Posted on

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.

image018 image058 image040 image031

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

Posted on

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.

image002 image026 image065 image049

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

Posted on

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.

image012 image062 image028 image043

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

Posted on

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.

image002

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.

image003 image034 image123 image128

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

Posted on

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.

image016  image106 image033 image094

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

Posted on

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.

image008 image038 image070 image062

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

Posted on

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.

image008 image053 image083 image068

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

Posted on

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.

image008 image089 image067 image018

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

Posted on

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.

image008 image052 image091 image009

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

Posted on

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.

image009 image033 image018 image002

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

Posted on

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.

image027

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.

image004 image036 image046 image061

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

Posted on

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.

image006 image026 image066 image054

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

Posted on

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.

image049 image122 image087 image164 image162 image113

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

Posted on

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.

image103 image126 image037 image135 image077 image027

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

Posted on

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!

image039 image027 image043 image065

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

Posted on

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.

image041 image079 image035 image011

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

Posted on

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.

image005 image044 image029 image062

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

Posted on

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.

image031 image006 image044 image023

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

Posted on

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.

dahna001 (9) dahna001 (62) dahna001 (66) dahna001 (73)

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

Posted on

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.

image033 image067 image047 image017

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

Posted on

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.

image008 image033 image061 image064

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

Posted on

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.

image035

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.

image018 image114 image055 image069

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

Posted on

Ren & Stimpy: Stimpy’s Invention

I’ll admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ren & Stimpy back in the day. That type of weird gross out humor just wasn’t my cup of tea. But I could recognize a brilliant show despite my lack of interest and Ren & Stimpy was great for what it was. So it came as no surprise when the licensed videogames began lining shelves with no less than five or six games released in a 2 year span. Stimpy’s Invention however is the best of the lot, staying true to the show while also using the dynamic between the two characters to create an awesome platformer irrespective of its license.

The title of the game comes from one of the most popular episodes of the show. In Stimpy’s Invention the titular cat decides that he is tired of being a moron and somehow constructs a machine that will supposedly make you happy all the time. It was a trippy episode (those faces!) but it worked and also saved the show from cancellation. The game follows the same premise except the invention is destroyed, leaving you to collect its scattered pieces.

image002 image057 image015 image067

More than anything else the game captures the look of the show as well as the Genesis will permit. This is an exceptionally pretty game with deep scrolling backgrounds full of activity. There is some dithering going on as the game is really stretching the system’s color palette but that is a minor fault. The true stars of the presentation are both Ren and Stimpy themselves. Their range of animations is staggering and gets across the odd camaraderie the characters share with one another quite well. The only soft spot would be the music, which is simply unremarkable. It stands out even more considering how stellar the rest of the presentation is.

Rather than picking one of the two you actually control both at the same time. Sort of. One is the lead and the other follows. Both characters have the same controls but the difference comes in their team up attacks. Using different button combinations you can use your partner to perform a variety of functions needed to get through the levels. Ren will squeeze Stimpy to jump higher, Stimpy will use Ren as a shovel to dig, hell he even uses him as a boomerang. While the moves are more or less the same for both characters their workings differ and require more nuance. When you use Ren as a helicopter to reach higher ledges you have to consider Stimpy’s placement to land properly. The Ren boomerang is more effective than Stimpy’s spitballs since it does damage on the way back. You can switch between both characters at any time which is part of what makes the game so fun.

image023

The excellent controls make guiding the duo simple but the game really shines in multiplayer. With a skilled friend the communication performing combinations engenders is really awesome. Multiplayer has never been my cup of tea (yet I play World of Warcraft, hmm) but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this, deciding who will take point, positioning, and execution. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had in coop.

There’s a great deal of variety from one segment to the next with no two levels feeling the same. There are plenty of cameos from even minor characters in the show. One minute you’re hopping on the backs of hippos in a zoo then you’ll fill up with helium and use you farts to propel yourself through the air. There’s a nightmarish bike ride through traffic and then the game gets really trippy leading up to its conclusion. I’ll say this: while the majority of the game is relatively normal by series standards it goes completely off the rails when you have flying eyeballs, floating noses, and then you actually get to go inside Stimpy’s dumb ass device.

There’s just one problem: it’s too short. With a mere six levels the game is over far too quickly which is a crime as it is so enjoyable. Though each of the levels comprise multiple parts I can’t see anyone having trouble blowing through the game in a little over thirty minutes, especially since it is so easy. Aside from a few frustrating sections (namely bike riding in the city) the game offers very little challenge which makes it even worse. With just a few more levels this would have been among the best action games for the system.

If only the game were longer this could have been a classic. As I mentioned before even if this were divorced from its license it would still be a great game in single or multiplayer. It’s rare to find a licensed game that uses its source material so well and turns out to be an awesome game at the same time but Stimpy’s Invention accomplishes both with aplomb. Buy this game.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Risky Woods

Electronic Arts is most famous for their numerous sports games and it is fair to say that they are still number one in that category worldwide. This legacy began on the Genesis however in their early days on the platform they published ports of various PC games. Some were interesting, such as Budokan and the Immortal. Being honest however a lot of that stuff was terrible. No one remembers Sword of Sodan for its “engaging” swordplay. Risky Woods is an interesting outlier in that discussion. There are plenty of likable elements in it but the off-putting difficulty spikes and scatterbrained design mean only the most patient gamers will stick with it.

The world was once a peaceful place, with monks who fiercely guarded its wisdom. The demon Draxos however came along and froze all of them except the young Rohan. Now Rohan must set venture into the Risky Woods to free them.

Risky Woods was ported to a number of platforms but the Sega version is a unique beast. Rohan was redesigned to look more like a wandering priest than an adventurer. I suppose it fits the game’s plot but dear god he looks like he belongs in a god damn Wisdom Tree game than a side scroller. The largest change comes to weapons. The shop no longer exists, with the coins now relegated to giving you a suit of armor at 33 and 66 respectively. Weapons come from the destroyed gate statues. Speaking of gates, there is now a Simon style puzzle involved in destroying the gates. It’s a cool idea but it’s also detrimental in that the clock is still running and you can’t pause.

This is not meant to be a fast paced action game and in fact trying to play it as such will result in a quick death. You need to take your time and take note of where enemies spawn and always be wary of any jump since you never know come out to take a bite. The game is very similar in that regard to Gods, another Amiga port. Yet the blazing fast clock means you have very little time to sit in one spot. The game is wildly inconsistent in this regard as there are levels with a very generous amount of time but in most cases I found that I would just barely reach the end with 10 seconds to spare.

Getting to the exit is a trial in and of itself. Everything is out to get you and sometimes you’ll die in seconds without realizing how. Most enemies move significantly faster than you, attack in groups, and will respawn if you step back an inch. The treasure chests that spawn items drop a random assortment of trinkets. However seemingly half of the items that drop will screw you over in some way. Poison is instant death, some potions will teleport you back to a set point, and there are apples that put you to sleep and shave 30 seconds off the clock! Those monks you need to save to complete the levels? It isn’t long before the levels are littered with fakes that simply take some of your health and unfortunately there is no way to tell the difference.

The game is plagued with very odd difficulty spikes. One moment you can run a good distance without any opposition and then face an endlessly respawning session of enemies. If you can believe it the Amiga original was even worse. The game’s bosses are a nightmare, not just in look but in terms of how much of a bullet sponge they are. They take entirely too many hits to kill and if you enter the fight with the wrong weapon more than likely you’ll run out of time before killing them. Don’t get me started on the final boss; what the hell were they thinking?

image034 image024 image049 image062

The one area the game excels in with no caveats is presentation. European games during the 16-bit era all had a distinctive look, be it the Bitmap Brothers metallic grey sheen or the Amiga’s color palette. This Genesis port stacks up favorably with a loss of detail in the backgrounds but a smoother frame rate to compensate. The game has a very dark scheme throughout but still manages to inject some color into its surroundings here and there. The creature design is fantastic, especially the bosses. Even the music is good although it can’t match up to the CD quality sound of its PC cousin.

Despite all of the frustrations I still like Risky Woods. But not enough that I would recommend it. There are very few action games like it for the platform but the constant enemy spawns and inconsistent hit detection get to be a bit much. With a few small tweaks this would have been a good platformer. Too bad you’ll need the patience of a saint to appreciate its good parts.

6-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Dinosaurs for Hire

Dinosaurs for Hire? Sure why not? We have Turtles that are ninjas and toads that love to battle so mercenary alien dinosaurs aren’t too far-fetched. It would be easy to lump this in the same category as Battletoads, the Street Sharks, and Biker Mice from Mars but DFH predates all those by almost a decade in some cases. All jokes aside my knowledge of the original comics from Eternity and Malibu is spotty at best but what I remember is a comic that didn’t take itself too seriously despite its premise and actually poked fun at its many contemporaries. The game goes in the opposite direction and plays it relatively straight. While the humor of the comic is only present in small doses that is a minor complaint as I’m sure 90% of those who will eventually play aren’t even aware of the comic’s existence. Luckily the game is enjoyable on its own merits.

The Dinosaurs for Hire as the title suggests are Archie, Reese, and Lorenzo, a tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, and triceratops respectively. Although they look identical to our prehistoric beasts they are actually aliens who happen to resemble dinosaurs. Along with pterodactyl pal Cyrano the quartet moonlight as guns for hire to pay the bills since they are stranded on Earth. There is no story presented in the game but it doesn’t need one to give you an excuse to kill an army of mutants and ninjas. So, so many ninjas.

Of the few games based on Malibu Comics properties Dinosaurs for Hire is undoubtedly the best. Ex-Mutants is just a terrible game from start to finish and Prime never rose above being a mediocre side scrolling brawler. Dinosaurs for Hire is solid in part because the comic has the perfect setup to send them out on missions of destruction. Make no mistake, Konami and Treasure were not lying awake at night worried that Dinosaurs for Hire was about to steal their lunch. But the game is more than worthy enough to occupy your time after you are done with those developer’s classics.

All three characters play identically with the exception of their melee attack which is a slight disappointment. Weapon selection is surprisingly light with your only options being a spread shot, exploding shots, or a devastating combination of both. Melee attacks are for enemies that get in too close but is problematic. Most enemies (humans or ninjas) are a lot shorter than your dino and so the attack will miss as they run past you in groups. I mean yay for accuracy but it is frustrating as hell to see a virtual midget run under the butt of your gun and pelt you in the shins repeatedly.

Despite what the game’s box art suggests this isn’t actually a nonstop action extravaganza. Most levels are actually fairly quiet with few enemy encounters as you work your way to the exit. While most stages tend to be pretty straightforward and short there are a number such as the dam and toy factory that are large and confusing in their layout. With no guidance it is easy to get lost or accidentally die falling into some hazard that looked like a platform. Where the game’s individual stages run hot and cold the boss battles are always a delight as you will often face off against multi story mutants and robots that need to be taken apart piece by piece.

Overall the difficulty is fairly median. There are many instances where you’ll take shots from off screen enemies or turrets but the game is balanced so that life restoring food is usually close by, even during some boss battles. The confusing level design will lead to some wasted lives but you can set the number of lives and continues in the options menu to offset that. The boss battles can be particularly brutal, especially if you die since you are stripped of all weapons. It can be a tall order to take down some of the more aggressive mayors in the game with nothing but the standard machine gun but even in light of that I doubt most will have trouble completing the game in one afternoon.

image011 image070 image049 image059

In terms of graphics the game comes across average. The game has a very grainy look to it overall which helps with certain environments such as the graffiti covered subway and dark toy factory. But once you are outdoors it tends to look like a first generation game. The sprites are incredibly large, especially the screen filling bosses but the animation is pretty poor. By 1993 when this was released the Genesis was on a roll with titles like Shinobi 3, Ranger-X, Eternal Champions, and Gunstar Heroes pushing the system hard. Dinosaurs for Hire looked out of place in Sega of America’s lineup by comparison. Luckily the gameplay carried it.

The game has its fair share of problems but nothing so bad that it should be avoided. This is a solid action game in the Contra mold that can be found dirt cheap. At that price it is more than worth your time.

7-out-of-10

Posted on

Batman – Revenge of the Joker

Of all the publishers entering the 16-market I’m sure many like myself were anticipating what Sunsoft would cook up on the new platforms. As one of the most technically proficient developers during the 8-bit era many of their releases would go on to become videogame classics. While they would create many a fine game during the 90s something was lost as they seemed to rely heavily on that Looney Tunes license. One of their first releases was a port of the stunning Batman Return of the Joker which should have been cause for celebration but was so terrible the SNES version was cancelled.

The NES incarnation of this game is easily in the top ten best looking games for that console and could pass for an early 16-bit title outside of its limited color palette. Sunsoft pulled off some real technical magic to produce those visuals with large sprites, many layers of parallax scrolling, and blazing fast shooting segments. It had its problems to be fair but was a solid title nonetheless.

image004 image054 image026 image065

The Sega version, produced by Ringler Studios, has very little of that and is somehow worse. The visual style of the game is all over the place and seems to pull from numerous sources and as a result comes across unfocused. The sprites are the same size as the Nintendo game but sport more detail except they now look silly, like midgets wearing costumes. Due to the system’s limitations the original game was highly stylized and it worked; the darker color palette really suited a game starring Batman. The color palette is brighter and cheerier here and just doesn’t fit. The increase in resolution really amplifies the game’s flaws; the NES game was visually consistent in its presentation and is why it worked so well.

The only visual highlight comes from the game’s backgrounds which when divorced from the color palette have definitely been spruced up. There are many more layers of parallax scrolling which is always a visual delight. There are a few that are simply ugly though. There are some levels that use a gradient for the skyline that are absolutely hideous to see in motion.

Gameplay wise Revenge of the Joker differed from Sunsoft’s first Batman game in that it focused on projectile combat rather than melee attacks. Batman is permanently armed with a Batarang launcher on his arm that can be upgraded with new armaments such as a homing batarang, a cluster that explodes on contact and heavy batarangs that fire in an arc. You could also charge them up to produce different effects. A new melee kick has also been added for some god forsaken reason and is completely useless. It was a bold design decision and one that didn’t entirely work since each weapon felt wholly inadequate to deal with the opposition. They are either too slow or too weak and unfortunately you’ll need pick one as the default weapon is doesn’t quite cut it.

What brought the game down originally was its frustrating level design and spotty collision detection, both elements that are actually even worse this time out. Every level is filled with cheap attacks that you will never see coming, from the spiked balls in stage 1-1 to the sudden missile strikes at the start of stage 3-1. It forces rote memorization of every inch of each stage just to survive since there are no health power-ups or checkpoints. Due to the way the backgrounds have been redesigned important platforms tend to blend into the surroundings making the platforming a chore. There were a few shooting segments that were (relatively fast) and a welcome change of pace that are now so slow paced that are long gaps in between enemy attacks.

The hit detection is simply atrocious. If you can figure when and how to destroy the gargoyle statues in in the first level without getting hit you are a better man than I. Watching your attacks completely pass through the bosses is astounding to see in action. The boss battles themselves take on a fighting game tone and were already hard to begin with; the spotty hit detection makes them a nightmare to complete. There are unlimited continues and passwords but considering all of the issues I’ve outlined why would you even be playing this game?

Less sometimes truly is more. Sunsoft worked within the NES technical confines to produce a visually stunning game that had is flaws but was still solid. Ringler Studios completely lost sight of that and have produced a sad update on better hardware that is worse in every way that matters and should be avoided.

5-out-of-101

Posted on

Shadow Blasters

Sage’s Creation were an anomaly in the early days of the Genesis. As one of the few supporters of the system in the face of Nintendo’s strong arm tactics with third parties they certainly stood out for that reason. I can’t really say the same about their games though. All of their published titles were either interesting games let down by a few flaws (Devilish) or simply inoffensive average titles such as Insector-X and Shadow Blasters. Shadow Blasters in particular is the epitome of an average game that would soon be eclipsed by far superior titles, leaving it without an audience.

After millennia of guiding humanity the Gods are fed up. Somewhere along the way mankind lost its morals and became depraved. No longer wanting anything to do with them the Gods sealed the portals between their world and Earth. The evil God Ashura however saw this as an opportunity to conquer the world. After much deliberation his fellow Gods decided humans would be the ones to deal with this threat and assembled four of the most powerful warriors to stop Ashura.

The closest counterpart to Shadow Blasters would be Sega’s own Mystic Defenders and in fact it is eerily creepy just how similar the two games are. Both games feature protagonists whose primary means of attack consists of a spell that can be charged up for more power. They also have multi-tiered levels that offer up a large sense of scale. But where Mystic Defender was a solitary experience Shadow Blasters puts you in charge of a quartet of heroes.

image027 image043 image038 image067

Horatio, Marco, Tiffany, and Leo are your protagonists and you can switch them out much like TMNT for NES. Each possesses a unique weapon whose attack changes 3 times depending on how long it is charged. Marco’s electric orb will become a single blast of lightning, then a lightning bolt and finally 3 separate lightning bolts for example. Charging only takes a few seconds and as a bonus you can collect power-ups that permanently increase your attack power. At full power your level 3 attack becomes the default which is borderline game breaking. Each character has to be upgraded separately along with their jumping power but trust me, it isn’t an issue considering the rate emblems drop.

Aside from just their weapons each character’s attacks have different properties. Tiffany’s tornadoes track enemies but to counterbalance that she also takes more damage. Marco’s lightning pierces through enemies while Leo can have multiple boomerangs on screen simultaneously; it’s tricky to get the hang of but can be hugely beneficial in the long run. Horatio is kind of the everyman and is a bit boring by contrast.

Each of the game’s six initial levels can be completed in any order. While the levels run the platforming spectrum with a forest stage, fire (volcano) level, and a hike through the mountains a few take a different tact with you exploring a lab, the city streets, and even a future themed level. Despite the maps usually stretching a few screens each individual level is incredibly short and lasts a brief few minutes. That’s enough time to collect a bunch of emblems to power up or completely avoid combat in some cases depending on the route you take. If there is one major criticism of the game it’s that you aren’t pitted against enemies worthy of the overwhelming power in your hands. Most enemies are incredibly small and easily avoided and outside of one or two stages seem disinterested in you. Boss battles are the one area that the game really seems to generate any excitement and even then with the right character these can end in seconds.

Shadow Blasters is an incredibly easy game even for novice gamers, to the point where I’m reasonably sure most will complete it in less than an hour. Emblems drop so frequently that you’ll fully power each hero within the span of 3 levels and at that point you’ll blaze through the already short levels in no time. Even after close to 20 years and only a vague recollection of the game I still breezed through it with little trouble. Despite its eight levels the game is really short and with unlimited continues you’d truly have to suck at video games to not see all the game has to offer in an hour’s time and there is no reason to go back.

All in all Shadow Blasters is adequate. It neither reinvents the action platformer nor is it bad. But in the face of stronger action titles on the platform only the most desperate Sega enthusiasts will bother.

6-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Virtua Racing

As early as the beginning of the 90s it was obvious that 3d and polygons were the future of the industry and Sega were one of the main players pushing technology forward with their big budget arcade titles. Virtua Racing was not the first 3d racing game but it is probably the most important. The relative complexity of the game in terms of its visuals and handling compared to earlier efforts like Hard Driving was simply astounding and really drove home the idea that this was the future. All hope of a home port seemed to rest on the Saturn until Sega created the Sega Virtua Processor, which much like the Super FX chip allowed the Genesis to output polygons. The Genesis port of Virtua Racing is an admirable attempt at capturing what made the arcade game so special that is ultimately let down by its lack of content and exorbitant price.

image003

It is immediately apparent that the SVP is a technological wonder as the game is incredibly fast. While not at the level of its arcade big brother the game moves at a consistently high frame rate (for the time anyway) that makes Stunt Race FX look embarrassing. It should be noted that it did come with a high cost, literally. The SVP was incredibly expensive to manufacture and the cost was passed on to consumers as the game cost $100 at launch.

I like Virtua Racing and all but that was a damn rip off. Those of us that grew up during the 8 and 16-bit era probably paid $70 or $80 for fighting games and RPGs but those genres are giving you tens of hours of content. VR has 3 tracks and a free run mode. No matter how well the conversion turned out it wasn’t worth that price and consumers agreed as this was the lone title to use the SVP which in hindsight was probably wise as the 32X and Saturn would soon launch, killing the novelty of its innovation.

Once you hit the track there’s a lot to like about this version of the game. I’ve already mentioned the speed but the handling is also well done. The arcade’s four camera angles have been retained although I found the first person view and the high angle camera to be useless and more of a novelty. Despite its brevity this is an incredibly tough game with very little margin for error. Even slightly clipping a competitor at a decent speed will send your car flipping or into a 360 spin out. During the first lap it’s possible to mount a comeback but anything past lap 3 will relegate you 7th place or lower guaranteed. Its soul crushing to have a near perfect run demolished by one random screw up. Free run mode is there for a reason, use it.

No matter how well designed the courses are and tight the controls Virtua Racing still can’t get around the fact that there is very little content. Three tracks and a 2-player mode is not enough to justify that hefty price tag, especially when compared to other racing games of that era like Top Gear and Rock N’ Roll Racing. It will take some time to truly master the courses on offer but once that is done you’ll find very little reason to revisit the game. As an arcade game it works perfectly, as a home release it is a bad value proposition.

image014 image057 image005 image029

Back in 1994 Virtua Racing was a technical achievement but even then the presentation still had issues. The system’s low color palette simply wasn’t up to the task of replicating the bright visuals of the arcade machine and gives the game a very grainy and dithered look. Objects tend to blend together when viewed from a distance due to the low color palette and jagged polygons. This is most notable with the drone cars which leads to many an unfortunate collision. The draw distance is low with major track elements popping up a few feet away depending on the course. I’ve ripped on the graphics pretty hard but these are all factors that need to be taken into account once the game begins. There is a certain amount of adjustment required to enjoy the game but once you do it is possible to appreciate the fact that they were even able to make an actual playable version of the game for such old hardware.

Curiously there is very little music in the game. At the start of each race and beginning of a new lap a brief 5 second jingle will play but aside from the attract mode and menu tunes that is all. It reminds me of older arcade games from the early 80s in that regard. You’re left to listen to the engine sounds, sound effects, and announcer which makes the game feel a bit empty.

When compared to the rest of the racing library on the Genesis Virtua Racing is far better than most. But this version of the game was made obsolete in short order by the 32X and especially Saturn editions with their vastly expanded content. This is still a good game and it can be found dirt cheap now but I would still say you’re better off finding one of the other versions of the game.

7-out-of-10

Posted on

Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle

Sega Master System fans are intimately familiar with Alex Kidd, the Sega mascot who tried to carry the company to fame years before a certain blue hedgehog was born. Let’s not mince words, Alex Kidd was no substitute for Mario no matter how much you lied to yourself and tried to say otherwise. The monkey boy in a jump suit look was just not very appealing although being fair neither is a fat Italian in overalls. The games were not technically bad but far from the type of blockbusters that would make people buy the system in droves which is why the character was retired once Sonic came along. But not before he had one last 16-bit adventure under his belt.

Alex Kidd learns that his father King Thor is still alive and has been kidnapped on the planet Paperock so he sets out to save him. Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is a return to the gameplay formula established in his initial outing. Although there were five total games in the arcade and for the Master System each was radically different and were of different genres. This is a straight platformer through and through and unfortunately not a very good one either. With its simplicity and floaty controls there isn’t much to endear anyone to the character and game. There’s a reason this game is all but forgotten and this was Alex Kidd’s final outing. There’s no spark of creativity that drives the game leaving it feeling like a soulless cash-in.

Alex is armed with his big hands and an unreliable jump kick for offense. There are a bunch of secondary items and vehicles that can be equipped which will grant you new abilities. The most prominent is the bracelet which grants a long range projectile attack. There’s also a motorcycle, pedicoptor, and even a pogo stick. These are only good for a single hit before they are lost but luckily you can stockpile them, not that the majority are worth a damn beyond acting as a shield.

The money dropped by enemies and found in chests is used to challenge the various denizens of Paperock to a game of Janken (rock, paper, scissors). Janken was one of the more unique elements of the older games and I’m glad it has made a comeback although it doesn’t feel very satisfying here. There are so many doors scattered about that you can easily cap out your list of items provided you have the gold. Although your opponents don’t have “tells” or patterns to their choices you can reasonably guess what they’ll pick and counter it. The only challenging round of Janken is against the final boss.

Unlike the buttery smooth controls of most platformers of the day Alex Kidd’s controls are very sloppy. Alex slides around like he is on ice skates which leads to many cheap deaths as he slips off platforms or into enemies. You still have a degree of control over his movements while airborne but it still feels floaty. The collision detection is spotty with the default punch and jump kick failing to register on a regular basis. That god damn jump kick. It activates randomly while leaping and is completely unreliable.

Despite the less than stellar controls the game is still incredibly easy. Even with one hit deaths I rarely ever died and only lost lives during the random games of rock, paper, and scissors. The difficulty picks up slightly towards with more aggressive enemies and a very frustrating pedicopter level but it’s nothing that platformer veterans will have trouble overcoming. Even accounting for the controls most will probably complete the game in a little over an hour with no incentive to go back.

Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle (U) [!]007 Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle (U) [!]013 Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle (U) [!]029 Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle (U) [!]017

The visual style is incredibly simple and feels like the older games except “grown” up. The sprites are much larger and more detailed. Each of the game’s eleven stages cover a variety of backdrops with few ever repeated. For a title released in 1990 it looks okay but even earlier launch window games such as Ghouls N Ghosts and Thunder Force 2 are much more visually exciting. The modest soundtrack actually contains a few jingles that are memorable although these standout tracks are few in number.

The best way to describe Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle is that it is an average game in an average series. Few remember the character at this point and when looking at his games it is easy to see why. There are far too many excellent platformers for the Genesis to bother with this one.

5-out-of-101

Posted on

Rambo III

Rambo comes from an era where one man could take out an entire platoon of soldiers and it was still believable. This was the 80s, the king of the big dumb action movie and yet despite growing up during that period I have no fondness for the character of John Rambo. I’ll admit that might be due to the terrible, terrible NES game but I won’t let that color my opinion of Rambo III as it is a solid action game that is still compelling despite its age.

Considering the game is based on a movie it helps that the film’s plot is as video gamey as it gets. Colonel Sam Trautman is taken hostage in Afghanistan and John Rambo is enlisted to sneak behind enemy lines and mount a rescue mission. By himself. With nothing but a bow and some arrows, a knife, and a machine gun.

You could throw that premise in any game and it still works so of course numerous games were made based on the movie. Nearly every platform saw some version of Rambo III with the rail shooting arcade game being the most popular. It is this game that was ported to the various console and computer formats of the 80s to varying degrees of success which makes the overhead shooting action of this Genesis title an anomaly. For a launch title it is good but would soon be outclassed by better games such as Capcom’s Mercs.

By default Rambo is always equipped with an infinite machine gun and a knife with arrows and bombs in limited supply. The machine gun sprays in a random pattern unless you are moving which is actually pretty useful considering how often you are attacked from all sides. The composite bow has explosive arrows that can be charged up for more damage while explosives are timed. The arrows are incredibly powerful, able to plow through multiple enemies and tanks when fully charged. To be honest I didn’t find much use for the explosive. Anything a bomb can do the arrows can do far better without the seconds long delay

The knife would seem to be the odd man out but it has its purpose: you can only replenish arrows and bombs through melee kills as well as receiving the occasional 1-up. Getting in melee range is always a risky proposition as every soldier will stop moving and attack after a few seconds. It is rare to face a single soldier at once so chances are you’ll have to dodge a hail of gunfire after stabbing someone to death. If you spend the time in the first two levels stocking up it will last for the rest of the journey unless you truly suck at video games.

Aside from the weapons what really props up the game is its variety. Despite lasting a scant six missions nearly everyone tasks you with something different, be it finding a specific hostage and reaching the exit before time runs out or destroying a set number of ammo depots. I can appreciate the variety but some levels drag on a bit too long if you don’t know the exact level layout. If the game were one or two levels longer this would have been truly excellent as it has a solid foundation, silly controls aside.

Aside from the individual missions occasionally there are boss battles that take place in a third person perspective. Here you get to indulge in a movie style fantasy of taking out a helicopter or tank with nothing but a bow and arrows. The mechanics here are solid; the longer you wind up an arrow the more damage it will produce however you must remain stationary. That’s a bad move as your targets move significantly faster than you and you have little cover. These battles are fun if a bit gratuitous; let’s be honest they mainly serve as a means of showing off the system’s prowess.

image004 image043 image058 image054

I don’t fault the developers in that regard as the rest of the visual package is a bit lacking. Even as a launch title Rambo III isn’t a large step over later NES games such as Ikari III. The sprites are larger and pack more detail but overall the look is drab. This lies with the fault of the movie from which the game is based but maybe it’s asking a little too much for something more to spruce up the visuals. There are instances of heavy slowdown late in the game where the frame rate seems to hit the single digits which seems uncharacteristic for the system but this was one of its first titles so it is understandable.

Regardless of its staid presentation Rambo III is a good game that was one of the better Genesis launch titles simply by virtue of the fact that it wasn’t overly ambitious. Seeing as how you can find it dirt cheap it is more than worth the asking price.

7-out-of-10

Posted on

Sparkster (Genesis)

It will forever remain a mystery to me as to why Konami’s Sparkster became a forgotten relic of a time long past. Rocket Knight Adventures was fantastic, both highly original and just an all-around great game. Sequels followed a year later but then nothing for close to 16 years until the decent 3d game. While it isn’t up to the level of its extraordinary predecessor Sparkster is still a good game and worthy follow-up.

After the defeat of the Devotindos empire peace returned to the kingdom of Zephyrus. However it wouldn’t last as the Gedol Empire has invaded, kidnapping Princess Cherry with the help of Axl Gear. Sparkster is once again called into action. The enemies this time around are lizards rather than the pigs and wolves of the other games which is pretty interesting. It would have been interesting to see other kingdoms based on different animals if the series had continued but oh well.

There have been a number of significant gameplay changes made that result in a faster paced game. The most vital is the rocket pack. Rather than holding down a button to charge it now does so automatically with the A button activating it. The meter fills quickly and can be used in rapid succession to stay airborne almost indefinitely or for split second rocket attacks. It also fixes one of the few flaws of RKA where you were left flailing in the air after a boost.

One change that isn’t welcome is the sword. Sparkster’s sword is now melee only and is effectively useless. The attack is achingly slow and the hit detection is suspect. Because of this you’ll rely on the spinning sword attack far more or the weaker boost attack. It also makes the flaming sword power-up worthless since you’ll lose it in seconds. This all sounds damning but the automatic boost makes using it for offense much more palatable but not ideal.

Sparkster (U) [!]049

The level are more wide open to allow you to more freely rocket around each stage but not to the same extent as the SNES game. With the change to the boost this is more of a straight action title than one of exploration, with the game constantly shuffling you from one set piece to the next. There is notably less of the slower paced, almost puzzle like stages of RKA and the game suffers for it. Don’t get me wrong there is still plenty of fun to be had ping ponging through tight corridors and such but the sheer variety of Rocket Knight is what made it special. The one new addition comes in using the rocket pack to function like a screwdriver. The game makes excellent and extensive use of it, from loosening pieces of the environment to unraveling bosses piece by piece. If they had shown this much ingenuity throughout the game would be much stronger.

There is some incentive to explore the levels in the form of the golden swords. On each level is a golden sword that will change you into golden Sparkster once all six have been assembled much like Super Sonic. To see the true ending you must collect them on normal or hard; easy mode ends early and even cuts out chunks of its few levels.   Overall this is a shorter game with about the same difficulty as the original so most will complete it in an afternoon. But you’ll have a hell of a time doing so.

Of the two Sparkster games the Genesis version is the only one to be branded with the Rocket Knight Adventures 2 moniker (at least in Japan), implying that this is a direct sequel. From a story standpoint that is true but funny enough it is the SNES game that stays true to the gameplay of the original. The changes made in the Sega game are interesting but come at the expense of the creative level design that made RKA so damn amazing. However even in spite of that the core concept of an anthropomorphic critter with a rocket pack is still there and you would have to actively try to make a terrible game with that premise.

Sparkster (U) [!]070 Sparkster (U) [!]074 Sparkster (U) [!]032 Sparkster (U) [!]124

Graphically this is both a step forward and back. Sparkster himself has been redrawn and is less bulky; he looks more aerodynamic. The sprites overall have been reduced in size but exhibit a greater range of detail and animation. The backgrounds however have suffered the most. For every six layered slice of heaven there are an equal number of completely flat backdrops that really seem out of place. Special effects are kept to a minimum so luckily the game’s strong art picks up the slack but the game does seem a bit lacking compared to other 1994 releases.

The soundtrack once again is generally excellent, both in quality and range. A few of the tracks are shared with the SNES game which makes for an interesting comparison. Depending on where you fall in the FM synth vs orchestrated argument your preferences are being catered to. This is one of the few cases where I actually like both interpretations and can’t really say one is better than the other, which I attribute to the strong composition.

It doesn’t quite measure up to its legendary predecessor but at the end of the day Sparkster is still worth a purchase. While I personally prefer the SNES game that doesn’t diminish the quality of its Sega counterpart.

7-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Battle Mania Daiginjou

In the rush leading up to the Saturn’s surprise US launch Sega of Japan effectively killed support for the Genesis worldwide. It made sense for Japan as the system tanked there but it was still thriving in every other market. With little support from Sega third parties also followed suit with some of the most brilliant games for the platform being left in Japan. One such gem that has become highly sought after due to its price and low profile is Battle Mania Daiginjou, the sequel to what we know as Trouble Shooter. This low profile classic is one of the single best games for the system regardless of genre and one that I recommend to any Sega Genesis fan.

After the defeat of Don Morgstein Maria forces Prince Eden to hold a parade in her honor and gets drunk in the process. A few days later however Morgstein has been brought back to life and issues a challenge to the pair. However only Mania (surprisingly) is sober enough to answer the call at first and find out who is behind Don Morgstein’s resurrection.

In terms of gameplay not much has changed because there was very little wrong with Trouble Shooter’s mechanics. You still control Mania and can reposition Maria when needed. Your designated special weapon now follows close behind and functions like an satellite, with a few options governing its own movement. Speaking of movement there are three targeting choices this time: the default in which Mania will always face right, two-way which allows you to shoot left or right and the best option in my opinion, 8-way. Holding down the fire button will lock your firing direction in place. Otherwise you can freely move around as needed. It’s confusing at first but becomes intuitive in seconds and is the all-around best choice.

Battle Mania 2 - TS Vintage (JUE) [h1]088

The Kikokukyou cult responsible for the game’s troubles are just as insane as Anagran and will toss everything possible in your direction to deter you. How many other games see you fighting flying fish and meteors while scaling a massive tower? The Demon Train rockets down the streets of Tokyo, tossing aside the police with our heroines in hot pursuit in a car. The kikokukyou temple is probably my favorite, both aesthetically and mechanically. Here the environment is constantly changing and will box you in or even cut off your fire as you are being assaulted from all sides, even from above by a giant Godzilla sized foot.

Behind the craziness of the game’s story and action lies a game with some of the strongest pacing and level design among 16-bit shooters. There is rarely a dull moment as there are always enemies waiting to accost you at a moment’s notice yet it never feels overwhelming. Each individual stage is wholly unique, offering its own set of enemies and traps to contend with. Although this is primarily a horizontal shooter the game scrolls in every direction for a nice change of pace such as stage four’s descent into the Kikokukyou base or exploring the inside of the demon train. It is in situations like these that you’ll appreciate the expanded targeting options, especially the 8-way option. The game’s basic concept hasn’t changed much but it didn’t need to, as evidenced by just how much fun the game is while retaining nearly the exact same mechanics.

Most important of all the game is challenging yet always fair. Because Mania and Maria are so large dodging bullets is much tougher. Plus it is easy to lose track of both characters and forget that only Mania can take hits. The game does a good job of forcing you to reposition Maria to survive and for maximum effectiveness. It is also generous with life restoring hearts but not as much as its prequel. Considering how overpowered your special weapons are it’s a wonder that the game isn’t a breeze but that is evidence of its strong design. Plus with nine levels rather than six this time you more than get your money’s worth.

Battle Mania 2 - TS Vintage (JUE) [h1]053 Battle Mania 2 - TS Vintage (JUE) [h1]071 Battle Mania 2 - TS Vintage (JUE) [h1]102 Battle Mania 2 - TS Vintage (JUE) [h1]116

Trouble Shooter was already an exceptionally pretty game and yet Daiginjou surpasses it in every way. I dare say this is one of the best looking titles ever produces for the system. Battle Mania doesn’t rely on special effects of any kind but rather brilliant art direction. The game’s anime style plot allows it to produce an array of wacky yet clever scenarios that lead to some of the prettiest backdrops in a shooter. There is up to six layers of scrolling in the backgrounds with an insane attention to detail. The sprites are large and animate wonderfully with nary a hint of slowdown to be found. It’s funny, the fodder enemies are the size of the bosses in lesser shooters, with the game’s actual mayors becoming screen filling bad asses who change forms multiple times.

The music has seen a similar upgrade and is simply fantastic. The FM synthesizer is given a thorough work out as the selection of music is much richer with better use of guitars and drums. There’s a greater variety to the songs as well and it shows just how rich the Genesis’s sound chip could be in the right hands.

There is no question in my mind that Battle Mania Daiginjou is one of the best games released for the system it is just too bad that most will never have a chance to experience it. The game had an extremely low print run and is exorbitantly expensive. For those that want to play it in English a translation patch has been released but it’s not as if you’ll miss much if you play it in Japanese. It’s a god damn crime that more than likely this will never be re-released digitally.

9-out-of-10

Posted on

Last Battle

Everyone remembers Altered Beast, Golden Axe, and Ghouls N’ Ghosts at the Sega Genesis launch but there is one game that no one dares speak of. The Last Battle is a bad game no matter how you look at it and while most terrible launch games manage to skate by based on sheer wow factor TLB was not able to ride that wave. That should give you an idea of how bad the game is but what’s even worse is that it could have been good! The numerous terrible design decisions all conspire to make this one of the most frustrating titles you’ll ever have the misfortune of playing.

Like Black Belt before it the Last Battle is actually a Fist of the North Star title stripped of its license. By this point I had played the terrible NES game and read a few issues of Viz’s releases of the series so the similarities were not lost on me. Those familiar with the later story arcs of the manga will recognize many of the series regulars like Falco, a grown up Lin and Bat and Kaioh.

Aarzak is only armed with a punch, kick and jump kick as offense to survive in this post-apocalyptic world. Get used to these as they are all you have for the length of the entire game. With timing you can reflect any projectile which is an important skill you’ll need not too long after the game starts. As you defeat enemies a power gauge fills slowly and at set points Aarzak becomes powered up, with his shirt shredding and his punches and kicks becoming more rapid. I’ll warn you now that the gauge fills incredibly slowly so don’t expect to make much use of it. On certain levels on the world map you will encounter allies who will boost your attack or defensive power after engaging in some nonsensical dialogue.

The game’s four chapters are divided into many sub levels and you can explore the map freely with the only caveat being that you’ll have to manually walk through each level to a given stop. The stages range from the simple side scrolling action affairs to brief areas where NPCs will enhance one of your stats. The coliseums are generally where boss battles occur although sometimes you’ll need to visit a specific area first to unlock them. The worst are the god damn mazes.

The labyrinth levels expose all of the flaws in the game’s controls and design as you try to punch flying axes and knives, dodge bouts of flame and attempt some light platforming. It is very obvious the game wasn’t designed to handle these elements in mind; these levels are where most will die and give up. And that is just the beginning of the frustrations that lie in wait.

The Last Battle is one of the most difficult games you’ll ever play and it all stems from bad game design. You have a single life with no continues, passwords, or battery back-up to help you reach the end of the game. With the game split into 4 chapters with as many as nine sublevels each that is insane. Aside from that there are no power-ups and the only way to restore health is to defeat bosses (good luck with that, and you only gain back a sliver) or to encounter an ally at the end of any given level. Needless to say most won’t even make it half way through Chapter one let alone see the game’s later stages.

Last Battle (UE) [!]033 Last Battle (UE) [!]037 Last Battle (UE) [!]024 Last Battle (UE) [!]069

At the time of its release the Last Battle looked pretty damn spectacular and wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the arcade. The game’s large sprites were a far cry from the days of 8-bit and the game does an excellent job of recreating the Mad Max inspired world of the manga although it isn’t long before most stages become simple palette swaps of each other. The first time I saw the multiple layers of scrolling in the backgrounds I about lost my shit. The animation on the other hand isn’t so great. Aarzak doesn’t so much throw a kick as his leg extends out of his erect body. Fodder enemies have stiff and limited movements

Fist of the North Star was an incredibly gory scenes with bodies exploding in a shower of blood and guts and sadly the Last Battle was heavily censored for its US release. Of course this was years before Mortal Kombat and Sega creating their own rating system so it was to be expected but still odd considering the NES game remained unscathed. Then again the graphics in that game were so crude I don’t think anyone involved gave a damn. Now rather than raining gore enemies simply fly off screen; it looks really goofy. Some of the bosses have been recolored red or green to give the appearance of a mutant or alien; these guys still swell up and explode. It’s hilariously inconsistent.

The Last Battle is simply a bad game that could have been decent and is rightfully forgotten. The Fist of the North Star license really just couldn’t catch a break with games like this only poisoning the well. It would be many years before the license would be done justice in the form of the import only PlayStation fighting game in 2000 and this game certainly didn’t help. Pass.

5-out-of-101

Posted on

Turrican

Turrican is a series that garnered a massive following in the UK on the various computer formats it debuted on. As Britain’s sort of answer to Contra it isn’t really fair to compare the two series since they are different games gameplay wise. Honestly I’ve always wondered what was the big deal? This became even more pronounced once I got my hands on the Genesis port. There are some good ideas buried in the game that are let down by terrible execution. Turrican is far too frustrating for me to ever recommend to anyone.

Turrican plays more like a fusion between the action of Contra and the open ended level design of Metroid. The game’s five worlds are broken down into two or three levels each and comprise one long journey from the opening futuristic city to a trip underground as you tackle the Machine’s tower from the bottom up. Each level is a sprawling world unto itself, full of hidden secrets and often times more than one path to the exit. There are invisible weapon blocks littered around the environment that practically rain items which you’ll need survive the brutal trek to the Machine’s tower.

There aren’t too many weapons in the game and unfortunately most of them lack the necessary punch to feel effective. The default machine gun can be upgraded to a spread shot or laser. The spread shot covers a wide range but is incredibly weak; the laser can only fire straight ahead. You have access to a Metroid style spiked morph ball that can mow through enemies but can be uncontrollable and lead to a cheap death. It’s also limited in use. The most powerful weapon at your disposal is the lightning whip, a beam that can be swung in a circle with the caveat that you can’t move. Incredibly useful for finding hidden items and with the right positioning you can decimate bosses without taking a single hit. There are also a few special weapons that are more troublesome to use than they should be.

Using the game’s sub weapons is a pain in the ass due to the stupid control setup. Up is used to jump but is also mapped to a button on the controller. You use A to select a sub weapon and B to use it which is really unintuitive in the middle of combat. Had they relegated the C button to special items it would have much more natural.

Turrican (U) [c][!]078

This is one of the most difficult games for the Genesis let alone of the 16-bit era. There is rarely a moment where some enemy or foreign object is not attacking you. Christ even the environments themselves have it in for you with an endless array of retractable spikes, dripping blood, bottomless pits, and even raining meteors. The urge to explore has to be tempered by the ticking clock and since the exit is never in a straight line it can be very easy to run out of time. If you somehow reach the bosses at the end of each world good luck. Outside of one or two that have conveniently placed safe zones I can guarantee you’ll blow through your stock of lives in defeating each one and if you continue its back to the beginning of that stage. And that’s not even the worst aspect of the game.

The main frustration with Turrican and the one that completely ruins the game is how damage is handled. There is no moment of invulnerability when hit, meaning even the lowliest enemy can drain your life bar in seconds an event that will happen frequently. Words cannot express how aggravating it is to see your health deplete in seconds and not even realize how. The fact that it can happen at any moment makes this game infinitely harder than it should be and not fun at all.  Seriously if they had fixed this one flaw the game would at least be playable.

Turrican (U) [c][!]007 Turrican (U) [c][!]075 Turrican (U) [c][!]046 Turrican (U) [c][!]032

Turrican was a technical showcase for the Commodore 64 as it really pushed the aging technology further than anyone thought possible and received numerous ports to the different computer formats in the UK.  However what was once technically brilliant comes across as lackluster on the Genesis.  Backgrounds are mostly flat with only a single layer of rare parallax.  The animation of the main character is still pretty impressive as well as the large bosses but those are the only good points when it comes to the visuals.  The brilliant soundtrack from the Amiga version is almost completely gone with renditions that simply don’t match up.

On the Commodore 64 and Amiga Turrican stood out.  But as a Genesis game it simply can’t compete against the better designed action games available.  There is simply no reason to bother with this when games like Contra: Hard Corps or even its direct sequel Mega Turrican are available.

5-out-of-101

Posted on

Skeleton Krew

Long before Core Design became synonymous with Lara Croft they were one of Sega’s strongest supporters, releasing a string of quality titles on both the Genesis and Sega CD. While Tomb Raider came out of nowhere and shocked the industry those who had followed the company knew at one point they constantly pushed technical boundaries. In 1995 they ported their Amiga hit Skeleton Krew to the Genesis with not much lost in the translation surprisingly. With its gritty art style and dark color palette it was a perfect match for the system but suffers a bit in the design department.

In the year 2062 a former mortician named Moribund Kadaver (seriously?) has taken over a cryogenics plant and used its resources to unleash a never ending supply of mutants on Monstro City. The Military Ascertainment Department calls upon the mercenary Skeleton Krew to track down Kadaver and end his plans for domination.

Skeleton Krew wears its death theme proudly and places it front and center. There are more skulls and chains than at a death metal concert. This is a hardcore action game and don’t you forget it! The game’s premise and story are only touched on briefly in the intro and vaguely at that. It’s never brought up again and doesn’t really provide any context to the locations you’re visiting. The entire game feels directionless and combined with its quirky controls will make you wonder why it sells for so much on Ebay aside from its slight rarity.

You have your pick of any of the game’s three protagonists and as you can expect they all fit into established tropes. Team leader Spine is your everyman, good at all things but excels in none. Joint is the token strong man who packs a punch but moves slower than a turtle. And the lone female Rib, get this, is incredibly fast but weak. I know, shocking. Each comes with a different standard weapon with grenades as secondary. Honestly they look slightly different but the weapons all seem to function the same. The grenades are near useless since there’s a few second delay before they explode and considering the amount of crap tossed your way you can’t afford to wait. Get used to these weapons as there are no power-ups at all which is intensely disappointing.

The controls take some getting used to. You can strafe but can’t move and shoot independently. You can sort of use the A and C buttons to control your rotation but that requires some insane finger gymnastics and the game’s pace won’t allow it. There are a number of control setups in the options with some making use of the six button controller but the button arrangements make little sense. If you could map them yourself this would be golden. The default setup certainly isn’t intuitive but can be manageable in time. This is the type of game dual analog controllers were made for too bad we were still a few years off from that.

Skeleton Krew (U) [!]023

My primary gripe with the game is that outside of one or two levels most are aimless. You aren’t given any explanation as to what your goal on each stage is and so wander around and eventually stumble into it. The levels are pretty spacious and hunting down random terminals or abstract parts of the background that need to be destroyed becomes tedious. All the while the enemies respawn infinitely. The objectives once it gets down to it are repetitive; most of the time you are simply destroying generators before advancing to the next planet. Boss battles are few in number but memorable; if they occurred at the end of every stage it would have broken up the monotony considerably.

Despite covering only six levels Skeleton Krew is blistering hard. You only get 3 lives and 3 continues although these are renewed if you use a password. There are no power-ups whatsoever; weapons or life refills included. There’s a lot of shit thrown at you at once as early as the second level, to the point where it’s hard to even see your character amidst the chaos and easily lose a life or two in the process. Combined with the lack of any direction given and you’ll end up wasting continues just trying to figure out what the hell you need to do or where to go. Even so there are ways to game the system so I can see most completing the game in an afternoon.

Skeleton Krew (U) [!]096 Skeleton Krew (U) [!]039 Skeleton Krew (U) [!]072 Skeleton Krew (U) [!]021

While the controls and gameplay have their issues visually Skeleton Krew is spectacular. The game is full of superb artwork with a level of detail few games of the era can match. There’s a heavy comic book inspired vibe to the game’s look that is certainly unique and gives it a cohesive feel. The few bosses in the game are large monstrosities that are insanely detailed and a nice change of pace. The frame rate is rock solid and only chugs at the worst moments in coop play. As was mentioned before its heavy on the skull and death imagery and it can grow tiresome but the environments are varied enough that it won’t matter. The technical prowess that Core exhibited with the Sega CD was brought to bear here, producing one of the top visual extravaganzas for the system. The music is disappointing; you would expect banging death metal to accompany the darker tone but instead you are treated to generic synth rock that lays in the background and dies.

Skeleton Krew has its good and bad points and it is up to you to decide if the game is for you. Despite its faults I still managed to enjoy it, especially since it is so short. But the game is exceedingly expensive and for a fraction of the price you could by both Smash TV and Soldiers of Fortune, both similar and superior games.

6-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Tiny Toon Adventures – Buster’s Hidden Treasure

I’ve never envied developers who have to create games based on licenses. Some like DuckTales practically lend themselves to an epic adventure due to the nature of the show. But then there are the likes of the Little Mermaid and Chicken Little; how the hell do you make those compelling? Tiny Toons could easily have fallen into that same category however Konami turned out a few gems with the property. I found the NES game fairly generic but Buster Busts Loose was excellent. For Sega fans Konami produced Buster’s Hidden Treasure, a fun romp that takes more than a few cues from Sega.

Buster Bunny finds a treasure map in Acme Looniversity but is sideswiped by Montana Max, who enlists the aid of Dr. Gene Splicer to hold him off. Splicer has brainwashed all of Buster’s friends to aid him in this endeavor but that won’t stop Buster from saving his friends and finding the treasure before his arch nemesis.

Whereas Buster Busts Loose could almost pass for a lost episode of the cartoon Konami went in a different direction for its Sega counterpart. It’s not a stretch to say that Buster’s Hidden Treasure borrows heavily from Sonic the Hedgehog except it stars a blue rabbit. While normally such derivative titles pale in comparison to their source material (Socket) there are enough unique elements here that help the game stand on its own two feet. Buster’s Hidden Treasure doesn’t reinvent the platforming wheel but greases it enough to entertain for you for a good few hours as it is pretty long.

Tiny Toon Adventures - Buster's Hidden Treasure (U) [!]007

As much as I want to avoid the comparisons to Sonic it can’t be helped. Buster Bunny builds up speed as he runs like a certain blue Hedgehog although not as fast and can execute a slide attack at full speed. In some ways I wonder why the slide was included as I almost never used it. While blazing through the stages at a brisk clip sounds nice the level design was not built with that in mind, to the point where I question why you even have the option. At almost every turn there is a shovel, can of soda or some enemy to trip you up, as if the designers are wagging their fingers and saying “this is not that type of game.” The end level bosses see Gene Splicer controlling one of the other Tiny Toons and piloting some new contraption; sound familiar?

Luckily the level design is where the game really shines. The 33 or so stages cover a wide spectrum with each new area presenting some new obstacle to deal with, be it lava, ice or spikes. The carrots strewn about don’t grant extra lives but instead an extra use for your helper character not that is ever necessary. There are a ton of secrets at every turn and if need be you can revisit prior levels to stock up on extra lives or life extending hearts. The tight controls mean if you die it was your own fault although I noticed later in the game there are more leaps of faith than should be normal.

For the most part the game is of median difficulty as there are frequent hearts to restore health and a decent amount of checkpoints. At the halfway point the difficulty is stepped up as enemies appear in greater numbers and are more aggressive. The level design becomes far trickier with more instant death spikes and such and the boss battles feature more involved mechanics. Some of the later areas such as Montana Max’s factory tend to run a little too long for my taste but I suppose it does succeed in creating the sense that it is leading to an epic finale. Between the game’s length and increasing challenge you’ll certainly get your money’s worth.

Tiny Toon Adventures - Buster's Hidden Treasure (U) [!]013 Tiny Toon Adventures - Buster's Hidden Treasure (U) [!]050 Tiny Toon Adventures - Buster's Hidden Treasure (U) [!]021 Tiny Toon Adventures - Buster's Hidden Treasure (U) [!]077

The game does an excellent job of recreating the look of the show despite being set outside of Acme Acres. The sprites are large and expressive with Buster shamelessly stealing a few of Sonic’s animations. Most of the principle cast from the show make cameo appearances as bosses or can be called in for an assist which is pretty cool. Too bad most of the enemies you’ll face are generic fodder. While the environments run through most of the standard platforming clichés they are at least backed up by Konami’s awesome art. Even the music is pretty cool; Konami was on fire at this point and as Rocket Knight Adventure and Castlevania Bloodlines showed they had the Genesis hardware dialed in.

Buster’s Hidden Treasure is a solid platformer that while derivative is fun above all else. It brings nothing new to the genre but hits all the right notes to create a game that even those who have never watched the cartoon can enjoy.

7-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Eliminate Down

I’ve always been amazed by video game developers who only create a single title and then disappear overnight. It’s tempting to call them a one hit wonder but in most cases the games weren’t hits regardless of their quality. Clockwork Tortoise created the Sega version of the Adventures of Batman & Robin, a game so technically incredible I still can’t believe it’s a Genesis game. While there were many shooters for the system created by some of the best in the business you’ll never hear the name Aprinet. That’s because their only title, Eliminate Down only saw release in Japan and South Korea. However in one fell swoop they made one of the top 10 games in the genre for a platform buckling under its sheer numbers. Not bad for a company no one has ever heard of.

Eliminate Down only has a few weapons unlike most shooters. You are always equipped with the game’s three weapons: the forward firing blaster, the rear firing laser, and the four way bombs. The forward blaster covers a wider area when upgraded. The rear laser actually isn’t a laser but instead spits out Zs (I know, it’s weird) at a 45 degree angle. The four way bombs travel along the surface of whatever they touch until they hit a target. All three weapons can be upgraded three times by collecting five power chips each. Leveling your weapons is a painless process as the items drop frequently and as a bonus they all increase in power simultaneously. The only other power-ups are a barrier that protects you from damage and an upgrade for your standard shot.

Eliminate_Down_(J)083

Three weapons isn’t much however the game was designed around this. The level design is generally excellent, encouraging frequent weapon swapping at every turn. The levels scroll in every direction and trying to rely on one given weapon simply does not work. By the end of the game each will have had its moment to shine regardless of how weak they seem. The mid boss of Round 5 will force you to use the rear laser exclusively while the four way bombs are essential to completing its latter half. I will admit though that as much as I like the way the designers made each weapon essential I would have appreciated at least one option that was more powerful and had a more focused shot. None of the three options available have the necessary punch to them, leading to drawn out boss fights.

Unlike the vast majority of shooters on the market Eliminate Down is fairly median in terms of difficulty, at least its first half. Death doesn’t carry as big a penalty here as your weapons are only downgraded one level and you respawn instantly, avoiding the frustration of being thrown back to a checkpoint. This leaves you with a fighting chance although if you were in the zone it’s hard to get back to that state. The mid-level bosses are actually more terrifying than some of the end level mayors at this point in an odd twist but I feel the difficulty is near perfect, to the point where it is fun to experiment and see which weapon is the best suited for your current situation.

The second half of the game picks up significantly with more enemies than before and showers of bullets with barrier power-ups becoming increasingly rare. While I welcome a challenge I found it starts to veer into unfair territory. The beginning of Round 6 features a debris field that has rocks that are near impossible to distinguish from the ones that can actually hit you. Round 7 is one long series of traps and sudden shifts that seem to exist to kill you abruptly with prior warning. The learning curve is pretty steep and you’ll have to replay the last levels numerous times to memorize every element in order to survive.

Eliminate_Down_(J)001 Eliminate_Down_(J)039 Eliminate_Down_(J)025 Eliminate_Down_(J)077

Eliminate Down is utterly fantastic in the art department, able to match some of the system’s best with ease. While a lot of the creature designs (especially the bosses) are reminiscent of similar titles such as Mega Turrican and R-Type the game has a level of detail that few can match. A good chunk of space was reserved for sprite animation and in this regard the game is fantastic. There are many larger enemies and bosses composed of multiple sprites that all animate in a way that is exquisite. There are even rotational effects along the lines of Gunstar Heroes and other Treasure games, all from an unknown developer. Pretty incredible isn’t it? The backgrounds themselves can be underwhelming at times; there are some static backdrops that just scream for some scrolling but on the whole it nearly reaches the level of Lightening Force. The one negative would be the heavy amounts of flicker which I’m surprised isn’t worse all things considered.

There’s no question Eliminate Down is one of the best shooters of the 16-bit era but unfortunately it will cost you. The original Japanese release was printed in low quantities however the game is readily available in Korean and much cheaper. All of the game’s text is already in English so there is no reason not to experience one of the genre’s best representatives. It rarely got better than this.

9-out-of-10

Posted on

Vectorman

Blue Sky Software were Sega of America’s silent partner, responsible for some of the most beloved games SOA published. They were the ones behind the excellent Shadowrun, the graphically impressive but gameplay challenged Jurassic Park, and the awesome World Series Baseball. With that pedigree behind them it should come as no surprise that Vectorman was great. But the fact that it is also one of the most technically proficient games of that era is. Vectorman is one of the Genesis’s last swan songs and was only let down by a muted marketing campaign in favor of promoting the Saturn and 32X.

The future is a mess. After humanity does a fine job of making Earth a complete wasteland they leave to colonize other planets. Mechanical “Orbots” are left behind to clean up the planet for their eventual return. All goes well until Raster, a high level Orbot is attached to a malfunctioning nuclear warhead and goes insane, reprogramming all Orbots to destroy the humans when they return. The only one left to stop this menace is Vectorman, who happened to be off planet when this all occurred.

Vectorman’s primary means of offense are his power bolts which can be fired in rapid succession. In addition to these the flames kicked up by your double jump can also burn enemies. It’s pretty simple but is expanded on with numerous power-ups that alter your blasts in numerous ways. These range from a machine gun, bolo gun, and even quintuple (!) fire. Lastly Vectorman can morph into a variety of shapes such as a drill, bomb, and an aquatic form to help swim underwater.

There’s an even mix of wide open levels full of hidden secrets and more straightforward and shorter stages. There are plenty of items to collect along the way such as photons for points, extra lives but most importantly extensions to your life bar. Regardless of how much you’ll end up exploring each level the focus never shifts from combat. You’ll need a turbo controller by the midpoint as the game rarely lets up which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s engaging but can also get confusing fast as shit is blowing up left and right with crazy lighting effects all over the place, breaking the poor Genesis in the process. These moments aren’t too common however and serve as a reminder that this system is being pushed farther than anyone dreamed possible.

Vectorman_(F)_[!]061 Vectorman_(F)_[!]019

What truly makes Vectorman special outside of its graphics is its pacing. Every three or 4 levels the game will switch to a new viewpoint as you engage in some creative battles against Warhead that are completely different from everything else in the game. Day 2 pits you against Warhead along a railway track while Day 7 places you on a bamboo treadmill as he tries to pound you with his fists. Beyond these side diversions the game does an excellent job of doling out new forms you can morph into at an even clip. There’s always something new to look forward to right up until the game’s final moments where it ends in a final battle just as spectacular as anything else in the game.

Vectorman is tough early on when you can only sustain a few hits before death but gradually becomes easier as your life bar increases. While the game has a paucity of cheap hits due to the zoomed in view and larger sprites it is also generous with health restoring balls. The only major sticking points I ran into were the occasional boss battle where the view shifts and it isn’t immediately apparent what you are supposed to be doing.

All in all though I’m pretty sure most will be able to complete the game in a few hours despite its supposed length. The game is spread out over 16 levels or days as they are called but most can be completed in a matter of minutes with a few even faster than that. Despite this I enjoyed every moment of my time spent with the game and honestly couldn’t picture it being longer.

Vectorman_(F)_[!]047 Vectorman_(F)_[!]005 Vectorman_(F)_[!]108 Vectorman_(F)_[!]051

For as much praise that Donkey Kong Country received for its technical merits Vectorman deserves to be spoken of in the same light. Using the same prerendered techniques Vectorman excels through smart design decisions and great art design. Nearly all of the game’s sprites are composed of 3d balls which give them a smooth look and incredible animation; their individual parts are all animated separately yet form one cohesive whole. A similar technique was used in the game Ballz but that game was terrible and is best forgotten. Because the game takes place on a wasted Earth the usually darker Genesis color palette is used to great effect and at times the game even manages to overcome the system’s 64 color limitation using the system’s highlight/shadow mode.

The effects are literally unreal for a 16-bit title and still impressive even today. The way Vectorman’s shots illuminate not only his body but the environment never gets old. There’s an insane attention to detail, with particular attention paid to the shifting between light and dark in the backgrounds as well. There’s a waterfall in Day 5 composed completely of falling particles that is mind boggling to see in motion. Next to the Adventures of Batman & Robin this is probably the greatest technical achievement on the platform.

Vectorman is one of the best pure action titles for the system, no small feat considering the platform was gifted with many excellent titles in the genre. This is not a game you should pass up and luckily it has been ported in one form or another to nearly every modern game device so there is no reason to miss out.

9-out-of-10

 

Posted on

Android Assault

Next to the Saturn and Turbo Duo I wish the Sega CD had found some measure of success in the US. By 1995 the system had managed to build up a respectable amount of titles that made the cost (at that point anywhere between $50-100) worth it. In Japan it was a different story as the CD drive enjoyed more wide spread support. Good support too, with many incredible RPGs and such. Meanwhile Sega of America saw fit to unleash a barrage of assy FMV games on us that we did not deserve. For this reason games like Android Assault stood out more. While it isn’t the best use of the added CD space ultimately that doesn’t matter as it is a good game first and foremost.

Like a sizable chunk of the Sega CD’s library in the US there isn’t much in Android Assault that couldn’t be done on a Genesis cartridge. Aside from the fully voiced intro and soundtrack it has nothing over the likes of Lightening Force. However a game doesn’t have to be innovative to be good and in that regard AA succeeds. There weren’t too many shooters for the Sega CD and so Android Assault has little competition and despite being a little derivative it’s a solid game. More of this and less crap like Ground Zero Texas would have gone a long way toward painting the Sega CD in a more positive light.

The list of weapons is kept relatively light however the four available cover most of the popular tropes. The Thunder Cracker is the standard which upgrades to a wide spread shot at full power. The Chase Cannon fires a volley of homing missiles straight out of Macross; incredibly useful but weak. The Burning Wave is the stereotypical laser which will produce five asymmetric lasers when fully upgraded. The Satellite bombs are flat out terrible. These missiles fire in a straight line and is too slow to be effective. Once a weapon is powered up a third time your ship will transform into a flying mech which serves no purpose other than to look cool and increase the size of your hit box. That’s not true, it allows you to sustain one hit before death.

BARI_ARM082

All of these weapons are supplemented by an R-Type style charge shot. When you aren’t firing it charges up to three levels pretty quickly and unleashes a modified burst of power depending on your current weapon. The changes are pretty dramatic in some cases; while the satellite bomb is terrible on its own a fully charged shot will unleash a cluster of smaller bombs that explode in a wide radius. The chase cannon actually becomes a fiery snake that lasts until the bar is depleted and particularly devastating when timed right. The fact that you have to sit defenseless for it to charge is a nice compromise for the power it offers although most will use every opportunity to spam it when possible.

This is not a fast paced game which is in stark contrast to a good portion of the shooter genre in which twitch action is its reason for being. The slower pace doesn’t mean the game is not full on tense moments however as massive humanoid robots are your most frequent opponents and they don’t go down in a single hit. The game uses the same elevated playing field as later Thunder Force and Darius games so you can easily choose a more aggressive lane if that is what you seek. But even then outside the occasional boss battle and trying to crawl back after dying you won’t find much of a challenge here.

Unlike the majority of shooters I found Android Assault to be far easier than is usual in the genre. For the most part the weapons are overpowered with the exception of the stupid satellite bomb. The charge attack reaches full power pretty quickly so you can spam it if you want with little consequence. Extra lives are awarded regularly and if you have even some modicum of flying skill you’ll have little to worry about. It does pick up a bit at the halfway mark but is nothing too drastic. As someone who is used to getting his ass kicked in these games this came as a welcome change of pace.

BARI_ARM017 BARI_ARM105

BARI_ARM069 BARI_ARM013

The game’s artwork gives it a unique visual style with its awesome mech designs. The mechs resemble something out of a mid-90s anime OVA like Tekkaman Blade or Escaflowne. Large and imposing these robots comprise the majority of the enemies you’ll face. The backgrounds are a parallax fan’s wet dream, often going as deep as six layers and makes excellent use of the system’s limited color palette. Although its environments are reminiscent of other games in the genre they are still creative and not many match this level of detail. The CD soundtrack is comprised of generally excellent rock music; hell even the little bits of voice acting are well done. The entire presentational package is a first class effort which is surprising for what was a low profile release.

While Android Assault does not break any new ground within the genre it is a well done shooter on a console that could use every quality title it can get. Copies of the game might be hard to find but generally it is inexpensive and worth a play through.

7-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Taz-Mania (Genesis)

Of all of the Looney Tunes characters I am genuinely surprised that the Tazmanian devil exploded in popularity in the early 90s. The cartoon series ran for a number of years and would eventually lead to a slew of loosely based games. The Genesis version, produced by Sega and Recreational Brainware is probably the most popular and was definitely one of Sega’s biggest releases that year. This was heavily promoted on TV and I certainly don’t blame them. But for all of its marketing Taz-Mania isn’t a particularly good game.

One day Taz’s father Hugh tells the family an interesting story about a race of giant seagulls that once inhabited the Tazmanian islands and the eggs they produced, eggs so large they could feed a family of devils for over a year. Being the greedy bastard he is Taz sets out to find these eggs in hopes of a delicious meal.

Taz is known for two particular traits: his voracious appetite and his temper which usually leads to his signature tornado. Taz can eat nearly everything in the game, the copious amounts of food littering the levels, bombs, and even enemies. Hell you can even eat the extra lives and continue boxes. Obviously food restores health but bombs are almost always instant death. The spin is incredibly powerful, allowing you to mow your way through just about anything unscathed. Unless you are incredibly careful Taz will eat everything directly in his path, including bombs and the game has a habit of hiding these behind background objects. Chili peppers give you the ability to breathe fire for brief periods. The platform staple butt bounce is here but the game’s hit detection makes it unreliable.

While the game has a solid set of mechanics the controls has its share of problems. The controls are loose with Taz feeling stiff once in the air. The spin move is wild like it should be but also finicky to handle once you start to move. Collision is spotty so anytime platforming is involved it becomes a crapshoot as to whether or not the game will recognize that you’ve landed on a ledge. The levels that see you hopping from log to log are a nightmare because of this. Despite these issues the few boss battles are incredibly easy by comparison.

As a result of the game’s myriad issues it is incredibly difficult. Well not so much difficult as frustrating. . The level design is a bit of a mess with far too many leaps of faith needed to ascertain where to go. Two of the worst levels in the game take place in the mines. There’s a mine cart sequence that should be thrilling but instead is aggravating. By default it moves way too fast for you to keep up with incoming obstacles. You can slow down which helps but it also leaves you ill prepared for the times you’ll need speed to cross gaps. Memorizing level layouts isn’t inherently bad however when it is done this poorly it is. The following stage highlights everything wrong with the controls as you make your way through a maze of elevator shafts. There are many areas throughout that give no indication where to go and in fact towards the end there are a series of moving cages that were so spaced apart I questioned if I had missed something. Nope, and the ensuing series of leaps lead to many instant deaths due to not being able to see as much as I should have.

Taz-Mania (W) [!]003 Taz-Mania (W) [!]053

Taz-Mania (W) [!]056 Taz-Mania (W) [!]051

I will say this about the game, it looks fantastic. This was definitely one of the most visually arresting Genesis games at its release. Even more so than similar licensed games such as Castle of Illusion and Quackshot Taz-Mania resembles a cartoon come to life. To a degree the backgrounds are drawn in a minimalist style that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the cartoon series with a vivid color palette and are only let down by heavy repetition towards the end of the game. The sprites are pretty large and the animation is incredible and coming off the heels of Sonic the Hedgehog you’ll recognize more than a few similar traits here and there.

What isn’t so great is the game’s sound design. Most of the music is fairly forgettable but you won’t have time to bother listening as the game has some of the most irritating sound effects I’ve had to experience in a game. There isn’t a moment when some obnoxious sound isn’t blaring over the music whether it is Taz’s own footsteps or the sound of the generic enemies. I’m not one to mute the sound while gaming but I strongly considered it in this case, it’s that bad.

The game’s heart was in the right place but it falls flat in the execution. Taz-Mania was a pretty popular game for some god forsaken reason but it doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny.

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Phantasy Star IV – End of the Millenium

All good things must come to an end and it’s with this axiom in mind that the Phantasy Star team created possibly the series finest hour, Phantasy Star IV. Such was the damage caused by the third installment’s lack of quality that there for a while it looked as though that would be the series final installment which would have been a sad end to such a storied franchise. But when given the green light the team realized this would be there last shot and so poured all there resources into creating a sprawling adventure that pays homage to past games, answers all lingering questions, and wraps it up in a satisfying manner. Phantasy Star IV is one of the greatest RPGS of the 16-bit era and one that anyone with even a passing interest in sci-fi RPGs should seek out.

A thousand yeas have passed since the end of Phantasy Star II and the lush green fields of Motavia have given way to ever expanding deserts after an event called the Great Collapse. With this comes an increase in biomonsters leading to the creation of hunters who specialize in exterminating them. Two such hunters, Alys and Chaz will unwittingly become caught up in the machinations of the evil Zio and his master, an ancient evil that threatens the Algol Star system once again.

Phantasy Star IV pulls in elements from every prior game in the series to create one last sprawling adventure that spans multiple planets. For long term fans of the series there are numerous cameo appearances and bits of fan service that leave me impressed at just how thorough they were in crafting this epic. The fact that they not only acknowledge Phantasy Star III but manages to tie it in with the rest of the series despite its drastically different tone is a testament to this team’s skill.

 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]138 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]153

 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]321 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]033

The plot is far more character driven than in prior installments with nearly everyone, including the party members who are only with you a short time seeing some form of growth. Chaz begins the game a wide eyed rookie hunter but certain events force him to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibility of saving the universe. Rika is a source of never ending elation as she sees the outside world and all it has to offer with her own eyes rather than what she was taught by a computer. Rune’s ribbing of Chaz hides a deep seated burden as he is the bearer of ancient knowledge and power. The coolest aspect of Generation of Doom, its introduction of cyborgs continues as you’ll come across many during the course of your journey, most specifically Wren. The overall plot is nothing revolutionary however it is well done as mysteries unfold at a regular clip with the game doing a very good job of answering all questions that arise during your quest.

Gameplay wise there are no revolutionary features to speak of, just more conveniences. The lethargic walking speed has been increased enabling your party to literally zip through towns and more importantly dungeons. While random battles still occur a little too frequently for my tastes at least you can walk more than 4 steps before the next battle. The nightmarish dungeons full of warp pads and pits that needed to be explored has been toned down thankfully. The dungeons aren’t as complex but can still be confusing mazes to navigate that can be completed in a reasonable time frame. The talk feature starts a party conversation that will remind you of the most recent events and what your current objective is. The individual party loot system has been replaced with a universal inventory that makes it easier to keep track of item

Battles return to the third person view of the second game and move at a faster clip. Issuing commands through the icon based system is instantly familiar and all of the spells from prior games return. The weird ass naming convention for Techniques (PS equivalent of magic) returns so if you aren’t familiar with this system you’ll need to consult a FAQ or make your own. Each character has a secondary list of skills that have limited uses but are just as powerful as magic, especially when combined. Like Chronotrigger you can combine your powers to create devastating spells. Unfortunately you’ll have to figure them out on your own as the game will never tell you or keep track. The other major addition to the battle system aside from vehicular combat would be macros.

Macros function as a programmable series of commands you can use in lieu of giving out orders to each party member every turn. The game comes with a preset macro that will auto attack just to give you an idea how much they value your time. With the ability to save up to 10 macros combat is a literal breeze if there are certain actions or spells you tend to rely on. Once you out level an area these become a god send in getting you back to the world map.

The difficulty curve is far smoother than in the brutal Phantasy Star 2. There are very few instances where you’ll need to grind for progression, mostly because the encounter rate is so high that you’ll generally be within the right range provided you don’t constantly run from battle, which is actually possible this time around. Dungeons are more compact and as a result there are more of them. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have its fair share of nightmarish mazes to navigate; the Air Castle and Zio’s Fort will make you tear your hair out. But compared to the four dams in Phantasy Star 2 my blood pressure is a lot more stable.

 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]007 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]299 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]061

Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]241 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]146 Phantasy Star - The End of the Millenium (U) [!]178

Graphically this is one of the most beautiful games ever released for the Genesis. Forget the overly realistic fantasy style of Generations of Doom as the game is more in line the with anime style of its more popular second installment. The overworld is more colorful and slightly more detailed but it’s in combat that the game flexes its muscles. The art is top class and the enemy animation is particularly well done; remember it wasn’t until Dragon Quest 6 and Final Fantasy’s 7th installment that they even bothered animating enemy attacks. The spell effects aren’t over the top and are rather subdued with the exception of combination techniques which look spectacular.

Important story events are narrated using comic book style panels and they look fantastic. While not at the level of Sega CD cutscenes they still do an excellent job of moving the story forward and there are a ton of them. It makes me wonder why there weren’t more RPGS (hell games in general) that experimented with this storytelling format as it seemed a good fit for cartridge based games.

For fans of the traditional Phantasy Star series End of the Millennium is everything you expected and more and is the ultimate love letter to the fans from a developer. While I would have loved to see them continue the series rather than its Online spinoff I can at least rest easy knowing that this is as satisfying a conclusion as you can ever expect to a series.

9-out-of-10

Posted on

Phantasy Star III – Generations of Doom

And now we’ve come to the black sheep of the family. Many volumes of vitriol has been written about the missteps Sega took with Phantasy Star III, most of it true. Coming off the success of the seminal second installment one would think a sequel containing all of the elements that game got right would follow. Well in the end what we got was something……different and while I can respect them for not resting on their laurels what they created is as far from the conventions of the Phantasy Star series as you can get. There are some good ideas buried underneath the game’s lackluster execution but I doubt most will stick around long enough to bother.

Long ago war between the Orakians and the Layans rocked the planet but ended when the leaders of both factions disappeared. All communication between the two sides collapses as they evolved in different ways, with the Orakians relying on technology and Layans taking up magic. Rhys, the prince of Orakia, is set to marry Maia when she is taking by a Layan demon. With war threatening to erupt again Rhys vows to take her back and sets out on his journey.

Phantasy_Star_3_-_Generations_of_Doom_(UE)_[!]075 Phantasy_Star_3_-_Generations_of_Doom_(UE)_[!]078 Phantasy_Star_3_-_Generations_of_Doom_(UE)_[!]081

While Phantasy Star III has many issues its greatest feature would be the Generations referred to in the title. Though the quest begins with Rhys it isn’t long before his leg of the journey is over and he is presented with a choice from two possible future wives. The offspring produced in these unions will inherit traits from their parents, informing their abilities. This generational shift happens twice, ultimately leading to four different protagonists for the final showdown with Dark Force.

The concept of future generations continuing the fight their parents started is an interesting one and the game does a good job of making each quest somewhat unique for each one. All roads will eventually lead to the same place but the events leading up to it is what makes replaying the game unique. I’m surprised at the lack of game’s that utilized this storytelling technique in some capacity and despite its faults Phantasy Star III is the game that introduced it to the world.

If the game didn’t say Phantasy Star on the cover you would never associate it with the series upon first impression. The world presented in PS III is more medieval fantasy rather than the hard sci-fi of prior installments. In fact were it not for the cyborgs and traveling between the individual ships that make up each world you would never know this takes place in the future. In a way it harkens back to the original Phantasy Star but It’s such a radical departure from the heavily anime influenced second game that it’s too jarring to fit. The US instruction manual tries to rationalize it by having it take place concurrently with part four but that only makes it worse.

The traditional setting goes hand in hand with the game’s mechanics. You visit towns, fight monsters, and explore the various dungeons throughout albeit very slowly. The pacing of the game is very methodical and not in a good way. Random battles come frequently and your characters walk maddeningly slow, always a recipe for controller throwing rage. Rather than separate planets the entirety of PS III takes place on a colony of seven ring worlds linked by tunnels that you’ll unfortunately have to trudge through each time. It’s certainly distinctive but due to the game’s art style there is little variation from one world to the next.

The battle system returns to the first person view of the original game but doesn’t seem to move any faster than that game. While the attack animations have somehow regressed in the years between their releases they are just as slow and plodding. For those that can’t stand the repetition inherit of turn based combat there is an auto battle function for the times you don’t feel like clicking through menus. Magic has been given a slight tweak; only characters who have some Layan blood can use the series typical techniques and in addition they can be powered up in towns. Depending on the generation your decisions has led to relying on magic might not be an option, making the game harder as a result.

For as much as I like the generation system the game’s plodding pace completely saps any will to want to explore each possible generational shift. Even by RPG standards of the time Phantasy Star III is slow. You walk slow, random battles are slow even on the highest setting, and simply getting from point A to B is a laborious task. Combat is frequent with as many as 6-8 enemies becoming the norm about a quarter of the way in. Unfortunately there is no teleportation spell or stations so you have to trek through every dungeon or cave again if the story calls for it. Honestly this isn’t a long game; each generation is only about 5 hours or so of content but the obvious padding makes it feel longer. By the time you make it to the final group if you’ve lasted that long you’ll simply want it to be over.

Phantasy_Star_3_-_Generations_of_Doom_(UE)_[!]063 Phantasy_Star_3_-_Generations_of_Doom_(UE)_[!]032

Phantasy_Star_3_-_Generations_of_Doom_(UE)_[!]108 Phantasy_Star_3_-_Generations_of_Doom_(UE)_[!]064

As I mentioned previously the more realistic art style simply doesn’t work the animeish character design. The game heavily recycles its few assets; despite their being seven worlds most are simply palette swaps of the same generic template. About 90% of the dungeons use the same metallic background with no changes other than the layout. The amazing battle animations from the first two games is almost completely gone; in its place is the most bare ass minimum that is so pathetic they shouldn’t have even bothered. When you see a massive titan whose means of attack is to wiggle a finger you know they simply didn’t’ care. About the only bright spot in the presentation is the soundtrack.

I’ll give Sega points for not shoving out another generic sequel after the success of Phantasy Star II but that doesn’t mean the game is compelling in any way. Phantasy Star III is a case of good ideas but bad execution and while some might grow to like it I can’t recommend it in goof faith.

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Phantasy Star II

I count myself truly blessed to have been able to play Phantasy Star not long after its original release and experience just how far above it was from its contemporaries, Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. In a fair world it would have received the recognition it deserved but alas. A year later Sega would deliver a sequel that in my eyes became the quintessential sci-fi RPG for its time. As the first 16-bit RPG released Phantasy Star 2 is everything a sequel should be with improvements in every category. With it comes a level of difficulty that I don’t think most gamers of today are ready to handle but that does little to detract from the excellence at hand.

Phantasy Star II (UE) (REV 02) [!]002 PhantasyStar2018 PhantasyStar2020

1000 years have passed in the Algol system and its inhabitants enjoy peace under the governorship of the Mother Brain computer. Mother Brain regulates the weather and all other facets of life for its inhabitants but recently something has been off. At the same time a young man named Rolf is suffering from nightmares of a maiden fighting an ancient evil. Little does he know that the two are linked and his quest for the truth will have dire consequences for every planet in Algol.

What a difference a year makes. Phantasy Star was definitely ahead of its time with its features and story and that continues in its sequel. Phantasy Star 2 has an extensive plot that deals with some pretty heavy topics such as suicide, terrorism, and mass destruction of life years before other such games would deign to go there. It’s a sprawling tale that will once again see you visit other planets to solve the mysteries at hand and is heavily character driven, although not in the way you expect.

Where Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior’s characters at the time were mostly blank slates used to fulfill a role Phantasy Star’s heroes are an eclectic bunch. Rather than a set of battle hardened veterans you’ll encounter in the field each of the game’s six protagonists aside from Rolf and Nei will actually come seeking you out as they hear tales of your exploits. These members are ordinary citizens who have been inspired by your heroism and their “class” is actually the job they perform in their day to day life. Sure it’s convenient that Anna is a hunter who tracks renegade hunters so she kicks ass but even unlikely characters such as Kain (a wrecker good against robots) and Amy (a medic) will have their uses.

This follows traditional RPG mechanics so you’ll spend lots of time visiting towns upgrading equipment, speaking to townspeople, and grinding for experience. The battle system has seen the most changes since you no longer fight a single enemy type in each battle. Enemy parties are comprised of an assortment of biomonsters and later cyborgs in many configurations. You can now choose to auto battle and target specific enemy groups though you still can’t focus on one target. You’ll also notice that battles take place on a static grid rather than the beautiful location specific backdrops of the original. It sucks but sometimes you can’t have everything.

The hellish first person dungeons of the first game have been replaced by the standard overhead view maps of most RPGs but before you celebrate know this; these are just as nightmarish. These dungeons can reach as high as thirteen floors deep and aside from confusing layouts full of dead ends will also have pit traps and holes that you actually have to fall into at the right angle and position to continue onward. Imagine climbing to the sixth floor of a lab and falling into a hole only to realize you weren’t on the right side and have to do it all over again. Doesn’t sound too pleasant does it?

Make no mistake, Phantasy Star 2 is one of the most difficult RPGs you’ll ever encounter, full of all the excesses and trappings old school RPGs were subject to. The grind is heavy with this one and even the basic enemies at the start of the game can be vicious; I wouldn’t move more than a few inches away from the first city until I’d reached level 3 or 4 just as an example. New equipment is expensive and the rewards from battle aren’t proportional so be prepared to fight a lot. Which is going to happen anyway as the encounter rate is really bad. It’s not an exaggeration when I say nearly any random battle can be fatal within a dungeon, especially when magic users are involved. Nearly every RPG has its fair share of grinding but it borders on tedium here. Bottom line, you are going to see the game over screen a lot.

The game’s high challenge was apparently evident at Sega and so the game came packaged with a mini strategy guide that took you through the whole game and had full maps of every location. It also showed you how to obtain some of the most useful items in the game such as the Visiphone, which allows you to save anywhere. Some people bitched and moaned about its inclusion; ignore them they’re stupid. It doesn’t break the game and only barely alleviates some of the difficulty.

Phantasy Star II (UE) (REV 02) [!]022 Phantasy Star II (UE) (REV 02) [!]097 Phantasy Star II (UE) (REV 02) [!]078

PhantasyStar2116 Phantasy Star II (UE) (REV 02) [!]119 Phantasy Star II (UE) (REV 02) [!]063

 

The art direction of the series underwent a massive shift, abandoning the fantasy meets sci-fi look for a 100% futuristic art style. And it works.   The art is highly evocative of 80s anime with multi-colored hair and a definite cyberpunk vibe. It’s so drastically different from everything else at the time that it stands out. The first person dungeons are missed as they were a technical achievement; the foreground overlays might look cool but the overhead view doesn’t really lend itself to exciting vistas. The battle graphics have been significantly improved with excellent animation and spell effects making up for the static background.

The difficulty is off putting however Phantasy Star 2 has so many other factors working in its favor that it is worth sticking it out. We’re close to 25 years since its original release and their still isn’t much like it on any console. There’s a reason this is commonly placed on many best of all time lists and I urge everyone to give it a try to find out why.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Phantasy Star

If there were any justice in the world the Phantasy Star series would be held up in the same light as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. As the quintessential sci-fi RPGs of the era Phantasy Star was the opposite of its two main competitors, going for an anime infused brand of science fiction rather than the typical swords and sorcery motif popular at the time. These days the brand is carried on by the Phantasy Star Online run of MMOs but once upon a time they were single player RPGs every bit the equal of Square Enix’s offerings and in the case of the first game vastly superior.

The Algol star system is composed of three planets, all ruled by King Lassic. Lassic was once a fair and just king but suddenly became a tyrant who ruthlessly killed any who opposed his rule. Pockets of rebellion spring up throughout the Algol system but are cut down, and one such group was led by Nero. Nero is slain by Lassics forces (who resemble Stormtroopers) in front of his sister Alis who vows revenge.

Phantasy Star was a victim of circumstance. Released in 1988 for the Sega Master System it predated the US release of both Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy by 1 & 2 years respectively. If you were to compare the three games side by side Phantasy Star might as well have been a SNES game in comparison. The game was light years ahead not just in presentation but gameplay as well.

Unfortunately this was an era in which Nintendo ruled the market with well over 90% market share so its release went unnoticed. The $80-90 price tag also didn’t do it any favors. Phantasy Star would go on to become one of the greatest unsung heroes of the time, respected by those fortunate enough to play it at release. In the decades since then it has finally gained the respect it deserves and is one of the best retro RPGs, no games period that I’m honored to have played at release.

 PHANSTAR005 PHANSTAR011

PHANSTAR146 PHANSTAR029

First of all the graphics are insane. When taken as a whole Phantasy Star might have been the most impressive 8-bit game of all time. Although the overworld graphics are the same chibi sprites we were accustomed to they served their purpose. The overworld has a surprising amount of animation, from waves crashing against the shore to scores of ant lions with pincers gnashing in wait.

The first person battles feature full attack animations, all excellently rendered. Every enemy from the lowly slimes to the massive Octopi and vampires were brought to life through great art and animation. This was a feature that Final Fantasy would not incorporate until its seventh installment; Dragon Quest lagged behind until the sixth. The battles featured location specific backgrounds as well. The number of little touches like these went a long way toward bringing this sci-fi universe to life.

Perhaps its most well-known attribute are the 3d dungeons. Like Wizardry and Might and Magic before it dungeons are explored from the first person but Phantasy Star was leagues ahead of those games with its smooth scrolling. It was a major technical accomplishment back then and is still impressive to this day.

Phantasy Star broke ground by having a female protagonist with Alis. At a time where when most games were content to put you behind the gun of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger knockoff this was a bold move but you’ll quickly forget about that once the game starts. PS mixes sci-fi with traditional swords and sorcery elements to create a universe that was decidedly unique for the time. What is most impressive about the game is its scale; this is an adventure that plays out across three entire planets with their own separate towns and dungeons to explore. The closest comparison at the time would be Ultima IV but that game was just plain weird.

Although you begin the journey alone you’ll soon build a party of 4 characters who each bring something to the table. The cat/rabbit hybrid Myau is the fastest party member who requires next to no items to keep up with the rest of the group. While Odin might come across as the typical strongman of the group his biggest contribution is the ability to equip guns. Guns are not strong but hit every enemy each turn and inflict the exact same damage regardless of defense. Noah is the requisite magic user with little defense but strong magic to make up for it.

The first person battles are surprisingly speedy initially as you’ll only face one or two enemies when alone. With each party member the game scales up to accommodate your increased offense, with groups of enemies reaching as many as 7-8 despite only one visible on screen. A unique feature of the game is the ability to talk to humanoid characters and possibly avoid battle altogether. This would go on to be a key feature of the Megami Tensei series but Phantasy Star did it first.

In spite of the battle scaling Phantasy Star is still one of the hardest RPGs of all time. RPGs created in the 80s were typically grind heavy as developers had no base to scale from but even taking that into account Phantasy Star exemplifies why the genre was so niche for many years. Equipment is expensive and meseta does not increase exponentially to keep up. Once you have a full party more than likely someone will have to make do with hand me downs or you’ll have to spend hours grinding to equip them.

It’s a vicious cycle as you need better gear to defeat more powerful opponents but you need to kill those same stronger enemies for the money to buy said equipment. Groups of 8 enemies are quite common and slow down battles due to the animation. Aside from weapons and armor there are numerous vehicles that are mandatory to progress that have to be bought and are insanely expensive, once again grinding the game to a halt.

PHANSTAR164 PHANSTAR057 PHANSTAR033

The nightmares…somebody hold me!

These balance problems come to a head in the game’s punishing dungeons. The first few are simple single floor affairs that are easy to navigate but the game quickly descends into 6-12 level monstrosities that require mapping to survive. Because every wall is exactly the same I can guarantee you’ll get lost. The ability to save anywhere might actually screw you rather than help; if you save in the middle of a dungeon with little supplies chances are you’ll have to die and lose half your money to progress.

Even in spite of these old flaws I would recommend Phantasy Star in a heartbeat. There are few RPGs from that era that stood the test of time but Phantasy Star has the advantage of being ahead of the curve in terms of features and presentation. Sega created a brilliant series that has endured the ages, why not see where it all started?

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Streets of Rage 3

For many Streets of Rage 2 is a perfect beat em up, one that successfully expanded on the foundation laid down by Final Fight. It stole the crown from that venerable series to become the standard by which all future brawlers would be judged. And so anticipation ran high when Streets of Rage 3 was announced. With its predecessor to use as a base I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say many expected it become the standard for the genre.

Well Streets of Rage 3 is an amazing game however it falls short of the lofty bar set by its predecessor. This only applies to the localized version. A number of alterations were made to the game before its release in the US, none of them good. While some of the changes can be understood (the flamboyantly gay parody first boss was a bit much) the balance changes are a bit on the excessive side and make the game more of a slog than it should be.

A series of bombs have been planted throughout the city, all the workings of a mysterious mastermind. On top of the bombs the police chief has also been kidnapped with Axel being implicated in the act. Along with Dr. Zan the trio of Axel, Blaze, and Skate must rescue the police chief to clear Axel’s name and also save the city from destruction.

Far more story driven than every beat em up that came before it Streets of Rage has an elaborate story told through cutscenes after every level. Or I should say it did. The story is one of the biggest elements changed in localization for no inexplicable reason. In its Japanese release Mr. X along with his RoboCy corporation plan to start a global war using a new explosive called Rakushin. More backstory is given to Dr. Zan and there are more cut scenes detailing the plot. Most of these were removed for its US release leaving the game with little context for its story beats.

For the most part Axel, Blaze, and Skate are unchanged leaving Dr. Zan as the sole option for those looking for something new. As the replacement for Max and Adam he occupies the slow strongman role but is really unique in terms of his reach and use of electricity. As a cyborg he doesn’t run but actually slides along the ground and whatever weapon he picks up is turned into a ball of energy that will bowl foes over.

In terms of combat Streets of Rage 3 has quite possibly the deepest battle system within the beat em up genre. There have been all sorts of little tweaks that make the game faster and more diverse. All characters can now dash and perform a defensive roll upwards or downward. The roll in particular is especially helpful in avoiding damage or keeping pace with some of the faster enemies and bosses. Dashing modifies most of the moves performed with it, including weapons. Speaking of weapons, there are a few new attacks that can be performed depending on the weapon currently in hand, some of which inflict obscene amounts of damage. To offset this weapons have a separate life bar and will eventually break.

Streets_of_Rage_3_(U)_[!]085

The special moves unique to each hero have also seen their share of tweaks. The timer has been removed and in its place is a gauge that slowly fills up; once full you can perform a special move without the health penalty. In addition the more enemies killed without losing a life will grant a star (up to a maximum of three) which will allow you to perform an enhanced version of your special moves. It’s tough to pull off but highly rewarding if you can manage it.

The roster of enemies is largely the same unfortunately with few new additions. What has changed however is the enemy AI. The common fodder enemies are much smarter and will actually make a break for any available weapons and can even perform team up attacks. You’ll be shocked the first time you see one actually take the apple/chickens lying around for themselves which just ain’t right.

As you might have guessed the game is pretty tough and was made even more so by Sega of America. The default normal setting is significantly harder than Bare Knuckle III’s hard mode with attacks inflicting less damage all around. Unfortunately the rest of the game wasn’t balanced around this and it becomes a slog as enemies attack in groups of 6-7 in a row. Life restoring items aren’t plentiful so you’ll have to tough it out longer than expected. There are a few areas that mark the return of bottomless pits you can toss bad guys in for quick KOs but there are just as many traps and other stage hazards to contend with such as roaming subway trains and tripwires. There’s a hectic getaway sequence involving a bulldozer that stands out as pretty inspired.

There are multiple endings depending on your actions in stage 6. Here you have a non-linear building to explore and have to race against a clock to save the police chief. If you save him in time you fight the game’s true final boss in another timed battle. The cool thing is if you fail the game continues along an alternate path. While it is a nice addition the endings only slightly differ in content. In addition there are a few hidden characters to unlock for some added replay value.

Streets_of_Rage_3_(U)_[!]028 Streets_of_Rage_3_(U)_[!]096 Streets_of_Rage_3_(U)_[!]113 Streets_of_Rage_3_(U)_[!]013

Streets of Rage 3 is an exceptionally beautiful game, one of the best for the Genesis. Technically it doesn’t seem any more advanced than part 2 however Sega’s artists have improved and as such manage to pack in a ton more detail. The sprites are about the same size but more detailed and better animated with more on screen than ever before. The one area it doesn’t surpass its seminal predecessor would be its backdrops. Due to the story taking place entirely in the city you won’t get to visit exotic locales around the world with the generic city streets, subways, and building exteriors having an air of familiarity to them.

While the graphics are better the music is most certainly not. It would have been a tall order for any composer to top the Streets of Rage 2 OST as it is one of the greatest of all time. The overall soundtrack ditches the slow melodies of before for a completely hard techno sound that is loud and abrasive; it might eventually grow on you but is simply not to my tastes.

There’s definitely plenty to love about Streets of Rage 3 but in the end it doesn’t manage to reach the same lofty height as its legendary predecessor. It’s easily the second best in the series but I would point anyone interested in the series to the second game first unless they have access to Bare Knuckle III, which is superior just by being balanced perfectly.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

TaleSpin (Genesis)

TaleSpin really can’t catch a break when it comes to video games it seems. The NES game was heavily flawed but had the kernel of a good game buried underneath shoddy execution. The Turbo Grafx game…..the less said the better. There was reason to hope the Sega Genesis game would turn out okay as Sega consistently did right by the Disney license but that simply isn’t the case here. Whereas the red carpet was rolled out for Donald and Mickey Mouse Baloo received no such treatment as this game is just as bad as the others.

At the very least the game’s plot wouldn’t seem out of place in a random episode of the TV series. The mayor of Cape Suzette is holding a flying contest with the winner receiving a lifetime contract with the city. Unfortunately Higher for Hire has a stiff challenge ahead of them as they must beat Shere Khan’s time in under 7 days to win.

I don’t know if Sega should be commended for creating a platformer rather than the obvious shooter that the show’s premise would suggest. There’s nothing wrong with going against the grain so to speak but only if the game has the proper execution, which in this case TaleSpin doesn’t. Aside from the terrible hit detection and repetitiveness lies a game that is too hard for the younger set and too frustrating for the average gamer to deal with.

The controls are pretty simple with Baloo using a paddle ball as his offensive weapon and Kit is equipped with a slingshot. Random unmarked crates can be picked up and later stacked to climb unreachable areas. The differences between Baloo and Kit are slight; the slingshot has a longer range however in the game’s few shooting stages Baloo pilots the Sea Duck. If you chose Kit the computer controls the plane while you are tethered by a cable and I’ll tell you right now that the AI is borderline retarded and will actively fly you into enemy ships.

The object of each level is to collect crates of cargo to open up the exit and move on to the next country. Each individual stage is pretty massive in size and is littered with cargo, more than enough that you don’t have to track down every single box before progressing. The cargo crates can be anywhere; behind walls, underwater, etc. so if you’re having trouble reaching a particular area chances are you can skip it and find an easier catch. Technically there is a time limit as you have 7 days overall to make it to the end of the game however the clock is so slow that I made it close to half way through the game before it ticked down to day 6.

Tale Spin (UE) [!]065

The list of flaws are pretty significant and weigh the game down almost from the start. The main one is the terrible, terrible hit detection. Most enemies can only be damaged during very specific frames of animation; the fodder enemies don’t pose much of a threat as they go down in a single hit. It’s the game’s bosses that are the most frustrating when it comes to this. Smacking Don Karnage’s henchmen in the face 10 times only for one hit to register is flat out bad game design. Having to wait until they attack in order to damage them when you should be trying to run away to avoid trading blows is not fun at all.

When you aren’t dreading each boss encounter you’re going to get sick of the overabundance of snakes and crabs at every turn. Seriously its overkill. Nearly every time you take a dip in even ankle deep water chances are a tiny crab will attach itself and drain your health. Granted there’s usually a burger nearby to restore your health but god damn, show some restraint.

As much as I like how wide open the levels are it does get repetitive after a while. Aside from dealing with the same snakes and crabs time and time again there are only three bosses that are recycled until the end of the game with their means of attack being the only difference. They even take place in the exact same room each time (well sometimes there’s a crack in the floor for no good reason). The shooting levels are all exactly the same with the only change being the number of enemies you face and their level of aggression. The controls are loose in these segments but somehow still workable but you would think they could at least get the shooting portion of the game right (as that was the main focus of the show).

Tale Spin (UE) [!]006 Tale Spin (UE) [!]073 Tale Spin (UE) [!]011 Tale Spin (UE) [!]029

Graphically TaleSpin is decent but could have been better. There’s a high level of detail in the game’s backgrounds but they are a bit generic. This is a shame as the show took place in the 30s and had an art deco influenced style. There’s none of that here and it could have been used to really distinguish the game from everything else on the shelf, let alone Sega’s other licensed titles. As it is the grainy color scheme places it below the Castle of Illusion series.

TaleSpin isn’t completely terrible but its flaws are frustrating enough that I imagine most won’t put up with it for long, leaving the game without an audience. TaleSpin deserved better than this.

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Pirates of Dark Water (Genesis)

Now here’s a cartoon that I had all but forgotten about.  The pirates of Dark Water was an intriguing opus in a unique world that was a bit darker than other children’s cartoons of the time.  Although my interest in the show waned I always assumed it completed its run however apparently it wasn’t popular and so was cancelled midway through its second season.  But not so unpopular that it wouldn’t eventually have a few games under its belt.  The Sega edition takes the form of a flawed action adventure that skirts the edge of greatness but is let down by a lack of polish.

The world of Mer is beset by the Dark Water, a substance of unknown origin that consumes everything it touches.  Legends say that if the thirteen jewels of Rule can be assembled the Dark Water can be vanquished and it falls upon the young prince Ren and his crew to find them before the pirate Bloth can use them for his nefarious ends.

Since the show was cancelled the 16-bit games are the closest fans will ever have for any sense of closure.  This is a story heavy adventure, a bit uncommon for the genre.  Pretty much every character from the series makes a cameo in one fashion or another and a great deal of information about the world itself is espoused.  Perhaps a bit too much as the story is told through giant reams of text; everyone has plenty to say and you’ll want to just get to the point.  It sounds nitpicky but it’s something you’ll have to see for yourself.

All three heroes can be chosen on each stage however the differences between characters aren’t as pronounced as you would expect.  Ioz can kill most enemies in one hit, Ren is the most balanced while Tula is the fastest but weakest.  All three have a double jump, melee attacks and various projectiles and there may be slight differences in jumping height and distance, not that I ever noticed.  If you feel a change is in order you can feed 10 watermelons to monkey bird companion Niddler to switch.

Each level usually has a set objective that needs completing be it collecting one of the jewels or other item needed to progress in your quest.  Each level is pretty large in size with many hidden items, traps, and foes to fight.  While huge areas with plenty of secrets to discover is nice the game’s structure does its best to dissuade you from wanting to explore.  In every stage there are NPCs who will block your progress until you perform some task or provide the items they seek, usually gold.  Fetch quests aren’t so bad by themselves however in every case you’ll have to go back through the levels and face all of the respawning enemies again just to make progress.  Gold in particular is a pain in the ass as there have been many occasions where I had to walk through walls to find hidden stashes just to make the cut.

Pirates of Dark Water, The (U) [!]075 Pirates of Dark Water, The (U) [!]002 Pirates of Dark Water, The (U) [!]090 Pirates of Dark Water, The (U) [!]125

It’s a pretty big world with many different regions that are all distinct and a treat for fans of the show but for every good idea put forth the game’s slip shod execution holds it back.  The hit detection is problematic as I’ve watched enemy’s ignore multiple sword swings in a row, a feat that is compounded by the fact that they attack in groups.  There’s a heavy emphasis on platforming with multiple routes to the end at times.  But once again there are elements that make this seemingly easy gaming staple a chore.  There is some dubious enemy placement and the most common occurrence will see you falling off a ledge due to being knocked back.  It’s possible to end up in a loop as the game will return you to the same platform if you fall too far.

All of these issues might lead you to believe that the game is unfairly hard but it’s actually the opposite.  Extra lives can be found pretty easily and seemingly every third enemy or so drops life restoring meat or hearts.  You can even hold a few in stock for a quick boost when necessary and in combination with the near game breaking invincibility potions you can breeze through the game.  In fact when you die you respawn right in the same spot!  With all these factors in mind sloppy play won’t come back to bite you in the ass.

While I have been a bit harsh on the game it’s not because I find it terrible.  When all of its parts are working as intended Dark Water is an engaging action adventure.  But every time one of its flaws crops up (which is frequently) it becomes apparent that the game needed a tuning pass to iron out the smaller details that make a truly excellent game.

The Pirates of Dark Water had the makings of a fine escapade but in the end has a few rough spots that are hard to ignore.  In spite of that however there is plenty to like as the graphics are pretty detailed and the quest is long.  If you can overlook its flaws you’ll be rewarded with a solid adventure.

7-out-of-10

Posted on

Gleylancer

On its face Gleylancer shouldn’t be so great.  It has many features in common with the vast majority of shooters such as its weapons and even the look of its stages.  But through its clever gameplay additions and actual plot it manages to become greater than the sum of its parts.  Released in 1992 it is one of the few shooters that didn’t see an American release until recently and is one of the best shmups for the console based solely on its gameplay.

Gleylancer unlike most shmups is a shooter with a plot.  In the year 2025 an unknown alien race declares war on the human race.  Ken, a high ranking officer in the Federation Navy is teleported to a far corner of the galaxy by an enemy weapon.  This prompts his daughter Lucia to hijack a prototype fighter to mount a rescue.

The story is told through frequent cut scenes reminiscent of Phantasy Star IV (although Gleylancer came first) and while it isn’t going to win any awards the added presentation is certainly welcome.  It has that late 80s anime aesthetic that I miss so much.  Of course the story is lost on those who can’t speak Japanese unless you play the fan translated rom, which will provide the context for your actions.  There are two possible endings depending on your actions, not that they are all that different but the effort is at least appreciated.

From a gameplay standpoint Gleylancer takes many of the standard weapons present in nearly all shooters and skews a little too closely to Thunder Force at first glance.  But what truly sets it apart is the amount of control you have over your gunners.  Much like options the gunners add to your firepower when you collect any of the special weapons and can attack independent of your target.  Plus you can lock them in place when necessary.

This control is further enhanced by the numerous formations you can choose from at the start.  The option to stick with standard gunners is there but the game becomes far more interesting when you begin to play around with the other six.  Some are the basics that you would expect such as the reverse formation.  Shadow essentially turns them into Gradius style options with the caveat that they can only fire forward.  Roll turns them into a rotating shield.  It gets more interesting with the Multi formations.  These restrict their movements within a 180 arc along the top and bottom of the ship but essentially creates three-way fire.

Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer (Japan) [En by MIJET v20061023]122

The most useful and game breaking is the search option.  Although the game tries to warn you that it isn’t very accurate in reality it is the most versatile and aggressive.  Not only do they actively target every enemy that appears on the screen they can also be set up to seek out their own individual targets.  It’s like a combination of almost every other option combined in one.  When combined with a strong weapon like the laser you won’t even see most enemies until the second half of the game.

The level design tends to run hot and cold.  When the game is at its best it will challenge you to make the most of your gunners, switching between focused fire and setting them at fixed angles for maximum impact.  But in its lazier moments you can sit in the middle of the screen and barely move if you have a particularly strong form.  Normally this would be disastrous but because the game is so long it evens out.  You learn to appreciate the game’s quieter moments and test out different positioning without fear of heavy consequences.

I found the game’s challenge to be at the perfect level.   The first few levels are simple enough and present enough situations that you’ll want to experiment with the different formations and their behavior for maximum effect.  The second half picks up considerably, with larger capital ships attacking in groups as well as more elaborate stage designs that will box you into a corner.  Once you’ve mastered the intricacies of controlling the gunners it becomes easier to escape the most dangerous situations unscathed.  Despite working off a checkpoint system weapon drops are frequent enough that you won’t be powerless for long and can get back up to speed in less than a minute, a far cry from most shooters where death means you might as well reset.

Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer (Japan) [En by MIJET v20061023]023 Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer (Japan) [En by MIJET v20061023]081 Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer (Japan) [En by MIJET v20061023]052 Advanced Busterhawk Gleylancer (Japan) [En by MIJET v20061023]132

Graphically because the game resembles Thunder Force so closely comparisons can’t help but be made and in this regard it comes up short.  Lightening Force was released the same year and looks almost a generation ahead of this despite the similarities in stage themes and such.  That isn’t to say Gleylancer doesn’t have its moments but the presentation is definitely uneven.  Some of the outdoor backdrops such as the fiery planet and the battle among the clouds are truly impressive, with layer upon layer of scrolling creating the illusion of depth in its backdrops.  But for every level such as this there are many that are flat, drab, and bring out the worst in the game’s low color palette.

The sound production also suffers from this same rough design.  The music is nice and catchy but the sound effects are weak and lack sufficient punch.  Plus there only seem to be four or five sound effects that are repeated too much.  There’s some sampled speech thrown in here and there with the announcer offering little bits of commentary on what’s coming ahead and giving quick advice to survive.

Gleylancer is a triumph of gameplay over graphics, with plenty of options to entice any shooter fan to play through it three or four times.  With eleven levels you won’t finish it in an hour and will get plenty of bang for your buck.  If the graphics and sound were of a higher standard this could have been the best all around shooter for the system.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

the Lion King

Once upon a time Virgin Interactive were one of the hottest development studios in the industry.  With the likes of Dave Perry, Tommy Tallarico, and Doug Tenapel on their roster they turned out some pretty awesome games, especially with the Disney license.  After Capcom and Sega Virgin would continue the quality streak set forth by those two titans using their Digicel process.  The Lion King was one of the biggest movies of 1994 and so the red carpet was rolled out for its video game debut, turning out one of the best platformers of the year, even if it’s a little too hard for its intended audience.

The game follows the plot of the movie, chronicling Simba’s journey from a young cub to an adult and future king.  There are no cut scenes but most of the film’s most important events are touched on in-game, though they wisely shied away from some of the film’s more “adult” themes.  The dichotomy between young Simba and his adult form’s abilities is used to great effect to provide gameplay variety as the game’s focus changes almost completely.  That variety extends to the rest of the game’s 10 levels forming a 10 level adventure that is rarely boring.

Young Simba is fairly weak and cannot face enemies head on.  As such most of his moves are used to set them up to take them out unhindered.  Since his claws are too small to inflict real damage he can only pounce on enemy heads.  His roar is also only strong enough to frighten smaller creatures like insects for a few seconds.  The roll is useful for bowling over tougher enemies like porcupines and beetles who have immune to your pounce when upright.  It also doubles as a nice speed boost in pinch.

For the first half of the game the events are more whimsical in tone as Simba stumbles from one level to the next in what almost feels like a slice of life tale rather than what will eventually become a story of revenge.  The levels are heavily focused on platforming with pinpoint accurate jumps more at home in a Mario game than a Disney adventure.  Many of the animals you’ll come across will actually help propel you from one location to the next such as monkeys, hippos, and even ostriches.

Lion King, The (U)041

But the good times don’t last forever.  There’s a gradual shift in tone that is handled excellently as you progress.  The bright tones of the Pridelands and Can’t Wait to Be King are a far cry from the Elephant Graveyard with its decaying skulls and wild hyenas lurking about, a clear sign of what’s to come.  The stampede is fairly menacing as Simba tries to avoid being squashed by rampaging wildebeests in a pretty thrilling second person chase sequence that is a nice change of pace.  The game gives you one last glance at happier times in Hakuna Matata before the dark times ahead.

As an adult Simba is a force to be reckoned with.  As the literal T-Rex of the jungle you can slap the shit out of anything in your path with your claws and your roar will terrify just about everything.  You can no longer roll but if timed correctly you can throw enemies around.  The pace of the game shifts accordingly with far more combat involved now that you are better equipped to handle it.  There’s less platforming now but in comparison these levels are more maze like in their construction.

Overall the game is excellent but there are minor issues that add up and bring the game down a notch.  The challenge is high; far greater than I expected leading me to wonder who the intended audience is.  The hit detection isn’t perfect which becomes frustrating in the late portions of the game where hyenas and other animals attack frequently.  The timing of your jumps leaves little margin for error as young Simba and I honestly question if younger gamers would have the dexterity to manage some of the more intense levels like Hakuna Matata.  That waterfall segment towards the end and the gorilla boss battle almost made me punch a wall and I’m an something of an expert.  The maze of Simba’s return is confusing, as it should be, but gives no hints as to whether you’re on the right track or not.  Even as early as the second level the game pulls no punches; there are a series of jumps off the back of an ostrich that (anyone who has played the game will know exactly what I’m referring to) are infuriating.

There are some gameplay differences between the SNES and Genesis game that slightly favor the Sega version.  As a whole its better balanced; certain enemies are less aggressive and the timing of your hits on enemies (especially bosses) is more forgiving.  It isn’t so pronounced that it makes that much of a difference however; the factors that make the game challenging still exist in both games.

Lion King, The (U)065 Lion King, The (U)072 Lion King, The (U)026 Lion King, The (U)109

The Lion King featured some of the best animation during the 16-bit era and used the same process employed in creating Sega’s Aladdin except taken even further.  Simba and his antagonists animate with a grace rarely seen to that point and the backgrounds recreate scenes from the movie exceptionally well.  The perspective used during the Stampede was also a first in that period; Mickey Mania was the only other game to use it to my recollection.  Not only is it still an amazing technical feat to watch but It also drove home the danger of the situation quite effectively.

Once again both versions of the game have their differences in presentation but it’s quite evident that the SNES version is superior.  The Genesis game is darker in tone which works beautifully later in the game.  However the early stages of the game have noticeably less colors and dithering in the backgrounds.  It does feature a few more layers of scrolling in its backdrops at times.  The SNES version is more colorful throughout with no dithering creating smooth, exquisite scenery.  The sprites are also slightly larger.  In terms of music there’s no comparison.  The SNES game recreates the movie’s soundtrack excellently and features more instruments and background vocals missing from its counterpart.

The Lion King stands as one of the better Disney games during the 16-bit age and had the potential to be the best if not for its off kilter balance.  For the younger set it may be too hard and older gamers will find it frustrating but persevere and you’ll be rewarded with a long and involving quest.

8-out-of-101

 

Posted on

Batman Returns (Genesis)

I freely admit to getting caught up in the hype leading to Batman Returns release in theaters.  For anyone that grew up reading comic books 1989’s Batman may as well have been the second coming of Christ.  It took certain liberties here and there but those were forgiven as we just wanted to see the Dark Knight on the big screen.  Batman Returns promised to be bigger and better and was certainly bigger.  But better?  That’s debatable.  The film has some glaring flaws which extends to this Sega Genesis tie in.  With a little more fine tuning the game could have been good but is far too cheap to be enjoyable for long.

The game follows the plot of the movie for the most part with the Penguin’s terrorizing Gotham after a failed bid at becoming its mayor with Catwoman inexplicably thrown into the mix.  The game picks up close to halfway into the movie’s events oddly enough with the short intro recapping all you need to know.  Or maybe it’s not so odd.  For a movie called Batman Returns he sure takes his sweet ass time showing up; it’s nearly 40 minutes into the film before you ever see the damn guy.

As a side-scroller Batman is armed with a few melee moves and I’ll tell you right now that the hand to hand combat sucks.  Luckily there are a variety of sub weapons in his utility belt that you can use instead for the most part.  Batarangs come in standard and heat seeking varieties, smoke bombs can stun enemies, and you can unleash a powerful flurry of bats.  Ammo for these is limited but refills are in ready supply almost as if they knew most would rely on them rather than standard fisticuffs.

Batman Returns (W) [!]027

At 5 Acts with multiple sub levels each this is a pretty long adventure that uses many of the film’s locations as set pieces.  Most levels are pretty wide open and allow you to choose your own route to the end while making ample use of the grappling hook.  It’s a nice idea in theory but in practice the level design is flat out confusing with little direction.  It isn’t always obvious which background elements you can swing from or even stand on.  Many of the game’s pitfalls and such are obscured by the numerous foreground objects leading to many a cheap death.

If those don’t get you then the many leaps of faith needed to find the proper path will.  There’s a heavy emphasis placed on using the grappling hook to navigate the levels and its one of the most finicky mechanics I’ve ever had to deal with.  You can never reliably get it to work in a pinch but thankfully it’s use is mostly relegated to finding power-ups.

Batman moves with the grace of an elephant which is problematic as nearly every generic enemy is an Olympic athlete by comparison, able to dart around the screen at a pace you can only dream of.  Trying to deal with most foes with punches and kicks is futile as your reach is too short.  The bat wielding clowns of Act 2 are a prime example of this; they will always nail you and run away unless you use some projectile.  The game is riddled with these kinds of cheap hits as clowns rain down from the sky or from off screen.  The motorcycle riding thugs at the beginning of Act 2 are the epitome of this; they move too fast for you to react and the few that you could possibly dodge will actually shoot you immediately.  With the scarcity of health packs chances are you’ll die at least once or twice on each level before clearing it which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; having to repeat certain tasks before completion is one of the most enjoyable aspects of gaming.  But when it’s due to unnecessarily fair elements like the ones present here that it crosses the line.

While the game’s flaws are frustrating when all of its constituent elements come together it does work.  There are some cool moments during the length of the game such as winding your way down a crumbling tenement building or some of the game’s boss battles.  Admittedly you’ll fight Catwoman and the Penguin a few too many times for my liking but at least these encounters are memorable.  Learning their patterns and taking them out without a scratch is actually pretty fun.  There are only a few that are outright terrible such as the battle against the Circus strongman so at least they are few in number.

Batman Returns (W) [!]098 Batman Returns (W) [!]085 Batman Returns (W) [!]031 Batman Returns (W) [!]082

Graphically there are elements that I like but the game does leave me with mixed feelings.  The game’s dark color palette captures the atmosphere of the movie pretty well and the sprites are decently animated.  There grainy look of the environments does get tiring as does the purple saturation of the entire game.  There’s a slap dash look to most of the stages with many random elements seemingly thrown together that makes navigation difficult.  At its best moments it is impressive, at its worst its confusing.

There’s a lot to like here buried under shoddy execution.  Had Sega spent more time play testing the game and ironing out its flaws this could have been an excellent title.  As is it reeks of a missed opportunity.

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Ristar

Releasing a new IP or sequel in a long running series towards the end of a console generation is equal parts risk and reward.  On the one hand you have potentially millions of gamers to sell to but also have to worry that said fans aren’t already awaiting a new console.  When it pays off the rewards are great; Grand Theft Auto V and the Last of Us have both done inhuman numbers.  But when it doesn’t great games are overlooked and forgotten by history and such was the case with Ristar.

Released at a point where Sega was already gearing up for the Saturn launch and simultaneously confusing the hell out of consumers with the 32X it received little marketing support and landed with the impact of a wet tissue.  Ristar’s creation is actually pretty interesting; his original design was created before Sonic but as the game’s design changed we wound up with the spiky haired protagonist still delighting children today.  No good idea goes unused however and with a retooling the concept of a character that attacks with his elongated arms was reborn.  Too bad no one played it.

Although he was the precursor to Sonic Ristar plays and controls nothing like him.  Your primary means of offense are your stretchable arms which can extend in eight directions.  Your arms can grab just about everything from enemies to every surface in the game.  Grabbing an enemy will pull them in to deliver a vicious head butt.  Seriously it sends the bastards flying all over the place.  The numerous poles that dot the landscape can be used to swing and build momentum to send Ristar rocketing in whatever direction you choose.

While they tried hard to distance the game from Sonic the Hedgehog there are still plenty of similarities despite Sonic Team’s best efforts.  Each planet follows the same general structure of the original Sonic, with two individual stages on a themed world followed by a boss level.  Unlike that game both levels are rarely ever just variations of each other but wholly separate.  The graphics are far better but still appear to share tile sets from those games.  It even has poles that whisk you away to bonus levels that allow you to gain extra items.  You aren’t collecting rings or any such trinkets and in fact have a life bar which does set it apart.

Ristar (UE) [!]007 Ristar (UE) [!]075 Ristar (UE) [!]114

Luckily the level design is Ristar’s distinguishing factor.  The greatest asset of Ristar is its gameplay variety.  Although you are equipped with a solid set of mechanics each planet is wholly unique and offers up a different set of challenges to contend with.  The first world is a nice introductory planet with plenty of trees and poles to swing on to acclimate you to the game’s controls.  The second planet is filled with water however Ristar is still able to attack while submerged which is convenient as these stages are more combat focused.  In fact you move faster underwater.  Possibly my favorite is the planet Sonata.  This music themed world tasks you with delivering metronomes to four songbirds in order to grant passage.  However the levels are constructed so that there isn’t a straight path and you’ll often have to interact with various parts of the environment to reach your goal.  The levels are massive in size, often with multiple routes to its exit.  To some degree they can be too large and lead you to getting lost but I feel that is a minor complaint.  It offers some incentive for replay value and I’d rather that than a boring single path for every stage

Even the boss battles exhibit the same degree of variety.  Nearly every boss goes through multiple phases with ever changing tactics that make these battles fun and engaging.  It’s definitely a far cry from the simple fare the genre is known for.  The fact that the game manages to keep up this level of variety for the length of the adventure is mind boggling but shouldn’t be surprising.  After all the designers had plenty of years of experience to draw from in this regard.

All in all while I don’t like making the comparison again it still rings true; the game is a bit easy like Sonic.  The strict life bar does mean you aren’t perennially invincible but life restoring stars can be found in chests everywhere and head butting random parts of the environment.  Only the bosses are immune to this kind of tuning as you’ll have no choice but to learn their patterns and execute to survive.  There are a few choking points obviously but nothing too severe; getting to the end of the game is a matter of course, not skill.

Ristar (UE) [!]111 Ristar (UE) [!]031 Ristar (UE) [!]005 Ristar (UE) [!]092

As a late 16-bit release Ristar has fantastic presentation worthy to reside up there with the best of the generation.  Through some voodoo magic the game exhibits a level of vivid color that defies the system’s limitations.  But even more impressive than that is the attention to little details.  Diving deeper underwater causes the screen to get darker as you get further away from the sun.  There’s an insane degree of parallax scrolling, up to 7 or 8 levels with some absolutely beautiful backdrops.  The game can’t help but occasionally show traces of its Sonic Team roots but those games have exceptional art direction which was also brought over here.  The music is pretty excellent with appropriately catchy tunes that only suffer from terrible sampled speech.

Ristar is one of the best platformers of its generation, one that that very few have played.  Fortunately it has been rereleased on numerous platforms and can be found dirt cheap.   If you are a fan of platformers you’d be a fool to pass it up.

9-out-of-10

Posted on

Twinkle Tale

Much like platformers starring cavemen (RIP Chuck Rock, Bonk, Bignose the Caveman, Dino Riki, etc.) shooters starring witches seemed to undergo their own renaissance in the 16-bit era and would last up until the PlayStation 2’s release.  Gamers in America were completely oblivious to this as 90% of these games never came over with the rare exception such as Magical Chase and Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams.  It’s too bad as many of these games were simply fantastic such as Twinkle Tale, a Genesis shooter that was oddly never picked up for release.  It’s an amazing game in an underserved genre and one that definitely would have stood out had someone released it here.

Though it bears a strong resemblance to Phelios and Elemental Master Twinkle Tale has more in common with Mercs as an overhead shooter.  Think of it as the Sega equivalent of Pocky & Rocky.  This is not an auto scrolling shooter however and in fact you move at your own pace although there is no backwards movement.  While the general gameplay is different the fantasy theme is the same as the aforementioned games, which was not typical of this genre.  It definitely helps the game stand out from the likes of Red Zone and Skeleton Krew (whew, that’s a lot of name dropping).

Saria is armed with 3 interchangeable spells that all have their uses throughout the game.  The Diamond Arrow is your wide beam; the Shooting Star is the most powerful but only fires straight forward, and the Silver Comet is the weakest but homes in on enemies.  Aside from the three spells are 2 bombs, a weaker homing projectile and a more powerful fire dragon that has gaps in its offense, ensuring that they aren’t too overpowered.  Even using a full stock of all three the bosses were still able to smile in my face (figuratively) and keep coming back for more.

Each spell can be leveled up three times and as an added bonus any potions collected while using a max level spell will go toward another one.  Maxing out your spells can be done within minutes of starting any level but keeping them that way is the challenge.  Any hits will knock them back a level which is terrifying in the most hectic moments.  It’s never a good idea to try and rely on just one particular spell as they all have their drawbacks.  In fact I would even say the game is near impossible if you try to play it that way.

Twinkle Tale (J) [T+Eng v070328 by MIJET]029

There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next as you explore a fantastical array of settings.  You’ll visit an icy temple, the inside of a living tree, ancient ruins and even the underworld, all while being accosted by magical beasts.  The level design is never straightforward and makes the game feel like an adventure title as you’ll explore the numerous rooms in a castle or stop to converse with the few locals.  Later in the game there are a few shooting segments that are a nice change of pace and are well executed.

Speaking of, the pacing is perfect; for every large group of enemies you’ll encounter there is usually a brief period of rest before the next set, allowing you time to pick up a few items if necessary to press on.  Nearly every level has branching paths that ultimately lead to the same end goal but do provide a nice degree of choice as you plod along.

Twinkle Tale can be tough at times but above all else it is fair.  Early on when you are limited by your three hit life bar any mistakes can be devastating.  There are frequent life restoring potions at every turn early on to balance this out.  But after the second level your hit points will increase by one after each stage up to an eventual max of 9.  It is at this point that the difficulty curve gradually increases and the game holds your hand less.  Still, one life and only three continues is a bit of a steep mountain to climb with extra credits through scoring being crucial.  The game is so fun thought that it actually works.

Twinkle Tale (J) [T+Eng v070328 by MIJET]122 Twinkle Tale (J) [T+Eng v070328 by MIJET]070 Twinkle Tale (J) [T+Eng v070328 by MIJET]111 Twinkle Tale (J) [T+Eng v070328 by MIJET]057

Although it was released in 1992 Twinkle Tale still compares favorably to many late era Genesis titles based purely on its strong art direction.  The entire world takes place on a floating island and the frequent outdoor areas give a beautiful glimpse at the world below.  The darker color palette places a heavy emphasis on lighting and shadows and produces some pretty striking areas, most notably exploring the insides of the World Tree of stage four.  It’s a fantasy thrill ride that looks progressively better with every level right up until the game’s final moments.  The massive bosses are insanely detailed and are a joy to watch in motion as they are to fight.  The music doesn’t reach the same heights unfortunately but I found it unobtrusive in the grand scheme; that’s about the only compliment I can give.

Unfortunately Twinkle Tale only had a small print run leaving it incredibly rare.  It was never ported to any other system or re-released digitally so chances are you’re going to pay out the nose for it.  There is a little bit of story and the game has received a fan translation which is sadly the only way to play it in English.  Despite its likely high price the game is truly fantastic and arguably the best overhead action game for the system.

9-out-of-10

Posted on

Undeadline

As varied as the Sega Genesis shooter library is the vertical shooter is strangely underrepresented.  There were a few stand out titles such as M.U.S.H.A, Zenon 2, and the infamous Zero Wing but nothing on the level of Lightening Force or Gaiares.  Oddly enough the vast majority of its vertical catalog never left Japan.  Undeadline is one such endeavor, a game that would have immediately stood out from its shmup contemporaries thanks to its undead theme.  It’s also one of the most difficult games for the platform.

Before the dawn of man the world was inhabited by gods and giants who vied for complete rule over the planet.  The giants created four living weapons too powerful to control that in the end wiped them out and were lost.  Now a new war is brewing between demons, led by Count Brahzen and humans under the rule of King Fahrenheit.  With rumors of Brahzen attempting to revive one of the weapons it falls to a fighter named Leon to awaken an equal power and stop him.

Undead_Line_(J)_[!]015 Undead_Line_(J)_[!]044 Undead_Line_(J)_[!]027 Undead_Line_(J)_[!]075

Originally created for the MSX2 and then remade for the X68000 PC before finally landing on the Megadrive something was lost and gained in each incarnation.  The cool intro of the original is missing from both ports but they also have an extra level as compensation.  The biggest blow to the Genesis version is the loss of the wizard and ninja, leaving only the fighter as the playable character.  Each class specialized in a specific category and also were better with certain weapons.  By raising your stats the effectiveness of those weapons increased; it was good strategy to use a particular character on a given level and the game suffers because of it.  At least the fighter is somewhat well rounded to make up for it.

There are a host of weapons and items in the game with treasure chests at every turn that allow you to cycle through each one.  Each weapon can be powered up to three times with some changing dramatically at their peak.  I’m not even going to bullshit, of the seven weapons the spread shot is the absolute best choice.  Once fully powered it covers a wide spread in front and even covers your backside.  The others have their situational uses such as the fire but come with far too many drawbacks to be effective.  The axe only increases in speed and power, the sickle’s arcing attack is too unpredictable and the bombs just plain suck.  In any other game having options is mandatory; here they default you back to the dagger.  Three extra drones throwing daggers is still a bunch of crummy daggers.

There are a few defensive measures at your disposal to mitigate damage and brother you’ll need em.  At any time you can put up your shield to block most projectiles in the game.  You’ll be amazed at some of the attacks your shield can deflect and on certain bosses (such as the cemeteries’ Grim Reaper) it is an absolute must.  You have a rotating shield that will protect you from most forms of damage, the only caveat being you can only use it three times.  Other optional items exist such as a force field and invincibility but these only last a short duration.  If you truly want to make any progress in the game you need to use everything at your disposal.

You have the option to complete the six initial stages in any order before the finale but it doesn’t matter where you start; you are going to die frequently.  I’ve played many a hard game and Undeadline ranks near the top.  New enemies pop in at a never ending pace from all corners from the opening moments right up to the end level boss.  It’s so bad that you’ll rarely have a chance to cycle through the weapons and items in each chest at your leisure before taking a hit.  The right weapon (spread shot) can alleviate this somewhat but the attacks are still relentless.  Until you’ve played each level a few times (and you will) and memorize enemy placement and where chests are located it will seem impossible but the chaos can be managed.  They just could have been more reasonable about it.  I mean Christ there are even items that take away health and default you back to the stupid dagger.

Part of what makes the difficulty so extreme were the changes made from the MSX original.  In that game you had a lengthy life bar and could take many hits.  Here you can only sustain three hits which is woefully inadequate.  You could also hold three items at any given time which would have been a god send.  That game was much slower paced so I can see how the developers might have wanted to create some tension but I feel they went a bit too far.  2 continues and no checkpoints during each level (meaning you start from the beginning every time) is a tough pill to swallow.

My feelings concerning Undeadline vary wildly.  During its best moments Undead Line is as enjoyable as Pocky & Rocky, a game that it shares a few gameplay similarities with.  But those are all too brief as the game seemingly tries to suck all the fun out of the proceedings in an effort to send you to the game over screen.  If you can stomach some of the most vicious shooting action from that era than there is a solid game underneath its flaws.

6-out-of-101

 

 

Posted on

Beyond Oasis

It was a well-known fact during the 16-bit era that if you were into RPGs the SNES was the system to own.  With the likes of Square and Enix dedicating their entire output to the console the SNES was graced with some of the most legendary RPGs, no, games period, of all time.  In their absence Sega were forced to supply Genesis owners with their own home grown efforts and I must say they did them proud.  The Phantasy Star and Shining Force series were true classics and in 1995 Yuzo Koshiro and Ancient studios would grace the system with Beyond Oasis.

Prince Ali of the kingdom of Oasis spends his free time treasure hunting rather than staying cooped up in a castle.  One such expedition yields the golden armlet, an artifact that belonged to a wizard who used it to protect the world from the owner of the silver armlet.  Now that both armlets have been awakened it is only a matter of time before the two will come in conflict again.

Calling Beyond Oasis an action RPG is a slight disservice.  While it has stats it completely eschews typical RPG conventions such as experience points and leveling up.  Your hit points increase by collecting hearts dropped by random enemies and food is used to restore your health and magic.  You don’t collect any kind of currency, negating the need for shops of any kind.  All of your equipment is found out in the field and dungeons.

This might be light on the RPG aspect but it’s heavy on the action.  Beyond Oasis has more in common with Streets of Rage as Ali is graced with a large arsenal of combat techniques executed fighting game style.  This is fitting as Ancient are also responsible for that series.  The various battle techniques keep the combat from becoming stale throughout the course of the adventure.  Ali is a nimble protagonist but some of his movements like jumping take some getting used to.  If you have a six button controller the controls become even more fluid since certain actions will now have their own dedicated button.

Beyond Oasis (4) [!]083

You’ll lean on certain techniques such as the dashing slash since Ali is equipped with a little dagger by default.  There are a large number of secondary weapons you can stash for later use but these degrade and disappear after a set number of uses.   Outside of a few hidden weapons the dagger is the only weapon you have that will never break.  It’s a bold move to force you to rely on an item with such short range but the expansive battle system is successful at shoring up its weaknesses.

The primary thrust of your various adventures around Oasis is to find the four elemental spirits used to defeat the Silver Armlet in the past.  The 4 spirits are probably BO’s most well-known gameplay element and each is equipped with a variety of spells to help you as you solve puzzles and fight enemies.  The four elementals, Dytto of water, Efreet of fire, Shade of Darkness, and Bow of Earth are summoned by blasting a part of the environment endemic to their element once collected.  So long as you’re magic doesn’t run out they will follow you and assist in attacking enemies.

That isn’t why you’ll keep them out however. Aside from using their powers in the typical ways you’d expect (extinguishing fire with water, lighting torches, etc.) they also have other benefits as well.  Dytto can heal you, Shade acts as an extra layer of armor as well as saving you from pits.  Efreet will aggressively attack any enemies that come to close to you while Bow…..actually sees the least amount of use since he can’t move far from where he has sprouted without teleporting first.  The gems collected throughout the game increase their power and reduce how fast they drain your magic meter, handy as later dungeons will require numerous spirit swaps for progression.

Beyond Oasis (4) [!]111 Beyond Oasis (4) [!]075 Beyond Oasis (4) [!]008 Beyond Oasis (4) [!]016

Beyond Oasis is an absolutely beautiful game, with a level of detail and art direction not many games from that era can match.  Despite the top down view the stunning animation still manages to stand out.  Every sprite is larger than in most similar games and the bosses are a true sight to behold.   There’s a level of vibrancy to the game’s graphics not common on the Genesis, with the game almost resembling an SNES title at times in terms of color.  If there is a downside to the presentation it would be the soundtrack; while it isn’t terrible it’s so ambient that you’ll barely remember any of it, a far cry from Yuzo Koshiro’s other works with this sound chip.

The stellar presentation comes at a price however in the game’s length.  Whether you’re a novice gamer or a video game wizard Beyond Oasis will last a scant 5-6 hours at most before the credits roll.  Since the game is light on story you’ll spend most of your time in dungeons and the puzzles aren’t so complex that you’ll need to consult a strategy guide to progress.  There are tons of hidden rooms that will lead to extra power-up jewels as well as infinite weapons for those willing to seek them out and extend the life of the game.  These challenges probably make more use of your Spirits than the main story dungeons so for those who want to maximize their use the extra content is worth it.

There are very few action RPGs available for the Genesis and Beyond Oasis is probably in the top 3.  Had the game been double the length this would have been an absolute classic but will have to settle for exceptional.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Final Zone

You have to give Wolfteam/Telenet credit, they certainly tried their hand at every genre during the 16-bit era.  While they weren’t all success stories (Earnest Evans, yikes!) most of their output was at least solid.  The Final Zone series certainly had a rough start, with an absolutely terrible first entry for Japanese PCs.  Its sequel for the Turbo CD turned out better but is also saddled with some of the worst voice acting committed to a disc.  Though titled simply Final Zone this is not the first in the series and in fact goes for a different tact gameplay wise, one that isn’t entirely successful.

Final Zone (JU) [!]055

Rather than a traditional top down shooter the view has shifted to an isometric perspective.  The NAP is incredibly for a game of this type and reduces your field of view but it isn’t as obtrusive as it seems.  Along with the shift in view comes a new gameplay focus.  Each mission tasks you with destroying a set number of targets within a confined area before moving on to the end level boss. Locating these targets is easier said than done however.  They spawn randomly and roam the environments.  Despite what might appear to be large zones to explore are actually smaller levels about four screens in length that loop around.  It’s similar in a way to Thunder Force 2 minus the borders.  It’s uneven as sometimes they’ll appear in groups and attack all once while other times you might have to wait minutes in between.  They aren’t the only opposition you’ll as there are smaller drones that will also chip away at your life bar.

Boss fights occur in closed off arenas, limiting your range of movement.  Whereas the rest of the game suffers from repetitious enemies most of these encounters are unique.  The first stage pits you against a military train in a fast paced scrolling segment.  Other levels see you face other NAPS suits that are even more mobile than your own.  There are a few disappointing encounters in the bunch with the Spider Web and final boss coming across as retreads.

While I can appreciate their attempt at making the game more unique compared to its staid predecessors the isometric angle brings with it a number of problems.  Like Landstalker and Arcus Odyssey before it the trying to turn and face the exact angle you want is a pain in the ass.  It worked for those games since they were slower paced action RPGs.  For a twitch action game however it’s heavily flawed and not as responsive as it should be.  If you happen to be moving while shooting you’ll strafe rather than turn around; you need to stop before turning, almost like a 2d representation of tank controls although not as bad.  The camera is also zoomed in pretty tightly and combined with your large suit makes the already confined levels seem even more claustrophobic.

The larger mech allows you to store a host a number of weapons, close to twenty in total.  It sounds like a lot but in reality the majority are simply variations of each other which is lame.  What is cool is that you can equip each as primary or as a secondary option which both have their benefits and drawbacks.  Primary fire is unlimited but weaker while options are more destructive but limited in ammo.  It might seem like a bit of overkill to have so many armaments at your disposal however as you take hits your weapons are destroyed until you are left essentially defenseless.

At seven levels this isn’t a long journey but it will take some time before you see the end.  Continues are limited depending on difficulty level, with five on easy, three for normal and a single one on hard.  With the myriad control issues you are guaranteed to suffer a few cheap deaths here and there and there are no lives.  They don’t even refill your life bar after a brutal boss battle either.  I’ll warn you now that the game’s conclusion is not satisfying at all.

Final Zone (JU) [!]002 Final Zone (JU) [!]050 Final Zone (JU) [!]022 Final Zone (JU) [!]046

The game’s presentation is a mixed bag.  The sprites are larger and sharper with far more detail befitting its grittier art style.  The animation is lacking however.  The frame rate is wildly inconsistent with enemies that seem to literally teleport around the map rather than move at a normal pace.  The jittery frame rate also affects your movement where sometimes you’ll move two times faster than you want with no enemies present, leading to cheap collisions.  The backgrounds pack a fair amount of detail considering their size and the game does have its moments.  The lack of animated cutscenes is to be expected going from CD to cartridge however the game completely does away with any story which is a shame as the prior games despite their faults could at least claim that much.  The music is pretty nice as once again Wolfteam standby Motoi Sakuraba scored the soundtrack.  I simply wish there were more unique pieces as a few tracks are recycled throughout.

While Final Zone is certainly a better game than the other games in the series that isn’t saying much.  For an early Genesis title it is decent but doesn’t hold a candle to the system’s finest.  Better action games were released shortly after this hit shelves rendering it obsolete.

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Lightening Force

No one will probably ever know why Sega of America renamed the last 16-bit installment of the Thunder Force series but make no mistake: Lightening Force is Thunder Force IV.  As the final game in the venerable series for Sega’s console LF set the bar high and is quite possibly the greatest shooter for the platform, no small feat considering the heavy competition.  But this is no ordinary game.  Lightening Force refines the series mechanics and pushes the system harder than most and breaks it but the game never suffers too heavily in the process.  All this and the game was released in 1992!

Honestly there wasn’t much that needed to change when it came to the series’ core mechanics.  You can adjust your speed in increments of 25% or slowly a percent at a time which actually comes in handy when you find a sweet spot.   You still begin the game with the standard and rear firing back shot so at the very least if you completely suck at the game you aren’t completely unarmed. Though fairly weak they can be upgraded to the blade and rail gun, two of the most useful armaments in the game.

The rest of the weapons are all new or slightly tweaked versions of prior favorites.  The Hunter is larger and more aggressive but sacrifices power for its search function.  The Snake is the equivalent of Gradius III’s photon torpedoes and crawls along the ceiling and floor.  The Three-way shot is my least favorite due to its implementation.  It fires in the last direction you’ve moved and aiming it in the heat of the moment is more trouble than its worth.  Once again you only lose the current weapon selected upon death which is more than fair.

The CRAW (God damn it I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be CLAW but whatever) returns as a rotating option/shield and also sees an upgrade.  At the game’s midpoint it becomes enhanced and allows you to use the Thunder Sword, a massive lightning attack that needs to be charged first.  Its powerful but has a few drawbacks; to charge you need to avoid firing and in a game this hectic it’s near suicide.  Once unleashed the force of the blast also sends you backward slightly which can cause cheap deaths.

Unlike Thunder Force 3 you don’t choose what order you’ll tackle each stage; instead you pick the order of the first four and play them out.  This is then followed up by another six levels making this one of the longest shooters of the time.  The standard ice, water, and desert levels are present but you’ve never seen them like this.  Even derivative levels like the Air Raid put similar fare in other games to shame.

Lightning_Force_(U)_[c][!]033 Lightning_Force_(U)_[c][!]129 Lightning_Force_(U)_[c][!]052

The levels are set up a bit differently this time and will take some getting used to.  Nearly every stage makes use of an elevated playing field that is two or three screens high.  It offers more room to maneuver and pick your own route through each level, a pretty cool side benefit.  With a field so large it’s easier to pick a lane and stick to it, avoiding particularly dangerous enemies in the process but you might also miss out on crucial power-ups.  You aren’t completely taking the high ground as the more aggressive and larger enemies will follow you to attack.  Overall it is fairly balanced in that you don’t have to worry about stray bullets hitting you from off screen.

The fast pace that the series is known for returns and the game seems to move at an even more blistering pace at times.  It’s very rare to have a moment to yourself as the enemies attack non-stop.  Even completing a level offers a few brief seconds as the game tallies your points before thrusting you back into battle.  It sounds pretty irritating however the game is fairly balanced in that extra lives can be found at regular intervals and a decent number of continues.

Which isn’t to say that the game is lacking in challenge.  Although you can select your difficulty (only the truly insane will ever complete this on Maniac) it still puts up a fight even on the easy setting.  The most significant challenge comes from the brutal bosses, massive bullet sponges that take a beating only to come back in damaged form to seek revenge.  It picks up in the game’s back half and the final two stages are so over the top I don’t blame anyone for using a cheat code just to see the ending.

Lightning_Force_(U)_[c][!]066 Lightning_Force_(U)_[c][!]019 Lightning_Force_(U)_[c][!]094 Lightning_Force_(U)_[c][!]082

There were many fantastic shooters released throughout the Genesis’ lifespan that pushed technical boundaries and they all pale in comparison to Lightening Force.  Simply put this is one of the most beautiful games ever released for the system from both an artistic and technical standpoint.  We’re talking parallax scrolling nearly ten layers deep as you visit a wide variety of alien worlds, all distinct from one to the next.  Some of the world’s you’ll visit will seem slightly familiar in concept to other games except the presentation here blows them out of the water.  The Air raid level in particular is mind boggling and wouldn’t look out of place in a Neo Geo game as massive space ships attack from both the foreground and background.  Even the mechanical boss designs increase in both size and complexity as the game progresses until you’re fighting screen filling monstrosities so large you barely have room to maneuver.

All of this technical splendor does come with a heavy cost however.  The game has an insane amount of slowdown and flicker uncharacteristic of a Sega title.  The mighty 68000 struggles to keep up with the onscreen chaos as the game chugs worse than SNES Super R-Type and Gradius III.  Normally this is only reserved for the bosses where it actually helps keep you alive.  In the early levels that are slow it isn’t much of a problem but after those initial four stages the pace picks up and sadly the game struggles to keep up.  If not for the slowdown Lightening Force would be perfect.

In 1992 Technosoft threw down the gauntlet and released a shooter so seminal other developers struggled to catch up even years later.  Even the mighty Gleylancer and Eliminate Down can’t match Lightening Force’s excellence.  It is the definitive Genesis shooter and one that every fan of the genre should track down.

9-out-of-10

Posted on

Alisia Dragoon

Years before Lunar and Grandia Game Arts collaborated with animation studio Gainax to create a pretty kick ass action game that went unnoticed by everyone.  I can’t possibly imagine why, I mean it went through the same Boris Vallejo filter that so many of Sega of America’s other obscure products went through, how could anyone resist?  Phantasy Star IV, seriously?  Who the hell thought changing Chaz from a 16-year old anime teen to a buff barbarian was a good idea?  All jokes aside Alisia Dragoon is an awesome action game with a pretty unique hook that deserved better than to sit in obscurity and is still a fun yet challenging adventure today.

Alisia’s father fought against the dark God Baldour when she was a child and managed to imprison him in a cocoon and send it into space.  However he was defenseless against Baldour’s followers, who torture him to death in front of her eyes.  Rather than kill her too they let her go; big mistake.  Once the cocoon returns many years later Alisia is now an adult and sets out to stop Baldour’s resurrection.

Alisia Dragoon (U) [!]061

Unlike pretty much every other action game you won’t accrue a massive list of weapons or magic during the course of your journey.  Alisia’s only weapon is a thunder bolt that will automatically home in on the nearest enemies.  Holding down attack will produce a steady stream of lightning that will auto target any villains in your path but this is regulated by a power meter that charges on its own.  At full power it produces a rolling blast that covers a 180 degree arc in a more powerful strike.  Depleting the meter fully leaves you defenseless for a few seconds but it recharges pretty fast.

Aside from the thunder you have four familiars that can be summoned to fight alongside you, each with their own life bar and form of attack.  The Boomerang lizard shoots….boomerangs.  The Dragon Frye spits fireballs, the Thunder Raven produces a stream of thunder that targets distant enemies, and the Ball of Fire burns enemies on contact and acts as a shield.  Managing your familiars is key as there are power-ups that will permanently increase their health and attack power.  Like TMNT you can switch them out when necessary and considering the odds against you it is well advised.  Allowing a pet to die leaves it unavailable until you collect a revival item which unfortunate resets them back to level 1.

The main conceit most will have to adapt to is that this is not a typical action game and should not be approached as such.  Due to the nature of your attack and the amount of enemies that attack you have to take things slower.  The power bar usually resets back to about 75% after each attack so it does not take long to reach the max and its worth waiting.  There’s no time limit to worry about which further reinforces this point.  There’s an even mix of weak fodder alongside the stronger heavies that take a little bit of a pounding before going down.

This is not an easy game and in fact I can see most gamers dying in the first few minutes until they adjust to its pace.  In the early stages it’s easy to keep a full charge and stay on the move but by the third stage all hell breaks loose and the attacks come nonstop, with enemies appearing out of thin air or attacking in groups of 7-8.  It’s at these points that you’ll possibly exhaust your magic meter and be left vulnerable.  Despite being able to increase your attack power up to eight levels the homing thunder does feel underpowered at times, which is where the pets come in.

Your choice of pet can have a significant impact on how difficult your travels will be.   Although you don’t have direct control over their actions they are generally smart enough to attack anything in their vicinity.  Using the right one as the situation dictates makes the difficulty bearable; as an example the Boomerang Lizard can destroy the turrets on the airship of stage 3 in a single hit whereas you’ll more than likely drain your meter trying to do the same.

Alisia Dragoon (U) [!]093 Alisia Dragoon (U) [!]028 Alisia Dragoon (U) [!]062 Alisia Dragoon (U) [!]101

Graphically Alisia Dragoon is solid but not spectacular.  The world is heavily influenced by Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind with its blend of high fantasy and advanced technology.  It might seem silly to have demons roaming around a high tech airship but somehow it all fits.  The animation and design of the enemies is superb; for an early 1992 title it holds up pretty well.  The bosses in particular are the game’s highlight and wouldn’t look out of place in a Treasure game.  The soundtrack is suitably excellent; Game Arts were not slouches when it came to making the Genesis’s sound hardware sing.

Alisia Dragoon is slightly more challenging than most gamers are accustomed to in the genre but rewards players with unique gameplay and a long quest.  Due to its low profile it can be hard to find but in my opinion is well worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Trouble Shooter

As oversaturated as the shooter genre would eventually become during the 16-bit era original ideas would still pop up from time to time.   Vik Tokai were one of the first NES supporters to dip their toes in the Sega waters in 1991 and produced a shooter that was definitely different from the rest of its contemporaries as their first project.  Trouble Shooter didn’t reinvent the wheel but used its interesting gameplay hook to become a solid shmup and certainly better than generic trash such as Arrow Flash and Whip Rush.

Trouble Shooter’s anime style theme is what initially drew me to the game.  Although it was released in 1991 I didn’t get around to it until the mid-90s; by that point I had become an anime fan and the similarities between this and series such as Dirty Pair and Gunsmith Cats sparked my interest.  With its typical 80s big hairstyles and wacky plot about a pair of hired guns trying to save a captured prince from a military dictator it could easily have become an OVA during the boom years of the anime industry.

Of course, no one in the US would actually know about any of this due to the god awful box art.  Holy shit, this is Mobile Light Force levels of missing the plot but at least in this case the protagonist’s outfits  somewhat resemble the game.  I would put the game’s lack of popularity partially on its cover but that’s not much of an excuse; Mega Man was far worse and that somehow became an international hit.

Prior to the start of each level you can select one of four special weapons that produce devastating results but has a brief recharging period after each use.  The Blizzard produces a large circular shield, the Lightning Storm rains down thunder from heaven, the Tidal Wave produces a large beam of light that scrolls horizontally and the Avalanche releases a series of missiles straight forward.  Honestly while they are powerful the standard cannon is more than enough once powered up and it’s not as if the special weapons guaranteed to clear the screen.

You take control of both Madison and her sidekick Crystal as they don jetpacks in horizontal shooting action along the lines of Forgotten Worlds but this is much more than copy of Capcom’s game with breasts in tow.  While you have direct control of Madison Crystal is always behind her and can be positioned so that she covers your back or will focus her fire along with yours.  It’s a unique idea and one that works extremely well.

Trouble Shooter (U) [!]008 Trouble Shooter (U) [!]040 Trouble Shooter (U) [!]071 Trouble Shooter (U) [!]017

The levels scroll both vertically and horizontally and so positioning plays a role in dealing with the chaos.  In most cases you can simply leave Crystal targeting your back side but there are definite points where the extra firepower is necessary.  Crystal is invincible so you won’t have to worry about taking cheap hits due to controlling dual heroes.  You can use this to your advantage somewhat but chances are if she’s getting hit you aren’t far behind.  Unlike most shooters the pair are both fairly large so dodging bullets can be harder than normal; thank god you have a life bar which can be extended considerably with points.

At six stages Trouble Shooter is shorter than the likes of Thunder Force but you’ll still get your money’s worth as each level is fairly long and just plain weird.  Most of the opposition is composed of mecha of varying sizes, especially the bosses.  The boss of the first stage is a Mazinger style robot who spends the first half of the fight laughing at you and soaking up your hits before taking you seriously.  Stage three takes a page out of R-Type as you fly around a massive battleship and take it apart piece by piece.  The game’s final level is its greatest as it ups the ante; after saving the Prince he fights alongside you.  That’s right, you control all three at the same time for some of the game’s best moments.

In spite of that bit of insanity Trouble Shooter can feel boring at times due to its leisurely pace.  Despite the premise of a battle hungry mercenary and her level headed side kick who attempts to keeps her out of trouble the game can be devoid of any real challenge due to its generous amount of power-ups at every turn.  It almost feels like the developers were aware that the size of the sprites made them large targets since life restoring hearts can be found everywhere.  Even with limited continues I posit that most will be able to complete the game in an hour.

But what an hour it is.  Regardless of the ease of completion Trouble Shooter is still an entertaining title that can be found cheaply.  It laid a solid foundation for it’s much improved sequel but unless you’re have large sums of disposable income you can’t afford it.

7-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Midnight Resistance

Looking back on the Genesis library there were shooters of all sorts from the overhead, vertical and horizontal kind.  One lacking omission is the side scrolling shooter a la Contra.  Contra would eventually grace the system in 1994 but there was very little else aside from the legendary Gunstar Heroes and Ranger-X in those early years.  Data East is certainly not the first name that I think of when it came to style action games but apparently Sega thought they were good enough when they released a port of their arcade hit Midnight Resistance.  It aimed to fill that void but was strictly average and merely reminded gamers of the title they really wanted.

Though it isn’t expressly stated Midnight Resistance is essentially a sequel to Heavy Barrel.  Except now the action has been flipped on its axis.  The Crimson King is the mad dictator who rules the world in the distant future with his Crimson Corps.  The only ones who oppose him are the resistance which you are a part of.  King Crimson has kidnapped your relatives and it’s up to you and a friend to rescue them.

Midnight Resistance wants to be Contra so bad it hurts and I don’t just mean the viewpoint and the similarities between their protagonists.  The weapon selection has been lifted wholesale with the machine gun, 3-Way gun, Fire, and Shotgun making an appearance (they get a pass on that last one).  They do get a point for including the super charger which boosts the power of your current weapon.  In addition there are optional smart bombs such as the nitro, shower and homing missiles, and an optional shield.

Despite these surface parallels there are differences that have an impact on gameplay.  Weapons have ammo and once depleted you default back to the machine gun.  You won’t find new armaments lying about but instead are “bought” in between levels using keys.  These keys are one of the few elements carried over from Heavy Barrel and like that game are dropped by red soldiers.  The selection available changes from level to level and once you choose a given weapon and leave you are stuck with it until the next stage. 

Aside from its weapon system the game’s controls are definitely a departure from the norm and at least in my opinion felt awkward all the way to the end.  The arcade unit used a rotary joystick to enable firing in 8 directions.  The console version has four control schemes that attempt to emulate this in different ways, some more successful than others.  The default setup allows you to lock your fire in one direction and keep moving and is the closest you’ll get to a Contra style setup.  The other three use the B button to rotate the gun clockwise and counterclockwise or alternate between the two; in a game of this type that relies on twitch reflexes these options are too slow to be effective.

If you manage to adapt there are still a few more quirks you’ll have to deal with.  Regardless of the setup chosen you’ll have to get used to toggling auto fire on and off; there is no option to fire manually.  Not everyone will be a fan of it and it causes further problems with wasting of resources.  You’ll waste plenty of ammo by forgetting to turn it off although admittedly you have so much that it’s not much of an issue.  To use a smart bomb you press up and fire but since you attack whenever you aim upward to hit flying enemies you’ll always use a grenade.  It’s really stupid and could and should have been redesigned.

The nine levels in the game are less full length stages and more like brief action set pieces leaving the game a pretty short affair.  Each stage lasts a scant few minutes with a few minor enemies before facing off against one or two bosses.  Technically this is a side-scroller but oddly most levels simply slide out background elements for you to face or move on.  There’s a sci-fi bent to the game that gets stronger the deeper you progress and by the late stages of the game it gets downright weird.  Granted this is supposed to be the future but fighting giant clocks, floating heads that spit out brains, and mannequins is not what I imagined after watching Total Recall.

Midnight Resistance (U) [!]050 Midnight Resistance (U) [!]039 Midnight Resistance (U) [!]002 Midnight Resistance (U) [!]016

Midnight Resistance was ported to a variety of formats with the Genesis version being the closest to the arcade outside of the missing coop.  Overall it retains about 80% of the arcade game’s detail but the reduced color palette causing the few omissions to stand out.  The cool multiscrolling backgrounds of the first level are missing as well as level two’s forest.  The music is actually pretty damn good which is surprising as the rest of the game is only slightly above average.

While MR is an excellent port it’s also irrelevant as the game wasn’t anything special in the arcade.  It filled a niche in the system’s library early on however higher quality titles would soon follow making a purchase suspect.

5-out-of-101

Posted on

Devilish: the Next Possession

I’ll be the first to admit that while I respect videogame history I have absolutely no interest in bothering to replay almost any pre NES era games.  There are very few exceptions to this of course such as Pitfall, Demon Attack, and most importantly Breakout.  I hold Breakout in the same esteem as Tetris and so any title that takes a stab at advancing that formula will get my attention, such as Arkanoid and the awesome Dreamcast import Cosmic Smash.  In the early 90s Devilish attempted to meld a story with the same classic gameplay of Atari’s hit and created a title that was interesting to say the least.  Nowadays indie developers have created a ton of variations on this popular formula but Devilish was one of the first and isn’t all too successful at what it attempts.

As far as the plot is concerned they really shouldn’t have bothered.  A prince and princess who are madly in love are turned into a set of paddles by a jealous demon named Y. By chance the two come across a ball that they can use in their new forms to defeat the demons that have taken over their kingdom.  I swear I did not make any of that up.

Nonsensical story aside it does serve to highlight the major difference in gameplay between most of the Breakout clones of the day.  Rather than a single paddle you use two at the same time.  The two paddles both move in unison however you can manipulate the top paddle in a number of different ways.  It can be arranged to create formations such as an L shape to better direct the ball when necessary.  It’s an important feature since the levels scroll both vertically and horizontally; if you solely rely on the ball’s momentum for progress you’ll never beat the clock.

image088

You can also freely move the top paddle around the screen while its lower cousin follows your movements.  There are numerous obstacles and traps that need to be destroyed and positioning the paddle right underneath these will help destroy them faster.  The ability to fly around the screen and guide the ball’s movements almost breaks the game in my opinion.  On the one hand it’s kind of necessary due to the game’s bad physics (more on that in a bit) and the layout of each level.  But dealing with the ball’s momentum and random movements is part of what makes Breakout and its ilk so fun.  By removing that you are left with a game that is far easier than it should be due to these gameplay additions.

Giving full control of the paddle probably seemed like a cool idea at the time and could have worked but I also think it was done to cover up the game’s terrible ball physics.  Each level is made up of multiple smaller sections that must be cleared to progress giving the game the feel of a scrolling platformer.  In truth if you were to view them all sequentially without any breaks you would see that in actuality each level is quite small for a number of reasons.  All objects on the playing field are large; so large that there is very little room for the ball to rebound around the screen.  There are so many blocks, monsters, and traps that are scattered around the screen that you can’t reliably tell where the hell the ball will actually go.  You can alter the ball’s speed with three settings but that does little to alleviate this.  There’s also some spotty collision detection which will lead to some cheap deaths which for a game of this type is the kiss of death.

It isn’t a complete wash however but it does mar the gameplay which sucks because the rest of the game is so good.  Each level is themed and has numerous obstacles to contend with such as rocks, demons and gates that need to be destroyed.  There are random blocks that will disable one of your paddles, forcing you to rely on the other for a brief time.  Traps have to be navigated properly lest you lose a life such as the massive rotating gears of the Clocktower or statues that will gobble you up and spit you back out randomly.  Later levels introduce tougher materials that can withstand more than one hit such as different metals and massive demons that serve as walls to be taken down.  At the end of each level lies a massive boss that while looking cool don’t offer up much in the way of resistance.

image021 image063 image053 image012

The game’s art direction is a far cry from the staid brick tiles and flat background of the game that inspired it.  The fantasy kingdom in which the game takes place serves as ample fodder for some creative settings.  Each stage is themed such as the Clocktower, Seaside and Waterfall and generally stick to it down to the types of enemies and obstacles you’ll face.  The soundtrack is also fantastic; Hitoshi Sakimoto is one of the most well regarded composers in the industry and makes the Genesis hardware sing with his music tracks.

There are some good ideas underneath a layer of shoddy execution and it’s up to you as to whether or not the game’s problems are deal breakers.  As much as I want to recommend Devilish I can’t do so without some reservations.

 

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Silpheed

Star Fox offered a tantalizing glimpse of the future of gaming back in 1993 with its polygonal graphics enabled by the Super FX chip.  In a rare bit of aggressive marketing from Nintendo they even mocked Sega’s then slogan of “welcome to the next level.”  All eyes turned to Sega to see what their reaction would be and if they would try to counter Star Fox with a game of their won.  Silpheed garnered a lot of attention based on early press from Japanese magazines such as Famitsu, leading to a number of unfair comparisons to Star Fox.  While it doesn’t ultimately live up to that game’s quality it was a pretty good shooter in its own right. Really it’s only failing was being unable to live up to the unrealistic expectations the US press had built up surrounding its arrival.

A space terrorist named Zakalite has hacked into the mother computer of Earth, commandeering all of the planet’s weaponry.  Earth’s only hope of salvation lies in the hands of a small fleet of SA-77 Silpheed ships that happened to be outside of the computer’s sphere of influence as they make their way back to defeat Zakalite once and for all.

To say there was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Silpheed is an understatement.  Many magazines of the day dedicated multi-page spreads to the game which was uncommon for Sega CD games at the time.  All of the hype stemmed from the game’s graphics which looked far beyond anything available for a home console, most importantly Star Fox.  No game could ever live up to the level of anticipation but at the end of the day Silpheed is one of the strongest shooters available for the Sega CD outside of its cool graphical tricks.

SILPHEED009 SILPHEED056 SILPHEED032 SILPHEED050

First the visuals.  While you might be fooled into thinking the Sega CD is shifting more polygons than some of the most advanced arcade units of the time it really isn’t.  The only 3d being rendered in real time are the occasional asteroids and the player and enemy ships. The backgrounds in the game are actually pre-rendered FMV footage with collision detection added giving off the illusion of interactivity.  Technically you could label it an FMV game but this is far from the typical tripe of the genre like Tomcat Alley or Sewer Shark.  The visuals have held up better than Star Fox as a result; since it isn’t rendering the visuals in real time the frame rate is higher and more stable.

This technique of mixing prerecorded footage with real time gameplay allows the game to show off some truly impressive sights.  Entire fleets of massive polygonal ships, planets and debris shift in and out of view without a hint of slowdown.  There are a ton of varying camera angles that frame the action giving way to some truly breathtaking sights.  Every level is unique and epic in scale; some levels feature battleships so large they wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Robotech.  The only lacking element of the visuals would be the actual enemies you’ll face.  The enemy ships are tiny and simple in design and the bosses are simply larger versions of these enemies.

At the start of every level you are presented with a choice of weapons for the left and right wing of your ship as well as four different optional bombs.  New weapons are unlocked based on your score allowing you to mix and match weaponry on both sides of the ship.  The spread shot mixed with the homing laser is an odd combination but depending on the level can be highly effective.  It sucks that you aren’t given any intel on what you might face so if you choose an ill-fitting set you’re basically screwed.

SILPHEED004

Silpheed uses an odd oblique viewpoint that very few games have experimented with.  Off the top of my head I can only think of the Rayforce series.  This means that the camera is tilted at an angle with enemies streaming in from the top down to your level.  It takes some getting used to and brings its share of issues.  Dodging enemy fire isn’t as straightforward as you would think since the beams might typically come from an angle you can’t accurately judge.  While the streaming backgrounds are nice it can be hard to separate the debris you’ll have to dodge from the harmless video running in the background.  I will say that Game Arts did a fairly good job of reducing the color of these objects so that they stand out but in the middle of the chaos you’ll only have a few split seconds to judge.

This is a fairly challenging game, one that might take a few days to complete.  The twelve levels are of decent length and you’re only given a few lives plus a few continues to make it to the end.  Combine that with the issues stemming from the viewpoint and you’ll end up with a lot of cheap deaths.  I don’t want to make it sound as though you don’t have a fighting chance; the shields are highly resilient and replenishing items come at regular intervals.  Once your shield is gone further hits will disable your weapons, your engine and then finally lead to death so at least on that front the game is trying to give you a second wind.

Aside from the visuals the game has an excellent score matching the epic tone of the conflict perfectly.  There’s a ton of radio chatter as you play through each stage lending to the feel of a battalion of ships making their way through these environments.  Outside of the intro and ending there are only a few other cutscenes however all of it is fully voiced and competently at that.

In my opinion Silpheed is too different a shooter to compare to Star Fox although if you were to ask me which of the two is better I’d go with that game.  That doesn’t detract from Silpheed’s status as a excellent shooter that can be found dirt cheap.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Eternal Champions

When Street Fighter 2 was successfully ported to the SNES in 1992 it was a phenomenon that is rarely seen in the industry.  This was the hottest arcade game of the time, possibly ever, now available for the newest console on the market and more or less arcade perfect to our untrained eyes.  Needless to say Genesis owners had no choice but to swallow that L and look on in envy.  Sega of America were at their most aggressive at this point and actively shored up any holes in the Genesis’ library and so Eternal Champions was born.  As a show of just how capable the platform was it was excellent but as a competitive fighting game it falls far short.

The Eternal Champion has looked into the future and seen that humanity has destroyed itself.  With his powers he discovers that the source is the death of nine individuals who in some way would have affected the course of history.  However he only has the power to revive one of them and so stages a tournament to decide who will get another chance at life.

I can see Sega’s reasoning behind the creation of Eternal Champions.  Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat were tearing up the charts but at the time Capcom were still exclusively in Nintendo’s corner and no one knew if Mortal Kombat would be ported.  As one of the first console exclusive fighting games EC is a mélange of features and ideas from other games all in one package.  And while the game’s premise is sound it loses out when it comes to gameplay.

The concept of a tournament of the world’s best fighters isn’t new but the motivation behind it in this case is pretty damn cool.  The cast of characters is pulled from numerous points in time and have fully fleshed out bios detailing their history, circumstances regarding their death and fighting style.  The greatest attribute of the game is that none of its nine fighters fit comfortably into the standard Street Fighter tropes and stand on their own.  It’s daunting to have to learn something new but (could have been) rewarding to master.  Each practices a particular martial art, which sounds cool on paper but is implausible in reality.  Trident uses Capoeira but it wasn’t invented until centuries after his lifetime.

If you don’t have a six button controller don’t even bother.  The Street Fighter setup of three punches and kicks is employed and no one in their right mind wants to switch between the two using start.  Each fighter has a large arsenal of special moves that are governed by an Inner Strength meter represented by a yin/yang symbol.  Using special moves takes a small portion of inner strength that slowly replenishes with time.  Taunting can deplete your opponent’s meter, leaving them without their bag of tricks and is an important tactic for survival.

Which leads into the game’s first stumbling block.  Eschewing the standard quarter circle motions for moves the system uses a combination of Guile style charges and multiple button presses to activate moves that is frankly painful to execute.  The finger gymnastics required to pull off most special moves in the heat of combat flat out doesn’t work.  Hitting A+C or all three kicks or punches pretty much requires you to hold the controller in a weird ass way that isn’t comfortable at all.

Eternal Champions (U) [!]040 Eternal Champions (U) [!]037 Eternal Champions (U) [!]026 2048634980_1c8f803ffa

It sucks because the array of special moves is actually pretty creative.  There are your standard fireballs and throws but these are joined by unique abilities such as Xavier’s power to swap bodies temporarily, R.A.X’s turbine which dodges projectiles and can switch positions (effective for corner traps), or even Shadow’s, uh, shadow mode.  There are moves that will buff or straight up debuff your opponents, reverse their controls or even restore health.  Training in the game’s extensive practice mode can at least help you get the hang of the timing and execution of moves but you’ll still have to deal with the ruthless computer AI.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Eternal Champions has some of the most vicious AI I’ve ever experienced in a fighting game.  The computer is highly defensive, knows exactly how and when to counter your every move and aggressively taunts to deplete your inner strength at every opportunity.  It’s also bullshit that the computer can still execute their special moves regardless of inner strength.  Winning a single round against your first opponent let alone the entire match is a god damn cause for celebration.  The penalty for losing a single match of the tournament is pretty steep; you are sent back to face your two previous opponents; considering how hard it is to win even one match I doubt anyone would have the willpower to go through it again.

As bad as the regular opponents are it still pales in comparison to the Eternal Champion.  If by some miracle you make it that far (or cheat like I did back in the day) you are treated to one of the cheapest final boss fights in any fighting game in history, right up there with Ivan Ooze in SNES Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and King of Fighter’s ’94 Rugal.   This cheap bastard has infinite inner strength, which means he can taunt you forever and deplete your own.  He has not one, not two, but FIVE different forms that need to be beaten in a single round to win.  Your health is slightly restored in between each but you only have one shot at this; losing means you have to start over.  Considering the ending is a lame bit of text explaining what your chosen fighter did with their new lease on life I can see why they made it so hard.

It’s a god damn shame the game has no semblance of balance since it means you will more than likely never see some of its cooler features.  Fatalities exist in the form of Over kills, which are environmental kills unique to each stage.  Performing an overkill is far too stringent however; you need to be in an exact spot while performing the final hit of the final round with a non-existent margin for error.  They certainly look cool but their execution saps all the fun out of it.  Part of the reason fatalities are so fun in Mortal Kombat is the relative ease they can be performed as long as you know the button combination, a lesson EC sadly didn’t learn.

Eternal Champions (U) [!]042 Eternal Champions (U) [!]019 Eternal Champions (U) [!]010 Eternal Champions (U) [!]046

The production values in Eternal Champions were pretty stellar for the time.  As one of the first 24-megabit cartridges the extra space was put to good use.  The sprites are larger than in most 16-bit fighting games and sport an extensive range of animations.  As a console exclusive the developers made excellent use of the Genesis’s limited color palette to highlight the most minor of details in the backgrounds.  The reflective glass on the dome of Trident’s stage, the fire illuminating the houses of Xavier’s village, even the erupting volcano of Slash’s prehistoric time, this was advanced stuff.  The sound wasn’t up to the standard however as the music is forgettable and the voices, yikes.  Sampled speech on the Genesis was almost always painful to hear.

There are some good ideas buried in Eternal Champions however the game’s difficulty means you’ll never get to see or experience them.  Some fun can be found in multiplayer but at that point you might as well play a better fighting game.  The sequel is what this should have been.

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Socket

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mario should be blushing red as a beet at this point.  The success of Super Mario Brothers inspired the video game industry to spawn a sea of blatant clones.  Amongst the mascot platformer rush of the 90s Sonic the Hedgehog became the most popular due to its focus on being everything Mario is not.  So it stands to reason that he would get some clones of his own.  Bubsy, Awesome Possum, Rolo, they were all just a precursor to platform gaming’s greatest achievement: a duck with an electrical plug in his ass.  Yes folks, they were truly scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one.  Socket is a 100% Sonic clone in every sense of the word and nothing else but doesn’t completely succeed at that and as such is a flawed game.

There is a little backstory given to provide context to your actions, not that it is necessary.  The Time Dominator is traveling to various points in time to steal artifacts and wreaking havoc with the space/time continuum using his newly constructed time machine.  The Time Warp Patrol , who apparently are guardians of time, send Socket, a robotic duck to stop him.

Not you too Vic Tokai.  One by one nearly every third party in the industry decided they needed a mascot and it was a sad sight to see once proud stalwarts such as Sunsoft and Tradewest succumb to the mascot menace.  This is how the likes of Aero the Acrobat, Plok, and Rocky Rodent were unleashed upon our unsuspecting minds.  While Vic Tokai were never one of the 8-bit elite I enjoyed many of their releases such as Golgo-13, the Krion Conquest, and Clash at Demonhead, a nice hidden gem.  To see them fall in line with an only slightly above average platformer of their kind of hurt man.

Socket is pretty fast and can build up to a decent speed when given a straight path.  Unlike Sonic the Hedgehog your lone means of offense is a kick attack and is the first instance where the developers didn’t study Sega’s gameplay choices.  You can’t roll into a ball or pounce on enemy heads, meaning if there’s an enemy in your path (which is most of the time) you’ll end up taking the hit full on.  It’s a pretty stupid design decision to allow you to run (or get propelled) so fast

As an android Socket is powered by electricity and each level begins with him plugging himself into an electrical socket and charging up for the adventure ahead.  Your energy meter serves as both your time limit and life bar as it constantly ticks down.  Collecting the lightning bolts strewn about will refill the meter but does not grant an extra life as they are not counted.  Taking hits from enemies will remove a chunk of energy although the bar is generously long.  Technically there is no clock but since there are only a finite amount of lightning bolts any exploration has to be curtailed with this in mind.  The levels are pretty large in scope and it’s very easy to lose track of time and die due to no lightning bolts in the area.

Socket (U) [!]054

Like the Original Sonic the Hedgehog each of the game’s seven acts are split up into three levels.  The first is a high speed area that serves as a transition to the next specific locale.  These levels are designed with minimal enemies present and (ideally) allow you to blaze through at top speed.  The second is the athletic area which focuses heavily on platforming in uniquely themed zones.  The final stage of each act is the labyrinth which changes the course design to a maze like series of areas that are hard to navigate and ends in a boss battle against the Time Dominator, who uses a different gimmick each time, the only exception being Act 6.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Thematically this could have been used to further differentiate the game from Sega’s classic however the developers opted to copy Sonic to the letter.  It’s like they compiled a list of elements present in Sonic installment and made it a point to include them somewhere in the game.  There are springs and bumpers that send you flying around the screen (literally sometimes), random drills and spikes poking out of the environment to slow you down, hell even the few power-ups in the game are gained by smashing orb like devices that might as well be TVs.  There’s even a mini game that tries to emulate the trippy bonus level of the original Sonic in terms of its psychedelic visuals but it instead interferes with navigation.

It’s as derivative as it gets but never quite reaches the same heights as the game it’s trying to emulate due to a lack of polish.  The game’s physics aren’t at the same level and it shows.  Building up speed to ascend an incline or loop requires more space than should be necessary; this is one area where curling up into a ball as Sonic increased your momentum at a natural pace and was pretty fun to see in motion.  Because the levels are so large it’s easy to become lost and waste precious time finding the correct path.  There are many dead ends and small platforms that are tough to land on and all the while your energy is winding down.  Once you reach the Time Dominator at the end of each act you have a finite window to beat him as there are no lightning bolts to collect.

It sounds challenging but the game is anything but.  The few enemies that populate each level don’t seem the slightest bit interested in your presence.  There are no bottomless pits to fall in but an abundance of spikes that are easy to avoid.  The Time Dominator is just as easy to fell as Dr. Robotnik since you can generally ignore whatever mechanic he’s wielding and zerg rush him.  Usually the only time you’ll die is when your energy runs out.

Socket (U) [!]048 Socket (U) [!]001 Socket (U) [!]082 Socket (U) [!]009

In terms of production values they’ve certainly nailed the look they were going for and the game definitely has its moments.  The backgrounds usually scroll four to five levels deep and the overall color palette is far more vivid than the average Genesis title.  There’s an insane amount of detail to all of the environments to the point where it is distracting and unfocused at times; they should have reigned it in at points.  The music is solid but the sound effects are ear gratingly bad.  When your energy is low you are treated to a pinging alarm that is worse than Zelda and only seems to get louder in intensity.  If the point was to make you seek out energy as soon as possible they succeeded but dear god my ears.

Socket is a game that aspired to be a Sonic the Hedgehog clone and nothing more but falls short of that lofty goal and suffers as a result.  Since it isn’t as good as the games that serve as its blueprint the question becomes why would you bother?  It isn’t an outright terrible game but could certainly have been better.

6-out-of-101

Posted on

Sagaia

Anyone remember the deluxe arcade setups from back in the day?  There were numerous cabinets such as Konami’s G.I. Joe and X-Men that used a series of multiple monitors linked together to create massively multiplayer games.  In an age before HD existed this was probably as close as it got.  Darius made extensive use of this to present a massive playing field, at first to cover up the average gameplay but its sequel introduced a few new features that would go on to become staples of the series.  For all of its improvements however Sagaia (i.e. Darius II) still feels like just another shooter on a console buckling under the weight of them.

Obviously the home version is unable to replicate the wide screen format of the arcade however the Genesis game does an admirable job of aping its graphics.  There is a noticeable loss of color and detail and the enemies have shrunk in size but otherwise it’s all here.  That said Darius II was not an exceptionally pretty game as the overall color palette was a bit dark with many of the backdrops sharing similar elements and design.   While the levels in the branching paths might have completely new surroundings the same enemies and mid-level bosses are recycled heavily throughout the game.

Sagaia’s biggest innovation came in the form of its world map.  After the initial level you are presented with a map of 26 levels lettered A-Z arranged in seven rows.  At each row you are presented with branching paths until you reach the end.  Depending on the path you take certain branches are unavailable and best of all each and every level is completely different and not a simple palette swap.  In total each run through the game will take you through seven levels.  There are multiple endings and different final bosses for huge replay value, something the genre has always lacked.

Sagaia (U) [c][!]017

From a weapons standpoint the game is disappointing.  The standard red, blue, and green shield crests that power up the standard shot, shield, and bombs make their return and are joined by two new additions.  The gold crest grants thin lasers that alter its firing course the more it is powered up and a rare rainbow crest that enhances everything.

And that’s it.  You are going to rely on the standard cannon for the most part as the lasers are more or less useless.  The angles the lasers cover are of little use in most cases and does not actually benefit you until it is closer to its highest level of power.  Increasing the size and power of the standard cannon is more pragmatic as it is the most reliable.  The lack of any other offensive weapons is a glaring flaw since the shooter genre almost lives and dies by its power-up system and what is available feels inadequate.

The pacing of the game is a bit uneven at times.  There are long pauses in the action where very few enemies spawn and at times it seems like all hell has broken loose.  It’s never as bad as something like Blaze On, where close to two minutes can pass without anything happening.  Part of this also depends on the route you’ve chosen as certain levels are far more chaotic than others.  I found the levels set in space to be more relaxed than some of the more technologically advanced planets.

Sagaia (U) [c][!]007 Sagaia (U) [c][!]039 Sagaia (U) [c][!]079 Sagaia (U) [c][!]012

Despite that the game’s challenge is medium.  Enemies spawn in groups and recognizable patterns; killing all of them grants score bonuses that will bring you a step closer to an extra life.  As I previously mentioned your choice of route will determine the level of opposition but even at its craziest the game is still manageable.  Like the Gradius series dying while fully powered-up is near soul crushing, especially considering how weak the standard shot is.  On the other hand power-ups appear on a regular basis and you respawn instantly rather than at a checkpoint.  The mid bosses and some of the larger ships you encounter seem almost indifferent to your presence and will actually fly off if you take too long destroying them.  This is in stark contrast to the end level bosses that are as vicious as they come.

This is a hard one to score.  On one hand I definitely have my grievances with the game but at the same time it’s still a solid game at its core.  There is a ton of replay value but the question is whether you will find the game interesting enough to want to see all of its content.

7-out-of-10

Posted on

Michael Jackson Moonwalker

Of all the major stars Sega signed licensing deals with in the early 90s to support the Genesis Michael Jackson was undoubtedly the biggest name possible.  This was MJ near his absolute peak in popularity; Bad was stilling enjoying success years after its release and Moonwalker had hit theaters and enjoyed success, although honestly I don’t know why.  Signing him to star in a game is one thing but how do you go about creating a game based around Michael Jackson?  Though it bears the name of the movie it’s not as if the film had an actual narrative that lent itself to awesome gameplay. Yet somehow Sega did it and while the game certainly isn’t a classic it is still enjoyable yet bizarre.

Mr. Big (who was played by Joe Pesci, ironic I guess) has kidnapped children and hidden them all around the city, leaving Michael Jackson to find them and try to catch him in the end.  Curiously all the children are girls who resemble Katie from the movie; I’m sure certain legal troubles had something to do with that but I digress.

If Michael were alive today and the game made now I’m sure it would be a generic rhythm game.  But Sega had no such luck and would have to go along a different tact.  Sega’s solution was to take the basic framework from the “movie” and a pinch of Shinobi to the proceedings.  Seriously this is Shinobi with a dancing Michael Jackson instead of a bad ass ninja.  It’s a bit shameless to copy your own work but hell why not?  This was the equivalent of a killer app and I’m sure they wanted to get something out on store shelves as soon as possible.

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (W) (REV01) [!]042

Decked out in his smooth criminal garb the thought of Michael Jackson flashing a gun is so silly that I can’t imagine it.  Rather than flashy weapons you’ll take on the bad guys using what MJ is best known for; his dance moves.  Your primary offense is a kick or punch that gives off a little fairy dust as long as your life bar is 80% full.  The dance button performs a number of functions; when tapped lightly you’ll spin which can take out enemies.  Hold it down longer and you’ll spin and throw your fedora like a boomerang.  Keep it held even further and you’ll perform an ensemble dance number with all on screen enemies joining in and dying at its climax.  Using these moves takes up life but all it takes is rescuing one child to nearly refill it.

While some of the children are in plain sight most are hidden in some pretty fucked locations.  The children can be almost anywhere, behind doors, windows, in the trunks of cars (!) and even behind gravestones.  The levels are relatively compact in the early going but start to become larger in scope as you progress making it harder and harder to find the children.  The empty doors of the initial stages give way to bombs and other such oddities that will take away health, this time like Revenge of Shinobi.

Comparisons to Shinobi aside you have to admit Moonwalker is a strange game when you step back and look at its constituent parts.  Dancing around and flinging fairy dust at gangsters, zombies (yes zombies) and spiders is as silly as it gets.  There’s only one power-up, a shooting star that will appear under set conditions and will transform you into mecha Michael Jackson, able to fly around and shoot lasers.  Granted it’s useless since you can’t save kids in that form and the enemies will respawn anyway but you can at least get a feel for the levels.  Once you’ve found all the kids Bubbles will sit on your shoulder and guide you to the exit of the level where you’ll face an onslaught of thugs before continuing onward.  And in the final level you turn into a spaceship at which point the game becomes a shooter. Yes, seriously.

As solid as the controls are the game cannot overcome its repetition.  The enemy AI is beyond dumb with soldiers who have you dead to rights instead simply staring.  Because the AI lacks intelligence each level is filled with tons of them and it becomes tiring to fight the same bad guys repeatedly and it only becomes worse by the midpoint.  Even the music, and I love Michael Jackson’s hits, repeats on an endless loop.

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (W) (REV01) [!]072 Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (W) (REV01) [!]052 Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (W) (REV01) [!]010 Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (W) (REV01) [!]064

Speaking of the music, it’s pretty fantastic.  Each level, which is split into three parts, features one song off the Bad album and the Genesis does a pretty good job replicating each song minus the lyrics.  It’s a pretty nice audio treat for fans of the movie and album.  The backgrounds might not be all that great but the animation is spectacular, replicating Michael’s dance moves to the letter.  Unlike Atari with ET Sega spare no expense when it came to the game’s production values.

Weirdness aside Moonwalker turned out better than it probably should have given the game’s source of inspiration.  It’s still not a title that I would recommend over the platform’s best but you could certainly do worse.

6-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Burning Force

I’m kind of amazed that there weren’t more games that followed in Space Harrier’s footsteps.  Was it a lack of technology?  Or a lack of imagination?  It seems kind of fitting that it would be Namco, Sega’s eternal arcade rival who would put their own unique spin on it.  Although Burning Force has its similarities with Sega’s classic there are enough differences that make it a distinctive experience, one that is at times even better than the game it takes its inspiration from.

Hiromi is a cadet trying to earn her license at the Earth University and it’s up to you to help her complete her final training over the course of six days to become a space fighter.  Yeah that sounds a little bit too close to Sega’s game.  It’s an interesting premise considering most games would have probably taken place after Hiromi became a space harri…fighter.  No that it makes much difference since you would still end up blasting everything in sight.

Although I’ve compared Burning Force to Space Harrier in truth the two games only share a viewpoint.  Hiromi’s training lasts six days with each broken down into 3 stages and a bonus round for points.  Movement is strictly ground based until the third level of each day where you are outfitted with a jet fighter and it truly shows its Space Harrier roots.  The last level of each day (with the exception of day six) is a bonus round filled with point based orbs that will test your flying skills and are your best shot at earning extra lives.

Restricting your movements to either left or right at first sounds limiting but the game’s design takes that into account.  It’s a lot harder to dodge enemy fire since you can only move left or right but at the same time you are given a few different options in that regard.  Outside of some deft bobbing and weaving most projectiles can be destroyed provided you can line up your shots correctly.  If that fails you can adjust your speed to move faster or slower although relying on that kind of split second decision making is ill advised.

Burning Force (U) [!]089

Offensively The Genesis version has seen a few upgrades over its arcade counterpart.  The laser, cross laser, and wide beam have all made it intact and are joined by two sets of missiles, homing and max.  Homing missiles are self-explanatory.  Max missiles land directly in front of you and expand outward in a circle, effective for taking out standard enemies but more or less useless against bosses.  Most background elements can be destroyed and will yield green orbs which can be activated for temporary invincibility once you have five.

Compared to the arcade game the Genesis port is slower which in my opinion makes the game more manageable.  Space Harrier 2 bordered on insanity at times due to its rapid pace which lead to many unavoidable deaths.  Not that the Burning Force is a slug in comparison but you can actually see most threats and react to them in comparison to that game.  It’s also easier thanks to the three hit life bar and reduced amount of enemies.  There are stretches with little to no activity which feels odd given how action packed the game is; whether it’s a technical reason or just to give players a reprieve I don’t know but it certainly stands out.

Once you take the controls of the jet fighter you are essentially playing Space Harrier with all that entails.  Moving about the screen can obscure bullets and the lack of a targeting reticle makes lining up shots with enemies harder.  These issues are more pronounced during boss fights as they are more apt to approach the “camera”.  These segments are a welcome change of pace however as the pace of the game is sped up considerably.

Burning Force (U) [!]069 Burning Force (U) [!]011 Burning Force (U) [!]031 Burning Force (U) [!]083

Presentation wise Burning Road has turned out much better than the Genesis ports of Space Harrier 2 or Galaxy Force 2.  The scrolling of the playing field is near exact but the scaling on enemies and other objects has taken a hit.  It’s at its most choppy during boss battles as they approach the player or zip into the backgrounds.  Speaking of backgrounds entire chunks of scenery are missing which sucks entirely.  The backdrops in the arcade were pretty exotic and added to the game’s atmosphere including the subtle shifts in the time of day which are missing entirely here.

Six days with multiple levels in each might sound like a long game but in actuality the game is pretty short.  The levels are only a minute or two long and outside of adjusting to the game’s viewpoint it’s a pretty moderate ride.  Considering you can find it for $5 or so I can definitely recommend Burning Force if you are in the market for something a little different in your shooters.

7-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Quackshot starring Donald Duck

We all remember Capcom pumping out a stream of hit Disney titles during the 8-bit era followed by Virgin who also did the license proud with the likes of the Lion King and Jungle Book.  But Sega seems to be forgotten constantly when reminiscing about those halcyon days when a licensed game could be good.  With the likes of the Castle of Illusion and of course Aladdin Sega continued the tradition of Disney excellence.  One game that seems to get lost in the shuffle is Quackshot, an entertaining platformer starring Donald Duck that is usually glossed over but is one of the best licensed titles of that era.

While Uncle Scrooge is busy napping Donald uses the time to peak through his collection of books and finds a map to a hidden treasure.  With dreams of being as rich as Scrooge Donald dons his best explorer gear (a throwback to the old Carl Banks strips) and sets out to find it but not before Pete and his goons overhear his plans.

Sega’s stable of Disney games were notable for being darker and more palatable to a teen audience in terms of play mechanics than most of Capcom’s kid friendly fare.  That’s not to say that Mickey and friends are going to bust a cap in your ass; their games were more willing to put up a challenge.  It’s a fact that is evident in Quackshot’s design.   Rather than the typical platformer of the time Quackshot shares a few traits with Metroid as it has you gallivanting around the world for items needed to overcome obstacles impeding your progress and solving light puzzles.  It was a breath of fresh air when it came to these titles and allowed the game to stand the test of time beautifully.

Quack_Shot_Starring_Donald_Duck_(REV_00)_(JUE)_[!]055

Donald’s primary means of offense is his plunger gun.  The plungers lack power and only stun enemies for a few seconds, something you’ll have to get used to in the early going.  Most of the upgrades you’ll receive from other characters such as Goofy and Gyro will improve its functionality so that you can use them to scale walls or attach them to birds to cross gaps.  Eventually you’ll gain ammo that can actually take out enemies in the form of the popcorn shot, which is basically a spread gun, and the explosive bubble gun.  They have secondary functions as well, such as the bubble gun’s ability to destroy certain blocks.  Ammo for these more powerful armaments is limited but is replenished frequently enough that it isn’t an issue.  The last power-up available is Donald’s legendary temper; feed him six chili peppers and he’ll fly into an invincible rage that is honestly useless despite its prominence on the HUD.  Chili peppers aren’t common so activating it happens infrequently and on top of that there are no situations where it is actually necessary as a result.

The controls are pretty solid overall but there are a few quirks you’ll have to come to grips with.  Donald doesn’t run, it’s more like a waddle that isn’t fast.  It can be tricky to line up your jumps considering you aren’t building up much momentum beforehand.  He also slides a little bit before coming to a complete stop.  The slide maneuver and the areas it’s used can lead to cheap hits as you’ll stand up sometimes when you meant to keep sliding.

Rather than progressing through each level in a linear fashion Donald has access to every country after gaining the true treasure map early on.  It’s a bit deceptive in that there’s usually some obstruction that will force you to backtrack to a different country to find an upgrade or item needed for progress so in a sense you’re kind of being led down a set path.  You can visit the 10 or so countries in whatever order you choose so you at least have some control over how you tackle the game.  It matters very little in the grand scheme however as Donald will set up a convenient checkpoint that will warp you to that spot once things are in order.  Over the course of the game you’ll accrue a decent sized inventory of items such as keys, mystic staves, and clues to the puzzles in the game.  All items have a specific purpose and will be used eventually somewhere in the game, lending to the big adventure feel.

Every country is divided into two halves, its overworld and dungeon.  The overworld is usually a short bunch of platforming sequences that will inevitably lead to someone informing you of the item needed to progress and its location.  Although brief the designers have done a good job of varying each locale; Duckburg is filled with tall buildings that require the red plungers to traverse as well as zip lines for fast travel.  Mexico is heavier on the floating platforms while the South Pole is trickier with its poor footing.

The actual dungeon portions of each country ramp up the difficulty slightly since you’ll be using nearly every item and move in your repertoire to complete them.  The level design can be maze like if you aren’t paying attention but nothing that will have you tearing your hair out.  There’s some light puzzle solving to be done and there are usually clues to their solution if you’ve been paying attention.  As a whole while Quakshot tries its best to challenge you it does fall on the easy side which isn’t a crime so long as you enjoy the ride.

Quack_Shot_Starring_Donald_Duck_(REV_00)_(JUE)_[!]008 Quack_Shot_Starring_Donald_Duck_(REV_00)_(JUE)_[!]047 Quack_Shot_Starring_Donald_Duck_(REV_00)_(JUE)_[!]026 Quack_Shot_Starring_Donald_Duck_(REV_00)_(JUE)_[!]061

It’s pretty obvious Quackshot was made using the same “engine” as Castle of Illusion and matches that game’s visuals easily.  The worldwide trip leads to more varied environments and there are some pretty incredible vistas at every turn.  Mexico and the Southpole in particular sport up to six or seven layers of parallax backgrounds all scrolling smoothly.  The sprites are quite large and animated, especially Donald.  While the overall color palette is a bit dark the game still manages to look vibrant in spite of that due to careful use of colors.  For a game released in 1991 it still pares up favorably against some of the console’s finest.

Those who are expecting a 16-bit version of Ducktales will probably leave disappointed but for the rest of us Quackshot is an excellent platformer that manages to combine elements of some of the most popular games to create one entertaining package.

8-out-of-101

 

Posted on

Mercs

I will say this, if you loved arcade games from the late 80s and early 90s the Genesis was your best friend.  Sega had yet to create its stable of popular properties and so relied on a consistent stream of strong arcade ports to carry the platform in its early years.  Some like Super Thunderblade and Galaxy Force 2 were lacking and better reserved for more powerful hardware.  But there plenty of other hits like Strider and Capcom’s Mercs that were excellent.  Mercs was not only an excellent conversion of an enjoyable title but went a step beyond to provide players with more content, creating one of the brightest stars of those early years.

I wasn’t a big fan of the Commando (the first game in the series) as it was too simple and repetitive for my tastes.  As influential as it was to the whole overhead run and gun genre it never clicked with me, although that might be due to playing the NES port before the arcade original.  By that point my perception had already been colored and no matter which version I tried (Commando is one of the most heavily ported games ever!) it would stay that way.  Luckily that no effect on my judgment of Mercs, allowing me to see it for what it was: an excellent action game in a style that was becoming less common.

Mercs (W) [!]009 Mercs (W) [!]027 Mercs (W) [!]037 Mercs (W) [!]051

The simplest way to describe Mercs would be the overhead levels of Super C on steroids.  While it’s tempting to compare it to Ikari Warriors that game has only a fraction of the constant action on display in Mercs.  This is a much faster game featuring nimble protagonists and enemies who aren’t afraid to hunt you down.  It goes hand in hand with the tight clock that will force you to move ever onward despite the harsh opposition; it is very easy to get caught up trying to destroy a few tanks and run out the clock.  There is a noticeable drop in terrain you can use as cover but you move so fast that it generally isn’t an issue.

Mercs packs in a large selection of weaponry unlike its boring predecessor.  The standard machine gun can be powered up to produce a wider shot making it a viable option even if you’ve died and lost your weapon.  It doesn’t make the spread shot redundant however; the spread gun’s radius is even wider, more rapid and my personal favorite.  The flamethrower comes in a close second as you’ll have to manually whip it around to hit your targets but it’s oh so satisfying to watch as they burn to a crisp.  The rocket launcher has the most power but I’ve found it too slow to be effective.

Despite the generous weapon selection and copious amounts of health power-ups you’ll uncover Mercs still manages to be slightly challenging through careful enemy placement.  It’s very easy to forget about the clock when dealing with multiple tanks using a hit and run strategy and lose a life.  Continues are limited and can dry up pretty quickly when dealing with the game’s bosses.  But in the end this is still an arcade title at heart, meaning it’s a fun but brief experience that you’ll clear in an hour or two.

While the game’s arcade mode is a bit on the short side at an hour or so if you’re a competent gamer Sega saw fit to add a second campaign to the game called Original mode, a title it certainly lives up to.  You’re essentially getting two games for the price of one as this is more than just a slight variation on the arcade game; it has all new levels, gameplay features and its own story.

Mercs (W) [!]096

Original mode differs from arcade in a number of ways.  There are no continues; every merc that joins you is basically an extra life.  You can switch characters at any time, much like the NES TMNT game.  It’s a feature you’ll want to take advantage of since you can build up their movement speed and attack power through power-ups.  Each comes with their own default weapon which sounds cool but is more or less just another way of divvying up the normal game’s weapons.  Medals found in crates function as currency to be used in shops where you can health, weapon upgrades, and information for each character.  Not all of the levels are completely new; some are remixed versions of the arcade’s but in general they are different enough that they feel new.  Because you are limited to just the four guys its harder but still remains fair.  As far as the content is concerned it’s an awesome bonus that extends the life of the game.

With all of the added content Mercs would be the ideal action game package except for its one glaring flaw, the absence of multiplayer.  In the arcade the cabinets supported up to three-player coop but sadly the lack of any form of multiplayer can’t be ignored.  These types of action games are literally built for cooperative gameplay; how the game was released without it unfortunately tarnishes it as a whole.  I’m not one for coop but even I have been able to enjoy a good romp with a buddy or two by my side and that omission really stands out.  With a 2-player coop it would have pushed this into excellent territory.

The absence of the arcade’s cooperative gameplay definitely hurts but overall Mercs was still one of the best Genesis titles at the time of its release and is still enjoyable today.

7-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Two Crude Dudes

I think we can all agree that Bad Dudes was an average game overall.  Despite the game’s cheesy premise the game play was strictly average at best.  But we were able to overlook that for some gold old fashioned beat em up fun, at least for about 30 minutes.  Take away the cornball story and you’re left with Two Crude Dudes, a loose follow up that does little to bring the game play up to acceptable standards.

There are no ninjas kidnapping the President here. Taking a page out of Mad Max and Fist of the North Star nuclear weapons along with chemical warfare has ravaged the New York City, leaving it a home for mutants and the remnants of society.   An organization called Big Valley has plans to take over the city, leaving the President no choice but to rely on two crude mercenaries to clean up the mess.

As Crude Buster in the arcade the game never really took off like its predecessor.  As a home console port Two Crude Dudes is pretty comparable to the arcade machine but faced stiffer competition in the form of Streets of Rage.  While it had its frustrating moments the relative depth to its combat made Streets of Rage an enjoyable ride from start to end, not to mention the graphics and ridiculous soundtrack.  Two Crude Dudes has none of this, and is a shallow brawler that will leave you bored after the first few levels.

Two Crude Dudes commits the biggest sin of the brawler genre in that it has an extremely limited move set.  You’re armed with basic punches, kicks, a jump kick (if you can call it that) and can roll.  That jump kick is pretty lame in action as you’re overly beefy dude barely lifts off the ground.  Although restricted to a 2d plane you can still climb platforms and buildings provided you can tolerate the pathetic jump height.

Two Crude Dudes (U) [!]019 Two Crude Dudes (U) [!]047 Two Crude Dudes (U) [!]058 Two Crude Dudes (U) [!]072

Perhaps the lone feature that stands out is the ability to pick up and throw nearly everything.  If you see it and it’s not bolted down chances are you can chuck it.  Sticks, boxes, poles, enemies, cars, even mobile transports are fair game.  Hell, if you’re playing coop you can throw each other!  It seems obvious that the designers realized this as the ground is littered with objects to bat around.  It takes a second to adjust to having a separate button for throwing but it comes in handy if you want to just kick the shit out of a punk without chucking your current item.

The game’s premise is silly and that is born out through the comic book style sound effects.  The protagonists as well don’t seem to take the situation seriously either, and will flex and wink at the drop of a dime.   But all the charm in the world can’t change the fact that the game is boring.  Most enemies are taken out with one or two hits and are so brain dead they’ll simple run straight into your fists.  The game is more than generous with continues and outside of the bosses there is no challenge to be found.

Two Crude Dudes (U) [!]025

Speaking of the bosses, in stark contrast to the generic mooks and mutants these bastards are a cantankerous bunch.  They have insane reach, especially the second and third boss.  One other facet I hate, after each hit they are temporarily invincible, either that or the collision detection sucks.  Regardless of the challenge posed I can guarantee that you’ll finish the game in an hour, no sweat.

I never thought highly of Bad Dudes and Two Crude Dudes does little to set it apart from that game quality wise.  There are better beat em ups on the Genesis to think about before bothering with this one.

6-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Thunder Force 3

What a difference a year makes.  Thunder Force 2 was a decent but flawed game with boring overhead levels that were merely tolerated to get to the more enjoyable side-scrolling stags.  As a port from the X68000 it was well done but as a game judged on its own merits kind of forgettable.  Even taking that into consideration it was still one of the better Genesis launch titles.  Thunder Force 3 is such a massive leap forward for the series that it would become the standard that shooters would be measured against on the console.  After a string of mediocre titles Arrow Flash and Whip Rush this was a god send.

The most profound change is the complete removal of the vertical stages that dragged the series second installment down.  They were a good idea in theory but in execution were tedious and dragged on far too long.  Most of the frustration these levels presented was due to the removal of the map present in the X68000 version.  It’s amazing how much the removal of such a simple feature can impact a game; TF2 would have been far more tolerable if it were present.

With Thunder Force 3 Technosoft has succeeded in creating a shmup franchise that is different enough and more importantly good enough to stand alongside Gradius and R-Type.  This would be the best Genesis shooter available until they would surpass themselves yet again with Lightening Force.

There are less weapons available than in prior installments however the ones that were kept are used far more situationally.  By default you’ll always have the twin shot and back shot with the Hunter, Wave, and Lancer serving as additional firepower.  The weapon system has been changed to be less punishing in the event of death.  Rather than losing all weapons collected upon death only the one currently selected is lost.  An additional change that will benefit players are the CLAWS.  They’ve been redesigned to function like options in Gradius and collecting just one will arm you with the maximum of two CLAWs rotating around your ship.

Thunder_Force_3_(JU)_[!]013

The initial five levels can be completed in any order and offer up a great deal of variety in environments.  Jungle, lava, ice, and underwater may sound like typical video game fare but you’ve more than likely never seen them like this.  The Sine wave effect of the lava planet is beautiful but distracting, allowing the sudden columns of fire to catch you unaware.  The bubbles underwater will subtly push you upward, an effect that is easy to disregard until it’s too late.  Like Super R-Type the game does a very good job of herding you around the screen into whatever hazards lie in wait, necessitating a much greater focus on the chaos around the screen.

You’ll notice that the levels will scroll both diagonally and vertically at times, a small change but one that also brings new challenges with it.  There’s a much heavier emphasis placed on stage hazards such as opening and closing gates, sudden shifts in terrain, and other moving parts.   You’ll spend just as much time fighting the environment as the enemies themselves at times requiring lightning reflexes.  Thunder Force 3 moves fast, and even on the slower planets such as Ellis the enemies can fly in at a moment’s notice.  I noticed that the levels are a little shorter than in other shooters but at eight levels this is also longer than most shooters on average.

The game’s length does little to shore up the fact that it falls a bit on the easy side.  Your weapons are too powerful in comparison to the enemies you’ll face.  Standard enemies pose very little challenge; most of your deaths will come from the sudden shifts in terrain that you’ll have very little time to react to.  It’s a cheap tactic that is used far too often for my liking, especially since you’ll need to be prescient to see them coming in most cases.  Even the bosses outside of two or three will fall within 10 seconds of sustained fire, a far cry from the bullet sponges typical of the genre.  The game awards extra lives at regular intervals plus they can be found by scouring every inch of each level.  Continues are limited to just five but chances are you will use only one or two before the credits roll.

Thunder_Force_3_(JU)_[!]024 Thunder_Force_3_(JU)_[!]073 Thunder_Force_3_(JU)_[!]043 Thunder_Force_3_(JU)_[!]054

Thunder Force 3 shocked everyone with its graphics and showed just how far the system could be pushed (and would be taken even further in the sequel).  The large multi jointed bosses are pretty impressive not just in size but also their design.  The judicious amounts of parallax scrolling in the backgrounds created a realistic illusion of depth, especially on the ice planet Ellis.  The warping fire background of Gorgon is an effect I don’t think anyone though the system capable of producing and left tongues hanging.  For all of the praise the graphics received the soundtrack is just as excellent; it was apparent Technosoft really came into their own working with the hardware with this release.

Despite its lacking challenge Thunder Force 3 is still pretty fun to run through every once in a while and still beats the pants off many later shooters for the console like Grindstormer.  For a long time every Genesis shooter was measured against this game until the baton was passed to its sequel.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Saint Sword

Growing up I loved fantasy movies like Willow and the Never Ending Story.  This fetish for the material fostered an interest in hack and slash action games like Legendary Axe and Astyanax.  So you can imagine my excitement when I heard of Saint Sword for the Genesis.  Rastan Saga II had already disappointed me (after really liking the Master system port of the first game that was a kick in the nuts) and I looked forward to washing away that game’s mediocrity with something with a little more….quality.  While Saint Sword fares better than that train wreck it also does little with the kernel of potential it shows with its many unique gameplay ideas. I mentioned Astyanax initially due to the similarities between the two games.  You can level up twice with points, at which point your attack power and speed increases.  The difference is notable immediately with a level 3 Macress decimating most enemies in one or two hits with his sword.  After every level you gain a new spell powered by magic points, which are in abundance.  These spells perform a variety of functions such as destroying all enemies, invincibility, restoring health, and even stopping time.  In addition to spells you can morph into 3 new forms: Centaur, Merman, and Birdman.

Saint Sword (U) [c][!]020

The objective of every level is the same: destroy all enemies until one of them drops the key needed to open the door to the boss at which point the game will guide you there.  Nearly every level is pretty expansive and chances are you’ll come across the exit first.  For the first few levels you won’t even have to search for the key; more than likely it will drop randomly while exploring.  The game sees a noticeable spike in difficulty at the halfway point around level 4.  At this point the key is held by a specific enemy and the levels are divided in two, meaning you’ll have to find two sets of keys before the finale.  The number of trap doors and random teleporters starts to increase, making the overly generous time limit that much more menacing. This is a sizable adventure unfortunately the world is completely boring to explore.  Every level pretty much recycles the same enemies and only swaps the color palette in a vain attempt to fool you into thinking they’re new.  Its laziness at its finest and to  make matters worse Taito took a page out of the Ghost & Goblins handbook and forces you to play through the game twice to reach the true final boss.  Force is probably the wrong word since you’ll probably turn the game off at that point. Saint Sword came loaded for bear with many items and abilities that should have kept gameplay fresh but somewhere along the way the developers forgot to provide compelling reasons to use any of it.  The default sword is so fast and powerful at level 3 that it trumps all of your magic spells and items.  It’s so fast and easy to hit that point even if you’ve died that all other items are essentially useless in comparison.  The different spells are convenient (especially the one that grants extra transformations) but wholly unnecessary due to the overwhelming power of the sword.  Honestly I forgot they were even there.  Stopping time might have been useful during boss battles if it actually worked on them; you are rarely attacked by more than 3 enemies so the Dragon Fang is overkill in that regard.  The Lightening sword and Dragon’s Meat (restores health) however do come in handy every once in a while.

Saint Sword (U) [c][!]007 Saint Sword (U) [c][!]016 Saint Sword (U) [c][!]023 Saint Sword (U) [c][!]042

You have access to three forms; Centaur, Merman, and Angel.  Each of course has different abilities to help in the adventure and have limited uses although the game is pretty generous in providing extras.  I’ll admit that its pretty fun to sprout wings and fly through a level or run through it as a Centaur but that’s about as much of a thrill as you’ll get out of each one.  The three transformation spells see very little use during the course of the game.  I can’t think of any given situation in which the Centaur form was useful; in fact the shorter attack range outweighed the boost in speed.  The back kick requires too much setup to be effective for what amounts to less damage than a normal attack.  The Merman form could potentially see the most use but most of your sojourns underwater will be so brief that it’s a waste of time outside of one boss battle.  Taking flight should be an exhilarating experience but it has all the majesty of wet fart due to the stiff animation.  The levels simply aren’t open enough to make using it worthwhile although I will admit you can cheese a few boss fights with it. If I had to sum up Saint Sword using one phrase it would be wasted potential.  The game provides so many options and ideas but ultimately goes nowhere with them, leaving a generic hack and slash platformer as a result. 5-out-of-101

Posted on

Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin

Years before Sonic the Hedgehog was a twinkle in Sega’s collective eye they had no mascot to market the Genesis with and no real notable franchises with name power like Nintendo to sell the system with.  And no, Alex Kidd does not count no matter how much you lied to yourself and believed his games were better than Super Mario Brothers.  Sega instead struck licensing deals with damn near anyone famous in pop culture.  Tommy Lasorda, Buster Douglas and Michael Jackson himself all lent their names to big Genesis titles for the time but it would be their Marvel deal that would prove the most interesting.  After his cameo appearance in Revenge of Shinobi it was only a matter of time before Spider-Man would star in his own title and it would prove to be one of the system’s brightest stars early on.

The Kingpin has planted a bomb somewhere in New York City with it set to explode in 24 hours.  In a genius move to deflect all attention away from himself he blames it on Spider-Man and the gullible citizens believe him.  To ensure Spider-Man doesn’t defuse the bomb the Kingpin has hired some of his greatest arch foes such Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, Sandman, Electro, Hobgoblin, and Venom to guard the keys needed to deactivate the bomb.

Spider-Man vs The Kingpin (W) [!]006 Spider-Man vs The Kingpin (W) [!]023 Spider-Man vs The Kingpin (W) [!]012 Spider-Man vs The Kingpin (W) [!]033

The developers have done an excellent job of incorporating all aspects of Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s character in the game to create a non-typical adventure.  You can crawl along nearly every surface in the game, from walls to the backgrounds themselves, a feature that the game leans on pretty heavily.  They’ve done a pretty good job of replicating the, uh, spidery poses and such artists like Todd McFarlane made popular in the comics although thankfully they don’t go that far.  Spider Sense is sadly under-utilized here as it will only alert you t to the presence of a boss.

Webbing is your primary means of offense and travel.  Standard web bolts will ensnare bad guys after a few hits but can also do the same for machinery.  It costs little to nothing when you spam it which is good as you’ll want to avoid melee combat as much as possible.  At the cost of a chunk of web fluid you can create a shield that will absorb a few hits although I never found it all that useful in the long run.  The web swinging is the most satisfying of any Spider-Man title from that era as they’ve nailed the physics and momentum.  Most levels feature a few wide open areas to swing in and some such as Central Park can be crossed in the span of a few seconds, web fluid permitting.

Anyone who has picked up a comic will know that web fluid is a finite resource and it’s here where you’re photography skills come into play.  You can photograph pretty much anything in the game from the regular thugs to the more esoteric enemies to which the game will assign a dollar value.  The more unique the photo (such as the bosses* hint, hint*) the more money you’ll gain which is tallied up at the end of every level and used to buy more web fluid.  If you’ve filled the bar any excess dough will carry over.

The 24 hour clock serves as the timer for the overall adventure and is always ticking down.  The game is short enough that its overly generous, with the only real drains on time coming from continuing, which costs an hour and returning to Parker’s apartment to regain health which makes the clock speed up.  There is a pretty fucked up surprise at the end of the game that will cause the clock to enter the final countdown early if you try to enter the keys in the bomb in the wrong order, causing an automatic game over.

I wouldn’t say that the game is tough overall but it does have its moments.  It’s a bit stingy with health power-ups, my guess to force you to decide if going back home is worth it.  It’s entirely possible to reach some of the later levels with little to no web fluid if you’ve been wasteful with your supplies.  If you dawdle too long in one area chances are you’ll have to face Venom along with whatever boss lies in wait.  Speaking of bosses, the boss rush at the end is brutal since you’ll be facing two at a time.  And if you survive long enough to reach the final showdown with the Kingpin I’ll just say anyone who has faced the final boss of Revenge of Shinobi will experience déjà vu.

Those are only minor quibbles in the grand scheme however.  This is a solid action title that was one of the Genesis’s earliest hits before its explosion in popularity in 199-92 and is still one of the better Spider-Man games today.

7-out-of-10

Posted on

Robo Aleste

In spite of the jokes constantly made about the Sega CD’s library and it’s over reliance on FMV titles (which was true) by 1995 it managed to accrue a respectable library of titles spanning numerous genres.  Admittedly a decent number of those were Genesis ports with terrible grainy cutscenes but there were some fantastic exclusives such as the Lunar series, Soulstar, and Snatcher.  One genre that surprisingly saw a number of quality releases was the shooter, with Robo Aleste, a semi sequel to M.U.S.H.A being one of the highlights.

In the year 1543 amidst a raging war between feudal lords in Japan a massive war ship full of humanoid mecha floats ashore, armed with steam based electrical technology the nation had never seen before.  Through reverse engineering newer creations are made and the face of the war changes.  Of the eight remaining warlords Oda Nobunaga has spread his influence the furthest, sowing jealousy and the creation of an anti Oda alliance.  As Kage you are the last surviving member of Oda Nobunaga’s White Fang army and outfitted with the most powerful robotic army assembled, the Aleste.  With his lord’s honor at stake and an entire continent full of enemies waiting in the wings Kage has a long road ahead of him.

Although it’s a sequel it does so in theme only.  The story of Robo Aleste is very elaborate for a shooter, going out of its way to explain the creation of the ninja mechs and other assorted mechanical monstrosities that inhabit this ancient Japan meets sci-fi world.  The plot is advanced by frequent cut scenes in between levels as all is not what it seems among the anti Oda constituents.  While they’re a nice reward for completing each level they are largely irrelevant; if you bought Robo Aleste you came for the shooting action, something it does with aplomb.  Robo Aleste is one of the better shmups for the Sega CD and even Genesis and while there isn’t much here that required the CD add-on it’s a welcome addition to its library.

ROBO ALESTE034 ROBO ALESTE104 ROBO ALESTE057 ROBO ALESTE118

The Aleste returns with most of the same firepower from the last game.  The standard throwing knives can be once again upgraded to a frightening degree by collecting power capsules dropped by enemies.  The Blue Lightning Flash and Orange Exploding Flower return and are joined by the Green Ninja Stars and the Yellow Shadow Formation.  Each weapon occupies a particular niche making all four useful for different situations in the game and can be upgraded three times.  The shuriken are fairly powerful and cover a rotating arc in front of you.  The lightning flash pierces through enemies and walls making it effective against enemies with shields or tricky placement.  The exploding flowers cover a wide range and cause splash damage when they explode but aren’t as effective at protecting you from direct hits.  Lastly the shadow formation turns your aggressive homing devices that will seek out and destroy anything in your path, replacing the dual pods from the first game.

Speaking of the pods their formations are notably absent this go around, something that has an effect on the gameplay overall.     Experimenting with their different positional configurations was fun, especially when combined with the appropriate weapon.  However it proved a little too strong and could lead to near invulnerability, not that M.U.S.H.A didn’t try its hardest to prove otherwise.  Now the onus shifts back on the weapons themselves and learning their quirks.  The lightning is lacking in power but is highly effective in destroying mechs long before you enter their line of fire.  The shadows have a minimum range before they’ll attack so at least you have some control over them.  With the frequent weapon drops it seems as though constantly switching depending on the situation is intended.

This is one of the longer shooters on the market, topping out at 10-12 levels long.  Each stage is of varying length with some lasting a scant few minutes and come across as more of an interlude.  Others drag on a bit too long such as level three’s assault on the train line.  Kage’s path to the mastermind behind the betrayal of Nobunaga is strategic as you fly over the sea to avoid the main forces, destroy their supply lines and infiltrate their fortresses.  Each boss encounter isn’t just a mindless battle against an overly armored assailant, their piloted by generals with whom Oda and by extension you previously worked with to maintain peace, including your jealous older brother.  The story isn’t deep but does provide context for your actions and elevates the game above a lone ship facing impossible odds.

ROBO ALESTE044 ROBO ALESTE170 ROBO ALESTE111 ROBO ALESTE083 ROBO ALESTE159 ROBO ALESTE133 ROBO ALESTE042 ROBO ALESTE033

The gameplay may have seen its fair share of changes that will be loved or hated but there is no question that M.U.S.H.A is the superior game visually.  Where MUSHA had an even mix of feudal Japanese architecture combined with sci-fi elements Robo Aleste slightly downplays that part.  Don’t get me wrong there are no shortage of gigantic mechanical bosses to face but the backdrops are mostly flat and lifeless, devoid of the beautiful parallax scrolling so prevalent in the first game.  Instead the game conveys the feeling of depth through scaling enemies, just not as effectively.  The game does have its highlights; infiltrating Mouri’s citadel at night will set off the alarms, resulting in a gorgeous display of transparent search lights amid the ensuing rush of enemies.  The cut scenes are sprite based like most Sega CD games rather than cel animation but still look impressive today and there are many scattered throughout the game.  The soundtrack features a thumping array of techno beats mixed with a folk sounding music that matches the tone of the game pretty well.  The voice acting however is pretty bad, typical of that era.

Robo Aleste is the best shooter available for the Sega CD regardless of the lack of heavy competition or not.  As a follow-up to M.U.S.H.A it falls short in a few areas but makes up for it with a longer quest and more involved story.  These days Robo Aleste is priced slightly higher than you would expect but regardless of how much you pay you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Snatcher

In Japan Visual Novels are the equivalent of our point and click adventure games, although they are released more frequently overseas than their US counterparts.  Focusing more on story than gathering items and solving puzzles visual novels are usually dense story wise and have branching paths such as Fate/Stay Night and Steins Gate.  As you can imagine the vast majority never make the trip overseas.  In 1994 Konami took a chance localizing one of Hideo Kojima’s finest productions and in the process created one of the best Sega CD games of all time.

SNATCHER002 SNATCHER003 SNATCHER005 SNATCHER010

June 6, 1996.  A biological weapon under development in Russia named Lucifer Alpha is accidentally released, killing 80% of Europe/Asia’s population and in turn half the world.  A decade later Lucifer Alpha mutates and becomes harmless but still leaves Chernotown inhospitable.  50 years later and a new menace threatens the population: cyborgs.  Dubbed Snatchers due to their penchant for kidnapping members of society and taking their place no one knows their origin or what their ultimate goal is.  As Gillian Seed, the newest member of the J.U.N.K.E.R task force it is up to you to solve the mystery and recover your lost memories.

From a gameplay standpoint toss aside all preconceived notions.  This is not a Lucas Arts adventure game; as a visual novel the game is more focused on telling its story.  All actions are performed using simple menu based commands.  There are both benefits and frustrations present in this system.  One of the worst aspects of PC adventure games (and everyone will agree) are the repetitious pixel hunts you were forced to engage in to find items.  It was very easy to miss crucial story items in most games of this ilk, forcing you to back track or in some cases completely start from the beginning.  Here Metal Gear will generally clue you in as to what action you should take and won’t let you leave an area until you’ve thoroughly explored it.  As a result it’s impossible to ever get stuck.  The downside is the menus are often 5-6 levels deep and there are far too many points in the game where you are forced to engage in the same repetitive action until the next plot point is triggered.  Overall it’s only a minor complaint since it frees you to enjoy the game’s plot.

 SNATCHER008 SNATCHER124 SNATCHER058 SNATCHER088

What will immediately grab you with Snatcher is the world itself.  Heavily inspired by Blade Runner and the Terminator the cyberpunk atmosphere is tangible right from the start.  The city of Neo Kobe features a dazzling array of neon architecture and futuristic vehicles straight out of a science fiction novel.  Kojima has never been one to hide his Hollywood influences and they are immediately obvious. In this case however there are enough unique elements in Snatcher that make it it’s own beast.  There are also a ton of Easter eggs all over the place that are shot outs to other Konami series; the bar Outer Heaven is host to a masquerade night where its patrons cosplay as familiar Konami heroes.  Your navigator Metal Gear Mk II is a miniature version of his namesake which is extremely cool.

Since Snatcher isn’t focused on puzzles its plot takes center stage and luckily it’s a strong one.  There are plenty of unanswered questions right from the start with the mystery surrounding the Snatchers being the most compelling; why do they only appear at night time and in the winter?  Why do they hate dogs?  And why do they only snatch particular individuals?  Once you find the answers it elevates these blatant Terminator clones into more than just a loose movie homage.  The game does a very good job of providing answers to these questions and more at a reasonable clip, keeping you engaged in the plot at all times. The game’s conclusion is around an hour long and answers every lingering question you might have, dropping so many bombshells that it’s worth viewing more than once.  It’s a satisfying end to an extraordinary tale.

SNATCHER034 SNATCHER104 SNATCHER126 SNATCHER059

This was a surprisingly adult game for its time, earning a mature rating which might have led to its low sales.  It’s a rating that’s well earned as the game pulls no punches; within the first ten minutes you’ll come across a decapitated body and must examine the remains.  There are a ton of instances of bloody violence and even some slight nudity.  The conversations respect the player’s intelligence and never devolve into the juvenile hijinks so prevalent in most games of the early 90s.

Not to say that it doesn’t have its funnier moments.  Gillian is a lecher even though he is technically still married (though separated) and many of the responses available will produce comedic results.  The interplay between Gillian and Metal Gear is at the heart of the story and their relationship grows naturally as the story progresses.  Metal Gear is initially hyper critical of Gillian’s lackadaisical lifestyle but comes to respect him as he spends time with the actual human being and not just the data he was programmed with.  Gillian’s playful attitude masks a man who is hurt by the separation from his wife and the distance their lack of memories has caused in their relationship.  The cast of characters in the game is kept pretty small with nearly all of the most important figures receiving some sort of growth.

Aiding in this growth is the excellent voice work.  There isn’t as much voiced dialogue as you would expect but Konami still did an ace job hiring professionals to bring the cast to life.  The best voice acting in the world would mean nothing if the actual text their reading is shit (Castlevania: Lords of Shadow I’m looking at you!) and once again the localization crew created one of the best scripts of that era, keeping the game’s mature edge.  The game’s oppressive atmosphere is also shepherded by its dark and foreboding soundtrack.  The music gives off a constant feeling of dread, as if a Snatcher could attack at any moment.  It’s a feeling that will bristle the back of your neck when it’s time to explore any abandoned environment.  If there is one weak element to the game it would be the first person shooter segments.  The occasional moment where you’ll have to manually eliminate a target is welcome but the forced waves of enemies are out of place in a game that revels in its atmosphere.  Luckily there are only 3 or 4 of them in total.

There’s no question that Snatcher is one of the all-around best Sega CD games ever.  Unfortunately it’ll cost an exorbitant amount to play it.  Snatcher was released on a large variety of platforms however this version is the only official English edition.  While I would never advise someone to pay hundreds of dollars for a game but if you do you’re are in for one hell of a ride.

9-out-of-10

[nggallery id=284]

 

Posted on

Thunder Force 2

Looking back of the six or seven launch titles available for the Sega Genesis in 1989 only one or two were worth a damn.  Altered Beast was the supposed star of the lineup as the pack-in title but even I, in my 9 year old stupidity could tell it wasn’t a very good game. Last Battle was strictly average and the less said about Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle the better.  They sure did try to push Alex Kidd as their mascot but planet Earth had long since decided a butt crack showing plumber owned the key to their hearts.  Thunder Force II was paid little attention but in my opinion was the best reason to own a Genesis during the launch window.  Despite some rough edges it’s still a quality shooter and would lead to bigger and better things in the coming years.

The ORN Empire has returned to attack the Galaxy Federation once again.  With their new battleship Plealos they manage to cause a great amount of destruction across numerous planets within the federation.  However the federation learns of the ship’s whereabouts in between attacks and sends in the latest version of the Fire Leo to destroy it.

In the spite of the series sterling reputation among shooter fans this series had a rough start.  The original Thunder Force was not a good game and was never ported to a console, remaining a Japanese PC exclusive to this day.  Its overhead view and free roaming environment were sparsely populated and the game felt archaic even back then.  Thunder Force II occupies a middle ground between the original’s gameplay and the modern shooters of the time and while flawed is still an intense ride to this day.

Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]002 Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]079 Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]044 Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]066

The game has two distinct halves.  The overhead stages are similar to the original, giving you free reign in an extended environment as you search for the four cores that need to be destroyed in each one.  Most of these levels are gated, with some form of barricade preventing you from wandering too far in one direction.  The pace is a bit odd in these stages since you are always in motion and can’t stop.

Enemies attack constantly while you look for each core and you can build up an impressive arsenal of weapons.  By default you’re equipped with a standard shot and a twin cannon that fires behind you.  It’s a good fit since the game has a tendency to attack you from behind.  The Wide shot, Five –way shot, Crash, Hunter and Destroy can be switched between at will but are lost upon death.  The side scrolling levels add a few more to the mix such as the Wave, Nova, and Megaflash.

These top down levels suffer from the same problems as a similar game for the NES, Burai Fighter.  There’s no map to check your position; while the first two stages are fairly compact they increase in size dramatically. It’s not fun at all to wander around aimlessly looking for your objectives while staring at the same repetitive background scenery.  Meanwhile the enemies are attacking relentlessly.   If you hate these levels unfortunately they occupy half of the game including the final stage.  Its apparent Technosoft weren’t entirely happy with them since they dropped them for the remainder of the series and never looked back.

The instruction manual states there are only five levels in the game which makes sense if you count each top down and side scrolling stage as one.  Thematically it works but in terms of gameplay they’re worlds apart.  The weapons collected in both aspects of the game are independent of each other so you don’t have to worry about starting off at a disadvantage if you’ve died before recollecting them once again.

The side scrolling levels are a different beast altogether.  Similar to the majority of shooters at the time the object is to finish off the boss of that particular world.  These levels boast a level of intensity most shooters released in the same period couldn’t possibly hope to match.  There are just as many enemies as before but now you’ll have to deal with the environment as well.  The latter portions of the game almost feel like a prototype bullet hell shooter.  The action can be so chaotic in fact that it’s possible to die and respawn without realizing what the hell just happened.

What I just described is also a symptom of the unfair balance within the game.  There’s a steady difficulty curve for the most part but it’s mostly artificial.  There’s nothing fun about having your ship crushed by a wall or blockade that springs up without warning.  Or destroyed by missiles that come barreling in from off screen.  The level design does a good job of boxing you in to the point where you won’t notice a section of the wall that needs to be destroyed and Oops!  You just died.  That last side scrolling level comes across as a last ditch attempt by the designers to screw you as every cheap game design tactic devised in the 80s is thrown in there somewhere.  The type of trial and error style gameplay exhibited would fly if the game had infinite continues but you’re limited to six which will disappear quickly.

Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]023 Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]039 Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]047 Thunder_Force_2_(U)_[!]064

As an early Genesis title Thunder Force II is average in terms of graphics.  The overhead levels wouldn’t look out of place in a Master system title to be honest and outside of the parallax scrolling and amount of enemies the side view stages don’t fare any better.  The biggest offender however would be the sound, the sampled speech to be exact.  I suppose the terrible voice samples should have clued us in as to what to expect from the system over the years but even so it’s bad.  If you can decipher what the hell the announcer says at the beginning of the game you deserve a god damn medal.

Thunder Force II occupies a weird middle ground between the first game’s gameplay and what was expected of a modern day shooter and suffers trying to please both audiences.  With a few simple tweaks this could have been truly exceptional but is instead merely adequate.

6-out-of-10-1

[nggallery id=277]

 

 

 

Posted on

Final Fight CD

After the disappointment of Final Fight’s SNES release it seemed as though gamers would have to stick to pumping an arcade unit with quarters if they wanted an unfettered experience.  The SNES version was a highly anticipated release and even in spite of its flaws most of us were able to overlook it because the alternative was to spend your allowance in the arcade.   That persisted until Sega released one of the best home ports of the time for the Sega CD.

Mayor Mike Haggar has barely been in office and already has to deal with a catastrophe. The Mad Gear gang who has plagued Metro City wants to do as they please with no retaliation, an arrangement the previous mayor agreed to.  Haggar won’t budge however the Mad Gear have kidnapped his daughter Jessica as a bargaining chip.  Now along with her boyfriend Cody and his best friend Guy Haggar plans to rescue Jessica and clean up the streets.

Capcom failed with the first version released close to the SNES launch but had an opportunity to fix their mistakes with Final Fight Guy.  Instead they simply replaced Cody and only released the game as a Blockbuster exclusive.  This Sega produced edition was the best port available, restoring all of the missing content and offering a few exclusives of its own.

Right off the bat you can select any of the three protagonists and have the option of 2-player coop.  That right there is cause for celebration.  Honestly I can’t fathom how Capcom thought it was alright to release the game without a 2-player option; half the fun of the arcade game was tackling the mean streets of Metro City with a buddy.  Now that all 3 characters are available in one game gamers of all stripes could pick their preferred play style; the slow but powerful blows of Haggar, the fast but light attack of Guy, or the middle man Cody.

Final Fight set the mold by which nearly every beat em up that followed would be judged.  Having said that the game is a bit simpler than most gamers remember; after all it was released in 1989 originally.  The limited move sets of each character are just interesting enough to keep you entertained all the way through to the end of the game.  Keen eyed gamers will notice that both Cody and Guy’s attack speed has been reduced.   The near infinite stream of punches they could produce prevented an enemy from breaking your combo and was extremely effective.   This change breaks that but doesn’t ruin the game in the process thankfully.

FINAL FIGHT CD019 FINAL FIGHT CD063 FINAL FIGHT CD055 FINAL FIGHT CD093

Gameplay wise everything is near identical the arcade.  Poison and Roxy have been restored although their daisy dukes have been changed to hot pants.  Most importantly the Industrial level cut from the SNES version has been restored.  This fiery factory will more than likely sap most of your lives as you fight thugs among the moving trails of fire, all in preparation for your battle with Rolento at the end.  A new time attack mode has been added which challenges you to defeat enemies within a strict time limit.  If you really love Final Fight that much I suppose it’s a worthwhile addition but aside from the new background art is only a distraction.  More content is always a plus in my book and the inclusion of this level does make the game feel like a more complete package.

Final Fight was hard even in the arcade and that carries over to the home ports.  The arcade machine was notoriously skimpy when it came to lives; you only had two per quarter.  This version at least allows you to tweak a few parameters such as starting lives and how frequently you’ll receive extra lives based on score.  Even with these options working in your favor chances are it will take a few hours to see the end.  There were numerous points in the game that were clearly designed to rob you of your hard earned quarters in the arcade such as the sudden battle against four (4!) Andores.  These have been toned down somewhat but points like these make the two continues disappear real fast.  The pacing toward the end of the game is frankly terrible; the bay area and uptown drag on far too long.  The limited battle system shows its weakness as you fight a seemingly endless parade of the same enemies for almost 15-20 minutes per level.  I suppose Sega should be commended for recreating the arcade experience but I’ll be damned if I didn’t wish they would have condensed it somewhat.

FINAL FIGHT CD053 FINAL FIGHT CD094 FINAL FIGHT CD013 FINAL FIGHT CD084

In terms of recreating the arcade game’s graphics Sega has done an admirable job.  The sprites and backgrounds look true to their coin op counterparts.  The color palette is darker which is unavoidable considering the Genesis and by extension Sega CD’s limits.  One area that has seen an upgrade is the sound.  The arranged soundtrack is fantastic and as an added bonus the intro and ending are fully voiced.

Until the recent Final Fight Double Impact for XBLA and PSN and the X68000 version this was the best home port of Final Fight available.  With its added features it’s also one of the best Sega CD games around and still worth playing today.

8-out-of-101

[nggallery id=275]

Posted on

World Heroes

At some point SNK fell completely head over heels with fighting games.  Seriously, if fighting games were your favorite genre you needed a Neo Geo, as much as 50-60% of its library is comprised of just that.  Had the Neo Geo been reasonably priced (you think the PS3 was bad?   Try $600 dollars back in 1989 when the majority of the gaming audience was still barely teenagers) I don’t doubt for a second that it would have made a bigger splash in the market simply based on how insane the fighting game craze became in the 90s.  With so many of these games being cranked out of their factory SNK had to be pretty creative in making each one stand out and one of their better attempts came in the form of World Heroes.

While World Heroes borrows a lot from Street Fighter it at least has an original premise.  A scientist named Doc Brown has created a time machine and organizes a tournament of the 8 greatest fighters in history to see who was the strongest of all time.  How’s that for a plot?  Yeah I know, there are plenty more interesting things you can do with a time machine but as far as fighting games are concerned World Heroes at least tried to be different.

Most of the 8 fighters are based on or associated real world and fictional characters.  Hanzo and Fuma are based on real ninjas who were at odds with one another and play a similar role in the game.  Rasputin is based on Grigori Rasputin, an alleged mystic from the 19th century; it is this aspect of the character that is drawn upon for his video game counterpart.  Janne is inspired by Joan of Arc.  Muscle Power…….is Hulk Hogan.  Any of you kids not familiar with Hulk Hogan and his real American phase go look it up on YouTube.  Kim Dragon is the stereotypical Bruce Lee clone nearly every fighting game has to includ as a prerequisite.

World Heroes (U) [!]008

While the characters were actually interesting individuals based on their historical back stories gameplay wise each is virtual carbon copy of someone on the Street Fighter roster.  Dragon is quick on his feet and has similar moves to Fei Long, although he was created first.  Muscle Power has similar special moves to Zangief and Hanzo and Fuma fulfill the Ryu/Ken roles to a tee.  Brocken is a mix of Blanka, M.Bison, and Dhalsim.  The few who don’t follow a well-worn mold such as Janne and Rasputin present a bit of a challenge to utilize efficiently since their move priorities are different.

World Heroes control scheme was simplified in many ways.  There is only one punch and kick button, with a third for throws.  The buttons were pressure sensitive to give you control over when you launch a weak or strong attack.  Personally I found it stupid as the Neo Geo arcade units had 4 buttons, leaving one button useless.  Many special moves are simple back, forward + A or B combinations, taking advantage of the simple controls.  For the most part though if you’ve played Street Fighter or any similar game you can jump right in with the skills you’ve honed.

Although World Heroes is derivative it does have one unique feature: Death Match.  Choosing Death Match will replace the typical fighting arenas in each country with a wrestling ring filled with different hazards you have to avoid while facing your opponent.  As a bonus you can force your enemy into these same hazards for extra damage.   These take many forms, from simple oil puddles that cause you to slide, to spiked walls or electrified ropes.  It was an interesting addition and one that made 2-player versus matches even more fun.

World Heroes000 World Heroes016 World Heroes010 World Heroes004

The SNES version is simply put terrible.  While it mimics the looks of the MVS unit pretty well it’s missing some of the voice samples as well as some background detail.  It wasn’t exactly a stunner compared to Art of Fighting or Fatal Fury 2 but World Heroes was easy on the eyes and ears, and sadly the SNES port loses some of that.  But the biggest flaw is the game’s lethargic pace.  The entire game seems as though it’s moving through molasses and it throws off the “feel” of the game.  I also found the special move prompts to have spotty recognition; for a genre that lives or dies by its responsiveness this is the kiss of death.

World Heroes (U) [!]009 World Heroes (U) [!]015 World Heroes (U) [!]011 World Heroes (U) [!]014

The Genesis rendition, licensed and reprogrammed by Sega, wins by virtue of the fact that it ‘s closer the arcade game’s speed.  Everything feels right and the game moves at a brisk pace.  As a bonus, for those that have a six button controller the game will automatically switch the controls so that light and hard attacks have their own individual buttons.  You could also do this in the Nintendo version but it was nice to see the six button pad supported.  Sadly the Genesis version is even worse than the SNES game when it comes to production values.  I will give Sega credit for trying but the 64 color limit really hurts the graphics.  Nearly all of the voice acting from the arcade is missing and don’t get me started on the sound effects and music.  Special Champion Edition sounds like a symphony compared to this.

So there you have it.  Both ports suffer from their share of problems and although there is a clear victor it doesn’t mean much.  World Heroes was only slightly above average to begin with; take two ports that both don’t even match that subpar standard and you have a bad game that shouldn’t be bothered with.

5-out-of-101

Posted on

Ranger-X

I wonder how many are aware how badly Sega of Japan was trounced overseas during the 16-bit era.  While the Genesis fought neck and neck with the SNES in America in Japan it was a distant third.  While most of the most popular third parties would eventually develop for the system due to its status in the US, the situation forced Sega to create partnerships with smaller, lesser known developers to create exclusive games.  This resulted in many fantastic, genre defining games that sadly went unnoticed due to bad advertising (or a lack thereof).  One such case was Ranger-X, a phenomenal side scrolling action game with more creativity than the majority of its competition combined.

The Homeworld has been invaded by a legion of Edgezone terrorist, who unleash a series of plagues and mechanical creatures on the populace. Outfitted in the high tech Ranger-X mech suit it falls on your shoulders to clear each area and save Homeworld.

Where did Ranger-X come from?  Like Gunstar Heroes it seemed to come completely out of left field from an unknown developer.  No one had heard of Gau Entertainment but those of us fortunate enough to Ranger-X would certainly keep an eye out for their future works.  Despite the game’s quality Sega of America were too busy promoting their terrible FMV Sega CD lineup in 1993 so it flew under the radar with other 16-bit legends such as Shinobi III and Gunstar Heroes.

Although it has the styling’s of a typical side-scroller Ranger-X is anything but.  The path to the end of each level is rarely a straight line and in most cases there are primary targets that need to be eliminated in the order of your choosing.  In many ways its similar to the Assault Suit series of games, with the same mind numbing difficulty and all.

There’s a wealth of play mechanics that are fully explored within the confines of the games’ 7 levels.  The default control scheme might take some getting used to; you can fire in both directions but need to press a button to change the direction you’re facing.  The suit is equipped with a jet pack for flying and hovering but will gradually overheat with continued use, necessitating a brief stop on solid ground to recharge.

Perhaps the greatest tool in your arsenal is the two armored vehicles that assist you in each level.  The Ex-Up Indra is a motorcycle that your suit can combine with to form one unit that has a mix of the pair’s abilities, such as long jumping and homing fire.  As a bonus those with six button controllers can control Indra using the X and Z buttons independently.  The Ex-Up Eos is a mobile aircraft carrier that only appears in a few levels but aside from docking to switch weapons is useless.  It randomly fires lasers at moving targets but with no way to directly control it is more of an afterthought.

 Ranger-X (E) [!]027 Ranger-X (E) [!]050 Ranger-X (E) [!]070 Ranger-X (E) [!]043

In combination with the Ex units the levels have a wide range of gameplay variety.  Almost every mission seems as though it were designed to highlight some aspect of the gameplay and does so brilliantly.  Mission 4 is a vertical ascent outside a high rise building, forcing you to manage your thrusters to avoid dropping to the beginning of the level consistently.  There are convenient floating platforms to recharge when needed but between the constant barrage of enemy mechs and the need to stay on the move (it’s a long, slow climb to the top!) it tests your resolve.

Missions 2 and 3 will challenge you to pay attention to recharging your weapons lest you end up with no means of offense.  All weapons recharge in light, with mission 2’s underground cavern providing numerous sun shafts to those who closely examine the level layout.  As an added bonus the light will also destroy weaker enemies with enough contact.  Mission 3 takes place both in the sky and on the ground.  Your targets all reside in the forest but the dense trees prevent sunlight from reaching you, forcing a retreat to the Eos to recharge.

When taken as a whole Ranger X is more difficult than most are probably used to.  Even on Easy the attacks rarely stop and life restoring recharge stations are only available on a few stages.  With limited continues you won’t finish this in one evening.  While the controls eventually become intuitive it takes time to get to that point.  I feel the game’s overall quality trumps the more advanced difficulty but some might feel otherwise.

 Ranger-X (E) [!]034 Ranger-X (E) [!]011 Ranger-X (E) [!]042 Ranger-X (E) [!]003

You can complain the game is too hard but absolutely no one can whine about the presentation.  Ranger X stretches the boundaries of what you think the Genesis is capable of and is one of the most technically impressive games for the system.  Every level opens with a wire frame model of the map that simulates polygons pretty effectively.  Through smart use of the Genesis’s limited color palette the game has a level of vibrancy that is nearly unmatched by any other game on the platform.  The line scrolling effect used on the floors in Street Fighter 2 has been applied to some of the backgrounds, giving them a warping sense of 3d depth I can barely describe.  All of this technical tomfoolery would mean nothing without good art and Ranger X is no slouch in that department as well, especially the bosses.  Any way you look at it this is the complete package visually.

Outside of the high challenge there is no reason any fan of action games should pass up Ranger X.  With its varied gameplay, exceptional graphics, and decently lengthy quest there are few action games for the Genesis that meet its level of quality.  While Sega’s lack of promotion meant it went unnoticed by the general populace now is the time to unearth this lost classic.

8-out-of-101

Posted on

Great Circus Mystery starring Mickey and Minnie

Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse was a huge success for Capcom, one in a long line of successful Disney licensed games from their development studios but even more so as it was their first one for a 16-bit console.  So it stands to reason  that a sequel would follow, cuz we all know just how much Capcom love their sequels.  But this time Mickey Mouse isn’t alone as Minnie tags along for some coop action.  Two heads are better than one or so they say but in this case while the game is still good it loses something as a result of accommodating two potential players.

Mickey and Minnie arrive at the circus and plan to spend the whole day having fun but find the place completely abandoned.  Goofy arrives and tells them that everyone had disappeared including Donald and Pluto.  Like any good friend the two decide to find them and figure out what has happened at the circus.

The first change you’ll notice is the option to choose Mickie or Minnie.  While it’s a nice gesture the choice is purely cosmetic (or aesthetic) since both characters function the same.  Along with a second character comes cooperative play.  The addition of coop opens up some interesting options for coordinating boss fights or collecting items since both players don’t have to use the same costume all the time.

Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)009 Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)038 Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)064 Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)015

And speaking of costumes the Great Circus Mystery comes with 3 new outfits for Mickey and company to change into it.  The sweeper outfit arms you with a vacuum cleaner that can suck in most enemies and objects and will change them into gold coins, a handy feature.  The safari suit equips you with a pick to climb walls and swing from blocks.  The cowboy outfit is a nice departure, as it comes with a wooden horse on a stick that allows you to pogo jump; in combination with the cork gun it’s your best offensive option.  Not that the two mice aren’t capable on their own, their base form is still the only one that can pick up and throw blocks and enemies.

The game covers a lot of diverse terrain, from the initial circus to a haunted castle and eventually Emperor Pete’s fortress.  Despite lasting only six levels each is broken up into 3 to 4 sections with a mid-level boss tucked in between.  For those that complained about the lack of a save option in the first game (who are these people, the game wasn’t that long!) there are passwords to record progress not that you’ll really need it.  While some of these levels might seem reminiscent of the first game the layout and graphical style is completely different to avoid déjà vu.

Not that the game doesn’t have some elements of that.  The safari costume is functions near identically to the mountain climber suit of Magical Quest while the sweeper outfit performs the exact opposite of the fireman suit.   I feel they really should have gone with wildly different powers to avoid the comparison and offer newer gameplay options.  As it is the levels feel as though they are covering familiar territory and playing it safe.

Because of the two player coop the levels themselves have been made simpler to accommodate varying levels of skill between players.  I suppose it would be asking a bit too much to have two players navigate something like the trickier swinging challenges of  Magical Quest’s mountain level but they could have come up with something that posed a bit of a challenge.  The straightforward level design becomes boring after a while, regardless of whether you have a friend to tackle them with.

Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)031 Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)017 Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)072 Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie, The (U)106

While it might lack in the level design category the Great Circus Mystery is still visually pleasing to the eye.  As a multiplatform release it holds up on both platforms.  The mode 7 effects of the first game have been tossed aside to maintain platform parity and honestly they didn’t add much to the game anyway.  It’s clear this was built with the SNES in mind but even so the Genesis version compares favorably, with its higher resolution making up for the loss of color.

Despite its similarities to the first game this is still a good game that is worth your time but could have been even greater with a little more creativity.  Capcom rarely failed with the Disney license and this game is no exception.

7-out-of-10-1

Posted on

the Punisher (Genesis)

I remember the Punisher arcade game as a bad ass beat em up that fully captured the essence of the character’s brutal war on crime.  It was one of the few arcade games I actually managed to finish before the inevitable home port, a feat that sticks out in my mind considering most coin ops were designed to drain your quarters.  Yeah, I was that naïve dude that honestly thought I could finish the Turtles arcade game or Final Fight with 3 quarters.  The Punisher would eventually find its way home on the Genesis but somewhere along the way a lot was lost in translation, leaving only a competent version of a once great game.

The Punisher has declared all-out war on the Kingpin and plans to decimate his criminal organization bit by bit before taking the big man out.  Nick Fury tags along for some inexplicable reason for some two-player action.

Released in 1993 the Punisher has a lot in common with Capcom’s other beat em ups of the time, most notably Final Fight and Warriors of Fate.  Running on the same CPS1 hardware it had a vibrant look that popped off the screen as well as stunning animation.  The Genesis port loses far too much in the porting process and it almost feels like a completely different game.   There were other added elements that I imagine were to make up for it but instead ruin the game’s balance.  While it isn’t a bad game necessarily it does take a back seat to the beasts of the genre.

As either Frank Castle or Nick Fury you have a large range of moves at your disposal.  Aside from the standard arsenal of punches and kicks the true highlight of the battle system comes from the large number of grappling moves you can execute.  From body slams, gut punches, to throws it’s satisfying to move in close and perform a wrestling move on an unsuspecting thug.  Neither character can actually dash but instead will perform a short hop or roll to build momentum and increase the power of the next attack.  Occasionally a group of thugs will pull out some heat and it’s in these rare moments that you are allowed to do the same.  Since you have unlimited ammo go to town on their asses!

Punisher, The (E)006 Punisher, The (E)028 Punisher, The (E)014 Punisher, The (E)070

While it does its best to bring the arcade experience home some cuts had to be made and they do affect the game’s quality.  Most of the breakable background objects have either been removed or are just parts of the scenery now.  These breakable objects were usually the primary source of weapons but now that has shifted to obtaining them from fallen opponents.  I do miss the comedic aspect of destroying the car the enemies arrived in and seeing the driver burned to death.  A few enemies have also been removed and this is the worst cut of all.  In an effort to make the game longer the game throws more waves of enemies at you consistently.  Unfortunately it means you’ll kill 7-10 palette swapped bad guys in a row which becomes tedious quickly.  If they bothered to put up any kind of resistance maybe it could get interesting but in most cases they sit and wait for their turn to get an ass whopping.

In a page ripped straight out of 1991 this version of the game features some censorship like the SNES port of Final Fight before it.   The female ninjas have less revealing outfits, some of the blood is gone, and references to smoking have been removed.  The first boss Scully was shot and killed following his interrogation but is now simply thrown off screen.  In the grand scheme these are mostly minor but they do stick out considering Sega had long since created their own ratings system and made it available to every one of their licensees.

Punisher, The (E)013 Punisher, The (E)064 Punisher, The (E)024 Punisher, The (E)046

In addition to the censorship the graphics have undergone a serious downgrade.   The game is significantly darker with less detail overall.  The color scheme used to replace the missing colors is very gaudy, giving certain levels a different “feel”.  All sprites have undergone a noticeable size reduction; in the arcade the sprites were relatively huge.  Certain enemies were redesigned and are plain ugly; the second boss Guardroid stands out in particular.  While it’s to be expected due to the system’s limited color palette it really is no excuse considering the vivid graphics of the Sonic games and Capcom’s own Super Street Fighter 2 released in the same year.

As a whole this is still a more than competent beat em up; unfortunately it has to swim in waters occupied by a few sharks, namely the Streets of Rage series.  Capcom did a decent job of porting the game but I feel could have done better, especially considering the work done on Super Street Fighter 2.

6-out-of-10-1

Posted on

Grind Stormer

During the 16-bit era the shmup seemed to reach the height of its popularity in the west, with releases seemingly every week.   But as with all things its moment in the sun was brief and would eventually start to fade by 1993-94.  In Japan it was a different story with the genre prospering well into the PS2 generation.  The genre would eventually evolve into the danmaku or bullet hell style of shooter of which Grind Stormer could be considered an early incarnation.  This arcade release was eventually ported to the Genesis but the Sega’s 16-bit marvel simply isn’t up to the task of recreating the arcade game’s intensity and introduces some issues of its own.

Normally the story in a shmup is completely a non-factor but Grind Stormer is a bit strange.  In the distant future a virtual reality game has come along that is so addictive the government feels the need to step in.  They send in a lone agent (you) to investigate, essentially tasking him with beating the game for the sake of mankind.  Captain N has nothing on this guy.

Grind Stormer has two unique power-up systems selected before starting the game.  Grind Stormer mode is exactly the same as the original, with floating power-ups dropped by enemies in addition to side upgrades such as speed up/down, a shield and extra points.  The developers were kind enough to add screen clearing bombs that also grant temporary invincibility for clutch moments.  V・V or (V Five) mode introduces a traditional Gradius style weapon layout powered by gems, allowing you to choose exactly which weapons you want.  In addition you have options at all times but they are less versatile in their function.

The differences between the two systems are wide enough that it almost feels like two separate games.  The V・V style of power-ups allows you to change weapons as necessary while GS mode leaves you at the mercy of the game’s random weapon drops.  On the other hand new weapons drop frequently enough that it isn’t really an issue.  Having the option between the two allows gamers a certain amount of comfortability, something that will be needed when tackling this beast.

There are only three primary weapons available, Shot, Missile and Search but considering their individual functions it’s more than enough.  The Standard shot can be upgraded to fire in multiple directions but its true power comes from lining up the ship’s options to create one large beam of destruction.  Missiles only fire straight ahead but have an incredible rate of fire next to their power.   Search turns your options into homing beacons that will aggressively seek out and attack any object on screen.

Managing each weapons uses is crucial to long term survival.  A fully upgraded shot covers a wide spread but also leaves significant gaps in between blast.  Missiles feel the least versatile; since they only fire in a straight line you’ll have to either position your ship or options to hit your targets, oftentimes a dicey proposition.  The search varies between absolutely overpowered or your worst nightmare.  It’s fairly weak but it will destroy weaker enemies in one shot and moves pretty fast.  Unfortunately the options tend to stick to larger ships or objects like glue, leaving you exposed with a rinky dink pea shooter for offense.  You have to babysit them to get the most out of their use.

 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]114 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]002 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]124 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]065

Although Grind Stormer is only 5 levels long it certainly feels twice that length.  Each level is as long as two or three from most other shmups and are a true test of your patience and skill.  Make no mistake this is one of the hardest shooters released during that console generation.  One hit leads to death with no respawn, instead sending you back to a checkpoint.  Shields are rare and the game is stingy with awarding extra lives despite throwing around extra points with reckless abandon.  With limited continues few will see the end of the beast without cheating.

Enemies often attack in large groups but it isn’t the ships you should be concerned with, it’s their bullets.  Grind Stormer offers a brief glimpse at what the shmup genre would blossom into with as many as thirty to forty bullets flying at once in addition to swarms of aliens and whatever else the designers came up with.  There are very few moments you aren’t running for your life as a ballet of bullets closes in on your position.

It’s in this aspect that the Genesis version suffers the most.  In short the system simply lacked the power necessary to handle the chaos the game brings, resulting in severe slowdown and flicker.  The flick is so bad that boss fights devolve into a stuttering mess.  This is bad since you need to see the bullets to dodge them and with as many as the game throws around it’s really unfair to die due to the game’s failings, not your own.  It makes an already brutal game that much harder and one that I’m less likely to recommend.

 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]120 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]092 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]032 GRIND Stormer (JUE) [!]104

Graphically the game has undergone a large loss in detail and color.  Aside from the lower resolution the game is darker overall.  In the arcade Grind Stormer was a vibrant game but this port has a very washed out look to it, resembling an early Genesis title rather than a game released at the peak of its life.  The music is terrible, completely lifeless and forgettable.  When it comes down it this should have been saved for a Saturn or PlayStation release.

Is the game bad overall? No but it does have its flaws, ones that mar the experience. There are some good ideas in there and the game is fun yet challenging when technical limitations aren’t at hand.  But only the most dedicated shooter fans will be able to see past them.

6-out-of-10-1

[nggallery id=262]

Posted on

M.U.S.H.A

If anyone is familiar with M.U.S.H.A it’s probably because of its ridiculous acronym, which stands for Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor, just to get that out of the way.  The Aleste series of shooters has a long lineage spanning multiple consoles and computer formats but this Genesis installment is possibly one of its strongest. Developed by the masters at Compile you already have an idea of what to expect in terms of gameplay but even in spite of that M.U.S.H.A will surprise you with its highly detailed world and extensive back story.

In the year 2290 Japan’s advances in technology make many of humanity’s goals such as space travel and advanced robotics possible.  Space colonies are established but one in particular goes out of control.  The supercomputer controlling colony Dire 51 deems humans a threat and sends a massive force of robots to attack.  While Earth is able to send a force of mechs to combat this menace only one survives to face them alone.

 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]011 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]085 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]024 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]106

Although set in the distant future the aesthetic is decidedly retro.  You’ll see many massive warships designed after ancient Japanese temples as you fly over the many cities of the world.  In fact your mech also follows a similar theme as its projectiles are actually shuriken and its armor resembles a samurai.  Aside from the other games in the Aleste series Imperium is the only other shooter that has the same juxtaposition of medieval design meets technology.

Like most Compile shooters M.U.S.H.A has an elaborate weapon system.  There are only three secondary weapons, a rotating shield, bombs, and a piercing laser.  Each weapon can be powered up three times for devastating results; the bombs in particular evolve from small explosions to miniature black holes.  Your primary fire and secondary weapon have separate buttons which might not seem practical but is helpful in the latter portions of the game when you might need to lay off constantly firing just to see what the hell is happening around you.

The most interesting weapon of all are the shooter staple options (or satellites or drones if you will) you are granted once you’ve picked up at least two pods.  These drones are far more versatile than in most other games since you can set them to one of 5 settings. You can set them up in the front, behind, side to side, rotating or to actively seek out enemies.  The rotating option is an effective shield when used in conjunction with your other weapon.  The seeker option is devastating against bosses as they will aggressively follow the bosses and pelt them relentlessly.

Although the satellites are powerful the main cannon is no slouch either.  By collecting glowing pods the standard single shot is can be quadrupled in power.  This is fairly powerful and a lifesaver as any weapon you possess is lost once you’ve taken a hit.  At the very least once your special weapon is gone you aren’t completely screwed as in most other shooters.

An extravagant weapon system needs a good game to go along with it and M.U.S.H.A does not disappoint.  Enemy waves are a constant presence and they come in all shapes and sizes.  There are frequent mid boss breaks and gigantic armored castles (yes, castles) to contend with.  M.U.S.H.A puts up quite a fight but never descends to the level of unfair; in most cases you’ll you’ve screwed up if you die.  There are frequent weapon drops so even if you die you aren’t powerless for long.

Although its only seven levels long M.U.S.H.A is one of the most intense shooters ever released for the Genesis; so intense in fact that the system is forced to tap out resulting in slowdown and occasional flicker.  How often have you ever even seen flicker on the Genesis?  The later levels move so fast that it’s very easy to get lost in the chaos and hit a stray bullet.  Actually that’s not all that hard seeing as your mech is so god damned big.  I mentioned the importance of separate buttons for your two weapons, trust me it’s a god send as the bombs and laser can obscure your view.  While later games like Lightening Force and Gaiares have it beat in the manic department considering this was released in 1990 makes it all the more impressive.

 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]053 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]055 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]117 M.U.S.H.A (U) [!]032

It certainly doesn’t look like an early effort from that period either.  M.U.S.H.A can easily hold its own against later shooter efforts on the console with its vibrant graphics and unique graphic design.  There’s an extensive use of parallax scrolling and certain levels use it to great effect, stage 3 and 7 in particular.  The mechanical designs of the enemies recall many a great mecha anime and some of the battleships are ridiculous in scale; stage 6 has a war ship that is 10 screens long and nearly occupies the entire level by itself.

This is one of the best shooters from that period which is an amazing feat considering its early release.  These days M.U.S.H.A isn’t very common as its publisher Seismic went under before the end of the 16-bit era. You can find it on the Wii virtual console and at that point price this is virtually a steal.

9-out-of-10

[nggallery id=259]

Posted on

Arcus Odyssey

How many of you played the original Gauntlet in the arcade?  There was something compelling about exploring a horde of dungeons with a couple of friends using traditional fantasy archetypes.  But for all of its success as a multiplayer game it did get repetitive, especially considering there were 100 levels to complete.  Arcus Odyssey follows along the same lines but is a deeper game with a definitive quest and goal.  While it could be labeled a clone, which it is to an extent, it’s a much better game than Gauntlet overall.

Long ago the sorceress Castomira attempted to remake the world in her image, beginning a long reign of chaos.  The princess Leaty was the only one strong enough to oppose her and after a battle that lasted for days finally banished her to the Dark World.  Foreseeing her return one day Leaty forged a magic blade that could destroy her and left in the hands of the King of Arcus.

Now 1000 years later that day is now.  Followers of Castomira have stolen the sword and the task of stopping Castomira’s resurrection and saving Arcus rests on the shoulders of 4 warriors.  The intro was extremely lavish for the time and did an excellent job of setting up the story.  Unfortunately for all of its excesses the story is the weakest point of the game, partly due to the weak localization but mostly because it isn’t really brought up much during the game.  I realize that Arcus Odyssey is an overhead action RPG first and foremost but the intro cinematic almost promises an epic tale that is never delivered in game.

At first glance Arcus Odyssey resembles Gauntlet but the two share few traits.  You have a choice between 4 characters, Jedda, the swordsman; Erin, the warrior-maiden; Diane, the elf archer; and Bead, the wizard.  Yeah those character classes are a little too close to Gauntlet for my taste.  While their overall “class” is the same each differs in more than just basic stats.  Each has different standard attacks and spells.

Your choice of character will definitely have a major impact on your experience with the game.  Someone like Jedda has a relatively short attack range that is powerful.  Diane’s arrows are weak but can be rebounded off walls, an extremely effective technique to deal with enemies long before they can see you.  My personal favorite is Erin; her whip not only has long range but can be spun in a wide circle that hits enemies on every elevation as well.  There is no wrong choice obviously but you’ll have  a much easier time with Erin than Jedda, that’s for sure.

Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]062 Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]083 Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]002 Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]068

Arcus Odyssey is broken up into 8 chapters of varying lengths that mostly boil down to finding the exit to advance.  Reaching it is an entirely different story however.  There are many light puzzles that need to be solved, nothing more complicated than finding the correct items to unlock a door or free captive NPCs that will also perform the same function.  Speaking of NPCs there are many who will also fight alongside you for extended periods of time, bringing extra welcome firepower that is more than welcome.  If you’re playing in coop it makes the game even easier considering there are 3 of you mowing down enemies left and right.

In spite of all this firepower Arcus Odyssey can be tough at times.  Enemies respawn not too long after you’ve left an area and there are tons of them crowding limited areas at times.  As the chapters progress they become longer and more maze-like in scope which makes the absence of a map or compass frustrating at times.  Depending on the character selected your life bar might be shorter than normal and can lead to some quick deaths.  Although there are infinite continues and passwords you’ll have to start over from the beginning of an area which can be demoralizing.

Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]032 Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]104 Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]057 Arcus Odyssey (U) [!]015

The production values are mixed.  The darker color palette is well suited to the Genesis but some of the color choices in the levels are pretty garish.  The animation is pretty decent but aside from the bosses most of the sprites are average.  I will say that for a top down game of that era Arcus Odyssey has more visual variety than similar games of its ilk.  While the graphics are decent the music is excellent, once again provided by Wolfteam/Renovation mainstay Motoi Sakuraba.

These points of contention aren’t enough to ruin the game however.  Even now Arcus Odyssey is an enjoyable experience can be viewed as a retro throwback to the many isometric RPGS being released today.  Either single player or coop Arcus Odyssey has enough juice in the tank to occupy quite a few hours of your time.

7-out-of-10-1

 

Posted on

High Seas Havoc

He’s a freaking seal!  Think about all of the mascot platformers you’ve either seen or played in the past.  Mario, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, Bubsy, Aero the Acrobat……Croc.   They were all based around cool animals (except Mario, but we can excuse him because his games are awesome) but a Seal?  I don’t think there’s ever been a point in time where I’ve thought, “Yeah those guys are awesome.”  Inspiration comes from the strangest places and in the case of High Seas Havoc the game is actually pretty cool and a welcome entrant in the mascot craze.

Havoc and his sidekick Tide are pirates who find a woman named Bridget washed ashore.  Bridget it turns out has a map with the location of a gem named Emeralda on it.  This map just so happens to be desired by Bernardo, who wants the gem to use its power to take over the world.  Bridget is kidnapped, but not before giving Havoc the map, setting in motion his quest.

Data East was one of the last publishers I would expect to hop on the mascot bandwagon.  While they were becoming more active on the console side their bread and butter was still arcade games.  But I guess that platformer money was too enticing to pass up.  High Seas Havoc is heavily influenced by Sonic the Hedgehog, almost to an embarrassing extent.  But although it leans on its Hedgehog inspiration in the early going it soon blossoms into its own beast and becomes an enjoyable romp that is far better than the majority of tripe it shared shelf space with.

High Seas Havoc (U) [!]040 High Seas Havoc (U) [!]035 High Seas Havoc (U) [!]051 High Seas Havoc (U) [!]027

Havoc’s offense consists of the family friendly butt bounce and a weird flash kick that is hard to time.  In functionality it’s a lot like the instant shield in Sonic 3 with a wider arc.  The flip kick is reserved for spikey enemies or enemies whose weak point your ass can’t reach, usually bosses.  Learning the timing involved in its use is a frustrating process but luckily you won’t need it much.  It’s a bit disappointing that you don’t have more in terms of offense as it becomes repetitive in short order.  He’s a pirate for Christ sake, why can’t he use a cutlass like the box art depicts?

If you were to slap a pirate theme on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 you’d end up with High Seas Havoc, at least initially. Replace the TV monitors with treasure chests, rings with random treasure, and Christ on a stick there’s even a ten minute time limit.  Not that there aren’t any differences of course.  Treasure only contributes to extra lives, you have a life bar, and the stupid boots you can collect barely upgrade your speed like they’re supposed to.

Each level also has two acts, with the exception of the first and last.  Cape Sealph stylistically skews closely to the Emerald Hill Zone, with its bright blue and green color scheme, skyline, and inclines used to build up speed for platforming.  The first act of Otarucean is eerily similar to the Star Light Zone.  Its second act might remind you of the Labyrinth Zone or the Aquatic Ruin Zone.

High Seas Havoc (U) [!]001 High Seas Havoc (U) [!]053 High Seas Havoc (U) [!]041 High Seas Havoc (U) [!]067

But after that the game comes into its own, focusing on tight platforming and less about collecting treasure.  The number of spike traps and bottomless pits increases significantly with less stretches of ground as a safety net.  The Burning Hamlet has a massive living flame that is on your tail at all times, giving the platforming an extra element of danger.  Mt. Chester has many leaps of faith and tricky floating blocks to navigate.  Mt. Bernardo is suitably challenging, on the level of the Metropolis Zone with its numerous mechanical contraptions.

The boss battles feature a similar ramp up in difficulty.  The initial encounter with Bernardo is a simple exercise in timing but the following bosses all become trickier to figure out.  It’s in these encounters where the tricky timing of the flip kick becomes an issue as the hit boxes are small enough that they require precision.  The final battle against Bernardo reaches insane lengths as the bastard now summons Meteors and transforms a la Metal Sonic in Sonic & Knuckles (although this game came first.)  You can expect to lose a few lives in the process.

As a whole the game is fairly challenging but manageable.  You’ll lose a number of lives in the later levels as there are many instances of instant death and cheap hits.  But treasure gems and more importantly treasure (which grant 20 gems) are in ready supply.  You’ll amass a large supply of extra lives quickly and probably lose a decent chunk at the same time.  But the unlimited continues mean you’ll eventually see the end with some perseverance.

As a platformer High Seas Havoc sits comfortably in the middle class of the genre.  Its far better than drek like Bubsy 2 and Awesome Possum but lacks that one critical feature that would push it into upper tier.  With exceptional graphics and animation and a decently long quest I High Seas Havoc is a fun yet challenging addition to the Genesis library.

7-out-of-10-1