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X-Men: Children of the Atom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Darius Gaiden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Cyberbots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Metal Slug

 

Does anyone remember Cyber Lip? It was the pack in game for the Neo Geo and let me tell you it had nothing on Contra. For the price you were paying for the system they really could have packed in a better game to show off the hardware. Now if Metal Slug was that game, oh man, I imagine legions of preteens holding their parents at knife point in hopes of getting a Neo Geo. Metal Slug was a breath of fresh air among a fighting game and shooter heavy lineup and this Saturn port is pretty much arcade perfect thanks to the required 1 meg RAM cart.

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Like any good shooter Metal Slug is packed with numerous weapons of mass destruction. The most common is the heavy machine gun, which spits bullets at a rapid fire pace in 64 directions. The rocket launcher is the most powerful by far but is has the least ammo while the shotgun isn’t too far behind but appears less frequently. My personal favorite is the flame thrower, which flambés multiple bad guys in one shot. Weapon drops are pretty constant whether it’s from some ruined background element or a hostage awarding it as thanks. It’s a wise decision as the game would be impossible if you had to rely on the standard pistol for too long.

The metal slug in the title refers to the bad ass armored tank that shows up in almost every level that can be ridden to cause mass havoc. Its Vulcan cannon comes with infinite ammo and a powerful artillery shells that can trivialize some boss encounters. It runs on gas that can be replenished but if you take advantage of the brief moment of invulnerability when exiting (hint, hint) you can pretty much avoid all damage and breeze through even the roughest sections of the game.

Compared to later installments in the series this first game seems pretty restrained in comparison. It has its moments of sheer chaos however outside of the occasional slowdown (which was present in the original) it isn’t that far above the 16-bit Contra games. The sheer spectacle of it all can be overwhelming but once you adjust you’ll find a game that despite its gore actually doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of hilarity throughout such as innocent civilians taking a bath while you blow up their house or interrupting enemy soldiers roasting marshmallows over a fire. Its these little touches that give the game personality and SNK/Nazca would further expand on this in future games.

Metal Slug can be a tough beast to conquer as the sheer chaos at times can be hard to follow. You can set the starting number of lives but continues are limited and I’m pretty sure most will burn through them halfway through the game. However this Saturn edition allows you to pick a level among any you’ve conquered once you have exhausted your continues, all with a new stock of credits. Unfortunately this is a pretty short game at six stages so even novice gamers can brute force their way through it in about two hours. As a bonus this version includes an art gallery and the combat school from the Neo Geo CD which is a bunch of missions that challenge you to complete prior stages under certain conditions. It’s definitely fun but limited; Soul Edge did it better.

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The main reason you will keep returning to the game will be the graphics. Anyone familiar with In the Hunt, Undercover Cops, and Gunforce II will recognize the art style used in the game as they were all made by the same staff. There is an exquisite attention to detail in even the smallest of background elements that borders on insanity. Destroying buildings and other fortifications will shower the screen in debris that is almost mesmerizing to watch. The amount of situational animations lavished on the protagonists and even the enemies is incredible; new games in the series are still being released today using the same sprites and they still don’t look old almost 20 years later.

Porting the game intact to any system would be a tall order, least of all the PlayStation and Saturn. For the Saturn game the 1 meg Ram cart is required which bumped up the game’s price but was worth it. The game is more or less arcade perfect outside of some minor slowdown in the most extreme of circumstances. For all I know it might have been the same in the arcade, it’s been so long I don’t remember. The only concession made are 7 or 8 second load times in between levels and menus but I’ll take that over the midlevel pause breaks that plagued the PlayStation version.

Metal Slug is a near flawless conversion of an excellent game and one worth exploring for those looking looking to expand their Saturn library. While it is true that the Metal Slug Anthology exists that does not make this home port any less incredible.

8-out-of-101

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Galactic Attack

For as much as I might have made fun of the deluge of shmups during the 16-bit era (and rightfully so I might add) I genuinely missed the genre when it all but disappeared when the PlayStation and Saturn released. The concept of one lone ship fighting off an alien armada might have been done to death but god damn it if it wasn’t fun. It also sucked because that was right when console hardware was strong enough to properly port all of the truly great arcade shmups in Japan, games we would not see over here. Galactic Attack was one such game that was rescued by Akklaim and despite its 1995 release was still one of the better shooters released in that period.

In the distant future mankind entrusts its future to the Supercomputer Con-Human. Things go horribly wrong when a cloned human links with Con-Human and causes it to become sentient and insane. Its first course of action is to nearly wipe out humanity, leaving the remnants to settle in space colonies. The remaining humans plan to stage one last assault against Con-Human who has now transformed the entire planet into one global attack fortress.

Rayforce/Layer Section/Galactic Attack or whatever the hell it was called in your country of origin was among many shmups such as Dodonpachi, ESP Ra.De, and Radiant Silvergun that really brought new ideas to the genre thanks to high powered hardware. Galactic Attack was the first in a trilogy and while its sequels were good games neither managed to recapture what made this game so great. The Saturn port is more or less arcade perfect outside some small details and while a bit light on content is still a fascinatingly good time.

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Like many prior shooters such as Legendary Wings Galactic Attack works on two planes. Your primary fire deals with enemies directly in front of you while your homing lasers handles ground based enemies targeted by your reticle. Although you can fire these indiscriminately they won’t hit anything unless you’ve locked on to a target. The only power-ups come in the form of yellow and red crystals that increase the power of your main cannon and “L’s” that increase the maximum number of lock-on targets to eight.

It’s a simple system but one that is given tremendous depth through gameplay. There are always multiple layers of crap to deal with in the backgrounds as enemies’ stream in and rise up to your level. Since you cannot manually move the cursor you’ll have to continually wade into a stream of fire to deal with enemies on a lower plane before things become too chaotic. By the game’s midpoint it isn’t out of the question to see 6 armored mechs all closing in on your position with a further 7 or 8 ready to launch from a bunker on the ground. The bosses are multi-stage monstrosities that need to be taken apart piece by piece with some fights almost as long as the stages themselves. In spite of all this once you adjust to the fact that positioning the cursor (which sits two feet in front of you) comes first before your own ship’s positioning the game’s simple mechanics become second nature.

One thing is for sure, you won’t complete this on your first, second, or even third sitting. Although the game only has six stages by the midpoint you will need to memorize precise enemy placements and be quick about destroying targets with your lock-on laser lest you become overrun. At times there is little margin for error and while it is incredibly difficult the game is always fair and still enticing to go back and give it one more try; when you die you know it is your own fault. The difficulty curve is perfect in my opinion; the four continues are generous and you respawn instantly at death. You couldn’t ask for anything more in a shmup.

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Galactic Attack was released in the arcade right around the time 3d was in its infancy and as such still uses sprites to simulate 3d and depth. While it is a bit crude at times the art and overall graphic design is still pretty impressive. The layers of scrolling are often five level deep which goes hand in hand with the theme of flying back to Earth and descending deeper and deeper into the core of the planet to destroy the Con-Human supercomputer. Scaling and rotational effects are used sporadically, mostly for enemies ascending from the ground and to give buildings and structures depth. These elements show their age as they are highly pixelated but at the time of the game’s release this was state of the art.

The number of shooters released during the 32-bit era slowed considerably and so every game localized was heavily scrutinized. Although Galactic Attack was one of the first Saturn releases it holds up wonderfully and is still generally excellent today.

8-out-of-101

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Battle Arena Toshinden: URA

Toshinden URA what? It sure as hell isn’t a good fighting game. The jokes can practically write themselves. Battle Arena Toshinden managed to fool thousands with its arcade quality graphics but it didn’t take long before everyone realized the gameplay was shallower than a kiddie pool. By the time Toshinden 2 came around better 3d fighters such as Tekken 2, Virtua Fighter 2, and Soul Edge had shown us just how great a polygonal fighting game could be. The only thing it had going for it was its incredible graphics to which it wasn’t anything special at that point. The Saturn edition was supposed to be a special version of the game tailored specifically to the system but somewhere along the way someone cheaped out and we wound up with one of the worst games in an already bad franchise.

While the URA in the title gives off the impression that this is a wholly original title the game is mostly based off of Toshinden 2 and in its own strange way is a direct sequel to Toshinden Remix for Saturn. This mostly equates to a slightly different roster of final bosses and a changed story however the gameplay additions of the 2nd installment have been brought over. Not that it makes much of a difference as there is no depth to the combat and everything simply doesn’t flow properly.

The principle cast of the original is joined by three newcomers. Ron Ron is a teenage police scientist (I don’t buy it in the slightest) who even back then was pandering to a specific audience. Her attacks are some of the most appallingly animated in the game and are easy to dodge making her useless. Ripper looks cool but suffers from a long buildup in his special attacks. Tracy plays identically as she did in part 2 and by default is one of the better characters in the game. Sadly Chaos did not make the cut. The end game bosses are unique to this version and while that should be cause for celebration they are weak. Replicant is a robotic version of Sho while Wolf has some of the coolest special attacks in the game but his movement takes some getting used to.

At least some effort was made to correct the flaws of the original as the game is somewhat competent. The gameplay additions from Toshinden 2 such as dash in moves, taunts, and an overdrive meter have been brought over. The 3d dodge no longer grants temporary invincibility so its use has to be more strategic. Most of the returning cast have been given one or two new special moves or had subtle changes to their existing repertoire. The more powerful attacks have a slight charge time adding an element of risk and reward in their use. You’ll also have to be wary of your proximity to the edges of the ring since some moves cover a wide distance. Unlike the first game it is possible to execute simple combos and two-in-ones although it never really feels satisfying and more like a happy accident than a work of skill. Unfortunately you’ll never need to even bother trying these advanced tactics as the AI is some of the dumbest I’ve ever encountered in a fighting game.

I had always been curious as to just how accurate the magazine claims were that they could beat the game using nothing but the same special move over and over. Sure enough mapping a given character’s projectile attack to your button of choice and spamming it will result in victory with little effort. At most you’ll have to take an occasional swipe if your opponent gets too close. I used this “strategy” with six characters and it never failed. The AI is so dumb I have seen it run out of the ring for no apparent reason numerous times. The only reason to run through the single player mode is to unlock all the characters for multiplayer and even then some are so completely unbalanced (Vermillion) that it simply isn’t fun. A fighting game that fails to be entertaining even in multiplayer is basically worthless.

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There were lofty promises made about the game’s graphics as it was supposedly going to use the same high resolution mode as Virtua Fighter 2 with full 3d backgrounds. The only thing high resolution here are the 2d backgrounds and the front end menus. The game is a far cry from 60 frames per second; it’s more like 30 with frequent drops and the game has some seriously choppy animation. Toshinden Remix proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Saturn hardware was weaker than the PlayStation with its reduced polygon counts and missing special effects. That drab look continues here as projectiles and special moves lack real time lighting and transparency and look incredibly ugly; most attacks devolve into an ugly mess of pixelated blobs..

The one area that this series has excelled in, character design and art can’t even be appreciated as the character select screen is ruined by hideous, low resolution pixelated renders that barely resemble each fighter. There’s a decent amount of FMV but even by Saturn standards it is insanely grainy and looks low quality; honestly they shouldn’t have even bothered. At the very least the character models are solid but that doesn’t make up for the rest of the lacking visual presentation.

This series has always had outstanding music and that track record continues here. Most of the music is borrowed from prior installments of the series but remixed to great effect. The only oddity is that the music restarts every round so at most you’ll only hear 15-20 seconds of each theme unless you pop the disc in a CD player.

There is nothing here worth exploring as there are far better fighting games on the Saturn. I wouldn’t even recommend this game to Toshinden fans if they even exist.

5-out-of-101

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In the Hunt

Launch window games are usually shallow affairs designed to dazzle you with new technology to hide their lack of inspired gameplay. There are exceptions of course; many of the early PlayStation games such as Twisted Metal and Wipeout were incredible. But in that rush to make everything in 3d plenty of 2d games were lost in the shuffle. In the Hunt was a port of a little known arcade game from 1993 that came years after the heyday of the shooter. Don’t let that stop you however as it is one of the more innovative games in the genre and is still excellent today.

Despite being a shooter In the Hunt has more in common with side scrolling action games like Contra, often being referred to as Metal Sub. The screen doesn’t auto scroll and instead advances when you move. It’s different but works since you control the pace. Overall this is a slower paced game than most shooters but the pacing is deliberate; despite the timer there really is no rush and in fact that is an easy way to a quick death.

Your sub is equipped with torpedoes, slower depth charges to deal with enemies below (like Gradius) and missiles when you come up to the surface. A nice addition to the home ports is a button to launch all three simultaneously. There are few power-ups with the two carriers cycling through two weapons that alter your torpedoes and missiles. The varying missiles behave differently depending on where they are launched; on the surface the floating mines become a machine gun. Underwater the tracking missiles are simply regular projectiles. Torpedoes are more varied as you have a choice between crackers that explode on impact, a piercing hypersonic bullet, or the faster supersonic torpedoes.
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Unlike most shooters you are attacked on three fronts, above, below and in front. The more wide open levels offer plenty of opportunities to pick a lane and stick to it although that isn’t always advise; sticking to the ocean bottom means airplanes and ships and their bombs are left unchecked and can route you. It is almost impossible to cover all three directions, and those who can prioritize stand the best chance of actually seeing the end of the game. The level design is incredibly varied as most of the game’s six stages present a plenty of creative scenarios that limit your abilities in interesting ways. Stage 3 is an upward climb out of a tunnel as a rocky sea monster follows in pursuit. This same creature is the end level boss in which you must strategically drop stone slabs to destroy his body while also avoiding being crushed as well. The Channel takes place entirely in shallow water, cutting off an underwater escape to avoid enemy fire.

Like most Irem shooters In the Hunt is ridiculously difficult. Regardless of the difficulty level it is only a matter of time before you are overwhelmed by the sheer chaos on screen. The sub moves far slower than in most shooters and there are no power-ups to increase your speed so you have to make do. Dodging projectiles or explosions comes down to moving ahead of time which isn’t always an option. The three weapons don’t increase your firepower as much as you would like so survival still mostly comes down to your piloting skills. But amazingly no matter how unfair it may seem once you’ve been through a stage more than likely you’ll be able to clear it on subsequent runs without dying.

The game was ported to both the PlayStation and Saturn and the differences between the two are minor. The Saturn version has a terrible CG intro and more slowdown than the arcade but only in the most extreme cases. The PS One game is the most balanced gameplay wise.   There is less slowdown than both other versions of the game and if you play in the exclusive PlayStation mode you have access to a new power-up that gives you a shield. It might seem like a minor addition but it is actually huge. The level order is different but that is a minor complaint. Only the biggest purists will complain and honestly I doubt most have even played this in the arcade anyway.

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In the Hunt is a ridiculously beautiful game, animated to a degree most modern 2d games still have yet to match. Every individual depth charge and explosion is rendered in exquisite detail, to the point where you’ll probably destroy stuff just to see it explode in a shower of debris. Background elements and enemy subs erode and decay over time into a jumble of individual pieces; the level of detail here is meticulous to a fault with so much going on at once that it is almost overwhelming. The underwater theme would seem to limit the variety of environments but that isn’t the case; the amount of variety on display from one stage to the next is insane, from the first stage’s icy South Pole to the submerged city of stage four. The game’s bosses are a collection of gargantuan ships and undersea creatures that nearly fill the screen and are at times more visually impressive than the stages themselves. The game’s beautiful artwork was created by many of the same artists who would go on to form Nazca and create Metal Slug which explains the similar look between the two games.

This is still one of the most unique shooters created and regardless of which version you buy you’ll have a blast. Though incredibly difficult the beyond beautiful artwork will surely keep you coming back.

8-out-of-101

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Die Hard Arcade

The 32-bit generation saw a renaissance within many genres as they moved to 3d, most specifically sports, racing, and 3d platformers. But it also many take a step back or disappear altogether. The scrolling shoot em up all but disappeared from America and the other mainstay of the 16-bit days, the beat em up was left on a milk carton. There were a few attempts to bring the genre to 3d but eh, the less said about those the better. Sega however that it could be done with Die Hard Arcade and aside from its far too short length should have been the model other games followed.

There’s a funny bit of history behind this game’s creation. In Japan it is known as Dynamite Deka but has no association with the movie. However one look at the box art and the main characters and it is blatantly obvious where they drew “inspiration”. Even the game’s plot of a terrorist who has taken over a skyscraper is the same. Well here they are trying to steal the contents of a vault and have kidnapped the President’s daughter as backup but that’s neither here nor there. Rather than being sued Sega of America teamed up with Fox to make this an officially licensed game like it should have been.

In terms of feel this plays less like a traditional beat em up and more like a side scrolling Virtua Fighter. The character movement bears it out as well as the floaty jumps which are identical. Thank Christ there’s no block button. One aspect which shouldn’t have been brought over is movement; you can only face left or right and you don’t walk so much as hop in spurts. It’s silly and does cause a few issues since you can’t lock onto a target; full 3d movement would have been better served. Luckily you can work around it.

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The Virtua Fighter connection (albeit tangentially) does come with some sweet perks. The game has a robust fighting engine, something that most beat em ups can’t claim. There’s a pretty large arsenal of moves depending on the buttons pressed once an opponent is grabbed or in the middle of a combo. In addition to martial artistry there are a ton of breakable objects that can be used as weapons as well as a never-ending stream of bad guys with all sorts of weaponry. I dare say you will rarely find a moment where you aren’t armed or surrounded by armaments waiting to be picked up.

The game was also ahead of its time with the incorporation of quick time events. These brief cut scenes usually challenge you to duck or pull a quick punch to avoid getting hit. Unlike modern day QTEs the penalty for failing is very small; you’ll either end up in a brief encounter or take small damage. While QTEs are on my shit list at least here they take place in between rooms rather than breaking up the action.

Unfortunately it’s all over far too fast. The game certainly lives up to the arcade in its title as it is way too short. Each of the five levels will only last a scant 5 minutes at best, meaning most will finish the game in a half hour with little incentive to go back and replay the game. By default you have a single life and 3 credits which can be tough to manage, especially as some of the cheaper enemies can catch you in a loop and drain your life bar in seconds. However you can play the optional deep scan minigame to win as many credits as you need. No matter how well executed the gameplay it can’t make up for the game’s brevity.

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Surprisingly this is still one of the better looking Saturn titles. While it exhibits the low polygon look of most game from that era DHA also ran at a higher resolution than most of those same games, giving it a sharper look. Character animation is incredibly smooth and the game runs at a rock solid frame rate. Of course most bouts take place in smaller arenas so it isn’t too taxing but considering most of that eras games ran at abysmal frame rates its much appreciated. The Saturn version’s music is redbook audio so unfortunately it constantly stops and starts with each new scene, not that it was all that memorable.

If Sega had included exclusive levels or a few extra gameplay modes like the later Zombie Revenge I would have no problem recommending the game. But with so little content it’s not worth a purchase. At least the Saturn version. In 2006 Die Hard Arcade was ported to the PlayStation 2 as part of the Sega Ages line. This version is less a port and more of a complete overhaul with completely new graphics and most importantly extra modes and costumes to entice you to play the game multiple times. While it was never released here like all of the Sega Ages games it is completely in English anyway and definitely worthy of a purchase.

6-out-of-10-1

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Shining Wisdom

While I love the Shining Force strategy RPGs I have a love/hate relationship with the various attempts made at branching out of that genre.  Shining in the Darkness was a decent attempt at a dungeon crawler which would lead to the beyond awesome Shining the Holy Ark years later.  The Shining Soul games for GBA were decent for what they were and the less said about Shining Force Neo the better. “Hot stuff coming your way!” No, just no.  Years before those action RPGs Shining Wisdom took the series down the Zelda inspired route.  While it has some frustrating interface issues it still manages to be charming and entertaining overall.

Mars is the son of the legendary hero Sir Jiles, who saved the kingdom of Odegan once before.  Now that he has come of age Mars now has the opportunity to follow in his father’s lofty footsteps.  That chance comes very quickly as the dark elf Pazort has kidnapped the Princess Satera and plans on summoning a demon to destroy the world.  Through a series of unfortunate lies Mars ends up the only knight capable of stopping him.

The story takes place years after Shining Force 2 however this is not a direct sequel and only slightly references past events.  Unfortunately these story connections as well as other naming conventions had to be changed due to Sega refusing to allow Working Designs to use anything pertaining to localization of past games in the series.  It’s an odd decision to make but not one that affects the proceedings all that much.  Some of the character’s personalities were changed, most notably the characters Sarah and Kazin, which means nothing to those that can’t read Japanese; for “purists” the European version is closer as Sega handled that themselves.

As first impressions go Shining Wisdom does an exceptional job at dissuading you from continuing beyond the first hour.  The beginning of the game is excruciatingly slow as you are spend copious amounts of time wandering back and forth in a castle that is way too big for its own good.  The game soon picks up and consistently sends you to new locations to find equipment and items at a nice pace.  The cast of characters is actually pretty small however the story takes many turns and still manages to seem larger than it initially appears.

The similarities to Zelda can’t be denied.  It adapts the same overhead perspective and features many similar items although there are some differences.  The game’s dungeons and other locales do not follow the strict room by room structure of that game, instead opting for wide expanses that present the entire floor for you to explore.  The game is non-linear to an extent as you are only limited by the items needed to access new areas or delve further into dungeons.  That isn’t to say they don’t fall back on established tropes.  Most dungeons will have at least one new weapon that is necessary to complete it as well as simple block pushing puzzles and such.  Anyone who has played at least one entry in Nintendo’s series will be right at home here.

Since you are not gaining experience it is largely pointless to kill most enemies outside of the few random items they drop (gold, herbs, and life restoring bubbles).  Combat is actually frustrating since enemies respawn as soon as you move a few meters off screen and they can parry attacks, with no rhyme or reason as to how this is determined.  Having said that it is pretty fun to experiment later on in the game as you amass a large arsenal of weapons and items that can be combined with the various elemental orbs to create new attacks.

Shining Wisdom was originally designed for the Genesis before its last minute upgrade and it shows in its interface.   Despite the Saturn controller having six face and two shoulder buttons the game still only uses A,B, C for all of its actions, an obvious concession in case gamers did not own the Genesis six button controller.  All other buttons are simply used as secondary dash buttons.  It’s a stupid move as nearly all item use is relegated to the C button including basic attacks. As your inventory builds you’ll constantly swap items in rapid succession which gets old fast as there is a second or two of loading to leave the menu.  Even something as simple as using L+R to cycle through items would have gone a long way.

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I’m not one to harp on a game’s graphics too much but it can’t be avoided: Shining Wisdom is an ugly game.  It wears its 16-bit origins a little too strongly and certainly pales in comparison to Magic Knight Rayearth, its closest relative released around the same time in Japan.  The rendered sprites are short and fat with a heavy black outline that does them no favors.   There are some pretty imaginative locations later in the game as well as a few epic boss battles but in the end this would only been a slightly above average Genesis game in terms of graphics.  The music on the other hand is generally fantastic and benefits from the Saturn’s better sound hardware.

While there was certainly more that could have been done to take advantage of the Saturn hardware Shining Wisdom manages to overcome its flaws and slow start to become an entertaining game overall.  The main quest is of medium length however there are numerous optional labyrinths and other hidden items to find.   In that time its story and gameplay will charm the hell out of you.

7-out-of-10

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Burning Rangers

The last days of the Sega Saturn were a dark period for Sega of America as it meant the end of their North American presence for close to two years until the Dreamcast.  While the releases were sparse in 1998 the few titles Sega brought to market were spectacular with the likes of Shining Force 3 and Panzer Dragoon Saga still highly sought after.  Burning Rangers in the eyes of many was supposed to be the final send off with the considerable pedigree of Sonic Team behind it.  While it isn’t the absolute slam dunk it should have been it still is a solid title that shows the might under the Saturn’s hood.

Though primarily about firefighting you’ve never seen it like this.  Burning Rangers take place in a highly stylized future where its “firemen” use the latest scientific equipment to better put out blazes and rescue civilians.  As one of its two youngest recruits it is your mission to rescue as many people as possible and put out fires as they sprout on the way to completing each level.

There are very few games about firefighting even to this day and so Burning Rangers is still unique in that regard.  With Yuji Naka and Naoto Oshima behind it expectations were high but the game doesn’t quite match them.  As a technical showcase for the Saturn it succeeds but those same accomplishments are what bog the game down in the end.  However even in spite of its flaws BR is still fun to play in short bursts though it will leave you wanting more when it’s over.

As either Shou or Tillis the game’s mandatory training sequence will acclimate you to its mechanics.  Your futuristic suit is equipped with a jetpack that allows you to double jump and glide for in short spurts.  You can perform a variety of defensive maneuvers such as quick side steps and dashes but the most important is the back dash, which allows you to quickly avoid the sudden bursts of flame signaled by an alarm.

In many ways Burning Rangers has the DNA of Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights incorporated in its structure.  Players are equipped with freeze guns that turn errant fires into crystals that function like rings in Sonic.  When hit you lose all of them but have a chance to recover some and so long as you have at least one you will never die but if struck with zero crystals, game over.  Crystals are also used to transport the people you rescue.  Charging up the freeze gun will produce a larger explosion however you gain no crystals from this so it’s a balancing act, especially when it comes to managing the blaze level.

When exploring the pressure level will always tick upward and is reduced by putting out fires and saving civilians.  At every 20% a number of explosions will rock the environment and permanently raise the limit.  At 100% it’s pretty much a game over as these explosions will occur so frequently you can’t survive.  It’s pretty nerve wracking and will affect your overall grade at the end of the level.  Like Nights your performance is graded in a number of categories such as total victims evacuated, crystals collected, time to completion and how well you’ve managed the pressure overall.  It is a little bit of an incentive to go replay the levels for a higher score.

At four stages it doesn’t seem as though there is much content but each mission is absolutely huge!   So huge in fact that one of your team members will help you navigate each environment.  You don’t have to follow here directions of course and there’s plenty of fire victims waiting to be saved if you wander off the beaten path.  Sadly the game’s localization isn’t the greatest and you are frequently given the wrong directions meaning you are largely on your own in memorizing the huge maps.  While it is fun to sight see your sense of adventure has to be tempered as the pressure is always rising.

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The missions cover a number of environments with only the first being somewhat conventional.  After that you’ll visit an undersea aquarium, an abandoned space colony and one last area I’ll leave you to discover on your own.  Though you’ll mainly deal with backdrafts and the numerous colors of flame there are security drones and other malfunctioning equipment to contend with as well as bosses.  The sci-fi aspect of the game is heavily played up and makes for some spectacular set pieces such as the Zero-G segments in space and the equally spectacular surroundings of the game’s last mission.  As the environments explode in flame and transform as bridges collapse it makes for a pretty thrilling experience but one that has its fair share of problems.

If you don’t have the Saturn analog pad don’t even bother.  Navigating with the D-pad is simply too painful during extended sessions while the controls feel more natural with an analog stick.  The other issue is the camera.  Utilizing a static camera that doesn’t try to follow your movements and adjust works in the game’s tight corridors but anytime you enter a large open area it needs to be babysat far too much.  There’s no way to manually target or lock-on so you can only point in the general direction and hope for the best.

While the game’s four missions are pretty long it still doesn’t change the fact that the game is short overall and can be completed in 2-3 hours.  Earning higher scores on each mission can be fun and checking the e-mails from the people you’ve rescued (108 in total) is nice but it doesn’t make up for the lack of content.  Once completed the game will randomize each level but remixes aren’t the same as fresh new content.

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Burning Rangers garnered a lot of attention for its graphics and Sonic Team should be commended for what they were able to pull out of the Saturn but in the process they’ve literally broken the system.  The real time lighting effects are at a higher level than in most PlayStation and Saturn titles and is striking in motion.  The true hardware transparency was not thought possible on Saturn and is used extensively.  This all comes with heavy price as you can literally hear the system straining to keep it together.  There is an excessive amount of pop-up and the frame rate dips into the single digits at times.  The art direction is solid but can be ugly at times as there is a heavy level of screen tearing going on.  If they would have tempered their technical ambitions slightly this could have been something special.

It isn’t the grand finale most were expecting of one of the Saturn’s final titles but Burning Rangers is still solid.  If ever a game screamed for a remake on more powerful hardware this is it.

7-out-of-10

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Clockwork Knight 2

The original Clockwork Knight was an above average platformer that offered new 32-bit owners a tantalizing glimpse at what the new platforms of the time had to offer with its insane rendered graphics mixed with polygonal elements.  It may not have lived up to its potential due to shallow gameplay but was still fun in short bursts.  It was an ambitious title; so ambitious in fact that it had to be split into two parts.  One would expect Clockwork Knight 2 to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps but it actually offers many improvements that make the game a more well-rounded experience.

With Chelsea rescued all should be well but unfortunately she refuses to wake up after her capture.  Even worse an unknown assailant has kidnapped her again, meaning you’ll once again have to explore the confines of the house to save the princess once again.

Pepperouchau has the same core abilities as last time so those familiar with the first game can jump right in.  As the original Keyblade wielder he can attack with his sword, pick up and carry items, and push and pull objects.  His jump is still a flailing mess and can be hard to time because of his lack of momentum however there aren’t too many instances where platforming is a life and death matter.

Like its predecessor the game is broken down into another set of four rooms with two sub stages and a boss battle to cap it off.  Though it shares the same premise Clockwork Knight 2 does far more with its gameplay accoutrements, fulfilling the promise the first game had.  The level of interactivity in each stage has been significantly increased with far more items to toy around with.  Books reveal enemies or platforms, toys in the distant background launch attacks in you direction, and other static objects spring to life to either help or hinder your progress.  Each room in the house feels alive in a way that the first game never achieved.

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At times there are dual planes like Guardian Heroes and you’ll need to switch back and forth constantly to reach the end of each level.  The more complex level design is a welcome addition as the base mechanics are so simple.  The game gives you more opportunities to use your abilities with far more blocks and books to push and pull to reveal optional paths and items.  Using your key to wind up toy boxes or other activate gears plays a larger role in the proceedings this time out aside from its extra damaging function.  You’ll have to utilize all of these tools to find hidden items such as the added cards which gives you a secret code to hidden option screen once all 32 are collected.  Good luck on that, they are well hidden.

In addition to the improved level design there are a few levels that finally allow you to slap a saddle on your trusty steed Barobaro for some auto scrolling action.  The “horse’ if you can call it that might look silly but these stages are anything but, filled with some of the game’s best moments.  As you navigate a toy race track, dodging falling pins and destroyed rails at every turn you’ll realize this is what the original should have been.  Or how about octopi on sail boats trying to assault you from behind while toy sharks try to take a chunk out of your ass through broken segments of track?

Overall the game is about the same length as the original which means experienced gamers will finish it in a few hours at most.  Thought it has its moments this is not a challenging title.  Sega seemed to be aware of this and as such have grafted a wealth of additional content, most of which offer even more rewards for completion.  Bosses galore turns the game into a Treasure style boss rush featuring every end level boss from both games.  Earning a master ranking unlocks some pretty fun minigames that are definitely worth the trouble.  Movie mode lets you watch all of the game’s FMV cutscenes as well as a few extras.  The quality of the video isn’t the greatest but it’s an excellent feature; as prevalent as FMV was during that generation you’d think more games would have provided such a feature.

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The same basic engine is being used however Clockwork Knight 2 is a far more interesting title to look at thanks to a sharper resolution and better art direction.  The rooms you’ll visit this time out are far more varied, from the toy laden kid’s room, the steamy bath to the darkly lit and more serious study.  Even after all these years the way the game uses its polygons to build each environment and how it rotates as you move from section to section is amazing to see in action.  The bosses as well are better designed; no more ugly low resolution rendered sprites here.

This is a better title in every category that counts and a platformer worthy of being a part of the 32-bit era.  It has its slight flaws but those are outweighed by the sheer fun and variety the game has on offer.

8-out-of-101

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Cyber Speedway

Sega’s racing game history in arcades probably stretches back farther than anyone with the likes of Outrun and Hang-On putting them on the map.  They were even one of the pioneers in pushing 3d with Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter.  Their original home efforts usually didn’t receive as much fanfare. While everyone remembers Daytona and Sega Rally next to no one ever mentions Cyber Speedway (known as Gran Chaser in Japan), an early Saturn effort from the creators of Ranger-X that could be viewed as the Sega equivalent of Wipeout (before they got a version of Wipeout themselves) minus that game’s quality although it is a semi-competent game in itself.

In the future alien planets across the galaxy have decided to end all hostilities, instead airing out their grievances in the intergalactic Cyber Race tournament.  With planet Earth at “war” with Kaladasia it falls on your shoulders to represent Earth in the CR tournament and win for the sake of peace.

I’ll say right now that the story is the highest grade of cheese.  Told through cutscenes in between each race your character is the unlikely hope of humanity as he competes against rivals from each planet the Cyber Race stops.  These cutscenes, if you can call them that, are just a series of pixelly still images with hilariously bad voice acting.  Even worse than the extreme grain in the backdrops are the cut and paste character portraits layered on top of them; it’s as if someone who had just received photoshop created them with their jagged edges.

Outside of the story what about the rest of the game?  Story mode consists of five races across numerous planets.  In Standard Mode you only have to place in the top three to move on while those seeking a challenge can try Advanced where it’s come in first or go home.  With 5 continues per each leg of the tourney only the most terrible drivers won’t be able to complete the game.

Rather than cars you control sleds and all that entails.  Each planet has a unique sled with all possessing unique properties in terms of handling, speed, acceleration, cornering and such.  Aside from each crafts’s characteristics you have a number of factors you can alter prior to each race like Wave Race 64. The engine can be tuned for power or speed, steering can be adjusted to light or heavy and the pressure of the brakes can be tuned.  For those that are unsure you can leave it at neutral which at the bare minimum is workable.  The terrain of each planet poses its own challenges so tailoring your craft appropriately can yield fantastic results when done properly.

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Once you hit the track the controls aren’t perfect but manageable.  Regardless of how you’ve tricked out your sled relying on the normal brakes to power through corners is useless and the Ridge Racer school of power drifting does not exist in this game.  The air brakes will be your life line as they enable sharp, almost 90 degree turns.  Most of the tracks don’t have much in the way of really out there corkscrews and curves but considering the number of drone cars littering the track who absolutely love to ram you the air brakes are needed.  The focus is largely placed on avoiding the many obstacles that populate each track such as the large icicles of Glacies or the random fireballs of Evoflammas.  There are rockets you can use to destroy some of these as well as temporarily stop other sleds but actually hitting anything with these is a pain in the ass due to the erratic frame rate.

The functional controls are almost ruined by the game’s inconsistent frame rate however.  When you are alone or only facing one competitor it seems fine but once 3 or more cars are on screen the game starts to stutter and screw up your timing.  The “jumpiness” is noticeable and can lead to slamming into walls at the worst moments.  Each race is 5 laps long and can feel excruciatingly long and its nerve wracking to feel as though your hard earned first place run can be lost at a moment’s notice because the game can’t keep up.

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From a graphics standpoint Cyber Speedway has its moments but lacks the graphical polish and flair of Wipeout.  Famed artist Syd Mead as the visual lead and his artistic touch is evident in the design of each world.  The sleds themselves are sleek and futuristic and designed in such a way that a minimum number of polygons were used in their creation and they still look great.  The worlds themselves are full of pretty artsy elements such as the dragons and centipedes of the sky planet or the icy stalactites of Glacius.  However the game lacks the lighting effects and especially the awesome transparencies in Wipeout and it shows.  The ugly morai pattern used in Saturn games in place of true transparency is ugly and sticks out many tracks.  There’s some nasty pop-up on many of the tracks although it isn’t Daytona USA bad.  I found the game’s soundtrack to be pretty bad; it tests your patience for butt rock and is really inappropriate.

The unreliable framerate hampers the games controls but even then I’m sure most will have completed the story mode in one sitting.  Outside of Time Trials and multiplayer Cyber Speedway has no unlockable content, meaning you’ll have seen everything it has to offer in about two hours.  With better racing games on the market (and same platform) I can’t really recommend it no matter how much I wanted to like it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Guardian Heroes

By the mid-90s beat ‘em ups had run their course in terms of popularity.  The once popular side scrolling brawler could not bear the burden of mediocrity that had infected the genre on the 16-bit platforms.  Most of these games were content to implement the bare minimum in terms of play mechanics with no innovation and even the standard bearer at the time, Final Fight, suffered in the process.  Ironically Capcom’s own Dungeon & Dragons series was exactly what the genre needed.

Along came Treasure who in one fell swoop created one of the best brawlers of all time, Guardian Heroes.  And it was their first Saturn game!  Guardian Heroes took the best of every game that came before it, the RPG mechanics of River City Ransom, the branching paths in Final Fight 3, and combined it with a battle system with more depth than most fighting games to create a game that is more fun every time you play it.  It didn’t receive the popularity and sales it deserved due to the Saturn’s fortunes in the US but thanks to its recent rerelease on XBLA a new generation of gamers can experience greatness at its finest.

The spirits of Earth and Sky waged war long ago and in an effort to win the war the Sky spirits granted humans the use of magic.  The Earth spirits were defeated however in fear the Sky spirits imprisoned the new wizards along with them.  One of these wizards, Kanon manages to escape and take over the kingdom in secret to search for the legendary sword said to be able to end his reign.  Four warriors (Han, Ginjirou, Randy and Nicole) have found the legendary sword but before they can celebrate their success Serena, a former knight informs them that the knights of the kingdom are coming for it in force, enveloping them in the struggle between the Wizard kingdom and the true royal family.

Every character has their strengths and weaknesses but you have the opportunity to fix their flaws or enhance their strengths through leveling up.  You gain one point per level gained and at the end of each stage can assign points to strength, defense, agility, vitality, magic and luck.   The maximum level you can reach is 200 but that won’t happen in one session.  Technically you can completely ignore a character’s given niche, such as building up Randy’s strength rather than spell power but honestly that would be dumb.  Don’t put so much stock in my words however, the system is there for you to explore!

At first the sheer chaotic nature of the game’s combat will seem overwhelming.  In the opening moments of the game as many as 6-8 enemies will attack at once, a far cry from the days of two antagonists assailing you with one waiting their turn for an ass whipping.  Guardian Heroes uses a three plane system similar to some of the Fatal Fury 3 to help manage the ensuing chaos.  It takes a few minutes to adjust especially as the enemies will use it to their advantage and flank you.  It quickly becomes second nature to switch lanes and wait for them to follow or to take a breather.  Some of the most devastating spells in the game can only be avoided this way; if you’re unfortunate enough to face the likes of Kanon G. Grey you won’t survive unless you use this tactic.

Every character has an array of special moves with different priorities depending on whether you’ve used a weak or strong attack.  Special moves are executed using Street Fighter style commands and in fact the controls are near identical to a fighting game.  Han is powerful but slow with most of his attacks knocking back enemies and inflicting large slices of damage.  His overwhelming strength covers up his near lack of magic.  Ginjirou has average strength but excellent speed making him a combo powerhouse in concert with his selection of spells.  Randy is fun to use since you’ll focus almost exclusively on his spells which is in contrast to Nicole, whose magic is purely defensive.  It sounds lopsided in favor the melee combatants but using your Undead companion to shore up your weaknesses is key.  The only issue is finding a moment to bring up his command menu in the heat of battle.

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The single most important skill you’ll learn when playing Guardian Heroes is crowd control.  Most stages are only a few minutes long but in that time you’ll face upwards of 20-30 enemies total, sometimes as many as 10 at once.  Prioritizing the largest threat will go a long way towards staying alive and it doesn’t always pay to be a hero.  The undead hero is invincible so there’s no shame in hanging back and letting him do some of the work for you.  Just as you can string together a long series of combos and clear the screen in moments it’s possible to be the victim of a chain of juggling attacks that can wipe you out with no chance to retaliate which is unfair.  That’s perhaps the game’s only major flaw; it shows little restraint in regards to its insanity and can be hard to keep up with.  It sucks to waste your limited continues due to random string of cheap attacks; the large mechs and trolls will be the bane of your existence.

Those that master the battle system will be rewarded with a long quest by genre standards that takes close to two or three hours to complete the first time through.  The game has insane replay value through its multiple paths and endings.  There are thirty stages total but you’ll only see nine or ten each run.  After certain levels you are presented with three to five choices as to how to proceed with each one affecting the eventual outcome.  Depending on your choice of hero and the paths you take you’ll face one of five final bosses and receive one of seven endings.  To see everything will take at least 10 hours which is more than you can say about most brawlers in general.

Once you’ve exhausted all of the single player content the multiplayer mode offers a ton of variety as nearly every enemy you’ve come across in the Story mode becomes playable for up to six people.  Having said that it doesn’t resemble anything you would call balanced but for the number of options available it’s fun in a Super Smash Brothers manner.

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Guardian Heroes’ graphics have a unique look that no other game can match.  The graphics are heavily pixelated since all of the sprites need to scale from the distant background to the foreground.  It’s off putting at first but the level of detail poured into the animation and special attacks makes up for it. The spell effects become a problem when magic is used by more than two or three characters, engulfing the screen in pyrotechnics and making you lose sight of your character.  The character designs were done by the same artist as Gunstar Heroes with a few villains making a cameo.  The huge limbs/small joints combo is certainly weird but unique and gives the game its own visual identity.  The music uses a wider range of instruments than what was possible on the Genesis and is generally excellent.

What more is there to say about Guardian Heroes?  It takes the beat ‘em up genre and gives it a swift kick in the ass, showcasing more inventive play mechanics and ideas than the majority of these games combined.  Not only is it one of the best Saturn games of all time but one of the brightest stars in the genre next to Streets of Rage 2 and Double Dragon.

9-out-of-10

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Golden Axe: the Duel

Sure why not?  Everyone else was doing it.  Golden Axe: the Duel is another in the long line of franchises that ditched their original genre and took to the streets to settle their differences.  After the dismal Golden Axe 3 I suppose anything is an improvement.  The Duel is a decent Street Fighter that simply isn’t good enough.  Around the time of its release SNK were firing on all cylinders with the King of Fighters series and their other fighting game franchises, Capcom had unleashed Street Fighter Alpha, and I haven’t even mentioned the 3d fighting games that were emerging.  Sega could easily have ported Revenge of Death Adder to the Saturn rather than creating this decent but derivative fighting game.  Ultimately that is the Duel’s biggest flaw; it tries to cram in so many features from other games that it doesn’t have an identity of its own.

Years have passed since Death Adder threatened the world during his reign of terror.  But just as soon as the memories of those times have passed a magical axe is discovered, sparking a new war for its power.  With the promise that this new Golden Axe can grant anything its owner desires 10 combatants step up to see who will ultimately possess the weapon and have their heart’s desire granted.

Thematically and stylistically the Duel resembles Samurai Shodown on more than one front.  It features the same scaling technique when fighters are further apart, it’s primarily a weapons based fighter, and some of the roster wouldn’t look out of place in SNK’s slasher, most notably Green and Jamm.  I don’t fault Sega from patterning the game after such a bonafide classic.  Samurai Shodown practically revolutionized the genre with its weapons based combat and slightly historical roster.  The similarities end there however.

Although you don’t get to choose any of the familiar Golden Axe heroes their descendants have picked up the slack.  Kain Blade takes after Stern Blade and is analogous to Ryu and Ken.  Milan Flare is a lot like Chun Li and the rest of the cast falls into some of the same tropes.  Having said that there are a few that have a unique play style such as Keel and Zoma with their magic. There are a few that are call backs to some of the popular enemies from the series; Panchos resembles the hulking twin bosses in the first stage of the original Golden Axe and Death Adder is…Death Adder.  It’s not as though the series had a long line of memorable characters to draw from so in that respect I think Sega did a good job of creating a cast that fits within the Golden Axe universe.

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With the same familiar six button setup if you’ve played nearly any fighting game over the last decade or two you can jump right in.   Although the controls are responsive the combat doesn’t have the necessary “flow” that you would expect from a top tier title.  Stringing together a series of well-timed blows to form combos feels more like an accident than natural result of the combat system.  The game’s slow speed is the culprit in my opinion.  The original arcade release came in late 1994, still a year or two away from the manic Vs. series.  But even taking that into consideration you have to remember the 16-bit renditions of Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Super Street Fighter offered various speed settings and accommodated gamers of all stripes.  The few speed settings available do little to make combat feel fluid with the game still maintaining the same lethargic pace.  The computer’s AI can be cheap at times but nothing that will result in controller throwing rage.

The game’s sole original feature is a nod to the series roots.  The sneaky little elves that would steal your items between levels make an appearance throughout each match.  By kicking them they drop potions or meat to restore life. Collecting five potions allows you to power up and dole out massive damage and activate your super move.  The elves are a constant presence so that either you or the computer can take advantage of this feature with regularity.  A well-timed power boost can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat but the same applies to the AI.

Despite this The Duel is amazingly light on options.  There’s only the standard arcade mode and a versus mode to beat up on your friends.  Even in 1996 this was spartan.  Tekken 2 was released the same year with a ton of extra characters, an extended practice section and numerous versus modes.  With no hidden characters, artwork or any other unlockables the game is only interesting for an hour or two before you’ve seen all it has to offer.

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The game’s content (or lack of) is disappointing but the visuals aren’t.  These are some of the largest 2d sprites from that era and each are exquisitely animated.  The backgrounds are excellently drawn and feature some minor bits of fan service for those looking closely.  The special effects when performing super moves are the game’s graphical highlight.  What isn’t are the ugly pixelated closeups when the game decides to zoom in to better capture the action.

Golden Axe the Duel was originally released in the arcade like Return of Death Adder so there was the possibility of a perfect conversion of that gem.  Why Sega chose to convert this ho hum fighting game that lacked the features and graphics of its competition at the time (Street Fighter Alpha & King of Fighter’s ’95) we’ll never know but it stings knowing there was a far superior game begging for a home port.

5-out-of-101

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Dragon Force

I wasn’t always a fan of strategy games, I‘ll freely admit to that.  I was raised in a simpler time where big dumb action movies starring Sly and Schwarzenegger were released practically every week.  The games of the time reflected that leaving me with little reason to flex my brain muscles.  But as I became an older and wiser gamer games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle gave me a new appreciation for the strategic gameplay.  But it was Dragon Force that would truly make me a fan of the genre.  To this day it still remains one of the best strategy RPGs ever made.

Long ago the world of Legendra was saved from disaster from the evil god Madruk by the star dragon Harsgalt.  His chosen warriors, the Dragon Force let their pride and personal disputes get in the way of their alliance, leaving the dragon to face Madruk alone.  Lacking the power to destroy him Harsgalt instead sealed him away to one day be destroyed by a new Dragon Force should the need arise.

300 years later Legendra is governed by 8 monarchs.  The peace enjoyed throughout the world is shattered when Fandaria’s Goldark declares war on the rest of the world, spurring the remaining seven into action.  But this is just the beginning of a much larger threat as Madruk has begun to stir….

Although the premise is strong enough to propel the game ultimately Dragon Force isn’t story heavy.  The important story bits occur only when you’ve subdued one of the eight members of the DF and at other set points within the game closer to the end.  Every ruler has a few character and story events  that are unique to their quest which avoids making replaying the game monotonous.  Working Designs did an excellent job instilling some amount of personality into each general, no small feat considering the sparse dialogue they have and their jokes are well timed.

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Dragon Force is unlike any other strategy game you’ve ever played barring Brigandine, an obscure PlayStation release I doubt most have heard of.  Initially you can choose from any of 6 monarchs who all occupy a certain region of the map.  All leaders have 5 generals and 3 castles to start and the object of the game is to unite the Dragon Force, which basically means taking over each kingdom the order left to your devices.  Some emperors have it tougher than others; Leon is situated in the middle of the continent and will have to fend off attacks from all sides to expand.  Mikhal is on the border of Fandaria and Tradnor, making it tough to branch out since he is attacked relentlessly.  Conversely Junon is located to the far north and can see an encroaching force coming a mile away, not that most will bother to come that far.

The game is split into two halves.  The Risk style world map can be scrolled to observe each region, something you’ll want to do as every kingdom has the same goal and will make their own moves to accomplish them.  It’s fascinating to watch as nation tries to muscle in other territories and observe the wins and losses since it can benefit you at the same time.  Waiting for the moment that say Leon is left with one castle and no generals will make your job easier.  This is only scratching the surface of the depth available.

The administration phase will occur every 10-15 minutes and will freeze everything as you hold court.  Here you can bestow awards on your generals, increasing the max number of troops they can command as well as keeping their loyalty.  You can speak to each general to see their state of mind and suss out who is currently thinking of leaving or which castles to search as well as try and recruit any captives you might have picked up in the field.  Lastly you can search your castles for items and weapons to pass out.  There is no limit during this phase and once you’ve built up a sizable number of generals it does become tedious but beneficial to take your time and do everything.

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With over 150 Generals in the game many share the same sprite but that’s for a reason beyond budgetary concerns.  All generals have a class that informs their special abilities.  These special abilities can turn the tide of battle when used correctly and have to be taken into consideration when choosing who to face off against.  A spirit user might be terrible in a duel but can decimate your troops with a spell such as holy shield; ninjas can completely shut down mages with assassin star, etc.  Class also plays a factor if a battle comes down to a duel.  Dragons and samurai make excellent duelists while any magic user will most likely lose.

Attacking or defending a castle will initiate combat.  Its’ very Street Fighter like in its presentation, allowing you to choose which general to face the current opponent, the battle quotes, and the timed combat functioning as a sort of round system.  Should both sides use up all of their soldiers it becomes a duel.  You can either choose to fight without any direct control or retreat which might lead to that unit’s capture.  Once the timer runs out in a battle it’s a draw with both characters unavailable for the remainder of combat.

All generals and leaders command a particular set of troops, be it soldier, monks, mages, archers, cavalry, harpies, samurai and dragons.  There’s a hierarchy of strengths and weaknesses between all types, with dragons at the top.  Samurai for instance decimate dragons while mages drop harpies like a knife through butter.  Not that these can’t be subverted of course; with the right battle formation it’s entirely possible for 20 soldiers to destroy 60 beastmen with few casualties.

Speaking of formations, there’s an almost overwhelming number at your fingertips once battle starts.  The different forms under defense and offense will grant bonuses to your troops such as increased strength or speed.  Depending on the formation an enemy chooses different options become available such as squad or breach.  There isn’t any one formation that will assure victory every time and in fact choosing incorrectly can and will have disastrous results.  You can issue commands on the fly so long as you don’t choose melee, which turns your army into a free for all.

Perhaps Dragon Force’s greatest strength is its accessibility.  The game’s menus and presentation belie its depth. You start off with a small but capable force and the game eases you into its mechanics.  As your army grows in size it becomes much easier to send out smaller forces to seize new castles.  Not to say that the game is easy but unless your emperor is killed in battle you’ll never see the game over screen.  I mentioned that there isn’t a set strategy that you can use to win every battle but there is one or two that prove a bit too effective in 90% of the battles you’ll come across.  Towards the end of the game once you’ve conquered most of the known world it does feel a bit routine as you invade other lands but I’d prefer that to feeling like an underdog every time considering the military might I’ve built up.

And the replay value is completely off the charts!  Playing the game as a different member of the Dragon Force will give you a new perspective on certain events and in combination with their starting zone a somewhat different experience.  Once you’ve completed the game once the last two emperors become available and will change your views about the true nature of the “war” being raged in Legendra.  Exploring out of the way locations on the world map will yield hidden characters or items with some unique to each scenario.  While your first play through might take 15-20 hours based on the fact that you’ll need time to come to grips with the game’s numerous systems as well as constantly taking and defending strongholds each subsequent run will only take a third of that time.  When the game is this good its more than worth it and most of all fun to play it multiple times.

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The Saturn was designed to be a 2d powerhouse and Dragon Force makes ample use of its power.  Watching as 200 mid-sized sprites clash is still impressive today without a hint of slowdown.  The spell effects are pleasing to the eye without being over the top.  There’s some pixelization going on in the backgrounds and sprites but considering the scale of the battles you won’t even care.  The cut scenes use high quality 2d art and there’s quite a bit of it illustrating the most important story bits.  Between the 8 characters that’s a lot of artwork.  The game also has an incredible and varied soundtrack but sparse voice work.

There’s no question in my mind that Dragon Force is one of the best strategy Rpgs ever released.  For the amount of depth the game offers it is accessible to nearly anyone with even a slight interest in the genre.  Unfortunately it’s hard to find as Working Designs no longer exists. The PS2 re-release never hit our shores so prepare to possibly pay a high amount to sample gaming greatness.  I don’t know what your pricing threshold is but I can guarantee Dragon Force is worth your while.

9-out-of-10

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Shinobi Legions


Coming off the heels of Shinobi III Sega basically could do no wrong when it came to the ninja action genre.  They OWNED that shit.  After creating what could be viewed as the quintessential action game of the 16-bit era they had a tall order on their hands in terms of one upping themselves.  Just how do you follow up a game that good?  With the 32X and Saturn on the horizon there were many options on the table but it’s safe to say no one expected them to go the digitized route in creating Shinobi Legions.

Kazuma, Sho, and Aya are three adopted students raised as siblings and trained in ninjitsu.  When Kazuma becomes power hungry and leaves Sho and Aya remain and learn the ultimate technique of their art.  Years later Kazuma returns with an army and kidnaps Aya in a bid to learn the secrets from his adopted relatives.

Why Sega of Japan went with digitized sprites in their first and only Saturn outing for the franchise will forever remain a mystery.  I suppose they wanted to show off the system’s strengths but could have done a better job with hand drawn art.  This was 1995 and while Mortal Kombat and digitized graphics were still en vogue the procession of terrible FMV games that killed the Sega CD in the US still lingered, so much so that Sega of America passed on releasing this.  I suppose one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and Vik Tokai would pick it up but I question whether they should have bothered.

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While it might seem similar to Shinobi III on the surface the gameplay focus has shifted to sword play rather than the heavy shuriken tossing of prior games.  Now that the sword has its own individual button it opens up a number of new gameplay possibilities.  You can reflect projectiles with the right timing and there are a number of sword techniques to break up the monotony of melee combat.  Shuriken are almost completely useless since they are weak and in rare supply.

The melee heavy gameplay would actually work if the game didn’t feel so slow.  There’s a sense of clumsiness to Sho’s movements and the game in general lacks the responsiveness established by prior games.  While the katana techniques try to add variety they don’t make up for the elements that were scrapped; the 4 or 5 ninjitsu spells have been paired down to one and the POW item that massively boosted your attack power is replaced with a Bushido Blade, which oddly creates shadowy Buddha statues when swung.

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Any of this seem familiar?

The level design frankly is poor and comes across as pandering to longtime series fans, especially the later ones that are call backs to Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III.  Most levels drag on longer than they should and don’t have the assets necessary to pull it off, resulting in the same background elements being recycled three to 4 times in succession.  You’ll cover a lot of familiar territory such as a forest, bio lab, ancient Japanese temples but they look a bit silly and dated due to the digitized graphics.

The graphics never seem to come together as a cohesive whole.  The digitized actors might look impressive but animate like puppets on a string.  The costumes certainly don’t help either and come across as cheap.  The enemies in general are a disappointment; the human opponents are passable but anytime the designers throw in supernatural elements that don’t exist the dichotomy is instantly noticeable.  The dinosaur in the bio lab and the demon that follows are prime examples of elements that don’t gel.

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I will say the backgrounds have their moments and are the best parts of the overall visual package.  There are a few genuine points where you’ll stop and marvel at their photo realism despite the low resolution.  The digital process had only been used on sprites for the most part to this point so seeing another implementation of the technology was welcome even if it was short lived.

The cut scenes more than anything else are the most egregious misstep.  The production values are below TV standards with bad costumes and fight choreography abounds.  It’s on the same level as an old episode of Power Rangers just to give you an idea.  The dialogue was left untouched and is subtitled which for a game released in 1995 was a ballsy move.  I don’t speak Japanese so I won’t comment on the acting but considering the rest of the package I’ll err on the side of caution and say is bad.

Shinobi Legions isn’t a completely bad game but comes across as sloppy.  Had the gameplay been tightened than the issues with the presentation could be overlooked but as is this is a case of a good ideas executed wrong.

6-out-of-101

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Christmas Nights

Say what you will about Sega but at the very least they’ve always shown that they care about their fans.  The period between 1995-1998 was tumultuous for them to say the least but even in spite of their sinking fortunes they still found time to throw the fans a bone.  Nights into Dreams was their major holiday release in 1996 once Sonic Xtreme was delayed but its initial release was rushed.  Rather than charge full price as a separate release Christmas Nights as it was called was instead bundled with various magazines back in 1996 as a demo/thank you to the fans.

Both Claris and Elliott are celebrating the holiday season after their adventure in Nightopia but can’t shake the feeling that something is amiss.  The two discover that the Christmas Star that lights up the Twin Seeds Christmas tree is missing and set out to Nightopia to recover it.

Despite the story taking place after Nights into Dreams this isn’t a sequel.  As a sampler disc intended to give gamers a taste of what the full blown version of Nights has to offer the game more than succeeds but it also has enough content to stand alone as an individual release.  For those that were enamored with Nights’ gameplay Christmas Nights has a number of extra modes that extend the life of the game.  If the gameplay wasn’t your cup of tea than there isn’t much to change your mind.

The primary thrust of the game is the two separate paths through Spring Valley for both Elliot and Claris.  Since Spring Valley was exclusively Claris’ dream Elliot’s version has a new layout.  Even if you’ve played the original release the Christmas version of the level feels completely new thanks to the holiday decorations strewn throughout.  The Ideya Capture is a Christmas tree, items have become Christmas presents, and the Nightopians now resemble elves.

The goal is still the same, to collect enough Ideas to destroy the Idea Capture and use the remaining bonus time to accumulate the highest score possible.  Prior knowledge of Spring Valley will come in handy to maximize your score, something that actually has an actual tangible bonus attached now.  After beating GIllwing your score is tallied up and used to determine how many chances you have to open presents.

A simple match making game will unlock a large number of extra features, most of it high resolution artwork.  However hidden underneath the cards is a selection of extra modes all accessible through the Presents menu.  If you’re good enough it should only take 4-5 runs to unlock everything.  The Karaoke mode simply allows you to sing along with the series theme song Dreams, Dreams with lyrics on screen so you don’t embarrass yourself.  In fact the entire soundtrack for the original game is here for your listening pleasure with tools to dissect and manipulate each song.

The three most substantial extra are Sonic into Dreams, Time Attack, and my personal favorite, Link Attack.  Sonic into Dreams casts you as Sonic the Hedgehog, free to explore Spring Valley as you see fit since the alarm clock no longer exists.  You still have to collect ideas and blow up the idea capture except Sonic can only run and jump extremely high.  His limits were taken into consideration so that any stray ideas will automatically come to you once close enough.  The boss is a Robotnik skinned version of Puffy complete with final boss theme from Sonic CD to boot.  Personally it’s a minor curiosity for those interested in what it would be like to control Sonic in a full 3d world.

Time Attack is a smaller section of Frozen Bell which tasks you with collecting all of the items in the area and reaching the goal as fast as possible.  Link Attack arranges a set number of ideas, rings, and stars along the course and seeing how high of a streak you can build up and keep going.  It’s a short course but there are definitely a number of minor tricks you can use to keep that number climbing higher, especially as the window to get the next link shrinks the longer you progress.  My only issue with these extras is that it’s only the one course for each but this is only supposed to be a sampler after all.

But there’s more!  Although it’s called Christmas Nights playing around with the Saturn’s internal clock will release even more extras.  Outside of Christmas the game defaults to just the regular versions of Spring Valley.  During November and January the game will have a winter theme minus the Christmas story to match.  Finally April Fool’s Day will unlock Reala as a playable character who is sadly only a reskinned Nights.  I guess we can appreciate the gesture.

Finding an original Christmas Nights is all but impossible but fear not!  The recent rerelease of Nights into Dreams on XBLA, PSN, and  PC includes Christmas Nights meaning you get the full game as it was originally intended.  At $10 or $15 you’ll more than get your money’s worth with this excellent package.

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Clockwork Knight

For all of Sega’s misfortune in the gaming you have to give credit where it’s due, they were always thinking ahead of the curve.  The Sega Channel can be seen as an early form of the digital distribution system we enjoy today.  They were one of the first to embrace CD technology in video games along with NEC.  Sega were one of the pioneers of 3d gaming with their Model 1 and 2 arcade games.  A year before Toy Story would shock the world Sega released Clockwork Knight, a platformer that loosely shared the same ideas.

Every night Chelsea the Clockwork Fairy Princess awakens the toys of the house with her voice at midnight.  Sir Pepperouchau III is in love with her along with his rival Ginger.  When a mysterious force spirits Chelsea away Pepper springs into action to save her.

In 1994/95 Clockwork Knight was something of a showcase for the 32-bit Saturn. Its mix of rendered graphics with polygonal elements was unheard of at the time and visually shocking.  Granted Donkey Kong Country managed to squeeze rendered graphics into an SNES cartridge but not to this level. But for Clockwork Knight’s entire technical prowess it is ultimately an above average platformer that is more content to play by the numbers than really use its premise for exciting gameplay.

As Pepperouchau you are toy soldier armed with a keyblade (suck it Kingdom Hearts fans Nomura didn’t invent that shit!) for offense.  The keyblade can be used to directly attack enemies or twist it for extra damage.  The standard jab is weak but will daze enemies, allowing you to pick them up and toss them.  Twisting the keyblade can also be used to open boxes or passages by inserting it and winding it like a gear.  There are a few items to collect, such as clocks for extra time (not that it’s ever necessary), gears for health, and invincibility but for the most part you won’t be needing them.

The entire game takes place inside the house of Pepperouchau’s owner with each set of levels taking place in a different room of the house.  The first thing you’ll need to come to grips with is that Clockwork Knight is not a Mario or Sonic game; the platforming is slow and deliberate.  Pepper is not the most agile protagonist as evidenced by his slow sprint and flailing jumps.  Although the levels are timed there is more than enough time to explore each level for extra lives and health.

As you move through the house the varying toy themed hazards change as you progress.  Clockwork Knight does take advantage of the fact that all of the enemies and hazards are composed of simple items, much like Monster in my Pocket.  Pencils serve as spiked pits, stove tops are furnaces, and books serve as blockades that need to be pushed out of the way.  The level design can be clever at times, such as navigating the train tracks of stage 5 or exploring a castle made of Lego bricks. Had Sega not been so conservative in terms of the game’s design this could have been a blockbuster.

Despite its premise Clockwork Knight is ultimately boring.  As hard as it is to believe the fact that it comfortably sits in the sweet spot of not too hard but not too easy is a detriment.  Most enemies don’t seem the slightest bit interested in attacking you and are easily dispatched.  Most levels can be completed by making a bee line to the exit with little opposition, ignoring the myriad floating platforms if you like.  Extra lives are frequent, and with a little luck can be amassed quickly in the bonus stages after every boss.  What little challenge there is available comes in the boss battles.  While their patterns are easy to recognize the bosses such as the toy Transformer move faster than you.

The argument of hand drawn art versus rendered graphics raged for many years and while certain games made a case in favor of the rendered plastic ultimately hand drawn art proved timeless.  Clockwork Knight is ultimately a victim of this war, with its low resolution rendered backgrounds looking dated today.  The color palette is extremely drab and off putting as well.  The polygonal background objects stick out like a sore thumb with little attention given to make them look as though they belong.  The full motion video cut scenes suffer from the terrible video compression used in the Saturn’s early years and barely look better than a Sega CD game.  At least the soundtrack still holds up.

It’s hard to think of any game that does a better job of being slightly above average.  Maybe Sega spent so much time on the visuals that they forgot they had to build a compelling game around it.  Who knows.  In the end while Clockwork Knight isn’t a bad game there’s little reason to come back to it.

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Daytona USA

There’s no polite way to say it: the Saturn version of Daytona USA is one of the most disappointing home console ports of all time.  As the 16-bit era waned and magazines were flooded with all kinds of technical details of the upcoming consoles the dream of owning arcade perfect ports of the most famous quarter crunchers was starting to become a reality.  Even considering Sega’s long history in the arcade Daytona USA caused quite a stir as the first game to use Sega’s new Model 2 arcade board.  It would be a tall order for any system to faithfully replicate the game’s graphics but even when taking that into consideration the Saturn version is a massive disappointment.

Released in arcades worldwide in 1994 Daytona USA was a graphical powerhouse, with a full 60 fps and fully texture mapped graphics for a level of detail unheard of for the time.  When compared to Virtua Racing which was released the year prior it might as well have come from another planet.  Beyond the graphics the tight controls and intricate course design made the game a sublime experience for anyone lucky enough to have sampled it.

With the impending launch of the Saturn in Japan Daytona and Virtua Fighter were viewed as the system’s killer apps.  While both games were rushed to meet the system’s release date Virtua Fighter managed to be a more than worthy port outside of a few niggling issues.  Unfortunately Daytona suffered heavily missing most of the arcade game’s graphical flourishes which also affected the gameplay.

The botched graphics were also a sticking point when compared to the PlayStation version of Ridge Racer which by all accounts was near perfect.  Although it didn’t affect Japan as much in the US Daytona and Virtua Fighter’s graphics seemed less than adequate in the face of Battle Arena Toshinden and Ridge Racer, a fact that I’m sure played a role in the PlayStation’s dominance in the US.

Daytona USA was indicative of racing games of the time in terms of content.   You have the choice of 2 cars that offer manual and automatic transmission with some differences in terms of handling and top speed.  The Saturn mode offers 2 more cars and another 6 unlockables based on your performance.  These new cars all feature some mechanic that will benefit you such as higher speed but low grip, better performance on grass or averting slowdown when crashing into walls.  Some would say it’s kind of cheating but considering you’ll have to master the courses available to receive them you more than deserve a little compensation for your trouble.

In terms of handling Daytona sits in the middle between the drifting of most popular arcade games and more complex simulation racers.  You won’t be power sliding around corners but the more punishing aspects of sim games are mostly absent.  Smashing into walls, which will happen frequently at first, will lead to car damage and require a pit stop lest you risk falling too far behind.  All 3 tracks have a varying number of laps and competing cars based on difficulty.  Once you’ve grown accustomed to the nuances of manual or automatic transmission tackling the 3 courses slightly easier.  The track design is marvelous and along with the controls is one of the few aspects this port did right.

All similarities to the arcade stop there however.  The graphics have suffered a massive hit; more than necessary even considering the quirks of the Saturn’s architecture.  The smooth 60fps was downgraded to around 20, with further dips when the screen is crowded.  The overall look is extremely pixelated which is to be expected but makes the claims of pixel perfect conversion on the back of the box laughable.

These downgrades would have been forgivable if not for the atrocious pop-up.  It was common practice in most console games of the time to use fog or clever level design to hide background details fading or “popping” into view due to the low RAM of the consoles.  Daytona doesn’t bother to hide this, with nearly 25% of the track magically appearing before your eyes at times.  This affects the gameplay considerably since you won’t be able to plan ahead at times, and the city track especially becomes near unplayable at points.  This was already a hard game at points but the terrible graphics aren’t doing it any favors.

At this point there’s no reason to revisit Daytona USA, let alone this version.  For its time it was ground breaking but the lack of options and content simply don’t hold up today.  Appreciate it as a necessary step in the evolution of racing games and nothing more.

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Astal

At the end of the 16-bit era the platformer had been perfected.  With nearly the entire industry cranking them out for the better part of a decade the mechanics typical of the genre were honed to perfection and gamers were treated to some of the finest games ever made such as Donkey Kong Country 2, Yoshi’s Island, Vectorman, and Sonic & Knuckles.  So it stands to reason that most of us expected that legacy of excellence to continue on the 32-bit platforms; boy were we naïve.  I won’t go into a rant about how terrible many of those early 3-d games were; I’ll just say that it made us appreciate the rare 2-d platformer like Astal more than ever when they were able to escape the cell the industry decided to box them in all in the name of progress.

The Goddess Antowa created the world out of a jewel, including the sky, earth, sea, and air.  To inhabit the planet she created two humans, Leda from a green jewel, and Astal from a red jewel.  Astal was created to protect Leda while the goddess slept, a job he seemed a little too eager to fulfill.  When the evil Jerado and his creation Geist kidnap Leda Astal nearly ruins the world in anger and is imprisoned on the moon.  Although Jerado is dealt with Geist is still alive and kidnaps Leda once again.  Astal breaks free to save her once again.

We should have gotten more of these damn it!

Astal was a victim of circumstance.  Sega’s decision to release the Saturn early without telling retailers meant it wasn’t well stocked.  The industry had begun its infatuation with 3-d and Astal’s beautiful 2-d art was seen as antiquated by many in the press although it still received positive reviews.  And that box art sure as hell did no favors.  However despite all of these factors Astal is a lost gem from that era and while it isn’t on the same level as the classics I mentioned previously it did offer a tantalizing glimpse as to what was possible with the new hardware.

Astal has a simple set of play mechanics.  He’s strong as hell and can thump anything in his path or throw it away, whether its enemies, trees, or boulders.  With his strength he can pound the ground, stunning most enemies for a second, even bosses.  And like Superman he can inhale and unleash his super breath.  After the first level your bird companion can be used to attack all enemies on screen or retrieve health items in a pinch.  As a nice bonus a second player can control the bird and he is armed with a nice suite of abilities although I doubt this feature saw much use.

The implementation and use of Astal’s powers are what makes the game so fun.  The pace is noticeably slower than most platformers but it doesn’t impact the action.  Although the levels are short there are enough of them that you get to exploit each of Astal’s abilities.  Entire levels are built around his powers, such as the River of Dreams, where pounding on the dragon will propel you in the air and is crucial to avoiding the spikes in your path.  Or Volanic Valley, where blowing out the flames is necessary for progress as well as defeating the fire dragon at the end.  Boss battles will challenge you to pay attention to animation cycles and use your powers in unexpected ways in order to win.

At 16 levels or so there is enough content to last quite a few hours but the game is kind of short overall.  Each level is only a few minutes long and once you’ve figured out the hook for certain stages it becomes a breeze.  Astal is not a hard game by any stretch although it can be tricky at times.  Most of these problems stem from the wonky hit detection which seems to conk out at the worst moments.  It isn’t so bad that it ruins the game but it is enough of a problem that I would be remiss if I did not mention it.

You only need to glance at a few screenshots to know that Astal is a beautiful game.  The crystal theme makes for some mesmerizing set pieces and the overall artistic direction is a literal explosion of color in your face.  It’s almost as though Sega was over compensating for the Genesis’ lack of expertise in that area. Whatever the reason Astal is a perfect example of why the Saturn was built to be a 2d powerhouse.  While the music is similarly excellent the same cannot be said of the voice acting, which is flat out bad.  The cutscenes scattered throughout the game are painful to listen to due to this.

It’s a god damn shame we didn’t receive more 2d goodness on the same level throughout that console generation.  It would have served as a counter balance to all of the terrible 3d games most developers crapped out however it did make us appreciate them even more whenever they were released.  Astal isn’t rare but it isn’t readily available in heavy supply.  Regardless of how much you pay you are in for a treat.

 

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Nights into Dreams

Inspiration for game ideas can come from all walks of life.  Allegedly Yuji Naka came up with the concept of Nights while on a flight back to Japan and in that moment a star was born.  Or should have been if Sega had not spent the following years doing their best not acknowledge his existence.  Nights is every bit a classic of that 32-bit era like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot but doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  Well I’m here to give it it’s just due.

The dreams of humans reside in two worlds, the peaceful realm of Nightopia and the twisted land of Nightmare.  The Ideya that populate Nightopia are in distress however as the ruler of Nightmare, Wizeman has been stealing all of the dream energy to conquer both worlds.  His twisted Nightmaren are the antithesis of the Ideya however one lone Nightmaren named Nights rebels and is imprisoned but not before contacting two humans with the rare attribute of courage to help save Nightopia.

It sounds hefty for a game of this type however the world building is crucial in making you care about the protagonists’ plight.  By helping Nights both Clarice and Elliott are helping themselves realize their dream which is what the game is all about.  With its unique setting and infinite replay value Nights was critically acclaimed but never reached the level of success it deserved due to the inner turmoil at Sega at the time.  However true classics never grow old and Nights remains just as fun today as it was in 1996.

While the game offers promises of free flight that isn’t completely true.  As Nights movement is restricted to a set path with numerous deviations and can fly anywhere within that zone.  While it may sound disappointing at first it works to the game’s benefit.  Offering a free roaming experience would completely kill the game’s focus on memorizing the level layout and scoring as many points as possible within the set time limit.

Each level is massive level is broken up into 4 timed sections  and a boss battle with the goal of each being the same: collect 20 Ideya and destroy the Idea Capture as soon as possible then use the remaining time to score points return to the palace at the start.  Failure to do so results in turning back into your chosen hero, losing all of your collected Ideya, your points, potentially failing the stage by being woken by the ever present clock and receiving a failing grade for that sequence.   That’s some tough shit.

The true genius of Nights in its elaborate level design.  At any given time you can see rings, Ideya and other objects in the distance that you can’t reach.  The individual segments are laid out in such a way that if you’re good enough you can chain together long strings of links and increasing your score multiplier.  Like many of the best shmups taking advantage of the scoring system will require many little tricks, such as using Nights’ paraloop maneuver to scoop up large masses of stars and Ideya in one shot rather than individually.  The vacuum basically turns you into a magnet and dragging objects behind you is necessary to create bigger chains.  There’s a risk versus reward structure to it in that the longer the chain the shorter the window to keep it alive but the rewards are justified.

For those that like to min/max Nights is basically a dream come true.  The initial run through each level section is to learn object placement and determining the best “route” for later.   No matter how many times you try there’s always some way to improve and shave a few precious seconds off each run through, thereby creating more time for another run.  I put “route” in quotations for a reason: although you are limited to a predetermined path you are not given a full view the screen and there are multiple paths in each, some less optimal than others.  So in a sense the game still manages to give you the feeling of free flight within its set parameters.

If you had to lobby any one criticism at the game it would be that there is no real sense of danger outside of running out of time.  There are very few enemies and direct collisions only result in a -5 second penalty.  Even the boss fights give you a generous 2 minutes to complete and there patterns are beyond easy to decipher.  You only need an overall C grade to unlock further stages and you’ll really have to go out of your way to screw up.  I view this as a plus to be honest as it places the focus squarely on scoring and leaving failure down to whether you can avoid being greedy and running out of time as a result.

Nights was one of the prettiest Saturn games released and even today is still beautiful.  The art direction is simply astounding and the mix of 2d backdrops and 3d objects is a perfect marriage of the Saturn’s strengths.  The heavily pixelated look adds to the game’s charm.  A number of effects not prevalent in most Saturn releases are on display such as heavy light sourcing and gourad shading.   This tight engine comes at a cost though as there is some nasty popup and that ugly mesh pattern used in place of true transparency in Saturn games rears its ugly head.  The soundtrack might be more amazing the visuals as the OST spans a range of genres such as classic music, jazz, and ambient tracks.  Hell there are a number of vocal tracks that are actually good!

So there you have it.  One of the best Saturn games released and also one of the best games of that generation Nights deserves to be experienced by anyone even slightly interested in videogames.  Sadly the Playstation2 remake is a Japan only exclusive so you have no choice but to hunt down a Saturn and a copy of the game but in my opinion it’s worth the meager amount you’ll pay.

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Score: 9 out of 10

 

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Pandemonium!

In the early days of the 32-bit era the majority of the development community floundered as they tried to figure out the best way to translate certain genres to 3D.  Through their years of working with the 3DO Crystal Dynamics certainly had a leg up on the competition but it’s still even so the quality behind Pandemonium is astonishing.  In one fell swoop CD released one of the best platformers of that console generation that still holds up today.

Magical Apprentices Nikki and Fargus are out having fun reciting spells from a book when they take things a little too far and summon a demon who promptly swallows their kingdom.   Without the skill necessary to summon him back the two set out to find the Wishing Engine to return the town back to normal.  Like Klonoa Pandemonium! is still set on a 2d plane although the world is made of polygons.  This enables the game to retain the tight precision platforming that defined the 16-bit era while offering exceptional graphics for the time.  Sometimes what’s old is new again and in this case Pandemonium! was a breath of fresh air amid a glut of poor games whose only selling point was their meager attempt at 3d.

The choice between Nikki and Fargus comes down to play style.  Nikki is equipped with a very handy double jump while Fargus has a cartwheel that can take out enemies.  The levels are structured so that either of the two is a viable choice so you’ll never feel compelled to switch at every point.  There are a wealth of powerups available, with the most frequent being the various fireballs, which either burn, freeze, or shrink enemies.  The treasures that adorn each level serve multiple functions; gather 300 for an extra life and collect 80% or above will grant access to one of 2 bonus levels, much like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Now that I think about it, the Sonic comparison is apt.  No you’re not rolling into a ball at breakneck speeds, I mean level design.  Each level has multiple paths with some that favor each character.  Then there are the routes that accessible only by skilled gamers who can chain together multiple bounces off enemies with suitable rewards to match.  Certain levels will transform you into different animals for extended periods and these sections are a riot.  The Rhinoceros can gore enemies on his horn but is powerless to stop the dinosaurs on his ass.  My favorite is being turned into a slow moving turtle before a nightmarish segment involving rotating saw blades.  When the developers are having fun so do we.

The levels are very trippy since the camera is all over the place to give you a wide range of angles to view the action.   But despite this it’s never intrusive and the variety in how you view each environment is part of what makes the game so fun.  No matter what angle the camera is tilted the controls are rock solid, a feat not too many early 3d games from that period can claim.  It also helps that they are simple but once again like the Sonic games it’s all about the implementation.  The challenge is perfectly balanced and ramps up steadily; health powerups are always handy at the exact moment you need them and it seems whenever a particularly tricky segment is coming an alternate path is available if you aren’t up to the task.  The time spent working on Gex surely benefitted this game and gamers reap the reward.

Pandemonium was exceptionally pretty in 1996 and still holds up.  The character models are chunky but that seemed to be on purpose; the backdrops are the star of the show.  Between the ever present camera switches you’ll receive views of the environment that are stunning and notice little details that would be missed if the game weren’t confined to one plane.  The lighting effects are extensive in both versions with the Saturn version lagging behind only in the transparencies.  This was a first class effort through and through.

While Pandemonium is a quality game it’s often overlooked, more than likely due to its cheery exterior.  Don’t let that stop you from sampling one of the better games released early on in the 32-bit era, especially if you’re a platform fan like I am.

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Panzer Dragoon Zwei

The beginning of the 32-bit generation was interesting to watch.  Most developers had never worked with 3d so it was interesting to see the experimental games that were created.  Sega had a huge advantage in that they had extensive experience with 3d due to their many arcade games, so when Panzer Dragoon sprang from one of their numerous development teams it wasn’t a surprise.  Sequels are always expected to expound on what made the first game great while offering more.  Even bearing this in mind the leap in quality between Panzer Dragoon and its sequel is astonishing.  To this day it remains one of the greatest rail shooters of all time.

In a rural village the superstitious townsfolk kill any mutant cooliats born with a green glow.  Lundi discovers a cooliat with wings and forgoing village tradition hides and raises it in secret.  Years later while teaching his dragon Lagi how to fly the Empire destroys Lundi’s village in an attempt to eradicate Lagi.  The chase begins to catch the Empire’s flying fortress Sestren and enact revenge.  Better than its predecessor in every way Panzer Dragoon Zwei is one of the best titles in the Saturn library with excellent graphics and deep gameplay to match.  There is literally no reason anyone with even a passing interesting in shooters should pass this up.

Unlike the original you start out on the ground.  That’s right, as cool as your dragon is he does not have the capability to fly immediately.  These ground levels serve as a welcome introduction to the game’s play mechanics without holding your hand every step of the way.  You still move along a fixed track and have free reign to position the camera in all 4 cardinal directions.  The lone addition to your arsenal is a berserk meter that slowly fills up as you wreak damage on enemies.  At any time you can cause your dragon to go ape shit and release a continuous stream of lasers at everything under the sun until it runs out.  It’s highly effective against bosses or those oh shit moments when you’ve ignored your radar.  Between your standard blaster, lock on lasers and berserk meter you are more than equipped to deal with the forces of the empire.

The action is even more intense this go round; it’s assumed that you’re at least somewhat familiar with the series but not to the point where it’s overwhelming.  Whereas the first game was a bit reserved with its enemy waves no such qualms exist this time out.  You’ll need to watch the radar like a hawk because a group of indigenous life can spawn behind you at a moment’s notice.  The level designs also show less restraint; the majority of the time the road to the end level bosses is full of many twists and turns which are also part of the game’s added depth.

Nearly every level has one or two alternate routes which not only affect the enemies you’ll face but the evolution of your dragon.  At the end of every level you are graded on a number of factors and awarded evolution points.  The number of points amassed as well as the paths taken through each level affects how your dragon will evolve in terms of size and strength.  Not only does it encourage you to do your best on at all times it adds to the replay value as well.  The only black mark I guess would be the brevity of the adventure; at 7 levels it doesn’t last too long but with separate paths as well as the Pandora’s Box that is unlocked you’ll revisit this classic many times.

By 1996 developers were settling into working with 3d and so the technical leaps in quality were a sight to behold.  Even taking that into consideration Panzer Dragoon Zwei is a generational leap in quality. The bio-mechanical enemy designs have increased in size and scale while the sharper texture detail caused no hit to the frame rate.   The Saturn’s 2-d capabilities are used in conjunction with the 3d to great effect, most notably the forest of level 3 and the snowy plains of level 5.  There are some weak effects here and there; the Saturn’s lack of hardware transparency rears its ugly head at different points such as light shafts or what is supposed to be transparent water.  But compared to the flawless art direction it’s not worth mentioning.  The atmospheric soundtrack matches the action perfectly, and fades out at select moments when necessary to emphasize crucial moments.  I would say it matches Panzer Dragoon Saga artistically but not in scale.

This is hands down one of the best games released for the Sega Saturn.  It shouldn’t run you more than a few bucks so there’s no reason to skip one of Sega’s finest endeavors.  If more rail shooters were released and of this quality I would be a happy man.

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Panzer Dragoon

Of the Saturn’s early lineup one game garnered more attention than everything else; no not Virtua Fighter, I’m talking about Panzer Dragoon.  With its distinctive art style and world it dazzled gamers on both sides of the Pacific.  Luckily it also had the gameplay to back up its pretty graphics and was one of the system’s few bright stars in the console’s early life.

Set many years in the future after an unnamed war has ravaged the planet, Panzer Dragoon tells the tale of an unnamed youth who through circumstance becomes the rider of a blue dragon. This dragon and its previous rider were on a quest to stop the ruling Imperial government from accessing a Black Tower and unleashing a power that could destroy the world.  The world and back story of Panzer Dragoon is incredibly detailed, unnaturally so for a shooter.  But that attention to detail pays off since you’ll become immersed in the lore which provides impetus and context for your actions.

Released in America in 1995 Panzer Dragoon was the strongest title available at the Saturn’s surprise launch and as such gave gamers a reason to consider taking the plunge in spite of the system’s high price due to its gameplay and graphics.  If anyone seriously considered buying a 32X to experience what 32-bit hardware was capable of I’m sure they changed their mind once they caught a glimpse of Panzer Dragoon.  The game was that good.

A rail shooter like Star Fox except on steroids, the forced scrolling allows you to focus on the many enemies that want you dead.  Although you have no control of your forward movement you can move freely within your viewing area as well as switch the camera to look to the left, right and behind you.  The bio mechanical creatures come from all sides and taking quick action to see where the hits are coming from will save your life.  To prevent death from cheap hits your radar will show which direction the enemies are coming from.  The boss battles really ratchet the intensity with mechanical behemoths that will bombard you from all sides and attempt to catch you unaware by switching sides.

Your primary form of attack is your blaster but you can also use the targeting reticule to mark up to 8 enemies to kill with the dragon’s homing lasers.  There are no power-ups, just the careful balance of power between your two weapons.  Firing shots individually is extremely effective since you can shoot rapidly.  Manual targeting is reserved for groups of weaker enemies or hitting specific weak spots effectively.  There are very few enemies that stay stationery for long periods of time so alternating between the two is mandatory for survival.

It’s a testament to Sega’s designers that the game is so compelling considering how simplistic it is at first glance.  But between the way the game effortlessly weaves in packs of smaller fodder to distract you from the large warships and beasts and the rhythm you develop to control the chaos it is most of all fun.  At 6 levels it is a bit short but you will almost certainly work to get to the end.

The beautiful graphics that were the game’s selling point haven’t aged well unfortunately.  The inconsistent frame rate takes some getting used to as well as the overall heavily pixelated look.  What does stand the test of time is the art direction.  Sega hired French artist Moebius (R.I.P)to provide artwork for the game and also drew inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausica of the Valley of Wind, creating a dystopian future different from most interpretations of the past.  The mix of science and fantasy in the game’s universe is still unique in this day and age.  The levels range from ancient temples submerged in the ocean to sweeping desert expanses full of prehistoric beasts waiting to make you their next meal.

And I can’t forget the atmospheric soundtrack and the made up language all of Panzer’s natives speak.  They really went all out in terms of production values and seeing as how 3 sequels were eventually released the world building paid off.

It isn’t easy to play this classic of the past these days.  There’s always the original Saturn version its just a matter of finding a working system.  It was released for the PC around 97 or so but that version is hard to come by and can be a bitch to get working on modern versions of Windows.  The PS2 port was only released in Japan but that remains an option.   Panzer Dragoon Orta for Xbox includes a port of the PC game but you have to finish the game first to access it.  However you come across Panzer Dragoon it is more than worth your time.

 

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Sonic R

It only made sense that Sega would follow in Nintendo’s footsteps and branch Sonic out into other genres.  The public couldn’t get enough of him and spinoffs allowed them some breathing room while working on the next major installment in the series.  This goes back as far as Sonic Spinball but it was still disappointing when Sega announced Sonic R, a racing game for the Saturn instead of the platformer gamers wanted.

Sonic R was developed by Traveller’s Tale once again and released in 1997.  Plot?  You don’t need any plot, it’s a racing game.  Sonic and friends hit the tracks to see who is the fastest that’s all you need to know.  This was not the first time Sega attempted to make Sonic lace up his shoes; the two Sonic Drift games for Game Gear preceded this but they were terrible.  Is the third time the charm?  I won’t keep you in suspense and simply say no, it is not but not for a lack of trying.  With just a little more work this could have been a decent game but is instead a forgettable misstep in terms of Sega’s handling of the character.

If you are at all familiar with Super Mario Kart then you know what to expect.  Up to 5 characters compete at the same time among a selection of 10.  On the surface the gameplay is almost exactly like SMK however Sonic R does enough to forge its own identity.  Rings collected around the track serve two purposes: speed boosts along the tracks consume 50 rings for a massive boost and certain gates require set amount of rings, granting access to shortcuts or hidden items.  Platforming is also implemented to a degree with each character possessing unique abilities that can spell the difference between a win or loss.  This would have made for a decent overall package if not for the numerous issues.

My two biggest beefs with the game are the pathetic controls and its brevity.  I can understand the developers wanting to convey the sense of speed but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the controls.  You don’t steer Sonic and pals so much as fling them around.   You move entirely too fast, making the simplest turns an exercise in frustration.  Most tracks have no boundaries so you’ll be spending more time out of bounds than finishing the race itself.  Sadly Sonic R is seriously lacking in substance as well.  There are only 5 tracks in total along with a time trial and a 2-player mode for longevity.  I guess 5 tracks was slightly more than the standard 3 most racing games of that era peddled but the vast majority of kart racers have always provided a greater selection that this game is missing.  But that simply isn’t enough.  You can see all of the content in the space of 1 hour.  6 of the 10 characters have to be unlocked but they are mostly lame robotic versions of the principle cast.

Sonic R was something of a technical powerhouse on the Saturn.  Much was said about the transparency technique employed to hide pop up and simulate hardware transparency and for the most part it works.  Sonic R has a very clean look unmatched by a significant portion of the Saturn’s library and they were able to hide the system’s deficiencies pretty well.  I can’t go any further without mentioning the music.  All of the tracks have vocal themes associated with them and the music was composed by Richard Jacques, of Sonic 3d Blast fame (or infamy).  Opinions vary from brilliant to fruity and cheesy; I fall somewhere in the middle.  The actual songs are well composed but the lyrics are cheesy.  But in the end it grew on me over time.

At this point there is no reason to even bother with Sonic R.   Hell it wasn’t worth it back in 1997 as anything other than a technical curiosity.  Less than an afternoon’s worth of content and shoddy controls mar what could have been a decent racer.  As it stands this is a reminder of Sega’s incompetency during that console generation.

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Sonic Jam

In this day and age of constant retro compilations anyone can experience classic gaming from years past.  It’s hard to believe but at one point such collections of old games were not very common, with the main standout being Super Mario Allstars.  In 1997 Sega graced us with Sonic Jam, a set that was more interesting for its extras than the games it compiled.  That really sounds like I’m dogging the original quadrilogy but I’m not.  The bonus features included really make this package special as it was the rare peak behind the curtain behind the internet really became so ubiquitous.

Sonic Jam was released for the Saturn in the summer of 1997.  A collection of the 4 main Sonic the Hedgehog games on Genesis, Sega did not stop there and added a host of extras, with a 3d overworld that leads to each one.  This was part of a two pronged assault, with Sonic R following later that year.   While the emulation is spot on and the extras are nice Sonic Jam mainly served as a reminder of what we should have received on the Saturn; a fully fledged 3d platformer.  With such a ridiculously good engine made specifically for its overworld I find it hard to believe that Sega of Japan didn’t have something in the works.  What could have been…..

All 4 games here are represented fully intact so those of you that weren’t born during Sonic’s heyday could experience the magic all in one package.  In addition to the ports customized versions of each game are available.   These offer easier difficulty, slightly redesigned levels and for those that are weak sauce the removal of harder zones.  Honestly if you need the game to baby you by removing what are considered “hard” stages you suck at video games but I digress.  The real meat of the package comes from the extras.

Rounding out the collection are a ton of extras, from advertisements, artwork, a retrospective of the series, and a jukebox to listen to the classic tunes.  The jukebox is a really awesome feature as the series has always had exceptional music and video game music CDs were still not common outside of Japan.  You can even view the animation sequences from Sonic CD, which should have been part of this collection as more people needed to experience its greatness.  Granted now you can find all of the information provided by this collection on the internet but for its time it was interesting to see what was included from Sega’s archives.  The star of Sonic Jam would have to be Sonic World though.

Sonic World

Sonic World as it’s called was the overworld map used to access all of the content.  A full 3d engine was made specifically for the game and it is impressive.  While not on the level of Mario 64 or Crash Bandicoot it was close and showed that the Saturn was capable at 3d when in the right hands.  The detail of the world is incredible for the time and would have made an excellent base for a platformer but sadly that would never happen.  The only activities you can partake in here are minigames such as collecting rings for missions, reaching the various markers, and locating Tails.  You kind of have to question why they would make such a good engine and only use it for such a minor project but I’ve long since stopped questioning Sega’s wackier decisions.

This was an interesting collection back in the late 90s but now you can get all of the same games plus almost 40 others in the Sonic Ultimate Genesis Collection.  Now Sonic Jam is a cruel memento of the period when Sega did not have its shit together during the Saturn era.

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Sonic 3D Blast

Volumes can be written about the various missteps Sega made with the Saturn.  From the surprise early release, exorbitant price point, and lackluster offerings Sega of America focused on instead of bringing Japanese exclusives it was an unmitigated disaster.  Probably the biggest crime was never releasing a pure Sonic game.  Oh there were Sonic games for the Saturn but almost all were externally developed and the exact opposite of what gamers wanted.  One of those was Sonic 3D Blast.

Sonic 3d Blast was developed by Traveler’s Tale and released in the fall of 1996 for both Genesis and Saturn.  Dr. Robotnik has discovered the Flickie’s power to teleport by using large rings and decides to exploit it for his own benefit.  Sonic discovers what is happening and decides to help.  Released simultaneously Sonic 3d Blast was something of a technical marvel for the Genesis.  The Saturn version while slightly enhanced does not dismiss the fact that it was a lame port to cover up the delay of Sonic Extreme, which was eventually cancelled.

Played from an isometric perspective, Sonic 3d Blast has you collecting Flickies from defeated enemies.  The Flickies have fall into 4 types with differing behavior once released.  They also serve secondary purposes such as helping you reach higher items but their primary function is to grant access to later sections of every act.  The Special Stage is accessed by finding Knuckles or Tails with 50 rings intact, with the level varying depending on which version played.  In many ways this resembles the SegaSonic arcade game released everywhere but the US.  But despite that the main problem is that this doesn’t feel like a Sonic game at all.

Uh Oh…….

I’m not even referring to the perspective, although that presents its own set of issues.  Running around collecting birds is not the slightest bit fun and the pace of the game is plodding at best.  There are usually only 5 enemies in each area and they don’t seem the slightest bit interested in you.  Because of the perspective each area is small and doesn’t give you any opportunities to build up speed.  More than likely this is so you don’t go careening into walls and unseen enemies.  Sonic without his speed might as well be Mario in this case.

The loops and bumpers endemic to every Sonic game seem shoehorned in at best and are token gestures to tie in with the rest of the series.  While later levels ratchet up the number of hazards it doesn’t change the fact that you’ll do the same thing every level: kill 5 enemies, collect the Flickies and jump through a giant ring, 3 times per level.   With 6 Zones composed of 2 Acts and a boss level it gets tiring quickly.

On the Genesis Sonic 3d Blast was unique in that rendered graphics and full motion video were not too common on the platform.   The environments are highly detailed and full of color (well as much as the Genesis can muster).  While the FMV intro was never pretty to look at props to Traveler’s Tales for even cramming it in there to begin with.

The Saturn version is enhanced but not to the degree you would expect.  The amount of colors has been increased, numerous environmental and weather effects have been added but for the most part it still shares a similar look to its 16-bit counterpart.  The Special stage is a true 3d version of the half pipe from Sonic 2, a look at what could have been.  What did get upgraded is the music: it’s awesome.  A variety of composers contributed to the soundtrack and its excellent all around with themes that match each Zone perfectly.

While it isn’t terrible it is boring.  You could just as easily drop any other character in this game and it would have made no difference.  As the last Sonic the Hedgehog game for Genesis and the Saturn’s Christmas holdover in 1996 Sonic 3d Blast fails in both respects.

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Mega Man X4

The 32-bit era were dark days for 2d gaming in the early years.  Sony actively limited the number of 2d games released on their console and while the Saturn was a powerhouse in that department the Sega of that generation had their head too far up their ass to show it off.  That Mega Man X4 was released in that period is something of a miracle but I guess it shouldn’t be surprising considering the relatively high profile of the series.   Mega Man X4 introduced enough new elements to the series to reinvigorate the stagnating gameplay and while it isn’t necessarily the revolution the first game was it still remains one of the better action platformers of that generation.

Mega Man X4 was released in the fall of 1997 worldwide.  Far more story driven than previous installments X4 follows X and Zero as they come into conflict with the Repliforce, a separate group of Maverick Hunters led by the General and his second in command, Colonel.  The Repliforce are branded as dangerous and tensions escalate when the Sky Lagoon crashes and they are blamed.  Rather than standing down and going into custody they instead choose to be branded as mavericks rather than abandon their ideals.  X and Zero are dispatched to stop the rebellion and unveil the mastermind behind it all.  Much like Mega Man 8 Capcom has loaded the game with FMV cut scenes to move the plot along and while grainy and saddled with terrible voice acting (good god the voice acting is bad!) are effective story telling tools.

If you are at all familiar with any game in the series you know what to expect.  Heart tanks are available to increase your life bar, sub tanks refill life, and new to the series are the weapon tank and EX tank which refill weapon energy and increase the number of default lives respectively.  At the start of the game you can choose to play as X or Zero and although you cover the same levels both have separate story arcs through the game with unique bosses and cut scenes.  Playing as X is exactly what you would expect however Zero represents a complete paradigm shift.

The Mega Man games have always primarily been about long distance attacks and hitting the enemy before they reach you.  Zero flips that premise and forces you to adapt to melee fighting.  The Z-Saber trades long range attacks for power and technique.  The 3 hit combo attack it possesses is devastating to enemies in a way the X-Buster lacks and is very rewarding at how fast you can clear a path through enemies.  Rather than lifting the boss’s weapons Zero learns new techniques for his Saber, some that require energy but most are standard techniques that can be used infinitely and boost your offensive power.

Unfortunately that power comes at a cost since Zero does not receive any upgrades to his armor as well.  Playing as Zero ups the challenge a bit, especially considering the game puts up quite a fight already.  The secrets are very well hidden and the bosses will punish you if you do not learn their patterns or exploit their weaknesses.  Despite that the game is more than worth powering through.

And its exceptionally pretty.  Eschewing the cartoon look of Mega Man 8 X4 features many rendered sprites and elements to better portray its more “hard” edge look.  Everything blows up in a spectacular shower of gears and sparks and the backgrounds exhibit the kinds of lavish detail Capcom was known for in the 2-d space.  I preferred the rendered look here over the saccharine tone of MM8; that isn’t to say it wasn’t a beautiful game just that it bordered on childish at times.   I know some people hate the rendered graphics and say it lacks the purity of traditional hand drawn art; fuck that.  This is a phenomenal display of 2d power that was a virtual feast for the eyes during a time where most 3d games were low frame rate stuttering messes that seemed like they could collapse if you sneezed too loud.

It was a ballsy move by Capcom to stick to 2-d at a time when every franchise made the leap to 3d regardless of whether it made sense or not.  While it can be argued that it was more of the same that isn’t necessarily a problem when the same old formula is so damn good.  Two semi unique quests and a wealth of secrets give Mega Man X4 plenty of replay value and make it more than worth your gaming dollars.

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Contra Legacy of War

Oh lord where do I even begin.  I don’t go into a game expecting to absolutely detest its existence but sometimes its unavoidable.  This is one of those cases.  I just don’t understand how a developer can create such a flawed experience that shows its cracks right from the start, let alone a publisher of Konami’s caliber signing off on it.  But here we are with Legacy of War literally shitting the bed.

Contra Legacy of War represented a few firsts.  The first multi platform Contra, in this case PlayStation and Saturn.  The first 3-d Contra title, actually in 2 ways.  But the optional 3-d mode that requires the glasses that are packaged with the game is so stupid it’s not worth mentioning.  And the first to be developed by an external developer, Appaloosa Interactive, creators of the Ecco the Dolphin series for Sega.  With those lofty expectations in front of it I guess you could say it was destined for failure.

Colonel Bassad has allied himself with aliens and started to amass an army to take over the world.  Ray Powered returns from Contra Hard Corps with a new team of soldiers to take down this combined threat.  Spread across 7 levels, the game is played from an overhead isometric perspective, a throwback to select stages from previous Contra installments.

God even the character art is amateurish.

Like Contra Force and Hard Corps, each member of the team has 4 weapons with 2 shared and 2 distinct.  Each member also varies slightly in terms of movement speed and jumping ability.  So far so good.  The now legendary difficulty of the series is here in full force, not always for the right reasons.  The hectic pace of the series is maintained as enemies swarm from all directions and will keep you on your toes.  The fundamentals are in place for a good action romp, but the basic gameplay mechanics are where the game completely falls apart.

Just a few minutes into the game and you’ll start to see the problems surface.

Because everything is in 3-d, enemies come from all directions.  You have no targeting options, just a strafe that locks your fire in one direction.  This doesn’t always work however, leaving you firing in random directions when it craps out.  You have no control over the camera so the doors and such that can be destroyed to reveal items are obscured the majority of the time.  I guess this is so they are “hidden” but it also creates issues where enemy fire can’t be seen and it happens far too frequently.

The biggest issue in my opinion would be the airborne enemies.  In prior games with overhead stages all enemies were on the same plane to keep it simple.  Here they come from every direction, even above.  Without the ability to specifically target them you have to jump and pray to god your bullets hit.  This becomes an even bigger problem when you have to hit particular weak points that require you to jump and fire.  Literally 5 seconds into the game you’ll see this exact problem rear its head.  Prior games gave you visual indicators that you were damaging enemies or bosses like hit sparks or flashes when you connect.  There’s little of that here.  You might face a boss with a weak spot that flashes when hit only to run into another that has no indication whether you’re damaging it until they die.  Sounds minor but the inconsistency is infuriating.  Another thing:  the weapon falcons also fly overhead, and you guessed it, you’ll have to jump and shoot at them too.

Look at that.  I can’t believe I even bothered to play through this.

The floaty jumping makes the already bad decision to include platforming even worse and the second half of the game focuses on that aspect of the game heavily.  The issue with the platforming is a matter of depth perception.  Ledges are arranged in wildly varying sequences and because you can’t move the camera it becomes a hassle to line up.  The last 3 stages require precision jumping to proceed, and taking into account everything I just mentioned are a nightmare.  The final level in particular is near incomprehensible to navigate because of this.  Its bad enough the ground is near transparent, some genius decided to add a large face in the background that obscures the playing field even more.  Why the hell would you include platforming in an overhead shooter anyway?  I just can’t fathom how so many of these issues were overlooked, most of which you get to experience within 30 seconds.  I’m fully aware that that generation of consoles were most developer’s first stab at 3-d, but it isn’t fair to charge money so you can shed your training wheels.

A pretty decent soundtrack does not make up for the crippling faults in the rest of the game.  This was just the first misstep Konami would make with the series and wouldn’t be the last. The downward spiral would not take long to continue and forced the series to hibernate for a few years.  Absolutely do not play this game and tarnish whatever good memories of the franchise you have.

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They actually had the nerve to leave the ending open for a sequel.  And you know what?  They did!  That means a group of dumb assholes bought this game in large enough quantities to warrant a sequel.  I hope you’re proud of yourselves!

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Mega Man 8

Unlike the 16-bit generation Capcom didn’t wait very long to start their Mega Man releases when the 5th generation came along.  Both Mega Man and the X series would see new releases in the US in 1997.  Mega Man 8 was released in the beginning of 1997 for both the Saturn and the Playstation to celebrate the series 10th anniversary and what a celebration it is.  With unparalleled animation and much needed gameplay additions it breathed new life into the aging series.

The story begins with 2 unidentified robots fighting in outer space.  After a brief skirmish they both crash land on Earth.  While this is going on, Mega Man is engaged in battle with Bass.  Their fight is interrupted by Dr. Light informing him that an unknown energy source has been found on a remote island and he should hurry before Dr. Wily reaches it first.  And here we begin.

Right away you know you’re in for a treat.  There are many cut scenes like the opening spread out in the game and while the picture quality is not the greatest, the animation is awesome.  They began flirting with cut scenes more and more in the later Mega Man games and now with the added CD space they were able to have fully animated cinemas, greatly enhancing the presentation.  While the animation is great, the sound is not, but more on that later.

It was just a matter of time until Capcom started using animated cut scenes in their games.  The video is slightly grainy but it captures the OG Mega Man charm so well.

Gameplay follows the Mega Man formula to a T.  Unfortunately they carried on the retarded decision to only allow you to fight 4 bosses at once from part 7.  There are no major upgrades this time around as well.  You receive the Mega Ball in the beginning but to be honest it’s completely forgettable.  It comes in handy in a few situations, such as using it to boost your jump but that’s about it. You retain all of your primary abilities from previous games.

What has changed, and this is completely understated, is the ability to use your chosen weapon in addition to your Mega Buster.  Boss weapons are mapped to a different button now and in addition to this you can use one weapon, switch to another and somewhat combine the effects of the two.  This is never mandatory but if you want to reach some of the out of the way screws you need to take advantage of this.  Auto’s shop returns with a load of items to buy.  However screws are limited, forcing you to choose carefully.

 

The Robot Masters are awesome and have a wide arsenal of attacks.  They border on being mini fighting game characters.

The bosses and their levels are truly a step above previous games.  The levels themselves are divided into 2 parts, often times switching up gameplay.  Frost Man’s stage makes extensive use of snowboarding.  Tengu Man has you hop aboard Rush for mock shooting segments.  Clown Man’s level has animated toys in the background that directly affect your progression throughout the stage.  This diversity keeps the game from getting stale.  The Robot Masters all have unique voices and this helps them come to life as they taunt you and call out the name of their attacks like an anime character.  Corny?  Sure.  Entertaining?  Absolutely.

This is what we’ve been waiting for.  Shame there weren’t that many 2d games during that generation.

The graphics are, in 1 word, phenomenal.  This is the 2d Mega Man we always dreamed of.  The stages are practically alive with activity.  Birds fly by in groups, background elements swing back and forth into the foreground, etc.  Every enemy is animated beautifully and blows in a shower of debris.  The amount of enemies that fill the screen at times with nary a hint of slowdown borders on absurd.  There are many times you’ll stop and just marvel at the animated insanity on display.

The soundtrack is also excellent; however this is offset by the biggest black mark on the game: the voice acting.  I’m not one of those elitist assholes who thinks all English voice acting is bad, but this is just sad.  All of the cut scenes are voiced, the bosses have a pretty large amount of speech and even Mega Man pipes in every so often.  Outside of a few exceptions most of them are terrible.  Dr. Light is especially bad.  That motherfucker sounds like Elmer Fudd.  Some of the voice samples made me stop and pause the game from laughing so hard.  Clown Man and Aqua Man in particular are comedy gold.  While it detracts from the game’s overall polish it doesn’t completely ruin the otherwise stellar presentation.

8 installments without many significant in later installments is enough for any franchise wear out its welcome.  Despite not bringing anything new to the series beyond its cut scenes and phenomenal graphics, Mega Man 8 still manages to be an excellent game that will provide many hours of entertainment and is worth your time.

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