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Super Nova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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DinoCity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Rendering Ranger: R2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Crystal Beans from Dungeon Explorer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Rockman & Forte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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the Addams Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Go Go Ackman 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Sengoku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Breath of Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

 

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Super Turrican 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Kidou Butoden G-Gundam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Darius Twin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Gunple: Gunman’s Proof

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Super Bomberman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Ardy Lightfoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Super Return of the Jedi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Doom Troopers: Mutant Chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Mickey to Donald: Magical Adventure 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Melfand Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Go Go Ackman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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the Firemen

Years before Sega would bless the world with Burning Rangers and Brave Firefighters the SNES was gifted with a pair of really awesome games about firefighting. The Ignition Factor is heavily underrated and worth tracking down but the true gem is Human Entertainment’s the Firemen. With its almost action RPG structure the Firemen is better than most dedicated top down shooters, While the US narrowly missed out the game was released everywhere else meaning if you are even the slightest bit interested in the game buy it now!

A large fire breaks out during a Christmas party at the company Microtech. Normally this wouldn’t be a huge deal but a number of highly explosive chemicals located in the building’s basement threaten to turn the situation into an even bigger disaster than normal. Fireman Pete and his team are called in to rescue civilians and get the blaze under control before things become critical.

That eerily sounds like the premise of Die Hard if you switch out terrorists with chemical fires. You even have a navigator and team members who communicate over radio. The game stays realistic although it does start to get a bit ridiculous when you have living flames that follow you around and actually fight bosses such as an out of control repair bot and various fire creatures. One could make the argument that things are different since the game takes place in 2010 and the game was made in 1994 but it does strain your suspension of disbelief. It can be easily ignored however as the rest of the package is so well done.

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Honestly I am surprised at just how amazing a game that is simply about putting out fires really is. Running around with a hose and dousing flames sounds like it would get repetitive fast but the game is endowed with smart level design and a good set of mechanics that stave off boredom. You have two separate water bursts; a long range but weak spout and a more powerful short blast to handle the smaller flames on the ground. To avoid backdrafts, sudden explosions and flying enemies (!) you can crawl. Fire extinguishing bombs are in limited supply and better saved for boss battles.

Luckily you aren’t putting out these fires alone. Danny is your second in command/sidekick and is by your side for the length of the game, activating switches, doors and the like. But he is more than just a glorified butler as he will also douse flames too. Unlike most games that have AI controlled party members Danny is actually indispensable here; I would even say he is the best use of such from that era. With his axe Danny will beat down any flames that stray too close and isn’t afraid to venture off a bit and be proactive. He’ll also back you up when you go on the offensive. Since he is invincible you can use that avoid sticky situations when low on health. It really is incredible how well programmed Danny is; modern 3d games that saddle you with a useless partner take note.

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Even though the game is confined to the single high rise there is a large degree of variety and creativity at play at every turn. Flames come in numerous forms, with some leaving a trail in their wake and others flaring back up if you fail to douse them long enough. Walls of fire need to be ducked and even exploding barrels make an appearance! The variety in flames require you to use both of your hose shots and it isn’t long before you’ll have to switch between the two in rapid succession. Each floor has a time limit that leaves just enough time to explore, whether it is to extinguish every flame (which isn’t necessary) or to save civilians, which is the only way to restore health.

The difficulty curve is about perfect in my opinion. Each successive floor introduces new hazards you’ll have to deal with and a much stricter time limit. Later in the game you’ll have to be careful not to break every window or open ever door as you never know when a backdraft will occur, leaving you with seconds to react. There is usually only one person to rescue per level which means you can’t afford to be sloppy, especially as continues are limited.

Honestly the only thing missing that would have made the game near perfect is 2-player coop. The mechanics work so well and even though Danny works better than expected nothing beats running through the game with a live human. Not that the game is too short but it also would have extended the game’s life. Overall I suspect most will complete the game in a few hours which seems about the right length although I would have loved extras like being able to play as Danny with Pete as your back up. God that would have been so cool.

The Firemen is a truly unique game even to this day and one well worth tracking down. If you want to enjoy the game’s story (such as it is) this was released in Europe and isn’t too expensive. With excellent graphics and a very good soundtrack the Firemen is one of the best top down action games of the 16-bit era.

8-out-of-101

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Pop’n Twinbee

The Twinbee style of shooters never really appealed to me, although I must admit that my disdain comes from playing Stinger on the NES. After spending the better part of two hours going to and from the department store to buy a new game only to be greeted by…..that I’m pretty sure soured me on the series’ mechanics. Turns out all I needed was to play the right games. Detana Twinbee really changed my opinion and this excellent gem made me a fan. Pop’n Twinbee is a truly excellent game and one of the SNES’s finest, which makes it that much more frustrating that it was only released in Japan and Europe.

Pop’n Twinbee loses the side scrolling stages and completely focuses on its vertical action and in my opinion is a much better game for it. Juggling the bells for power-ups, one of the main tenets of the series, is now much easier. At times I was able to juggle up to eight bells at once with no trouble, not that I recommend it. The bombs have also been improved for the better. Now the bombs will automatically target the closest enemy but aren’t completely perfect and will sometimes miss. There’s also a nice tradeoff in that you need to cease using your main weapon to use them.

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A few changes were made to the power-up system that bring it closer to Gradius while still keeping the flavor of Twinbee. Your options hew closer to Gradius and you can pick up a trio to supplement your fire. You also have three choices as to how they function depending on the character. Sadly you’re only other weapon upgrades are a more powerful single shot and a three-way shot although they are both pretty effective. Aside from bombs you can also wind up a punch to smack enemies in close range and even bullets if you can get the timing right.

Since this is an SNES exclusive it was designed around the system’s strengths and as such this is a slower paced shooter than most are probably used to. The game’s leisurely pace should not be taken lightly however as it is just as intense as the twitch action games popular in the genre. The game cleverly mixes in ground based targets among its more straightforward enemies, forcing you to prioritize since you can’t target both at once. While I do feel the game could have used a few more primary weapons aside from the two available the few on offer are more than adequate to complete the game.

Although the game is only 7 levels long it will still take most about 2 hours or so to complete as each stage is pretty long with some stretching up to 15 minutes. You’ll never get bored however as the visual design of the world will keep you interested as well as the pacing of the game’s action. The boss battles are the game’s true highlight as each goes through multiple phases like a raid boss. Just be grateful they aren’t as difficult.

Speaking of difficulty overall the game is balanced pretty well. On the default setting the challenge is about medium. For the most part the game is fairly easy with the occasional spike here and there. Towards the end it picks up considerably like it should and for those that want a real challenge crank the setting up to 8 and cry. Part of what makes Pop’n Twinbee so accessible would be its use of a life bar instead of lives. Although you have a single life and limited continues health can be replenished regularly, plus you can tank an absurd number of hits before death. Power-up clouds almost always arrive in clusters so unless you are absolutely terrible at the game you can maintain a set of options and a shield at all times. Yet somehow in spite of all this the game still manages to put up a fight. Like I said, perfect balance.

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The visual evolution the series underwent with the release of Detana Twinbee continued here as the game looks like an anime come to life. Pop’n Twinbee looks absolutely fantastic, full of bright, vivid colors, and a level of detail in its world that wouldn’t look out of place in the arcade. The backgrounds depict a beautifully stylized steampunk world full of industrial machinery and giant sized mechs. The closest comparison would be Atlus’s PS2 gem Skygunner. The game is light on special effects with transparency used pretty frequently yet the game does not suffer in the slightest because of it. In many ways I wish more developers would show this level of restraint. All of this visual splendor is done with only the barest minimum of slowdown, a miraculous feat.

I fully expected the soundtrack to be full of bright and chirpy music that would grate on my ears after one session but instead was greeted by a symphonic score that is just excellent. The music is appropriately happy and adventurous when setting out but can also become dark and menacing at a moment’s notice.

It’s a bit curious that the best shooters for the SNES never came to the US. With the likes of the Parodius games and Twin Bee maybe the system wouldn’t have such a bad reputation (although partially true) when it came to the genre. Pop’n Twinbee is Konami firing on all cylinders and a game you absolutely need to play.

9-out-of-10

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Spriggan Powered

Spriggan Powered is a game I discovered years after having seen the anime Spriggan. As much as I try to associate the two in my brain they have nothing in common aside from the name. As an offshoot of Compile’s incredible PC Engine CD series the game has a lot to live up to. And while it is solid it can’t match up to its legendary predecessors. This is still far better than most of the shooter library on the SNES but its exorbitant price will keep it out of the hands of most.

The weapon selection is kept pretty light and personally I found it a bit weak. The colored orbs correspond to an individual weapon but outside of the orange…flamethrower none feel especially powerful. The homing orbs are useful against smaller trash but are incredibly weak, not to mention they also cause the game to slowdown (seriously!). The blue back laser doesn’t have a niche it excels in and is just….there. The red machine gun lets out a spread of bullets in rapid succession and is only hampered by a narrow radius.

The most interesting mechanic is the game’s shield. At any moment you can bring up a shield that protects you from all damage, even head on collisions and the occasional trip through scenery. The longer you hold it the more energy it drains but you can replenish the meter consistently. It can also be charged to unleash a more powerful version of your current weapon. Two of these super weapons in particular are pretty overpowered; the lasers actually slow time while the homing orbs produce four larger orbs that remain on screen and damage everything they touch. You can decimate bosses in seconds if you time it right! These are pretty draining but well worth the time they save.

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The overly dark intro and box art are in stark contrast to the game’s actual level presentation. Overall this is a pretty bright game as you fly over sparkling waterfalls (complete with rainbows), rolling forests, and a bout among the clouds at sunset. Compared to the dull metal cityscapes of most games in the genre this is a breath of fresh air, even more so since most pre-rendered games of that era were incredibly dark due to the limited color palettes of the 16-bit consoles.

Overall this is not the most fast paced shooter on the system but it does have its moments. Most enemies are small in size but pepper the screen with bullets, mostly so you can take advantage of the tech bonus received from flying one step too close to fire. It’s a mechanics used in a few import only shooters like Psyvariar (love that game!) and is a nice reward for cheating death. At six levels this is a short but memorable excursion that could have done with one or two more levels, especially as it isn’t too difficult.

Despite limiting you to two credits this is about average in terms of difficulty for shooters. You can make liberal use of your shield as power-ups to refill the meter are pretty frequent. For those that are truly terrible at the game weapons drops are also a constant and even if you die there is still a brief window to collect your weapon again. The more skilled pilots can totally abuse the tech bonus to rack up point bonuses that award extra lives. There are definitely points where the challenge steps up, most notably stage four with its limited field of view and it has its fair share of bullshit enemy placement. But overall it’s pretty refreshing to play a shooter that isn’t trying to kick sand in your face at every turn.

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Visually Spriggan Powered has its moments but is a product of its time. The pre-rendered sprites are both impressive and disappointing; most normal enemies are small, low resolution, and not so impressive in their design. The larger capital ships and mechs impress with all kinds of smaller details like specular highlighting that for the time looked great. The true star of the graphics are the backgrounds which are absolutely spectacular.

The pre-rendered graphics do come with a cost however as there is some truly awful first generation slowdown present. For the most part the game runs fine but in tight spaces and especially when using the homing weapon it slows to a crawl. We’re talking single digit frame rate. Seeing as it was developed by Micronics (the butcher of many fine arcade ports on the NES) I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In this case though it doesn’t completely ruin the game. For a game released in 1996 it is pretty bad especially since other shooters such as Pop n Twinbee and Scrambled Valkyrie are largely free of such constraints.

Slowdown aside however Spriggan Powered is a still a solid shooter but not the world class shmup its production values would suggest. Unfortunately it has never been rereleased and so it fetches a high price on the aftermarket. As much as I like the game I would recommend the Parodius games first as they are much cheaper and better.

7-out-of-10

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X-Kalibur 2097

It’s interesting to look back and see how 2d action titles tried to differentiate themselves. Castlevania relied on its gothic theme and nuanced gameplay while Gunstar Heroes is all about balls to the wall action. With the advent of the 16-bit consoles came better sound chips along with better graphics and some games tried to use their music as a distinguishing factor. Activision’s X-Kalibur 2097 was one such game and while its music is certainly distinct the rest of the package is pretty bland and doesn’t help the game rise above average.

In the distant future the economy of the world has been shattered, rendering the government useless and leaving a vacuum in which organized crime has prospered. A warlord named Raptor rules Neo New York with his army of morphs but still has to fear a man named Slash, wielder of the legendary sword X-Kalibur who is on a mission to stop him. Originally released in Japan as Sword Maniac the game’s story was heavily changed during localization, not that it matters all that much. Despite the brief cutscenes after each level the game isn’t too big on plot and doesn’t need it.

The most attention grabbing aspect of the game and the one Activision used to try to sell the game is its techno soundtrack. Much like they did with Bio Metal Activision replaced the preexisting soundtrack with one performed by an electronic score by the band Psykosonik. The techno music is well composed and sort of fits the localized version’s tone but also becomes grating after a while. The original score by Hitoshi Sakimoto and others was far more fitting in this case which makes me wonder why Activision went to such great lengths to change it.

Slash’s only weapon against Raptor’s morphing hordes is X-Kalibur which comes with a variety of attacks. There’s a quick slash, a piercing thrust, and an incredibly slow overhead slash which produces a projectile wave. Possibly the most important move in your arsenal is the ability to block attacks. There is very little you can’t block; even rising gusts of flame and exploding bombs bounce off your sword harmlessly. The controls are incredibly tight and responsive with Slash retaining a surprising amount of control even when airborne.

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The game’s control setup might give off the impression that this is a nuanced action adventure but in truth while the game has its moments it is incredibly bland. There is an equal mix of platforming and brawling but for the most part the generic enemies don’t offer enough resistance to make you switch attacks and deal with each differently. All it feels very by the numbers which isn’t so terrible but isn’t exactly enticing either. It’s a shame since the game has such a good foundation and what’s there is solid and with a little more care put into its pacing it could have been spectacular. This is the very definition of a C-tier release, a game with an interesting premise or gameplay hook that doesn’t do enough with it.

The one aspect in which the game does shine though is its one on one boss battles. Here the game takes on the appearance of a fighting game as you lock horns with one of Raptor’s lieutenants. Generally speaking these bosses are more aggressive and will require some manner of skill as they will frequently block your attacks and rush in if you use a slower attack needlessly. It is actually fun to decipher their patterns and slowly chip away at their health and it makes me wish the rest of the game showed this much ingenuity. These battles are so well done in fact that the game has a competitive mode where players can duke it out. Good idea in theory but it is severely limited in terms of options and comes across as more of a novelty.

Where the boss battles present a decent challenge the rest of the game is pretty easy which is why it feels so middling. Health restoring cans of coke and burgers are in great enough supply that you won’t have to worry about death outside of a few tricky areas. So long as you remember to block nearly any kind of attack you’re golden. Length is also an issue. At a meager six stage the game can be finished in a little over half an hour with no reason to go back. The versus battles don’t help the game’s longevity either as it is more of a curiosity than a long term addition to the game.

As much as I like the core gameplay X-Kalibur 2097 simply doesn’t come together in the end to warrant a purchase over any of the numerous action games available for the system. With one or two more levels it could have been really solid.

6-out-of-10-1

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Ushio to Tora

Darker themed SNES games were not as plentiful as on the Genesis but generally speaking for the most part they were all good. There are many import gems waiting to be discovered such as King of Demons and Jaki Crush but not everything can rise to that level. Ushio to Tora is based on the shonen manga of the same name and does a good job of using the events of the series as the basis for the game’s levels. That would be well and good if the game were not flawed on a basic level. While I’m sure some will be able to overlook its problems ultimately the game can be a frustrating experience that is on the cusp of greatness.

Ushio unknowingly released the demon Tora when he pulled the Beast Spear from its resting place. Unfortunately Tora’s awakening begins to attract more and more wandering demons, forcing the two into an uneasy alliance. The game does not follow the overall plot of the manga but does incorporate many of its more popular battles as boss battles. That faithfulness is both the game’s strength and weakness; adapting some of the best moments from the manga allows for epic encounters but there is little outside of that to make this a fulfilling experience.

Both Ushio and Tora are selectable as playable characters and have their own individual quirks. Ushio is armed with the Beast spear and as such has an extremely long range. He also has a useful double jump; technically both characters can reach the same height but being able to delay that second ascent is extremely useful. Sadly while I wish I could say Tora is awesome (I mean he’s a giant tiger demon for god’s sake!) he is simply not as well rounded as Ushio. Tora’s claws have a very short range which, when tied in with the game’s bad hit detection, makes using him aggravating. By crouching you can charge up a bolt of lightning but the range is also short and trying to time it to hit any target is just, no.

While I wish I could say the game is much simpler using Ushio that simply isn’t true. The hit detection is spotty which can lead to some of the more aggressive lesser enemies decimating your life bar quickly as you flail about helpless. Trying to line up attacks is not easy; the overhead slash has the best range but can be finicky to activate. The arc of Tora’s slashes helps but you still have to be within melee range for it to work.

However ultimately what kind of saves the game is the fact that this is more of an extended boss rush rather than a standard platformer and as such you won’t have to deal with the bad hit detection so much. Much like Treasure’s Alien Soldier the game simply moves from one boss battle to the next with only a few stages featuring fodder enemies to destroy before moving on to the next outlandish creature. In fact more than a few levels consist of only a single encounter!

With such a large focus on battling greater demons one would hope that the game would have an assortment of epic encounters to test your skills and to an extent it delivers. You’ll face an interesting assortment of yōkai, from a large green demon riding on the back of an airliner to one that even inhabits a painting. The human monks and priests you face are an aggressive bunch with a variety of attacks that make them more dangerous than the larger beasts you’ll face. If you were armed with a better arsenal of attacks you could actually look forward to these encounters and form actual strategies rather than simply trading blows.

This is not an easy game by any stretch but you can cheese your way through it in a couple of ways. Since you instantly respawn upon death you can zerg rush your way through most encounters. More importantly a few bosses have projectiles that you can destroy for life restoring food, strength boosting potions and best of all extra lives. Since there is no time limit you can stack items provided you survive that long of course. Unfortunately it makes an already short game breeze by even quicker.

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From a graphics standpoint there is plenty to like. Although the “levels” are brief each background is incredibly detailed. The game makes only slight use of special effects such as Mode 7 and relies more on its art direction to impress. The bosses are all large and sport creative designs although they are not the best animated. It is interesting to note that Ushio resembles Yuusuke from Yu Yu Hakusho after a certain point in that series (I’m avoiding spoilers) although to be fair this series came first.  To be fair this was an early SNES release and so it does not compare to later games on the system but still looks decent.  The soundtrack unfortunately is completely forgettable although the fact that the levels are so short means any given track would have to be quick and to the point.

Ushio to Tora has its problems but I can say I at least enjoyed the time I spent with it. Honestly I don’t know if everyone can overlook its issues like I can which is what makes it so frustrating. With a few simple tweaks this could have been a great game instead of one that I have some trepidation recommending.

7-out-of-10

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Fatal Fury 2

I think we can all agree that some of the first Neo Geo to SNES and Genesis ports were pretty dire. Fatal Fury suffered heavily in the transition from SNK’s beast of a console, to the point where I’m sure many wondered if faithful conversions of some of the biggest arcade games of the time were possible. Then Street Fighter 2 happened and showed that with larger cartridges (ROM not physical carts) you could produce ports that not only looked and sounded the part but felt the same in terms of gameplay. Takara’s second round of 16-bit conversions were far better and worthy of attention starting with Fatal Fury 2.

With Geese Howard dead a new shadowy benefactor has stepped up to sponsor the King of Fighters tournament except this time it has been taken worldwide. No one knows who the organizer of this year’s tournament is but he has been slowly working his way through the participants of the first tournament in search of Geese Howard’s killer……

Fatal Fury 2 takes many cues from Street Fighter 2 whether it was intentional or not. The heroic trio of Terry and Andy Bogard and Joe Higashi are joined by five new fighters from around the globe, bringing the roster to an even eight. In addition the game has four bosses who aren’t selectable without a cheat code. Sound familiar? You can’t blame them for following in Capcom’s footsteps of course and in my opinion moving beyond the confines of Southtown has done wonders for the game’s roster.

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While certain characters do fall into the standard fighting game tropes such as Big Bear (your typical strong but slow big man) and Cheng Sinzan (Blanka stand in) the rest of the cast has a feel all their own. Kim Kaphwan and Mai Shiranui both made their videogame debuts here and for anyone who has perused some version of King of Fighters their move sets are fully intact. As the lone female of the cast Mai plays nothing like Chun Li aside from her speed. Kim Kaphwan is my favorite of the new crew. His attacks all focus on kicks which were highly original at the time. Jubei Yamada is a grappling expert who heavily focuses on his various throwing moves.

While I’ve made many comparisons to Street Fighter 2 Fatal Fury has a number of elements that are uniquely its own. The two plane system has returned but seen a number of tweaks to make it a more active part of gameplay. Rather than randomly switching you can manually switch planes by pressing light punch + kick or hitting an opponent with a heavy attack. You can launch an attack while changing lanes as well and it’s hilarious when both combatants knock each other in the midst of a shift. Some battlegrounds have destructible elements or even hazards you can use to your advantage. The running bulls in Laurence Blood’s arena and the gears of Billy Kane’s clocktower are examples. I’ll admit that the dual plane system is not my cup of tea (and only got worse in Fatal Fury 3) but I will give SNK credit for making it an attractive option to use during a match. There are desperation moves that you can unleash when at 25% health or lower but seriously once you see the necessary controller inputs you’ll think someone at SNK lost their god damn mind.

The overall gameplay has been sped up but the game noticeably lags behind Street Fighter 2 Turbo in speed. A dash has been added for quick escapes or to put pressure on players who like to turtle up. For those that unfortunately bought or rented the 16-bit ports of the first game you can rest easy; the special moves are easy to pull off thanks to the improved recognition of your button input. This isn’t the most combo heavy fighting game in the world but now at least you can string together 2 in 1’s and three hit combos at will. The AI is a tough opponent and even on the easiest setting puts up a fight but let’s be honest you buy fighting games for the multiplayer (at least back then).

Comparing the two 16-bit ports reveals some stark differences between the two. The SNES version has a larger color palette but can look a bit washed out on certain stages such Chen Sinzan’s floating barge. The Genesis version seems to be running at a lower resolution than normal which is instantly noticeable. The low resolution means that most of the backgrounds have suffered a loss in detail; Fatal Fury 2 was a beautiful game in the arcade and to see its stunning backdrops reduced to this was sad.

The music also has its share of quirks. The SNES version has better music overall but is missing many of the arcade’s voices. The music in the Genesis version is terrible but it has nearly all of the voice samples although they suffer from the usual Genesis defects in that regard. As bad as the music is in the Sega version it at least doesn’t sound muffled like its Nintendo counterpart. It kind of sucks that the sound of both games lags behind its Neo Geo counterpart; the game has a fantastic OST and I loved to just watch the brief demos if I happened to be in the store that had the arcade cab just to hear the music.

Defects aside both ports are solid conversions of the arcade original and made an otherwise super expensive game available to cash strapped gamers at the time.  Solid game but far from the cream of the crop in terms of fighting games on the SNES.

7-out-of-10-1

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Thunder Spirits

Where the Turbo Grafx and the Genesis shared many multiplatform shooters the same definitely could not be said with the SNES. It’s an irrefutable fact that the system’s slow processor hampered it when it came to the genre and so most developers wisely chose to either create new titles aimed specifically at either platform or didn’t bother. The lone exception to this is Thunder Spirits, a loose SNES port of Thunder Force III that in many respects shows exactly why the series largely stayed with Sega. While not a bad game it isn’t as good as its counterpart.

Calling this a port isn’t entirely accurate. Thunder Spirits is actually a port of the arcade release of Thunder Force III. While largely the same some stages have been removed with new ones taking their place and the graphics have seen a slight bump. To an outsider not familiar with the two the games they would seem to be identical. The SNES port of Thunder Force Arcade is pretty well done but suffers from heavy slowdown and illustrates the differences between it and the Genesis succinctly.

The basic gameplay is largely the same allowing veterans of the series to hop right in. Not all of the weapons have made the transition from Thunder Force 2 such as the Wide Shot and Destroy but they aren’t needed as the arsenal available is vastly overpowered compared to the game’s content. The Wave beam and the Front shot both cover so much of the screen that lesser weapons such as the homing shot can’t compete.

The vertical scrolling levels of the series second installment have been excised leaving a much stronger side scrolling shmup. Unfortunately they’ve also done away with the level select feature, not that it had any impact beyond running through the game in a different order just for the sake of it. Where this port and the arcade game differ are in their levels. Two planets have been removed, Haidis the cool underground world and Ellis the ice planet. The omission in particular is a huge blow as that was one of my favorite stages in the game. There replacements are lackluster in comparison. The generic star field of level 4 is eerily reminiscent of Eliminate Down and offers few thrills. One of the levels is even rehashed from Thunder Force 2! To make matters worse the game is missing a level, making this an even shorter journey.

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The graphics are both impressive and disappointing at the same time. This was not an exceptional looking title even in 1990 and a year removed has only made this new version look worse in comparison. The game replicates the look of the Genesis original pretty well with all of the same nifty effects. But at the same time it also inherits its weaknesses, in this case very low color depth. It’s weird to see an SNES game this dark and dithered and a shame that they didn’t make use of its higher color palette and special effects.

The one area that the game suffers in the most is slowdown. This is bad, like even worse than Super R-Type and Gradius III. The frame rate slips into the single digits at times and the game even has flickering. The flickering is so bad during boss battles that you’ll actually lose a few lives because a massive fireball disappeared for a second or two. The extreme instances of flicker and slowdown stand out more than usual since the game runs identically to the Genesis game for the most part. The music does a very bad job of replicating the FM synth of the original soundtrack and the sound effects are heavily muffled; once again this is another element that could have been better.

The slowdown makes the game slightly more difficult but in the end this is still a pretty easy game considering how overpowered the weapons are. The generous respawn system (you only lose the currently selected weapon) means even the most weak sauce fan of shooters will complete this relatively quickly. I’m not a fan of overly difficult games but I do at least want some opposition and Thunder Spirits comes up short in this category unfortunately.

Thunder Spirits is a competent port of Thunder Force Arcade/Thunder Force III but could have been better. While this isn’t a bad game there are far better shooters in the SNES’s meager shooter library that only the most ardent fans will want to bother.

6-out-of-10-1

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Pirates of Dark Water (SNES)

I have to say, as much as I loved side scrolling beat em ups by the mid-90s I was already growing tired of the genre. While we all praised Capcom and Final Fight for laying a foundation that the majority of games would follow we really were not prepared for the glut of crap to come. After Streets of Rage 2 middle of the road brawlers simply didn’t cut it anymore, a category that the SNES version of Pirates of Dark Water falls in. This could have and should have been better.

My first question is why a beat em up? The world and back story of Dark Water almost seems to lend itself to and adventure game, which we more or less received in the Sega game. Though flawed it captured many of the best elements of the show which I can’t say the same of this game. Outside of it’s the cast of characters you could just as easily have mistaken this for any of the innumerable brawlers on console or in the arcade as it does little with its license. The game plays relatively well but its pacing ruins it.

Ren, Ioz, and Tula fit comfortably into the established niches of well rounder, strong but slow big man, and fast but weak attacker. Unlike the vast majority of beat em ups Dark Water equips its heroes with a variety of moves. There are two separate attack buttons, a weak but fast melee attack that can be used to string together combos and a heavier attack with your weapon. Depending on when each button is hit during a flurry of blows you can execute a few different combos that will inflict high damage. Both buttons can also be used to modify your throws as well. You have the ability to block attacks and dash, which can be used to perform a lunging attack. It’s not Streets of Rage 3 level of depth but considering how lacking most similar titles were the combat is at least engaging.

Unfortunately the variety in your arsenal of attacks does not extend to the enemies you will face. Familiar henchmen from the show make appearances but for the most part you are going to face the same five or six enemies for the length of the entire game. To be fair this has always been a sticking point within the genre but at least most other brawlers hold a few enemies in reserve and slowly introduce new adversaries throughout the length of the game but here nearly the entire roster of Bloth’s men are introduced in the first stage.

This ultimately leads into the game’s most crucial flaw, its pacing. With so few different enemies to face the game tosses them out in waves, with as many as 7-8 in a row needing a swift end at your fists before you can move on. Tossing the tall and fat pirates (the game really isn’t very creative with its names) around gets really old fast, especially when you’ve just done precisely that not 5 minutes ago. It artificially lengthens the game when it wasn’t needed as this is already one of the longer fighters at 8 stages. The monotony is some of the worst I’ve experienced and if it weren’t for the fact that I rented the game and felt I needed to get my money’s worth I would never have bothered to finish it.

In spite of its issues the difficulty is median. The pirates possess decent AI and will block your attacks and strike at opportune moments. Health restoring fruit isn’t in abundance but does appear when needed as well as the occasional trap that you can lead enemies into. The bosses outside of one encounter are not the usual life sucking leeches typical of the genre and pose a fair challenge. If you can stand the repetition no one should have any trouble completing this on their first try.

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Unlike the darker Sega game the SNES installment sticks closer to the brighter palette of the show. Familiar locations from the cartoon make an appearance and its most popular villains comprise the bosses. Overall the game is fairly decent looking; while Sunsoft were one of the most technically proficient NES developers their 16-buit efforts were more standard and while this wasn’t entirely developed by them it falls in line with the rest of their output.

This is as standard a brawler as they come and is disappointing as it doesn’t make any use of its license to stand out. There are better titles in the genre to scoop up before you should ever consider playing this average game.

5-out-of-101

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Sparkster (SNES)

Konami’s Rocket Knight Adventures was one of the few mascot platformers to truly bring something new to the table back in 1993 and was able to rise above the sheer overload of terrible, generic platformers to achieve greatness. In a year filled with numerous excellent Genesis titles such as Ecco the Dolphin, Gunstar Heroes, and Shinobi III it still managed to stand out so it should come as no surprise that a sequel would appear the following year.

However this time both the SNES and Genesis would get a piece of the action in two completely separate games. While his Sega outing would carry the moniker Rocket Knight Adventures 2 the SNES game is actually closer in style to the splendid first outing. While the Super Nintendo game is accepted as the superior game both are great titles and you won’t lose out either way.

The kingdom of Eginasem has enjoyed a period of peace but is now beset by Generalisissmo Lioness and her wolf brigade. As if this threat weren’t enough Sparkster’s rival Axle Gear is working with them and kidnapped the Princess Flora as well. Now Sparkster must singlehandedly fight these forces to save Eginasem from a potential nuclear (!) attack.

Sparkster returns largely unchanged from his last outing. The sword can fire long range beams of fire and the sole addition to your offense comes in the form of a spinning slash that can be chained together multiple times. It seems trivial at first but is a game changer in a few ways. With careful timing you can completely slash through an enemy and avoid a hit but more importantly it can be used to change direction in the middle of a rocket burst or slow your descent. Veterans of the first game will remember that after a rocket burst Sparkster would drop like a flailing mess; not so here.

Of course the rocket pack is the real star of the show and remains just as fun a mechanic as the first time around. It only takes a second or so to build up a full charge at which point it can be utilized in a number of ways. Whether it’s flying through the air or as a means of attack next to Super Joe’s arm in Bionic Commando this might be one of my favorite play mechanics. There was some trepidation as to whether or not the SNES could keep up with the fast paced action that was established in the first game but those fears can be put to rest. At times the game seems to move too fast but that is hardly a complaint.

The best gameplay “hook” in the world is nothing without excellent levels to support it and in that regard Sparkster has it in spades. The levels are a lot more open with large vertical spaces to give you more room to play around with the jet pack. When you do find yourself in a tight space it’s usually because the game is about to throw in some hazard that you must avoid or face instant death such as crushing water or a collapsing ceiling.

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There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next. Stage three takes place on the back of a bird like robot who hauls ass at neck breaking speed, leaving you to try to keep up with the constant flow of enemies that appear. The pyramid features shifting walls underground and a big open desert on its surface with both featuring their own set of problems. You’ll even take to the skies in a shooting level reminiscent of Pop n Twinbee which ends in a duel with Axle Gear. Though there are less auto scrolling segments than in the prior installment this single level is more refined.

This is a fairly balanced game on normal and this time around there are passwords to chart your progress. But just like the original to see the true ending you’ll have to finish the game on hard as it unlocks the true final level. Trust me this is no small task as continues are extremely limited. At nine levels long you definitely have your work cut out but the game remains fun regardless of the difficulty level.

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Konami were at the top of their game towards the end of the 16-bit era so it should come as no surprise that Sparkster is a beautiful piece of work. The SNES’s larger color palette has done wonders for giving the world a richer look with some breathtaking backdrops that grab your attention. To a certain extent I do kind of miss the dark and harsher look of the first game but when you see a level like the pyramids that has up to eight layers of scrolling it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. The sprites are noticeably larger than in its Sega counterpart making the intricate animation work stand out that much more.

It’s a god damn shame that Sparkster went unnoticed as it was one of the few bright stars during a dark period in platforming history. Because of its lack of success the series would lay dormant until 2010 when it received a next generation remake. Decent game, but it lacked the heart and soul of this truly excellent slice of gaming nirvana. Sparkster has more depth than many of its competitors combined and will provide many hours of entertainment for those gracious enough to pick it up.

8-out-of-101

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Congo’s Caper

I loved Joe & Mac, both in the arcade and at home. I wasn’t too fond of the many caveman platformers that seemed to spring up out of nowhere back in the day but I’ll tell you one thing, Joe & Mac was far better than pap like Chuck Rock. A sequel was inevitable but would skip the arcade and debut as an SNES exclusive although most Americans would be completely unaware of this. Congo’s Caper was vastly different from its predecessor and unfortunately it went the way of a generic platformer rather than the interesting action of the first game.

The game’s story is certainly not traditional. Congo and his girlfriend Congette are a monkey couple who come into contact with a mysterious jewel that transforms them into cavemen. Before they can comprehend just what the hell has happened a devil kidnaps Congette, starting our adventure. Yes, a devil during prehistoric times. It’s so absurd it’s downright hilarious.

While this is technically the second game in the series it is a far different beast in terms of gameplay. For one there is no life bar. If you take a hit Congo devolves back into a monkey with shorter reach less and jumping power with a second touch resulting in death.   There are plenty of orbs lying around that will change you back so that it isn’t much of an issue. Collecting three orbs without being hit will transform you into Super Congo, who is the prehistoric equivalent of Superman. Super Congo is able to leap the tallest platforms in a single bound and can sustain three hits before reverting back to normal and as a bonus this mode persists from one level to the next. Sadly there are no extra weapons meaning you’ll have to make do with the lame ass club for the length of the entire game. Being forced into melee combat is certainly different but I don’t know if I would say it is better.

The level design is the weakest area in the game. For the most part the game does a good job of avoiding the stereotypical platforming tropes of an ice level, fire level, etc. and instead sticks pretty closely to its prehistoric theme although it does take a turn for the weird as you visit a pirate ship and a haunted house. The problem is everything done in Congo’s caper was done better in Joe & Mac. Dinosaur chases, battles against oversized tyrannosaurs, even exploring the insides of a beasts stomach, it has all been done already and much better. There’s a decided lack of inspiration that makes the game feel average above all else as you are simply going through the motions established by better games.

It is quite clear that this is a game aimed at children as extra lives rain down from the sky like candy. Items that activate the roulette wheel for extra lives are frequent and even the bosses drop diamonds worth a few. Speaking of which, the only real challenge in the game comes from the boss battles. But in all honestly they are more of an endurance test than a skill check. Their life bars are pretty long and at most you can get off two hits in succession meaning you’ll have to cycle through their few tired mechanics over and over to whittle them down. It turns what should be a highlight of the game into a boring and repetitive exercise, one that you’ll dread when the time comes.

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The sparse presentation of Congo’s Caper is in contrast to the vibrant and detailed world of Joe & Mac. It isn’t fair to compare the two necessarily but CC is part of the series, albeit tangentially. The backgrounds are incredibly barren despite the setting with the game sporting a more cartoony art style. Having said that it pales in comparison to Joe & Mac, which does owe a lot of its graphical prowess to the fact that it was originally an arcade game. After seeing the level of detail in the SNES and Genesis ports of that game Congo’s Caper can’t help but feel lacking in comparison.

One area in which the game does excel is the music. The soundtrack is fantastic all around and full of tunes that would almost seem more at home in an RPG than a platformer. While generally excellent the music is recycled heavily throughout the game.

Congo’s Caper is an inoffensive platformer that seems more geared toward the younger set but even when taking that into consideration it can’t escape being an average game. Although it isn’t necessarily a direct sequel to Joe & Mac it does still pale in comparison to that game and when you can simply play that instead the question becomes why bother?

6-out-of-10-1

 

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Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally

Once Sunsoft gained the Looney Tunes license we all knew the usual suspects would be first at bat in terms of videogame adaptations. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck starred in games of varying quality but it was the less famous of the bunch that would receive the most interesting titles. Taz-Mania used a unique perspective and was a fun if simple game. The Road Runner’s Death Valley Rally is interesting in that it manages to successfully capture the back and forth nature of the cartoon shorts but completely fail at everything else video game related.

Like the cartoons Wiley E. Coyote is on the Roadrunner’s trail in order to score a quick meal. The game is broken up into 5 main levels that are presented as episodes with 3 sub levels each and a boss battle. The object of each level is to simply reach the flag at the end, a task that is easier said than done as Wiley is there to harass you throughout each stage with some new contraption. Many of these will be familiar to anyone that has seen one of the shorts such as the bat suit, steamroller, and catapult. Since he is invincible Wiley has to be avoided at all times which becomes more difficult the deeper you progress. It’s an interesting take on a traditional platformer and one that mirrors the show, complete with each Acme gadget backfiring once you’ve completed a stage.

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Aside from mirroring the content of the show the game does an excellent job of matching its look. The game uses large sprites that are full of personality and enriched by the system’s vivid color palette. Although the game takes place primarily in the desert they’ve done a good job varying the settings with an eventual mine and outer space (!) thrown in for visual diversity. The numerous sight gags involving Wiley’s devices failing have also been recreated pretty well. The only downside to the presentation is the repetitive music.

While comparisons to Sonic might seem apt aside from speed the two games have little in common. The Roadrunner completely relies on its speed to blaze through levels and has few offensive moves. Once you’ve built up speed coming to a sliding stop can take out weaker enemies and a quick press of the Y button enables a burst of speed like Sonic’s spin dash. Unlike that move however it is limited by energy. Pecking can be used to eat bird seed or attack enemies but is largely ineffectual. Honestly outside of boss battles what few enemies you’ll encounter can be avoided. The game’s focus is squarely on dashing through levels and collecting flags but it fails spectacularly in that regard.

You won’t find any loop de loops but there are plenty of nice long stretches and inclines where you can build speed and rocket forth in a blur. However the level design and enemy placement practically discourages it. Whether it’s the Coyote or some other obstacle nearly every attempt to simply enjoy the game’s speed is ground to a swift halt. That leaves a square focus on Mario style platforming and the game’s sloppy controls and collision detection weren’t built for that. The roadrunner moves to fast and is incredibly floaty; trying to navigate a series of narrow platforms is aggravating as a result and unfortunately that makes up the majority of the game. It’s as if the controls were designed for a completely different game and shoehorned in because they barely work.

As you can imagine the game is incredibly difficult as a result. Absolutely no one will complete these levels on their first try as there seem to be no rhyme or reason to object placement. Unless you’ve memorized each level completely you are going to smack into something at every turn and life restoring hearts are exceedingly rare. By the latter half of the game each stage is a massive labyrinth of recycled ramps and hills. Luckily the timer exists only to grant a point bonus since it would make the game impossible otherwise.

Wiley E. Coyote’s end level machines are big on the spectacle but it isn’t immediately obvious how to damage them no matter how long you stare at their blueprint. With limited continues I can see many being forced to start over trying to suss out their patterns if they even make it that far. Honestly I don’t even know why I soldiered my way through the game back in 1993 and I don’t have the excuse of no other games to play.

The developers managed to recreate the look and feel of the show pretty well but failed to provide any reason for you to want to do anything other than stare at it. Death Valley Rally is a bad game from start to finish and should be avoided.

5-out-of-101

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Undercover Cops

For as much as I associate Irem with shooters and R-Type specifically they released many arcade gems that I so desperately hoped would receive home ports. Blade Master, Gunforce 2, and especially Undercover Cops were all games that I loved in the arcade and the prospect of a SNES or Genesis port for any of these games was exciting. It was a sad day when the US release of Undercover Cops was cancelled but ultimately it didn’t matter; it’s not like beat em ups have stories worthy of Shakespeare after all so the language barrier is moot. This is one of the best brawlers for the Super NES and still worth tracking down today.

In the year 2043 nuclear war has ravaged the planet with roaming gangs becoming the norm as law enforcement could not keep up. The government creates a special squad of undercover cops to deal with the rising level of crime except these cops are special. With their skills in martial arts and street fighting Matt, Zan, and Rosa are the best chance to restore order to the city.

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Although this is your standard beat em up this is not your typical Final Fight clone. While the protagonists neatly fit into their clichéd roles each is equipped with a larger than normal assortment of moves. In addition to the standard punch/kick combos there are numerous dashing attacks as well as throws and wrestling moves all accomplished using a simple three button setup. This has always been my biggest pet peeve regarding brawlers and the variety here keeps the game exciting from beginning to end. There aren’t too many weapons to pick up but the few available are pretty damn comical to see in action. Heaving a giant telephone pole out of the ground to use as a bludgeon is hilarious as it breaks down with every hit.

That last bit is part of what makes the game so charming. The game’s off beat sense of humor is one of its most endearing elements. We’ve all found it absurd that the heroes in these games eat freshly cooked chickens out of garbage cans but Undercover Cops goes one step further. You’re eating live pigs, chickens, snails, and even rats to regain health and must chase them down first. Pretty gross huh? Or how about the second level boss who midway through the fight bursts into tears at the beat down you’re delivering. Most of Rosa’s attacks are…..pretty provocative. Let’s just say the bad guys can probably die with a smile on their face and leave it at that.

If there is one crucial flaw the game suffers from it is pacing. After the initial outing each subsequent level is considerably longer and feels padded out by waves of enemies. While new antagonists are introduced on every stage the game does a fine job of making you sick of them by forcing you to fight them over and over in rapid succession. The game’s final two levels are a grueling gauntlet of every enemy you’ve ever faced one right after the other in groups of two –four. Not only is it incredibly cheap it’s also unfair; it’s almost as if the game is still designed around two players. Boss battles drag on the longest and there were even a few times where the clock almost ran out since your attack do so little damage. The pacing isn’t game breaking but I can definitely see many becoming frustrated by the end of the game.

Due to the lack of multiplayer the game becomes extremely after the first introductory level. There are some incredibly cheap enemies that are nearly impossible to defeat without taking damage. The bat wielding bastards are the bane of my life. Trying to conserve lives and continues for the game’s latter stages is hard as there are frequent instant death elements such as the compactor in stage one or the collapsing building in stage 2. The maximum five lives and continues evaporate pretty quickly and it will take some practice before you’ll see the end credits.

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Despite the gap in hardware the developers have done an excellent job of recreating the arcade game’s graphics on the SNES. Some background details have been omitted here and there and a few enemies have been slightly redesigned but that aside it is remarkably close with the main difference being the resolution. Undercover Cops was created by many of the same artists who would eventually go on to form Nazca and create Metal Slug and that insane attention to detail is present here. The sprites are huge and well animated with the game only slowing down under the most extreme circumstances. The only negative would be the extreme palette swapping among enemies toward the end. The soundtrack is similarly excellent and full of jazz and techno tunes which I totally did not expect.

While the game is ultimately a bit short chances are you won’t see the ending right away. If the game had 2-player coop it would have been close to classic but will have to settle for being just excellent.

8-out-of-101

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Super Smash TV

Man I really love Smash TV. The twin stick shooter has exploded in popularity in the last decade or so thanks to digital download services and while I’ve enjoyed many of them I’ll admit before the advent of dual analog sticks I sucked at them. Which makes my love of Smash TV all the more bewildering. The tight gameplay and Running Man inspired theme was awesome and I poured tons (…all right maybe about $20) of quarters into it. Yet it was the SNES port that truly won me over, not just because its controls worked so damn perfectly but because it was the best port money could buy at the time. And even taking into account its early release it is still one of the best top down shooters for the system.

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More than anything else Smash TV absolutely nails the Running Man inspired game show setup it was going for. The sets, the death traps, the smarmy host, and risking life and death to collect just one more VCR, it’s all there. Yes, no one needs 500 VCRs but you know what? You’re still going to die a few dozen times trying to collect them all. Hell I wonder if the kids of today even know what the hell a VCR is. This is essentially Robotron with a more violent edge and I love it for that reason even though I sucked balls at the game.

Smash TV was ported to a variety of home consoles but the SNES version is the absolute best by virtue of the controller’s face buttons serving as a perfect substitute for the dual joystick controls of the arcade. Each button allows you to shoot in the four cardinal directions with diagonal firing also available. In the heat of the moment you might forget every so often but after a few minutes it becomes highly intuitive and most of all effectively replicating the arcade game’s controls which are incredibly important. It’s funny, for as much as I liked the game I was terrible at manipulating two joysticks at the same time. Yet mapping the same function to four buttons is all it took for me to wrap my brain around the concept. Who would have thought games like Smash TV were basically training us for where the industry would be headed in 10 years or so?

Greed is the name of the game as you rush to collect cash, prizes and power-ups in each arena as various enemies stream in to end your life. Survival is a lot harder than you would expect as there seem to be no shortage of enemies that constantly let your gluttony get the best of you and die trying to pick up that one last pile of cash. The game moves at a fairly brisk pace with each stage lasting around a minute or two. The few power-ups last a short while but are absolutely essential for survival.

Beyond just the pacing of the stages what impressed me the most is the variety from one level to the next. It would have been easy to simply ramp up the amount of enemies on every stage until the end of the game and call it a day however the game does a fabulous job of introducing new elements frequently. Some arenas are themed and will force you to deal with one enemy type while others might throw in certain conditions. Considering there are four stages with plenty of sub levels each that the game manages to keep this up until its closing moments is incredible. This SNES version even has a few exclusive hidden levels as a bonus.

If there is one area I wish the home ports would have deviated from the arcade it would be the game’s difficulty. This is not an easy game and that goes well beyond just the twin stick controls. At times it feels as though the game is permanently set on turbo speed making it incredibly difficult to keep up with the chaos. I’m of two minds when it comes to the weapons; on one hand they appear frequently enough that you won’t have to rely on the default machine gun too long. But at the same time I think they should have lasted it a bit longer, especially by the middle of the game when the machine gun simply can’t keep up with the stronger enemies; even just a few seconds more would make a tremendous difference.

The few boss battles should be a highlight of the game but they are where the game shows its quarter munching arcade roots in the worst way. Each boss is an excruciatingly long fight in which you have to dismantle the target piece by piece with the caveat being that only special weapons can damage them. Whittling down the Mutoid Man from his arms down to his torso, then a headless body, and finally a head on wheels is just cash grabbing at its finest and did not need to be replicated at home. Especially since you also only have four continues overall. It’s going to take a long time to complete this one but I wish it were for the right reasons.

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You wouldn’t know it just looking at the game but Super Smash TV is something of an anomaly in terms of early SNES games. Akklaim has done an excellent job of retaining every ounce of the arcade’s intensity with tons of sprites on screen and not one instance of slowdown. Compared to embarrassing efforts like Super R-Type and Gradius III in that regard it’s a damn miracle the game plays so flawlessly outside of some flicker, especially for an early SNES title. Despite each level taking place in closed arenas the designers have done a decent job of varying up the look of the stages but overall it does become repetitive. The SNES conversion only suffers minor detail loss but is an otherwise amazing conversion. The music is mostly forgettable but the sound effects and voice clips are spot on.

Super Smash TV is an excellent conversion of a fantastic game and probably the best home port until recently. Even in light of the explosion of the twin stick shooter genre in recent years Smash TV is still more than worth your time due to its theme and accomplished gameplay.

8-out-of-101

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Xardion

I really wanted to like Xardion. I remember seeing the magazine ads in Gamepro and the thought of controlling not one, not two, but three giant robots seemed cool as hell. But somewhere along the way that initial promise (in my mind at least) went wrong and we were left with an average that tries its novel best to drain any enthusiasm you might have had for its staid gameplay. The best of intentions means nothing if the end result doesn’t live up to expectations and in this case Xardion just can’t compete against other side scrolling action games.

The Alpha 1 Solar System has been on the losing side of a war with the planet NGC-1611. In a last ditch effort the Alpha 1 Federation gathers three of the system’s best mecha pilots to destroy the invader’s main source of power and hopefully find the Xardion, a legendary weapon that long ago was given to the opposing side as a peace offering. The plot is expounded on through in game chatter between the three heroes and while it is more than most action game offer you won’t pay much attention to it.

Like TMNT for NES you have multiple characters that can be switched at any time, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Triton is well rounded and can fire upward. Panthera is shorter than the others and can crawl into tight spaces. Alcedes attacks using his antenna which has a longer range before unleashing its projectile and can jump higher than the others. Every character gains experience individually which increases your maximum HP and ammo at set levels plus unlocks other special abilities. There is some incentive to leveling up all three as the ending will slightly change (and I do stress slightly) depending on how much experience you have accrued.

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It’s a nice idea in theory but in practice it is anything but. Triton is so far and away the best character that there is literally no reason to ever switch characters, all because he can actually fire upward. It sounds like a minor distinction but considering the number of aerial enemies you’ll face it is a god send. That leaves Panthera and Alcedes more or less useless as what little advantages they might have had are negated by that one fact. Their special weapons are powerful but don’t make up the difference in my opinion. Once the Xardion joins the team everyone else is background noise since even at level one it is vastly more powerful.

Despite there being nine levels the game is pretty short overall. Most stages are only a few screens long and were it not for the incredibly slow pace you could zip through the entire game in less than an hour. However it seemed the creators were aware of this as the game suffers from padding; you gain the Xardion right before the final level however it isn’t “strong” enough to progress, forcing you to go back and collect three items and raise its level. Honestly it isn’t hard to find these items but by that point you simply want the game to be over.

Xardion is pretty difficult overall not the least of which is due to how underpowered your characters feel. Even at max level stuff takes too long to kill and your bullets never seem to progress beyond the size of a pea shooter. It isn’t until you have access to the Xardion unit that you will actually feel powerful but that isn’t until the latter stage of the game. Defeating bosses only refills the life bar of that particular character with everyone else forced to wait and health restoring items are in short supply. The game is filled with cheap unavoidable hits with the final level an absolute nightmare in this regard. To the game’s credit you can revisit any planet multiple times to increase your levels but as I mentioned previously you don’t feel any stronger with each power-up.

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In terms of presentation the game is hardly impressive. The mecha designs were cool back in 1992 when the US and Europe had only received a tiny amount of giant robot anime. However even back then I could tell they were derivative; Triton looks nearly identical to a Macross Veritech fighter in Battroid mode. The backgrounds are mostly flat and lifeless, often resembling a Turbo Grafx game with a layer of parallax. You would hope the same attention to detail lavished on the main characters would extend to the enemies however outside of the bosses, the game’s few highlights, they are all painfully generic. The soundtrack is so nondescript that I don’t remember any of it, that’s how dull it is.

Xardion isn’t a bad game per se but is simply average. There are a few neat ideas in here but the game’s rough edges and general lack of excitement prevent them from being fully explored. There are better side scrolling action games out there such as Lost Vikings that use the same concept to greater effect. You would be better off playing that instead.

5-out-of-101

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Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%

Like platformers starring Cavemen shooters starring witches at one point had their time in the spotlight, at least in Japan. A few would trickle over to the US like Magical Quest yet the granddaddy of them all, the Cotton series, has only seen one lone installment reach the US. Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton had a limited release on the Turbo CD and is one of the rarest games of all time, which sucks as I’m sure its failure here kept the series exclusively in Japan. That meant we were denied brilliant games such as Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%. This remake of the arcade and Turbo CD game is fantastic and one of the best shooters for the SNES. Plus it requires no Japanese knowledge to enjoy.

The witch Cotton is a bit of a moron. The fairies of the forest have come seeking her help to save the country. Somehow Cotton mistakes their plea for help as a mission to gather as much of her favorite candy Willow possible. Yeah.

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The story is silly and the game’s art design was changed to match. The overly dark art direction of the original Cotton has given way to a fantastic visual makeover that is simply put phenomenal. The game is a literal explosion of color as the SNES color palette is given a workout giving life to the vivid backdrops of each stage. You would think the at times pastel art would clash with the darker themed enemies however the two blend together brilliantly to create something even better. This is still technically a remake so all of the familiar sights and sounds of the PC Engine and arcade game are here but overhauled with many layers of gorgeous parallax scrolling. The level of detail is nearly unmatched on the SNES and the game only slows down during its most hectic moments. This is a first class production all around.

While there are some surface similarities to Gradius Cotton is its own beast. Cotton differs from other shooters in the sense that you aren’t collecting any special weapons but instead upgrading your current one. Crystals dropped by enemies grant experience that will power up your primary shot and bombs for ground targets and thankfully they only come in two colors here. Your powers can be leveled up to three times with death setting you back one level. That sounds minor at first but can quickly spiral into an unwinnable scenario during protracted boss battles.

At the start you have a choice of 4 groupings of 3 magic spells which also affects the movement of your fairies. These spells range in effectiveness from the focused fire dragon, thunder, barrier, to the situationally useful twinkle stars. The magic spells in the game are grossly overpowered, able to bring any boss close to death in a single hit. I suppose the designer’s way of managing this was to make spell power-ups incredibly rare until late in the game but it’s easy to hold on to at least one charge to make the end level bosses simple. Up to three fairies can fight by your side with their orientation at your command although they blend into the backgrounds so much that it is easy to get lost in the chaos.

Aside from the graphical makeover the biggest change to the game comes in its controls. Thanks to the SNES controller’s six buttons everything has been mapped separately adding extra options and making the game far more intuitive. You can now freely select which of your spells to use as well as reposition your fairies. Autofire and bombing also have their own buttons this time as well. It sounds minor but for anyone who has had to fidget with games like Forgotten Worlds on both the Turbo CD and Genesis it is a huge boon.

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The game’s pace is laid back and slow, akin to an amusement park ride with highs and lows in terms of moments of tension. The first few levels are admittedly a bit too laid back, asking very little of the player other than occasionally moving up and down to avoid enemy fire. Even the mid and end level bosses pose little threat. At about the halfway point it is like the game has received a shot of adrenaline as a seemingly endless line of enemies close in for the attack. While normally ground targets and their weapons can be easily avoided later in the game they actually pose the largest threat. The environment also becomes a factor as gusts of water threaten to push you into stray bullets or you accidently fly into spewing molten rocks. If the early stages of the game were even slightly as intense as its back half this would have been phenomenal as the mechanics are incredibly fun to play around with.

Overall in spite of the more densely packed second half the challenge is fairly moderate. Although you die from a single hit you instantly respawn and the game is generous with extra lives. The game’s slower pace allows you to see danger coming ahead of time and aside from the times you might get greedy and rush after coins you probably won’t die often. Even the bosses aren’t as big a threat as they should be considering their size. Their attacks are telegraphed well in advance and provided you’ve kept magic in stock you can almost defeat them with a single spell. I’m certainly not complaining despite how this sounds; I’m used to shooters kicking my ass thoroughly so the more laid back pacing here is a welcome change and is more inviting to novices of the genre.

This is one of the strongest shooters for the SNES and one well worth your time if you have an even a passing interest in the genre. With fantastic art direction, good music and an even challenge there’s plenty to love about Cotton 100%.

8-out-of-101

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Psycho Dream

When Sega bought publisher Renovation they inadvertently screwed many SNES gamers out of some pretty cool imports. Arcus Odyssey was cancelled (but the full game still exists online), The Journey Home’s localization went kaput, and the subject of this review was also canned. Psycho Dream should have been released here as Dream Probe but sadly wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t matter though as it can still be enjoyed regardless; the only text is in the intro and is inconsequential. Similar in style to Valis and El Viento (all developed by the same company) it is just as good if not better than those titles and worth tracking down for fans of action games.

While the game does not have cut scenes to drive along its plot the story is fairly in depth. Sayaka Kaori has fallen into a coma, with the only means of reaching her being a machine that can peer into dreams. The National Public Safety Commission are the only ones authorized to enter people’s minds and sends two of their best officers, Ryo and Maria, to hopefully save Sayaka’s life.

The fairly in depth plot provides a perfect backdrop for the proceedings that follow. Because the game takes place in Sayaka’s mind there’s a dream like haze to the action that is surreal. The game takes place in a mix between modern day locations that have been overrun by dream demons like something out of a Megaten game. Both Ryo and Maria take on alternate forms to better deal with the chaos in Sayaka’s mind and how you approach the action is slightly different depending on who you’ve chosen.

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Both heroes have their own individual weapons and gameplay differences that make playing with each a unique experience. Ryo is a cyborg who starts out with a sword but gains a sickle that increases in size and the arc it covers as it levels up. The sickles annoyingly don’t cover the same length as the default sword however at its max level it becomes a whirlwind of lasers that rebound off nearly every surface. Maria starts out with a Belmont style whip but trades it for a mean pair of claws. They are powerful but also force you into close range which doesn’t make sense in my book; it should have been the other way around. In her ultimate form she gains butterfly wings that slow her descent after jumping.

Collecting blue crystals rather than yellow will send your weapon down a different evolutionary path. Blue crystals grant a laser gun that is exceedingly weak at first but becomes better as it levels. For Ryo it will eventually become a more focused three way laser; for Maria it gains homing capabilities but is weak. While I found it useful in spots having to wait until it is fully powered before it becomes useful means you’re better off sticking with upgrading your standard weapon.

This is a slower paced action game, one that is more focused on combat than platforming. Each level is comprised of multiple segments and fairly long with plenty of enemies to kill along the way. It bears a heavy resemblance to Valis, another Riot/Telenet game. Unlike those games however Psycho Dream comes up short in enemy variety and interesting creatures to kill. You’re mostly fighting slugs, snakes, and gelatinous creations that seem indifferent to your presence. There are occasional flashes of inspiration, such as stage 5’s high speed run up to the final stage but these moments are fleeting. You’re given a lot of powerful weapons but outside of the boss battles you’ll be hard pressed to find interesting enemies to use them against.

Overall Psycho Dream is a bit easy and worst of all short. You have infinite continues and although you are kicked back to the beginning of the current stage that is a minor impediment. The 300 second time limit I guess is supposed to instill a sense of urgency however it resets whenever you enter the next block of a level. With that in mind you can very easily sit and kill fodder enemies to refill your life bar in most spots with little fear. The only real challenge comes from the boss battles and that has more to do with the spotty hit detection than any complicated patterns of attack. These bastards are extremely cheap, inflict massive damage with every strike and are near impossible if you aren’t decently powered up. However it is never so bad that you won’t feel like giving up out of frustration. With only six levels it can be completed in a short afternoon which sucks as it is a solid game.

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Graphically Psycho Dream is carried by its art design. The creatures you’ll encounter among the various landscapes don’t resemble any of the typical demons you find in most games. The enemy list mostly consists of what appear to be floating amoeba and various demon world insects. While it eschews gimmicky special effects the game leans heavily on transparency effects. It’s pretty cool if a bit overused. The standard enemies aren’t anything to write home about but the large bosses certainly make up for them. These mayors are huge, screen filling monstrosities that every bit as terrifying to look at as fight. The only area the game comes up lacking is in its music, which isn’t terribly exciting. Surprising as I’ve enjoyed Michiko Naruke’s work on the Wild Arms series tremendously.

With greater enemy variety and another stage or two this could have been excellent but instead is merely solid. Although it stayed in Japan the only text is in the intro making the game extremely import friendly. It’s probably dirt cheap too and worth tracking down.

7-out-of-10-1

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Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Once Super Star Wars was released everyone knew it was a question of when and not if they would produce a sequel. The Empire Strikes Back has gone on to become the most beloved film in the original trilogy and I’m sure many expected the same of the game. It lives up to expectations in some respects and fixes a few of its predecessor’s flaws but at the same time has issues of its own that mar the experience.

Where the first game took certain liberties when following the plot of the film Super Empire Strikes Back is a more faithful adaptation to an insane degree.   You still begin the movie as Luke Skywalker and the rebels on Hoth but will eventually visit Yoda on Dagobah and finally Cloud City on Bespin for the conclusion. Because of its strict adherence to the movie’s events you can no longer freely select a character for each level and must play them as the game dictates.

Thankfully more has been done to make each hero unique. All characters can double jump which helps tremendously with the frequent platforming. Both Han Solo and Chewbacca start off at blaster level two while Luke has to work his way up from a petty laser. Luke begins the game with his lightsaber this time around and can freely switch between it and his blaster. Han has a defensive roll instead of a slide like Luke. Chewbacca has a spinning clothesline that makes him temporarily invincible while Han has an exhaustible supply of grenades. Once Luke reaches Dagobah you’ll have access to a range of force powers with most of them being indispensable. Healing, Levitation, slowing time, you can even turn invisible and avoid enemies briefly which is a god send at times. These are governed by a separate force meter that is replenished by items at a decent clip.

Aside from the changes in character abilities this is pretty similar to the first game. This is still primarily a run and gun platformer broken up occasionally by vehicle based levels. There is no time limit this time and passwords will record progress. Power-ups are in shorter supply this time around and hearts restore less health which has a massive effect on the game’s difficulty. The snowspeeder and X-Wing levels are mild fun but dated; once you’ve used a tow cable to destroy an AT-AT in 3D at 60fps it’s hard to go back to choppy Mode 7. For its time though these stages were as close as you could get to the film.

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Even more so than its predecessor the Empire Strikes Back is an incredibly difficult game, and one of the hardest SNES games in my opinion. You rarely get a moment’s respite from the infinite horde of enemies and honestly it is more aggravating than a welcome challenge, especially when even the debris from fallen enemies can damage you. The platforming segments are made all the more frustrating by respawning enemies and the threat of being frozen or pushed off a ledge. The game is heavily balanced toward Luke since the lightsaber is more effective in many situations. Blaster power-ups are in rare supply so both Han and Chewbacca feel underpowered for long stretches. As Luke once you gain your force powers it becomes easier since you can heal and save yourself from a pit with levitation. .

Despite the improvements in control the extreme difficulty is mostly a result of bad design choices. On nearly every level there are hazards that sprout from the ground and can sap your health in seconds. This is especially bad on Hoth, which comprises a third of the game. Whoever placed so many ice crystals in every stage needs to be shot. Boss battles are drawn out since you need to dismantle many of the larger metal contraptions in sections before you can actually inflict damage. Figuring out how to do that will result in many wasted lives as it isn’t always apparent where you need to hit. Trial and error is natural for progression but here it doesn’t feel as rewarding.

Had the difficulty been more manageable than the pacing problems with the game could be overlooked. A significant portion of the game takes place on Hoth where the majority of the frustrations with the game will occur. Granted I realize the developers were hamstrung by the movie’s plot and to their credit they do a good job of varying up the levels somewhat but you’ll grow tired of the constant ice stages. There was really no need to spend a few levels leaving the rebel base with Luke only to have to do the same thing with Han Solo directly after. Smaller scenes from the film form the basis for certain levels such as Chewbacca’s search for C3PO in the furnace room. That’s all well and good but these stages are gruelingly long. Overall there are about 20 or 21 stages in the game when that could easily have been cut in half. At least there are passwords to chart your progress but I reason most won’t have it in them to finish the game.

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Super Star Wars was already a brilliant game visually and ESB easily surpasses it. There is far more detail in the game’s backgrounds than before and despite spending multiple stages in each of the three planets (Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin) the artists have done a good job of varying the environments. As a result of the film’s plot you’ll face more mechanical bosses this time around than oversized beasts which does hurt the game as they feel repetitive despite their unique designs. The Mode 7 vehicle levels of the first game have returned and are more visually spectacular if you can believe it. Hoth’s surface has rolling hills and peaks and you can fly above or below the clouds of Bespin. The only lackluster one in the bunch is the first person dogfight in the Millenium Falcon which simply isn’t as inspired as the other two.

The sweeping soundtrack of the film has been expertly carried over to the SNES and is simply astounding in its clarity. Hearing the Imperial March at the title screen in all its glory is still impressive today. The sound effects have seen a similar increase in fidelity and there is a noted increase in the amount of sampled speech.

In some respects this is a better game than Super Star Wars. But because of the myriad number of smaller issues that add up to create an extremely frustrating experience I would still recommend that game over this.  Super Empire Strikes Back is still a good game but you need to know what you are in for when picking it up.

 

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Super Turrican

After the nightmare of playing the original Turrican on both the Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16 I thought for sure the rest of the world was nuts in their love for this series. I realize to some extent you had to be there at the game’s original release on the Commodore 64 and other UK computer formats to appreciate the game’s mechanics but even taking that into account there are glaring flaws I found hard to ignore. So imagine my surprise when the following console sequels would go on to become some of my favorite action games of that era. As one of Factor 5’s earliest console efforts Super Turrican is one of the best action games for the SNES and one that seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

Despite the title this is not simply an enhanced port of the first game but a weird amalgamation of elements from both Turrican and Mega Turrican. Fitting as both games were in development around the same time. The game doesn’t completely go the action focused route of MT and still keeps a lot of what made Turrican unique such as the wide open levels full of secrets. Although it isn’t as polished as that game due to the mélange of ideas from two separate games it is still an all-around excellent title and one of the better games in the series.

Nearly all of the flaws inherit in the original Turrican have been fixed creating a much more pleasant experience. Your life bar is separated into individual digits rather than one continuous bar. To go along with that getting hit gives you a moment of invulnerability making it almost impossible to have your life drained in 2 seconds. This was my main gripe with Turrican and the game is infinitely more playable thanks to the change. Depending on the strength of the attack your health is depleted in different increments to balance it out but on average you can sustain four or five hits before death.

The primary weapons have been slightly redesigned and are both still familiar yet packing more of a punch. The spread shot is still the same as ever, covering a wide range but lacking in power. The reflecting shot is both bigger and fires rapidly, making it more effective in certain tight situations. The laser beam has been changed to bursts of energy fired in rapid succession that is incredibly powerful rather than a straight beam of light. The lightning whip is instead a freeze beam that immobilizes enemies but doesn’t inflict damage. This change doesn’t quite work out as it is rarely ever useful and I more or less forgot about it completely after the first ten minutes. The “morph” ball can now drop bombs similar to Samus (oh boy) and is governed by a special meter rather than a strict number of uses. It makes it a far more integral part of your tool kit rather than a last resort.

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The level design is a best of both worlds approach in terms of action game design. The majority of the worlds keep the wide open approach that made the series famous.   Though not as spacious there are still plenty of item boxes to use as stepping stones to find gems and alternate paths through each of the levels. Most of the levels are redesigned versions of Turrican’s more popular levels with the finale taken directly from Mega Turrican. It’s….. A direct Aliens rip-off, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise but is still pretty cool regardless. There are a smattering of straightforward action stages more akin to Contra throughout that are a taste of the direction the series would eventually go in. Some might poo poo their inclusion but I feel they are a nice change of pace.

The few original worlds made specifically for this game aren’t a direct fit and feel more like they were included as part of a checklist. The volcano world is the obligatory fire level every game seems to have while the ice world is full of requisite slippery slopes. However there is a cool stage where you must use the changing direction of the wind to assist in platforming. I actually would not have minded seeing more inspired mechanics like that to break up the monotony but I can see how Turrican purists would have felt otherwise.

Super Turrican is only let down by its brevity. With five main worlds with multiple sub levels each that seems like plenty for an action game but the truth is most will be able to finish the game in about 2 hours. That isn’t to say you won’t enjoy every moment of it but the game’s conclusion comes abruptly; not only is there no final confrontation with the Machine but there isn’t an ending either. This unfortunately comes from cuts made late in development; the 6-meg game had to be chopped down to 4, leaving an entire world and a few weapons on the cutting room floor. If only we received the full game that was originally planned, then Super Turrican would have truly been special.

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Visually the game is spectacular, full of vibrant colors and detail the series had not traditionally seen before. The backgrounds are incredibly well designed and the bosses are screen filling monstrosities that are just as entertaining to fight as see in action. Surprisingly special effects such as Mode 7 are kept to a minimum and used sparingly; the popular giant fist at the end of the first world is comically small before zooming in to occupy the majority of the screen. Most impressive of all however is the lack of any slowdown no matter how intense the action. The excellent soundtrack is presented in Dolby Surround Sound and while it lacks the punch of Mega Turrican’s bass is still far above most music produced during that era.

Regardless of how much content had to be cut this is still one of the better action games for the Super NES. If given a choice between this and Mega Turrican that game wins out but ST is a close second and more than worth your time.

8-out-of-101

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Pocky & Rocky 2

One of the greatest joys of being a gamer is coming across a hidden gem every now and then that is an absolute blast to play. It isn’t as easy for most games to fly under the radar these days due to social media but back in the 80s and 90s we still relied on magazines for coverage and they only had so much space, meaning many lost classics never received the exposure they deserved. Pocky and Rocky was one such title, an enjoyable top down shooter and awesome sequel to a bad arcade game. But apparently it sold well enough to warrant a sequel that brings more of the same action but also incorporates a number of features to make it an even better experience.

The harvest festival is held every year, with this year in particular being special as Princess Luna has come down from the Moon to join in the festivities. Unfortunately a group of demons use this as an opportunity to kidnap her. Pocky sets out with a new set of allies in tow to rescue the princess and defeat this mysterious new threat.

Featuring the same top down action as the first title Pocky and Rocky 2 features a few sterling changes that will alter your approach to the game. There is no longer a life bar and instead damage is based on how much armor you have. At the most basic level you can sustain two hits before death but can purchase armor to absorb three blows and bunny ears (!) for one extra. It’s a change that means you’ll have to focus on using your wand to deflect attacks more frequently as well as always be on the move, especially since you can no longer slide. Lastly the two divergent paths your Hanafuda cards could take has been simplified but for the better, with the cards at first gaining rapid fire and then doubling in size and strength.

The game is still two-player coop however in single player you will always have a partner character with you at all times who can be switched out at the start of each level or by collecting an item. Rocky returns and is unchanged and is joined by Bomber Bob, whose name is self-explanatory, and Little ninja. The initial trio will eventually be joined by four more characters who will join you in each level such as Tengy, Scarecrow, Digger, and Ottobot. Each has their own specialty and you’ll have the option of changing multiple times during each level for the maximum benefit.

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For the most part your partner will follow your movements and also attack enemies in the vicinity but their real worth comes in their abilities. They’re also technically invincible; they can take a few hits before “dying” but will come back after a brief period. You can completely abuse the hell out of this to survive hairy situations, especially boss fights although the time they are gone in those situations can be pretty dire. By using magic Pocky will inhabit their bodies and use their powers; Rocky can find hidden items, little ninja can open locked chests without a key, and Bomber Bob can chuck boulders to open secret passages.

In the absence of a smart bomb Pocky can toss her partner at enemies. If you miss you’ll have to wait about 10-15 seconds for them to come back. When used on bosses it becomes a Panic Bomber attack with different effects depending on the character. These attacks can be devastating, especially if you can catch them in a corner. The boss fights are long since the bastards are basically bullet sponges so these attacks are crucial to shortening these drawn out affairs.

At nine levels it would seem the game is longer but in actuality it is about the same length as the first game as the levels are shorter overall. The first level is a practice stage to teach you the game’s mechanics (which is worth it in my opinion) and can also be skipped. The inclusion of light RPG elements such as currency, shops, armor upgrades, and townspeople to speak with in each level gives the game a Legend of the Mystical Ninja vibe that I dig. Removing the life bar has made it tougher but at the same time the additional game mechanics make up for it wonderfully and more importantly are fully explored within the game’s framework. Add in passwords to save progress and you have a game that successfully updates the series mechanics while also fixing its prequel’s few faults.

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Graphically there haven’t been great strides made technically as the general look is still the game but what has improved is the game’s art.   The locations you’ll visit are more diverse and rich in color as well as the demons you’ll face. The special effects that accompany the panic bomber attacks are pretty cool to witness with giant plumes of fire, geysers of water and other effects that up the visual pizzazz. There are more enemies that crowd the screen at once, inducing slowdown but these instances are few in number. The soundtrack has expanded in number but I would place it on the same level as the first game; adequate but nothing spectacular.

Pocky & Rocky is both familiar and different at the same time with sweeping changes that creates a distinctive experience compared to the first game. It’s also one of the best top down shooters from that era. The game was released in limited quantities so its pricey but if you find it at a normal price I would say jump in immediately.

8-out-of-101

 

 

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Terranigma

We should have received Terranigma in America. The localization was complete however Enix had already closed their US office, thanks in no small part to their oddball decisions on what games to bring to America. Robotrek, 7th Saga, and E.V.O. instead of Dragon Quest? Yeah. However the game oddly enough was picked up by Nintendo of Europe but not their US counterpart, shame on them. RPG fans back in the day were familiar with Quintet’s work even if they had never heard of the developer themselves. Actraiser, Soulbazer, and Illusion of Gaia are all excellent games that share a similar theme of rebuilding the world and guiding the people. Terranigma was the final game in their loose trilogy and the greatest, taking all of the ideas they had previously explored to their nadir. It is one of the best action RPGs of the 16-bit era and one that desperately needs to be re-released.

Thousands of years ago war raged between the Light and Dark sides of the planet. This war ravaged the world, leaving only a mirror image in its place, the Underworld. Terranigma begins in the village of Crysta, the only pocket of humanity left. Ark is a young mischievous lad who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. His penchant for trouble dooms nearly everyone when opens a mysterious forbidden door and the village is frozen. The Village elder, the only one unaffected, instructs Ark that he has to conquer the five towers in the area that will not only free the people but also revive the continents of the upper world. Since he is the one that set these events in motion it is also his task to guide the upper world to self-sufficiency.

The game’s plot combines the sense of discovery and adventure present in Illusion of Gaia with the world building of Soul Blazer and takes the themes present in all of Quintet’s past works to its fullest extent. While the main cast of characters is kept fairly small there is plenty of room for growth and the story has many poignant moments and twists. It loses the intricate character relationships of IoG but gains a much grander story in the process, one that I can’t really say I enjoyed more but is just as good. The only negative I can legitimately bring up is that the story doesn’t pick up until the latter half of the game but it does so brilliantly, bringing together all of the smaller tasks you have accomplished to show how big of an impact you have had on the world.

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Controlling Ark is a joy as he is an incredibly nimble protagonist. All of your weapons are variations on a spear and you are equipped with plenty of attack techniques to keep combat from becoming boring. Most of these moves will come in to play at some point as some enemies can only be damaged by certain attacks. Two particular techniques however, the Middle Slicer (the RPG equivalent of Bison’s Pyscho Crusher) and the Rush Attack are so overpowered you can probably cheese your way through most of the game with just those two. Magic is also available for purchase using prime blues, crystals scattered all around the world. While most of the spells aren’t as powerful as your standard attacks healing, and warping out of dungeons is indispensable. Plus they are animated beautifully.

This is a far more nonlinear adventure than Illusion of Gaia and is more in line with Soul Blazer. As you venture out into the world reawakening the plants, animals, and finally humans there are plenty of side areas not visible on the world map to discover. Once you’ve reached Chapter 3 and humans have populated the world the game truly opens up. You can simply follow the guided path to the end of the game or engage in numerous side activities that truly take guiding humanity to heart as you help various people around the world make landmark discoveries such as electricity, the invention of the camera, various food items and such and trade them around the world. These undertakings aren’t just a checklist either; as you spread these technologies and culture to different countries villages will prosper and grow in size, becoming more modern and offering new items in return. This is the full realization of the theme of death and rebirth prevalent in nearly of Quintet’s games and the fact that you have control over how deep you delve into this element is wonderful.

The game makes use of an experience based leveling system rather than the static stat growth of its predecessor. This works great in that the boosts in strength with each level are pretty significant and will always keep you on even footing with enemies and bosses. It’s also evenly paced so you’ll never have to grind outside of one specific point. In Sylvan Castle the boss Bloody Mary is vastly overpowered compared to the level 90% of players will be (about 21 or 22), to the point your attacks will only inflict 4-5 damage. Your only options are to buy as many elec rings as possible and pray or grind to level 26 or 27. This is so out of place compared to the rest of the game that it bears mentioning.

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Terranigma is an exceptionally pretty game and fitting to sit beside other last generation Super NES efforts like Chronotrigger and Seiken Densetsu 3. While not as full of special effects as other titles released in that period the artwork is excellent and what few effects they do employ such as transparencies and Mode 7 are used to great effect. The underworld uses double Mode 7 to mirror the surface on its ceiling and the effect is still amazing to see in motion today. There are some uneven elements to the graphics such as the heavy recycling of forests and caves towards the end. The more fantastical environments are visually inspired while the game’s realistic settings once you reach Chapter 3 lack that same visual flair. The one consistent visual stand out are the bosses, large multi-jointed monstrosities

The soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, encompassing a wide range of themes throughout the course of the adventure that are always fitting. While there aren’t as many stand out tracks like your typical Final Fantasy or even Illusion of Gaia as a whole it is generally excellent. Like many of their prior titles some of the sound effects are carried over from Actraiser but it is not something I would hold against the game.

At this point there really is no reason why Terranigma hasn’t officially been released on the Virtual Console or as a port to the 3DS. This is one of the best SNES action RPGs period and one that any fan of the genre should play.

9-out-of-10

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Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius

I really love examining the later games released during any console generation. Once the technology has matured and tool chains have been mastered its nothing short of miraculous what is pulled from aging hardware. Look at Vectorman and the Adventures of Batman & Robin for Genesis. Or Seiken Densetsu 3 and Donkey Kong Country 2 for SNES. Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius can count itself among that crowd. As the last Parodius title developed for the Super Famicom it pushes the system pretty hard in numerous ways, especially in terms of speech.

The name of the game loosely translates to Live Chatting Parodius, a name in which it lives up to. A large portion of the game’s memory is dedicated to sampled speech to enable running commentary throughout the entire game. It gives the game the feel of a talk show such as Game Center CX and the like. Sadly this feature is lost on those of us that can’t speak Japanese. The commentary, while pretty cool in concept isn’t exactly crucial to the proceedings. The few phrases and such that I picked up on usually amounted to commenting on how dangerous the current situation is, warnings about the upcoming boss, and common stuff like “Watch Out”, “It’s Dangerous” or even berating you on your bad performance.

Luckily the game is still excellent regardless of whether you can understand the strange old man talking over your progress. The number of playable characters has tripled in size from its last installment to a record breaking (at the time) 16 pulled from nearly every Konami series you can think of. The majority of the new faces are Parodius originals for those that want something different. While there is some obvious doubling up of characters, such as the similarities between the Vic Viper and Lord British there are some slight differences that make a large impact such as forgoing options for a chargeable laser.

Rather than original themed stages Jikkyou Parodius instead parodies other Konami properties. Some of these are surprising and will be foreign to most; stage 2 is themed after Tokimeki Memorial, an inhumanly popular dating sim from the mid-90s. It’s certainly strange subject matter for a shooter yet somehow they make it work. The concept of fighting a pair of school girls stacked on top of each other as an end level boss fits right in with the series’ ridiculous tone.

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The fun continues as even Lethal Enforcers is ripe for parody. Yes the deadly serious light gun (emphasis on gun) shooter serves as the basis for a level that combines moving targets and obstacles with the fast pace of the speed zone from Gradius II and III. While you might expect an end level boss in some way related to the series (I don’t know, a giant pistol or something?) instead you’ll face a Kabuki actor in one of the game’s more difficult encounters.

Other levels draw from Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Twinbee, disco and cooking. At only eight levels this is shorter than prior games in the series but you won’t finish it one, two, or even three sittings. There’s a battery back-up option which seems strange to include in a shooter but is literally a god send here. The only caveat is your score is reset to zero, not that most will even care. Aside from playing through the game with different characters there are 70 fairies strewn throughout the game. They are hidden pretty damn thoroughly and will take dedication to acquire them all but sadly your only reward is a stage select option.

While the main focus of the game may have changed slightly one thing that hasn’t is the difficulty. Jikkyou Parodius is absolutely brutal and unrelenting to an insane degree. This is slightly faster paced than the previous games and with that comes more aggressive enemies to match. Even the relatively brief space intermissions before each new level starts are pretty deadly. It’s definitely unexpected and with the increase in bullets and just junk littering the screen comes slowdown. Prior games were pretty good about restraining their chaos to reduce it as much as possible but here slowdown is a regular occurrence. Honestly I’m pretty sure they had the SNES ready to tap out at any moment and it sucks that the system can’t keep up. It isn’t game breaking but is notable enough to warrant mentioning.

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This installment of Parodius was released in late 1995 and so benefits from years of dedicated work on the hardware. The game simply looks fantastic, with large sprites, excellent animation, and beautiful backgrounds at every turn. The series wacky sense of humor has been taken to the extreme and if you thought some of the enemies and bosses in prior games were ridiculous before its nothing compared to what Konami has cooked up here.  The SA-1 chip was included, which enables some polygonal effects here and there but is mainly used to speed up the system’s slow processor and data compression.

That compression is what allowed the game to have so many voice samples and music. There are very few games from that era that come anywhere close to this game in that regard; maybe some of the later sports games. Aside from the commentary the soundtrack is otherwise excellent, combining original compositions with funky remixes of public domain songs and other Konami hits. The sound is of a higher quality than most SNES games and doesn’t suffer from the typical muffling associated with many of its best efforts.

As one final outing for the series before it moved to the 32-bit consoles Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius is an all-around excellent game. While its signature feature is lost to non-Japanese speakers it has little impact on the rest of this phenomenal package.

9-out-of-10

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the Peace Keepers

 

It’s funny, for as much as they are generic I still can’t help but like the Rival Turf/Rushing Beat series. While the first game was generic as all get out Brawl Brothers had a few features I genuinely liked and if it weren’t for the repetition and collision issues I would have rated it higher. The Peace Keepers is the best of the bunch, full of forward thinking ideas that most similar titles wouldn’t adapt until years later. However like Streets of Rage 3 unnecessary changes were made to the game that don’t completely ruin it but affect its quality.

Unlike most brawlers story plays heavily into the game’s proceedings and unfolds as you progress. In the year 2015 the world is still recovering from the economic wars of 2011. The DM Corporation used its vast resources to help the world get back on its feet, to the point where they have built up so much favor with the public that they essentially rule the world. Of course they aren’t as benevolent as they seem as their leader, Kulmbach Lawrencium has been conducting genetic experiments in secret. It is these experiments that bring the four protagonists together to bring them down.

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The four heroes all neatly fit into the standard niches; Flynn is the well rounder, Echo is weak but fast, Prokop is the slow (inhumanly slow) but strong man and Al is somewhere between the two. The fighting engine has been greatly expanded with each character possessing a variety of techniques to further distinguish them from each other. Echo can double jump and jump off enemy heads. Al can use his bazooka for a long range attack. Prokop can carry and choke opponents a few times before tossing them aside for extra damage. There are dashing attacks and oddly enough a separate button for taunting. The taunt button might seem useless however it leads to your termination attack, of which you only get two per life. If you are fast enough you even can reverse a hold or grab although the timing of this is very particular.

Beyond the improved combat mechanics the game’s best feature are its multiple paths. At the end of every level you are presented with two choices which lead to different levels and events. There are around 11 or 12 stages altogether and you won’t play through them all in one run, prompting a huge amount of replay value. The order is randomized as well. There are plenty of secrets to find if you look hard enough, including unlocking prior series regular Norton and a reprogrammed Orbot. In addition to hidden characters everyone has a good and bad ending with specific criteria that has to be met to receive them such as saving scientists or even playing the levels in a specific order. Replay value has always been the Achilles heel of the beat em up genre and the Peace Keepers does an excellent job of rectifying that.

When the game was brought overseas a sizable number of changes were made, none for the better. Aside from the story changes the game was made more difficult although that is a bit of a misnomer. The Japanese release gave you a more than generous 30 credits which was totally unnecessary. That was cut down to 12 and while it sounds like a big cut the reality is 12 is more than enough. You would have to do something really stupid like try to play through the entire game using Prokop to actually run out of credits.

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Where the series once looked contemporary and was able to keep up with its competition visually the Peace Keepers looks dated. Games like Final Fight 2, the Ninja Warriors, and especially Streets of Rage 3 were visually spectacular and looked better than many of the arcade games in the same genre at the time. To its credit the sprites are pretty large and animate smoothly but there are only a few enemy types that are recycled heavily throughout the game. Gone are the exquisitely drawn baseball stadiums and forests and in its place the Peace Keepers has mostly flat and lifeless backdrops with some ripped straight from Brawl Brothers. As part of the localization process the facial portraits throughout the game were redrawn in a more realistic style which doesn’t match the sprites at all; it’s pretty hilarious to see Echo as a child yet her portrait is a grown woman. And the game can’t decide whether Al is a black man or not.

I’d like to comment on the music however there isn’t any. That’s right, they’ve also completely removed all of the game’s music and it definitely hurts the game. The dead silence with the exception of the sound effects makes it seem as though the game is unfinished. It was a chore to completely play through the game without any mood setting music and I resorted to listening to my own just to avoid hearing the repetitive grunts and smacks. You have the option to switch to “BGM” mode but a sizable chunk of the game’s original music is missing with one of the worst songs reused for multiple stages. I don’t know what they were thinking with this change but it is stupid, no doubt about it.

I don’t want to give the impression that the game was some triple A title that was ran through the meat grinder but as the sum of its parts it was certainly better than this. The Peace Keepers is still relatively solid but what it lacks and has been changed hurts its overall quality. I would recommend the better beat em ups on the platform before settling on this.

7-out-of-10-1

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Super Metroid

The greatest video game of all time. The best overall Super Nintendo game. Masterpiece. Many are the accolades that Super Metroid has received over the years and they are all accurate to an extent. The scary thing is the game really is that good; Super Metroid is one of the best video games ever created and a master course in game design. As one of my most anticipated releases it did not disappoint and even after nearly 20 years of endlessly replaying the game I’m still discovering new secrets and hidden items. It has spawned an entire genre of games in its wake from the numerous handheld Castlevanias to superb indie titles such as Cave Story and Valdis Story. But beyond all that it is simply an amazing sci-fi game that does everything right.

Picking up directly after the events of Metroid 2 Samus delivers the lone baby Metroid to the Ceres Space Colony to see if they could harness the Metroid’s energy seeking powers. It isn’t long before the space station is attacked by the space pirates and the Metroid larvae kidnapped and taken to the Planet Zebes with Samus in pursuit.

Metroid was our first taste of what a nonlinear adventure entailed alongside the Legend of Zelda and Return of Samus provided a bit of back story to the proceedings. But both games were not without their flaws. It was Super Metroid that would take stock of what did and did not work and reduce the frustrations many had to deal with in this nascent genre. With an auto-mapping feature and waystations that provide a rough map of your current locale gamers no longer had to break out the graph paper to chart their progress. That is only a fragment of the improvements that make this one of the best adventure games of all time.

The return to Planet Zebes is both familiar and alien at the same time. Your initial journey into its corridors will take you back into the most memorable areas of the series’ first installment as the planet is completely lifeless. Once you’ve taken the morph ball from the same pedestal the world comes to life as the pirates are now aware of your presence. The first hour or so of progress is guided as you are herded toward the basic tools you’ll need go off and explore on your own. Once you’ve destroyed your first major boss the entire planet is more or less at your disposal as you seek new power-ups to further mine the depths of this gargantuan world.

And what a set of weapons they are. Each new item added to your arsenal produces a domino effect as you’ll think back to prior areas you couldn’t access before. A number of new beams join the now classic ice and wave beam and they all stack on top of each other to produce an alien killing beam of destruction. The power beam lets you charge up a more powerful shot while the spazer gives it the power to pass through walls. The screw attack is saved for late in the game as it is the most powerful and trivializes most of the content.

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The old favorites are nice but it’s the new stuff that is the most exciting. Super missiles and power bombs are insanely powerful and will also reveal hidden passageways and shortcuts. The Speed booster is possibly the most fun addition as you plow through walls and enemies after building up speed. The grappling hook is used extensively to swing across gaps or to even latch onto certain enemies. For the obsessive compulsives that need to find everything the X-Ray scope will be your new best friend. At the touch of a button you can scan every room to reveal items, traps, breakable blocks, etc. It’s amazing how well hidden some of the missile upgrades are; there are times the X-ray Scope will show one directly under your feet!

The best tools in the world would be nothing without suitable localations to use them in and once again Super Metroid delivers. Each of Zebes’ six regions are distinct, from the plant laden Brinstar, lava filled Norfair, the underwater Maridia and the derelict remains of the Wrecked Ship. Each is absolutely massive in scope and even accessing the map of each area doesn’t tell the whole story as there are tons of secret passages that you’ll have to discover on your own. It’s a literal work of genius the way every area on the planet is connected and you unlock shortcuts to each one. Some you can explore nearly completely the first time through but in most cases you’ll need to save certain portions for later once you have the appropriate item.

Or not. The beauty of the game’s design is that most of its weapons are completely optional and with enough skill you can still manage to explore each area. Sequence breaking has been alive since the original Legend of Zelda but Super Metroid is one of, if not the game that popularized this concept. The game has enjoyed nearly 20 years of popularity as gamers of all stripes try to obtain the absolute bare minimum for completion and shave time off the clock. With multiple endings it’s almost encouraged in order to earn the best ending.

Beyond the multiple endings there is still lots to discover about the game. There are a number of advanced techniques such as the crystal flash, bomb jumping, beam shields, wall jumping, and even super jumping (which looks ridiculously cool). What’s cool is that there are instances where the game will show you how to perform these without explicitly stating so; pay attention to the non-hostile aliens you encounter.

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Super Metroid isn’t big on special effects but instead nails the cold and lonely feels it’s going for thanks to expert art direction. The environments are filled with tons of details that are easy to miss; bugs feast on dead bodies, loose wiring produces sparks, and flower petals fall heavily in the distant backgrounds of Brinstar. When the game does decide to use an effect it’s always to heighten the atmosphere; the heat haze used in Norfair really sells you on the temperature of the environment. The bosses are a far cry from the forgettable mayors of the series’ first installment and resemble something out of a nightmare. Kraid is no longer a squat midget but a massive two story tall monstrosity. Ridley is one of the game’s most difficult encounters and is joined by the creepy Phantooon and Crocomire. I’ll just say this about the game’s finale; the fight against Mother Brain is one of the greatest in video game history.

The soundtrack aids in setting the right tone for each location and is perfect. The atmospheric music is has amazing range and never limply plays in the background. It’s creepy when it needs to be, such as exploring the frigate before the power is restored. Laid back and dreary when exploring Maridias’ aquatic confines, and dark and foreboding, especially when you reach Tourian and see its residents drained of life.

What more needs to be said? Use whatever metric you want and you’ll still come to the same conclusion; Super Metroid is one of the finest 16-bit, no, games ever made and a classic in every sense of the word.

10-out-of-10

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Plok

The 16-bit generation certainly didn’t need another mascot platformer but any game that at least tried to do something different was appreciated. Plok is a little known platformer from that era that went unnoticed yet managed to introduce elements that would show up in far better games a year or two later. While it has its flaws it does enough right to endear itself to fans of the genre.

Plok is the king of Akrillic Island and wakes up one day to find that his grandfather’s flag has been stolen. In anger he goes in search of it on a nearby island but this is merely a distraction. Fleas take over in his absence and colonize Polyesta, replacing his flags with their own. What’s a Plok to do? Kick some ass of course.

Criminally overlooked during one of the SNES’s slow years in some ways I can see why. The Claymation cover art is eye catching but who or what the fuck is Plok supposed to be. No seriously, what the hell is he? He looks like a blanket with arms and boots and certainly not cool, especially during the era in which Sega were successfully appealing to preteens who wanted to feel older than they really were. Many games have suffered similar fates but it was especially sad in this case. While Plok won’t win any awards for character design it was an excellent platformer with a phenomenal soundtrack that deserved better.

Years before Rayman burst on the scene (okay one year) Plok did it first. Like Ubisoft’s limbless hero Plok can also fire his hands as projectiles but takes it a step further, with all of his limbs serving as ammunition. It does come with a drawback, as you have to wait for your body parts to come back and suffer from lessened mobility. It’s pretty hilarious to see the guy reduced to a hopping torso but the fun stops when fleas or other enemies are kicking your teeth in, so to speak.

The levels have been designed with this in mind as limb tossing is used to solve puzzles as well as attacking. Many times you’ll have to sacrifice a body part temporarily to activate a switch needed to progress through a given level, sometimes even all of your appendages. The initial phase of the game is relatively simple as your only goal is to make it the flag at the end of each stage, much like Mario. There’s a balanced difficulty curve as more is expected of you and new mechanics are introduced.

About a third of the way through the game the pace picks up considerably and the game shifts in focus form flag collecting to flea extermination. New gameplay elements are introduced at a rapid clip at this point that go a long way toward relieving the game’s repetition but aren’t always completely successful. The optional suits such as the firefighter outfit, hunting gear, and even a boxing costume appear more frequently and Plok even receives a few new abilities such as a screw attack like Metroid and an amulet that converts sea shells into a mobile attack. Later in the game you’ll even get to drive a few vehicles like a tank, helicopter, motorcycle, and even a flying saucer. These vehicles are hard to control and result in many cheap deaths. All these items add some variety but can’t hide the fact that a large number of its levels are near identical and you are simply going through the motions. Hunting fleas gets old fast and you spend far too much of the game doing just that and the final levels in the Flea Lair blend together in one long unenjoyable sequence.

The game doesn’t take itself seriously and has a kitchen sink like approach in its design. It works to some degree but it isn’t perfect. As much as I like the variety in gameplay the level design isn’t as tight as it should be. The entire game world seems to be composed of interconnected islands built on hills and inclines. This leads to issues on almost every level where there are no immediate paths, leaving you to take far too many leaps of faith. There are navigational prompts that are supposed to direct you but they don’t take into account any barriers that stand in your way and will often lead you in the wrong direction.

Trying to hit enemies is also frustrating. You can only fire straight ahead and with the uneven terrain your attacks either can’t reach or fly over the heads of enemies. The first half of the game sees little combat but the balance swings the other way by its end. To some degree you can simply avoid most enemies but that completely defeats the point of having so many options and weapons.

Plok is noticeably harder than your typical platformer due to these flaws and in general. Although your life bar looks pretty lengthy in reality you can only sustain four or five hits before death. Life restoring fruit isn’t common but it’s at least easy to build up a decent stock of extra lives. What doesn’t sit right with me is the lack of passwords or battery backup. This is a pretty long game at close to forty stages and while a decent chunk last a scant minute or two it’s asking a lot to expect everyone to want to complete the game in one sitting.

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Plok’s world is bright and lively to a degree not too common during the 16-bit era. It resembles a cartoon with its emphasis on bright colors and weird character and world design. The backgrounds are drawn in a hand painted style that allows the foreground to really stand out and are exquisite although repetitive. Of special note is the flashback sequence which takes place completely in black and white. As I’ve mentioned the character design isn’t the most appealing yet somehow the game is still endearing in spite of it. The soundtrack is fantastic, one of the best composed on the SNES. The music spans a range of genres, from upbeat dance to mellow, peaceful arrangements and even guitar riffs. Tim Folin, a name with a long association with some of the best soundtracks of the era along with his brother Geoff were behind the music and together they knocked it out of the park.

While it isn’t perfect there are many aspects of Plok that you’ll grow to love. It’s interesting to note that some of its ideas would make it into far better games (vehicle transformations were used to great effect in Yoshi’s Island). Plok is a flawed yet fun experiment that I’m sure some absolutely adore.

7-out-of-10

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Rock N’ Roll Racing

Of all the genres that are hard to go back to pre-3d racing games probably rank first.  It’s not to say every 2d racing game is bad but the move to 3d gave the most benefit to the genre.  Stand out titles like Super Mario Kart and F-Zero still hold up but for the vast majority the varying attempt at simulating 3d can be pretty laughable.  But when a game did something different it was really special.  Blizzard’s Rock n’ Roll Racing was one such game and infused its isometric racing action with a shot of heavy metal to create one of the more unique experiences of that era.

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The game certainly does take the Rock N Roll part of its title seriously.  Each of the six playable characters looks as though they could have been the frontman of a hair metal band from the 80s.  Aside from looking pretty groovy each comes with a bonus to two of their stats such as cornering, acceleration, and jumping.  It’s a tough choice to make since your decision means you’ll possibly have to shore up any weaknesses through car upgrades.

Aside from its front end rock & roll plays naturally shows up as the game’s soundtrack.  These aren’t generic guitar riffs however as the game makes use of five of the most popular rock songs of the time: Highway Star by Deep Purple, Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf, Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood, Paranoid by Black Sabbath, and the Peter Gunn theme by Henry Mancini.  The game does a pretty damn good job of recreating these masterpieces minus the vocals as they are instantly recognizable within the first few notes.  I do wish there was more as these five songs are repeated throughout the entire length of the game.  What does help to distract from the repetitive music is the color commentary provided by Larry Hoffman.  Though limited to certain key phrases there’s a decent variety and he also refers to individual racers by name.  The fact that they even went the extra mile and included this much speech is commendable and is only topped by later sports games.

The game has many similarities to R.C. Pro Am, from its viewpoint and controls to its emphasis on destroying your AI controlled opponents in addition to placing in each race.  Being blown up doesn’t end the race but does cost precious seconds as you respawn which can potentially cost you the match.  Weapons come in the form of mines, rockets, and turbo boost with each replenished after each lap or for landing a finishing blow on an opponent.  The weapons also change depending on your current ride although the functionality is more or less the same.

Placing in the top three awards different cash prizes that can be used to upgrade various parts of your current vehicle or buy a new one.  Buying a new car isn’t as cut and dried as you would expect; not all cars share the same parts with some missing the option to upgrade certain aspects such as jumping ability or tires.  In some cases it sticking with what you have and shoring up its weaknesses is a better prospect.  The Battle Trak has great handling and works extremely well on New Mojave but starts to slip once you reach the ice planet whereas the Havac completely ignores all terrain hazards but is also expensive.

Each planet is divided into two divisions with a set point total needed to progress.  You are only awarded points for placing in the top three and with each division only featuring a set number of tracks there’s little margin for mistakes.  There’s a ton of tracks in the game, over forty or so in total as each planet increases the number of races to correlate with the rising number of points needed to progress.  While you can earn the necessary points to move on early if you are good enough it’s advantageous to milk each division for extra cash while you can easily dominate them since you’ll need it.

The difficulty curve in the game is well tuned and near perfect.  Early on the AI controlled cars are less aggressive and more prone to mistakes that you can exploit for easy wins.  But by the second planet you’ll notice an increase in their aggression as they’ll start each race with nitro or even unleash a flurry of missiles in an effort to destroy each other.  Those mines and puddles that you’ve been driving over with reckless abandon now cause spill outs and loss of control and even instant destruction.  If you haven’t been upgrading it comes as a shock to see that you’ve been blown up seconds into a race.  It’s definitely a challenge but in a good way; there’s no rubberband AI to cheapen your victories either.  The game’s pacing does suffer in that Division B is simply the same courses but a little harder.  Having to complete the same set of levels twice, especially on later worlds where you’ll need to complete at least 10 to advance gets old fast no matter how good a game is.

With great graphics, an amazing soundtrack and more content than 3 racing games combined Rock N’ Roll Racing has definitely stood the test of time and is still fun even today.  The game is available on the SNES, Genesis and even Gameboy Advance and all three versions are worth your time.

8-out-of-101

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Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie

It really is shame that due to licensing issues Macross hasn’t been able to develop a presence in America despite being one of the major series that introduced anime to the US.  The series has seen many installments over the years, from Macross 7 to the semi recent Macross Frontier with none of it reaching our shores.  And yet in spite of that the fandom is still tremendous.  Too bad we aren’t given the opportunity to show just how much we love it.

That said we really aren’t missing anything on the video game front.  There have been a long line of Macross video games spanning multiple console generations and almost all of them have been terrible.  Which makes Macross Scrambled Valkyrie such an anomaly.  I don’t know who the developers are but they work wonders with the hardware with Scrambled Valkyrie being not just an excellent technical showpiece but one of the best shooters available for the SNES.  And since it’s a shooter no knowledge of Japanese is necessary to enjoy all it has to offer.

The VF-1 has three different modes that can be switched at any time, each with their own form of attack.  The weapons for each form can be powered up three times individually, with any hits setting it back one level.  Your choice of the three heroes at the start will affect your approach to the game as their weapons are also individually tailored.  Hikaru Ichijou (Rick Hunter to us) is well rounded with his weapons skewing close to a typical Gradius style.  The Gerwalk form is near useless for him.  Maximilian Jenius is faster than Rick but suffers from a low life bar and only displaying his true worth when his weapons are maxed out. If you can adjust to his speed he is easily the best choice.  Millia Fallyna has the strongest weapons but they come with the caveat that they are hard to use due to only firing straight forward.

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Probably the coolest “weapon” in the game is the Minmay cannon.  If you avoid firing any shots your Veritech fighter will glow.  Nearly any of the fodder enemies you touch will immediately join your side as an invincible drone.  The extra firepower is more than welcome and although you don’t directly control their actions you can still position them to abuse their invulnerability.  The completely random gunship I converted on stage 2 valiantly fought by my side until I ultimately died two levels later.  The game is frustratingly selective in terms of the enemies that you can alter but the fact that this feature is even in the game is awesome to begin with.

The controls are kept simple at just two buttons, one for shooting and another to change forms.  Switching fighter modes plays heavily into the gameplay as each has their own individual quirks beside their weapon.  Fighter mode is the smallest and fastest, GERWALK kind of occupies the middle ground while Battroid offers the heaviest firepower but makes you a larger target.  The game is designed such that you can’t simply stay in one form and call it a day.  There are many situations where a given form is more suited such as the black holes in stage one; the fighter is fast enough to escape their gravitational pull while the Battroid would get sucked in.  That’s not to say that it is mandatory.  With some skill I’m sure the best pilots can manage but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that it’s possible to beat the stage four boss in Battroid form.

The game covers a lot of ground despite only having seven levels.  This is a slower paced shooter outside of stage four, not that it diminishes the game’s intensity one bit.  The initial asteroid field filled with space debris, black holes and corpses is fairly impressive and the game continues to ramp up from there.  You’ll eventually invade an enemy base, fly around the rings of Saturn and even navigate the insides of the UN Spacey.  As each stage is pretty long the game does a pretty good job of varying up the layouts right up until each boss.  Another cool touch, with a few exceptions each level has completely unique enemies.

Even in light of the fact that you have a life bar and frequent power-ups this is still one tough beast.  One life and seven continues isn’t all that much to work with, especially since you are kicked back to the beginning of the level when continuing.  The levels are a bit long so having to retrace your steps, especially on some of the more brutal arenas might kill your motivation to continue.  But the game is so accomplished in every other facet that you will, if only to see the next set piece.

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Visually Scrambled Valkyrie has few peers within the shooter genre on SNES or even during the 16-bit generation.  There is a ridiculous attention to detail spent on nearly every sprite and background, so much so that you’ll probably pause the game just to marvel at your surroundings.  The debris filled space graveyard of the first level sets the tone for the rest of the adventure with some levels such as stage six’s cloud filled moon featuring layers of scrolling as far as the eye can see.  The show’s various mecha provide ample material for the various enemies you’ll face in the game with some of the larger ships and bosses bearing an almost pre-rendered look.

The game is heavy on the special effects, transparencies in particular.  The numerous black holes and teleporting ships never cease to amaze as they make a smooth transition from a complete void.  There is some slowdown in some of the more hectic parts of the game but these moments are very few.  The soundtrack features remixes of some of the show’s more popular songs and while they are good they are still cheesy in that 80s anime way.

Too bad this never saw an official release in America.  But that doesn’t matter in the slightest as no knowledge of Japanese is required and what little text is in the game is already in English (very bad English).  This is one of the finest shooters of the era regardless of platform and one fans of the genre should track down.

9-out-of-10

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the Lion King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

 

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Gokujō Parodius

By 1994 the American arcade was dominated by countless fighting games, light gun shooters and some truly awesome 3d racing games.  This left the once popular shooter clearly on the outs, which sucked as that was about the point when some of the most unique games in the genre would hit the market.  Fans were left hoping for home ports as these games stayed in Japan, with Gokujo Parodius being one of them.  Take everything that made Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy great and add 2-player coop (at least in the arcade) and you have this excellent port that America would be denied.

While it never saw an official arcade release in the US Gokujō Parodius! Was released on console in Europe under the name Fantastic Journey.  Well that’s one way to put it.  I don’t know how or why the name was changed to that as the official title loosely translates to Fantastic Parodius – Pursue the Glory of the Past but the fact that once again Europe got a cool exclusive over America still remains.  The Parodius games are the best Gradius games that never were, and at least on the SNES turned out even better than Gradius III.

Since the last Parodius title the roster has nearly tripled in size with new characters debuting from a few more series.  Actually to a certain extent you could say it’s tripled; in coop player two has access to a further eleven characters that are palette swaps/counterparts to player one.  With an increase in roster comes new weapon options and Konami really went to town in giving everyone some interesting weapon combinations.  While the returning cast members are still using gear from their respective series the newcomers draw from some really obscure Konami arcade games such as Thunder Cross and Xexex.  You’ve to respect that respects their lineage while at the same time lampooning it.

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Gameplay is near identical to Non-Sense Fantasy although you do have a few more options like turning off the annoying weapon roulette.  The focus instead is on the zany hijinks at every turn and in this respect the game is literally insane.  The first level sets the tone as it takes place inside one of those crane machines that ate your money rather than doled out prizes.  Stage two is one long battle against a cat faced submarine; it’s an R-Type style assault against one huge battleship except this one makes cute noises and adorable faces.  The Speed up level takes its theme to heart as it takes place on a rural street with signs and hazard warnings all over the place.  Silly, but when you think about it it makes sense.

Other levels are cartoony takes on popular Gradius staples but the biggest source of the game’s weirdness comes from its bosses.  How do you fancy a battle against a panda ballerina, complete with tutu?  Or a mermaid with a pirate ship on her head?  The big core from Gradius makes an appearance but not in the way you expect.  Possibly my favorite boss is the capsule monster of stage five.  Shaped like an overgrown power-up it feels less like a battle for survival and more like a loot piñata as it shoots tons of power-ups in random patterns.  The only real danger of death comes from the occasional spike ball mixed in and its pathetic attempts to ram you.  If you take too long he simply flies away in disgust; how’s that?

Unlike the other games in the series the difficulty here is a bit more lenient and totally dependent on the character chosen.  The Vic Viper is well rounded and adaptable to any situation.  Hikaru/Akane’s weapons are very powerful, especially their boomerang shot which will rebound off destroyed enemies and take out others.  However their options are static and their shield only protects your face; shots from other directions can easily take you out.  I found I died a lot less to stray bullets than in the other games and that the game doesn’t reach the insane heights of its brethren.  It makes for a much more relaxing experience in that regard.

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As a late 1994 release Gojkujou Parodius is a pretty damn good looking game.  In the arcade it ran on proprietary hardware and the SNES does a near perfect replicating its look, only suffering in terms of slowdown and the missing coop.  The levels are teeming with activity with many moving parts in its backgrounds.  There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next and it overall has a more vibrant look compared to its predecessor.  They do recycle certain enemies and bosses such as the galactic dancer and the American eagle but that can be excused as plenty of other games do the same.

Once again the soundtrack borrows from classical music in the public domain.  The likes of Strauss, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky present and accounted.  The songs themselves are done justice through the SNES sound chip but I like the way that the game isn’t afraid to slow down or speed up the pitch to match the on screen action.  There are just as many original themes as well as clever remixes of music from Gradius to round out the aural package.

The only area that Gokujou Parodius comes up short compared to its predecessor is length: 8 levels versus ten.  But when you are having so much fun it won’t make a difference.  This is a bigger and better game than Non-Sense Fantasy in almost every way and one of the best SNES shooters of all time.  You don’t need to be a fan of parodies or Gradius to enjoy the fine shooting action on display here as it is simply a great game overall.

9-out-of-10

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Dragon View

Drakkhen was the first SNES RPG I had the misfortune of experiencing.  As a PC game ported to console it was certainly unique but its interface and gameplay were more suited to a mouse and keyboard than a controller.  Yet I somehow still found it compelling but not enough that I would ever recommend it to someone else.  It remains a curiosity within the SNES library as there weren’t many games like it.

You wouldn’t know it just by looking at it but Dragon View is actually a sequel to Drakkhen.  This little known sequel throws out nearly everything associated with that game for a more refined experience.  Dragon view is a sequel by association only and though it is better for it I do question why it is considered part of the series and not its own IP when it shares so little with its predecessor.  Regardless this is a solid yet overlooked action RPG that is uniquely different from its contemporaries and has plenty to offer fans of the genre.

Alex is a young warrior in training who lives in the village of Rysis with his girlfriend Katarina.  Life is simple for the two but all that changes when a mysterious sorcerer appears, overpowering everyone in the village and whisking Katarina away to parts unknown.  Alex grabs his sword to embark on a grand adventure to rescue the love of his life and save the world.

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The story isn’t the most original but how it’s told is certainly interesting.  The game uses a first person narrative style for all of its text, as if you are reading a storybook.  It’s definitely weird to see and I can guarantee no other game during that time experimented with such a localization choice.  Its unique, I’ll give it that, but it makes nearly every conversation needlessly verbose and some of the game’s heavier moments more dramatic than they really are.  I wouldn’t say it is bad, just not to my tastes.

A lot has changed in the years between games, most of it for the better.  You still navigate the world map in first person however enemies are represented as clouds of smoke rather than attacking randomly, giving you the option to completely bypass combat if you like.  The auto battles of the past have been replaced with side view action along the lines of an old school beat em up like Double Dragon.  I for one welcome the change as battles are faster and more active rather than sitting on the sidelines as an innocent bystander as your party is slaughtered beyond your control.  Though you venture alone enemies can now attack in groups of up to four.  It sounds unfair but they are easily dispatched as it boils down to your skill rather than a roll of the die.

Exploration of towns and dungeons are also done using a similar view.  The fact that there are actually towns this time is a nice shift, with shops to buy items and folk to converse with.  It’s a lot like Zelda 2 except you know, not as obtuse.  This is a fairly large world, with progress blocked off until you meet certain criteria.  There are plenty of optional locations off the beaten path for the exploratory type, mostly to power up your two primary weapons and magic rings.

The one element that has not changed unfortunately is the first person overworld.  Navigation is just as difficult in spite of the on screen compass and map.  It also doesn’t help that turning is excruciatingly slow due to the long viewing distance and presence of sprites on the field.  At the very least you can avoid random battles if you so choose but traveling twenty feet is far more laborious than it should be.  I can appreciate what they were going for but it barely worked the first time and was only more frustrating in light of the many RPGs with sensible overworld maps.

Speaking of maps, you might need to draw up your own for the dungeons by the game’s midpoint as they expand in size pretty quickly.  The dungeon design can be fairly complex as they usually span multiple floors with plenty of one way doors and trap floors to make you retrace your steps.  These have the side benefit of making you face respawning enemies and in turn becoming overpowered by the time you reach the bosses.

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In terms of presentation Dragon View is pretty accomplished.   Despite my disdain for the map it is technically impressive what they were able to accomplish using sprite scaling techniques to present a pseudo 3d world without the Super FX chip.  The day/night cycle is sorely missed however in its place is a wider variety of terrain.  The side view towns and dungeons are incredibly detailed but are a step back in terms of monster design.  The unique creatures that permeated the world have been replaced with generic demons and other creatures you can find in other games.

Despite that one black spot Dragon View is a quality title and one that has no close comparisons to its game play.  Don’t let any negative impressions of its predecessor color your perception as the two games share very little; trust me it’s for the better.  It has a low profile so it is probably dirt cheap and worth the price.

7-out-of-10

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Alcahest

Hal Laboratory has been an indispensable partner to Nintendo dating as far back as the Famicom era.  A diverse developer able to create titles in nearly any genre they have been a Nintendo first party for almost 20 years.  But prior to achieving that status they published their own titles as well as developed for other companies.  One such title was Alcahest, a Square published action RPG that sadly stayed in Japan.  I question why as it isn’t story heavy and could have been localized in a week at most.  Anyway thanks to the work of fan translators this excellent title is available for the English speaking world to experience.

Long ago the God of Destruction Alcahest came to the world and ended the era of peace until a lone warrior (who looks like way to close to Simon Belmont with a sword and shield) with the aid of four Guardian spirits sealed him away.  It is said that when Alcahest returns a new hero will appear to stop him. Evil forces lead by Babilom conspire to kill the unaware hero Alen before this can occur, setting him on the path to awaken the Guardians and save the world.

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This would be Hal’s second attempt at an RPG after Arcana and one that is far removed from that earlier effort.  Though technically an action RPG Alcahest leans more heavy on the action side and has the structure of title like Valis IV rather than Soulblazer.  The game is chapter based with only one or two towns to explore and no form of currency as new weapons are given at chapter’s end.  The experience gained is used to earn continues to restart in the same room rather than the beginning of each chapter.  All stat growth such as HP and MP is gained through found items, meaning you can possibly miss these important items and end up screwed.

Though you start off alone throughout the quest you will have the aid of the Guardians associated with each sword as well as temporary party members.  The Guardians once summoned will fight by your side and provide support in different ways for a few seconds.  The rotating cast of partners provide backup with some heavily overpowered; both Sirius and Garstein’s attacks are long range meaning they will actually do most of the work for you.

In many ways Alcahest is what a 16-bit sequel to Crystalis might have been.  Many of its mechanics are the same with four interchangeable elemental swords and numerous charge attacks for each.  Thanks to the SNES controller you won’t have to fumble about in the menus constantly to switch as it is accomplished with the L+R buttons.  It avoids the annoying elemental resistances of enemies but does promote switching weapons by giving each sword different attacks when charged that prove more effective against certain bosses and obstacles.

This is a fast paced game and I don’t simply mean Alen’s walking speed.  Events occur at a brisk pace and there are very few items needed to solve the game’s few “puzzles” if you can call them that.  There are usually only three quest items per chapter which you’ll come across naturally as you progress.  You’ll almost never have to enter the game’s menu to use items as they are used automatically when necessary, allowing you to stay on the go at all times.  Combat is aided by jump pads that will either send you rocketing forth or careening around each level.

Due to the game’s pace most of the generic fodder enemies pose little threat leaving the game incredibly easy.  Chests that refill your vitality and magic lurk around every corner meaning even the sloppiest players will still manage to survive.  The frequent boss encounters are the game’s biggest challenge however between the Guardian’s magic and whichever partner you might have along for the ride most will go down pretty quickly.  The few that you face alone such as the Dark Dragon and the Gaza duo are the rare tests of skill that I would have liked to see the game provide more of.

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Alcahest isn’t the most striking SNES title but it does have its moments.  The artwork and character design are generally well done and there are a few pretty backdrops every now and then.  There’s a great deal of variety from one chapter to the next and it’s hard to pin down what age the game takes place in as there are air ships and cyborgs alongside knights and demons.  Special effects such as the pouring rain of Chapter 3 and the mode 7 platforms of Chapter 2 are used sparingly to great effect.  The massive bosses are the one area that the game excels with a few screen filling bad asses are as much a challenge to face as well as sight to behold.  The music is solid yet unspectacular with few memorable tracks and at the very least does not detract from the action.

Alcahest is a title that I would recommend to both action gamers as well as fans of action RPGs.  It has enough story driven content to please RPG fans and is well paced to keep the attention of those who like twitch action games.  It sucks that there isn’t an official localized version of the game but you can muddle through it without any knowledge of Japanese with some difficulty, not that I would recommend doing so.

8-out-of-101

 

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest

Donkey Kong Country hit the industry with a level of hype not seen since the release of Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers 3.  With its revival of a long forgotten gaming icon, tight gameplay, arresting visuals, and oh yeah, the insane graphics no one was prepared and it became a monster hit.  And while it is an excellent platformer it was definitely overrated at the time with many perfect scores.  Donkey Kong Country 2 however really is that good.  With more of everything that made its predecessor a hit except more refined it is the game that signified in my eyes Rare’s status as a top tier developer.  In the era where the 2d platformer ruled DKC 2 is still easily one of the best games of the 16-bit era.

After the defeat of King K. Rool Donkey Kong settles down to enjoy his recovered banana hoard but is kidnapped by the returning King, now going by the name Kaptain K. Rool to go along with his pirate attire.  Diddy Kong is joined by girlfriend Dixie and an expanded Kong family to mount a rescue from the now pirate themed Kremlings.

You might be fooled into thinking both kongs are identical since their physical characteristics are similar however Rare has done a great job of differentiating the two.  Using her ponytail Dixie can float by spinning and also use it to pick up and carry objects.  Diddy is more adept at taking out enemies with his cartwheel plus he holds his barrels in front of himself, useful for head on collisions.  He gets extra range on his jumps by tumbling off a platform first.  There are a few team up moves you can pull off such as piggy backing on your partner or using them as a projectile.  Since they’re both small the larger Kremlings still pose a threat, a nice little touch.

The list of additions is simply staggering with many more items to collect (all with a purpose), secret areas to find, and just more of everything in general.  Aside from the standard bananas and balloons for extra lives there are banana coins which function as currency around the island.  The various members of the Kong family offer many services at a cost; Funky Kong will allow you to revisit prior worlds, Wrinkly Kong gives basic tips about the game and saves, Swanky Kong hosts a game show where you can earn extra lives, and finally Cranky Kong offers cryptic clues on the whereabouts of the rare DK coins.

The Kremcoins found in the bonus areas are used to access the Lost World, the DK equivalent of Super Mario World’s Star Road.  These 5 levels are some of the toughest in the game and have the steepest requirements to access.  You’ll need to find all seventy five Kremcoins in the game (15 per level essentially) which is a task in itself.  Aside from the satisfaction of knowing you’re a truly great player to have done so you’ll also get the best ending if you can muster the skill needed to reach the true final boss and the best ending.

The main game has a pretty steep learning curve that I feel is near perfect.  It is assumed that you are familiar with the series (and the mechanics are simple enough anyway) and so the game throws you into the deep end and never lets up.  When comparing the two games Donkey Kong Country is definitely where Rare sort of established the series play mechanics but were careful not to push too far.  Here every so often a level such as Bramble Blast and Red Hot Ride are thrown in to keep you from settling into a rhythm.  Even the terribly boring boss battles of the first game have been overhauled.  Where they seemed to be included simply as a matter of course DKC2’s mayors constantly evolve in their attack patterns throughout each fight making them a worthwhile part of the game.

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The pirate setting may seem limiting but it in fact has given the game far more variety than most platformers combined.  Each locale is its own separate themed world with very few themes repeated throughout the length of the game and even so there are significant changes to make them feel fresh.  Glimmer’s Galleon which you must navigate using only the light provided by Glimmer’s proboscis is wholly separate from Lava Lagoon, where Clapper the Seal must cool down the water for short periods in order for you to progress.  Amazingly the game keeps up this level of variety right up to its climax with new mechanics introduced at every turn.  Even the signature barrel blasting sees new life with the addition of new barrels.  Steerable barrels allow you free movement while inside for a limited time, while rotatable barrels allow you to choose your firing direction, once again within a limit.  My personal favorite are the plus and minus barrels which are only used a few times but each is memorable. In the Haunted Hall you must hit these barrels to increase (or if you aren’t careful, decrease) the amount of time you are invincible lest Kackles the ghost catches you.

It’s almost overwhelming just how many secrets are hidden throughout the game.  I honestly doubt most will ever complete the game 100% without the use of a guide.  The best kept secrets will require you to pay close attention to the environment for hooks or barrels slightly off screen or cleverly blended into the background.  The expanded number of animal companions also play a large role locating the game’s most well hidden trinkets.

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It’s hard to believe that in the span of a year Rare were able to surpass their work on the original Donkey Kong Country but it’s true.  The more consistent theme and varied worlds produce a visual feast for the eyes that I feel is superior to its predecessor.  Crocodile Island is darker and moodier than the cheery jungles of the first game and host to a larger assortment of wonderfully designed creatures even in spite of Rare’s sometimes questionable art.  The multilayered backgrounds host a ridiculous amount of detail for a 16-bit title with some of the best character animation from that generation.  There are very few SNES games, let alone 16-bit titles that are in the same league.

The game’s orchestral soundtrack is some of the finest music produced for the SNES.  The soundtrack for DKC was largely tropical themed but that would be inappropriate tonally with this game’s setting.  The music is moodier and tense but can swing back to joyous and upbeat when necessary.  There are more instances where the music will fade to put the sound effects in focus and it works wonderfully.  Even the comical sound effects are a perfect match for the music.

Nothing more needs to be said.  Donkey Kong Country 2 is possibly Rare’s finest hour and certainly one of the best platformers ever made.  There’s no higher praise than that.

10-out-of-10

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Goof Troop

While licensed video games have been a staple of the industry almost from its inception sometimes you have to wonder what the hell goes through a publisher’s mind (aside from potentially easy money) when deciding to pick up a particular license.  How the hell do you create a compelling video game based around ET anyway?  Or how about Absolute creating a generic platformer out of Home Improvement, you know the show about a goofy handyman?  Some properties simply don’t lend themselves to conventional game mechanics, especially in the 80s and 90s.

If you would have asked me years ago Goof Troop would have fit in that category.  Unlike its Disney contemporaries the Goof Troop cartoon wasn’t based around high adventure but was more comedic in tone.  Ducktales has the decade’s long comic book history to draw from and Rescue Rangers was all about solving the latest mystery of the day.  Yet somehow Capcom were able to create a light Zelda inspired adventure for the younger set that actually works and were it not for its brevity would be pretty excellent.

As one of the first titles designed by Resident Evil’s Shinji Mikami you obviously won’t find any elements from that legendary series here.  Goof Troop has more in common with the Legend of Zelda and Pirate Ship Higemaru, one of Capcom’s first games.  As either Goofy or his son Max you’ll visit five locations on Spoonerville Island on the way to saving Pete and his son PJ.  It shares the same pirate theme as Higemaru and its heavy use of barrel throwing but places a heavier emphasis on puzzle solving, hence the Link (heh) to Zelda.

Each level is broken up into a series of rooms that usually have some form of puzzle that needs to be solved before moving on.  Goofy has no means to protect himself normally but can pick up and throw the many barrels littering the environment.  He can also put his hands up and try to catch objects throw from above.  Although you don’t have a life bar collecting enough fruit without getting hit will protect you from one hit.

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The puzzles you’ll come across run the gamut of adventure game tropes, from block pushing to switch flipping.  You can hold a maximum of two items at once and will frequently need to drop items for later use.  Truthfully the item list is relatively small but each sees heavy use.  The grappling hook is the most prominent as it be used to cross gaps, grab items, and stun pirates and kill weaker enemies.  The plank will create a bridge and the bell will attract any pirates in the area.  Like Zelda smaller keys open doors while a big key is needed to face each level’s boss.

While the game is perfectly balanced in single player it excels in coop.  Here each player is restricted to carrying only one item, forcing constant communication to get your objectives completed.  You can pass items between players when needed.  Deciding who will carry what and coordinating the use of the bell to trick enemies into an ambush or even to inadvertently complete certain puzzles for you is awesome.  The teamwork aspect of multiplayer is the game’s best attribute but it also makes an already criminally short game even briefer.

If there’s one criticism to lobby at the game it’s that it is too easy.   While there are some clever puzzles here and there it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, meaning most veteran gamers can breeze through the game in an hour or so.  While the threat of death is persistent as you can only take one or two hits you’ll rack up extra lives through general play offsetting this.  The only real challenge comes from the game’s bosses; I just wish there were more of them or even just a longer game in general.  The game is clearly targeting younger gamers and it exceeds but it also plays it a bit too safe and suffers as a result.

Goof Troop turned out far better than anyone reasonably expected and is a solid title that only suffers from a dearth of content.  If the game were longer with a ramp up in difficulty it could have been special.

7-out-of-10-1

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King of Demons

I’ve never been much of an import guy for the simple reason that it is frustrating to play a game without the slightest clue about what’s going on.  But there are legions of games where the language barrier is non-existent and these I enjoy.  Majuu Ou (or King of Demons) was a late Super Famicom release in Japan that could have made the trip overseas with little effort as there is only about a page of text.  It’s a damn shame too as it is an excellent game with beautiful graphics and thoroughly engaging gameplay.

Abel is on a journey to Hell to rescue his daughter after his best friend Bayer betrayed him.  It seems Bayer sacrificed Abel’s wife and child for power in order to resurrect the King of Demons.  A sacrifice from his wife gives him the power needed to reach the lower depths of hell to save their daughter.

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There are many ways to describe King of Demons.  Castlevania with a gun, Altered Beast done right and they are all accurate to some degree.  Initially Abel is only armed with a pistol and looks a bit dorky in his t-shirt, jeans, and bandana.  After getting his ass handed to him by Bayer the pistol becomes more powerful and Abel more agile.  Ammo is not a concern and you don’t have to aim; anything in your path will get hit.  The platforming staple double jump is present as well as a roll to avoid damage.  Aside from the gun you can perform a downward kick attack that’s hard to land but fairly powerful.  You can also charge up your gun for a Force attack, a short range hadoken-esque burst.

These abilities are serviceable for the first few levels but after you defeat your first major boss the Altered Beast connection comes in.  Bosses drop a jewel whose color (red, blue, green) corresponds to a different demon form with significantly enhanced abilities.  The red jewel changes you into a harpy with a boomerang attack and a larger charged fireball.  Green is a sort of lizard hybrid with wings who shoots laser beams from his palms.  Blue is a dragon with the most powerful basic attack that suffers from short range.  The power comes at a price as he is also the largest, making it an easier target.

It’s extremely cool and has plenty of depth.  There are a wide variety of demon forms in the game to play around with; choosing the same form three times will upgrade it with vastly superior abilities. I’m not the biggest fan of the Green Centurion however once upgraded its thin laser is three times thicker and its Force attack more destructive.  If you try out each form at least once than you are gifted with an ultimate demon form that makes the game considerably easier.  The game is long enough that you can play around with each form at least once and its great incentive to at least replay it a few times.

Aside from their slight differences in terms of attack and damage received the form you’ve chosen will have a significant impact on the level of difficulty for each proceeding stage.  There is no one specific choice that excels per se however certain attacks can make a huge difference.  The harpy’s boomerangs make the demon train easier to handle since they cover a wide range and if they miss they’ll catch the floating demons on the way back just as an example.  Overall however the game is a bit on the easy side outside of the at times brutal boss battles.  Technically you can avoid the gems and stay human for a challenge but you’d have to be out of your god damn mind to try and complete the game with the pistol.

The world in which the game takes place in suitably darker in tone than most of the game’s released in North America.  Like something out of Shin Megami Tensei there are an equal mix of real world cities and demonic environs to explore and the designers have come up with some pretty imaginative demons to face.  This can be a pretty gory adventure at times as zombie’s heads explode, pulsating hearts bleed when struck, and in one disturbing instance, two Minotaur take turns beating a crucified woman in the stomach with giant bones.  By 1995 when this was released Nintendo of America had long since become lax about explicit content but I can see how even this may have been too much for them.

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As a late release King of Demons is an exquisitely beautiful game and holds its own against the likes of Demon’s Crest and Donkey Kong Country.  The small character sprites are disappointing however they allow the developers to pour lavish amounts of detail into the backgrounds.  The backdrops are insanely detailed with many flourishes that add that master touch.  The city overrun with plants is probably my favorite in terms of design, with foreground objects and a really pretty distant locale.  While the fodder enemies aren’t so impressive the bosses are large and in charge, often screen filling.  Mode 7 and other transparency effects are kept to a minimum so the game relies strictly on its art which is more than up to the task.

It really is a shame that King of Demons was never released in America as it would have been an excellent addition to the system’s library.  Thanks to the work of Aeon Genesis it can be enjoyed in English but there is so little text that it doesn’t matter.

8-out-of-101

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Metal Warriors

Even with the knowledge that Metal Warriors was developed by Lucas Arts it’s still hard to believe that this is not an official entry in the Assault Suit series. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Konami also published it in the US.  Cybernator is a lost classic of the 16-bit era and so any word of a potential sequel was cause for celebration.  Although it is does not officially take place in the same universe Metal Warriors could very easily been rebranded with no one the wiser.  However in spite of its similarities to that series it has enough unique features to stand on its own and is an excellent game in its own right.

In the year 2102 the United Earth Government has come under attack by the forces of the Dark Axis, led by a man named Venkar Amon.  Their only hope of fighting back rests on the shoulders of the Metal Warriors, mech pilots able to function in any terrain thanks to their mobile suits.

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Right way anyone familiar with Cybernator will be able to jump right in as the two games are very similar.  The Nitro suit is equipped with a plasma rifle, beam sword for close quarters combat and two shields.  A manual shield can be raised to block incoming attacks while a plasma shield can be deployed which hovers in the air for a few moments, stopping fire and also damaging anything it comes in contact with.  There are a few major distinctions to go along with the air of familiarity.  Weapons no longer need to reload and the dash move is gone however you can hover indefinitely in its place.  The few weapon upgrade available feel more problematic than the standard plasma rifle unfortunately; the bouncing shot isn’t as useful as it sounds and the seeker shot is weak.  The secondary power-ups are pretty powerful although limited such as rockets, grenades and even a gravity switcher.

Outside of the few secondary weapons in the game and instead the game relies on its vast selection of mechs for diversity.  In addition to the standard Nitro unit there are five additional suits you can take control of, all with differing attributes.  The Prometheus is the bulkiest and most well equipped mech but trades firepower for maneuverability since it can’t fly or jump.  The Spider can climb walls and trap enemies with its webs but lacks defense making it terrible for heavy combat.  The Havoc is sturdier than the Nitro with better defense and weapons but loses some of its flight capability.  The Ballistic unit is unique in that most of its power lies in how it’s abilities are paired up with its charging function.  The rarely seen Drache requires finesse to use but in the right hands can be the most effective.

Outside of its mechs Metal Warriors greatest asset is its mission structure.  Each of the game’s nine missions all have a particular goal however your objectives can change multiple times during the course of a level.  The third mission tasks you with securing the enemy base however in the middle of it you have to protect the core generators from being destroyed and taking the base with them.  Once that is complete you then have to secure one of their gunships for the Earth’s use.

There’s a great deal of variety among the missions available that keeps the game from becoming stale over time.  In fact there are very few that are as simple as reaching the far end of an installation for completion with most relying on completing specific tasks.  Some of the most challenging are those that task you with guarding a facility from attack using very limited resources or in a particular suit.  The second mission has you systematically taking over an entire gun ship.  As you progress the level design becomes more complicated and start to rely heavily on leaving your current suit behind to operate switches and such.  It’s a nice touch and the game does an excellent job of making you feel incredibly vulnerable when exposed in such a fashion.  The one mark against the levels would be that each one is that the majority are essentially one large maze that you have to navigate (there is a map) and lacks the intricate set pieces of similar titles.

Like Cybernator Metal Warriors can be difficult however I found the game more balanced overall.  Those with itchy trigger fingers need not apply as the game moves at a much more leisurely pace and expects you to do so as well.  There are more health packs evenly spread throughout each stage and so long as you leave your current mech before it explodes you can still find another to keep the mission going if any are available.  Limited continues mean you’ll have to work through the game a few times before ultimately completing it and the game is entirely worth it.

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As a late generation SNES game Metal Warriors looks phenomenal.  Though it lacks the action movie set pieces of Cybernator the overall presentation is much more solid due to the varied color palette.  The harsh metallic greys and browns have given way to lush forests, arctic fortresses, and even a trip inside an underground research base near a volcano.  Although the sprites are smaller the mech designs are just as intricate and exhibit all sorts of minor details.  There is no HUD so the only way to gauge how close to death you are is by battle damage, with your mech slowly decaying with every hit until it loses both arms and can no longer attack.

In between missions are full screen cutscenes that are animated to an unheard of degree for a cartridge game.   I’ve played Sega CD games with less animation than this.  Despite its development in the US the game’s overall art direction is heavily Japanese anime influenced with and its cutscenes wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Mobile Suit Gundam.

Metal Warriors deserves a higher profile than it has received up until now and is one of the SNES’s finest action games.  Even the game’s split screen deathmatch is still fun despite the limited options available; this is the total package in every way.  Unfortunately MW is pretty pricey due to its lack of sales but it is more than worth tracking down in my opinion.

9-out-of-10

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Fatal Fury (SNES)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that the vast majority of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s did not have the money to buy a Neo Geo.  At $600 you would have to hold your parents at gunpoint if they even had the cash to spare.  So the only way to experience that high quality arcade gaming at its finest would be to plunk down all of your spare change in a coin op or hope for 16-bit ports.  Takara would make a name for themselves by publishing ports of the best Neo Geo fighting games to the SNES and Genesis.  On average they were generally pretty good to excellent considering the gap in hardware but in spite of their track record they did not get off to a good start.  The SNES version of Fatal Fury is an absolutely dreadful game that robs the Geo original of all its charm, leaving a pale copy in its stead.

Allegedly Fatal Fury began development before Street Fighter 2 so there’s always been a what if scenario about the impact the game would have had if it were released first.  I don’t doubt that Fatal Fury would have been more popular but the fighting engine in SF2 was so much more advanced than every fighting game that the outcome would still have been the same.  Though it lacked the combos of that game Fatal Fury still had a colorful cast of characters with interesting special moves, great graphics, and a multi plane system that was at the least unique.

Remove pretty much all of those and you’re left with this pathetic SNES version.  From the bad controls to the missing features something went terribly wrong here.  The SNES Fatal Fury is the same game in name only and should be avoided at all costs.

The single player mode only allows you to choose between Andy, Terry, and Joe Higashi which makes sense as the rest of the cast are hired by Geese to stop you.  The heroic trio are the most versatile of the cast in terms of move set so it isn’t a loss in that regard.  You can choose your starting opponent of four who once defeated lead to the four bosses; if the formula sounds familiar that’s because it mirrors Street Fighter 2.

The home version loses a lot of what made the arcade game fun.  During single player Geese Howard kept track of your progress in cut scenes but here you only get a lame framed image with a brief quote.  The arm wrestling minigame between matches has been replaced by a tire beating game which once again is similar to the barrel busting game in Street Fighter 2.  It isn’t all bad however, all 8 boss characters are selectable in multiplayer but only for player 2; whoever thought limiting player 1 to the same three characters needs to be shot.

Neo Geo arcade cabinets only had four buttons so the control scheme is kept simple.  Just a punch, kick, and throw button.  Combos don’t exist in the game so battles feel more like brawls.  In the arcade the game operated on a dual plane system; certain attacks will knock your opponent into the background and if they jumped to the back attacking would let you follow.  That has been removed in this version removing some of the game’s unique flavor.  Being able to maneuver around your opponent added a light strategic element to combat and bouncing them off background objects was just plain sadistic fun that is nowhere to be found in this version.

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You have NO idea how hard that was to pull off.  None.

The controls are sluggish and simply aren’t responsive.  There’s a delay whenever a button is pressed that becomes frustrating to deal with in short order.  The hit detection is also suspect; I’ve seen many a direct blow go completely unregistered.  Executing special moves just flat out doesn’t work.  I’ve been playing Street Fighter for over 20 years now, I know my way around a quarter circle motion and the recognition of your input is spotty at best.  With a computer AI that is aggressive as a hornet you’ll be kissing the pavement in record time every round.  This is almost as bad as Eternal Champions.

It would be foolish to expect the SNES to match the Neo Geo game but it at least compares favorably.  The sprites have only seen a slight reduction and the color palette is nearly the same.  Some background detail has either been reduced or removed but otherwise they’ve nailed the arcade game’s look.  The music and sound effects on the other hand are absolutely butchered.  The sound effects are heavily muted and actually cut out completely over the screeching music.  Fatal Fury had a pretty good soundtrack so hearing it mangled like this is a shame; the SNES can do far better than this.

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I don’t know if it was a lack of budget or simply time constraints but Takara’s stab at Fatal Fury turned out pretty poor.  The few unique elements the game had in the arcade being removed has left this just a generic fighting game with poor controls which is the kiss of death in this genre.

4-out-of-101

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Operation: Logic Bomb

Jaleco is one of the few publishers that I don’t really have a strong opinion of.  Throughout the 8 & 16-bit era they released many titles however outside of the Bases Loaded and Rushing Beat series never managed to achieve a breakout hit.  It always seemed as though the majority of their output were right on the cusp of greatness but held back by one or two flaws.  The few that overcame this stigma were truly excellent but sadly overlooked such as Astyanax and Shatterhand.

Operation Logic Bomb is one such title, an enjoyable overhead shooter that combines many different elements to become greater than the sum of its parts.  Why it flew so far under the radar is a bit of a mystery but I’ll guess the box art played a part.  The comic book style cover art isn’t exactly the greatest and while it certainly helped it stand out judging by the game’s obscurity it wasn’t enough.  This wouldn’t be the first time Jaleco tried this; their fighting game Tuff Enuff has even worse box art and makes me want to punch its cover monkey rather than give the game a spin.  Nothing wrong with a little outside the box thinking but when you go too far you end up with this:

At a hidden laboratory an experiment using interdimensional technology goes awry and all contact is lost.  Because of the lab’s failure the barrier between worlds has been broken with mysterious creatures streaming through.  An unknown organization sends in a cyborg soldier to survey the damage and clean up the mess.

This is actually the third in a trilogy of overhead action titles named Ikari no Yousai in Japan.  In the US we only saw two such releases with all connections removed.  Fortified Zone was the first in the series and an early Gameboy release and pretty unique for its time as it was an original IP and not a port.  For reasons unknown its sequel remained a Japanese exclusive with OLB picking up the slack.

As the lone soldier called in to wreck shop and save the scientist you start the game with little more than the shirt on your back.  During the course of the game however eventually you’ll come across three extra weapons that can be switched on the fly and a few special items that will aid in your progress.  Each weapon has its strengths and weaknesses but most importantly they never become obsolete.  Some enemies and bosses are immune to specific armaments so you would do well to become familiar with your armaments.

The Straight arrow is a rapid fire machine gun and the default weapon that doesn’t excel in any one category but does have the longest range.  The spread eagle offers a wider range but suffers from the shortest range.  The R-laser is the weakest but can bounce off walls like its name suggests.  The Firebug is the most powerful and versatile as its flames will wrap around corners and objects to an extent.  2 additional items make an appearance toward the end of the game; the Decoy unit creates a transparent clone to fool enemies in your stead and the claymore is….a claymore mine.  Search hard enough and you might find one more weapon although it isn’t better than the flamethrower.

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Operation Logic Bomb is a top down shooter first and foremost but that label is only part of the overall picture.  It has many commonalities with games like Zelda and Metroid, albeit in a condensed form.  As you explore the many sectors of the lab you’ll come across data terminals that need to be destroyed to restore the area to its original form.  Sometimes access to these terminals is barred until you’ve cleared a given room of enemies. Other times you’ll need a particular weapon to destroy them such as bouncing the R-laser off the walls of a small crevice, prompting you to leave it for later like in Metroid.

Each “level” isn’t all that large but you will have to navigate warp tiles to get around.  It’s pretty straightforward with very few opportunities to branch off and explore side areas until you’ve restored a given location completely before moving on.  Overall the difficulty rests on the easy side despite only one life and three continues.  Your life bar is pretty long and there are terminals scattered about that will refill it after every boss fight.  Even the few boss battles don’t offer up much of a challenge as they’ll go down in seconds with the right weapon.

The game’s lack of challenge exposes its one critical flaw, its brevity.  The game is criminally short and can be completed in as little as an hour once you’ve memorized the maps of each area.  Because the game is so short it never truly allows you to exploit your arsenal of weapon creatively.  The few times you use the R-laser to destroy distant memory banks or the decoy unit to trick an energy shield into exposing its prize are awesome but these moments are few in number.  If the game were longer it would have given its features room to grow and truly been excellent.

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Most top down shooters from the 16-bit era weren’t anything to write home about however Operation Logic Bomb has its moments.  The cold metal sci-fi hallways and corridors exhibit a great deal of variety all things considered and the encroaching virtual elements laid on top of the environments are used to pretty good effect.  The few outdoor areas are a bit lacking but they at least provide a reprieve from the strict indoor setting.  The atmospheric music is pretty catchy and has a similar vibe to the OST of the Rushing Beat series; probably the same composer.

If only there were more content.  Operation Logic Bomb is one of the better top down shooters for the SNES alongside Super Smash TV and Pocky & Rocky.  The genre wasn’t so stacked in that era so it’s always nice to see that the offerings are of a high quality.

7-out-of-10-1

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Magic Sword

You know for as much as I liked arcade games during the 80s and 90s looking back I realize I pissed away a ton of money on games that were gigantic money sinks.  I’m not complaining of course; I enjoyed nearly every quarter I sunk into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Black Tiger (a game I prayed would see an NES port, alas) but there were some games that you would have needed a job to complete due to their design and Magic Sword is one of those games.  Its SNES port is flawed and exposes some of the game’s shortcomings but as a whole I can’t help but still like the game.

The dark lord Drokmar has come into possession of the Black Orb, an artifact that will give him the power to rule the world.  As the Brave One it is up to you to scale the 51 floors of his Dragon’s Tower to put a stop to his plans.

He’s certainly brave to tackle such a monumental challenge with nothing more than a sword and shield.  Your sword attacks have a charge meter that refills after each attack and once full will produce different results based on your current weapon, hence the Magic Sword in the title.  During the course of the game as you defeat each of the eight bosses you are rewarded with a more powerful sword such as the Flame Sword and Sword of Thunder.

Aside from weapons every level is littered with treasure chests full of items.  Seriously it’s a bit overkill just how many there are on any given level that lasts less than a full minute.  Coins are simply for points, the numerous food items will restore your health, and there are various artifacts that grant boons or bonuses such as increased/reduced attack power, faster recharge time, etc.  There are just as many trap chests the higher you ascend, which will spawn monsters, erupting flames, or even drop boulders on your head.  The most common items you’ll receive however will be keys which are used to open the cells where your allies are trapped.

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50 floors is a lot to tackle alone, especially since two-player coop is missing and that’s where the optional companions come in.  Though not named the eight potential sidekicks you can have assist comprise different character classes in the Dungeon & Dragons mold and have their own life bar and powers that increase as they level up.  The Amazon is fast but weak, the Caveman is strong but slow while the Knight is a middle ground between the two.  The Ninja is similar to the Amazon except his throwing stars ricochet off walls.  The Priest is useful against undead enemies and can protect himself with a barrier.  Two of the eight require special items to recruit but prove worth it.  The Lizardman resides higher in the Tower and is the most powerful.  The Thief isn’t anything special in terms of power but can detect traps and hidden chests.  Only one can follow you at a time but there are so many cells you’ll have plenty of chances to switch if need be although it sucks not knowing who you’ll get beforehand.

The game might seem long since technically there are fifty levels but in actuality it’s of medium length.  There are many floors that are cleared in as little as thirty seconds, sometimes in rapid succession.  At times there are multiple exits and if you have the thief you can find hidden doors that will allow you to skip certain floors.  For the home version you have the option to start the game at several different floors all the way up to floor 33, significantly cutting down the time needed to scale the Tower.

It’s a wise addition to the game as it does become boring quickly.  The home port loses some of the arcade’s enemies and so you’ll face the same 3-4 bad guys in every level which gets old fast.  Some of the backgrounds and stage themes also tend to repeat themselves far too often.  The game would have been better served with less floors if it would have led to more variety.  Around every eight floors you’ll face a massive boss which does break up the monotony as they prove suitably challenging to defeat.

This is definitely an arcade game down to its roots, a fact born out through its challenge and set up.  You are only given two lives and three continues to complete the game which is a bit unfair.  The cheap hits from enemies and traps come frequently and the game is stingy with food.  Boss fights tend to drag on since they have huge life bars and inflict massive damage with each hit.  It’s a tactic that made sense in the arcade to make you spend more money but doesn’t hold weight at home.  They were willing to cut down on the repetition by letting you start higher in the tower, why not make a few adjustments to the gameplay?

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For the most part this SNES incarnation is faithful to the arcade.  Most of the sprites have made it over intact and the backgrounds have only suffered a minimal loss of detail.  Capcom’s art helped make the game stand out from other fantasy games at the time and the SNES color palette does it justice.  In motion however you’ll see why the multiplayer was excised.  There’s a ton of slowdown at every turn as soon as three or more sprites fill the screen which is a regular occurrence.  It’s understandable since this was a first generation SNES title but still disappointing.

Slowdown aside the flaws in gameplay also exist in the arcade game so you can’t fault Capcom for producing an accurate port.  Though it has a few rough patches I can still enjoy Magic Sword and recommend it to hack and slash fans.

7-out-of-10

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Genocide 2

The Sharp X68000 was an interesting piece of hardware.  More powerful than most contemporary video game hardware at the time it was host to many pixel perfect arcade ports; while US gamers argued over whether the Genesis or SNES versions of Street Fighter 2 Turbo had more colors or better sound Sharp owners in Japan had the next best thing aside from the actual arcade boards.  Many an arcade classic was ported faithfully to the system such as After Burner, Final Fight, Street Fighter 2, Gradius 2, and many others.

Our only exposure to its software would come from the occasional port such as Lagoon (….yeah) and the subject of this review, Genocide 2.  G2’s US release was cancelled at the last minute but it makes little difference since the game was in English anyway.  While it sucks that we narrowly missed out on an official release the question is did we miss out on a hidden gem or an average brawler?

In the future humanity is in the process of recovering from a massive war with the help of the CONEX Mega Corporation.  However CONEX is not as benevolent as they seem and use mankind’s moment of weakness to make a bid for world domination.  As a hero of the last war it is up to you to pilot your massive Tracer mech and stop the corporation’s plans.

You would think stepping in the shoes of a ten foot tall robot would be pretty cool but in actuality the Tracer feels a bit gimpy.  Your main means of attack is your sword which has horribly short range.  The tracer is pretty agile and can jump pretty high and can perform a rather useless sideways flip.  In spite of that there’s very little platforming until late in the game, leaving the focus squarely on the action.

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To make up for your sword’s lack of range you are equipped with a floating unit named Betty that is the basis of most of your secondary weapons.  When activated Betty can smash into enemies from eight directions and will remain active until the weapon meter drains, at which point it needs to recharge.  The only downside is that you’ll have to direct its actions which is a bit cumbersome.  Manipulating Betty’s actions with the d-pad will also cause you move as well and in most cases unless it’s a diagonal attack  in which case it will go over most enemies’ heads.  Considering you’re only using three of the face buttons dedicating at least one to Betty’s actions would definitely have improved its usefulness.

There are a few other weapons you’ll gain during the course of the game that will either enhance Betty’s functionality or increase your power in some way.  Mad Betty turns it into an aggressive heat seeking unit for a short period of time but you lose active control.  High Power boosts your attack power but to tell you the truth I never noticed any discernable difference.  Shield will protect you from damage for a limited amount of time and Explode unleashes an AOE attack within a limited radius.

The goal of each level is to destroy a set number of enemies in order to move on. Although you have primary targets there a ton of lesser enemies sandwiched in between to make things fun.  In most cases once the last target is destroyed the level ends but by the second half of the game you’ll need to make it to the exit to press onward or face a boss.  The enemies come in all shapes and sizes but it’s the rival mechs that pose the most challenge; considering these are almost always the targets you need to destroy it stands to reason they would put up a fight.

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For the most part the levels are straightforward and offer little chance to explore side areas if there are any.  The few open ended areas encourage a bit of exploration however there are a few instances where the designers were too clever for their own good and you can possibly become stuck with no other choice but to reset the game.  Overall this is not an exceptionally challenging game although there is a significant spike in difficulty on the last level which borders on cheap.  You only have one life and limited continues and I can guarantee you’ll expend most of them on the final stages insane robot ninjas.

Aside from the boring level design the game’s collision and user interface have problems.  Because your attack range is so short you’ll have to practically kiss the enemies to hit them; there are many instances where your attacks will simply pass straight through them instead.  You gain no moment of invulnerability when hit so if an enemy is touching you your shields can be drained in moments.  That is if you can even tell how damaged you are.  The way the shield meter is designed the first row of damage is represented by half bars that are hard to see.  I also wouldn’t have placed it at the bottom of the screen; at first I thought Betty’s weapon meter was my life bar and the indicators of how many enemies are left to destroy were my extra lives.  Even if you’ve read the instruction manual it’s confusing to see in action.

As much as I wanted to really like Genocide 2 its flaws bring it down a few points.  There are some solid ideas buried under slip shod execution.  A little bit of gameplay refinement would have made this a solid game but as is it is strictly only above average.

6-out-of-10-1

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Sonic Blast Man

As much as I liked to peruse the selection of arcade titles on display at the mall in my youth there were still the deluxe cabinets that remained tantalizingly out of my grasp, be it due to lack of availability or because they were so expensive.  I remember seeing photos of the massive G-Loc cabinet that rotated to simulate the direction you were flying and the sit down version of Solvalou.  Usually these games were more expensive, to the tune of $1 and when you only have much in change Street Fighter is more appealing.

But they paled in comparison to Sonic Blast Man, which had a pad you punched to measure the strength of your hits.  I never got the chance to play it since it disappeared from arcades due to a lawsuit but years later the Fist of the North Star arcade game used a similar mechanic and I got my jollies from that.  Naturally they couldn’t port the game over to a home console as is so instead Taito made a side scrolling brawler that kept the cheesy premise and might have actually turned out even better for it.

There really isn’t much of a plot but what’s there is goofy as hell.  Sonic Blast Man is apparently a Hero of Justice (the game’s words, not mine) from another planet sent to protect Earth.  Mild mannered salary man by day, when evil strikes he morphs into Sonic Blast Man to save the day of which there is plenty of in this game.  The game’s intro tries to drive home this point but instead depicts Sonic Blast Man destroying an oncoming train with a 100 ton punch to save a woman tied to the tracks and completely glosses over the fact that he just killed hundreds to rescue one person.

Hokey premise and silly costume aside Sonic Blast Man’s powers make for an entertaining brawler.  As a superhero all of his attacks are accompanied by comic book style sound effects that really emphasize the impact of his hits.  Though it bears a strong resemblance to Final Fight in its initial level the rest of the game veers off into its own territory; not to say that its original but you have to admit it’s a bit strange to fight common thugs in a construction site and eventually fight aliens in outer space.

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The game’s fighting engine places a large emphasis on grappling attacks and crow control.  By grabbing an enemy you have a variety of different attacks at your disposal; a flurry of punches that looks cool but is pretty weak and a one handed throw.  If you daze them first with a few hits a few more options open up; you can unleash a burning uppercut that also sends a trail of fire in its wake, a power punch that sends enemies flying, and a behind the back throw.  If you can dizzy you’re opponent you can grab them and perform an even stronger whirlwind throw.  If things get too hectic you can perform a special attack that will knock everyone on their ass but leave you dizzy for a few seconds.  The most powerful move is the Dynamite Punch, a 100 megaton punch that is limited in its use.

Although the game is only five levels long there’s a great deal of variety for the most part.  Each new level takes place in a different locale with new enemies to match.  Having to adjust your fighting tactics to new adversaries each level is fun although you’ll only fight those enemies alone for the entire stage.  It gets old fighting the same three mutant variations in the sewers or robots in space, especially as the levels tend to drag on.  It’s in these instances that the depth of the combat relieves a bit of the boredom.

A bit of the arcade game’s heritage still exists in the game in the form of its bonus rounds.  These five bonus stages are in fact exactly the same as the original arcade game except here you’ll build up power by rotating the d-pad to build up power.  You get three chances to destroy some manner of obstruction which escalates from a simple street punk terrorizing a woman on the street to eventually destroying a meteor in outer space.  They’re interesting diversions but the impact is lost since you aren’t physically punching a pad.

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Graphically these are some of the largest sprites in side scrolling brawler from that period.  The sprites are so large in fact that you won’t see more than three enemies on screen at once.  The animation isn’t spectacular but is serviceable and the backgrounds are fairly simplistic aside from the odd Mode 7 effect here and there.  There is a bit of a trade off for those sprites though in the form of slowdown.  The slowdown is absolutely terrible in stages three and four and lasts almost the entire levels.  We’re talking early SNES level bad.

I had no expectations of Sonic Blast Man and came out pleasantly surprised.  With a few gameplay tweaks it could really have been something but as it is it’s a solid brawler on a console inundated with them and manages to stand out.

7-out-of-10-1

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World Heroes 2

Being a Neo Geo fan in the early to mid-90s was a painful proposition for those of us that were only teenagers at the time.  You’d love the games in the arcade but to actually own a Neo Geo back then you had to be an adult with a job, rich, or pull a knife on your parents.  Which is where Takara comes into the picture.  Takara made a name for themselves during the 16-bit era by publishing ports of SNK’s most popular games to the SNES and Genesis and to fighting game fans were practically a God send.  Unlike the dire port of the original World Heroes the second game turned out much better and is a more than competent version of the arcade hit.

World Heroes 2 was part of SNK’s 100 mega shock line of games released during the summer of 1993 which also included Fatal Fury 2, Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown.  To those of us who were not technically inclined (ie probably 90% of the gaming audience at the time) it meant nothing but seeing the quality of the graphics and sound in those games it was obvious where all of the memory went.

Seeing as how Neo Geo games were such technical showpieces is it possible for the SNES to create a perfect port?  Hell no, you’d have to be high or stupid to think otherwise.  It does however do an excellent job of capturing the look and feel of the arcade game, all in a (at the time) $50-60 package.

With a new tournament comes new contestants and 6 new additions join the cast, bringing the total roster to 14 minus the bosses.  Just like the first game the new characters are all based on real life figures or fictional characters.  Ryoko Izumo is loosely based on Olympic Judo champion Ryoko Tani. Erick was inspired by famed explorer Erik the Red.  Those who thought SNK lost the pot with the sports themed USA team in King of Fighters 94 actually got their start with Johnny Maximum, a sadistic version of Joe Mantana.  Shura closely resembles Adon and has a slightly familiar fighting style and is based on Muay Thai fighter Nai Khanom Tom  Mudman…fuck it I think they included him because he looks cool.  My personal favorite is Captain Kidd, of the pirate with the same name.  How can you not love a pirate who attacks by throwing a ghostly pirate ship at you?

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Along with the new cast comes a few refinements to the game’s fighting engine.  Projectiles can be reflected to help deal with fireball spamming.  Counter throws can be used in a pinch although I doubt most will be able to pull them off at will repeatedly.  This makes the game much more playable.  Nearly all of the returning fighters have gained new moves, some special and some alterations to their basic punches and kicks to differentiate them from each other.  For the home port you can opt to stick with arcade controls or the much better setup that makes full use of the SNES controller, giving light and heavy attacks their own button as well as throws.  Movement has been sped up; those that played the SNES version of the first game will remember that it moved at a sloven pace.  You can turn the speed up a notch higher although it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to my eyes.

Fighting against the computer can become repetitive since you’ll always face the six newbies first followed by a random four from the original cast.  This was still a few years before developers wised up and added all sorts of additional content to spruce up a game’s single player so the only extras to look forward to are playing as the bosses Neo Geegus and Dio.

What does spruce up the staid fighting is the game’s Death Match mode.  This mode is very much in the style of a wrestling match and a welcome departure from the typical 3-round shenanigans.  The normal life bar is replaced by one bar that seesaws back and forth depending on who is inflicting damage.  If the bar reaches the opponent’s end they have to slam the buttons to try and stand up before the ref finishes his ten count.  The Death Match in the title refers to the environmental hazards unique to each stage such as buzz saws, land mines, random lightning strikes, or even something as simple as a smaller fighting cage that forces confrontation.  It’s a welcome change of pace; against the computer the randomness can make a match swing either way.  Against friends they can take a while as momentum swings back and forth but that’s what makes it so fun.

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When compared to the arcade game the SNES port has seen a some downgrades.  The color palette isn’t as vibrant and the sprites are noticeably smaller. The backgrounds have also had a lot of background elements removed, most likely due to the lower resolution.  It’s a more than faithful adaptation but compared to the PC Engine CD port (which does have the advantage of requiring the arcade card) it pales in comparison.

At the end of the day World Heroes is only a third tier fighting game among SNK’s stable of properties and is solid at best, lacking the standout features that would really make it stand out.  The SNES port is a very good version that manages to erase the shameful memories of the first game but doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Super Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat 2.

7-out-of-10-1

 

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The Ninja Warriors

By late 1994 fighting games were about to undergo another renaissance due to 3-d technology.  Sega’s Virtua Fighter would pave the way and would soon be followed by Namco’s Tekken and a slew of others.  But while fighting games would increase in popularity again the beat em up was on the wane.  A few stand out titles would still trickle out such as Capcom’s Aliens vs. Predator and Streets of Rage 3 but the writing was on the wall.  Taito’s Ninja Warriors was released into this market and probably would have made a bigger impact a year or two earlier when the genre was at its peak.  That does not take away from the fact that it is an excellent update to an otherwise tepid arcade game.

In the future the entire United States lives under the totalitarian rule of a dictator named Banglar.  It’s only hope lies in an underground resistance group that has hastily built android ninjas more suited to the task of killing Banglar.

The Ninja Warriors was an arcade game released by Taito in 1988 and counts as one of my biggest gaming regrets.  Not because I didn’t play it but because I wasted my limited funds on it.  While some see it as a classic of the 80s honestly aside from the triple screen monitor setup it had nothing else going for it as it was too simplistic and repetitive.  The SNES sequel/remake actually keeps the same general framework but gives the gameplay a massive shot in the arm, making it one of the better brawlers for the system.

The arcade’s two protagonists return and are joined by a third android.  The Blue ninja is renamed…..Ninja and is physically the strongest but slowest.  Kunoichi is the most balanced of the three, eschewing the trope of the female being the fastest but weakest.  New to the series is Kamaitaichi, an android whose robotic exterior is fully exposed.  As the fastest of the group he uses his long arms to make up for his lack of strength.

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There are stark differences between all three characters that will drastically alter how you approach the game.  The Ninja does not jump and instead performs a shoulder charge.  His dashing attack is instead a flying leg drop which covers less distance than the others.  His strength advantage is significant; enemies that can withstand multiple combos from the other two go down in two or three of his hits.   Kunoichi has the best crowd controlling throws and can spring board off enemy heads after landing a jump kick.  Kamaitaichi actually can’t grab opponents to perform throws and instead has a number of moves using his extendable arms and claws to keep them at bay.

There are far more fighting techniques available per character than in most brawlers and even when moves are performed in a similar manner the results are wildly different.  In addition to the multi-hit combo attack you have a variety of throws, a dash attack, an escape maneuver and can even block attacks.  The blaster meter constantly charges as long as you aren’t knocked down and once full you can use it as a screen clearing (most of the time) bomb.  However a small portion of it can be used to enhance your combos and attacks instead which is far more useful.  Expending the entire bar in one attack will usually clear the screen but you are then stuck waiting for it to refill completely when using only a sliver would have accomplished the same thing.

The game keeps the same single plane from the arcade which is in stark contrast with every other beat em up on the market.  It sounds limiting but actually places a heavier emphasis on crowd control since you can no longer circle around tougher opponents.  Most enemies will die in a single hit so they’ll usually attack in groups of 4-5 but interspersed in these groups are usually bigger robots and soldiers with projectiles.  It’s easy to lose control of the situation when dealer with the larger threat only to have the lame goons with the butter knives stab you five times in a row.  While the levels are a more or less straight line to the exit there are tons of background elements you can use to your advantage such as propeller blades and random bombing attacks that will also affect the enemies who will be more than happy to walk into them face first.

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As a whole the game is only moderately challenging but does begin to pick up in its latter half.  Your generously long life bar means nothing considering there is usually only one energy pack per level.  The bosses especially are a pain in the ass since they will block your attacks more frequently and usually have a never ending supply of fodder enemies to deal with.  There are unlimited continues so it’s only a matter of time until you’ve conquered the game’s eight stages but its one hell of a ride until the very end.

Considering its origins as a less than stellar arcade game this update turned out better than expected while also following the style of its predecessor.  The Ninja Warriors is one of the best SNES beat em ups and a fine way to spend an afternoon.

8-out-of-101

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Brawl Brothers

1993 proved to be a huge year for the side scrolling beat em up as the genre seemed to flourish both in the arcade and on home consoles. SNK’s Sengoku 2, Konami’s lesser known Gaiaopolis, and more importantly Capcom’s the Punisher and Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom were either kick ass games or brought some much needed innovation to the genre.  On the home front Final Fight saw an exclusive SNES sequel and Sega’s Streets of Rage 2 would be the top game in the eyes of fighting pugilists for quite some time.  Jaleco’s Rival Turf was an average game and so the sequel seeks to rectify that and is a marked improvement but comes up short in a few categories.

Hack and Slash, the titular Brawl Brothers in the title run a local self-defense gym in Bayside City with their three best pupils, Kazan, Wendy and Lord J.  It’s a bit silly that a ninja, wrestler, and Karate master are taking classes to learn how to protect themselves but whatever.  The mad scientist Dieter has unleashed his army of clones on Bayside City and captured three of the group, prompting the remaining duo to spring into action.

Jaleco’s three beat em ups (Rival Turf, Brawl Brothers and the Peacekeepers) are all part of one series of games known as Rushing Beat in Japan.  The games were all localized but aside from the two main protagonists all references and story beats that connect the games have been removed.  There’s no silly American names like Jack Flak and Oozie Nelson this time out at the very least although Hack and Slash is just as hammy.

You are able to choose two of the five characters at the start with the remaining three being captured per the game’s story.  These characters serve as the end level bosses, adding a random element to the game since it changes depending on how you’ve chosen.  It is a bit unfair that as bosses they sport techniques that you do not have access to but I have to admit it makes the battle against them more exciting.

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From a gameplay perspective Brawl Brothers is significantly improved over its predecessor.  While all five characters have the same basic array of punches, kicks, and throws there are techniques unique to all of them that make a large difference aside from their differences in strength and speed.  Kazan can triple jump and has a slide kick, Hack has a power uppercut akin to Axel’s Grand Upper, and Lord J has a larger arsenal of throws compared to everyone else.  Angry mode makes its return and is probably even more overpowered than before.  With the increased abundance of food it’s possible to activate it multiple times without dying if so inclined. In an odd twist it’s preferable to avoid all weapons aside from the shotgun as their reach and hit box is too finicky to deal with.

There are only four stages in the game however each is extremely long and comprised of multiple locations separate from one another.  The first level begins on a highway overpass before descending down into the sewers.  Stage 2 starts off in the jungle before leading to a mobile lift you can conveniently toss enemies off of.  The American version saw a few changes regarding the levels to make the game less linear.  The sewer has been changed to a maze of corridors that you have to navigate through to find the exit.  The abandoned gym leads to an elevator that will take you to a number of floors with items or enemies lying in wait before the finale.

There’s a diverse amount of scenery considering the brevity of the game including the boss battles.  Each boss has their own unique arena (sometimes literally) and some like Kazan’s have external factors to deal with such as the room rotating as you fight.  Once you’ve beaten one of the bosses they become playable on the following levels.

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Because there are only four levels and they are so long the repetition in the game becomes far more noticeable.  There’s very little enemy variety in the game and in fact by the end of the first stage you’ll have fought all of them aside from one new addition half way through the game.  Fighting the same three of four generic bad guys in groups of 4-5 continuously on every 15-20 minute stage gets tiring quickly.  I get the feeling even the designers realize this as there are multiple segments where you can toss them off screen for an instant kill.

Aside from fighting the same bastards over and over there are some quirks you’ll have to adjust to with the fighting system in place.  I don’t know if it’s a collision issue but there were far too many instances where I should have grabbed an enemy but instead walked through them repeatedly.  Trying to grab them from behind does not always work.  If you are knocked down its possible to become trapped as some enemies will repeatedly knock you over before getting up, resulting in a cheap death.  Some enemies (Butch and his variants in particular) seem to be able to grab and throw you at will which is frustrating to deal with in the second half of the game. As cheap as some of the enemies are they’re also extremely dumb and will often jump off a building or into a hole of their own volition which is hilarious to see in action.

Despite the game’s repetition and cheap tactics I doubt anyone will have trouble finishing the game, especially since you can always press start on controller two once you’ve exhausted all of your continues.  Brawl Brothers is an improvement over Rival Turf and had the potential to be more and falters in its execution.  It’s still a solid sequel but could have been an excellent game with more polish.

6-out-of-10-1

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Pocky & Rocky

Natsume does it again!  We were still a few years away from losing them to the Harvest Moon bug in 1993 and so it should come as no surprise that Pocky and Rocky rocks like no other.  Cute em ups were all the rage at the time with the likes of Cotton, Magical Chase, and Twin Bee gaining popularity and spawning sequels.  Pocky and Rocky goes down a different road and combines shooting with adventure elements to create one unique package that should not be missed.

Pocky is a young miko tasked with watching over her shrine when her duties are interrupted by Rocky, one of the Nopino goblins.  His fellow Nopino goblins have been driven insane by a mysterious figure in black and Rocky wants her help to save his fellow goblins.

A little bit of history behind this series: in the mid-80s Taito released Kiki Kaikai in the arcade, which saw a limited release here as Knight Boy.  Natsume later licensed the series and created the SNES sequel Pocky and Rocky.  Not much has changed in terms of gameplay but the series has been given a major 16-bit makeover, becoming one of the best overhead shooters available during that period in the process.

As either Pocky or Rocky you have six long stages of overhead shooting action.  There are slight gameplay differences between the pair that in my opinion favor Pocky.  Her slide technique activates faster but covers less distance; if you are using the slide maneuver chances are you need to avoid something fast.  Rocky’s bombs are larger in scope but less powerful and in addition he moves slower.  In his favor Rocky can change into a Tanuki statue (like SMB3) and become invincible for a few seconds.

Every shooter needs a good selection weapons to make you feel powerful and P&R provides that in spades.  Red and Blue orbs dropped by enemies or found in baskets will evolve your primary weapon along two paths.  Red orbs change your weapon into more powerful single shot fireballs while blue orbs will increase the spread radius of your attack.  Unfortunately you can’t mix and match orbs to create unique weapons since the opposing orbs will set you back to the default.  Both are equipped with a melee attack that doubles as a defensive measure since it can swat most projectiles.  As an added bonus charging the melee button will produce a more powerful attack.  And what shooter would be complete without smart bombs?  Although limited in supply initially you can increase your stock throughout the course of the game.

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The game’s controls are both responsive and make excellent use of the SNES controller’s buttons with nearly every function mapped to its key.  Unlike most overhead shooters Pocky & Rocky has the pace of a traditional shmup like Gradius at times so the perfect response is appreciated.  I do find it odd that there are two separate buttons for firing; one a rapid fire option and the other that produces a single shot and you must keep tapping.  I don’t know what kind of nutter would prefer option number 2 but I’m sure they exist.

The cute monsters and bright color palette might give lull into a false sense of security but P&R means business.  This is not an easy game and despite covering only six stages you won’t see the ending in one sitting.  Each level is pretty long with a mid and end boss usually dividing them into two distinct halves.  The addition of a life bar over the original arcade game’s single hit deaths mean little in the face of a constant onslaught of enemies.  Life replenishing food is in ready supply but I think the degradation of your weapon with each hit might have been a bit much.  The unlimited continues do alleviate this somewhat.

I get the sense the game was intended for coop play rather than single player which I will admit doubles the fun.  There are team up attacks both players can execute at some personal cost and the added firepower makes the chaos and bullet sponge bosses easier to deal with.  Like Contra dead players can borrow (or steal!) lives from their buddy to get back in the action and prevent a visit to the game over screen.  Cooperative mode does bring unwanted slowdown but that can be a benefit if you take advantage of it.

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Graphically the game is spectacular.  The game’s biggest asset is its world.  The world is heavily steeped in Japanese folklore with the Nopino goblin’s ranks consisting of nearly all of the traditional yokai westerners would be familiar with such as Oni, tanuki, and kappa.  The attention to detail and animation is above and beyond most similar games of that era and more than makes up for the lack of in your face special effects.  It’s definitely cute but leans more toward Legend of the Mystical Ninja rather than wackier fare like Parodius or Twin Bee.

Sadly this was a low profile release that did not garner the attention it deserved.  Don’t let that stop you from experiencing a title that deals in subject matter off the beaten path and is truly excellent.  The SNES game is not hard to find but a little pricier than normal.  Stay away from the GBA game Pocky and Rocky and Becky, which only shares a similar name and is closer in style to the original arcade game and all that entails.

8-out-of-101

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Parodius – Non Sense Fantasy

The Gradius style power-up system is one of the most versatile and creative in the history of the shooter genre, so good in fact that many games have cribbed it.  Konami themselves have used a variation of it in a variety of spin offs, most notably Salamander and Twin Bee.  2 obviously wasn’t enough so they created a third that parodies the serious tone of Gradius, Parodius (clever play on words there).  Usually parodies are done by a third party but in this case Parodius is both parody and celebration of the success of the series and has enough unique elements to stand on its own.

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I think I can see why Konami shied away from bringing Parodius to the US.

It’s a mystery as to why the Parodius series was never given a shot in the US.  Well maybe not so much considering some of the, uh, weird shit in the game.  Maybe Stinger failed so hard Konami came to the conclusion that Americans like their shooters full of grit?  In Europe it was a different story as most of the series has been released there in one form or another.  This Super NES installment is a conversion of the second arcade game with the sub title Non Sense Fantasy in Europe which is a pretty apt description. Nothing is too outlandish for this series and in spite of the wacky hijinks the game never forgets that it is supposed to be entertaining above all else.

Like Gradius you can select different weapon combinations but here they’re also tied to different “ships”.  The Vic Viper returns with a full complement of weapons from the original Gradius.  Now the other ships if you can even call them that are where things get strange.  Twinbee from the series of the same name plays identically to those familiar with that series.  The Octopus is the equivalent of the Salamander series with its Ripple laser and two way missiles. A pair of penguins named Pentarou play exactly like the VV from Gradius III for those who find the standard Vic Viper’s weaponry too pedantic.  I won’t lie, it’s pretty damn weird to pilot a string of octopi or as a penguin but once you get over the absurdity of it all Parodius is just as challenging and entertaining as its more straightforward brethren.

You’re still collecting glowing pods to select which weapons you want to equip however Parodius has even more offer than just that.  The random item roulette causes the weapon bar to cycle and can help or hinder you depending on luck.  If it lands on a weapon it will give you a fully powered-up version of it such as four options.  Hit a blank space and you’re stripped of all power-ups.  The more power-ups you’ve collected the worse this actually turns out.  In your greed to collect em all like Pokemon more than likely you’ll pick this up at the worst moment; good luck with the results!

For anyone that has imported a Twinbee game or had the misfortune of playing Stinger the bells make an appearance here with hilarious results.  The bells only move left to right now making it easier to juggle them and cycle through the colors.  You’ll want to do so as the powers they bestow are a bit overpowered.  The Green Bell triples your size but makes you invulnerable to everything, so feel free to plow through walls and enemies.  Red enables the use of the Kiku Beam, which is a long vertical beam that will destroy anything in its path.  My personal favorite is the White Bell which gives you a megaphone which will cause your ship to spout various nonsensical phrases such as “Got a Stinkfoot!” and “Shaving is Boring!” that actually inflict massive damage on impact.

Beyond the campy exterior is a game that isn’t afraid to challenge the conventions of the series it openly mocks.  The levels closely resemble Gradius down to the brief space intermissions at the start of every level except with a comical bent.  For every familiar element the game brings in from Gradius or Twinbee they’ve applied a Monty Pythonesque slant to it.  The ever present volcanoes sport happy faces when dormant but quickly become angry and spout eggplants in a matter of seconds.  Most enemies consist of anthropomorphic animals, especially the bosses.  The Vegas Go Go dancer moves in the exact same pattern as the   from Gradius II but is invincible, meaning you’ll have to……uh “navigate” the safe spots around her body.  As if that wasn’t surreal enough it’s quickly followed up by an eagle decked out in an American flag.  Draw your own conclusions.  It never lets up as it gets even stranger the further you progress with a sumo wrestler, a moai head attached to a ship, and a near nude woman draped in a robe.  What does any of this have to do with shooters?  Nothing!  But it’s pure, unadulterated madness is more fun than ten games put together.

While it makes fun of the serious tone of most shooters from that era Parodius does share one trait with them; the difficulty.  It’s very easy to underestimate the stakes involved during each level since the game is trying to kill you in the nicest way possible.  There are frequent dead ends and other situations that have little margin for error.  The item roulette is the equivalent of a girlfriend slipping a little tongue then kneeing you in the nuts as it pops up at the worst moments.  This is a fairly long game at 9 levels plus the SNES exclusive bath house (by this point it doesn’t even sound strange anymore) so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of the game.

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The SNES version of Parodius is an excellent port of the arcade game missing very few details.  Outside of the resolution you could easily mistake it for the coin op.  Parodius goes in the complete opposite direction of Gradius with its explosion of color and vibrant backgrounds.  There are some truly large sprites uncharacteristic of your typical SNES game so it’s a bit of a surprise that there is little to no slowdown at all.  It helps that this is a slower paced game but coming off the slowdown ridden Gradius III a year prior this is a miracle.  There’s even a bubble level like that game except here the game doesn’t slow to a crawl, almost as if Konami were throwing shade on their previous work.  Parodius also has a fantastic soundtrack and with good reason, most of it is classical and folk music available in the public domain.  The reason being the composer did not have enough time to complete an original score for the whole game so had to make do with what was available.  In my eyes it adds to the game’s mystique and fits the tone of the game well.

It seems strange that to this day Konami has never given the series a chance in the US but thanks to its European releases those that want to import can at least enjoy a full localization, not that there’s any text to begin with.  Forget about the cartoon exterior and you’re left with a challenging yet fair game that is truly phenomenal.

9-out-of-10

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BioMetal

I realize I’ve reviewed quite a few shooters but the shocking truth is growing up I never actively sought them out.  Whether they were cheaper than other games or just the hot genre of the moment I don’t remember, I just know that everyone had at least one or two.  To stand out in this crowded genre required something, anything, to differentiate from your peers.  In BioMetal’s case that would be its soundtrack provided by 2 Unlimited.  That certainly helped to garner it some attention but outside of its music how was the rest of the game?

At first glance BioMetal doesn’t seem any different from most shooters with the exception of the GAM.  The GAM is BioMetal’s sole original feature and in practice it’s a very enjoyable addition to the game.  Once activated the GAM forms a shield of rotating orbs that make you invincible to everything but the heaviest of fire and head on collisions.  The shield can be used offensively in two ways, one in an expanding arc and as a projectile boomerangs you can direct that also destroys bullets in its path.  As long as there is energy the GAM will stay active until you dismiss it to recharge.  Managing the GAM is the key to survival as it is your best offensive and defensive weapon.  Taking advantage of the few quiet moments to let it recharge or only using it in brief spurts will separate the skilled players from the button mashers.

Outside of the GAM the selection of weapons is pretty small which is unusual for this genre.  You have three missile choices: straight missiles that function exactly as the name suggests, angle missiles that cover the top and bottom portions of the screen like the photon torpedoes in Gradius III and the only real option in the bunch homing missiles.

The main weapons are also limited to just three all varied in their utility and can be upgraded by collecting multiples of the same item.  The Laser is the most powerful weapon as its single shot will also pass through both enemies and walls and becomes wider when powered up.  The Spread gun covers a small arc at first but once empowered will blanket up to 80% of the screen.  The Wave beam is stronger and when upgraded is the only weapon that will fire both backwards and forward.

A small weapon selection isn’t necessarily bad however your options in BioMetal feel woefully underpowered in comparison to the opposition you’ll face.  Whether they lack punch or the enemies are really just that damn strong, you’ll end up relying on the GAM far more than should be necessary.  The Wave beam would have been more effective if it shot 3 beams instead of a single group in either direction.  The spread shot had the potential to be most useful but the lack of power can’t be ignored; stuff takes too long to die and as frequently as the bigger ships crop up they need to die fast.  The laser could have been the default choice in this regard but unfortunately for all of its power the laser simply can’t cut it as that single slow shot isn’t enough.

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This is not an easy game by normal means and the lacking weapon array makes it that much more difficult.  Most levels have a steady stream of larger ships that take massive punishment before going down and the game isn’t shy about throwing two or three out at a time.  Now that I think about it there’s very little of the fodder enemies that help pad out your score for extra lives. If you’ve picked an inappropriate weapon for the challenges ahead (usually the laser) than your screwed.  The GAM recharges fast enough that you can use it in a pinch when necessary but it says something about the game’s balance when your best offensive option is to activate the shield and use it to ram enemies.

BioMetal is a bit faster paced than most SNES shooters, or at least tries to be.  The amount of bullets that can blanket the screen oftentimes rivals later arcade games from the late 90s.  That level of chaos brings with it unwanted slowdown that rivals Super R-Type if you can believe it.  The slowdown is so bad that it will affect the motion of your ship and if your GAM is recharging you’re screwed.  They could just as easily cut the number of enemies in half and the game would have been better for it as the system would actually be able to keep up.

The most notable aspect of BioMetal and the one that garnered it a bit of attention would be its soundtrack.  European dance group 2 Unlimited provided remixes of songs off their album Get Ready and in fact the title screen music is a pretty good rendition of their hit “Get Ready for this”.  The music itself is pretty good but it doesn’t fit with the style and tone of the game.  Being locked in a life or death struggle does not call for music that makes you want to get up and dance if you ask me.

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Graphically the art direction leans closer to H.R. Giger rather than the typical mechanical alien ships prevalent in most shooters at the time.  The organic designs are creepy but skew a little too closely to R-Type for my tastes.  The backgrounds are a mixed bag; there’s some impressive deep scrolling going on but the organic theme and dark color palette make the later levels feel too similar.  Though derivative it’s still miles ahead of tripe like Blaze On and D-Force.

Bio Metal is a game with a few good ideas marred by sloppy execution.  Had the game been better balanced it would have been a solid entry in a genre that wasn’t overpopulated on the platform.  As it is it falls just shy of greatness.

7-out-of-10

 

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Legend

Legend.  Its Legend-ary how little information there is about this game.  To the best of my recollection I can only remember one review at the time of the game’s release.  Even with the vast resources of the internet there are maybe 2 or 3 reviews and only a few youtube videos.  But why is that?  How is it that a game can fly so far under the radar?  I’ll tell you why, because it’s terrible.  There were many average brawlers released during the 16-bit era that at least got the fundamentals right.  Legend fails in that regard and as a result the rest of the game suffers as well.

Beldor the Maleficent reigned as a despot over the kingdom of Sellech for one thousand years. All was chaos and destruction. Many knights went on a final crusade to destroy Beldor but none returned. The people united, built energized heroes and imprisoned Beldor’s soul. Now, Clovis, corrupt son of the King of Sellech, wants to harness Beldor’s power and conquer the kingdom.

There was virtually no marketing for this release back in 1993 and I sure as hell never saw it in any store.  I remember the Gamepro review which gave it middling scores in control and fun factor but praised the graphics and sound.  It’s a fairly accurate assessment as Legend has good art but awful gameplay.  The original developers, Arcade Zone, would later go on to create a remake for the PlayStation that was only released in Europe.  THQ were going to publish the game as Knights of Carnage but dropped it supposedly due to its violence.  I’d like to believe someone actually played it and changed their mind.

Stylistically the game is similar to Golden Axe.  Both games feature the same mix of fantasy action with a dabble of magic set in a mystic world.  You have a limited number of moves to combat opponents with, such as a normal 3 hit sword combo and 3 variations of the jump kick.  It’s hard to believe but this is one of the few beat em ups that allows you block attacks which when you think about is absurd that most games in the genre don’t allow it.  The special attack is a ranged blow that saps a little bit of life.  Magic bags dropped by enemies or in barrels can be used for devastating magic attacks if things truly get hairy.

While the Golden Axe comparison might sound favorable in practice Legend is a broken mess.  The main culprit comes from your slow attack speed and movement in general.  I would kill for at least a throw or a dash, anything to at least speed up the game.  Pulling off a basic set of attacks on one enemy is a laborious process, one that the gang of enemies that will assault you all at once will take advantage of.  Your attacks are so slow in fact that I can almost guarantee every enemy will shrug it off and break your attack cycle.  This is alleviated somewhat by the rare lightning orbs that will increase your strength level but you shouldn’t have to start at such a disadvantage just so the game can show a pattern of character growth.

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Enemies always attack in groups of 3-6 and you can see how this can quickly become frustrating.  Even if you try to cheese your way out of it by drop kicking everything in sight eventually they’ll become wise to your scheme or you’ll get the timing wrong.  As bad as it is facing regular thugs the bosses are a god damn nightmare in comparison.   Just as an example, the first mini boss is a pole wielding bastard with insane reach.  Trying to attack him head on is futile as all of his attacks have priority over yours.  I can comfortably say that most will use up at least one continue getting past him.

The sad thing is you can tell the developers realized they had screwed up the game’s balance to some extent.  Enemies drop health restoring food at a steady clip and you’ll always have a decent supply of magic available.  Depending on the number of keys and vitality left at the end of each level you’ll have the opportunity to pick up reams of gold for points and extra lives.  It isn’t enough to make up for the rest of the game’s faults however.

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While I found the pace of the game sluggish I can’t help but admire its art.  The game makes extensive use of foreground objects that look nice but have a habit of obscuring the action.  They do tend to lean on the forest backdrop a bit too heavily; it’s recycled with slight color variations at least 5 times.  I get that it is supposed to connect each location on the world map but it’s a bit much.  Aside from that the world is expertly drawn and has a nice eastern European fantasy flair to it that is distinct from something like Capcom’s Knights of the Round.  It’s just a shame that few will have the patience to deal with the game’s issues to see it all.

Had they at least nailed the game’s fundamentals than maybe Legend could have been decent.  As it is the game is a broken mess that is better left to rot in obscurity.

5-out-of-101

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E.V.O. – Search for Eden

We’ll more than likely never know why Enix USA was so hell bent on keeping the SNES installments of Dragon Quest in Japan but in the interim they certainly released some very…..esoteric RPGs.  Some were interesting takes on established tropes that were marred by balance issues (7th Saga) while others were just plain strange (Robotrek, Paladin’s Quest).  You have to admire their daring at the very least.  One of their most original releases during that period was E.V.O – the Search for Eden, an action RPG that wouldn’t seem out of place on the PC than a 16-bit console.

I’ll say this, E.V.O. has one of the most original premises for a game.  Spanning millions of years the game follows the journey of one single organism among billions as it evolves to survive the harsh climes of each era.  Gaia, the embodiment of Earth guides every organism on Earth in a bid to find the ideal partner to reside with her in Eden.  While life is supposed to evolve naturally mysterious crystals scattered throughout the world are causing this process to occur at a rapid pace and no one knows where they came from……

Covering 5 distinct periods throughout time the game touches on some of the most iconic eras in history including the Mesozoic era (dinosaurs!), the Ice age, and the Paleozoic era.  You start out as the lowest form of life on the totem pole in each time but the goal always remains the same: explore the myriad sub levels and adapt your body to survive the numerous threats on your way to defeat the dominant life form of that period.

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It’s the freedom to evolve your body the way you see fit that is E.V.O’s greatest asset.  By using the evo points built up by devouring other animals you can change any of 8 parts of your body.  There’s a wide range of parts choose in each category with each serving different purposes.  There might be 5 different tail choices but they each function differently.  You can create some truly beastly monstrosities from the upgrades available and it’s almost guaranteed that no two players will make the same beast. Those that really explore the system can even unlock hidden creatures such as humans.

Making the most of this system is never as simple as just buying the most expensive parts.  Each individual part will affect some other aspect of your character and if you aren’t careful it’s possible you could end up with powerful jaws able to kill in one bite but weak legs unable to catch your prey.  Paying attention to the indigenous creatures during each period and developing to counter them is the way to go.  There is no limit to how many times you can change provided you have the currency so it isn’t unheard of to make a quick change to deal with flying enemies for one level as an example.

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As progressive as E.V.O is it isn’t without its faults.  No matter how much you’ve progressed the bosses are always leagues ahead in terms of strength and speed.  Winning comes down to luck more than skill in most cases.  There are clear patterns you can use to win but it feels more like cheesing your way to victory than a result of your skill.  If you‘ve been paying attention while playing the game you can also exploit the evolution system to fully restore your health at any time so that does even the odds a bit.

Because the game is so focused on evolution the level design (if you can call it that) suffers.  Most of the sub levels are a straight left to right paths with only a few enemies in between. There are a few maze like interiors to break up the monotony but it feels more like a petting zoo than a game.  Since each era is divided into so many sub levels you can see how this becomes grating.  Another point and one I realize is necessary so you don’t breeze through the game, once a new chapter starts you are back to square one like a rogue-like dungeon crawler.

The overriding originality of the experience does outweigh the game’s negative points however.  Up until Seventh Cross Evolution on Dreamcast and Spore there were very few if any games quite like this and its strong points are still worth merit.  If you’re in the market for something different E.V.O. is a worthy title.

7-out-of-10

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Super Earth Defense Force

Who knew that the bug blasting Earth Defense Force series stretched back as far as the SNES? I kid, I kid. Super Earth Defense Force was part of an onslaught of arcade ports that arrived shortly after the SNES launch. There were quite a few shooters in that early lineup, most of them bad but Super EDF happens to be a decent with a few unique features under its belt. While it doesn’t challenge the likes of Axelay and Gradius III it sure as hell beat the pants of pap like D-Force.

Alien invaders have taken control of the dark side of the moon and begun their attack on Earth. Through their attacks it is discovered that the aliens have a super weapon capable of wiping out life on Earth. The Earth Defense Force is called on to send their advanced XA-1 fighters in a preemptive strike before Earth ceases to exist as we know it.

While I never played Super EDF in the arcade much like U.N. Squadron it finds a perfect home on the SNES. Since the game isn’t focused on twitch action and high speed rushes to the end of each level the SNES’s slower processor is not a hindrance. While certain aspects of the game could be better overall this is a solid shmup on a console not known for such.

Earth Defense Force’s main hook would be its massive weapons cache. At the beginning of every level you have a choice of 8 (4 more than the arcade) weapons. The weapons cover a wide spectrum of shooter staples, from the typical thin but powerful laser to a homing shot. However there are a few that stand out. The Explode shot does exactly what the name implies, makes your bullets explode in 4 directions on impact. Atomic is similar but creates a damaging cloud that expands when more enemies collide with it. Grenade…is a trap. The weapon is so terrible I think the developers included it as a gag.

All weapons are graded on 3 factors, shot speed, shot power, and rapid shot. These static ratings mean nothing in the long run since you gain experience and level up 5 times with more kills and can increase their power exponentially. Some like the S. Laser and Photon become absolute beasts at higher levels while the standard Vulcan never seems effective.

Further boosting offense are the two satellites that are paired with your ship. These satellites function like the Force in R-Type. The 4 formations available will alter the attack pattern and power of your weapons, meaning you’ll have to learn their characteristics for survival. As a bonus they are invincible and can inflict damage too.

Despite only topping out at 6 levels EDF feels twice that length because of how long each level spans. There’s rarely a dull moment as the screen is constantly filled with enemies. There’s very little in the way of environmental hazards placing the focus squarely on how well you can dodge bullets. The overall challenge is largely determined by the weapon you’ve selected; if you’ve chosen a weapon that is ill suited for the types of enemies you’re facing basically you’re screwed. Some of the basic enemies and especially the bosses are massive bullet sponges, riding out with a slower weapon like the Photon shot is basically suicide in that case. That type of bad choice is a real possibility since you aren’t briefed on the terrain or enemy types beforehand it’s either make the most of a bad situation or reset.

Death is handled differently this time out so at least the game is completely working against you. You have 3 shields that function like a life bar. With each hit a shield is lost but the game continues. Lose all 3 and you’ll have to continue which does send you back to the beginning of the level. If you’re good enough you can not only replenish shields but build up a stock although the game won’t show it.

The presentation of EDF has its moments but overall is a bit tepid. There are no wild special effects thrown around but the game has solid art on its side as well as a vivid color palette. The multi-scrolling clouds of the first level transition from day to night subtly. Mode 7 is used in many subtle but effective ways that most of the early SNES games could have benefited from. In particular halfway through level five a giant planet slowly zooms in from the distant background until it obscures the rest of the surroundings. The bosses while large look as though they could have been ripped straight from a Darius game, which isn’t a slight but is unoriginal.

There you have it. Super EDF doesn’t try to knock your socks off with new technology but entertains with its solid gameplay. At the end of the day that’s what its all about.

7-out-of-10

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Musya

Now here’s an obscure release.  There were many heavily Japanese games that were never localized for the SNES; in most cases these games were based on a manga or anime such as Ushio to Tora or King of Demons.  Musya is steeped in Japanese folklore which sets it apart from most of its action contemporaries.  However an interesting setting does not make a good game alone and unfortunately Musya comes up short in the gameplay department.

A lone Pikeman named Imoto is the only survivor of a fierce battle.  He collapses near Tengumura Village where the villagers inform him that their shrine maiden Shizuka has been kidnapped by demons.  Without her the door to the abyss cannot be closed.  Rather than run screaming Imoto posits that this is the reason he survived and ventures into the abyss to save Shizuka.

You don’t see to many video game heroes who wield a spear so in this regard Musya is unique.  The spear has excellent range which can be enhanced further with items.  Aside from attacking head on the spear can be twirled like a fan although you’ll remain stationery during its animation unless you start moving beforehand.  Imoto has some powerful legs as he is able to super jump high enough to make Low G Man proud.  Magic comes in the form of five spells with a new one granted after each boss.  I found it pretty stupid that Seta didn’t bother to translate the names of the spells so you’ll have to memorize each icon instead; in fact there’s a lot of text that is simply sub titled or left ambiguous in the game.  Weaboos for that type of stuff are probably happier than a pig in shit hearing that.

In spite of the similarities to a certain whip wielding protagonist playing Musya is like going from Castlevania 4 back to the original.  Not so much the rigid animation but the lack of toolset.  The most glaring omission is the ability to strike enemies directly above you.  Flying enemies are a common occurrence so having to leap to confront them directly is inconvenient.  The trouble is the way the levels are designed it isn’t always optimal or possible to do so.  There are bottomless pits everywhere and jumping off screen can lead to an unfortunate demise since you can’t see the ground again until it’s too late.  It is a bit unfair to hold the game to that same standard but its faults do serve to highlight everything Konami did right with that game.

As a whole the game is unbalanced.  The spear lacks any kind of stopping power so even after an enemy has been hit they still keep moving.  Even worse many enemies will respawn immediately after death, defeating the purpose of killing them.  They’re usually placed in positions where you’ll more than likely take a hit trying to avoid them altogether.  Standard enemies go down in a few hits but boss battles tend to drag on forever.  There’s no life bar to track you progress so all you have to go on is subtle shifts in color to denote your hits having a lasting effect.  The first boss, a demonized Tanuki, is the perfect example of this.  You’re gifted with a lengthy life bar but it depletes pretty quickly with all of the cheap hits you’ll take.

The controls are a bit stiff (or that could just be the animation) with a slight delay when performing any action.  Towards the middle to the end of the game the platforming ramps up and the controls fail at giving you any sense that you are directly influencing the on screen action.  This is a pretty long game with nearly all of its eight levels broken down into three or four smaller sections.  I doubt anyone will have the patience to adapt to the game’s quirks to see it through to the end, not when you’re wrestling with the controls this badly.

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The graphics won’t win any awards but the game does win points for its setting.  The many demons you’ll face as you advance deeper into the abyss draw heavily on Japanese folklore and were unique for the time.  The yokai that inhabit the game are like something out of a nightmare although those familiar with Inu Yasha will recognize some of them such as the Kappa, Tanuki (its giant balls have been removed, heh) and Daruma.  The color scheme is noticeably dark for the length of the adventure which does match the game’s tone but could have used more variety.  The soundtrack is actually pretty good and epic sounding; what isn’t good is the terribly high pitched whine Imoto makes when hit.  You’ll get tired of hearing it really quick.

The two games have nothing in common but it has to be said that Musya feels like a poor man’s Castlevania.  It isn’t completely terrible but at the same time I’d just as soon replay the original Castlevania than this; which should speak volumes as that game was broken as fuck.

5-out-of-101

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Art of Fighting

At the time of SNK’s fighting game renaissance Art of Fighting was one of its most unique series and next to World Heroes less popular.  As the next game to follow Fatal Fury and to also back in Street Fighter 2’s light it had its fans but its gameplay systems were probably a bit too far out of the norm for most to take a shine to.  Takara, who had started making a name for themself publishing the 16-bit conversions of SNK’s games turned out a pretty damn good SNES port which was surprising considering the technical gap between platforms.

Yuri Sakazaki has been kidnapped leading her older brother Ryo and his best friend Robert Garcia to hit the mean streets of Southtown in search of clues to her whereabouts.  Their search will eventually have them run afoul of the local mafia of Southtown as they uncover the mastermind behind the plot.

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Art of Fighting stood out in the arcade for a number of reasons but the most important would be because of its scaling effect and large characters.  These were some of the largest fighting game sprites at the time, literally occupying ¾ of the screen when in close.  They’re so huge in fact that the game has to zoom out to keep everything in perspective.  In the arcade it was an eye catching effect, one that would later be used in Samurai Shodown as well.  Surprisingly the SNES port keeps the effect by slightly reducing the size of the characters but it’s all there although it isn’t as smooth as the arcade.  The fact that they were even able to squeeze the game relatively intact for the SNES was a god damn miracle in and of itself.

The game’s single player mode is limited by the fact that you can only play as Ryo or Robert which makes sense.  It’s not much of a choice when it comes down to it as they both play identically and even share the same moves.  The game tries to offer flimsy reasons as to why you have to kick in the teeth of each member of the cast but let’s be real, no one cares.  I wouldn’t exactly call it an extensive story mode but there were cut scenes in between matches that this port lacks although the inane pre fight dialogue has been kept.

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While the single player is constrained to two choices multiplayer gives access to the entire roster plus the two bosses via code.  The variety is appreciated but I’ll be honest, this is one of the most generic casts of pugilists assembled.  Ryo and Robert fulfill the Ken and Ryu archetype.  Lee Pai Long is a Chinese version of Vega, John Crawley might as well be the love child of Arnie and Guile, and Mickey is your Balrong stand in. You know the cast wouldn’t look out of place in Double Dragon, especially Jack.  Thankfully the game brought some interesting ideas to the table to help cover up its lack of interesting characters.

In terms of gameplay AoF is not your ordinary 2d fighting game.  While all characters have special moves they’re governed by a spirit gauge that depletes when they are used.  Spirit slowly refills as a match goes on and can be replenished manually but this leaves you open to attack.  A well placed taunt will deplete your opponent’s spirit as well although the same applies to you.  Managing spirit adds an extra tactical element to the proceedings since you’re more likely to save your special moves than spam them uncontrollably.

The spirit gauge could have slowed the gameplay but Art of Fighting added a few mechanics that have since become standardized within the genre.  Dashing helps to keep the pressure up on players who try to turtle while back dashes enable quick escapes.  Wall jumping allowed you to close the gap relatively quickly and when you’re life bar dips too low desperation moves were enabled although I will say you’re a better man than me if you can pull them off.  I have my gripes with the controls; strong attacks are enabled by pressing the throw button after using punch or kick.  This limitation made sense as Neo Geo cabinets only had four buttons and here the last is used for taunting.  The SNES controller has six; they could just as easily included the option like World Heroes to map them separately.  Hell I don’t even know why there needs to be a throw button; every sensible fighting game enables them once you’ve gotten in close.

This is not a combo heavy game and in fact stringing together more than two hits in succession is an accomplishment.  Most hits result in a knockdown and in fact attacks inflict so much damage that a single three hit combo would probably end the match.  The damage from attacks in general seems off, a problem SNK had with many of their other arcade games.  Combine that with the vicious AI and you have one tough nut to crack.  Art of Fighting has the early symptoms of SNK boss syndrome as Mr. Karate is insanely cheap and will chain multiple Zanretsukens if you are knocked down at any time.

This SNES port is a more than respectable version of a solid game.  It has its fair share of gameplay innovations and frustrations but in the end Art of Fighting is still a decent game today.

7-out-of-10

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Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures

With the success of the their Star Wars trilogy of games for the Super NES it only makes sense that Lucas Arts would turn to their second biggest property as the next to receive the all-star treatment.  While they had their share of flaws that series would still serve as an excellent template for Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures, a massive package encompassing all 3 of the games in one cartridge.  Even though development was handled by Factor 5 you’ll recognize most of the gameplay beats that were lifted from Super Star Wars but there are a number of elements that allow Indiana Jones to stand out on its own.

The best way to sum up the general gameplay would be to take Han Solo from the Star Wars games, give him a whip and you’ve basically created Indy.  Granted it’s the same actor and all but the game play similarities are borderline insane.  They both fire a gun the same, leap the same and even share the same roll maneuver.  Where Han Solo relied solely on his blaster Indy is usually equipped with a whip Castlevania style.  It’s an apt comparison since Indy exhibits nearly the same level of dexterity with the whip as Simon in Castlevania IV.   The whip can be swung in most directions and to swing across gaps.  Every so often you’ll come across a pistol with limited ammo that sacrifices power for range.

All 3 movies are present and accounted for but you won’t be selecting them individually from a menu but playing each sequentially.  Each movie has a clear beginning and ending in the game and are of varying lengths.  Raiders of the Lost Ark represents a significant chunk of the game at 11 or so levels and hits nearly all of the movie’s major plot points.  The Temple of Doom and the Last Crusade are shorter at seven levels each and as such feel glossed over.  I applaud the decision to make this one massive adventure but each individual movie has enough material to base an entire game around.  I suppose the late 1994 release played a part in that decision but as it is we can only wonder what could have been.

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As a whole the game does make the most of its source material with its variety in gameplay being its biggest strength.  All of your favorite moments have been recreated, such as the boulder chase, the gun vs. sword battle (still hilarious to this day) and even Indy’s fear of snakes rears its head.  With three movies to draw from you’ll visit numerous locales around the world such as Cairo, Shanghai, India, and Germany.  Not every level involves a straight path to the exit; sometimes you’ll have to avoid rising fire as you escape a burning building or navigate a maze within the Taj Mahal.  The only deviations made are for the few random boss battles but you can forgive the developers for being a little indulgent.

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A few of the levels use the SNES’s Mode 7 to more accurately recreate popular scenes from the movie and these are among the most difficult in the game.  The mine cart ride from Temple of Doom will throw enemies in your path as you skate down a linear path but it’s difficult to judge their distance and position relative to your own and unfortunately it only takes one hit to die.   The controls on the rubber raft aren’t as precise as they should be but at least you can take a few hits here.  The biplane segment proves the most difficult; there is no targeting reticule so you can’t tell if you’re hits is registering until enemy fighter’s crash.  An even bigger problem would be the inability to see their bullets, meaning you won’t know you’re being hit until your life bar dips and you die.

The high challenge from these segments is a result of the game’s design and extends to the rest of the game.  There are far too many small critters such as scorpions and rats that are too small to attack forcing you to try to avoid them however they have a tendency to pop up in the midst of attacking or avoiding something else (such as a stalactite or pit of spikes), resulting in cheap hits.  Whenever there are intense platforming sequences you can count on some form of bird or bats waiting to interrupt and knock you into a pit like a Medusa head.  Speaking of Castlevania the whip lacks the snap of that game.  There was a tangible feeling of impact whenever Simon’s whip hit an object but you won’t get that here, possibly due to the limp sound effects.  It’s hard to tell when your hits are registering as a result.  It’s apparent the developers were aware of the game’s flaws as the game is quite generous with health restoring hearts but better balancing would have been better.

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Factor 5 were some of the most technically accomplished creators in the industry and their 16-bit creations were just as impressive as their later 3d work.  The sprite work is superior to the Star Wars games and the backgrounds exhibit as many as 6-7 layers of parallax scrolling.  The vehicle levels run fairly smoothly and are still impressive to watch today.  In between levels digitized stills from the movie are used to drive the plot forward and through some smart compression they look fantastic.  The music is also amazing with proper renditions of John Williams epic score timed so that their looping does not feel repetitive.

When it’s all said and done Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures is an excellent companion piece to the three Star Wars games that preceded it.  With its amazing graphics and solid gameplay this is one of the better action adventure games from that era.

8-out-of-101

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Phalanx

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I think we have a front runner for the worst box art of all time.  Seriously what the hell were they thinking?  From a marketing stand point I can see what they were going for: most people would at least pick it up and look at it to figure out what an old dude with a banjo has to do with space ships.  But that doesn’t mean they’ll buy it.  Considering I bought the game for $15 not too long after release that should give you an idea how effective their tactic worked.  But weird box art aside is Phalanx any good?

In the year 2279 Earth begins to send out planetary expedition groups seeking new worlds to colonize.  One such world named Delia initially seems a ripe prospect but it isn’t long before a distress signal is sent warning of a hazardous leak.  A lone pilot named Wink Baulfield is sent to investigate and possibly save the planet from this mysterious threat.  Originally released for the X68000 PCs in Japan once you get past the stupid cover Phalanx is actually a pretty good shmup.  What it lacks in original features it more than makes up for in graphics and solid level design.  It skews a bit too heavily on the difficulty scale but overall it ranks pretty highly on the SNES shooter scale.

The Phalanx has a wide selection of weapons to choose from and can store three at any given time.  Most of the shooter staples are covered such as a homing shot and laser but there are a few standouts such as the ricochet and charge cannon.  All weapons can be powered up to three times but each hit makes it drop a level.  For truly desperate times you can sacrifice a weapon and make it go nova in an all-out blaze of glory.  The typical assortment of secondary weapons round out the list such as homing missiles, a rotating shield and options, you know the stuff every good shooter needs to be legitimized.

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The game’s eight levels might seem familiar to longtime fans of the genre.  The initial outing in the clouds resembles Super Earth Defense Force while the level five battle ship wouldn’t look out of place in R-Type.  However despite the air of familiarity there are just as many that have original elements.  Level 2’s underwater assault features a patch of water in the middle of the screen that covers the entire length of the level.  Flying in it will reduce your movement speed and it’s necessary as there are obstructions that need to be navigated around.  The catacombs of stage 3 are rife with chunks of gravel that block your fire; a perfect opportunity to make the most of the ricochet.  The battle ship I previously mentioned is a free roaming level with the only goal being to enter its exhaust vents and destroy its cores.

Most levels have a few secret areas that basically an item extravaganza although you can still die.  The game can be stingy at times when it comes to power-ups so if you’re lucky enough to find one of these hidden zones count yourself lucky, especially if you’ve just died.

That stinginess points to the game’s only major flaw, its high difficulty.  Even on the easiest setting this is one of the hardest shooters available but not in a balanced manner.  Your shields can withstand three hits but even that doesn’t seem to be enough.  Literally every enemy explodes in a shower of bullets and it isn’t uncommon to watch the screen become blanketed by tiny red pellets.  There are a few to many instances of doors or other such obstructions that pop up and close suddenly, leaving you to take cheap hits in the process.  There’s nothing wrong with having to memorize enemy placement and such but not when the game seems determined to hit you with “gotcha” moments at every turn.  The bosses are bullet sponges and if you happen to die its fruitless to bother trying to get by with just the standard pea shooter.

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Phalanx was an exceptionally beautiful game back then and remains so today.  Most levels feature anywhere between 3-7 layers of parallax scrolling backgrounds and the effect is exquisite to watch in motion.  The opening sortie in the clouds gives way to a bustling cityscape below at night time.  Every level is unique and even the standard space levels offer some element that lets it stand out amongst the hordes of shooters released in that era.  There’s very little slowdown if any but there is some flicker during the most heated moments.  The soundtrack is melodic and inspiring, a stark contrast to the brutal difficulty that lies behind the pretty graphics.

Phalanx is a highly challenging yet entertaining shoot em up released during the height of the genre’s popularity in the US.  It’s a shame that the game’s choice of cover art has overshadowed the product itself however those that can look past it will be rewarded with a solid action title.   The Gameboy Advance port tweaked the difficulty and is more forgiving plus has an auto save feature so if the SNES version proves too much to handle you can always go that route.

7-out-of-10-1

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Donkey Kong Country

Few games have hit the market with the impact of Donkey Kong Country.  By the time 1994 rolled around the Genesis had been on the market for 6 years and the SNES was entering its 4th.  It was reasonable to assume most developers knew the limits of both consoles but then the Summer CES came along and Rare dropped a bombshell.  For its time DKC was light years ahead of what we expected from a 16-bit console visually and that fact probably helped it garner near perfect scores across the board.  It doesn’t reach those lofty heights but DKC is still an excellent platformer.

Donkey Kong’s hoard of bananas has been stolen by King K.Rool and his kremling minions.  Donkey sets out with nephew and sidekick Diddy Kong to get them back and is joined by an all new cast of characters, including the original Donkey Kong.  Normally I would say that they did a great job fleshing out the Donkey Kong mythos (god I feel silly even typing that) but truth be told there wasn’t one to begin with.  Prior to DKC’s release the property had been dormant since the early 80s, a point in time where games were so simple it wasn’t necessary to think about an extended universe of characters.  Rare, in an uncharacteristic move by Nintendo, were granted free reign to change that.  The different members of the DK family all provide certain services such as saving the game, warping you to prior locales and giving hints pertaining to particular levels.

DKC’s release was practically the gaming event of the year.  Through a bit of genius marketing in the form of a videotape sent to thousands (maybe even millions!) of subscribers of Nintendo Power only heightened anticipation for the game.  Cheesy production values aside it was effective at selling just how “advanced” the game was over its contemporaries, a fact not lost on gamers as DKC would eventually become one of the best-selling SNES games of all time.  All of that aside is Donkey Kong Country really all it’s cracked up to be?

In single or two player coop you’ll be controlling both Donkey and Diddy Kong.  Only one character is active while the other tags along and follows your movements.  They also function as a life bar; taking a hit causing the active one to become captured and unavailable until you find a DK barrel.  There are subtle differences between the pair; Diddy will bounce off larger enemies instead of bowling them over and can move faster and jump higher.  Donkey Kong is stronger and has a ground slam when rolling isn’t an option.

When they said Donkey Kong’s banana hoard they weren’t joking.  There are more bananas scattered throughout the game than you can possibly imagine.  Collecting 100 will award an extra life, something the game seems to cram down your throat with regularity.  There are a ton of other items to collect but thankfully they’re all strictly optional.  Similar to Super Mario World’s Yoshi coins collecting the 4 letters that spell Kong will award an extra life.  While it might seem like an easy reward the placement of the letters becomes more spaced out and well hidden with time.  Red, Green, and Blue Balloons will grant 1,2, and 3 extra lives respectively but you have to be quick, they’ll fly away!   Lastly the different gold animal statues will lead to a bonus area tailored to that specific creature where you have a limited amount of time to collect as many of their emblems as possible for even more lives.

Speaking of bonus areas the game is absolutely teaming with them if you know where to look.  Every stage has at least 2-3, many hidden in pretty clever locations.  Many of them can only be accessed by your four animal companions, Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and Espresso the Ostrich or the different barrels peppering the landscape.  All of the bonus levels offer many opportunities to earn extra lives, which the game seems to throw around freely.  All those extra lives you’ll undoubtedly build up will come in handy as the last few areas really kick it up a notch in difficulty.

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It’s actually pretty cool how Rare incorporated the trademark barrels into all facets of the game.  Any red blooded gamer who grew up in the 80s will remember the infamous ape threw an infinite supply of barrels in your path but now they are here to help rather than hinder.  DK barrels will contain your partner if he is lost, standard barrels can be picked up and rolled in a manner that would DK Sr. proud.  TNT barrels are also available but will explode on impact.  But the best is saved for last as rocket barrels are used in some of the game’s most grueling platforming segments.  The early levels ease you into it shunting you to the next barrel automatically but soon enough you are left to your own devices and forced to time each blast manually.  Later stages will require you to perform these acts in rapid succession and it’s pretty thrilling to see it in motion when executed correctly.

The game doesn’t solely rely on its barrel blasting mayhem to carry it.  At around 40 levels total the game covers a lot of terrain, from standard platform fare such as slippery ice levels and forests to its exhilarating mine cart sequences.  The previously mentioned animal companions can be ridden and used to defeat otherwise invincible enemies and access previously unavailable areas.  It is true that this series isn’t as heavy on the play mechanics as the Mario series but it offers a great deal of variety in its own right plus offers a higher level of difficulty.  By a third of the way through the game it ramps up considerably which is why you are given so many extra lives.  The one area the game is lacking are the boss battles, which are so mind numbingly dull they shouldn’t have bothered.

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At the time of Donkey Kong Country’s release no other game looked like it, even on the Jaguar and 3DO and it basically made us redefine the limits of 16-bit technology.  Rare’s ACM technique gave the game one of the most distinct looks on the market and may have single handedly helped push the SNES past the Genesis in America.  Most of that visual flair hasn’t held up as well over the years in the same way hand drawn art has; rendered graphics increase in fidelity every year and the low resolution of the backgrounds stands out.  While some of the backgrounds have aged the animation and art direction are still stellar.  The plastic look of the trees in that initial forest is still unique to this day and most of the game’s other locales are just as distinct, such as the temples and treetop villages.  The soundtrack composed by David Wise is also simply stellar with a wide range of mood setting tracks.  The underwater theme is right up there with DuckTales Moon song as a videogame classic at this point and the rest of the OST is near that same level of quality.

Donkey Kong Country might not be as visually arresting as it was in 1994 but it is still an attractive game and one that has held up in terms of gameplay beautifully.  It sparked a revival for the character that still persists to this day and has seen a rerelease numerous times in various formats; any version of the game is worth your time if you are a platform fan.

8-out-of-101

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Shadowrun (SNES)

With two Kickstarter funded Shadowrun games in the works all I can say is “What took so long?”  Of all the properties that have sat languishing in licensing hell why Shadowrun?  While we’ve had a near endless procession of terrible Ben 10 and Spongebob games but to date there are only 4 Shadowrun games.  With a universe this rich in history you’d think this would be a shoe in for exploitation (I use it only in the best possible way) but for some reason it never happened.  The SNES and Genesis games were two wildly different takes on the cyberpunk genre, fully immersing you in the world and both worth your gaming dollars.

Jake Armitage should be dead.  Literally.  After waking up in a morgue with no recollection of how he wound up there it isn’t long before he learns that there are some very bad people who went to great lengths to put him there and want to finish the job.  Now he not only has to stay one step ahead of the assassins but piece together his identity and the reason a particular party wants him dead.

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This version of Shadowrun has more in common with action role playing games and point and click adventures than the top down open world of its Genesis counterpart.  Played from a ¾ isometric perspective your primary means of interaction with the world comes in the form of a cursor that is used to examine objects, speak to people, and use weapons and magic.

For the most part this cursor based interface works but it does come with some of the usual frustrations that were also rampant in PC games of its ilk.  Small objects can be hard to make out against the backdrops and it’s very easy to miss important story items and wander around clueless.  Combat, while functional, is a bit boring.  You simply bring up the targeting reticle and slowly choose your target.   You’re unable to move and shoot at the same time so almost every battle boils down to a bunch of stationary targets blasting one another. Your aim and defense are determined by how much you’ve built up your skills using karma as well as items so although you are essentially just pointing and shooting it’s at least engaging.

The game’s table top roots are used to enhance its RPG elements.  Killing the myriad hired assassins yields Karma that is used to enhance numerous aspects of your body and skills such as computer hacking and expertise with firearms.   Aside from weapons Cyberware is available for that extra boost.  Upgrades like wired reflexes and dermal plating are near mandatory and unlike the Sega version you won’t have to worry about it affecting your magical skills.  Speaking of magic, collecting the various random items needed to complete spells is a bit obtuse but more than worth the end results.

Fortunately that isn’t the game’s main focus.  This version of Shadowrun is more focused on the detective side of things, lending it a film noir touch.  There is a sea of interesting characters from all walks of life with plenty to say.  Key words are highlighted and learned automatically, enabling you to ask them or someone else for information.  The list of key words will grow pages long in short order but in general you’ll know which ones will yield pertinent info depending on your location and their occupation.

This is a pretty long quest and will take you to all manner of locations in Seattle, from dingy dive bars to concerts to shipping docks and corporate offices.  Since there’s a price on your head it’s not uncommon to come under fire from any point of the screen.  You know the hit men are determined to collect that bounty when they hide out in garbage cans, snipe from the smallest of windows or even in the grass (!).

While the difficulty curve is relatively light there are points in the game where it spikes so it’s a good idea to hire extra help.  Shadowrunners can be hired for a fee to watch your back or if need be you can use their skills to circumvent certain roadblocks. Even with the extra help this can be one tough son of a bitch.  Story wise it all pays off in the end with a satisfying conclusion and a rather unfortunate hint at a sequel which never came.

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Although the viewpoint doesn’t necessarily lend itself to exceptional graphics the SNES version of Shadowrun is atmospheric as hell.  This is a surprisingly mature tale and its lack of heavy censorship is amazing considering this was Nintendo at its censoring peak.  Watching Jake get gunned down in the opening moments is heavy stuff.  Aiding in the film noir touch is the fantastic soundtrack.  There are actually very few tracks but the ones in the game are heavy on the bass and electric guitar.  Even better, you can turn off all music aside from the battle theme and it works perfectly fine as well.  I actually did so by accident my first run through and feel the experience might even be stronger that way.

There you have it.  This version of Shadowrun focuses on a different side of the world and comes out a better game for it.  Both 16-bit editions of Shadowrun are absolute must buys in my opinion and will serve as a nice warm up for the (hopefully) two new games set for release this year.

8-out-of-101

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World Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Blazeon

When you examine the differences between the many Genesis shooters and the few that were released for the SNES it basically boils down to two fundamental schools of design.  You have your fast action twitch shooters versus a slower, more measured pace.   Compare Gradius III to Thunderforce 3 or U.N. Squadron to Gaiares.  That’s not to say each system didn’t have their fair share of both of course but the fact is the slow paced variety took a load off the slow SNES CPU.  Blazeon falls in the second category but takes it to the literal extreme but whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you.

Unlike most standard shooters Blazeon’s ship is really a piece of crap considering you’re about to take on an alien armada alone.  Only equipped with a rapid fire laser for offense there are no additional power-ups to collect meaning you’re fucked.  At least you would be if not for the Tranquilander (where the hell did they come up with that?).  This piece of equipment will wear down an enemy’s defenses and leave them pacified for you to take over.

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In total there are 7 enemies that can be captured this way, with at least 3 appearing on each level.  Each commandable cyborg has different strengths and weaknesses, such as the Mars cyborgs 3-way shot leaving gaps that can be exploited.  The Shadow blade is the fastest ship and can turn invisible for a few seconds but its speed is nearly uncontrollable.  The Grain Beat is equipped with two dual lasers that can be repositioned for maximum effect.  Commandeering one of these cyborgs is of the utmost importance not only because you’re a gimp otherwise but because they also function as extra armor, taking a few hits to destroy.

The added firepower does have its drawbacks.  With the exception of the Shadow Blade each mech taken makes you a giant target with little room to move.  This isn’t a bullet hell shooter but it has its occasional moments and in most cases you aren’t leaving unscathed.   If you’ve chosen a mech you don’t like you’re basically stuck unless you purposefully have it destroyed if you want to switch, a risky ploy.  You’ll also have to exercise caution when preparing to take over a cyborg as its possible to damage them beforehand.

Odd weapon quirks aside Blazeon’s biggest issue is its pacing; this is one of the most agonizingly slow shooters I’ve ever played.  And that isn’t because of the SNES, the entire game just seems as though the designers were bored and wanted to complete it as fast as possible.  Enemies are few in number with large gaps in between waves of enemies.  There’s an almost 1 minute space of dead air prior to each boss that is simply inexcusable.

You almost have to come up with your own challenges to make the game more exciting.  There is one incentive to defeating each boss as fast as possible; there’s a timer that ticks down during each boss battle, with any extra seconds left counting as a bonus once the level is complete.  It’s easy to build up extra lives by excelling at the game and with unlimited continues this is far from the hardest shmup on the market.

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The presentation is mediocre overall.  The art design is R-Type influenced and there are more than a few elements that skew a little too closely to Irem’s classic such as the flying fortress style assault which is made even worse if you are in an oversized cyborg; these damn robots weren’t made for navigating tight spaces.  The SNES version is missing the arcade game’s intro and some animation but worst of all the game doesn’t have a damn ending, it simply loops back to the first stage.  I’m struggling to think of something positive to say, uh, at least he music is good.

Blazeon simply hasn’t held up over the years, hell it was never a good game to begin with.  There are much better shooters out there that share the same weapon stealing mechanic such as Gaiares and Eliminate Down; its better to play those and pretend Blazeon doesn’t exist, I know I have.

5-out-of-101

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Great Circus Mystery starring Mickey and Minnie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Final Fight 3

1995 was an interesting transition year for the gaming industry.  The PlayStation, Saturn, and (supposedly) N64 were all set to be released in the fourth quarter meanwhile the SNES and Genesis were still trucking along.  That’s not even counting the 3DO, Jaguar, and CDi although all 3 were pretty much irrelevant by that point.  While many publishers would hold back their most popular franchises for their 32-bit debut Capcom brought out sequels in some of their most beloved franchises for the SNES for one last hurrah.  Final Fight 3 corrected many of the flaws apparent in the second installment and is simply a great beat em up with some cool features that add longevity to a genre that is usually built on all too brief campaigns.

With the Mad Gear gang completely eliminated Metro City has finally enjoyed some peace.  But it doesn’t last long as a new gang steps up to fill the void left in their absence.  The Skull Cross Gang are staging riots across the city forcing mayor Mike Haggar to step in personally along with returning martial artist Guy, police detective Lucia, and the mysterious Dean.

Although Final Fight 2 managed to capture the look of an expensive arcade unit pretty well it did nothing to advance the genre and came across as a rehash.  Final Fight 3 comes with a host of improvements that make kicking ass through Metro City enjoyable in the long run.  Aside from 2-player coop you have the option to do so with an AI controlled ally to simulate the experience if you’re a lonely nerd with no friends.  The AI is more than capable of taking care of itself and actually helpful if a little bit too aggressive in moving forward at all times.  It’s a welcome feature if going solo isn’t appealing or too hard.  While slowdown rears its head with too many enemies on screen it isn’t enough of a factor to completely ruin this cool feature.

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All 4 fighters are armed with a vast array of fighting techniques, more so than most beat em ups combined.  This has always been my biggest pet peeve with this genre, the fact the designers seemed content to arm you with a simple punch, punch, kick, combo, a jump kick, and a throw and called it a day.  In addition to the standard arsenal of punches and kicks each character can dash and is armed with a number of grappling techniques depending on your position.  You can also switch position while holding an enemy if its more advantageous.  Some techniques are even activated with Street Fighter style button combos, a nice nod to Capcom’s roots.  Most important of all the controls are responsive and intuitive, enabling you to toss bad guys around effortlessly.

Despite a scant six levels Final Fight 3 has a few incentives for replay value.  There are multiple endings determined by a few key factors: the difficulty setting, character used (the most interesting is Dean) and the path taken to get to the end.  That’s right; there are multiple routes through some of the levels that will lead to all new areas with different enemies and bosses.  It at least adds about an hour or so to what is normally a brief experience and a welcome gesture.

My complaints with the game are few but still worth noting.  There is still a glaring lack of variety in the enemy roster; be prepared to fight a never ending stream of Johnnies, Billies, and Fat Jacks.  They try to stagger it so every will present at least one new enemy but that still amounts to less than 10.  It’s pretty frustrating to fight 3 or 4 of the same guy at once repeatedly for the length of the game.  With the improved combat mechanics the game is also significantly easier than prior games.  I managed to finish the game on my first try without using any continues, a feat I never managed in either of the prior two games.  I guess that means the game is balanced but it could have at least put up something of a struggle to kick my ass.

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Graphically I found the second game superior in spite of part 3’s better animation.  The world setting allows for more interesting vistas to stare at while punching faces.  I get that the setting is once again Metro City but there are a few areas that are very clear call backs to the first game, Round 5’s factory and the Skull Cross Gang’s hideout in particular.  It might be a homage but it just seems repetitious in my eyes.

As one of the last pure entries in the series Final Fight 3 allowed the series to leave the 16-bit era on a high note.  While the new features weren’t revolutionary they spiced up a tired genre enough make for one of the most playable beat em ups for the SNES.

7-out-of-10-1

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Super Punch Out!

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out was an international phenomenon and something of a cultural touchstone in America for every child of the 80s.  If you watch any retrospective of that decade chances are Punch-Out! will come up.  Even A-list celebrities have played the game, that’s how popular it was.  The question is how do you follow that up?  In 1994 Nintendo would answer that question with Super Punch-Out, a good game in its own right but one that doesn’t quite recapture the magic of the original.

Little Mac is back to challenge the WVBA once again with a slew of new boxers standing in his way.  Sadly without a Mike Tyson endorsement (we all know why) there isn’t a dream match with Kid Dynamite to look forward to in the end but the game provides plenty of challenges along the way.

The NES Punch-Out! Was loosely based on the arcade game of the same name but featured enough changes that it became its own beast, one that was better than the game that inspired it.  With the SNES’s added muscle Super Punch-Out! is more faithful to the arcade game of the same name and while it is an excellent game overall it loses some of the personality that made the NES game a classic.

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For the uninitiated the Punch-Out series is more of a rhythm game than a straight boxing match.  Not in the sense that you’re following button prompts that fly by on the screen; you are watching for cues or “ticks” that are a dead giveaway as to your opponent’s intentions and responding in kind.  Every opponent has specific moves they employ and will telegraph them beforehand; how you respond will determine the victor in the end.

Little Mac’s arsenal of left/right jabs and body blows remains the same as well as the ability to dodge side to side, block, or duck.  The star system of the first game has been ditched in favor of a special meter that builds up as you inflict damage and decreases when hit.  The special meter can be used in multiple ways, for knockout body blows, uppercuts, and rapid fire punches.  One last upgrade comes in the form of the power-up system, noted by the changing portrait color.   It functions like an alternate version of the special meter in that all of your punches increase in speed and power.

The added diversity of attacks is necessary as Super Punch-Out has an almost entirely new cast of fighters, with fan favorites Bald Bull, Sandman, and Super Macho Man the only ones returning.  With 4 circuits and 4 opponents that’s a lot of new patterns to learn.  The series has always been known for the outlandish antics of its fighters and that aspect has been taken over the top in this installment.

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Dragon Chan practically cheats by bouncing off the ropes to deliver Liu Kang style flying kicks.  Mad Clown is amazingly agile for an overweight circus act and will backflip to gain enough distance to pelt you with his juggling balls before delivering a knockout blow.  Masked Muscle will literally spit in your face to obscure your vision, the cheating ass.  And I have to mention Hoy Qarlow, a decrepit old man who employs his walking stick in his matches.  Unlike the first game you won’t face anyone twice meaning every fight is a new experience.  Some fighters like Bear Hugger and Piston Hurricane are practically carbon copies of prior fighters, namely King Hippo and Piston Honda so at least in that respect the same tactics will apply.

Its’ a much needed break as Super Punch-Out! can be extremely tough.  The 3 round structure has been removed in favor of a single three minute match.  If time runs out you automatically lose.  I feel Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! was a lot more balanced in terms of giving you enough chances to stage a comeback because of the multiple rounds.  You could completely botch the first round and then dominate the second since you would have seen everything each opponent had to offer; no dice this time.  With limited continues its rough being sent back to the beginning of each circuit but at least there’s battery backup.

One feature that seems typical of a sports game but really added some incentive to replay each fight was the Time Trial mode.  Competing against the developer’s fastest times is awesome and a great incentive to learn the intricacies of the fighting system.  There are some ridiculous, borderline insane records already in the game that do highlight another feature.  Each fighter is susceptible to a particular combination of hits that when executed correctly will result in an automatic KO.  Seeing Nick Bruiser taken out in under 30 seconds is simply unbelievable and a demonstration of how skilled you can become with practice.

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Super Punch-Out ditched the midget Little Mac of the first game for a transparent boxer and a near first person perspective.  Its world’s better than the wire frame model used in the arcade as it allows you to actually see what the hell is in front of you.  The perspective also allows much larger fighters and the increased size allows for a much better set of animations.  The huge cast of characters exhibits a ton of different animations and sport some bizarre designs like Heike Kagero and the Narcisse Prince.

But for all of the strides in presentation Super Punch-Out has lost the identity that was so crucial to the first game.  Little Mac might have been a squat dork but you were invested in his progress as he faced insurmountable odds.  Seeing his training sequences and the newspaper articles as you rose through the ranks added a sense of personal investment since you were responsible for his progress.  And who could forget the between round chatter?  Even though Doc was a blatant Nintendo shill he was at least there to try and encourage you if your face resembled a slab of meat and Bald Bull threatened to send you home in a body bag.  The generic blonde guy you now control is just that: some dude.  You never learn anything about him or care about why he wants to be the champion.  The Mike Tyson endorsement was a genius move along with his involvement in the game’s marketing.  At the time Iron Mike was the biggest boxer in the world and his presence brought a lot of interest to the game.  It’s just too bad there wasn’t anyone on the same level at the time of this game’s release to add some character to its campaign.

Setting that aside Super Punch-Out! is still an excellent game but I would recommend Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out first .  For those that are tired of losing to Mike Tyson in under 20 seconds Super Punch-Out is an superb continuation of that gameplay style.

8-out-of-101

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U.N. Squadron

There sure were a lot of shooters in the first year of the SNES’ life.  I realize it was the hot genre at the time but even taking that into consideration, god damn.  Most publishers would eventually back off when faced with the system’s slow processor but there were quite a few gems released in that early time frame.  Capcom’s U.N. Squadron was one such release and despite its age stands as one of the best shmups for the console.

Based on the manga and anime series Area 88, this franchise has a bit of a storied history in the US.  Area 88 was among the first manga translated in the US, but not the whole series.  It was later adapted into a 3-episode OVA and a longer 12 episode animated series, all of which saw a release in America.  Honestly I don’t know why they changed the name; the UN has nothing to do with the game and the name Area 88 sums it up perfectly but whatever.  While it might have seemed odd to bring over a game based on a little known property to us dirty Americans Capcom knew what they were doing.

Originally released in the arcade U.N. Squadron follows the exploits of a mercenary group in the fictional Area 88 as they battle the nation of Aslan in dogfights that span the globe.  While the arcade game was good Capcom went above and beyond the call of duty to infuse the SNES version with a ton of extra options and features.  Despite lacking the production values of later shooters U.N. Squadron earns its place in the upper echelons of the shooter pantheon with its excellent gameplay.

The characters available feature stark differences that will affect the game in a variety of ways.  Shin is most balanced in that his weapons level up faster but only fire forward.  Mickey Simon can continue to fire his normal weapon and use specials at the same time.  Greg recovers from damage twice as fast, making him more resilient.  On its face it sounds straightforward but the end game needs to be considered.  Although Shin will power up quickest he plateaus early, meaning he is a much harder choice for later stages.  Greg’s recovery time is a massive boon when under heavy fire since player health is handled differently here.

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Although you have a life bar its function isn’t what you expect.  Any hit will place you in critical status; another hit will destroy you.  If you can avoid damage the plane will recover at the cost of some life.  Eventually you will linger in critical status permanently, with death a single shot away.  It’s the perfect system as it offers novice players the challenge they crave while providing beginners with a safety net in case of failure.

After the initial stage the map opens up and provides you with anywhere between 3-6 levels you can complete at any time.   The level variety is U.N. Squadron’s strongest asset.  For the most part each stage will end in a boss battle but the obstacles you face along the way and even some of the objectives are different.  Some levels will pit you against ground targets exclusively or take place in the sky as you face off against mercenary squads much like your own.  The bonus Quartermaster corps levels will task you with destroying enemy targets in bombing runs with a strict time limit.  U.N. Squadron is a long game that becomes exceedingly harder as you progress, making your choice of pilot and ships all the more important.

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Between levels you can use the money earned to buy new ships and sub weapons.  You start out with the well rounded Crusader but with enough time buy 5 more, with each specializing in specific categories.  The F-20 Tigershark isn’t all that different from the Crusader but has access to more weapons.  The Thunderbolt II is designed for ground attacks, with its normal weapon firing an additional shot at the ground and its extra special weapons based on that premise.   The F-14 Tomcat is a strictly air affair, with no ground weapons and the best maneuverability.  These designations play a role as you are clued in as to what to expect at the beginning of each stage.   Each plane can only equip a certain amount of special weapons and is also limited as to which ones they have access to.  If all else fails you could always buy the F-200 Efreet, the jack of all trades with no limitations but chances are you’ll never have that much cash, pointing to one of the game’s biggest problems.

Although its somewhat balanced the difficulty curve is pretty steep.  Later missions are designed around specific ships and unfortunately they’re all expensive.  Get used to the Crusader; you’ll be using it for almost half of the game.  The opportunities to earn more money in the Quartermaster Corps are limited and even if completed only nets you $20000.  With each plane ranging in the $300,000-$1000000 range you’ll have to be a scrooge to net the best upgrades.  Choosing a plane ill-suited to a given level is disastrous but at least you can switch if you die.  But it’s a steep price to pay if you simply didn’t have the money to buy the necessary plane first.  This imbalance rears its ugly head on the second to last level, where the boss’s weak point can only be hit by specific weapons exclusive to two ships.  Of course if you’ve never played U.N. Squadron before this realization is tragic.

Ultimately though it doesn’t ruin the game but does knock it down a point.  Despite its release in the early days of the SNES U.N. Squadron maintained its position as one of the system’s best shooters through its quality.  SNES fans looking for a quality shmup might have slim pickings but U.N. Squadron is near the top of that list.

8-out-of-101

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Captain Commando

By now I suppose everyone is familiar with Captain Commando through his cameo appearances in the Marvel vs. Capcom series.  But I doubt many are familiar with his original arcade and console debut.  Captain Commando’s appearances have been so sparse he might as well have been a new character by 1999.  So in the face of the character’s new found popularity how does his exclusive adventure hold up?

The story is super hero cheese at its finest.  Captain Commando and his eclectic companions are the protectors of not just Earth but the rest of the galaxy.  Set in the Metro City of 2026 when a super powered gang of criminals under the leadership of a mad scientist run amok the Commando crew spring into action.

Captain Commando was released in 1991 not long after Final Fight.  The two games share a lot in common, from their use of Capcom’s CPS1 board, genre, and general gameplay.  While Final Fight was ported to the SNES in 1991 Captain Commando remained forgotten until 1995.  By that point the beat em up genre had been advanced by titles such as Streets of Rage 3 and the Peacekeepers.  Time was not kind to Captain Commando and its simple gameplay in the face of better games simply doesn’t hold up.

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The good Captain certainly had come a long way since his earlier appearances as a semi mascot for Capcom USA.  More than likely birthed from the pen that graced us with the Mega Man 1 box art his faced adorned the boxes and instruction manual of select games and was updated once before his arcade debut.  Captain Commando is decked out with an assortment of items that boost his attacks, from gauntlets that spew fire and generate electricity to boots that enhance his kicks.  If you’ve played any of the Marvel vs. Capcom games his powers are basically identical.  He is the default middle ground character for those too neurotic to take a chance with the rest of his weird posse.

While Captain Commando is a normal human equipped with numerous gadgets and enhancements his comrades are anything but normal.  Mack the Knife is an alien covered in bandages to protect him from harsh environments, granting him a mummy like appearance.  Baby Head is actually a genius infant who created a cybernetic suit to function as his body.  Ginzu the Ninja is the only relatively normal one of the bunch and is a practitioner of the same martial art as Guy from Final Fight.

On the surface the gameplay is exactly like Final Fight but there is a larger selection of moves available for each character.  Most of the standard attacks such as the different throws, and running attacks are shared but differ in their usage.  Ginzu’s dash attack can pierce through multiple enemies while Mack’s will perform two attacks on one enemy.  In fact each character is equipped with two dash attacks and in addition to their selection of throws will determine who you are most comfortable with.

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This is a bit longer than your typical brawler at nine levels but each level is in fact a series of multiple smaller vignettes before the boss.  Captain Commando does a good job of introducing new enemies with each level but can’t ultimately avoid palette swapping eventually.  The journey to the end will take you through a variety of locales such as an Aquarium, Circus, and museum.  Occasionally you’ll ride a rocket powered skateboard or other vehicle to break up the hand to hand action but it does little to alleviate the feeling that you’ve done this before.

And that’s its biggest problem.  Streets of Rage 3 saw release in 1994 and had a metric fuck ton of moves per character, branching paths through the game and also multiple endings as well.  Final Fight 3 would follow suit and add a deeper fighting system to its repertoire.  Waiting 4 years to port this game has shed light on its age, an issue that also affected the prior year’s King of Dragons.  In terms of gameplay the game is sound but after years of excellent and sub-par offerings the genre needed to evolve and Captain Commando’s late release showed why.

As a port the SNES version is basically the same but is censored, only 2-player cooperative and missing the mech suits you could steal.  Whether you have the patience to stomach a slightly above average beat em up in the face of better offerings is up to you.

6-out-of-10-1

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Hyper Zone

Remember how over used Mode 7 was at the beginning of the SNES life?  Dear god most developers showed little restraint shoving it in their games!   Did we really need the gratuitous map zoom in Actraiser?  Personally I didn’t really care if Master Higgins was swallowed by a giant scaling whale but whatever.  For every game that grossly misused it there were others like Pilotwings and F-Zero where it was integral to gameplay.  Lost in the shuffle among those two classic was Hyper Zone, equal parts ambitious gameplay and tech demo.

There’s a very flimsy plot that provides a bit of context to the rest of the game.  In the distant future the leaders of the world make a push to colonize the rest of the Solar System, including the regions beyond our borders.  Aliens from beyond our galaxy decide they are comfortable with humans sticking to their little box and now it’s up to you to clear them out for the sake of humanity.

The best way to describe Hyper Zone is a three way cross between F-Zero, Space Harrier, and Star Fox.  Like Space Harrier you control a character, in this case a ship, with full 8-way movement around the screen.  The F-Zero DNA comes in the form of the overall presentation and the design of the “track”.  But rather than a racing game this is a shooter like Star Fox minus the polygons.  It’s an interesting mix of games that doesn’t quite gel as well as it should have but it remains an interesting technical show piece nonetheless.

The easiest summary of the game play is keep moving and don’t stop.  And I mean that literally.  Although Hyper Zone is a shooter it still has many elements conducive to racing games.  The levels are on a set track which splits into multiple pathways at numerous points.  Straying beyond the borders of the track will result in damage and a loss of speed, which you do not want.  Dipping below 225 miles per hour will incur damage.  There are familiar light strips on the ground which will restore life; another idea lifted from F-Zero.

Although there aren’t any power-ups in the game scoring high enough on each stage will reward you with a new ship and earn extra lives which are important.  Each ship looks different but controls the same with the only difference in how your charge shot is affected.  The charge time and the shape of the blast changes with each ship, making it easier to kill enemies in clusters for more points.

Surviving to the end of each level is the main objective, a task that proves much harder than the actual bosses that book end each one.  Enemies never attack alone and swarm in groups from all sides.  Sometimes they even come from behind, the tricky bastards.  Dodging enemy fire becomes a lot trickier when the track is only a narrow path, forcing you to go off the rails a bit for the greater good.  The stage hazards such as rising fire and dead end paths increase in frequency the deeper you get, which makes every level intense.  The one major disappointment would be the bosses, who are lacking in interesting design and fight mechanics.

Ultimately though Hyper Zone is a shallow game.  The lack of any weapons aside from the charge shot sucks, there’s no other way to put it.  The new ships could have been a lot more exciting, such as granting extra defense or more speed.  Although you have the freedom to move about the screen freely this mobility is restricted by the track design.  You’ll spend long segments moving along a straight narrow path.

And the game is unfair.  Because of the viewpoint it’s very hard to determine how close or far enemies are, with the same applying to projectiles.  When enemies attack from behind there’s no warning and you’ll frequently have little room to maneuver.  The pit stops to refill life almost seem like death traps as there are usually a score of enemies ready to pelt you repeatedly, defeating the purpose of having them in the first place.  Extra lives are awarded every 30,000 points, a number that isn’t hard to reach frequently but it doesn’t make up for the lack of continues.  It’s incredibly easy to die in a hail of fire repeatedly and pit stops don’t make up for it.  There are only 8 levels but it really sucks having to start from the beginning so often.

Hyper Zone resembles F-Zero so closely that it’s easy to mistake the two.  Beyond the use of Mode 7 the track itself looks identical; same with the track side detail.  Whereas F-Zero is wide and open the floor is mirrored on the surface in Hyper Zone and the effect is striking.  Each level has a theme with suitable enemies to match and the scaling is pretty much flawless.  Despite the flat ground the art direction does an adequate job of convincing you that you’re really flying over grass, water, or a city.  The music is techno influenced and very similar to F-Zero’s although not as well orchestrated.  The sound effects are virtually identical between the two.

While Hyper Zone doesn’t maintain the peaks set in the early parts of the game due to its simplicity it is still enjoyable.  Less tech demo and more interesting gameplay would have done wonders to back up the (for the time) stellar production values but some games just aren’t destined to have it all.

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Ninja Gaiden Trilogy


It’s hard to believe that Ninja Gaiden was once a forgotten property during the 16-bit era like Metal Gear and Rygar.  These were all beloved NES classics screaming for an update but none would appear.  In the case of Metal Gear it’s understandable; realistically what advancements to the series could they have added with the Super Nintendo or Genesis?  Not much.   The Ninja Gaiden games, though ball breaking hard were still some of the best games released for the NES so the response was favorable when Tecmo announced a compilation of all 3 games and although it isn’t the legendary collection of 3 classics we were expecting it’s still a worthwhile package for anyone who has never sampled Ryu Hayabusa’s seminal adventures.

The Ninja Gaiden series was released at the perfect point in time to make a splash in the market.   The 80s were Ninja crazy with a ton of ninja movies assaulting theaters and video stores repeatedly.  Admittedly most of these movies were made on a shoe string budget and starred actors and actresses who probably didn’t know how to spell ninja but whatever; we ate it up all the same.  When you look at it through that lens you can see why games like Shinobi, TMNT, the Last Ninja (seriously, I’ve never been able to figure out why Europe went so crazy for this shit), and Ninja Gaiden were so popular.

For the uninitiated Ninja Gaiden follows Ryu as he initially sets out for revenge against the men who killed his father.  His simple quest for vengeance soon spirals into saving the world.  The following sequels find him drawn into the machinations of evil demons who want to harness ancient powers for world domination.  The series became famous for its use of cut scenes between levels to move the plot forward as well as its tight action and high point of entry.  Ninja Gaiden Trilogy takes these 3 games and puts them in one neat package with a number of enhancements and sadly flaws that bring the quality of the overall bundle down but nothing that deter you from reliving part of 8-bit history.

For the most part each game with the exception of part 3 is a perfect match for its NES counterpart gameplay wise.  All of the item locations and enemy placement are the same and the same boss strategies can be employed.  That means the Ninja clones in NG2 can still be employed to do all of the work for you if you so choose and the jump and slash of NG1 is still massively overpowered.  The Ninja Gaiden games were obvious Castlevania clones, sharing the same front end and many of the same gameplay elements.  There are a number of sub-weapons in each game, all of them powered by ninja scrolls, much like hearts in Castlevania.  Unlike that series Ryu isn’t handicapped and is a nimble protagonist, able to scale walls like Spider-Man and is overall faster.

While the first game shares Castlevania’s retarded difficulty, Ninja Gaiden 2 went to great lengths to scale it back and while still hard at some points is fair overall.   Ninja Gaiden 3 saw many cuts for its US release, many of them for the worse.  Ninja Gaiden Trilogy rectifies some of these mistakes but introduces a number of its own problems with the game and is something of a missed opportunity.  Password saves have been added to each game and trust me they are a god send.  Each game isn’t necessarily long but does become frustrating; sometimes it’s best to walk away and come back to it later.  Those of us that spent hours banging our heads against a wall due to the ridiculous difficulty and had to leave the NES on for hours to progress know exactly what I mean.  Stage 6-2 I’m looking at you!

While the gameplay of each game is more or the less the same the presentation has seen a slight upgrade.  Although the graphics are the same the SNES’ higher resolution produces a cleaner look.  Some changes such as the removal of the lightning on stage 3-1 of Ninja Gaiden 2 completely alter the look of the level which is a stylistic choice that can go either way.  All of the cut scenes in each game have been redrawn and benefit from the richer color palette.  There is some light censorship which is baffling as Nintendo of America had eased up on their practices a year ago.  All blood in the cut scenes has been changed to green and the numerous pentagrams and circles of David have been removed.

The music has been recomposed and in my opinion is worse than the originals.  It might be my familiarity with each game’s music having spent countless hours listening to the soundtracks as I died over and over but the added instrument’s in each tune don’t fit and throw off the “feel” of each song.   The sound quality is better but the”soul” of each song seems to be lost in ambient noise.

    

The version of Ninja Gaiden 3 in this collection is the most interesting.  This should have been a slam dunk considering it was based on the superior Japanese version but it instead features a number of problems.  Graphically it turned out worse; most of the parallax scrolling in the backgrounds is gone as well as a number of effects.  Some of the music tracks are missing as well.  Ninja Gaiden 3 is one of the best looking NES games ever conceived and was  a technical accomplishment; seeing it butchered (a bit harsh but…) is sad.

The controls in Ninja Gaiden 3 were noticeably floaty, probably due to the increased vertical scrolling in the game but are a hassle in this port due to their unresponsiveness.  NG 3 was a tough game but it at least had solid controls behind it like the prior games.  At the very least the game has been rebalanced to level of the Japanese version, meaning enemies take far less life from you and there are unlimited continues as well as passwords to save.  If they could have fixed NG3’s flaws it would have really put this compilation over the top but instead it drags it down a bit.

At the end of the day you’re still getting 3 phenomenal action games for one price.  One exorbitantly high price.  Since it was released in 1995 Ninja Gaiden Trilogy was printed in limited quantities and now commands a price in the hundreds of dollars.  While it is good you’re better off buying the individual cartridges rather than paying those ridiculous prices.

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Aero Fighters

Nowadays anyone that remembers the Aero Fighters series knows it for one of two things: the bat shit crazy story and characters of later installments or the ridiculous prices the rare third installment commands on Ebay.  How or why the series went off the rails no one knows but it is a far cry from the more straightforward first installment.  Aero Fighters, unlike most shooters of the day, does not have any unique scoring or power-up systems and instead relies on its hectic action instead.  While Aero Fighters is a solid game it does come across as a bit generic.

Yeah.

Although Aero Fighters does play it straight the indications of the series future wackiness are still there.  The wonderful cast of characters comes from 4 continents around the world.  They encompass a variety of stereotypes, such as the typical red blooded American from the US, Hien the ninja and Mao Mao the idol singer of Japan, Kohful the Viking (?) and Tee-Bee of Sweden, and Villiam and Lord River White from Britain.  Their between level quotes are often hilarious but most importantly they each have their own unique ships.

Character selection has an effect on the game in different way aside from the weaponry available.  In multiplayer once a country is chosen both players are forced to pick between the two given characters.  The order of the levels will also change depending on the country chosen.  It might not sound like a big deal but certain stages aren’t’ conducive to allowing newer players time to get used to the game’s pace.

Each ship/character combination has a unique weapon, allowing a wide range of power-up styles.  Hien’s Ship fires shuriken in an arc that widens the stronger it gets until finally evolving into kunai.  Keaton and Keith are the closest to a standard shot that doesn’t excel in power or range but occupies a nice middle ground.  Villiam’s spread gun is useful for covering a wider area at all times but sacrifices power for it.  Tee Bee’s plasma cannon is extremely powerful and destructive at higher power levels.  The smart bombs also differ per character with some more useful than others.  Villiam’s carpet bomb covers a larger range than the others while Keaton’s tactical nuke only hits a small cluster but not only destroys any bullets in its path the loop de loop that precedes it is handy in a pinch.

If there is one word to describe Aero Fighters it would be hectic.  Enemies come in massive numbers with bullets flying freely.  Most enemies take a few shots to kill and in the numbers they appear it quickly becomes important to prioritize.  Most levels aren’t very long, providing enough time to power-up in time to face the gargantuan bosses.  The massive air ships and planes that make up the bosses have to be taken down in stages and just when you the fight is over a compartment will open up or transform and they come back for more.  Some of these fights last as long as the levels themselves and could be classified as epic.

It goes without saying that Aero Fighters is not an easy game.  Due to the amount of bullets and enemies death will come frequently.  Upon dying only one loose power-up is dropped, leaving you pretty much defenseless.  The boss fights are already long as is but with reduced firepower almost seem impossible.  Continues are limited and chances are you won’t see the end on your first few tries.  While the rest of the game isn’t exactly all that memorable your fingers certainly will.

The SNES port is more or less exact to the arcade.  The resolution is lower and there is some minor loss of detail but otherwise it recreates the arcade game surprisingly well.  The music has taken a hit though, with generic metal music replacing the arcade game’s well done score.  An optional boss rush has been added that is surprisingly fun and two additional characters that put the fruit in fruity.  It doesn’t do much to extend the life of the game but they are nice gestures.

Unfortunately Aero Fighters had a very small print run and is one of the harder games to track down.  Expect to pay a large sum for the game and while its decent enough I can’t really recommend it in that case.

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Alien vs. Predator

Robocop vs. Terminator.  Freddy vs. Jason.  These things go together like Chocolate and Peanut Butter.  All of these smashups not only seemed like good ideas but were also inevitable.  At the end of Predator 2 when an alien skull was counted among the Predator’s trophies fans knew; it was on.  So when the first slate of Alien vs. Predator products was announced it was only a matter of time until video games would get their just due.  Unfortunately this SNES game was completely unforgettable and fans would have to wait until the following year to see the license done justice.

On the planet Vega 4 workers uncover Alien eggs which quickly hatch.  The Aliens overrun the colonists but not before they send a distress signal to Earth.  But instead of the Earth forces the signal is picked up by Predators looking for their next kill.  Sensing worthy prey the Predator’s head to Vega 4 not to save the humans but for a worthy challenge.

The Alien vs. Predator franchise began in comic books but would soon encompass all media.  There would eventually be a slew of Alien vs. Predator games however this SNES installment would be the first.  Released by Activision in 1993 it is a side scrolling beat em up that pales in comparison to the superior game Capcom would unleash in the arcade the following year.  The SNES game is long forgotten, and rightfully so, as it is a strictly average brawler with no unique features or even engaging gameplay to keep you interested for the duration.

While the game has an assortment of issues it at least gets the look and “feel” of the Predators down.  Although you rely on your fists mostly the shoulder mounted cannon is available but needs to be charged first, leaving you vulnerable to attack.  The trademark Predator weapons such as the Smart disc and the Combi Stick are dropped by enemies.  These items are limited in use but dropped frequently enough that are only unarmed for short periods.  There’s a useless stealth item that turns you invisible but it’s not as if the enemies still can’t see you.  I suppose they felt the need to include it because of the movies but its implementation is worthless.

Unfortunately the reality of playing as a Predator is worse than the idea.  Your move set is extremely limited; there’s a standard punch, punch, kick combo, a throw and a slide kick and that’s it.  Even the original Double Dragon armed you with more than this.   Executing the basic combo for the length of the entire game becomes tedious quickly.