of the game.

Surprisingly Nexzr is light on weapons and is disappointing in that regard. Your only option with regards to primary fire is a three-way shot that is less powerful than the standard cannon but its wide firing range leaves huge gaps. There’s no sugar coating it, it sucks. Fortunately your secondary options are far more interesting. There are a variety of bombs and missiles that are all effective in their own right. There are homing lasers, crawl missiles which are basically the same as Gradius that explode on impact and my personal favorite, satellites that aggressively seek out enemies and stick to them like glue. Sadly the shooter staple bombs do not make an appearance which makes the game seem a bit simple but this is anything but. While I have my issues with the paltry weapon selection which partly adds to it but at least they are serviceable.

I found this to be a bit different from your average shmup in that smaller cannon fodder enemies don’t appear in great numbers with a greater emphasis placed on larger mecha and capital ships. Nexzr can be a pretty difficult game due to a number of factors. One hit equals death and you’ll only occasionally receive a shield that can absorb one hit. The game isn’t fast paced however there is rarely a moment where something isn’t shooting at you. Most of your deaths will come from some random bullet that you didn’t keep track of. Death means you’re sent back to a checkpoint and sometimes you’ll have to retrace a significant amount of ground. Oddly enough the end level bosses are incredibly easy to the point I was surprised they were over in less than thirty seconds. The mid-level bosses put up more of a fight if you can believe it.

Although the difficulty curve is a bit steep it isn’t insurmountable. The game is challenging but never comes across cheap however which is the ideal. The generous scoring system means you can rack up extra lives pretty quickly so long as you aren’t a scrub. More than likely you’ll blow threw them by stage four at which point the game becomes vicious. I do find it odd how much I enjoyed the game in spite of some of its flaws but I chalk that up to how engaging the game is in the end despite its simplicity.

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This is a pretty spectacular looking game which is odd considering how little variety there is in settings. Aside from stage six the game takes place completely in space. Without the diversity that comes from visiting different planets the game’s visuals rely completely on its mechanical designs, which it does in spectacular form. The numerous imperial class ships and enemies bear a strong resemblance to Soldier Blade yet still seem unique. The graphics are bright and almost never slow down which is an accomplishment considering how busy the game gets at times. There are only a few cutscenes but they are long and filled with spoken dialogue that even someone like me with a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese can follow. The CD soundtrack is fantastic, full of hard rock tunes that ebb and flow with the action.

Nexzr is a great addition to the TG-16’s shooter library and while it bears some similarities to a few titles still feels unique. There are two versions of the game that are both expensive; the original release and Nexzr Special, which included a few time attack modes as part of the summer carnival of 1993 competition. You’ll be paying a hefty sum either way but I guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth out of it.

8-out-of-101

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Curse

 

I remember seeing Curse in old issues of EGM in their import coverage. The trippy pictures of the box art with its exposed brain inside a mannequin’s head was certainly eye catching. It obviously did not give off the impression that this was a shooter but I’m sure plenty would have looked at it all the same just out of sheer curiosity. The game was scheduled for an US release but mysteriously disappeared. Back in 1989 it would have stood out among the meager offerings of the system but going back and playing it shows that an early release is all it would have had going for it as the game is strictly average.

Curse is what I consider a “safe” game. The type of game that is created early in a system’s life and doesn’t push any boundaries. It does just enough to get by and isn’t exceptional because it needs to get in that early rush when gamers will purchase anything for their shiny new console (see Toshinden). It does everything competently but never crosses over into awesome territory. Many of its best moments will simply remind you of the better games it copies rather than a unique experience unto itself. That being said there is something oddly compelling about the game that I can’t quite put my finger on. While I am a shooter fan I can ignore average games in the genre yet for some strange reason I wanted to see the game all the way through to its conclusion. While it sounds like an endorsement it isn’t enough for me to recommend the game however.

Curse bears a heavy resemblance to R-Type but then again how many shooters don’t? There’s a nice selection of weapons available and the game does a good job providing item drops frequently should you want to switch or if you die. The V-laser and Wide beam are your typical shmup weapons however the Crash shot could have been unique. This weapon fires what looks like a disco ball that explodes on contact and shatters into pieces for splash damage. However it is far too slow to prove effective in most situations.

As in most games of this type there are options that can be attached to your ship and placed either on top or the front and back. It sounds cool but honestly you won’t be making much use of that feature. Atypical of most games in the genre your ship is armed with a shield that can sustain three hits before imploding. Between your shield and the frequent power-ups that replenish it nearly all tension is sapped out of the game. I feel if the game removed the shields it would have been much better for it since you might actually sweat during the levels.

I was thoroughly surprised at the ease with which I blew through the game. None of your weapons are especially strong yet most enemies and bosses go down extremely fast. Occasionally the game will try and pull a fast one with enemies who come from behind or spawn really fast but the generous respawn system means there is little penalty for death. At least until the last level, where you are thrown back to the beginning upon death. That poses little threat however as you will have more than likely racked up extra lives on your way to the finale. With little challenge everyone will tear through the game’s five levels in short order. With little thrills to be had on this half hour tour there is no reason to go back once you’ve seen the credits.

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For the longest time I conflated Micronet with Micronics and went into this expecting the worst but found a game that was technically on the same level as other shooters released in that period such as Whip Rush and Thunder Force 2. It does still share certain lackluster elements of their work however; the backgrounds feature many lines of scrolling but it is jerky with evidence of flicker and slowdown. The game’s color palette is heavily dithered and is distracting. There are some creative creature designs buried underneath the average presentation, most notably the bosses with the game’s box art appearing in game. The music is the standard techno tripe that most shooters resorted to except in this case it is forgettable.

Overall Curse is inoffensive; it doesn’t have any real high points but also doesn’t botch its core gameplay. However that leaves it as an unremarkable game and when you are surrounded by some of the most legendary titles in the genre that simply doesn’t cut it. We missed nothing when its worldwide release fell through.

5-out-of-101

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Rollergames

For the longest time I ignored Rollergames. In my mind I associated it with that corny TV show from 1989 that my mom probably watched and assumed that the game would be more of the same tripe. Well to a certain extent it is. But! Leave it to Konami to take such a simple premise and make a pretty decent platformer out of it. Unlike the arcade game (which they also produced) that was true to the show Rollergames is a brawler/platformer but it doesn’t do either exceptionally well. The execution of its constituent parts is not good enough to make the game enjoyable over the long haul.

Rollergames is based on the TV show from 1989 which saw 6 teams of three competitors battle it out inside a figure 8 track. There was definitely some wrestling style face/heel action going on as the teams were split into the Western Alliance and the Eastern Empire with ongoing story lines played out over the season. That carries over to the game as the Eastern Empire (consisting of the Maniacs, Violators, and Bad Attitude, you know these are the bad guys) kidnap the Rollergames commissioner and for some god forsaken reason only the “good teams’ can save him. Not the cops, dudes on roller skates.

The three selectable teams have their differences but honestly they aren’t as pronounced during gameplay. With three teams you just know they’re going to hit all of the clichés. The T-Birds put you behind a big, slow, and powerful truck of a man, able to knock out most enemies with two combos. The Rockers don’t seem to occupy any one niche and is just…there. Hot Flash puts you in the skates of a leggy model who is equal parts fast and powerful and is my go to. Aside from their physical characteristics they each have a special move that is really hard to pull off consistently, to the point where I didn’t even bother. You aren’t locked in to any one choice as each level lets you switch it up, not that it was necessary.

Calling this a brawler is a bit disingenuous. The majority of enemies you’ll encounter, from the rollerblading Guile lookalikes to bats and hawks will go down in one hit. The end of each section will usually throw 5 or six bad guys in pairs that take a little more time to go down. These are usually followed up with a boss battle of some kind and are the only parts of the game where you’ll really notice the differences between characters.

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With less combat a large part of the focus is on platforming and that’s where the problems begin. Because you are gliding around on skates momentum plays a part in how far you move. The physics governing your speed and such are less than ideal however and with the viewpoint comes many frustrating deaths. Games like Konami’s own Ninja Turtles brawlers use the same viewpoint but wisely shy away from the type of precision platforming present here. In some ways it’s similar to Double Dragon with the added element of imprecise movement due to the skates on your feet. There’s some strong level design present that is vintage Konami but unfortunately you’ll have to deal with some jank to see it all.

It really shouldn’t come as any surprise then that Rollergames is incredibly difficult and not always for the right reasons. The game leans heavily on memorization like Battletoads and fortunately it isn’t as punishing as that title but it does come close. The forced scrolling levels are especially guilty of this as you’ll only have a second or two to either jump or move to the appropriate location or die. What should have been a welcome challenge of pace comes across as really cheap as a result.

Outside of that probably the main issue is the clock: because the clock ticks pretty fast it urges you to always stay on the move which unfortunately leads to many mistakes and cheap deaths. You can’t rush any of the platforming sections; at least not until you’ve learned the layouts which will take some time. The physics aren’t perfect and combined with the viewpoint and wonky momentum prepared to die a lot. These issues are pretty severe but not game breaking in my opinion. It’s just that these are the types of problems that really stick out when the rest of the game is so damn good.

Rollergames surprised me. I went into it not expecting much beyond a cheesy licensed cash-in and found a cool brawler instead. With just a few small tweaks this could have been really great instead of frustrating and I applaud Konami for trying something different but that still doesn’t mean it will be to everyone’s liking.

6-out-of-101

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Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition

The anticipation for the Saturn port of Daytona USA was only matched by the disappointment of its technical shortcomings. For those that stuck with it the gameplay was more or less accurate but it’s kind of hard to appreciate when the game is damn near building the track right in front of your face. The message reached Sega loud and clear and so Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition was created as an apology in the same way that Virtua Fighter Remix made an already good game better. However unlike that title CCE doesn’t complete address the original’s flaws. Whether you can overlook that comes down to personal preference.

Forget about all of the other additions for a second, the primary reason for this version of the game to exist was to fix the first game’s technical flaws. On that front there is some good and some bad. The frame rate has been raised to a more consistent 30 which is amazing all things considered. Daytona pits you up against 19-39 other competitors and for the fps to still be that high is a miracle. Considering the vast majority of racing games from that era only bothered to fill their tracks with 5-8 rivals it makes the work Sega did here even more impressive.

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It does come with a cost however. The ridiculous clipping and draw-in returns and is just as bad and in some cases even worse than before. I’m not exaggerating when I say large chunks of geometry will magically appear within seconds and the effect is jarring. Sega’s AM3 division did the majority of the grunt work on this and it’s disappointing they did not apply some of the technique’s they employed with Sega Rally (smart placement of background objects and such) to reduce or hide it.

The wealth of additional options and content make up for it in my opinion. The additional handling options really open the game up to novices as the arcade’s controls took a bit of an adjustment. Now you have the option of Slow, normal, and quick steering. The quick option lets you drift a little more, not to the extent of a Ridge Racer but less rigid. The braking is still a damn mystery to me but it could just be that I’m not very good at the game. Four new cars bring the roster up to a total 9 with some obviously performing better on certain tracks. Curiously the original Daytona car is not part of the starting lineup but once you unlock it you’ll why, its game breaking. The last piece that was missing from the original was multiplayer and that has been added in the form of two-player splitscreen Mario Kart style. The frame rate takes a hit which is to be expected but it is still playable although less than ideal.

The main attraction is of course the courses of which there are five. The previous three return but are slightly remixed enough that they seem familiar but also have new routes. The two new courses however are amazing. National Park Speedway takes place alongside an amusement park complete with Ferris wheels, a moving roller coaster and seaside buildings. Desert City is a narrow pass that features some of the most daunting turns in the game. It also has some nice scenery such as hot air balloons and a train running throughout the course.

As an extra kick in the nuts the Japanese version of the game was significantly improved over what we received the US and UK. The clipping was reduced significantly alongside new background textures. The option to race at different times of day is present which, while minor, does add to the atmosphere. Especially nighttime driving, it is awesome! For those that missed the fruity vocal tracks from B-UNIV they are present along with the remixes for a full audio package that gives you a choice no matter your preference. Not that many actually bought it but this version of the game also had Netlink support for online play. It should be noted that the Netlink edition of the game released in 1997 had all of these extras but it is also possibly the rarest Saturn game in the US.

While a slight misstep (at least in the US) to create the definitive home version of Daytona for its time the CCE version of the game is still a significant improvement over the original. With the better handling the game plays a lot better, enough that I imagine some will be able to overlook its technical flaws, especially if it’s the Japanese version.

7-out-of-10

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Gungage

I wonder why Gungage was released only in Europe and Japan. There was definitely a shortage of arcade style action games and it wasn’t as if the two Contra games were filling that void. Games like One and Apocalypse were good but flawed, a trait that Gungage also shares. While this is not most accomplished game within the genre there were certainly far worse games shitting up store shelves that would have made this C-tier release stand out. If you can put up with its warts the game is an enjoyable if short romp.

Initially you control Wakle Skade, the stereotypical well rounder. Wakle is a bit nimble and comes equipped with a shield and paralyzing shot which freezes enemies in place. Once you meet certain criteria you can unlock a further three characters, each with their own special items, moves, and story path. I can tell you right now that Steyr seemed to be the creator’s favorite as she has four special moves compared to everyone else’s one or two. Her playstyle is faster paced as she can dash and duck in addition to sidestepping and strafing. Plus she has three weapons although they are weak. Kard is the strong but slow man of the group although that is a plus in my opinion as you can plow through the game with ease. Dee is harder to classify as his physical attributes aren’t anything special but his weapons are awesome.

Gungage uses tank controls which are my kryptonite. However in this particular instance they are at least functional although less than ideal. Unlike most games that employ this ridiculous control scheme you are adventuring in wide open areas rather than tight corridors. This isn’t the fastest action game on the planet so quick movements and such are rarely called upon. And even in that instance there are a number of additions that make up for it. You can strafe with the L1 and R1 buttons and in combination with the D-pad can keep your current target in view a good portion of the time. A double tap will execute a side step and you can center the camera and sort of lock-on although it is rather poor.

All of these amenities are nice but they can’t cover up all of the flaws with this setup. Character movement is incredibly stiff leaving maneuvering in a narrow space frustrating much like the Resident Evil games. Trying to line up your jumps to leap on platforms is far more frustrating than it should be although to the game’s credit it is rarely called upon. Turning is incredibly slow which is the biggest detriment; boss battles are usually against much faster opponents who will literally run circles around you; combined with the spastic camera this will lead to many cheap hits and deaths. This was released too early to adapt the lock-on method both Ocarina of Time and Mega Man Legends employed which sucks as the game would really have benefited from it like nearly all action games since.

The nine missions cover a lot of ground although there is very little plot connecting the locations you’ll visit. While the levels can sometimes be large they are mostly a series of small arenas mashed together. It keeps up the frame rate and tends to keep the action focused although camera issues do crop up. The few enemies you’ll face tend to appear right in front of you or conveniently are hiding out of sight which makes the slow turn speed a real hassle. Generally speaking I like the mission variety overall with only one (the Desert) being a conceptual nightmare. While the earlier missions are short and bereft of interesting enemies the late game picks up considerably although it’s over a bit too fast depending on your choice of character.

Since this is more or less an arcade style action game on a console it comes as no surprise that it is a bit short. There are nine missions total and those with a modicum of skill should be able to complete the game in a little over an hour. True, you can unlock a further three characters who each play differently but at the end of the day you are still going through the same levels in a different order with a few alternate paths. If the mission available were longer or if the additional characters had exclusive levels it would have greatly extended the life of the game.

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As a 1999 release Gungage competed against games like Konami’s own Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VIII, and Soul Reaver visually and in that regard it comes up short. The boxy environments suffer from low resolution textures, warping textures, and really bad draw distance. The art direction carries the game somewhat but in terms of the enemy designs but it is ultimately let down by this shoddy engine.

The one saving grace of the presentation would be the music. The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic and honestly sounds completely out of place here. Castlevania series composer Michiru Yamane contributed to the score and the orchestral sound incorporates a ton of rock, jazz, and techno that accentuates the atmosphere. Because of the composers involved the music wouldn’t seem out of place in a Castlevania title however it does fit here, even if the style is unusual for an action game of this type.

Gungage is far from the greatest run and gun action game for the PlayStation but still would have helped to fill an underserved genre had it been released in the US. Despite my misgivings with the controls I still enjoyed it and have no problem recommending it, especially since it is usually dirt cheap.

7-out-of-10

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Duke Nukem 64

I would not own my own computer until 1999 so I could only look on with envy at the PC gaming renaissance of the mid-90s. While I would occasionally get the chance to dabble with Doom and Hexen I only got to experience the majority of the really popular titles that made PC gaming unique through console ports. Duke Nukem 3d came on the heels of a really great Saturn conversion done by Lobotomy Software and my excitement was high. This was a game I had read so much about and looked forward to but unfortunately the N64 game, while great technically, is a neutered version of a classic.

It isn’t a stretch to say there was some amount of anticipation for Duke Nukem 64. Midway’s version of Doom was fantastic and Turok (for its time) was pretty groundbreaking with Goldeneye showing that first-person shooters can work on consoles. The PlayStation and especially the Saturn renditions of the game were both excellent and one would assume the 64 version would be better. But thanks to some unwarranted censorship and a few strange omissions the game has turned out less great than it could have been.

Although Duke Nukem bears a slight resemblance to Doom it is actually a far more advanced game in subtle ways. The Build engine allows for more complex level design, namely a highly interactive world with more moving parts that entice you to click on everything in the environment. Pool tables, soda machines, toilets, fire hydrants, chances are if you see it you can interact with it in some way. The game’s realistic setting facilitates this as you venture from the streets of LA to an alien space station orbiting the planet.

At first glance this may seem like a typical FPS but the gameplay is far more involved than simply killing every bad guy on the way to the exit and collecting keys. There are some (admittedly) simple puzzles to solve as well as a number of secondary items such as scuba gear and a jet pack that break up the monotony of killing the repetitive rogues gallery of enemies. These elements were less impressive by the time the game came out in light of Goldeneye’s release but were still pretty welcome. The game’s sense of humor in the form of numerous nods or parodies of other popular games and Duke’s witty comments also gave it a unique identity within the genre.

Sadly however the game’s more risqué elements were either completely removed or outright censored. The strip clubs, adult video stores, the strippers, and even chapels have all been removed in order to create a more family friendly fps. Not that I particularly gave a damn about those elements but they were a large part of what made Duke Nukem 3d stand out so the fact that they were unwilling to allow the developers to go for a higher rating and keep it intact Is disappointing. It’s also a bit disconcerting that naked strippers and hookers are a big no no but seeing them skewered through the spine is alright.

The game’s 33 levels are played sequentially rather than being split into distinct episodes you can choose from freely. It’s disappointing but also means you are getting your money’s worth as this is one of the lengthier games in the genre. The levels are all taken from the original game and the Plutonium Pack expansion with a few original creations thrown in. Add in two-player coop and a fun but limited 4-player deathmatch and you have a pretty feature complete package.

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This was an exceptionally good looking version of the PC original and bested even that game in a few ways. Thanks to the fact that Duke takes place in mainly indoor locations the dreaded N64 fog isn’t needed to keep the framerate high. The game moves at a blazing clip that rarely dips. The filtering effects of the N64 has reduced pixilation in the environments and enemies which gives it a clean look from afar but the low resolution textures are ugly when viewed in close. Many of the explosions and lighting effects have been given a polygonal makeover for that extra visual kick. Aside from the censorship they did a really good job cramming all of the visual detail into such a small cartridge.

The strangest omission though has to be the complete absence of any music. The soundtrack was most likely sacrificed to fit into a smaller cartridge and unfortunately it is very noticeable. This doesn’t come across atmospheric but very Spartan in its absence as the only sounds you’ll hear are monster grunts and gunfire. The extensive one liners have also been dramatically cut down to the point where you’ll rarely hear Duke say anything. Jon St. John brought that character to life so it’s disheartening that one of the game’s most defining traits is all but gone.

Although the censorship issues stifle the game somewhat at the end of the day Duke Nukem is more than just a vehicle for cheesy one liners and titillation. The great level design is still present which made this one of the better single player campaigns of that era. While it isn’t as great as Quake or Goldeneye Duke Nukem 64 is still a more than decent version of a classic game.

6-out-of-10-1

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Gunple: Gunman’s Proof

 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is not only one of the most influential action RPGs of all time but also one of the best in gaming history. With that in mind it is a bit odd that it inspired so few clones during the 16-bit era. While most would point to Crusade of Centy as the most egregious copycat Gunple: Gunman’s Proof takes that title in my opinion. Its late release in 1997 is the main reason it has such a low profile but its Japan only status is also a factor. That doesn’t matter now however thanks to a fan translation, allowing more to experience this hidden gem. Though flawed Gunman’s Proof is still a pretty great game.

Gunman’s Proof shifts the setting a few hundred years to the old west. In 1880 two meteorites crash on Earth and immediately begin to cause the appearance of creatures dubbed Demiseeds. One day a boy from Bronco village happens upon a UFO whose two inhabitants inform him that they are space sheriffs on the trail of a criminal named Demi they believe came to Earth. One of the aliens, Zero, inhabits the boy’s body to search for Demi thus beginning the quest.

The tone is definitely wacky and if the goofy title screen and music did not give that away then the interactions with the town’s inhabitants will drive it home. This is a world where no one bats an eye at a 10-year running around with a machine gun cocked and loaded. The gun shop owner gleefully teaches you how to use even more outlandish weapons such as flamethrowers, shotguns, and even a bazooka. There are even martial arts masters who will teach you new combat techniques such as a charged shot and a shoryuken (I’m not joking!).

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The humorous tone is carried on in the game’s graphics. The art style is even cartoonier than its inspiration with extremely bright colors being the rule of the day. The enemy sprites are well animated and extremely detailed, especially the bosses. These massive contraptions are the game’s visual highlight as they are quite unlike anything you have seen before. That being said there is no denying that once you enter a dungeon Nintendo could have sued for plagiarism as they look near identical to a Link to the Past. Not just a little. A lot.

Those similarities begin to disappear the further you progress but the HUD is a constant reminder of the game’s source material. Luckily the game’s setting allows for some gameplay differences. You have a separate button for ranged and melee combat with various weapons that will augment both. Admittedly your fists can’t match up to the infinite ammo gun since you can shoot in 8 directions and can perform a stronger charged shot. It’s clear the game was designed around gunplay as you can strafe and crouch and crawl to dodge bullets.

Combat is the primary focus and the game provides plenty of options in that regard. You won’t be carrying around an inventory of items; all sub weapons drop from enemies and are temporary. It sounds limiting but weapon drops are so frequent you’ll rarely have to rely on your default items. To an extent this almost feels more like a typical action game since you have lives, ammo, a limited stock of smart bombs, and even a score. That these elements were adapted to this style of game so well makes it feel unique.

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Gunman’s Proof goes to great lengths to replicate A Link to the Past in both its looks and gameplay so it is disheartening to see it fail in the most crucial area: its dungeons. The absence of any puzzles or special items needed for progression means you can simply head directly toward the boss if you know the exact route. In fact the game rewards you for clearing the dungeons as fast as possible. Not to say that those elements are absolutely necessary in an adventure game but their absence leaves exploring the dungeons a hollow experience. The few treasure chests you’ll find merely contain treasures used to obtain a higher score in order to earn extra lives. Very rarely will you find a permanent weapon upgrade.

The lackluster dungeons wouldn’t stand out so much if they were not the main thrust of the game. There is very little impetus to explore the overworld as any items such as life increasing red coins will be found on the way to the next dungeon anyway. There are a few hidden skills to learn but they serve little practical use in combat. Despite the size of the map the world is actually quite small. With dungeons that can be cleared in 10 minutes or less the game falls on the short side.

Yet in spite of all these faults it still nails its core gameplay. The game is worth checking out just to see what Zelda would be like in a different setting. You’ll pick up an interesting combination of weapons and skills that cater to those who like hand to hand combat (so to speak) or to fight from a distance. The frequent weapon drops mean you’ll never have to worry about ammo and can freely change almost whenever you want. While it is true that you can blitz each dungeon at the very least you’ll have fun doing so.

Between the number of extra lives you’ll amass and the constant food drops Gunple falls on the easy side. The game is a bit too generous with food; there were times I was on the verge of death and within seconds almost refilled my life bar. Midway through the game weaker enemies are replaced with more active demiseeds that aggressively fight back but that does little to ramp up the challenge. A good bit into the game and you can find the red bandana, which cuts damage in half while doubling your attack power. Insane. The only real test comes from the game’s bosses. Their patterns are simple but your hit box is large which makes dodging fire in tight spaces a nuisance but it doesn’t matter. If you have spare lives you are revived on the spot much like fairies in Zelda. At least they look cool.

Gunman’s Proof is a good stab at replicating the Zelda formula but misses a few of the essential elements that make that series truly special. The areas in which it differs are where it shines brightest, i.e. its story and combat. It has its flaws but is still more than worthwhile for any fan of adventure games. Unfortunately some Japanese is required as you are given specific instructions and need to complete certain objectives in a given order. However there is a fan translation for those willing to emulate and I say it’s worth it.

7-out-of-10

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Sylphia

And now something different from the shmup masters at Compile. With the exception of the Aleste series nearly all of Compile’s shooter output were of the space variety. As much as I like a good space shooter they don’t offer as much diversity as you would expect. With its fantasy theme Sylphia is like Phelios’ prettier big sister. With its intense action, high production values and excellent pace this is one of the best shooters for the system. Too bad you’ll have a hard time finding it.

An Ancient City in Greece is invaded by demons who slaughter its inhabitants. One of these citizens is a warrior maiden struck down protecting the innocent. The gods reward her bravery by transforming her into a fairy with vast mystical powers, powers that will now be used for revenge. As a late 1993 release Sylphia was one of the last PC Engine CD games released in Japan. The game is much more reserved in its use of the CD when compared to a game like Renny Blaster which was released around the same time. The only cutscenes are the intro and ending and aside from the music this could have been a Hucard title. That isn’t a knock against the game as the lucky few with enough money to buy it will be well rewarded.

Sylphia makes excellent use of its fantasy setting, more so than any other shooter with the same theme. The areas you visit look and feel unique and as an added bonus you’ll face a different set of enemies on every level. That much variety is absolutely staggering and unheard of plus keeps the game feeling fresh for the length of the quest. The creature designs are both familiar and original; they really dug deep into Greek myth to come up with such a diverse list of monsters. I made the comparison to Phelios earlier but that game has nothing on this. Some of the enemies wouldn’t look out of place in some of Atlus’s RPGs; the skeleton gladiator riding a chariot driven by flying manticores is a particular favorite of mine and resembles one of the 8 fiends in Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. That’s a compliment by the way.

Like other Compile shooters the game makes use of color coded weapons that correspond to the elements. The Red fire travels and Blue reverse fire possess some homing capability although it is hard to determine which is stronger. The green ring blades are pretty devastating as they linger in one spot and cover a wide arc but are a little weak. That leaves the earth rocks which are terrible. The boulders produced distract from enemy bullets and obstacles and only drop straight downward. Supplementing this is a giga attack that has limited uses but an experience bar that can be increased by collecting mirrors and gems will award more. As much as I like the weapons I wouldn’t have minded a few more since one of them is essentially useless.

I found the difficulty about perfect for both novices and diehard shooter fans. The game’s pace varies between bouts of all out chaos and slower moments that allow you to catch your breath before the mayhem starts again. With different enemies on every level the game provides plenty of reasons to switch weapons rather than sticking with a favorite. While one hit deaths would have made the game more intense providing a life bar was a smart choice as the game would have been impossible otherwise. In an odd twist I found the bosses to be absolute pushovers compared to the journey just to reach them which is strange as it is usually the other way around. The difficulty means it will probably take a few hours to beat the game despite unlimited continues which is pretty good value for a shooter.

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Visually Sylphia is spectacular and just shy of being one of the best showcases of the hardware. There’s a generous smattering of scrolling backgrounds that are simply beautiful. On the other hand there are an equal number of flat and drab backdrops that are just ugly in comparison due to some hideous color choices. The fantasy theme is heavily Greek inspired, from both its scenery to most of its bosses. The bosses are the games’ true visual highlight. You’ll recognize Medusa, Cerberus, the Minotaur and the Titans but you’ve certainly never seen them like this. Medusa in particular is pretty stacked. Actually there’s a surprising amount of bare breasts although it isn’t salacious.

I was pretty surprised to hear a heavily techno influenced soundtrack rather than symphonic score. The music is excellent, heavy on the drum and bass yet still melodic. My only wish is that the music were louder as it tends to get drowned out by the punchy sound effects.

I approached Sylphia with no expectations and was absolutely surprised. This has quickly become one of my favorite shooters of all time alongside Harmful Park and Gradius Gaiden. The only problem is its price; since this was one of the last PC Engine games released in Japan not too many copies were printed making it rare. If you see it at a decent price buy that shit, you will not regret it.

9-out-of-10

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ToeJam & Earl

Once upon a time two funky alien dudes came to Earth and gifted Genesis owners with a cool coop game unlike few on the market. That period in 1991-92 was when Sega really began to hit their stride with unique releases and ToeJam & Earl were a part of it. The recent kickstarter for the new ToeJam & Earl has made me nostalgic for the series and I’m glad to say that the original holds up relatively well although solo gamers may find it a bit trying to see it through to its conclusion.

Our funky fresh duo are cruising through the galaxy when Earl’s terrible piloting skills see them crash land on Earth. With a wrecked ship on their hands the pair have no choice but to brave the hostile Earthlings and environmental hazards to find the pieces of their ship to return home to Funkotron.

Though it doesn’t look it TJ & E has many elements in common with Diablo and Shiren the Wanderer. You can choose a fixed world with set item locations or randomly created levels for a different experience every time. Rather than weapons and armor presents form the lifeblood of the game. Presents come in all shapes and sizes and aren’t identified until used or you pay an NPC, much like Diablo. It’s no exaggeration to say that the sheer magnitude of items present is part of what makes the game so great. Some are just food but the really fun ones allow you to fly around the levels, leave decoys to fool enemies or even reveal pieces of the current map. There are just as many bad ones such as the randomizer which is self-explanatory or Totally Bogus, which actually kills you!

As a single player game ToeJam & Earl is fun but can grow old pretty quickly. Depending on your choice of a fixed world or randomly generated your experience will vary. With a fixed world the design is far tighter. The elevators, ship parts, and presents are more thoughtfully placed to eliminate some of the meandering that would normally take place. With randomly generated levels it’s all over the place which makes the slovenly pace of the game that much worse. Both characters bop along too slow for my liking and I guarantee you’ll use any movement related items as soon as possible just to get around faster. Sometimes you’ll have six floors that contain no parts forcing you to explore the map just to find the next exit; other times you’ll get lucky and get multiple parts in a row. I suppose that is part and parcel of such a feature but it works against the game somewhat.

It is fitting then that the game truly shines in multiplayer, so much so that I would say it was designed for it. Coop is done in a really cool way that I wish more titles copied: when both characters are together you share one screen but when separated it splits. With two-players you can both split up and cover more ground which alleviates the slow pace considerably. Granted you’re both still performing the same slow actions but when you have half as much ground to cover it does wonders for your enjoyment of the game. There’s a ton of incidental dialogue exclusive to coop as well as features such as sharing health and such. The game is so much better with a friend that I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise.

Despite the laid back atmosphere the game can be unfairly hard at times. Never mind the randomness of presents some of the enemies are particularly vicious and most encounters with them will result in death. Pray you don’t run into the bogeyman or honeybees on a straight path as they will aggressively pursue you for a long time. Presents and ranking help but not by much. There are no continues or passwords so the game has to be done in one sitting which can vary depending on a number of factors. It’s still disheartening to find eight ship parts only to step off an elevator surrounded by four enemies.

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Visually this is a bit average. The game is at its best when it is throwing a litany of absurd characters in your path such as the bogeyman, the mad dentist, and even little devils. I love that the designers basically said screw logic and threw in anything they thought was cool and funny regardless of whether it makes sense or not. But when left alone to explore each world it is hard not to notice how little variety there is in the tile sets they are composed of. Each successive floor is merely reshuffling assets and isn’t too creative about it.

The real star of the presentation is the soundtrack. The entire game has a hip hop vibe to it and the soundtrack expounds on that perfectly. Of course that should be expected as the two aliens are essentially rappers. Part hip hop crossed with funk the beats produced with the FM synth are fantastic, so much so that even the enemies seem to be grooving out to it. There’s even a jam out mode that lets you accompany each of the game’s songs with sound effects. They were definitely proud of the sound design in the game and they should be since it is so awesome.

Overall ToeJam & Earl has held up surprisingly well after all these decades. Many of its elements have become more commonplace over the years but the execution here is still good enough to make the game fun. The random level generator gives the game infinite replay value but this is still a title that I would only recommend if you plan to play with a friend.

7-out-of-10

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Mission Impossible

My view of Mission Impossible is incredibly skewed for some reason and I’ve never been able to tell why. The game is every bit as good as the rest of Konami’s classic NES lineup yet it seems to fly under the radar. That fact is doubly strange considering just how popular the movies starring Tom Cruise have been worldwide. It seems natural that Konami would make a game that features stealth elements considering their work with Metal Gear yet Mission Impossible doesn’t feel the slightest bit derivative. Though incredibly frustrating at times MI is a good game that worth tracking down.

The game is based on the short lived second series from the 80s and sends your team of agents on a mission to rescue Dr. O and fellow agent Shannon Reed from the clutches of an organization known as the Sinister 7. The globetrotting adventure will take your team to a variety of locales not often seen in video game at the time such as the Swiss Alps and Venice. Interestingly the game was developed in the US by Konami’s Ultra Games division yet still has the same quality we came to expect from their Japanese efforts.

Since the game shares the same overhead view and espionage theme as Metal Gear they do play similarly however it also borrows a page from TMNT’s handbook. Your team of three agents differ in their abilities and equipment and can be switched between at any time. Mad Harte is equipped with a rifle that can attack from long range and a set number of explosives. He is also wearing body armor and as a result moves the slowest. Grant Collier is the strongest and uses his fists plus sleeping gas to get out of a pinch. With no weapons he is the fastest and can also disable security locks and doors. Last but not least the Aussie Nicholas Black is a balance of the three: not the fastest but pretty quick and his boomerangs travel a medium distance. They can inflict damage on the way back and by moving around you can take out enemies behind cover. His temporary disguises will keep enemies from attacking but they aren’t as useful as you would expect.

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The small distinctions between characters is incredibly important as each will be imperative for progress as some point. As previously mentioned this is a team effort as you must make use of each character’s abilities to navigate the massive levels. While there is a greater emphasis on action there is just as much stealth involved with a great many situations that will go smoother if you remain unseen. The goal of each mission generally boils down to flipping switches that open doors or shut off hazards such as conveyor belts in order to find the informant who will forge IDs for the team. These IDs are needed to access the end of the level, be it saving a hostage or facing a boss. Stages 2 and 5 are fast paced vehicle based levels that are a nice reprieve from the more methodical pace of the rest of the game.

The game’s size works against it in a few ways. Each stage is huge and there is no map provided. You have the freedom to complete the “objectives” in each level however you like but that’s because the game gives you little direction. There are NPCs who give vague clues but they aren’t very helpful. Memorizing the stage layouts will come naturally but chances are you’ll die at which point the game kicks you back to the beginning of each level. It’s a harsh punishment and one you’ll face regularly as the game is pretty brutal in its challenge.

This is not an easy game by any stretch, some of it due to challenging yet rewarding gameplay but others because of bad design decisions. Losing any member of the team is practically devastating to the point where you might want to consider restarting the mission. There are numerous areas that feature a gauntlet of enemies that borders on insanity that you’ll be lucky to escape with just one person alive. Though boss battles are few in number they are a nightmare. The stage three boss in particular takes place in a room with blocks that crumble if you stand still too long, effectively placing a time limit on the battle. It sounds cool in theory but in practice is a giant pain in the ass; what were they thinking? Unlike say Battletoads there are unlimited continues and passwords so it is at least doable I wager you might break a controller in anger, especially towards the end when shit hits the fan.

In spite of the maddening difficulty Mission Impossible is another in the long line of quality Konami titles. Though it may seem to borrow elements from Metal Gear it doesn’t matter as the game still has an identity uniquely its own. Stealth action games in 8-bit were rare so it is nice to see another that is truly excellent.

8-out-of-101

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Bio Senshi Dan

Bio Senshi Dan was once scheduled for a US release under the title Bashi Bazook: Morphoid Masher. Honestly they should have stuck with its original title as Bashi Bazook is flat out stupid. And this is coming from someone who liked Kabuki Quantum Fighter in spite of its dumb name. While I won’t go so far as to say that BSD would have put Jaleco in the same breath as Capcom or Konami it would have done wonders for their reputation as more than just a Bases Loaded factory. Originally released in 1987 Bio Senshi Dan ranks among that second wave of NES games that really pushed boundaries and while it has its flaws is still an incredibly solid game.

In the year 2081 Earth is in ruins. Aliens have overrun the planet, leaving destruction in their wake. Their actions are guided by the hand of a mysterious entity known as the Increaser. The last hope of the planet lies in the warrior Dan who is sent back in time to the year 1999 before the aliens invaded and defeat the Increaser before he rises to power.

At first glance Bio Senshi Dan looks like a typical action game when in fact it is actually much more than that. Each of the game’s five levels is actually one large world which you can freely explore. There are plenty of rooms scattered about with the denizens of each world offering information, weapons for sale, or other services. The levels aren’t so large that you’ll end up hopelessly lost but a map of some kind would have come in handy, especially considering there are multiple teleporters in each stage and some corridors look identical. There is no time limit in the normal sense however there is a meter (QV for Queen’s Vitality) that tracks the boss’s health; the longer you take the more it increases.

Although you’ve been sent into the past with nothing but a funky green jump suit and a weak sword there are plenty of upgrades waiting to be bought. Defeated enemies drop energy that functions as currency which the numerous vendors are all too happy exchange for weapons. The default knife is quickly upgraded to a throwable variety that returns and inflicts additional damage on the way back. The rest comprise a wide spectrum from the psycho blossom, the rolling shield to the powerful thunder sword. These side weapons use energy but the game is so balanced that it is rarely a factor.

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All of the exploring will remind you of Metroid but it seems Dan has graduated from the Simon Belmont school of platforming. The game features the same rigid sense of control where once you perform an action you are locked into it. For the most part it isn’t a problem in the strictest sense; while you are climbing ledges and such there is only one small section in Area 4 that has a few instant death pits flanked by respawning enemies like the Medusa heads. The controls as a whole are very stiff which is frustrating. Dan is slow to turn around crouch and as such you will suffer a number of cheap hits. Luckily you are equipped with a generously long life bar and can refill health at inns.

Even taking the stiff controls into account and the large number of cheap hits this is still a pretty easy game. While each level is decently sized you can stumble your way to the end level boss relatively quickly although you will miss health upgrades and optional weapons. Unless you go out of your way to waste time the boss’s health should be within an average range and if you have done even a modicum of exploring chances are you’ve purchased a weapon that will decimate them in seconds. Hell you can buy everything at the beginning of the last stage for a cheap 250 energy. Speaking of which it is only in the last two stages where the difficulty jumps significantly but even that isn’t saying much. All told I estimate most will finish the game in about 2 hours which is a bit disappointing but seems appropriate.

A bit rough around the edges but still entertaining nonetheless, Bio Senshi Dan is a good game that I’m sure would have found an audience if its US release would have went through. There is a fan translation available as well as a complete American prototype but no Japanese is required to enjoy the game.

7-out-of-10

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Gaiapolis

As shallow as many of them were I do genuinely miss the beat em up genre. Games like Final Fight showed just how amazing the genre could be but unfortunately it was run into the ground during the 16-bit era by games that didn’t aspire to be more than simple clones. It sucked because the brawlers at the tail end of that era were actually evolving and really turning into something special thanks to more powerful hardware. Games like Alien vs. Predator, Armored Warriors, and Dungeons & Dragons (huh, all Capcom games) were amazing examples of where the genre was headed.

Gaiapolis was one of the last arcade titles that wasn’t a fighting or racing game I got to play before my local arcade closed. This was the type of game I hoped would receive a Saturn or PlayStation port but it was very clear where the industry was headed and 2d wasn’t part of it. However in China an unlicensed port was made for the Famicom. Obviously it isn’t anywhere near the quality of Konami’s coin op but is decent for what it is.

The prince of Avalon is still out for revenge against Zar Harc Empire for destroying his homeland and is joined by two companions. The characters have all been renamed with the Prince, Dragon, and Fairy now being named Ken, Lin, and Amy. I suppose it helps give them an identity rather than just a generic descriptor. For the most part the game follows the arcade game’s plot although the few cut scenes don’t exactly create a coherent narrative. Gaiapolis was story heavy for an arcade game so it is sad to see most of that lost in translation.

This is an interesting release to say the least. The vast majority of Sachen’s games are complete crap yet Gaiapolis seems to have been made with some care. It more or less follows the arcade game’s plot and surprisingly is completely in English. The levels aren’t the same but are at least thematically similar. While most of the same features are present there are still a few problems that really bring the game down. However all things considered this turned out far better than you would expect given the disparity in hardware.

The game is played from an overhead perspective rather than the typical side scrolling format of most brawlers. That isn’t the only difference however as there are some RPG elements. Experience points are gained from killing enemies or picking up items and while it adds a little depth the addition is superfluous. Enemies spawn in set locations and groups and you must kill them before moving on making everyone’s character growth the same. The differences between characters aren’t as pronounced here which makes your choice irrelevant.

By brawler standards this is a pretty simple game since your only means of offense is a simple three hit combo and an occasional magic spell. The bad hit detection and the viewpoint make attacking enemies more of a hassle than it should be as swings that are clearly connecting simply don’t register. This is especially bad during boss battles where despite their size it isn’t clear where to attack. It makes these already long battles even more frustrating. This was a decently long game in the arcade but this is thankfully shorter; I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate this if it had all 17 (!) of the arcade’s stages.

As frustrating as the game can be there really is no challenge due to the fact that you have 99 credits shared between two players. Even if one or both players is an incredible moron there is no possible way that you won’t finish the game with that much of a buffer. There are a large amount of cheap hits due to the perspective but the game throws life restoring food at you after every group of enemies. Leveling up also refills health and you’ll level up every few minutes. Whether this was done as an acknowledgement of the game’s problems we’ll never know but at least you’ll definitely see it through to its non-ending.

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The graphics are pretty damn good for an unlicensed game. While it doesn’t have the same stage layout as the arcade the level themes are the same. There is a decent variety in the settings with the backgrounds being pretty detailed. The sprites are very large, larger than in most NES games, especially the bosses which are screen filling behemoths. The animation isn’t the greatest and the developer’s technical ambition gets the best of them as there is some very bad sprite flickering and slowdown. Where the visuals excel the music does not however. The music is grating and honestly is so bad I muted the sound which is something I rarely do.

It’s sad that this is the only home port of a truly amazing game. If you were lucky enough to play Gaiapolis back in the day you are better off sticking with your memories as this version only captures a slice of the game’s majesty.   Honestly this review really isn’t about recommending the game or not since the chances of actually finding the cartridge are next to impossible and it isn’t worth it. This was simply a means of examining a curiosity in game history.

6-out-of-10-1

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Super Bomberman

I was not fond of Bomberman on the NES. My initial interest in the game mostly came from the fact that the title sounded like the name of a Mega Man boss. So I went into it expecting a fast paced action game and was instead greeted by a plodding maze game. And while that sounds damning the core theme behind it was at least brilliant. When the series entered 16-bit it truly came into its own with the addition of multiplayer that is still popular today. While Super Bomberman’s four-way multiplayer is still great the story mode is also pretty damn good as well making this one great package.

The slow pace of the NES titles is a thing of the past as the game is faster; well at least as fast as a game of this type can be. The central conceit of using your bombs to clear walls and blow up your enemies remains except now there are a ton of power-ups that spice up the action. Kicking bombs, tossing them, dropping multiple bombs at once, it all feeds into the need to be the last man standing in the end. Some of these items were in the seminal Bomberman ’93 but that does not diminish their presence here.

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The level design has been stepped up considerably to go along with the presence of new items. Each of the 6 worlds is loosely themed, from the simplicity of Peace Town to the more complex Robot Remodeling Factory. Enemy placement as well as hard blocks is always random however the types of enemies and other factors such as warp blocks or trampolines is not. Despite the game’s random nature there is still plenty of opportunity to strategically place bombs to cause chain reactions and clear the field in seconds. There’s lots of subtle technique you’ll pick up on, such as standing slightly off center to force enemies into the path of your bombs. There’s enough here that the repetition will not get to you too much.

The campaign features a pretty steep difficulty curve that I don’t think most will expect. The game does a good job of slowly building up to the more aggressive enemies initially but by the middle of world 2 there is little room for error. Because of this some of the better designed stages will devolve into spamming a ton of bombs while you are invincible at the start to thin the ranks. Good strategy but it leaves little room for nuance since the later levels pack so many enemies into a small space. Time is not on your side, especially if you happen to uncover the exit. After a set period the exit will begin spawning new enemies that must be cleared before you can leave. It is not easy to end the cycle once it has begun and chances are you will die repeatedly. While the challenge is high it is still manageable, just incredibly frustrating at times.

I go back and forth on whether the single player mode is a bit too long. Each world features 7 levels and a boss however the game does a good job of varying things up quite a bit on that journey. New enemies are introduced regularly and in interesting combinations. Alongside the creative layout of each map in terms of obstacles and traps it will take a while for boredom to set in. 7 levels in the same environment is a bit much in my opinion; if it were four or five with a boss battle at the end it would have been perfect. World five is the sole exception; here you face a gauntlet of rival Bombermen in a mock multiplayer match, with each becoming progressively more intelligent. I love it and would have liked to have seen more original ideas like this throughout for a change of pace.

As good as the single player is however multiplayer is the true star and the game comes loaded for bear. The twelve multiplayer maps are all unique and expertly designed with a few stage themes exclusive to this mode. My personal favorite is the Light Zone which is completely dark and features two moving spotlights, providing plenty of chances to ambush your friends. The speed zone eschews traps and ups the game speed instead, may the best man win. Although you can play against 3 computer opponents nothing can replace the unpredictability of facing off against friends as the AI isn’t too bright. Considering the number of times I rented the game purely for multiplayer I probably should have just bought it which should tell you how much fun it is.

Super Bomberman was a great game back in the day and is still excellent even now. While later incarnations of the series eclipse this in terms of features that doesn’t diminish the amount of fun that can still be had with it today.

8-out-of-101

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Rayxanber II

For some inexplicable reason I was obsessed with Rayxanber II & III. I’ve already described how being a Turbo Grafx owner was a lonely experience so if I wanted new games I had to buy them. It was just another shooter among a sea of the things but the screenshots in EGM looked really cool. Sadly the series never came to the US. Or maybe it isn’t so sad in the case of Rayxanber II. I can safely this is one of the most frustrating and difficult games I have ever paid and I will never play it again.

The Rayxanber series is one of the few that never left Japan and I can see why. The first game was released for the FM Towns Marty, one of the most obscure platforms in existence. From all accounts it was a vicious game and it seems developer Data West did not learn from their mistakes as this second installment is just as grating. Even with an emulator and save states I still found myself frustrated at just how badly designed the game is. Literally any good idea is trumped by bad decisions all around that make me question who the game was even targeting. Stay away from this one folks.

Weapon selection is light at only three choices. The flame laser, multi-shot, and explosion gun are all you get. Depending on the direction the icon is facing when picked up the weapon will only fire in that direction, good for very specific situations but stupid otherwise. Charging up the weapon briefly will supposedly unleash a more powerful blast but it is so small and weak you would be a fool to even bother. Activating turbo fire on the controller is not only better but I would even say mandatory as you won’t last more than seconds otherwise.

See the thing about the weapons is no matter which one you pick they are all woefully underpowered. Literally every enemy is a bullet sponge to an absurd degree and they always attack in groups. The opening seconds of the game demonstrate this beautifully as you will encounter moving turrets before receiving your first powerful that will not die no matter how hard you pound on them. I’m sure the explosion gun is more powerful than the multi-shot but they are all so weak they might as well be cosmetic choices. The weapons at the very least needed to be twice as strong to not be an absolute joke.

And even then it still would not make much of a difference. It isn’t just weak weapons that make the game so hard. Enemy placement is completely unfair and the number one cause of death. The game delights in having enemy waves sneak up from behind with no warning. Staying in the middle of the screen isn’t always viable so you’ll have to risk being blindsided at any time until you memorize the exact enemy spawn points. That kind of trial and error level design doesn’t work in a shooter, especially one with no checkpoints aside from boss battles.   Speaking of, if you die during a boss fight you might as well reset the game. Trying to destroy these monsters with the standard pea shooter is just flat out stupid.

I mentioned that the game’s few good ideas are sabotaged by some flaw at every turn and it’s true. The third level is sees you flying underneath a massive mecha crab and avoiding its legs. It would actually be pretty cool if you didn’t have to random enemy waves from the left and right, tanks on the ground, and the occasional turret from above. Try to process all of that. Just no. I love the premise of stage 4; the entire level is encased in ice that your ship can break. You can carefully carve your own path and avoid enemies but the nearly game breaking slowdown ruins it. The last level is a maze of tunnels with plenty of cover to avoid walls and bullets but runs way too long, which makes the lack of checkpoints even more pronounced.

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What makes the fucked up game balance and difficulty so sad is that it is obvious that money was put into this production. The graphics are pretty damn amazing despite the derivative nature of the game’s theme. There’s a healthy amount of parallax in every level with some of the backgrounds, especially stage 2 being especially bright. The bio-mechanical enemies aren’t all too different from similar titles but are large, varied, and impressive nonetheless. The similarities to R-Type are definitely there but the exceptional quality of the sprites really sets it apart. Unfortunately all of this spectacle is ruined by crippling slowdown that reduces the game to a slideshow at times. Stage four is especially bad about this; nearly the entire level moves in slow motion.

The soundtrack is fantastic and really puts the CD to good use. There’s a nice selection of techno tunes and symphonic arrangement that almost seem out of place in a shooter. Most of the music however is recycled from the first game. The overpowering music tends to either drown out the sound effects or make them disappear completely which can screw up your timing.

It’s just too bad the ridiculous difficulty will hinder your enjoyment of the game’s production values. I’ll be honest, even if the game were balanced this would simply be a decent game and not a true standout like Lords of Thunder or Soldier Blade. You are better off listening to the soundtrack on youtube than buying the game and punching the wall in aggravation. At least they got it right next time.

5-out-of-101

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Cross Fire

Looking back it is surprising that there weren’t more games released in the style of Contra for the NES. There is no question that Contra is one of the most popular games for the system and while there were plenty of character action games such as Mega Man and Shatterhand most run and gun action titles were of the top down variety. In Japan there were a number of action games just as good as Contra and Journey to Silius that never left the country. Cross Fire is one such game whose worldwide release was cancelled at the last second. Once you get past the undoubtedly bad first impression the game leaves this is a solid action romp.

I imagine the game gets its name from the fact that you have to deal with enemies in the foreground and the background at the same time. It’s cheesy but the name fits. There is rarely a moment where you aren’t dealing with enemies who want to fill you with lead or stab you and some form of attack from the background, be it a turret, grenades, or even random lasers from seemingly nowhere. It isn’t the most original feature but it certainly makes the game far more intense and distinct from similar titles. Dealing with these dual threats is a bit of an issue however, at least initially.

Cross Fire unfortunately starts off on a bad note that will leave a negative impression on everyone who boots it up. You are dropped in with nothing but your bare fists and grenades to deal with turrets, tanks, and armed soldiers and it flat out does not work. Closing the gap to punch someone in the face means you’ll almost always take a hit or two. Aiming at background enemies with the grenades is frustrating since they move in an arc and you need to be precise to register a hit. Once you find the machine gun (or die at which point it is given to you) thankfully it becomes the game it should have always been at that point.

I call it a run and gun when in actuality you’ll slowly work your way towards the exit if you are smart. There is simply too much going on at times to try and blitz your way through. Your weapon selection is light with only a three way shot and spread like missiles as upgrades. Luckily they are all you need as they work extremely well. The three way shot leaves wide gaps between its bullets but is perfect for hitting targets behind cover. The missiles are a little slow but you can send out a large batch in a few quick shots to make up for it.

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This is a worldwide journey as you are dropped off at hotspots all around the world such as Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Vladivo (more than likely Vladivostok). There’s a decent amount of variety from one level to the next as you move from the jungle to a shipyard in Russia and even a moving train. While the game has its feet firmly planted in reality it does make one very strange detour in Afghanistan. Here you’ll face bullet shooting Buddhist statues among the halls of a mosque and the end level boss is a floating god like deity. Not that it isn’t cool but it comes out of left field with no explanation. At least in Contra you know it is an alien invasion so when you see the dick monster in stage eight there is some context.

Despite the strength of your weapons this is a pretty daunting game. Bullets are flying everywhere at all times it seems and you can’t even linger in one spot too long without barrels falling on top of you, as if to force you to move on. Your life bar will drop pretty fast, regrettably due to bullets that blend into the backgrounds. The boss battles present an imposing challenge if you are not appropriately equipped. Oddly enough most of these encounters take place in the middle of the levels, making that last sprint to the level’s end pretty harrowing. I found this a lot more difficult than beating Contra with the 30 man code honestly but it isn’t impossible as long as you take your time.

In a day and age where we expect instant gratification Cross Fire, with its stupid hand to hand combat will turn many off. However if you stick with it you’ll see the good game underneath. This is a solid action game that would have fit in with the rest of the NES library worldwide. The game is entirely in English anyway so its lack of a US release doesn’t matter. Cross Fire can be found for under five bucks, at that price I say go for it.

7-out-of-10

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Ardy Lightfoot

If you were a third party during the 16-bit era it was a prerequisite that you needed some kind of furry mascot to be taken seriously. It’s a silly concept in retrospect but back then a smarmy farm animal in a t-shirt could help your business thrive. Some resisted like Sunsoft but even they eventually gave in and created Aero the Acrobat. One of the last companies I would have expected to jump on that trend was Ascii, the one-time maker of numerous third party controllers and peripherals turned video game publisher. Their entrant in the mascot wars is as obscure as they come but deserves better. Ardy Lightfoot does not break new ground but is still far better than many of its contemporaries.

Ardy Lightfoot is an explorer of ruins and together with his friend Pec they seek treasure and help people in need. One day he uncovers a stone table that tells of seven colored jewels that when found will grant one wish. That sounds really familiar……! Anyway the evil Visconti and his horde have also learned of these jewels and the race is on to see who will have their wish granted.

The plot in a platformer is almost always superfluous but in this case the developers tried to make the game a little more story driven and failed spectacularly. The game has no dialogue and so you are left to infer what is happening based on the character’s gestures and such. Plenty of games have done it but here you are left confused as to what the hell just happened. Why does Gilson the pirate owl decide to help you? The game doesn’t say. It’s also funny to see the game flashback to something that just happened 10 seconds ago. But that’s neither here nor there.

Story aside the game has a simple set of mechanics at its base. Pec can devour nearly any enemy you come across and also functions as a one hit shield. If you take a hit Pec disappears leaving you vulnerable. Ardy’s only means of offense is a tail that is basically the standard platforming butt bounce. It also doubles as a spring but its use can be imprecise at times. This is where the game’s main source of frustration comes from; it’s manageable but annoying enough that it is worth mentioning. Two special items allow Pec to munch on concrete walls and inflate like a balloon for Ardy to ride on.

The game’s level design seems to draw heavy inspiration from a number of sources. You’ve got inclines and hills to build speed like Sonic, simple block pushing puzzles like Monster World IV, and the kinds of precision platform hopping most platformers are known for. While it comes across as generic there are times when the game shows genuine inspiration. There’s a level late in the game where you must watch both the top and bottom of a mirrored surface in order to dodge electrified lances; it’s very creative. Most of the boss battles have some unique element that make them incredibly fun rather than the same repetitive fights so typical of the genre. When the game tries to do something interesting with its mechanics it is incredibly fun. However these rare moments are spread out over the course of this lengthy adventure rather than being a matter of course.

Behind the game’s cute façade lies a game with some teeth behind it. It is not an exaggeration to say this is one of the more difficult platformers of that era although it does not give that impression at first glance. Ardy has a steep difficulty curve and can be pretty punishing. You can only suffer two hits before death and whenever you are without Pec you are walking on egg shells, terrified of any enemy big or small. Although the temptation to try and run through the levels is present that will only result in a swift death. There is no time limit anyway so it will behoove you to take your time. Boss battles are especially difficult as there is little margin for error but also rewarding. The game isn’t impossible as extra lives are doled out regularly and there are passwords to chart progress. I just don’t think most will be expecting the monster that lies under the bright graphics.

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Speaking of the graphics Ardy Lightfoot looks great. The game’s seventeen levels cover a lot of ground as you’ll visit most of the platforming staples such as a forest, an underground mine (completely with an auto scrolling mine cart segment), and even a pirate ship. However they all still manage to look unique to an extent thanks to the game’s big and bright style. There’s a decent amount of scrolling in its backdrops and most sprites are pretty large and well animated. Although it doesn’t compare to most of the other platformers released in 1994 in terms of presentation overall the game is solid.

Solid best describes Ardy Lightfoot. By 1994 there were a glut of platformers for almost every console with many of them being generic. Ardy Lightfoot does not deserve to be lumped in that category and is simply a good game that will provide hours of entertainment to fans of the genre.
7-out-of-10-1

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Dahna: Megami Tanjō

One thing I absolutely love about the Sega Genesis library is the fact that the vast majority of worthwhile games released in Japan were brought overseas. Thanks to Sega of America’s aggressive support of the system future classics like Gunstar Heroes, Landstalker, and Beyond Oasis all found homes in a smart gamer’s system. It does however make you wonder about the games that were left behind. While games like Alien Soldier and Battlemania were released late there were others like Dahna: Megami Tanjō that were curiously left stranded. After playing I can see why. There’s good gameplay buried underneath a bunch of flaws that unfortunately ruin the game.

From its protagonist to its use of magic Dahna reminds me of Golden Axe. Dahna could very easily have been Tyris Flare as she is quick with a sword and can also use magic. There are only 3 spells and depending on how much MP you have a different spell is used. Unlike Golden Axe however the strongest magic doesn’t use up all of your MP. There aren’t any enemy steeds to commandeer but at various points in the game you’ll ride a horse, a dragon or even the back of an ogre. That last one sounds pretty cool but the slow bastard will die in short order.

For all of its similarities to Golden Axe though you’ll immediately notice the janky controls. Your sword slashes come out pretty rapidly but anytime you switch from performing one action to another there is an annoying delay. Turning around to swipe quick footed enemies isn’t as easy as it should be which leads to many cheap hits. Even ducking down has to be done and getting up has to be done in a three step process. This isn’t a fast paced game but the enemies do move pretty fast and in groups so the chances of dealing with them without taking a hit is slim. The platforming has its share of frustrations as the high jump doesn’t always execute on command. Considering you’ll spend a good portion of your time doing just that it sucks that you can’t even rely on the controls to get that part right.

Of the game’s many faults though the most egregious is the insane difficulty. You have one life and five continues to complete this short quest and I’ll tell you right now it isn’t enough. Bottomless pits are everywhere and the stiff controls mean you’ll fall into them more than once. Life restoring items are incredibly rare and are dropped in such paltry amounts it is insulting. And to further insult you they don’t even refill your life bar after every level! Every 100,000 experience points will refill your health but that only applies the first few times. What more could they possibly do to screw you over?

The sad point of all this is that with a few simple tweaks this could have been a decent game. It sure as hell wouldn’t make any best of lists but for those who really liked Golden Axe (like me) it could have been a worthwhile alternative. There’s a decent amount of variety to the game such as the times you ride on the back of a dragon or horseback but at every turn the shoddy execution undermines that. It’s these titles that frustrate me the most. The ones that have good ideas or even just a setting you like and are on the precipice of being good but needed a little more play testing to iron out the kinks.

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From a visual standpoint the game definitely has the look of an early Genesis title. The color palette is very dark which fits the tone of the game but does nothing for the game’s visual variety. The sprites are about medium sized but are blurred and sometimes lack detail. This is an incredibly bloody game for the period with enemies leaking blood when cut. One boss in particular losses his extra arms as the fight progresses and returns later in the game sans limbs with blood gushing where they should be. Occasionally there is a pretty background but it can’t make up for the rest of the lackluster presentation or weak music.

I really wanted to like Dahna but the insane difficulty completely ruins the game. I like a good challenge as much as the next man but not when it is done so cheaply. I guess you can see why no one bothered to release it worldwide, which is notable because the Genesis wasn’t exactly overflowing with software in 1991. The game is cheap for a reason and even with that in mind I can’t recommend it.

6-out-of-101

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Kung-Fu

There was something magical about every NES game released in the first year of the system’s life. For those of us that cut our teeth on the Atari 2600 and its contemporaries NES games were on a completely different level. With each new release the foundations of many of the genres we still enjoy today were being laid down. The beat ‘em up genre wouldn’t explode in popularity for a few more years with Renegade and Double Dragon’s release but Kung Fu could be considered the first and the mold that everyone would follow.

Thomas girlfriend Sylvia has been kidnapped by Mr. X and now he has to work his way through the five floors of his stronghold to save her. For such a simple game it has a bit of a history in terms of its name. In the arcade the game was known as Kung-Fu Master. In Japan Kung Fu Master is known as Spartan X and is based on the Jackie Chan movie Wheels on Meals. Since he had yet to make his American debut that story was dropped for the more generic Kung Fu title. Regardless of its name Kung-Fu is possibly the first beat em up and would inspire the legions of games to come. As an arcade port the NES version is a faithful recreation of Irem’s classic and the best of all the 8-bit conversions which shouldn’t come as a surprise as Nintendo did the honors themselves.

Of course I wasn’t aware of any of this history when I played the home port in 1986.  Although simple by today’s standards Kung Fu was among that early batch of game’s that shaped my gaming skills into what they are today. The proper usage of specific attacks, enemy patterns and prioritization, and a steady ramp in difficulty, these were the hallmarks of a well-designed game. While I wouldn’t recommend it today as the genre has evolved so much from these humble beginnings it deserves to be recognized for what it managed to accomplish back in 1985.

Thomas is armed with a standard array of martial arts moves: a punch, kick, jump kick, and a leg sweep and that’s pretty much it. There are no weapons to obtain or health pick-ups to save you, just your god given talents. It seems a bit unfair as the enemies are armed with all manner of weaponry that can sap your life bar in chunks but this was an arcade game; stacked odds were the order of the day to get you to pump more quarters into the machine.  Luckily with keen observation and fast fingers bare knuckle brawling is all you’ll need.

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The game is designed in such a way that there is almost always one preferred attack to defeat an enemy and walk away unscathed. The generic thugs will grab you and drain life so kicks are an easy way to keep them at a distance. The annoying knife throwers have a habit of hanging back while the other enemies swarm. As the levels progress and more enemies such as, uh, midgets and dragons you’ll need to prioritize who is dealt with first. While the levels are short you have to complete them with a single life bar, something that isn’t always guaranteed.

Some levels eschew human combatants entirely and opt to pit you against animals such as flies and dragons (what the hell is Mr. X doing in that pagoda?). These are trickier to deal with as their angle of attack is different. The bosses as well have particular patterns they follow and combined with their ability to inflict massive damage can be tricky.

But in the end Kung Fu is still a simple game and with skill can be conquered in less than 10 minutes. At 5 levels there simply isn’t much to it and the game will endlessly repeat with an increase in difficulty each time. To be fair this was an issue nearly all of those early titles faced.  I almost feel bad attaching a score to this review .

You could look at Kung Fu as an important milestone in video game history as deeper brawlers would follow soon after. It might have created the beat em up genre but today there is little reason to revisit it.

6-out-of-10-1

 

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Super Return of the Jedi

While there have been plenty of video games based on Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back oddly enough Return of the Jedi has seen few adaptations, making Super Return of the Jedi all the more distinct. Aside from the pretty cool arcade game and a few obscure PC games the final chapter in the original trilogy has gone largely unfettered by game developers. As the last of JVC/Lucas Arts seminal action games Return of the Jedi is probably the all-round best of the three as it leans more towards Super Star Wars in terms of balance while also including passwords to save progress. This was an excellent conclusion for the series and makes up for the punishing difficulty of Empire Strikes Back.

For the most part gameplay is largely the same with some small changes to vary up the playing style of each character. Luke no longer has a blaster and exclusively relies on his lightsaber. The list of force powers has been reduced to just five but they are far more engaging and with more frequent force refills lying about you can afford to be a little wasteful in their use. Han and Chewbacca are largely unchanged but then again they didn’t need any tweaks.

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The cast of playable characters has been expanded to 5 with the addition of Leia and Wickett. Love or hate the Ewoks but Wickett is a pretty cool addition to the cast. Wickett is only playable on the Endor and is well suited to the jungle environment. His arrows aren’t very strong but can be used as makeshift ladders to explore the game’s more wide open levels for secrets. Princess Leia is the most interesting playable character as her outfit and weapons change three times during the course of the adventure. The initial bounty hunter disguise comes equipped with a striking staff that can also be used to block attacks and for a spinning attack. The ever popular slave outfit sees her using a whip not unlike a certain Belmont family. By the end of the game she’ll don camo gear and a blaster like Han and Chewie.

What makes the character so interesting this time around is the change in level design. While there are plenty of straightforward action levels like before there are a smattering of open ended levels with more than one path to the exit as well as stages that are combat focused in densely packed areas. Who you’ll choose will have a significant impact on the difficulty; both Han and Chewie need to upgrade their blasters to become more effective while Luke is always a bad ass from the get go. Yet long range attacks make some of the more difficult stages and bosses trivial. It is that kind of balance that makes playing around with everyone much more of a strategic choice and integral part of the game.

It isn’t a stretch to say that Empire Strikes Back’s brutal difficulty might have turned off some fans of the series and ROTJ goes a long way toward rectifying that. The level design does away with cheap elements such as life draining structures and turrets that pop up out of nowhere. Life restoring hearts are in greater supply and if you are playing as Luke Force healing is always available. Collecting 100 emblems will award extra lives and choosing the right character for a given level will make things much easier. In some respects the game might be too forgiving as I had little trouble breezing through the majority of the levels but that might simply come from my familiarity with the prior games as a whole.

That isn’t to say the game still won’t kick your ass though. Boss battles in particular are still long drawn out affairs with some of the early encounters being far more difficult than necessary (the first boss you encounter is a big what the f___ in terms of difficulty spikes). Emperor Palpatine in particular is one of the cheapest final bosses in any game and was the source of much controller slamming frustration on my part. Some of the larger levels can be confusing as to where to go and more than likely you’ll suffer a few cheap deaths trying to double back to see if you missed something. However I’ll gladly take these mild moments of frustration over anything I dealt with in ESB any day of the week.

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Super Return of the Jedi, like its predecessors is an exceptionally pretty game and even more so than its prequels. As a late SNES release it stands up favorably to similar titles in the genre with remarkably detailed backgrounds and smooth character animation. The scrolling is often 3-5 layers deep with plenty of foreground objects that add that extra layer of touch that make the environments come to life. Return of the Jedi benefits from more varied locales than Empire Strikes Back so you’ll never spend too much time on one planet before moving on to the next in following the movie’s plot. The Mode 7 vehicle stages make their return and are just as lovely although the game’s final two levels are a confusing mess. The only bad mark on the game’s presentation is the rampant slowdown on some of the game’s more hectic levels; they really should have used more restraint as it gets pretty bad at times.

John Williams sweeping score has once again been recreated extremely well and goes along well with the original compositions created specifically for this game. The repetitive digital voices of ESB have been replaced by a few of the more iconic sounds from the film such as Jabba’s chuckle and Wicket’s Niichaa! Shout. The sound effects are especially crisp and don’t suffer from the usual muffle effect present in many SNES games.

Return of the Jedi might be the least popular of the original trilogy but as a game it is far and away the best in the series. There’s something for everyone here even if you aren’t a Star Wars fan making it one of the best action games for the system.

8-out-of-101

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Apocalypse

Fans of mindless action games had little to celebrate entering the 32-bit era. With the move to 3d the venerable action shooter was at a crossroads and would have to weather a tough storm like nearly every genre alongside it. Unfortunately the first few attempts at such were just plain sad; Contra tried and failed twice and as much as I liked One it had some heavy flaws. Activision’s Apocalypse seemed destined to share company with the previously mentioned titles but a switch in focus and scope made it turn out to be a far better game in the end and one of the system’s best pure action games.

A scientist named the Reverend has created his own version of the four Horsemen to bring about the biblical Apocalypse to mankind. Trey Kincaid is an inmate who upon hearing this breaks out of jail to put a stop to the end of the world.

Apocalypse was a troubled production for Activision. The initial pitch saw Bruce Willis as an AI partner that followed you through the game and offered help and advice. The limits of the technology at the time played a large part in the game’s eventual redesign. I’d like to believe someone finally realized that if they were paying Bruce Willis all that money he might as well be the star of the game. Either way with its newfound singular focus Apocalypse is one of the better action games for the PlayStation and still holds up favorably today.

Part of what makes Apocalypse so enjoyable is its tight twin stick controls. If you have a dual shock controller than the game is no different than the hordes of indie shooters that have popped up in the last decade with the addition of some heavy platforming. Personally I found using a regular controller more satisfying; using the right analog stick to aim isn’t as accurate surprisingly. Here the game uses an identical setup to Smash TV on SNES, with the face buttons controlling your firing direction and the shoulder buttons relegated to jumping and bombs. Either setup enables you to practically glide through the levels mowing down enemies with reckless abandon.

Apocalypse moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t dawdle too long in one area before moving you along to the next action set piece. Though viewed primarily from the third person the camera will frequently switch to an overhead or side scrolling view. Targeting is not much of a factor as there is a gentle auto aim to assist in mowing down the hordes of enemies. Extra weapons are limited in their use but are dropped frequently enough that you won’t have to rely on the standard machine gun for very long. Most of the game’s nine levels end in a boss battle of some sort, with the most challenging being the battles against the four horsemen. The plot may be cheesy but it at least provides some impetus for the game’s rapid fire pacing and doesn’t bog the game down by trying to tell an elaborate story.

Overall in spite of the nonstop pace the game is of medium difficulty. Health packs are spaced out evenly and dropped at appropriate times, i.e. after dogged fire fights. There is some light platforming thrown in here and there and unlike the disastrous results of One the camera always chooses an optimal view so that if you die it’s your own fault. Although the levels are long (especially the rooftops, seriously that was almost 45 minutes of repetitive action) frequent checkpoints help avoid frustration and anyone with a modicum of skill will reach the end in an afternoon which might seem short but feels appropriate; the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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In terms of the game’s look it has a lot in common with One except it isn’t as technically accomplished. The game throws you from one set piece to the next at a decent clip and the scenarios are all pretty awesome such as the city streets with its flying cars that wouldn’t look out of place in the Fifth Element. The game’s art direction is definitely too ambitious for the system as most areas are small, dark, and jagged in their construction. The lighting effects are nice and the game usually sticks to smaller enclosed environments to keep its frame rate stable. But there are plenty of times where it dips severely, mostly when any explosions are going off in a room with multiple enemies.

The soundtrack is pulsing, loud, and heavy with a large emphasis on guitar riffs. More so than the music however is the large number of voice clips from Trey Kincaid. Trey is constantly quipping at every turn and unfortunately it’s obvious most of the clips were from the period where he was an AI sidekick as they frequently don’t match up with the onscreen action and seem targeted at someone who isn’t there. It’s also very repetitive which is a common complaint in situations like this. Getting Bruce Willis back into the studio was probably unrealistic and so Neversoft probably had to salvage what they could from the game’s original direction. Too bad the results aren’t all that great.

Those issues aside Apocalypse is a great game and one that miraculously came out of development hell better than it should have. While the game is most notable for Bruce Willis’s involvement it is strong enough to stand on its own without the celebrity endorsement.  This is one of the few truly great 3d action games from that period.

8-out-of-101

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Cyberbots

With the advent of the Saturn and PlayStation in the mid-90s the chances of seeing home ports of all the big budget arcade games increased dramatically. While the 3d games like Tekken and Ridge Racer were exciting I looked forward to the 2d stuff more, specifically Capcom and SNK’s fighting games.   I was still too young to know the ins and outs of game development but knew games like Darkstalkers and King of Fighters were too much for my SNES and Genesis. Cyberbots would also join that list and while I had only seen it in magazines I desperately wanted to play it. It would be many years before I finally picked up the import and in the end I was left disappointed. This is a decent game but I expected more.

Cyberbots is a spinoff from Armored Warriors, a little known beat em up that is absolutely gorgeous. Both games were not popular which is probably why the home ports never came to the US. I would imagine that for most their only familiarity with the series comes from Jin Saotomi’s appearances in Marvel vs. Capcom. I remember anticipating the game’s release and was disappointed when it never manifested. However playing it years after the fact shows that I didn’t miss much. While I like the game the bare bones package means it has a short shelf life.

There’s a colorful cast of characters but you don’t simply pick a fighter and jump in here. Once you’ve chosen a character you also select a mech which determines your special moves. The 12 mechs are divided into four categories: Reptos for high speed, Fordy for high mobility, Guldin for high attack output, and Blodia as your well rounder. While this does create some homogenization mechs in the same group still have different arms and legs that vary their attacks. Your choice of character determines how the story plays out although it is lost on those of us who don’t speak Japanese.

As in most Capcom fighting games special moves are executed using quarter circle motions allowing most fighting game fans to jump right in. Although button inputs are shared the game uses a simplified button setup with two attack buttons, a dash, and a weapon button to fire projectiles. Ammo is infinite but you have to wait for the gauge to recharge which balances it out. Obviously the dash button is a gap closer but it will also modify some of your special moves. Depending on the mech you can air dash multiple times and even hover! As an added bonus you can even rip your opponent’s limbs off to further cripple them although it’s random as to when this occurs.

There is definitely a lot of familiar aspects within the game but this is still its own beast. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these aren’t the speediest combatants and the game has a slower, lumbering pace appropriate for giant robots. You won’t be executing long strings of attacks and in fact most multi hit combos are more a result of a special move hitting multiple times rather than your ability to link attacks. The simple button setup makes this easier to pick up and play and while there is some depth you’ll have to dig for it.

As a port of the arcade game Capcom have done an exceptional job. However as an all-around package Cyberbots is as dry as they come. You get two modes, arcade and versus and that’s it. There are no extensive customization options and aside from Zero Akuma + the three bosses there are no other unlockables. The bar had been raised in terms of what was expected from a fighting game conversion not just by Namco with the Tekken games but also by Capcom themselves with the various Street Fighter Alpha ports. Seeing the lackluster job they’ve done here is surprising as a result and hurts the game’s longevity. They really should have added more content such as a practice mode or even an art gallery. As is if you don’t have a consistent group of friends the game will lose its appeal quickly.

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Even in this day and age of high resolution 2d fighting games such as Blaz Blue Cyberbots is still ridiculously pretty. Since these are giant mechs the sprites are huge with a ridiculous attention to detail paid to all of their individual parts. The animation is extremely fluid and the game never slows down no matter how many large pyrotechnic blasts are being unleashed. It’s similar to Darkstalkers in that regard but even more impressive in my opinion. The backgrounds are beautiful with levels of detail stretching off into the distance, to the point where it’s almost distracting. This version uses SNK’s RAM cartridge for faster load times and smoother animation but even without the conversion is solid.

Considering the game never achieved much popularity in US arcades the home ports are more than likely most gamer’s exposure to it. While Capcom has done a bang up job of cramming all of the insanity of the arcade game to the Saturn the lack of content also means this is a lacking choice compared to the bustling fighting game library for the system. It’s good for what it is but not much more.

6-out-of-10-1

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Adventure Island III

While I was not a humongous fan of Adventure Island the second game in the series went a long way toward making me appreciate what Master Higgins had to offer. It also helped that it also distinguished the games from the Wonder Boy series from which they were derived. After a solid second outing Adventure Island 3 came along and to be honest felt really unnecessary. There’s nothing wrong with the game per se other than it bearing too strong of a resemblance to its direct predecessor. Ultimately this is a solid venture but one that feels like a cash grab than a product with some heart behind it.

Adventure Island 2 did a firm job of establishing the mechanics of the series and for the most part this third installment follows its tenets to the letter. The inventory screen makes its return, allowing you to store extra hatchets and helper animals for future use. The lone new additions to the game come in the form of a boomerang which loops around before coming back and a crystal that grants temporary invincibility. Master Higgins has also befriended a new animal as well, a triceratops who can roll into a ball as a means of attack.

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Aside from the ability to crouch and attack however Adventure Island 3 feels like an expansion pack rather than a brand new installment. Level themes are brought over wholesale to the point where if you were to make a quick glance you could very easily mistake this for the second game. The underwater levels in particular are so blatantly copied and pasted that Hudson should feel ashamed of themselves. To an extent you could lobby this same criticism at the Mega Man series as they all followed the same template however each robot master provided wildly different levels with uniquely appropriate traps and enemies. Here the gameplay is so simple and the graphics so identical to the prior game that you can’t help but feel like they didn’t try as hard this time around.

As damning as that sounds however it also means the game is extremely solid. There are smaller mechanical changes that make working your way through the game much more enjoyable. There are less levels per map meaning each themed “world” doesn’t become tired by the time you reach its boss. Adventure Island 2 seemed to pack its islands with far too many levels just for the sake of it so I’m glad Hudson also took note of this as well. Speaking of bosses they also don’t move around the map Mario 3 style if you lose; no more trudging through some of the more difficult stages to get another shot at a boss. I found the length of the individual levels to be perfect as well. They are just long enough to harbor numerous secret rooms and a few tricky platforming areas while also allowing you to breeze through a decent number in shorter gaming sessions.

One area that I found surprising is the game’s challenge. The difficulty curve ramps up pretty quickly and I think will be off putting to anyone not familiar with the series. By the time you reach the end of the second island fruit is noticeably less abundant. Combined with hazards such as rolling boulders and carefully placed moving platforms that require you to slow down you’ll experience quite a few close calls before making it to the exit. Its sets a different pace than the other games and I like it. Boss battles on the other hand are exceedingly easy with simple patterns that offer little challenge.

While I’ve painted a picture of a game that seems to simply reshuffle its predecessor’s assets that would be far from the truth. The forests, caves, and undersea themes are definitely the same but these are joined by deserts, pirate ships, lava, and other standard platforming fare. The game simply doles them out throughout the length of the adventure rather than front loading it. The game has a slightly more angular look that is different but I wouldn’t say superior. For a game released in 1990 it definitely lagged behind its contemporaries.

There you have it. Adventure Island 3 is another solid entry in the series but is also uncomfortably similar to its predecessor. I hate to call any game a lazy cash in as even the most terrible games still require some effort to produce but in this case it definitely applies. If that doesn’t seem all that bad than you could do far worse than AI3.

7-out-of-10

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Doom Troopers: Mutant Chronicles

I loved side scrolling action games during the 16-bit era and they were second only to RPGs as my favorite genre. But to an extent the pickings were a bit slim. After loving Contra III, Hard Corps, Alien Soldier, and the various Turrican games what was left were games of middling quality, especially by 1995. Doom Troopers: Mutant Chronicles aimed to fill that void but stumbles in the process due to a lack of polish. If you persevere you can appreciate the game’s few good points but when there are better alternatives out there why bother?

Mutant Chronicles is a tabletop role playing game much like Shadowrun or Dungeons & Dragons with Doom Troopers being its action focused spinoff. Some knowledge of the IP will provide some backstory context for the game although it isn’t necessary. In the distant future mankind colonizes the entire Solar System by terraforming other planets. It all goes wrong when they try to inhabit the tenth planet Nero and unleash the Dark Legion and their leader the Dark Soul. As one of two commandos, Mitch Hunter or Max Steiner it is your job to rid the galaxy of the Dark Legion once and for all.

As a shooter the game closely resembles Contra with a few notable differences. Ammo is not unlimited which is an odd choice for a game of this type. Generally it isn’t an issue as extra clips are almost always available. If you do run out your ammo will refill up to 10 shots on its own. Melee attacks are available but are more or less useless in my opinion. The only differences between characters are their special weapon and that Max takes less damage than Mitch otherwise it comes down to who you think looks cooler.

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Doom Troopers is gratuitously violent to an almost comical degree. Enemies that have been shot a few times will have their heads or torso explode in a shower of gore which is followed by a cartoony blood spurting sound effect. What remains of their bodies will still try to fight until you reduce it to a puddle of red stuff. Hanging bodies will decay from the jaw down in gruesome fashion and some enemies even lose both limbs before keeling over and dying. Why the developers chose to go all out in this fashion I don’t know as I’m not familiar with the trading card game this is based on but it comes across as incredibly crass instead of mature. Not that I’m squeamish or anything but this game really didn’t need the gore. What it could have used is more enemy variety as you’ll fight the same three or four dark legion soldiers for the length of the entire game which is lame. They sure do die in spectacular fashion though.

The controls are not the greatest as they can be a bit unresponsive at times. What’s worse than that is the idiotic decision to relegate aiming to a button. That’s right, you have to hold a button down to aim in multiple directions which is just plain stupid. It slows the game down considerably and forces you into positions where you might have to take a few cheap hits in the process of lining up a shot. Aside from the terrible aiming the game’s hit detection and collision are not up to snuff. Point blank shots and kicks regularly pass through enemies while they are under no such restrictions, able to walk through barriers and have lethal aim.

Anytime platforming is called for it’s a crapshoot whether the game’s collision will work or not. I have fallen through solid pieces of ground only to jump halfway through the same ledge and land properly. The game’s level design can be confusing as to whether certain areas will damage you or not, most especially on Mercury.

The game tries to mask its faults by providing a constant supply of health packs and extra lives but its problems are still pretty evident. If it were not for the abundance of power-ups this would be an impossible game to finish. As is it is difficult but you can brute force your way through thanks to the generous respawn system. The game’s few boss battles are creative and a highlight, providing the only real challenge in the game. I just wish there were more of them. This is not the longest game in the world at just seven levels and I don’t imagine most will have trouble completing it in one afternoon.

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For a 1995 release Doom Troopers is an ugly game. The pre-rendered sprites are low resolution to the point where you can barely make out their design. In many ways the sprite work looks like a low quality Genesis title that was ported to the SNES with little done to take advantage of its higher color palette. The art direction is also highly derivative. The jungle of the first level is a poor man’s attempt at mimicking Donkey Kong Country’s stylized forest and is just sad in comparison. The lava filled caverns of Mercury look suspiciously similar to the What the Heck? Level of Earthworm Jim, which is ironic considering Playmates would published both games. It isn’t completely bad however. The few times the game decides to forge its own identity its backgrounds can look pretty amazing at times. However these moments are few.

With a little more polish Doom Troopers could have at least been a good game with some rough spots. But its various middling issues combine to make it an exasperating experience. The moments where everything clicks are fun but those are separated by a whole lot of frustration. As much as I wanted to like it you are better off giving this a pass.

6-out-of-10-1

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Truxton

I briefly played Truxton in the arcade but had no recollection of it before finally renting it completely by chance. My memories of a fast action game that never let up held true but I wasn’t prepared for just how difficult the game is. Truxton manages to pack more action into its five levels than two whole games combined. In most cases that would be a good thing since it would seem you are getting your money’s worth but the high degree of difficulty brings down an otherwise solid game. You have been warned.

The weapon system is simple yet elegant. Weapons come in three colors: red for the standard bullets, blue for homing thunder, and green for lasers. To power up your weapons five P icons need to be collected which sounds like a lot but the game is actually pretty generous in that regard. Unlike most shooters the regular cannon is a three-way shot that isn’t completely useless so if you die you can at least survive long enough to collect a few items. Sadly there are no shields but the extremely cool skull bomb will erase any bullets on screen when used. Hell sometimes I used it just because it looks so damn cool.

The level setup is different from most. Each individual stage is one long scrolling act with virtually no pauses in the action right up until the final battle. There are frequent minibosses thrown in, sometimes against more than one ship that do break it up somewhat but aside from that the game never breaks from its slow march. There aren’t even any sort of traditional level transitions! The only way you’ll know it is a new stage is a change in scenery and music. There’s a blandness to the visuals that extends to the enemies and were it not for the constant enemy assault I would even say the game has a lazy atmosphere about it.

That last point is pretty funny in retrospect as this is one of the most difficult shooters I have ever played and that’s saying something. Generally I stay away from the bullet hell stuff and in that regard this game can’t compete. The attacks are relentless, the enemies insanely fast, and checkpoints relatively scarce. In other words the odds are stacked against you. It isn’t that your weapons are weak, far from it. But the enemies are so aggressive and can come from any corner of the screen without warning that you will die constantly. By stage 3 the game is practically throwing bombs and power-ups at your feet because you’ll need it. By that point if you die you might as well start over since it is nearly impossible to build up your weapons without dying again. The game isn’t quite Rayxanber II levels of frustrating but it can be grating. At least it’s doable unlike that…..game.

Despite a mere five levels the game definitely feel like you’ve gone through twice that number in the end. For the truly skilled gamers who manage to beat the “final” boss the game loops and becomes even more difficult. The arcade game repeated infinitely but at least in this version there is a definite conclusion. Defeating the fifth boss will reveal a brief ending in which he gets away. To see the game’s true ending you must complete five rounds or loops; a feat worthy of the greatest gamers among us. I have confidence in my gaming skills but honestly, fuck that.

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Truxton was never an exceptionally pretty game and its Sega port is even uglier. The color palette is incredibly subdued and because of that bullets have a tendency to blend in with the background leading to cheap deaths. The game has little in the way of interesting scenery. Most of it is empty space and different colored asteroids. I don’t know why they bothered but a portion of the screen is taken up by a status bar similar to Phelios and Elemental Master. That wouldn’t be a problem if the playing area weren’t forced to scroll as a result and left you open to off screen fire. The bosses are the sole visual highlight as they are large screen filling battleships and tanks. You’re not playing this game for its visuals.

Overall Truxton is a pretty good game but the high difficulty is definitely off putting. This is not a game for casual fans of the genre. While I’m not one to be put off by a game’s challenge in this case I do think it is a detriment. Only go into this knowing what to expect

7-out-of-10

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Mickey to Donald: Magical Adventure 3

Looking back it sucks that Capcom took such a huge bath on the console ports of Super Street Fighter 2 and as such began to cut back on their cartridge based titles as we missed out on a few cool games. If you would have told me at any point in the 90s that a Mega Man would not be released worldwide I’d have called you crazy. Yet Rockman & Forte would take 7 years and a new platform to come to the US. The Magical Quest series was hugely popular and excellent even though they targeted the younger set. Unbeknownst to most a third game in the series hit Japan exclusively in 1995 and while it isn’t as refined as the first two is still a pretty damn good game.

It seems Donald Duck’s legendary bad temper has caused more trouble than necessary this time around. After losing his composure over falling to one of Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s pranks the boys hide in the attic to get away from him. However there they find a magical book and are sucked in to Storybook land by King Pete. When Mickey and Donald come looking for the boys they are informed by the fairy of Storybook land that they will need to overthrow King Pete to get the boys back.

Either Mickey or Donald are selectable and this time around the choice is more than cosmetic. Both characters can grab and throw objects in their base form as well as butt bounce but their costumes differ in functionality. Mickey dons a full suit of armor, complete with a shield to block attacks and a lance that can attack in multiple directions. Donald’s large ass (the game’s words not mine) means he can’t wear armor. Instead he dons a cheap barrel with a hammer. However the barrel is pretty awesome as it can float in water and be used as protection from most hits. The magic suit has the same differences: as Mickey’s magic birds fly instantly whereas Donald has to charge his magic first.

With their unique abilities comes a slight change in level design as both characters will at times take different paths. Since Mickey will drop like a stone in water when armored the bottom half of the Harvest Festival is not a good choice for him. This aspect of the game isn’t taken as far as it could have been however. If every level had separate paths for Mickey and Donald it would have been a good reason to play through the game twice. In coop you can throw each other around, perfect for finding hidden items. But once you’ve played World of Illusion, which has entire levels designed exclusively for two players you’ll want more from this.

While the game largely has the same feel as the two previous games the controls are not as responsive and the costumes are a bit of a retread. The frustrating controls are most prominent with the climbing suit. For the most part they’ll automatically grab any tree or pillar than can be ascended however performing an accelerated jump to another pole or ledge seems to randomly work and unfortunately this skill is mandatory in the final levels. As far as the costumes go the climbing suit is a slower and less responsive version of the Mountaineer costume from Magical Quest and the magic suit is a less versatile version of the magic turban.

Where the general gameplay is largely the same as its predecessors some of the same criticism can also be lobbied at this game. Once again the quest is incredibly easy, with life restoring hearts and extra lives in ready supply. If you find one of the bonus rooms you can potentially stay there and accumulate items as long as you don’t pick a Pete card that throws you out. The majority of your deaths will come from dealing with the odd control quirks surrounding some of the suits. Boss battles can be tough but by the midpoint of the game they are literally tossing out extra lives in pairs. Despite being one level longer than the prior entries this still feels just as short which sucks as it is still enjoyable game regardless of its few flaws.

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The Magical Quest series has always featured exceptional artwork and this installment is no less impressive. The backgrounds are gorgeous and the game still features the same wide range of animations for literally every enemy. This is not a huge leap over its predecessors as it is obvious that Capcom are reusing the same engine however the art direction and variety in environments are what carries it. The soundtrack this time around is sadly not as memorable as new composers were brought in. The music isn’t bad, it kind of just lingers in the background.

Mickey to Donald: Magical Adventure 3 is not as well-honed as its predecessors but will still provide a few hours of entertainment for those that seek it out. Honestly this should have been released in 1995 but what can you do? The Super Famicom game received a fan translation by RPG One however the Gameboy Advance port was released here and is dirt cheap for those who need more Disney in their life.

7-out-of-10

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Salamander

Any fan of NES shooters is undoubtedly familiar with Life Force. As the sequel to Gradius we all thought the game was excellent, building on what we loved about Gradius and more. However what nearly all of us were not aware of is that Life Force was actually a loose port of Salamander, an entirely different series from Konami. Salamander would see many ports and sadly the excellent PC Engine version never came to the US. This is an excellent addition to the system’s shmup library and one worth seeking out.

Those who have played Life Force will be pretty surprised at just how different Salamander really is from that game. For one there is no power-up bar; all weapons are dropped randomly from enemies. I can see why Konami adapted the Gradius weapon bar when bringing the game to the US as it drew an automatic connection to Gradius but the Salamander method is actually pretty quick. Item drops are a regular occurrence although you’ll have to remember what each weapon looks like to avoid ditching the laser for the ripple for example.

As a shooter Salamander mixes both horizontal and vertical scrolling much like some of the Twinbee games. This could have been a recipe for disaster but the game is equally adept at both. It’s interesting to note some of the other differences between this and Life Force. Where Life Force adapted a biological theme Salamander is more straightforward (although all of these changes would be incorporated into a new version of the arcade game too). The fourth stage of Salamander was moved up to become the second level of Life Force. Sadly the original stages of Life Force aren’t present, which sucks. While they definitely seemed out of place (seriously an Egyptian themed level?) their presence would have increased the length of the game and made you feel like you got your money’s worth.

Overall the difficulty is quite low compared to the typical entries in the series. Due to the frequent weapon drops you can reach full power pretty quickly at which point you will blitz through the levels easily. There is still a ton going on with stray bullets and enemies blending into the background but nothing so intense that would be considered unfair. This home port adapts the checkpoint system of Gradius but isn’t as punishing since the game is so generous with weapons. There is no Konami code and continues are limited but that is little deterrent. The lacking challenge does however highlight the one crucial flaw with the game however.

The only major flaw with the game is its length. With just six stages shooter veterans can complete the game in under thirty minutes. Those less skilled will probably average an hour or so and while I like the game there is still something to be said about its value proposition. On the plus side the game is relatively cheap by import standards and I’m sure most will run through the game a few times as it is pretty awesome.

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Salamander was a significant leap forward in terms of presentation over Gradius which is surprising considering both games were released a year apart. The generic star fields of old have been replaced with more varied terrain such as fortified enemy bases, asteroid fields, and fiery planets. There is also a unique boss for every level which sounds minor but goes a long way toward keeping you from getting bored. I’m pretty confident no one wanted to spend another game blowing up the same mothership over and over again. This version of the game is near identical outside of differences in resolution and some minor loss of background detail. The FM synthesized music has been improved over the arcade game but the voices announcing the names of weapons and levels have been removed.

The one flaw with the game’s presentation is the slowdown. Much like the NES version of Gradius II with four options and a weapon like the Ripple filling up the majority of the screen the game can and will slow to a crawl frequently. This is especially egregious during boss battles but at least there it is welcome as the game can move too fast otherwise. How’s that for a problem? It isn’t game breaking but is pretty annoying as it really stands out amid the rest of this fantastic package.

Outside of the Salamander Deluxe Packs for the PlayStation and Saturn this is the best port of Salamander and one that should have made it overseas. If the game’s length is not an issue for you I see no reason not jump in unless you have access to the previously mentioned Deluxe Packs.

8-out-of-101

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Astro Fang

While I have a great deal of nostalgia for 8-bit games of all stripes racing games are the hardest to go back to. The march of technology has left the vast majority of these games lacking and while I can still appreciate Excitebike I’d just as soon rather play something more modern. Square’s Rad Racer is one of the few games from that period I can revisit and there were a few other games in that style. Astro Fang is dangerously similar to Rad Racer but adds a few cool twists that at least makes it somewhat unique. It won’t win any points for originality but it remains a solid game that never left Japan.

If you can actually believe there is something of a plot. A series of natural disasters has left the planet RS-121 a devastated wasteland. However amidst the destruction lies a singular path, the Black Line. An unsolved legend lies at the end of the Black Line and Raiba has decided to put the legend to the test in his souped up Astro Fang. I never said it was a good plot.

Upon first glance you can’t help but note the eerie similarity to Rad Racer. Whether it was intentional or not the two games would look near identical were it not for Astro Fang’s intergalactic setting. While the two games share a graphical style gameplay wise there are some distinct differences. The controls aren’t as tight as this doesn’t have the same level of physics (I can’t believe I’m saying that about an 8-bit game) but at least they are serviceable. By pressing down you can compact your car ideally to squeeze between tight spaces but I can honestly say anytime I’ve successfully done so was a happy accident.

Racing is less of a focus as this more of a battle racer in the style of Chase HQ. There are numerous weapons available from the shops in each track to destroy drone cars and the end level bosses. Missiles, tire spikes, and even invincibility will send these hapless idiots up in a blaze of smoke. Aside from missiles these power-ups last until your first wreck of if you bump into a few too many enemies. Most of these weapons are so powerful they would be game breaking if the tracks weren’t so long which balances it out. Using weapons is not to beat any sort of strict time limit but mainly to avoid running out of gas.

Unlike most arcade style racing games there is no timer winding down as you drive however fuel is limited and more or less serves the same function. Occasionally you’ll find a quick refill along the track but for the most part you’ll need to duck into the shop at every opportunity to buy some more. Study the pre-level map since you don’t want to miss a shop by choosing the wrong branching path. As you progress deeper into the game shops are spaced out even further which forces you to make as few mistakes as possible or else its game over. At least there are unlimited continues.

Despite that slight change the game is no less punishing. Totaling your car as in Rad Racer will cost a unit of fuel and it quickly adds up. Just like that game towards the end there is very little room for error and it is soul crushing to have to start over right at the tail end of a course. The game follows along the same lines as Square’s classic as there frequently three rival cars occupying each lane and it is easy to get thrown into trackside objects. While you can (and should) blast them you do have to conserve missiles otherwise you can’t defeat the end level boss. The game can be incredibly difficult and unfair with its propensity to place objects at random points in the road with no prior warning. Although there are only 6 levels they are incredibly long and some will probably take a few tries to complete.

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With its alien worlds and abstract car design Astro Fang is a long ways from the coastal beaches and city lights of Rad Racer and is better for it. The various extraterrestrial planets allow the designers to go wild and create truly weird and abstract backdrops to race against. My only gripe visually is that some of the best vistas are only seen for a second or two as you transition along your chosen path. The music is not as good however. There are a few catchy tunes but anytime you buy a weapon of some sort they come with their own theme song that is just, meh.

All in all while Astro Fang is a bit derivative for its time there was very little else like it. All of its features do not come together properly but what is left is a solid yet repetitive game.

7-out-of-10

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Melfand Stories

Side scrolling beat em ups were at the height of their popularity in the early 90s with every console not named the Turbo Grafx-16 receiving their fair share. While the SNES had a solid lineup of brawlers some of its best were left behind in Japan such as Undercover Cops and Iron Commando. Melfand Stories is not as good as the previously mentioned games but certainly has its merits. Ascii could certainly have done worse than bringing this out worldwide but as it is no Japanese knowledge is required to enjoy this solid romp.

In the land of Melfand the King was kind and fair to all. However his subordinate Nomolwa decides he should rule instead and makes a bargain with the demon Beril to usurp the King. With this Nomolwa overthrows both the King and Queen and terror reigns. All hope of restoring peace lies with four warriors, each wanting to take down Nomolwa for their own reasons.

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Each hero has their specialty and falls neatly within established tropes. The young El is the typical well rounder, jack of all trades but master of none. Corse is physically the strongest and has the highest defense but is also the slowest. Lemin has the longest range with her fireballs but is also the weakest. Technically her magic is the most powerful but I would be hard pressed to note any differences between her spells and the rest of the crew. Nora is the most interesting. With her long whip and high jump if played correctly she is game breaking since you can use hit and run tactics against even the toughest bosses.

The game confines its action to a single plane which might seem strange as it goes against genre standards but largely works here. These aren’t so much levels as they are short vignettes that have a few enemies and a boss encounter before moving on to the next set piece. It certainly works to keep up the visual variety but doesn’t exactly make for a fulfilling experience. After almost every stage you have a choice between two levels, usually designated as easy or hard. It’s actually pretty cool and is incentive to play the game more than once.

Overall however the game is incredibly simple which is to its detriment. It has nothing to do with its single plane; the Ninja Warriors is similar and that game is awesome. In terms of attacks you are limited to a simple three hit combo, a defensive maneuver or shield, and magic. Even by beat em standards that is pathetic. To some degree it almost seems like the designers were aware of this as the game moves at a brisk pace, never lingering in one area too long before moving on to a new change of scenery. That is a point in the game’s favor but it also highlights its crucial flaw.

Like most brawlers Melfand Stories is short however like Star Fox has more than one path to its conclusion. There are nine levels in total but on any given run you’ll only see five. There are three paths to the end and in addition each character has their own individual ending. While it sounds like a lot of content a single play through of the game ranges from thirty to forty five minutes depending on whether you suck at videogames. Disappointing for sure but at least in this regard it fares better than most games in the genre.

This is a pretty easy game overall due largely in part to how short the levels are. Despite each stage being split into multiple smaller segments they are brief with only a few enemy encounters before facing a midlevel boss. Health power-ups as well as magic are also plentiful which I found odd; usually these are spaced out better. You only get one life and limited credits but it is easy to gain more through points. Since you respawn when continuing and can even change characters bum rushing a boss is a valid strategy. Having said that for some reason it “feels” just right although I do wish the levels were longer.

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Melfand Stories is a pretty attractive game for a title that has very little notoriety. The sprites are medium sized and stylized; not quite super deformed but also not chasing realism. The game’s vibrant color palette and world design is just incredibly charming. It’s definitely unique and an acquired taste. The levels run the typical fantasy tropes but even so are still unique even compared to something like King of Dragons. The one area that is lacking would be the animation; for such oddly proportioned sprites the animation can look robotic at times. But that is a minor point when viewed as a whole.

While it isn’t the greatest beat em up there’s still plenty to like about Melfand Stories. This really should have had a western release but even so you are only missing out on minor story bits here and there. Fans of brawlers and Super Famicom imports will find a solid game behind the simplicity of its gameplay.

7-out-of-10

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Syd of Valis

I’ve never understood the appeal of the whole super deformed thing. I get the whole “cute” angle of it but aside from the novelty of seeing chibi renditions of your fan favorite characters (as SD is usually applied to popular properties) it does nothing for gameplay. The only time I guess it added any benefit to a game would be Super Puzzle Fighter. Syd of Valis is one of the few SD games to reach America and is a prime example of what I mentioned. Aside from the cute graphical overhaul this is simply a bad version of an already middling game.

The name Syd of Valis might lead you to believe that this is a new installment in Renovation’s series when in actuality it is a repurposed port of Valis II. The name is unfortunately a localization error; apparently the staff at Renovation thought Syd sounded close enough to “SD” that they chose to rename the game, completing defeating the purpose of its original name. That wouldn’t be so bad if they also hadn’t changed Yuko’s name to Syd as well. As an unintentionally funny port of Valis II this port opened the game up to a larger audience as there weren’t many who owned a Turbo CD. It’s admirable but would have been better appreciated if it fixed the flaws of the original game rather than adding even more of its own.

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The graphics, while stylized, are an improvement on the original. All of the character sprites have undergone a cuddly makeover with large eyes and over the top expressions when hit. The big head/small body look is not to everyone’s tastes however it looks good here, especially since the sprites are so large.  This is most evident with the bosses. The backgrounds have at least one layer of scrolling in comparison to the flat backdrops of its Turbo Grafx counterpart. Unfortunately the long cutscenes and extensive voice acting were lost in the process but given the game’s look I don’t even want to imagine how those would have turned out.

What little story remains in the game has been butchered pretty heavily which is just sad. For a game with so little text the fact that it has been mangled is simply baffling. The series followed anime tropes through and through but the fact that there were extended cutscenes at all at least provided some impetus to continue through the average gameplay. There are spelling errors and repeated dialogue throughout the game which shows just how little care was put into this package. It’s doubly disappointing as Renovation at least did a solid job with all of the other installments in the series.

Where the story and such have taken a large step back Yuko remains largely unchanged. Yuko moves at a brisk pace but also slides around a bit due to the bad physics. The slide attack is gone but in its place is a very useful double jump although platforming isn’t called on too frequently. You can also attack upwards which doesn’t sound like much but is a big deal considering the number of flying enemies and bosses in the game.

One noticeable improvement in the gameplay department would be the inventory of armor and weapons brought over from the MSX and PC88 originals. The different suits of armor modify your base defense, attack power, and speed with very tangible results although to be honest I stuck with the basic Valis suit until I received the ultimate armor with no major impact on my progress. They’ve even added an exclusive Chinese dress for some creepy fan service. The three additional weapons are earned at set points and can be switched at any time. There is some strategy to using the appropriate weapon to trivialize a boss encounter (usually the three-way shot) and the game does a good job keeping even the basic fireball you start with relevant by making it the most powerful.

In all other respects however the game has been overly simplified. While the levels are largely based on the originals they have been streamlined; gone are the separate paths through most stages as well as nooks that hid items. Most stages are a simple straight path and incredibly short. Were it not for the game’s sloppy physics and insane difficulty at times I wager most would finish the game in thirty minutes or less. Speaking of difficulty the game has notable spikes that will make you wonder what the hell just happened. Nearly all of the bosses hit hard and fast with some possessing attacks that are almost impossible to judge. The first boss moves so quick I honestly thought you were supposed to lose! Later bosses have two or three forms that require near perfect execution to defeat. In all other respects however the game is simple with frequent life restoring hearts and weaker midlevel bosses that refill your life bar after death.

Syd of Valis is a different take on a classic game but that doesn’t make it good. The myriad number of problems, from its ridiculous challenge, sliding physics, and boring level design make it an average game in a library full of far better titles in the same genre. There is no reason to ever bother with this subpar effort.

5-out-of-101

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Image Fight

I was always surprised that Irem never produced an NES port of R-Type. The NES/Famicom basically ruled the world at that point and it would make sense to bring your hottest property onto the best-selling console of the day but it never happened. While the Master System and Turbo Grafx-16 ports were well done those platforms were not exactly thriving. Instead we were given ports of obscure games like Image Fight. Not to completely disparage the game but Image Fight is little consolation for R-Type; it’s a decent game but with plenty of other quality shooters available there is little reason to bother with it.

You have a choice between two pods: the blue pods only fire forward, creating a concentrated burst of shots that is more destructive. The red pods follow the direction of the ship. It can be tricky to direct them in a pinch but it is far more versatile. You can have up to three, with two at your side and one at your back. By pressing both buttons together the pods can be sent out as a weapon though it isn’t particularly strong. Weapon selection is kept pretty light, not that the game needed any more than what is provided. There’s the V-cannon which follows its namesake and is near useless, seeking lasers that target the closest enemy in a straight line, a piercing laser, reflecting shot, and homing missiles. These attach to the front of your ship and can function as a one-time shield. Annoyingly you have to destroy your current weapon to grab a new one which is just plain stupid.

Image Fight is one of the few NES shooters that allow you to control the speed of the ship. Speed can be changed up to four levels which makes the ship faster and more maneuverable. It’s a decent option but outside of one boss encounter I never bothered with it and even forgot it could be controlled.

The game is broken up into two parts. The initial five levels are a sort of simulation or test and you are graded on your performance. Score less than 90% at the end and you have to do it all over. If you pass then it’s on to the final three “real missions”. In the arcade achieving a passing score was a grueling ordeal but here the game has been so simplified you would have to be brain dead to fail. The last three real missions are only a slight step up in difficulty, leaving the whole affair a sedate experience from beginning to end.

While a game leaning on the easy side isn’t so bad perhaps Image Fight’s biggest sin is the complete lack of excitement. This is an incredibly slow paced game and while there isn’t anything wrong with that when done well this is anything but. You will rarely be attacked by more than two or three enemies at a time, with plenty of time and room to dodge their fire. Even the bigger space ships pose little threat as their turrets are easily destroyed. The few weapons available are massively overpowered in comparison leaving you with to spend large amounts of time waiting for something to spawn.

One weapon in particular is game breaking: the homing missiles. Once you’ve acquired these you can literally park your ship on one side of the screen and let them do all the work. While they will occasionally try to follow an enemy behind a wall it is easy to get around that and utterly decimate the end level bosses in seconds. Even the last three “real missions” are no match for the homing missiles. True, you can always opt for a different weapon and option combo but realistically who gimps themselves on purpose to look for a challenge?

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Compared to its arcade big brother the NES version of Image Fight is the definition of a cheap port. Entire backgrounds have been removed, leaving a flat black backdrop in its place. It is incredibly boring to look at and was certainly not done for technical reasons as even earlier 1985 releases like 1942 and Zanac look better. The system is capable of better. The one positive I guess is that the larger ships and such have an extremely “clean” look to them that stands out against the backgrounds but you can tell I’m struggling to say something positive.

Image Fight is a strictly average shooter that maybe would have stood out had it been released years earlier. But by 1990 games like Gradius 2 and Parodius were pushing the system hard, making the complete lack of effort here more pronounced. There’s literally no reason to bother with this game.

5-out-of-101

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Go Go Ackman

Next to shooters platformers are some of the easiest games to import as any semblance of a story is merely window dressing to get you into the game. With platformers being the de facto genre of choice during the early 90s it’s hard to believe a few slipped through the cracks. The Go Go Ackman series range from really good to excellent and I’m sure if the manga had been localized these games would have come over too. That doesn’t matter however as the games are easily enjoyable with no Japanese knowledge and the first is a perfect introduction.

Anyone familiar with Dragon Ball will recognize the similarity to Trunks. Remove his nose and give him elf ears and you have a new character. Their personalities are pretty close too as both characters are mischievous except Ackman takes it a step further by actually killing people for their souls. That plot point forms the basis for the game’s story. The angel Tenshi has hatched another plot to kill his rival Ackman and enlists the aid of a higher angel to stop him once and for all. The interplay between Ackman and Tenshi is a bit looney tunes and despite the dark undertone the adventure is still pretty comical. It’s pretty hilarious to see Tenshi try his hardest and fail all the while Ackman is either oblivious or too stupid to notice. That tone helps an already pretty good game stand out.

It’s actually pretty surprising how much mileage Banpresto got out of Go Go Ackman. There are three Super Famicom games loosely based on what is essentially a one volume manga. That isn’t a slight against them and more of a testament to how good the premise for the series is. Collecting souls for the devil is some pretty dark stuff but here it is played for laughs. That cheeky tone is kept in this first video game adaptation as it sticks closer to the manga. While it’s understandable why it wasn’t released worldwide it doesn’t matter as no Japanese is required to enjoy this solid platformer.

Ackman is a pretty nimble protagonist and relies on fisticuffs to get through tight situations. Aside from punches and kicks he can wind up a punch and throw a mean sonic boom. Even the staple butt bounce makes an appearance except here it dazes enemies, allowing you to kick them into others. What’s funny to me about all this is that he has a sword strapped to his back but can’t use it or any other weapons until collecting an item. Part of that would be just how overpowered they are. Most enemies die in a single hit but the reach the boomerang, sword, and gun give will allow you to breeze through the game. I can understand limiting it in that regard but it still feels pretty cheap.

The game has all the trappings of your typical platformer such as collecting 100 coins for extra lives except here you have a little demon helper that will pick them up for you. The level design is great all around with a great deal of variety throughout. There are frequent forced scrolling segments that are actually fun as most hazards are telegraphed well in advance. Boss battles are frequent and unique if a bit simple. Their goofy designs make up for it however as this skews closer to the Dr. Slump side of Toriyama rather than Dragon Ball.

Overall the game is not too challenging and is a bit too easy. Despite beginning with a small life bar you’ll find hearts all around and will rarely be close to death. The bosses have easily recognizable patterns and if you manage to hold onto a weapon when you reach them the encounter is trivial. There is a slight ramp up toward the end but nothing too notable. The game is of medium length but the alternate paths do provide some impetus for playing through it twice at least.

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Go Go Ackman is a great looking game, fitting as it was released in late 1994. Akira Toriyama’s distinctive art style easily translates to video games and is replicated here in the sprite design. The game’s colorful cast of characters are pulled from everywhere; since the game doesn’t take place in any set period they can throw in everything. There are demons, robots, hitmen, and the undead and yet it all makes sense. The backgrounds are especially pretty with up to 3 or 4 layers of scrolling giving them some depth. The music is good but not noteworthy; there were only one or two songs that caught my attention but I’d rather that than generic rock that tries too hard.

For its first video game outing Go Go Ackman is solidly entertaining. It hits all the right beats and provides a decent challenge for any level of platforming fan. The story is completely inconsequential so you shouldn’t fear importing. For those that want to experience the game in whole there is an English translation patch. Either way this is one of the better import only platformers for the system and it only got better as the series progressed.

7-out-of-10-1

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Mega Turrican

I really did not like Turrican on Genesis and I’m sure I’ve elaborated on why in my review. So the fact that I love Mega Turrican and its follow-ups so much is an absolute miracle. All it took were the developers abandoning a lot of what made the game unique in favor of a tighter focus on straight up action. That’s not to say that the series prior emphasis on exploring wide open levels was wrong but its execution left much to be desired. Mega Turrican still keeps some of that but its switch to Contra style action makes it a much better game in my opinion and one of the top run and gun shooters for the system.

Years have passed since Bren McGuire donned his Turrican suit and defeated the Machine to save the galaxy. But that peace is shattered as the Machine has returned with a vengeance, destroying numerous planets and enslaving thousands. Bren takes up the suit once again when he hears a distress call from a lone girl as her planet is being overtaken. I can’t believe they somehow found a way to shove a save the girl plot into the game. The game’s intro features anime style artwork that really looks out of place but you don’t play these games for the plot.

There are many radical changes to the typical series formula with all of them for the better. Most of these changes were also present in Super Turrican such as the segmented life bar and wheel mode that has its own separate meter. The three weapons are the same but look a bit different, especially the rebounding shot. Here it releases a burst of energy that travels along the ground and ceiling and despite appearances might be the strongest weapon. Temporary shields and a homing missile round out your offensive arsenal.

The lightning whip  has been replaced with an energy based grappling beam for some Indiana Jones style swinging. It is a cool addition but unless you are taking the time to find hidden items throughout each level it doesn’t see much use until the final two worlds at which point it is mandatory for progress. Getting used to the swing mechanics is a bit tough as many of the tightly packed spaces where you’ll need it aren’t conducive to building up momentum. Luckily the few levels where it is necessary give you ample time to make up for your inevitable mistakes.

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Most levels in the game are a set path with little deviation which might turn off fans of the series but is done extremely well. The action is much more focused and measured with a constant barrage of enemies in your path. Most levels have one or two mini boss encounters before the big finish against a multi-jointed monstrosity. It is very much in the mold of classic Japanese action games such as Contra except a notch lower. The few levels that are spacious try to recapture some of the old Turrican vibe but unless you enjoy collecting crystals for a higher score you won’t find much beyond more weapon upgrades and the occasional shield.

All of the base changes to the game make it a far more manageable experience this go round. The difficulty is about medium; in the game’s more chaotic moments it’s easy to lose one or two lives just trying to manage but this is backed up by more frequent extra lives and power-ups. I did the bare minimum when it came to exploration and still managed to rack up about 10 lives by the game’s midpoint. With that as a buffer you are free to make mistakes to identify boss patterns, such as they are. I will say that as cool as some of the bosses are (they blatantly rip off the Terminator and Alien in a few cases) they were easier than I expected. Not that I’m complaining of course.

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Mega Turrican looks phenomenal but that is to be expected when the game is co-developed by Factor 5. While it lacks the sheer spectacle of a Gunstar Heroes or Alien Soldier it more than makes up for it with incredibly detailed artwork. The cold metal factories and ruined cities are a perfect complement for the Genesis’ darker color palette with the kinds of lavish detail you would expect from a title released later in the console’s lifespan. Both Mega and Super Turrican were in development in tandem and they both share a few design elements and even levels. While it lacks that game’s color palette in some respects I found this to be stronger visually, especially the bosses.

The music is generally excellent full of excellent tunes reminiscent of the Genesis’s best. The soft and melodic soundtrack manages to dodge the completely robotic sound of its peers but this is still FM synth so a bit of that rough guitar twang is still present. The sound effects oddly enough are a bit weak and lacking punch, something you can’t say about too many Genesis titles.

Mega Turrican is an excellent action game on a system with more than its fair share and yet it still manages to rise to the top. Those seeking more after spending time with Contra: Hard Corps and Alien Soldier should definitely apply.

8-out-of-101

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Mugen Senshi Valis

It’s strange; by any metric the Valis series is nothing but a bunch of solid and sometimes below average games yet I love them to death. Maybe that love stems from their uniquely Japanese aesthetic or the fact that they make use of extensive cutscenes which to my teenaged mind was the greatest thing ever. While I was familiar with the Genesis version of the original it would be many years before I would have the chance to play its other 16-bit counterpart. As a port/enhanced remake this is definitely the better of the two titles although that still means it is just solid.

This would actually turn out to be the last console port of the original game, even after the fourth installment. Why Telenet felt the need to go back and remake the game is a mystery but their efforts are welcome. Valis in its original form on the MSX and various Japanese PC formats was an insipid game, even worse than the confusing Famicom installment. The Sega remake was decent for the time but has definitely aged badly and while this version is undoubtedly the best it also suffers the same fate to an extent. While good there are still far better action platformers on the same platform.

Although they share many of the same stage themes and bosses this version of the game is overall quite different from its Sega counterpart. At first glance Yuko seems to control identically to the Genesis game but numerous small improvements have been made that create a smoother experience. The default jump no longer relies on pressing up to gain height and is instead based on how long the button is pressed. Most importantly the slide move has been better integrated into the game with plenty of low ceilings and gaps that require its use to cross. It can also be used to attack. Yuko still runs pretty slowly unfortunately but this is not supposed to be a fast paced game anyway.

This installment in the series is far more focused on combat than platforming with a suitable array of weapons for the task. There are a variety of weapons that produce different projectiles from the Valis sword such as homing arrows, the wide shot and my personal favorite, the sword shot. Collecting the same power-up three times will max out its power for devastating results. New magic spells are learned after defeating each boss although I’ll admit I forgot they were even in the game since you won’t really need them.

I found the difficulty overall to be pretty low. Yuko’s life bar is pretty long and while there are a number of cheap hits to be found life restoring hearts can be found everywhere. The bosses do put up a bit of a fight but their patterns are easy to discern making these encounters fairly routine. The game does not refill your health between levels but that poses little obstacle since it is better to simply die for a fresh start. The levels are a bit sparse compared to your typical action game and only pick up slightly in the latter half. Even then with full power you’ll breeze through this in less than an hour, especially since it is shorter than the other versions.

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As an early PC Engine CD Valis has a mild presentation. Yuko and the various enemies she faces are comprised of medium sized sprites. The backgrounds range from pretty detailed to just barely above Famicom level. The lack of any scrolling in these flat backdrops is pretty noticeable but the game’s excellent use of the system’s color palette helps somewhat. Compared to the MSX and PC-88 originals the visual leap is pretty significant as the color palette isn’t a garish nightmare. There is a gratuitous amount of fan service in the game that is pretty surprising. Every time Yuko jumps her dress flies up giving you a full view of her panties. The cinemas also revel in lingering on her body whenever she is getting dressed or changes outfits. Honestly it’s nothing out of the ordinary considering the popularity of anime but is still hilarious to see in action.

The added CD space was definitely put to use in the game’s many cutscenes. The end of every act features a few minutes of animation as the story progresses although the amount and length is surprisingly less than the Genesis game. However all of it is fully voiced. In fact there is a fair amount of voiced dialogue between Yuko and each of the game’s bosses although sadly it is lost on those of us who don’t speak Japanese. The soundtrack is fantastic, with excellent remixes of the cartridge music remastered in redbook audio.

As the original game in the series Mugen Senshi Valis is not an exceptional game by today’s standards and is merely adequate. It isn’t as great as later titles such as Dracula X (then again what is?) but is a very solid second tier release for those looking for more action platforming.

7-out-of-10

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Cosmic Epsilon

It’s curious to look back on the NES library and see which genres were underrepresented. Despite Nintendo’s absolute dominance of that era not every genre was fully supported in the US with the rail shooter being a prime example. Outside of Tengen’s illegal port of After Burner and 3-D World Runner (if you can even call it a shooter) fans were left wanting. Cosmic Epsilon is clearly patterned after Space Harrier and at least compared to the Famicom port of that game is far better and probably the best rail shooter for the system, not that there was much competition.

Once scheduled for a worldwide release (it was even demoed at CES!) Cosmic Epsilon was cancelled for reasons unknown. This was an interesting title as it was one of the few that supported the Famicom 3d system, a large pair of Virtual Boy style glasses that made you look like a bigger dork than the clowns that bought the power glove. Wisely Nintendo never brought it out over here but the 3d mode is still there in the game much like 3-D World Runner.

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What immediately stands out about the game is its presentation. The viewpoint and use of scaling is identical to Space Harrier except here it is much smoother. The backgrounds of each alien world also do an excellent job of setting a mood even though they are static and the game becomes more impressive the further you progress. The scaling of the enemy sprites isn’t as well done but they aren’t distracting. Only Tetrastar (ironically from the same developer) and Square’s JJ produce a more convincing 3d effect which is high praise.

The selection of weapons is surprisingly kept light. Your lasers are simple but functional and can be charged to produce a much stronger single blast. You have a limited supply of homing missiles….that are useless. Seriously I can count on one hand with extra fingers the number of enemies I’ve successfully shot down with a missile. The missiles are a worthless inclusion made worse by the fact that aside from an invincibility power-up you get nothing else.

Fortunately the game itself is set up so that you don’t really need anything else. This is as basic a shooter as they come. Enemies come in preset waves and you must either dodge their fire or destroy them across eight stages of scrolling action. The game alternates between piloting your transformable mech in its humanoid form and jet form although the only difference between the two is being a smaller target.

At eight levels this is pretty long by shooter standards and not in a good way. Each stage drags on longer than it should and the extremely limited enemy variety and staggered waves stand out as a result. You’re fighting the same five or six enemies for the entire trip and their tactics never change. By the midpoint of each level you’ll simply want it to end. Boss battles are pretty frantic as they attack aggressively, forcing you to always stay on the move. These are the highlight of the game outside of its technical prowess and if the game were better paced you could actually look forward to these encounters rather than wanting to get it over with as soon as possible.

Much like Space Harrier and its ilk targeting enemies and dodging bullets is a bit of a problem due to the viewpoint. In this regard at least Cosmic Epsilon has the advantage when it comes to shooting down enemies. Since your fire comes from the two orbs that follow your movements and act as crosshairs lining up enemies between them will almost always guarantee a hit. Dodging bullets and other hazards on the other hand is more of a hassle as it can be very hard to discern whether they will fly over you or right in your face.

As such you can probably guess the game can be viciously hard, especially in the later stages. The enemies attack in waves from all directions and while they are staggered the game’s POV means any random bullet can take you out. The game also relies a bit too heavily on heat seeking bullets that are hard to dodge unless you are already in motion, especially during boss battles. I get that that’s the point but it feels really cheap. Luckily you respawn immediately so death isn’t as big a detriment as it could have been; if the game sent you back to a checkpoint it would be impossible. There’s a particularly nightmarish sequence of laser dodging before the final boss that will sap all of your extra lives.

The high difficulty isn’t a deal breaker however. As a rail shooter this might be the best for the system which isn’t saying much seeing as there are so few but take what you can get. There is a fan translation for the game but it is completely unnecessary as there is only a paragraph of dialogue at most. Though flawed this is a much better experience than the NES version of Space Harrier and worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Super Spy Hunter

Spy Hunter is remembered as an NES classic but if you go back and actually play it you’ll wonder why. The game is really simple, has no end, and is far more frustrating to play than it should be considering it doesn’t have the most complex mechanics. But it did have a really cool musical theme, for what it’s worth. Super Spy Hunter makes good on that game’s promise and is excellent. Somehow despite its predecessor’s popularity it has maintained a low profile but don’t let that deter you as this is another notch in Sunsoft’s belt.

What’s actually surprising about Super Spy Hunter is that it is actually a different game altogether. Originally released in Japan as Battle Formula Sunsoft’s American division rebranded the game and with good reason; it plays identically to Spy Hunter although that game was created by Midway. The game’s silly premise sets the game 500 years later in the year 2525. You wouldn’t know it course as the only thing that has changed are slightly fancier cars. An international crime syndicate known as “X” plans to launch an attack on the United Nations and it is up to you and your tricked out car to stop them. I swear this could be the plot of a Fast and Furious movie but that is actually a compliment as those movies fully embrace their stupidity and are awesome.

Spy Hunter was a fast paced game and the same applies here except now you given the necessary tools to keep up with the game’s pace. There are a decent variety of weapons available and thankfully rather than having to line up with a stupid truck you simply smash it to earn the highlighted weapon. There are shot upgrades, missiles, the popular oil slick but most importantly cannon control, which automatically targets enemies. It’s rough going initially since your life bar is small but it doesn’t take long to power-up at which point with some skill you can cruise through the levels.

The level design is excellent and incredibly varied. For the most part you control the game’s pace and can go as fast or slow as you wish. With no time limit to worry about the game provides plenty of reason to adjust speed when necessary and does a much better job of telegraphing incoming hazards. The road is no longer a straight path but curves and undulates. There is far more varied terrain as well; the game does not take place strictly on the highway as you’ll drive through quicksand, pilot a motorboat and even take to the skies in a helicopter. Some of these elements were present in the original but it was so badly designed most would be hard pressed to ever see them. This is a much tighter experience that really fulfills the promise its premise suggests.

My one gripe is that the levels run a bit too long and would have been better served broken up into two segments each. Any of the alternate vehicle segments could have stages by themselves rather than sandwiched in as a smaller part of a larger whole. The level breaks that could have created would have helped with the difficulty as the six levels here feel like an all or nothing proposition. The boss battles are really cool but are also as long as the stages themselves if you can believe it. Each goes through multiple phases that are difficult but feel rewarding once completed.

While the pace has been slowed down somewhat and you are empowered to deal with the numerous threats in your path the game is still brutally difficult. The slightest touch will inflict damage and starting out your life bar is woefully short. If you die you are brought back down to the standard life meter and depending on the checkpoint it might be near impossible to mount a comeback. This is particularly a problem during the long drawn out boss battles, to the point where you might as well start the level over. Power-up trucks appear regularly but it’s entirely possible to miss out on the item you need really easily, namely life.

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Like nearly every NES game they crafted Super Spy Hunter looks great. Although it doesn’t look like it this is a pretty technically advanced game with extensive use of raster effects seen mostly in 16-bit games. The road twists and turns realistically and there are even highway overpasses and bridges. It’s minor but adds to the game’s atmosphere and sense of speed. The screen can get pretty crowded at times with only a minor bit of slowdown. Flickering sprites are a bigger problem as the developers were a bit too ambitious for the hardware. The soundtrack is also great; that familiar Peter Gunn theme returns but is also joined by wide range of tunes that almost sound like they belong in a Konami game.

Though slightly flawed Super Spy Hunter is not only makes up for the lackluster original but is an excellent game in its own right. Brutally difficult but highly enjoyable the game is hard to find but so worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Rocketeer

I remember the insane marketing blitz surrounding the Rocketeer. From toys, fast food tie-ins, to commercials Disney went all out in a bid to convince you that this was the next big thing. I specifically remember the art deco movie poster and thinking this guy looked incredibly cool. Mind you I was 11 and didn’t know a thing about art deco but didn’t need to; that poster just grabbed you. In the end it was all for naught as the movie failed at the box office but we did get a few games out of it. This NES tie-in follows the film’s plot faithfully but aside from that there is little that helps the game stand out. It’s a decent game overall but is lost in the sea of platformers already available.

The film’s iconic rocket pack is present in the game but disappointingly it isn’t as crucial a game mechanic as you would expect. There are only a few sections where it is necessary for progress and they never progress beyond flying over a wall or hitting a boss’s weak point. In fact a good portion of the time you can’t use it as the game won’t provide any fuel! Technically you can use it to fly over a sizable chunk of the levels but the designers were aware of this and either sandwich you in tight areas or have flying enemies that are tough to kill and only appear when you fly too high.

Without flight you are left with a pretty generic platformer. You have a decent assortment of weapon that all use varying amounts of ammo. The game does a good job of providing ammo but it can run out fast so you’ll more than likely stick to the standard pistol or your fists. I wish I could say that there were interesting enemies to test them out on but in reality the game only has about 5 or 6 different enemies. Get used to killing the grey suited idiots that run straight for you and Mr. Tommygun a lot.

The game’s five chapters feel a lot like ten since they run so long. It could be the game’s slow pace but each individual chapter is broken up into multiple segments that each seem far too big for such little content. The level design is as straightforward as it gets. Despite having a rocket strapped to your back there is little reason to use it at all since “secrets” (if you can even call them that) are very few. Between the repetitive enemies and the bland scenery it makes trudging through the long stages a chore. It’s disappointing because you can see the shell of what could have been a great game but the stiff controls and dull levels ruin it.

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The drab set design is especially egregious for me as I love period piece movies and the game could have capitalized on that. The graphics have their moments but are ruined by the garish color scheme. The movie was a period piece and when the game is reenacting certain moments it is very stylized and looks unique. Anything outside of that is gaudy. The Rocketeer himself makes for such a cool visual that I’m baffled that the developers could not surround him with equally pleasing aesthetics.

There’s a pretty sharp spike in difficulty in the game’s final chapter that isn’t present in the rest of the game. Generally the game does a good job of providing ammo so you don’t have to rely on your fists but the forest level is just so badly designed overall that it’s better to fly through as much of it as possible rather than trying to slog it out slowly. There’s really bad enemy placement, a confusing layout and it drags on far too long with no checkpoints. I won’t say its Ninja Gaiden stage 6-2 levels of bad but it’s really close and will almost kill your motivation to finish the game.

The Rocketeer is one of Bandai’s better NES games but that isn’t saying much considering they released crap like Dragon Power, Gilligan’s Island, and Chubby Cherub. This is a decent platformer but there are far too many better alternatives to bother.

6-out-of-10-1