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Seirei Senshi Spriggan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Aldynes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Renny Blaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Faussete Amour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Macross 2036

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Psychic Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Granzort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Nexzr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Sylphia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Rayxanber II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Salamander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Mugen Senshi Valis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Mystic Formula

Top down shooters were pretty rough affairs on the Turbo Grafx. Final Zone 2 is just a bad game overall, Last Alert is decent but has some of the worst voice acting in history and as much as I want to like Kiki Kaikai Pocky & Rocky simply outclasses it. Mystic Formula is one of the rarer titles for the system and while certainly better than the previously mentioned games it feels like the developers were more interested in telling a fun story through cutscenes than making a good game. The levels feel more like necessary busywork to get to the next cinema. Even in spite of that the game is decent but not worth its hefty asking price.

With its fantasy setting and similar overhead view Mystic Formula resembles Elemental Master but has more in common with Capcom’s Mercs. All four heroes differ in terms of their range, strength and means of attack. In the end however they are all viable since the game is so easy, meaning it comes down to who you think looks cool. The game makes use of a charging mechanic that determines the power of your shots. Spamming the attack button will produce weaker bullets that only travel a short distance while letting the meter charge fully creates a bigger long distance projectile. Since the meter charges automatically and quickly at that you will most likely rely solely on the larger blasts. Power-ups aren’t too common and are few, with the most useful summoning one of your allies to fight beside you until death.

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It’s pretty obvious where the bulk of the game’s budget went and it wasn’t in the gameplay. The game’s frequent cutscenes are long but not fully animated. Despite that I will say that the game’s cast of characters are a likable bunch and exuberate a ton of personality that is easy to discern despite the language barrier. The in-game graphics however are lackluster. The first level is pretty interesting with its cool armored midboss and dual end level gargoyles. But from there it drops off considerably. The following levels look like they were cobbled together from one repetitive tile set which is incredibly lame.   The soundtrack on the other hand is fantastic. Micro Cabin has a long history of excellent music in their titles and MF is no exception. The hard rock tracks suit the game well although I wish they were longer as they tend to stop and repeat quickly.

Average graphics aside the pacing in Mystic Formula is the only thing keeping it from being truly great. There are long gaps in between enemy attacks and when they do occur most of the time they are so slow there is very little excitement. The last two levels do ratchet up the intensity somewhat and if the game had that same enthusiasm throughout the length of the quest this would have been excellent. Not that every game needs to be a nonstop thrill ride like Smash TV but the game can seem a bit too laid back. My dudes are armed with exotic weapons, give me a reason to use them!

With sparse enemy waves and overpowered weapons the games falls on the easy side. Part of this of course comes down to your choice of character; Raiden is simply too well rounded. The other characters vary things up a bit but you will never feel any pressure since you are fighting little bats and such instead of aggressive soldiers. About midway through the game when the real villain makes his appearance the game steps it up a bit as you’ll fight larger mecha but they come in prearranged groups and still fall in a single shot. Even the bosses are pushovers in spite of their menacing looks. I finished the game without continuing and I’m sure most will be able to accomplish the same with no trouble. Aside from playing around with the other characters there isn’t any reason to run through the game a second time as the experience is ok at best.

Adequate about sums it up. Mystic Formula nails the fundamentals but does little to surround them with an exciting game that has you itching to pick up the controller. I really wanted to like the game more as the cast are a fun bunch and the bosses are extremely cool but it simply isn’t enough. The game is pretty pricey unfortunately and is simply not worth the prices it commands. As a $10 downloadable title maybe and that’s the best praise I can give it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Coryoon

Once it became obvious that the Turbo Duo was not going to save the Turbo Grafx in the US I turned my attention towards the game’s released only in Japan with envy. There were so many cool Rpgs and legions of shooters we would never receive (although shooters were a bit saturated over here at the time) that it was downright criminal. Of course it would be almost 10 years before I would ever play most of those games I once ogled and I discovered some true gems. Coryoon is a game that has a low profile as it was released after the PC Engine CD and so went unnoticed. That is a shame as the game is simply amazing and much better than many of its later CD counterparts.

If Coryoon bears more than a passing resemblance to Air Zonk it is with good reason. Many of the same staff worked on both titles and while it might feel derivative it also means the game has a solid base. Air Zonk is one of my favorite shooters but even taking that into account I’m surprised just how much I like the game. Overly cute games are usually not a part of my gaming diet (The Twinbee games are as far as I go, you can keep your Otomedius) but I’ll be damned if Coryoon didn’t win me over. If the game were a little more challenging it could have been a classic.

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The game is visually fantastic and one of the most impressive traditional Hucard titles. Like Air Zonk the game uses very large sprites set against multi scrolling backgrounds that are incredibly detailed and full of life. Unlike that game Coryoon is decently long and so it covers far more varied terrain. The settings cover most of the traditional video game staples such as a fire zone, underwater level and forest but the cartoon presentation means they certainly don’t resemble any other game you’ve seen before. The boss designs are similarly excellent and imaginative which is appropriate as they are the visual highlight of the game. The soundtrack, while bright and chirpy, doesn’t rise to the same level unfortunately. The music isn’t bad per se but unremarkable.

Coryoon keeps its primary weapon selection small at just three that can be upgraded a further two times. Red orbs change your fire into a flamethrower which is powerful but has short range. Blue produces a wave attack that increases in size at higher levels. Yellow is the thunder orb, which shoots lightning bolts in a spread formation that covers nearly the whole screen at its highest level. When you aren’t firing Coryoon will charge a powerful breath attack which can decimate bosses quickly. There are an number of secondary support items based on playing cards that grant additional powers such as a smart bomb, fairies that will aggressively seek out enemies and absorb bullets and mini dragons whose function changes based on your weapon, really cool. Weapon storks are always present so you can freely experiment to find the best fit for the current situation.

The games cute exterior belies the fact that it has some teeth. This is one of the most frenetic shooters for the system which is saying a lot. There is rarely a moment where the screen isn’t filled with bullets, fruit, enemies, and even power-ups that is hard to process at first. It is very easy to fly straight into a random bullet since they are so small in comparison to the large sprites. Yet somehow throughout all the chaos it still becomes easy to follow after a level or so. This is a much more active shooter as enemies attack from all sides meaning you’ll have to actually fly around the screen to avoid taking hits rather than simply hanging back and waiting for them to come to you. The game does a nice job of varying up its enemy waves with level hazards such as exploding crystals, maze like blocks, and other such items that will actually test your flight skills.

The only area in which Coryoon falls short is its challenge. Despite the games pace and onscreen chaos it is ridiculously easy. Provided you have a power-up you’ll never die since taking a hit will only take it away. The game is extremely generous with items so it’s rare to be caught without one; during boss battles the item stork will fly by every twenty seconds or so or immediately after you die. With all the fruit thrown around your score will shoot through the roof and extra lives are rewarded like candy. With all that in mind anyone can brute force their way through the game. It makes the game very accessible but at the same time it is disappointing in the sense that the game is so fun that it is a shame its over so fast.

I wouldn’t let that stop you however. If you are even a slight fan of shooters coryoon is an excellent purchase and well worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Alien Crush

Alien Crush is a game that I went into with no expectations and was completely blown away. As one of the few Turbo Grafx-16 owners in my neighborhood let alone school I was forced to turn to rentals for new games and I can tell you the selection at Blockbuster was slim. After perusing the roster of about 10 games there Alien Crush was the last one and I was not enthused. Vague memories of Rock ‘N’ Ball soured my view of video game pinball but AC restored it with its excellently laid out table and movie inspired theme. Even today the game is still highly playable and good for a few hours of ball slapping fun.

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While Alien Crush is a pinball game through and through what it has going for it that elevates it above similar titles it its art direction. The Alien inspired theme is executed wonderfully executed and permeates all corners of the table beyond just the background image. The table itself is composed of bone with small aliens, brains, and other creatures serving as targets and bumpers. The alien in the background of the bottom half of the table is incredibly cool as its eyes light up as you nail more of the little creatures on its sides and eventually awakens and is fully animated. The game does not try to hide its inspiration in the slightest and is better for it as the presentation really helped it stand out. For a game released in 1989 Alien Crush looks fantastic.

Your choice of either fast or slow ball speed has some bearing on the game’s control but regardless it still remains playable at both settings. Oddly both flippers are not controlled using the face buttons; button II will tilt the playing field while button I controls the right flipper. The D-pad manipulates the left flipper. It’s manageable after some adjustment but less than ideal; I’m sure I’m not the only one who has lost quite a number of balls pressing button II futilely. Why they didn’t go the route everyone would expect we’ll never know but luckily it doesn’t hurt the game too bad.

Once you’ve adjusted to the weird setup it’s all about scoring as many points as possible. The table is split into two sections with a brief pause as the view switches. Why the table isn’t one continuous map is a mystery as this is really unnecessary and the effect is quite jarring. Simply slapping the ball around will net you some points but to really gain the most points you’ll have to aim at specific targets. Smashing the aliens along the bottom half of the table is risky but worth it and will slowly awaken the mother alien in the background. If you can put the ball in her mouth you’ll earn a huge bonus. Occasionally a flurry of smaller demons will skitter across the screen and are worth big points.

The largest rewards come from the bonus rounds that offer up some variety from the alien shenanigans. Here the table is cold and metallic instead of pulsating and alive. The bonus stages pit you up against a unique set of monsters from a caterpillar demon, a smattering of skulls, to….Slimer from Ghostbusters. Seriously I defy you to tell me that isn’t Slimer. While I call them bonus rounds they feel more like mini boss battles although the stakes aren’t as high since you don’t lose any balls for failing. The rewards are worth it however as you can receive millions of points for completing these. You’ll need deft ball handling skills to actually reach them however.

The one thing Alien Crush lacks, and I’ll admit this is purely subjective on my part, is an end game goal. I’m sure most play pinball games purely for high score but here the game feels a bit empty without some purpose to work toward. If you manage to reach the maximum score of 999,999,990 points the game ends but all you’ll get for your trouble is a simple congratulations. While that number seems preposterous a decent player can manage that in about an hour or so luck permitting. With just the one table it will leave you wanting more.

Regardless of its lack of content (a criticism you can make of many pinball games) Alien Crush is still worth a purchase, especially since it is dirt cheap and has been re-released for numerous platforms. Despite its low profile fans of the series absolutely love it and with good reason.

7-out-of-10-1

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Ordyne

Generally speaking I’m not fond of overly cute games. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m some kind of man’s man but I can only take so much saccharine sweetness before my eyes glaze over. Ever play Paladin’s Quest? That was a little too much for me. I’ve mostly avoided the cute em up (it’s a totally made up name) but have dabbled in it here and there with the likes of Parodius and Death Smiles (such a deceptively excellent game). Ordyne from Namco shares that company but isn’t as good. This is a decent conversion of the arcade game and nothing more.

The cute em up subgenre of shooters has largely stayed out of the US and this was probably one of the very first to reach our shores. At first glance Ordyne gives off the impression of a parody or light hearted shoot em up like Parodius. Aside from its cute exterior however it owes most of its inspiration to Gradius. The enemy attack formations and even some of the enemies themselves look as though they came from Konami’s classic. It also borrows the forward facing cannon and missile/bombs for ground targets idea.

However where Ordyne differs is in its weapon system. Defeated opponents drop crystals of varying quantities that can be used to purchase weapons in the shops. Each shop has a different selection of three weapons which span the usual genre conventions. Three-way shots, the two-way after burner shot and a variety of different bombs comprise the list and unfortunately these are temporary. There are even a few esoteric weapons like the Stock Bomber, which manifests as a Pac-Man style shield that gobbles up enemy bullets.

One cool bonus in the game would be the Dream Co. Ltd. Robots that has a lottery that can award huge prizes, the most important being 20 or 100,000 crystals which can potentially set you up for the rest of the game. Good luck winning that prize though. You can also win power-ups but the chance of winning in general is extremely low but still worth the minor cost to participate.

Since the arcade game ran at such a large resolution the Turbo port makes use of an elevated playing field to contain all of the action. It works better than in most similar titles since you won’t have to deal with unseen enemies attacking from off screen. Some levels have more than one path to the exit which is pretty cool and can potentially save you a few lives. Unfortunately some things had to be cut to fit the game on a Hucard. Some of the cooler obstacles you faced were large rotating and spinning objects that required deft flying skills but sadly those had to be changed in the conversion and their replacements are just sad.

The weapon system is different but also isn’t as well implemented as I would like. You can only purchase one item before being kicked out of the store. The selection is randomized and unfortunately upgrades such as speed-ups (which really should be separate) take up spots on the list. Later in the game some items are bundled together but it doesn’t help matters much. Being stuck with a bunch of stupid bombs with an extremely limited supply is as your only choices is flat out bad. To the game’s credit there are least three shops in every stage but since weapons are limited by ammo or a time limit you are forced to rely on the standard cannons far too much.

Even without any special weapons and a gimpy regular shot that has no turbo (you have to buy it, get comfortable button mashing) this is of medium difficulty. The game is suitably lengthy but even with the standard fire it won’t pose much of a challenge outside of the occasional boss. If you tackled the game with a buddy in coop it becomes even easier since both of you can buy a different weapons and dominate. Even with just 5 continues I don’t see anyone having trouble beating the game on the first try.

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As a port this version looks competent but pales in comparison to the arcade game. The multiple levels of scrolling in the backgrounds are completely gone, leaving the game with a flat appearance that is off putting. This is most evident while battling the first boss, a massive battleship in the clouds that was foreboding in the arcade with its thunder cloud filled sky but loses the effect at home with almost all of the clouds missing. The cool scaling and rotational effects are simply gone with static obstacles in your way. To the game’s credit it does manage to replicate nearly all other aspects of the arcade game’s visuals faithfully and it was released early in the system’s life but the system is certainly capable of better.

A bit too cute at times but otherwise solid, Ordyne overall is an above average shooter that isn’t thrilling enough to compete against the multitude of better games in the genre the system has to offer. Only the most dedicated of fans need apply.

6-out-of-10-1

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Dungeon Explorer

If you were a Turbo Grafx-16 fan and also liked RPGs the pickings were incredibly slim unless you owned the CD add-on. And even then it wasn’t much better. Seeing as how most of us weren’t old enough to hold down a job there weren’t many who had a Turbo CD, with the sales number bearing that out. The meager selection available on HuCards in the US meant the games were highly scrutinized and under close inspection Dungeon Explorer is only an average title. Beggars can’t be choosers and all but sometimes it is better to go without.

Long ago an alien race invaded the land of Odessia and wrested control. The King had the Ora Stone hidden for protection and now its power to bring light, life, and happiness is needed. As an unnamed warrior summoned by the King it is your job to find the Ora Stone and bring peace to the land by vanquishing the alien King Natas (not the least bit subtle there).

You have a choice from a wide range of character classes: Fighter, Thief, Warlock, Witch, Bard, Bishop, Elf and Knome with a further two unlockable. All combat is projectile based but each class differs in many ways. Some like the Thief have faster attacks but are weak. Some are resistant to poison while others move extremely fast. Each favors a different stat out of the 4 but the main differentiator comes in the use of White and Black magic. The two spells each class is given are wildly diverse with some favoring multiplayer and others being completely useless, like the Bard’s ability to change the music.

The game can be played by up to five players simultaneously which I’m sure most sure as hell never had the chance to experience back in the day. Not only was the turbo tap needed for even 2-player coop but seriously who even knew five people with a Turbo Grafx-16? Of the hundreds of people I met in Middle and High School I knew a grand total of 2. That isn’t an obstacle now of course but the system’s lack of accommodation for even basic multiplayer cannot be overstated.

Dungeon Explorer has more in common with Gauntlet than traditional action RPGs except with more variety. Demons stream in infinitely from monster generators that must be destroyed. Rather than one lone dungeon separated into a mass of floors you explore all of Odessia with many different towers and caves to explore. Aside from increasing your stats there are numerous items that temporarily increase your powers or grant new abilities like repulsing enemies or a reflecting shot.

What few RPG elements that are present are minimal at best. There is no experience point system in the game with all levels earned after defeating a boss. The crystals dropped will give a massive boost to your hit points and cycle through a few colors that correspond to your stats, allowing you to control how to build your character. You can shore up a given hero’s weakness in a particular category such as speed but I imagine most will double down at what each class excels at.

Dungeon Explorer isn’t a long game by any means and at most will take a few hours to complete. Most dungeons and castles are only a few short floors long with the only challenge coming from the abundance of monster generators and the end level bosses. The layouts are pretty straightforward up until the final few which introduce more maze like design. Had the majority of the game shown the spark exhibited in the last few areas they wouldn’t be such a slog to trudge through despite their brevity.

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This was not a pretty game even at its release and time has only made the graphics uglier. The entire game world is exceptionally dark and murky with little detail or interesting background elements to look at. Aside from the bosses all sprites are incredibly small which makes sense as there can be up to 50-60 enemies on screen at once if you aren’t paying attention. The bosses are the lone highlight with some interesting designs although these encounters are all too brief. The music is incredibly grating and prompted me to listen to my own instead.

RPG fans of the Turbo would be better served going with Neutopia rather than this. Although it is derivative of Zelda to the point of almost plagiarism it is still a decent game and far more engrossing than this mediocre title.

6-out-of-10-1

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Detana!! Twinbee

I love Detana!! Twinbee. Even I can’t believe I just typed those words. For the longest time I abhorred the Twinbee series but that was based solely on my dislike of the NES/Famicom games. Their hearts were in the right place but it was obvious the tech was holding the games back from truly being great. But with the release of the second arcade game that became a thing of the past as the visual evolution of the series gave it a new lease on life that would continue on down to the numerous games that would follow, from the beyond awesome Pop’n Twinbee to the weird RPGs. This PC engine port is another in a long line of exclusives that should have come to the US but with the advent of digital download services it is easier for fans of the genre to get ahold of this excellent classic

Twinbee and Winbee are on vacation when they receive a distress signal from the planet Meru. It seems the evil alien Iva has invaded and the Queen Melora needs their help. Detana!! Marks the debut of the actual pilots of both bee suits, Pastel and Light as well as the cast of characters that would eventually come to populate this universe. With the addition of artist Shuzilow Ha (a pseudonym) the series would finally adapt a visual identity of its own that would elevate it above the typical shooters of its day.

Detana!! Twinbee is commonly credited as the game that truly made the series explode and it’s easy to see why. With its distinctly anime inspired style the twin bee series would eventually go on to spawn a multimedia empire, spanning everything from a cartoon series, radio drama, and a boatload of merchandise. But all of that probably would not have happened if Detana Twinbee were a terrible game.

From a gameplay standpoint there are only a few slight additions. The multiple bell colors return and provide the same power-ups such as options, extra speed, a shield, and a wide shot. Two new bells have been added which will decrease your speed and provide new tail shield which will follow your ship. As in R-Type and Dragon Saber a powerful charged shot is available that is seriously overpowered. It takes less than two seconds to fully charge and is incredibly destructive, able to wreck bosses in as little as five hits. If you can find him Gwinbee will merge with your ship to provide even more firepower although you will really have to search to find him. Bombs also return and will auto target the closest enemy.

Playing Detana is more like going on a fantastical adventure than a random collection of levels. The cheery visual style is really unlike anything else out there as you fly over alien cities, mountains, and fortresses. There are far more moving parts in every level, be it mechanical devices or enemies that emerge from the ground. The game manages to almost perfectly balance its action between aerial enemies and ground based targets that can’t be ignored without dire consequences. Bombing enemies plays a much bigger role here as the fruit they drop awards extra points or you can even find extra lives or hidden weapons.

The difficulty is about perfect with a gradually climbing curve as you progress. The early Stages are flush with bells to juggle for power-ups. Enemies are less aggressive so that you can actually fully power up and pose little threat. At about the midpoint there is a noticeable shift as clouds become scarce and the screen becomes so chaotic juggling bells becomes an afterthought. While difficult the generous respawn system allows you to brute force your way through the game. Although only seven levels long you’ll enjoy every spent with the game.

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While it isn’t perfect the PC engine conversion does an admirable job of duplicating the arcades visuals. Aside from the difference in resolution you would need both games side by side to notice the difference. 16-bit technology allows the artists vision to come to life as the game’s pastel visuals are a feast for the eyes. There is far more detail in the background and multiple layers of scrolling creating depth. The cast of bosses are all screen filling contraptions that often feature multiple phases before death. If you pay close attention there are many small details and animations that bring the world to life.

The soundtrack is fantastic, featuring a full range of happy tunes to match the cute visuals. This would mark the debut of future Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane and even here her range is apparent. It seems only fair that top class visuals should also be accompanied by an ace score and Konami delivered.

Detana!! Twinbee has been rereleased for a variety of platforms and for the small price you’ll pay an excellent shooter awaits. Even if you are tired of the genre Twinbee is unique enough to ensure that does not matter.

8-out-of-101

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Syd Mead’s Terraforming

Throughout the history of the video game industry there have been many games that have relied on their graphical prowess to carry their mediocre gameplay. Usually everyone is fooled at first but it isn’t long before the realization sets in that these games just aren’t very good. Syd Mead’s Terraforming almost falls into that category but is solid through and through. The disappointment comes from the fact that the outside of its visuals and sound it could pass for any other shooter on the system.

Mankind has made Earth an inhospitable wasteland and so has fled to the stars in search of a new home. The conditions do not matter; with terraforming technology it is only a matter of finding a suitable planet to transform and so the quest begins. Sadly you’ll only find the story in the instruction manual as the brief intro only shows your ship taking off.

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That premise could be the basis for almost any shooter and is fairly generic. What other shooters do not have is Terraforming’s phenomenal visual design. Terraforming is blessed with visionary sci-fi artist Syd Mead’s art direction and as such the graphics are simply fantastic. Even when compared to the system’s finest releases (Rondo of Blood, Lords of Thunder) the game stands out. The various planets you’ll visit certainly span some of gaming’s most well-worn tropes yet they look like nothing you’ve seen before. The enemies don’t seem like generic fodder but the indigenous life forms that would inhabit that environment, a touch that most games lack. As many as six layers of scrolling give each of the beautiful backgrounds a sense of depth rarely seen on the Turbo and the game rarely if ever slows down.

The soundtrack is similarly excellent and more than likely the reason the game is on a CD. The music ranges from hard rock to slower orchestrated melodies that are rousing and upbeat. The sound effects on the other hand are weak and lack punch. It sounds minor but in a shooter you expect loud explosions and not the muted pops here.

The game is surprisingly light on weapons but that is probably because what is there is overpowered. Like R-Type your ship will charge up a more powerful beam when not firing although this isn’t as useful in a pinch. The special weapons consist of the wide shot, homing Vulcan, and the laser, all of which can be powered up multiple times along with the standard cannon. At full power the wide shot can blanket a sizable chunk of the screen. The homing Vulcan aggressively seeks out enemies to the point you won’t even see them most of the time. Its only weakness is a lack of power. The laser is the most powerful but can only fire straight ahead. Like Gaiares and Sol Deace your rockets when switching speed can be used as a weapon but trust me that isn’t happening.

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Between its production values and solid weapon setup Terraforming has the makings of one of the finest shooters ever but is actually fairly bland. Each of the game’s eight levels is highly imaginative and even when covering familiar territory still feels original. The volcanoes of stage 2 cause the screen to flash when they erupt, with enemies, bullets and your own fire framed in black. The wavy backgrounds of stage six almost come across as one long acid trip. But these moments are few. The majority of your time is spent destroying the same enemy waves that repeat multiple times in succession. The levels tend to run longer than they should and by the halfway point you’ll simply want it to end.

In stark contrast to most shooters Terraforming is exceedingly easy. At full power you can take six hits before death. It takes very little time to achieve max power as power-ups make an appearance regularly. Once you die the game is even generous enough to provide one random weapon so you aren’t totally helpless as well. Both the wide shot and homing Vulcan cover so much space there is very little need to ever switch weapons, leaving the forward facing laser the odd man out. Most players will breeze through the game up until its final chapter at which point it seems everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in your path. The few continues I used to complete the game all came from here and if they had spread a little bit of that challenge to the rest of the game this would be a lot better.

Bumping the difficulty up to hard offers a glimpse of what could have been. Here the enemies become more aggressive, firing more shots and attacking in more varied patterns. With the increase in the number of bullets covering the screen it becomes more imperative to kill enemies as soon as possible and switch weapons when necessary. The lasers power and ability to pierce walls becomes invaluable on certain levels as the homing beam’s weakness means it can’t kill enemies fast enough and will actually get confused chasing them around. In my opinion hard mode should have been the game’s default difficulty as it results in a more complete experience.

It’s too bad the stellar production values aren’t backed up with superb gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad game but it is slightly generic. Go into it expecting a solid game and not the mind blowing experience the graphics and sound would have you expect and you will be entertained.

7-out-of-10-1

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Ninja Gaiden (PC Engine)

The NES version of Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite games of all time. If you were to do an examination of just how much time I’ve spent playing the game it would border on illegal. Of course it helps that the game is pure awesome but it’s also balls out hard.   Of the hundreds of hours I’ve spent most of that was spent on stages 6-2 and 6-3; those who have played the game know why. The Turbo Grafx-16 remake/port never came to the US and normally I would be sad but after playing the game my feelings are mixed. On the one hand it is still the same awesome game I loved but on the other there are many small aspects that have been changed that make it even more frustrating. At its core it is still a good game but not what it could have been.

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For the most part things are still the same from a gameplay perspective. The levels are still laid out the same and aside from different item and enemy placement every now and then veterans of the 8-bit Gaiden will be right at home. The controls aren’t as tight but that has little impact thankfully. Some small UI adjustments have been made, some I like and others I question. You keep your current weapon after completing a level and can also use the fire wheel while keeping a sub weapon at the same time. One change that I’m sure will not be liked is the overpowered spin slash which moves slower now and doesn’t decimate bosses in seconds. Now it is possible to be knocked out of it, diminishing its use. The life bar is no longer divided into sixteen digits which sounds petty however it is harder to know how close to death you are as it is now one long bar.

Peer deeper and you’ll notice gameplay quirks that when added up make the game inferior to the original. The collision detection is highly suspect; this is most notable when dealing with bosses as your hits won’t register. It might just be me but ground based enemies seemed even lower to the floor making them harder to slash. When hit you no longer have a moment of invincibility which makes it easier to bounce between enemies and die in seconds. Pray you are never caught up against a wall during a boss battle. On the other hand some of the more aggressive enemies have been toned down significantly.

These changes make the game a lot fairer in some parts but on the other hand some aspects of the game are even harder. If you thought the Jacquio was impossible before your jaw will drop when you see six fireballs following you. The demon statue was a nice reprieve for those that had the fortitude to beat the Jacquio but now it might be even worse than him. Respawning enemies are definitely a bigger problem here; that hallway still nearly made me slam the controller in frustration, something I haven’t done since the 90s. I was still able to finish the game but I owe that more to the many, many hours spent memorizing every particular detail of the game.   I doubt anyone would have the patience to do that now nor should you.

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And now we come to the visuals, the main reason for creating this port. In this category the game almost completely fails. The game runs at a higher resolution with a much more vivid color palette that is nice in spots but I feel ruins the grittiness of the NES game’s visuals. This is most evident in the sprites which despite the increased power are lacking in detail and are the same size. The cutscenes have similarly been redrawn and fare better in this regard, with arguably better art and direction.

The biggest letdown comes from the games backgrounds. The backgrounds have been redone in a more realistic style that is honestly not to my liking. When it’s good it looks fantastic such as stage 2-2 and 4-2 however the rest look cheaply made. What really mars the presentation even more than the questionable art is some of the most horrendous parallax scrolling I’ve ever been witness to. The backgrounds scroll at a faster rate than the foreground producing a choppy effect you have to see to believe. It’s so distracting that the game would seriously have been better without it.

The soundtrack is completely different and terrible. The few tracks that it has in common with its NES little brother sound like garbled approximations. The new music tracks lack any distinctive flavor and don’t match the action either. Sad as the NES game had a fantastic score that should have been easy to replicate and enhance.

This version of Ninja Gaiden isn’t an outright bad game however the main reasons for it to exist, i.e. the presentational upgrade simply fall flat. Considering its high price you would be better off picking up an NES cart cheap, especially since it is vastly superior.

7-out-of-10

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Samurai Ghost

Namco were one of the few developers to support the Turbo Grafx-16 in the US with a wide range of software. Some of these were hidden gems like Final Lap Twin and others classics like Splatterhouse. Unfortunately they weren’t all winners as Samurai Ghost can attest. Pure action games along the lines Shinobi and its ilk weren’t in great supply on the platform but there were at least enough that you did not have to bother with awful drek like this.

Kagekiyo is an undead samurai who in life defeated a cadre of demons. However those same demons are now attempting to escape from hell and Kagekiyo is called to defeat them once again to save the Earth. It is an interesting premise that could have led to some cool action but it is instead let down by subpar action and controls.

In many ways controlling Kagekiyo is like playing Earnest Evans, just not as bad. You have full control over his sword arm to attack high or low, perform a downward thrust and to block attacks but the bad animation gives the impression that he is a marionette. Even jumping and running leaves his body perfectly rigid as his limbs move in place. It’s hilarious to see in motion but at least at the end of the day functional which EE can’t claim.

Controlling the angle of your attacks could have differentiated the game from similar titles but the bad controls let it down. Because your movements are a complete mess timing your attacks is frustrating as your attack range is so limited. The hit detection is also suspect as there were times I clearly slashed enemies only to have no effect. A few enemies can block your attacks and so you must attack from a different angle but it doesn’t work in practice. It’s one of the game’s rare moments of inspiration too bad the execution fails. There are only a few power-ups with the most common ones protecting you from slime and spikes. The few that increase your sword’s hit box or produce a wave attack are rare and only last a short time.

Beyond the frustrations with the controls however the game is let down by its simple design. This is as rudimentary as action games can get. As you slowly make your way through each of the game’s short levels haphazardly trying to hack up the few enemies in your path the action is broken up by some of the easiest platforming you’ve ever come across. Large sprites that take up a sizable portion of the screen simply don’t leave room for the type of nuanced game design found in better titles. They sure do make for eye catching screenshots though. This was the same problem with China Warrior and it should come as no surprise that Samurai Ghost is just as bad.

Surprisingly even with all of these flaws the game is incredibly easy. After each segment your life bar is refilled and aside from dealing with the annoying spiders that bind your legs there isn’t much that can kill you. Even the boss battles are tame by genre standards. With unlimited continues I have little doubt anyone foolish enough to buy this game will finish it in a little over half an hour and hate themselves for it.

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Samurai Ghost has the look typical of many early TG-16 releases, incredibly large sprites set against vivid backdrops. However in this case the game differs from most as it actually has 2 layers of parallax scrolling. It gives the backgrounds depth and immediately sets it apart from the majority of releases on the system. I don’t know what black magic Namco worked to achieve that but it looks magnificent and not like whatever the hell they did in the PC Engine Ninja Gaiden. The large sprites unfortunately suffer from stiff and robotic animation. It’s more like manipulating a puppet than controlling a humanoid sprite and it really looks bad, now and even back in 1992.

While the system could certainly use more action games that doesn’t mean gamers should resort to flat out bad games like this. There are better alternatives available, both import and domestic. Leave this one on the shelf.

5-out-of-101

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Dragon Saber

I loved Dragon Spirit in the arcade and at home in both of its ports. So when Dragon Saber hit the arcade I was ecstatic but also anticipated a home port like before. Sadly it never came, at least not in the US. Dragon Saber’s PC Engine port would remain a Japanese exclusive and while there were no shortage of shooters for the system in America I’m sure they could have made room for one more, especially a quality title like this. While it lacks the arcade game’s visual splendor this is still a solid title worth checking out for fans of the genre.

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At first glance Dragon Saber doesn’t seem or look all too different from its predecessor. In fact the first stage of both games is eerily similar thematically and to serve as an introductory to the game’s mechanics. However many small tweaks have been added make the sum greater than the whole. You can now sustain three hits before death rather than two which is huge boost to your survival. The standard fiery breath is joined by a power shot which charges automatically when you aren’t firing. It’s a huge risk to take but always worth it in my opinion. The largest gain comes with two-player coop which not only doubles the fun but improves your chances of survival.

Dragon Spirit had a host of power-ups that altered your dragon’s form with most going underutilized for the length of the game. Not so here. There are a slew of new dragon power-ups with nearly every one making at least one appearance in each of the game’s nine levels. So many in fact that it becomes hard to remember which does what as the icons aren’t the most telling in some cases. As an added bonus each has their own special charged shot with some being particularly devastating. The Thunder dragon’s charged attack is essentially a smart bomb meanwhile the blue trident will unleash a massive blue dragon that covers nearly the entire screen. You’ll end up choosing a given weapon more for its special properties than its immediate effects and thankfully the game gives you plenty of opportunities to switch and play around.

Dragon Saber is slower and more deliberately paced than most shooters but that doesn’t have any effect on the intensity of its action. In the arcade each stage was actually pretty short but for the home port they have been extended, some to a grueling extent. The game does a much better job of forcing you to prioritize either ground or air targets and the environment is just as deadly as the enemies you’ll face. I will say some stages tend to drag on far too long such as stage 3 and the ice caverns of stage 6. It is in these instances that the game’s punishing difficulty becomes more apparent.

 

Dragon Spirit was especially hard and in this area Dragon saber isn’t all too different. This is still a pretty brutal game but to some extent it isn’t as bad as the first one. That’s not saying much however. The charge shot helps a bit and power-ups are far more frequent yet you’ll still end up seeing the game over screen pretty frequently. Decreasing your life bar from the arcade’s five hits certainly didn’t help either. The last three or four levels in particular are a nightmare; if you can finish the game on one credit I tip my hat to you because you are a god among men. The game is actually a lot easier in coop not just because two heads are better than one (heh) but because so long as one of you is still alive you aren’t sent back to a checkpoint on death.

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Visually Namco has done a good job of converting the arcade’s pretty spectacular visuals home but the loss in detail is very noticeable. The gorgeous parallax backdrops are completely gone; this is a huge blow as what is left is completely flat and lifeless. While the change in resolution is to be expected the smaller sprites and loss of detail in the game’s amazing boss designs can’t be ignored. Some of the more impressive visual effects had to be removed due to the system’s lack of scaling such as stage five’s canyon dive. It isn’t all negative however. The game’s varied art direction still shines through as the more subdued beginning levels quickly give way to more fantastical environments such as the inside of a demon and an oddly out of place futuristic castle filled with mechanical contraptions and automatons. The sound track is similarly excellent with a rousing and heroic score that completely fits the action.

While Dragon Saber doesn’t seem to add much to the series formula there are enough little additions here and there that alter the game’s “feel” and avoid seeming like a rehash. It also helps that it is a solid game as well. Although it is far from one of the best shooters for the system it also well above average tripe like Ordyne and Dead Moon. This is a journey well worth your time.

7-out-of-10-1

 

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Riot Zone

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery or so they say. But what about an imitation of an imitation? There’s no question that Final Fight more or less established the modern take beat em up genre with everyone keen to cash in on its success. Sega’s Streets of Rage was one of the better takes on the brawler but wasn’t the only one. That same year they released Riot City in the arcade and while it wasn’t exactly a trend setter it was a decent game.

While beat em ups were all the rage on the Genesis and especially the SNES the Turbo Grafx-16 was left out. When Riot City was ported to the Turbo CD (under the name Riot Zone) it was heavily changed to resemble Final Fight and Streets of Rage even more. And while normally that would be a good thing as it would mean the game has a solid foundation it comes up lacking in every category and is simply dull.

Why all the back story? Riot Zone was a game I highly anticipated. Once upon a time I was a massive Turbo fan boy as it was the only platform I had and so any major release was noteworthy. Watching as games like Final Fight and Rival Turf were released on rival platforms in decent numbers was hard so when a quick clip of RZ popped up at the end of the Lords of Thunder promo tape (that takes me back!) I was intrigued. While it would be many years before I would ultimately play the game even at release I would have been let down. There are simply far better games to spend your money on than to bother with a mediocre beat em up.

Police officers Hawk and Tony are dismayed when their police chief denies their warrant to enter the DragonZone. Like the loose cannon he apparently is Hawk quits the force along with Tony to enter the Dragon Zone alone. Why you might ask? Because “gasp” his girlfriend Candy has been kidnapped! At least the bad guys didn’t send him a provocative video as proof.

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It can’t be emphasized enough just how closely Riot Zone resembles Final Fight. Hawk might as well be a palette swap of Cody or Axl and some of the generic enemies skew closely to FF’s roster. The level transitions show which part of the city you are now entering in a similar fashion as well. Christ even the boss’s death animations are nearly the same as they thrash around a bit before dropping dead. Speaking of bosses Shauna is clearly based on Poison minus the daisy dukes. They were really were that brazen.

Now if only the game played just as well. Right away there are problems as Button I attacks and Button II is to jump. That’s the equivalent of switching button A & B on the NES which should be a god damn sin in the Bible. And there’s no multiplayer at all. Releasing a beat em up without a coop mode is just…wrong. Combat is incredibly boring even beyond the standards of the genre at the time. Admittedly most brawlers during the 16-bit era were lacking in terms of moves however Riot Zone takes it to another level. You are armed with a simple multi hit combo, a jump kick, and a throw and that is all. The repetition sets in long before the end of the first level and doesn’t get any better either. There aren’t even any destroyable boxes or weapons to break up the monotony; whose bright idea was that?

Although there are only five stages each becomes progressively longer with an ungodly amount of bad guys to defeat at every turn. The list of enemies isn’t particularly large but to the game’s credit at least one or two new thugs are introduced on every level. Unfortunately you’ll end up fighting said enemy at least 20-30 times before level’s end. While it might sound like the game would be difficult as a result Riot Zone is actually pretty easy. Continues are limited however extra lives are awarded at a decent clip and chances are aside from the overly cheap bosses everyone will beat the game with the default 3 credits.

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The game’s presentation is completely uneven and at times looks as though it were unfinished. The backgrounds are comprised of many locations that lean too closely to Final Fight’s locales yet even though they are derivative they are still impressive at times. Any time the game decides to go for something original they come off flat, drab, and half assed. Like many Turbo Grafx games the sprites are incredibly large although the animation is lacking. The game’s soundtrack is in red book audio although aside from the first level theme the rest of the music is forgettable.

Providing a beat em up in the same vein as Final Fight for Duo starved owners was a noble idea too bad the game itself is completely boring. Fans of the genre are better served sampling the offerings on other platforms.

 

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Psychosis

For a shooter to enter the crowded Turbo Grafx-16 market and stand out it has to do something different. Between the Turbo and the Genesis the market was flooded with nearly every incarnation of the genre possible. We remember the likes of R-Type, Super Star Soldier, and Thunder Force but for every one of those we received twice as much generic pap. Psychosis does not fall into that category on the strength of its interesting premise but in the end has nothing aside from it that would garner any interest. This is merely an above average game on a system inundated with far better games in the genre.

I’ll give the game points for coming up with something different story wise. The devil Ugar has invaded the player’s mind and plans to make it his own. Not wanting to give up without a fight you (the player) use your imagination to create a ship to battle the hordes of demons Ugar has conjured up within your subconscious.

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Since the game takes place completely in your mind it allows it to avoid the standard video game tropes and introduce a set of levels, or causes as they are called, that are wholly separate from one another. The first level’s beach (which is odd in and of itself) is the most traditional but is soon followed up by a trip through a weird forest filled with overgrown plant life and inhabited by Noh masks. The boss of the level is cool ghost fox. The third cause is a bit lame as it revisits the beach except at night with blocks that cover up pieces of the environment. The Indian temple of the fourth cause is probably my favorite as it draws upon monsters from Hinduism and is the most visually inspired. Unfortunately because the game is only five levels long you don’t get to see as much of this variety as it is the lone standout of the game as the rest of it is highly derivative of similar titles.

The weapons system takes a page from R-Type as you are gifted with two options you collect any of the lettered power-ups. These options can be repositioned on all four sides of the ship to fire in all four cardinal directions. This is their most important use as the level design will often call for you to set them up for maximum efficiency. They can also function as a shield of sorts by converging on your spot and absorbing enemy fire and some collisions. The actual weapons themselves are typical fare and are remarkably unimpressive. The short range thunder is incredibly powerful against bosses but not for the fodder enemies. The wave beam is the closest you’ll get to focused fire but is lacking in power. The laser fires at an angle and is the most useless in my opinion.

In combination with the lackluster weapons available Psychosis is more challenging than the typical shooter. This isn’t the type of game where the screen is flooded with bullets however due to the construction of each stage it is very easy to end up with little room to maneuver, most prominently featured in the mini boss battles of the 2nd dream. Death kicks you back to a checkpoint and like Gradius trying to crawl back with no weapons is near impossible. The game makes use of all the cheap shooter tricks such as walls impenetrable walls that block your path suddenly and encounters with stronger enemies in enclosed spaces. In stark contrast I found most of the boss battles incredibly simple aside from the previously mentioned ghost fox.

Despite its scant five stages chances are you won’t finish this in one sitting, especially with limited continues. To see the true ending you’ll have to go through it twice which is supposed to make up for its short length I imagine but this is a shooter so you already know that it isn’t worth it.

While Psychosis is fairly unremarkable it is still solid. I struggle to recommend it however due to its short length. If it were 2 or 3 stages longer the game would be more than worth a purchase. As it is however only the most dedicated shooter fans need apply.

6-out-of-10-1

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Forgotten Worlds (Turbo Grafx-16)

Forgotten Worlds was one of the first Genesis games released and also one of the first I had the pleasure of playing. While clearly downgraded its pretty amazing what Sega managed to pull off in a mere 4-meg cart. The Turbo CD game would come a few years later and while it isn’t the absolute slam dunk it should have been it gave us all a tantalizing glimpse at what a near perfect arcade port could be.

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Right away the visual difference between this CD rendition and its Sega counterpart are apparent. The game runs at a higher resolution which allows for more detail and larger sprites. The size difference in the sprites is readily apparent when you face off against the bosses; their huge! The dust dragon occupies nearly 75% of the screen and you can see his entire torso rather than just his belly. The massive War God that might as well be the game’s signature figure has seen a similar size increase with his entire upper body visible for you to destroy piece by piece.

There were large segments of the game’s backgrounds that were simply excised or simplified that have now been restored making for one spectacular journey. The vibrant color palette is in stark contrast to its Genesis equivalent and really brings out the beauty of this ruined world. You could make an argument that the darker palette of that version showed how ravaged the world had become but it simply wasn’t accurate to the arcade. The one element that didn’t make the transition is the parallax scrolling. The flat backgrounds are literally crying for some form of scrolling and it is a big loss however the rest of the game’s visual prowess makes up for it.

Sound is another area that has seen a considerable upgrade thanks to CD technology. Most probably weren’t able to appreciate the game’s music due to the noise prevalent in most arcades so they were unaware that Forgotten Worlds has a fantastic soundtrack. All of the sampled speech (such as it is, play the game and you’ll know what I’m talking about) has been carried over as well and while it isn’t as clear as it should be the developers deserve kudos for going the extra mile including it.

While the visuals are more accurate the game’s controls are not. Unfortunately this version has the same control issue but is even more awkward. Dual analog sticks were still nearly a decade away and so you rotate the satellite clockwise/counter clockwise with the face buttons except in this case you have to use Button I and the Run button which is just plain silly. Since you have the option to turn on auto fire it would have made sense to allow you to remap the controls since one button is free but no such luck. It’s manageable but aflat out unintuitive. Too bad the special three button controller (or even six button) never saw a US release.

From a gameplay perspective the CD version is much closer to the arcade. It retains all of the arcade game’s levels with no cut sections making for a much longer experience. Longer is relative; even with all of the coin ops levels this is still a short game at only five levels but the game is so fun that you’ll probably replay it more than a few times.  This version is noticeably harder than the Sega game as Zenny isn’t as abundant and the enemies are more aggressive. There were all sorts of objects in the environment that when destroyed dropped massive coins that are no longer present meaning you’ll have to be more frugal with your item purchases in the shop.

Part of what also makes the game more difficult is the omission of coop. This is a huge blow to the game’s longevity as it is a great multiplayer game. With two players dealing with the hordes of enemies was easier and for those that needed a challenge you could bump up the difficulty. It’s kind of funny to see both characters in all of the game’s cutscenes and promotional material but you’ll only ever see one of them in game. I blame this on the system’s lack of two controller ports; for those unfamiliar with the Turbo Grafx-16 you needed to buy the Turbo Tap for any kind of multiplayer which is one of the most boneheaded design decisions of all time.

This CD edition is clearly superior to its cartridge counterpart however it still manages to be deficient in a few categories. It’s the obvious choice if you have to pick a side but at this point arcade perfect ports are available in the Capcom Classics Collections for numerous consoles with dual analog controls to boot.

7-out-of-10-1

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Dragon Spirit (TG-16)

Looking back Dragon Spirit was one of the first arcade games I can remember playing and it isn’t a stretch to say that it left an indelible impression on me.  The NES was a significant step up from the bare Atari 2600 and games like Dragon Spirit and Double Dragon made me aware that the arcade was a step above that.  The NES port/sequel was well done considering the technical gap but it was the TurboGrafx-16 version that really caught my eye.  This near identical conversion was one of the system’s early highlights and an excellent game altogether.

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When comparing the two I have to say Namco did a stellar job.  The resolution is naturally lower and some of the sprites have seen a slight reduction in size but other than that you could easily mistake this version for the arcade.  The color palette is a bit brighter but that makes little difference.  For its time Dragon Spirit was visually impressive in light of the fact that it doesn’t use any special effects, instead relying on good art.  That element has been preserved perfectly here and like R-Type made this the best port money could buy until recently.  The one dubious omission here is the game’s intro; come on!  Even the NES game managed to replicate it somewhat!

As the knight Amul (who transforms into a dragon) you utilize your fiery breath and bombs for ground targets to annihilate everything in your path to save the Princess Alicia.    It never occurred to me before now that Namco essentially took Xevious and put it in a fantasy setting.  Maybe it’s because I was never fond of Xevious and pretend it doesn’t exist.  Phelios is also the same with a Greek setting.  Wow I think I’m dumb.

As a big ass dragon you’ll have to approach this game a little differently than your average shooter.  Your size makes you a large target and the game’s unforgiving hit box means even the tip of a wing grazing an enemy or bullet counts as a hit.  Any dreams you may have had of darting around bullets and running sorties like Maverick in Top Gun will have to be saved for another game as it’s even more imperative that you take care in what you fly over.  That three hit life bar barely makes any difference as it gets drained fairly quickly with no way to restore health; the bastards don’t even do you the courtesy of topping you off after a boss battle!  The tough challenge is the one element of the arcade game I wish wasn’t carried over.

There aren’t many power-ups in the game but the few that exist significantly upgrade your firepower.  Blue orbs cause you to sprout another head, up to a maximum of three for triple the fiery breath.  Red orbs will increase your attack power when collected in groups of three.  These are the main power-ups you’ll see the majority of the time so luckily they are effective but do come with an added risk. Three heads make you an even easier target to hit but it’s a problem you’ll have to deal with as the added firepower is necessary.  It’s all part of the fun I say.

There are a few other weapons that only last a short period and grant new Dragon forms, one of which you’ll wish was the default.  There’s a golden dragon with a homing flame, a silver dragon with a three way wide shot, and a mini dragon form that makes it easier to dodge bullets.  That last one is potentially game breaking so I can see why it’s rare.  It would have done the game a world of good to have these weapons show up more frequently as it would have helped with the brutal difficulty.

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At nine levels long this is a pretty massive undertaking by shooter standards.  When combined with the brutal difficulty you’ll certainly get your money’s worth.  The levels cover most of the standard video game tropes such as ice, fire, and jungle yet somehow they still feel fresh.  Possibly due to Hucard limitations the seventh and eighth levels have been replaced by 2 stages that reuse the castle assets for the game’s climax to save memory.  There’s a new boss to fight at least to make up for it but a new theme for these levels would have been appreciated.  One element that I feel doesn’t get enough attention is the soundtrack.  Dragon Spirit has a rising score that can change from upbeat and adventurous to dark and foreboding without missing a beat.

While I do praise Namco for producing such a faithful port I will admit that Dragon Spirit in its NES incarnation is a much more playable game.  Technically it’s a sequel but the majority of its levels are based off the arcade but that is beside the point.  The hit box was made more forgiving since the sprites are smaller and that right there makes it less frustrating.  There are additional weapons such as mini dragons that function like options and all of its weapons appear more frequently.  Regardless of its near arcade perfection it does feel a bit…dry in comparison.

Frustration with the punishing difficulty aside Dragon Spirit is an excellent conversion of a pretty good game from 1987 that still holds up today.  It’s not in the same class as the Star Soldier series but it’s certainly better than generic tripe such as Ordyne and Dead Moon.

7-out-of-10-1

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Gradius II (TG-16)

Of all the publisher’s that supported the PC Engine CD in Japan Konami was the most surprising.  Even though their output was sparse their PC Engine efforts were simply incredible but sadly stayed in Japan, which sucks as they were one of the few developers that really made that hardware sing.  Dracula X – Rondo of Blood is quite possibly the best overall game in the series and you could make a strong case for best overall PC Engine game.  Snatcher was the first enhanced port of the PC-88 original and served as the basis for the Sega CD port.  Which brings us to the phenomenal port of Gradius II we never received.  Had the Turbo CD performed better in the US (or maybe just in general) there’s no doubt in my mind someone would have brought it over as the system was a haven for shooters.  As is it’s easily one of the best on a platform that isn’t suffering from a shortage.

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It has to be said that the graphics in this port are truly outstanding and compare favorably to the coin op.  The gratuitous opening launch sequence sets the tone as this is nearly identical to the arcade outside of the difference in resolution.  Gradius II was visually spectacular for its time and to see all of its graphical splendor recreated at home is still amazing even today.  The opening level with its massive flaming suns that spawn fiery dragons is still creatively incredible to this day.  The numerous bosses that made their debut here would go on to make repeat appearances in nearly every iteration of the series from this point onward.  Even the soundtrack has made it over intact but now in redbook audio thanks to the magic of CDs.

There are many flourishes that the Famicom simply couldn’t handle but the one aspect both versions share is slowdown.  Though it isn’t anywhere near as bad it does pop up here and there, primarily when you have four options and are in a zone with many destructible elements such as the Crystal World.  On a few bosses that produce heavy weapons fire it does start to crawl however it’s a far cry from the perpetual slow motion of the Famicom version.

Though this is the sequel to Gradius it borrows liberally from the Salamander series and MSX Nemesis in terms of weapons.  Of the four available weapon configurations two taken are straight from that game.  The popular Ripple laser and two-way missiles make the fourth option the all-around best choice but I’ll admit sometimes I go with number three because I like the Photon Torpedoes.  The standard Gradius laser and missiles just seem so plain in comparison.  The beyond awesome Force Shield makes an appearance and anyone without a hole in their head would do well to pick it immediately.

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The arcade’s levels and stage progression have been recreated perfectly which is a bonus for the lucky fans that played the coin op.  I will say that although the Famicom game moved the levels around and even ditched a few in favor of new ones it flowed pretty well and the new levels were actually well done.  You only get one new stage here, a trip through a decaying temple partially submerged in the desert.  It kind of resembles a mix of the sand desert of Gradius III crossed with the Egyptian themed level of Lifeforce.  It is perhaps the one level where the stupid double shot actually shines due to the sheer number of enemies on the ceiling.

The difficulty has been toned down from the brutal coin op but the game still puts up a worthy challenge.  It’s tempting to grab four options for maximum firepower as soon as possible however between the four options trailing your ship and their own fire it’s very easy to lose track and fly into a wall or bullets.  Speaking of bullets although it doesn’t approach the insanity of its arcade brethren the screen can still become pretty cluttered at times. It’s possibly one of the few times where the excessive slowdown of the Famicom game was a help and not a hindrance, especially since you could actually initiate it on your own.

One change that was actually a benefit to gamers was continuing.  Plunking another quarter in the machine would start you off at the closest checkpoint which sounds convenient but also meant you were dropped into a warzone with no power-ups.  Here you start at the beginning of the level which is much better.  Weird I know.

Gradius II is one of my favorite shooters for the Turbo CD, ahead of the Star Soldier series and on the same level as Blazing Lazers.  It’s a damn shame that it was never officially released here until its Virtual Console release a few years ago but it doesn’t matter.  It’s a shooter, what little text is in English anyway meaning you can import if it’s cheaper with no setbacks.

9-out-of-10

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Final Zone II

It really is a shame that the Turbo Grafx-16 and its CD add-on never achieved the level of success it deserved.  Now I’m not saying that the US library was in anyway comparable to the Genesis or SNES but it deserved better, especially from its parent company.  If even a fraction of the games released in japan came to the US the system wouldn’t be so obscure.

As is there are large gaps in its library, most prominently the side scrolling action genre.  While shmups were in ready supply gamers in the US were left with tripe such as Shockman and this travesty, Final Zone II.  This average title would normally be forgotten in history however it lives on in infamy due to its legendary English dub, one of the worst atrocities known to man.

Captain Bowie and his squadron of commandos are preparing to quell a rebellion on a remote island from space but are attacked first, leaving a hole in the hull of their ship.  Nearly everyone dies aside from a few who were lucky enough to be in their NAPS suits.  Picking up the pieces it’s up to Bowie and his comrades to piece together who is orchestrating events to try and kill him.

The story is a confusing mess that isn’t told very well despite the abundance of cut scenes.  Since the first game never saw release in America the ties between the two games are lost on us.  Even in spite of all this you can’t say they didn’t try.  There are an extensive number of cinemas in the game that, while badly animated (if at all) and lacking any context can at least be considered a reward, although not the way the developers intended.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Final Zone II has one of the top ten worst English dubs ever recorded, up there with Resident Evil and Deep Fear.  It’s apparent the cast were given no direction as there is absolutely no emotion in any of the line readings; it seems more concern was given to enunciating the words rather than emoting.  The game’s script doesn’t help of course but that is only a small part of the problem.  In addition to the lack of care in any of the performances the mouth flaps don’t match the dialogue and is worse than in any Kung Fu movie I’ve ever seen.  It isn’t all bad on the sound front however as the soundtrack is actually pretty nice but it doesn’t save the game aurally.

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The game itself abandons the ill-conceived squad tactics of its predecessor for straightforward top down shooting action.  Regardless of the character chosen each moves pretty fast and can fire in eight directions.  Unlike most action games your weapons are actually fired from each arm with your main gun coming from the left side.  It’s weird and takes some getting used to as your bullets come from off center.  The few power-ups will extend your life bar, refill health or replenish your secondary ammo.  The game is fairly balanced in that these will usually appear at just the right time.

Although their general mechanics are the same what separates each member are their selection of weapons.  Everyone has a primary armament that has unlimited ammo and a secondary that is more powerful but limited.  There are pretty major differences between characters with Hansen’s spread gun working well at clearing groups but lacking range, Hannah’s’ unlimited range laser, and Velder’s short range light saber.

For the first half you are stuck controlling a given character in each stage but the second half allows you to choose from at two.  There is some strategy to choosing the right hero for a given mission but to be honest with a little bit of skill you can use anyone.  Enemies tend to attack in groups for the most part although certain stages do vary it up somewhat.  While it is typical of the genre the lack of enemy variety really becomes grating within short order.  It isn’t until the games latter half that new enemies are introduced at which point these are repeated for a few more stages.  The final level takes a weird turn into sci-fi territory which does vary it up a bit although it comes out of left field.

From all accounts issuing commands and trying to coordinate your team members in the first game was a nightmare so excising those elements makes for a more solid product.  However if they could have corrected the flaws in the system it would have really helped the game stand out because as is it is a typical run of the mill shooter.  Competent, but not very exciting.  The only detour in gameplay comes in stage three which is a forward scrolling helicopter chase.

With a little more variety in its gameplay this could have risen above its average status.  What’s here is serviceable but not something you’ll go out of your way to track down unless you want to experience its bad voice acting firsthand.  And we have youtube for that.

5-out-of-101

 

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Valis II

With so many versions of each installment in the Valis series floating around it’s pretty challenging to figure out which are worth your time.  As much as I’d like to remember the series fondly in truth each game released in the US had problems.  Valis II for the Turbo CD is a stripped down version of the MSX original and unfortunately the only one officially released in the US.  While side scrolling action titles for the CD add-on weren’t plentiful I would still say seek elsewhere for your action gaming fix.

With Yuko’s defeat of the evil emperor Rogles peace has returned to the dream world of Vecanti.  However that peace doesn’t last long before Vecanti is thrown into a civil war between two factions; those loyal to Rogles and the forces aligned under the new emperor Magus.  With their army on the losing side the anti Rogles faction tries to steal Yuko’s Valis sword to tip the scales and ends up drawing her into the conflict as well.

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Honestly outside of the use of an extensive number of cutscenes and some voice acting Valis II could just as easily been a cartridge game.  This is a short game by series standards and I feel the memory dedicated to extravagant excesses would have been better spent improving the core game.  With a short uninspired quest that does little to justify its use of a compact disc the Turbo CD version of Valis II is one of the most disappointing entries in the series, maybe even more so than the Genesis port of the original.

Unlike the first game Yuko’s sword can fire a basic projectile right from the start, eliminating the need to get up close and put yourself at risk.  The slide has been removed and the levels simplified as a result.  Power-ups are split into two categories, special weapons and special items.  There are only three weapons available but each can be leveled up three times: Cutter, which produces a small wave that becomes a full crescent moon at full power; Homing, a heat seeking missile that is weak; and Dual, which produces two shots, one horizontal and another diagonally.  The special items function like magic but suffer from spotty activation.  Even playing through the entire game I was never 100% sure how to activate them and it seemed to occur randomly.

This installment of Valis is very fast paced but feels uneven in all nearly all respects.  For the first three Acts you’ll do little more than kill every enemy that approaches in a straight line with next to no deviation until you reach each level’s boss.  There aren’t even any side paths available to search for hidden power-ups.  It’s in the game’s second half that it picks up with more intricate level design and tougher enemies.  With trickier enemy placement and a host of items just waiting to be found you’ll actually have a reason to explore these gargantuan maps.  I don’t know where the inspiration for the second half of the game came from but it makes an overall weak package stronger.

It doesn’t excuse the overly simplistic gameplay (which is even a step back from the game’s first episode) but it wasn’t always this way.  In its original form on the MSX and X68000 Valis II was a much deeper game.  There were more weapons present that could be upgraded four times rather than three.  Yuko had access to magic spells that used jewels rather than MP for a variety of effects such as freezing time, cutting damage in half or even destroying all weak enemies on screen.  There’s even an item that grants the power of flight for two out of place shooter segments.  Nice idea in theory but wholly incongruous in a side scrolling action title.

The biggest loss would be the different outfits Yuko could equip.  More than just for cosmetic purposes each costume offered separate benefits that made them worth switching in between levels.  Rather than finding items to extend the life bar each outfit performed that function or conveyed other bonuses such as increased defense at the expense of weapon power.  The standard armor used in all of the promo art is well rounded for those that didn’t want to bother with this whole system.  In a way some of these suits are still in the CD version but they are purely cosmetic.

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The visuals follow along the same lines as the irregular gameplay.  Act 1 is a flat and ugly cityscape that somehow features even less detail than the Famicom Valis.  The even numbered Acts are visually inspired and seem alien in their design with the kind of background detail you couldn’t achieve on the NES.  The bosses are well designed if a bit too easy to defeat but at least they keep in line with the rest of the series.  The cutscenes which seem to be where most of the effort was spent are enhanced over their 8-bit PC counterparts but do come with some concessions.  They are heavily letterboxed and only occupy a fourth of the screen.  They aren’t as grainy but are heavily pixelated.  There’s a noticeable decrease in the amount of blood during these scenes; the PC versions were quite the bloody spectacle and while the violence is still present it has been toned down, not that I’m complaining.

As it is with nearly every installment in the series Valis II has an awesome soundtrack but what really stands out is the fully voiced cut scenes and banter before boss battles.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s completely bad but it does suffer from hammy acting and a bad script.  The long exchanges prior to each boss are completely unnecessary and are another example of the game’s excessive nature.

As Telenet/Renovation’s first Turbo Grafx/PC Engine title some mistakes can be forgiven but that doesn’t stop this version of Valis II from being a disappointment.

5-out-of-101

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Shockman

Owning the losing console during any console generation frankly sucks with the exception of the 16-bit era.  While momentum shifted back and forth between the SNES and Genesis both systems were still host to a horde of exclusive and multiplatform titles that made each worth owning.  If you were a Turbo Grafx-16 owner you were the odd man out.  Before acquiring both Nintendo and Sega’s platforms I was that guy and was forced to latch on to any substitute for the games I wasn’t getting.  I couldn’t have A Link to the Past so I got Neutopia.  Super Mario World was out of the question so Bonk’s Revenge had to suffice.  Mega Man X was the one that broke me and its stand in Shockman just didn’t cut it.

Shockman is actually the second game in a somewhat long running series called Shubibinmann and is the lone installment we would receive in the US.  The games were light hearted takes on a variety of TV staples in Japan such as Sentai and mecha and while not spectacular were at least solid, enjoyable titles.  Shockman stands out as the red headed step child of the bunch, completely dropping everything that sort of made it unique in favor of becoming a Mega Man clone minus the power stealing mechanic.  And it isn’t a good one either.

The game’s plot takes place years after the first installment.  Arnold and Sonya (the renamed protagonists) have moved on in life after the defeat of the Skull Force gang.  The Doctor who originally turned them into cyborgs has apparently lost his mind, sending the pair after imaginary aliens but his crackpot theories prove true finally when aliens led by Ryo come to take over the world along with his own Shockmen Jeeta and Mue.

Shubibinmann utilized a similar setup to Star Fox in that it had three set paths to take on the world map to reach the Skull Force Gang’s hideout although you could still go back to the other paths for power-ups and such.  The gold earned throughout the game was used to buy upgrades which made the game more fun to play and added depth.

You’ll find none of that here.  Instead of a sword the two protagonists now use a standard cannon that can be charged up like Mega Buster and that’s it.  You can at least fire upwards but that isn’t necessary for the most part.  There are no extra weapons aside from the bits that increase your attack power which is lame.  Aside from the bits there are two kinds of batteries; red, which refills your life gauge and black which extends it.

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It’s a minimalist set up that you can reasonably assume has little depth and you would be right.  The game’s mechanics aren’t all that interesting to begin with although I will say that the jumping controls are a vast improvement over the first game however the level design is as bog standard as they come.  When on foot the levels are short with very few enemies that you are probably better off running past.  The two-player coop does spruce things up a bit as both players can combine their charge attacks with timing to produce devastating results.  But you also have to deal with the fact that both players share one life bar.

As you progress the levels become longer and tedious but I will admit that it starts to pick up in its latter half.  The contraptions get weirder and some of the platform is actually creative and challenging.  The game’s boss battles are also one of it’s few highlights.  The game shows a wonderful bit of invention when it comes to its major figures and their attacks and patterns give a glimpse of what the game could have been if it had a little more soul.

Next to its boss fights the three shooting levels are actually the game’s strongest.  Fast paced, with decent enemy placement and obstacles that require some expert piloting skills donning the controls of first a submarine and then a plane might seem out of place but the rest of the game is so damn strange (and derivative) that you’ll simply go along with it.

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Graphically the game’s presentation is a mixed bag.  The sprites are really small outside of the bosses and the first half of the game is flat and plain looking.  The late portions of the game ups the ante with multiple layers of parallax and some large bosses to contend with.  The music does not rise to the same standard and is forgettable and the sound effects are weak and lack punch.

I wanted to like Shockman; the Turbo library is overrun with shooters and severely lacking in decent action platformers.  Shockman could have filled that void but instead simply reminds you of the better games you should be playing.

5-out-of-101

 

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Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu (TG-16)

For as much as I lament the Turbo Grafx-16’s library for its overabundance of shooters it’s not because of a lack of games in other genres, it’s because they were terrible.  Fans of platformers were especially screwed as they had to watch Sega and Nintendo practically reinvent the genre every year with new Sonic and Mario sequels.  Sure Bonk’s Adventure and Revenge were good games but after that pickings were slim.  You sure as hell don’t see anyone clamoring for a Bravoman remake.  Hudson’s Jackie Chan Action Kung-Fu was an excellent game on the NES and was given a makeover when ported and although it stumbles in a few spots it’s still an excellent game.

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The first thing you’ll notice is the huge graphical upgrade.  Thanks to its cartoony art style the game worked well within the NES’s limitations to produce one of the system’s better looking games.  That same style remains but is now full of detail.  The animation has been overhauled and now all characters sport multiple facial expressions aside from Jackie Chan.  To facilitate the improved animation the sprites are much larger with some undergoing a heavy redesign now that it’s on more powerful hardware.  The sprites in the NES version were pretty large as is but now they’re bigger and better animated.

The backgrounds more so than the sprites have seen the largest upgrade.  As much as I liked the NES game’s look it couldn’t avoid the occasional flat background or garish color scheme.  Now the game literally bursts with color and the back drops have an almost painterly quality to them.  There’s the occasional layer of parallax scrolling which wasn’t too common on the Turbo which is nice but it does make the ones that are flat seem lacking I comparison.

From a mechanics perspective the same great gameplay applies here.  Jackie Chan is armed with a few basic punch and jump kick and has access to a multitude of other martial moves that are limited in supply.  These moves are incredibly powerful and though limited in stock you can usually find a frog who will cough up more or even new items at a steady rate.  Aside from the various kicking techniques you can actually perform a Hadoken for a ranged attack although these are even more supply constrained.

It’s once you get to the actual level design that things have changed.  The game is still comprised of five levels except each level is significantly longer and not in a good way.  On the plus side there are a few new bosses to fight which is excellent as the boss encounters are one of the highlights of the game.  Rather than create new extensions for each level most of the time the designers simply repeat the same stretches of scenery and stage elements, a fact that is very evident.   The pacing of the NES game was near perfect in my opinion and this change really hurts the game.  The levels are heavily padded and only serve to highlight the lack of interesting enemies to fight in most cases.  If they were set on increasing the game’s length they would have been better served creating new stages rather than extending the current ones.  On the plus side there are a few new bosses to fight which is excellent as the boss encounters are one of the highlights of the game. 

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A few more gameplay tweaks make this a much more difficult game than its NES counterpart.  Most enemies now take a few hits to kill and there are more populating each level.  In the NES game collecting fifty orbs would instantly replenish your health but now that number has doubled.  It’s a stupid change since it will take you nearly two levels to gain 100 orbs; some enemies won’t drop any while the more powerful enemies like the tigers and dragons drop several.  Refiling the life bar through orbs made up for the scarcity of life restoring soup and now you can’t even rely on that.  You only have one life and four continues and gaining more will require you to excel at the various bonus games. 

I can appreciate Hudson’s attempt at adding some new elements to the game rather than simply producing a straight port.  But most of the changes made were not for the better.  Luckily the game is still strong enough to overcome that and is one of the best pure platformers for the system.

8-out-of-101

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Soldier Blade

All good things must come to an end and so Hudson decided to end the Star Soldier series with a bang, at least for that generation of consoles.  The last 16-bit installment in the series, Soldier Blade, is one of its strongest entries before the series would see a dip in quality as it experimented with 3d.  Rather than basing itself around a gimmicky new power-up system Soldier Blade excels by offering a kick ass shooting experience from start to finish and is one of the strongest shmups in the console’s library.

In the 21st century Earth’s resources are drying up, prompting the need to explore space for more.  A Warp Drive gate is developed to send multiple spaceships to distant corners of the galaxy but 4 months after it is used it ends in disaster.  The research team sent to other solar systems returns battered with the Zeograd army hot on their heels.  It isn’t long before the Warp Drive is commandeered, and all hope is lost until a lone scientist develops the Soldier Blade space fighter to combat this threat.

Compared to most other Turbo Grafx shooters Soldier Blade’s weapons are a bit understated.  There are only three, a Green Wave beam, Blue laser, and the Red standard shot, all of which can be upgraded by collecting multiples of the same color.  As an added bonus you are gifted with a smaller satellite that mimics your movements and attack like an option.  Though small in number these weapons make up for it in convenience, especially at higher power levels.  Beyond their added power it also functions as a life bar; taking hits will only downgrade your weapon until it reaches its basic level before death.  In my opinion it helps make the game far more accessible to novice shooter fans, something this genre isn’t known for.

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The true depth of the weapons and what takes it a step beyond Super Star Soldier however comes in caching for future use.  You can keep three weapons in reserve although you can’t switch freely through traditional means.  Instead you have the option to turn your current weapon into a super bomb of sorts, sacrificing it for a massive temporary boost in power.  The means of attack differs depending on the weapon, with the laser creating a wide concentrated blast and the wave beam turning into an aggressive homing bomb.  Although weapons are in plentiful supply you have to exercise some level of thought as picking up any new weapon puts the current one in reserve.

While it wasn’t developed by Compile Soldier Blade is very similar to some of their works, most notably Blazing Lazers.  As a vertical shooter Soldier Blade is extremely fast, almost to the game’s detriment.  There are only two speed options, low and high and even on the low setting your ship moves briskly.  The speed is necessary as enemies have a tendency to pop in from all corners of the screen with guns blazing.  You’ll appreciate your maneuverability when the screen is filled with numerous mechs and a ton of projectiles with nary a hint of slowdown.

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While the screen has a tendency to become cluttered with bullets the game actually throws a hefty number of large mechs in rapid succession.  I can’t think of any other shooter from that era that does so with such aplomb, almost as if the designers were a bit too proud of their mechanical designs.  Not that it’s a bad thing; anything to distinguish a game in a crowded field is welcome.  The bosses are colossal in scale, with some lasting almost the entire length of the levels themselves.  Breaking them apart piece by piece only to see them dredge up more armaments to keep the fight going is exhilarating in a way only shooters can provide.

With its generous power-ups, infinite continues, and instant respawning Soldier Blade, although it providing a median challenge is not the longest ride.  Chances are you’ll finish it in an hour or two.  Completing the game on higher difficulty settings reveals more of the ending and the game has a two and five minute score attack mode, remnants of its festival heritage.

While it isn’t the flashiest shmup available for the console Soldier Blade is one of the most consistent and entertaining.  Its numerous options and systems also make it one of the most accessible for casual fans of the genre and with its cheap price on the digital download services is one to watch out for.

8-out-of-101

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Super Star Soldier

In Japan the Star Soldier series was so popular that Hudson Soft held annual gaming tournaments based around it known as the Caravan festival.  These competitions were held for many years with a new iteration of the series serving as the focus each time.  Super Star Soldier would be the first true 16-bit installment in the series (Blazing Lasers came first but is a separate game) as well as 1990’s entrant in the Caravan festival and was everything gamers expected of a shooter from that era: bigger, badder, louder, and full of a level of excitement that just wasn’t possible on the NES and Master system.

The Star Brain corps who terrorized the galaxy in Star Soldier has returned, now being led by the ultimate space ship Mother Brain.  The Neo Ceasar star fighters are the Earth’s only hope against their fleet.  This is the first real sequel to the original; there were plenty of games released after Star Soldier that shared many similar gameplay elements such as Starship Hector and two other arcade games but Super Star Soldier is the only one that truly carries on the series legacy.

In many ways Super Star Soldier and Blazing Lasers have an almost identical weapon system.  Rather than roman numerals each weapon here is represented by color: red for an enhanced main cannon that fires in multiple directions, yellow for the powerful but short range flamethrower, green for lightning and a blue rippling spread gun that puts the one in Gradius to shame.  Collecting more of each will power it up even further although taking shots or collisions will reduce it one level.  Unlike most shooters you’ll have to choose between homing missiles and option drones.  There are no super bombs but once you’ve maxed out a weapons power any further upgrades will detonate when collected so theoretically you can have an infinite number considering how frequently weapon pods appear.

The leap to more powerful hardware has done wonders for Star Soldier’s gameplay.  Very few shmups at the time could compare to the level of madness present at any given moment during any one of Super Star Soldier’s eight levels.  Enemies attack in elaborately arranged formations and in greater numbers than you would expect; this was bullet hell during the early 90s.  All of this intensity is brought to you with next to no slowdown whatsoever.  At most I can only remember two such instances.  Succeeding in the game all comes down to keeping a level head and realizing that a power-up is always just a few short seconds away when you need it.

Despite the insanity of the constant barrage of enemy fire Super Star Soldier always remains fair.  Taking hits will only reduce your ship’s power, with death only coming at its lowest point.  In a neat gesture of generosity you will always respawn immediately unless you have 3 lives or less; it’s only then that the game will send you back to the beginning of that stage.  Weapon drops are more frequent than in most games of this ilk so even if you get sloppy help isn’t too far behind.  In fact they are so frequent you’ll actually end up dodging them in order to hold on to your currently selected weapon.  In the event that you’re left with nothing but the standard cannon victory is still possible since the bosses aren’t impossible bullet sponges.

Notably absent is the option of two-player coop, a staple of the genre.  It would have gone a long way towards making the seemingly endless hordes of the Star Brain corps more manageable with a partner at your side.  This omission becomes even more conspicuous considering the game has an option for a two and five minute caravan modes, which are essentially score attack challenges for multiple players.  Sure you can simply pass the controller around but it would have been far more convenient to add in multiplayer.

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Super Star Soldier has more in common with Blazing Lasers than just weaponry.  Both games share a similar graphic style despite being developed by separate teams.  The game covers many of the familiar tropes such as star fields, forests, and the requisite fire level but you could just as easily swap them with a similar level from BL and wouldn’t notice the difference.  One could argue that there are only so many ways to draw massive space ships and the like but a little more creativity in the art design would have gone a long way.  It’s a solid visual package overall but can’t quite shake the feeling that you’ve been there and done that.

As Hudson’s first 16-bit shmup Super Star Soldier is a solid entry in a series that had a less than admirable start.  Even in spite of the last 20 years of progress within the genre it still manages to bring a manic sense of urgency to its action that gamers of all stripes will appreciate and is still a challenging but fair game today.

7-out-of-10-1

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Space Harrier

It’s safe to say that Space Harrier was one of the most popular arcade games of the 80s.  With its impressive use of Sega’s Super Scaler technology and unique viewpoint there wasn’t anything else quite like it.  It would inspire a few similar games on competing formats such as Square’s 3-D World Runner but honestly there’s nothing better than the original.

Naturally ports were soon to follow but that presented an issue: no console or computer at the time could compete with the arcade game’s tech so hefty sacrifices would need to be made.  Space Harrier was ported to nearly every format known to man at the time with varying degrees of quality.  The most popular port at the time would for the Sega Master System.   For its time it was a more than adequate adaptation, retaining much of the look but at a slower speed.  The numerous computer formats around at the time were bigger in Europe than the US so few were ever able to sample these…..quirky versions.  Like Altered Beast before it the Famicom would also see its own rendition that is better left unspoken of.  It would be the Turbo Grafx-16 version that fared best and would be the best console version for a long time.

The best technology in the world means nothing if it isn’t used properly and in this regard Sega has gifted Space Harrier with some of the most bizarre collections of alien creatures you can imagine.  The cyclopean wooly mammoth you see in all of the game’s press material only scratches the surface giant mushrooms, space squids and flying Moai heads along with a smattering of giant robots and other technological craft.  Each of the game’s 18 or so levels has its own color scheme and background elements to set them apart with the checkerboard pattern used for the ground and sometimes sky being one of the game’s most distinctive elements.

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The gameplay of Space Harrier is remarkably simple.  As the Harrier you run or fly through the many imaginative worlds on display to defeat the alien invaders threatening the inhabitants of each world.  There are no power-ups or items of any kind to collect meaning you’ll have to make do with the simple blaster you start with.  Viewed from a third person perspective you can either run along the ground or fly anywhere on the screen as enemies pour in from all sides.  It’s like playing After Burner with a dude instead of an aircraft essentially.

Aside from the scaled sprites Space Harrier’s most notable aspect is its speed.  The game is fast, almost too fast in my opinion.  You’ll fight with the environment just as much as aliens as the terrain shifts and background objects scale in at ridiculous speeds.  Nearly everything in the game is destructible, something you’ll have to take advantage of in order to survive longer than a few seconds at any given moment.  In most cases you’ll only have a scant second or two to move if a unbreakable pillar or rock is coming your way.  Since you don’t collect items there’s really no point to trying to blow up everything in your path aside from boosting your score and maybe gaining an extra life.

As you’ve probably discerned by now this is not an easy game and most of it stems from unavoidable factors.  You can only take one hit before death and at the blinding speeds some of the later levels run at death comes in rapid succession.  With skill you’ve eventually learn how to manage the chaos on screen but a life bar or some other mitigating factor would have made this a fairer proposition.  Part of the game’s high challenge also comes from the viewpoint.  The Harrier is a large sprite and due to the scaling it’s very easy to misjudge exactly where a projectile or approaching enemy will come from.  It’s very easy to misjudge and end up dead in the process.  The control has also taken a hit but this was inevitable.  The arcade unit used an analog flight joystick for movement, something that no home console at the time could replicate.  This version is serviceable but the difference in movement speed is noticeable for any veteran of the coin op.

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This version of the game retains much of the arcade game’s look and fares better than the Master system port.  The choppiness inherent in that version is pretty much gone leading to a far smoother experience overall.  The increase in color is also notable as well.  It isn’t perfect however and there are times when some background element will seemingly pop up out of nowhere and kill you.  Perhaps the biggest downgrade in the visuals would be the missing checkerboard pattern used on the ground for each stage.  It sounds minimal but it went a long way towards making each new level visually distinct.  The fact that even the pathetic Famicom version managed to include it stings a bit and makes me question why it was even removed.

Back in 1989 this version of Space Harrier was exceptional but has since been eclipsed by perfect conversions on more powerful platforms.  As much as I like Space Harrier it is a simple game that becomes repetitive despite its short length and one that I don’t think will hold most gamer’s attention for very long.

6-out-of-10-1

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Exile: Wicked Phenomenon

As flawed as it was I really enjoyed the original Exile.  Once upon a time I was a broke teenager too poor to afford a $400 Turbo CD add-on and so had to settle for the lesser Genesis version.  I still managed to enjoy the game, busted localization and all.  The game’s unique (for the time) Middle Eastern setting allowed it to stand out from similar games in the same time frame.  Years later I would finally get the chance to own the superior Working Designs release and enjoy the cutscenes I ogled in the pages of my magazines years prior.

I wish I could say the same for the sequel.  Exile: Wicked Phenomenon is one of my biggest gaming disappointments, made even more so by the fact that it didn’t have to be this way.  Some unnecessary tampering by Working Designs has left the game nearly unplayable although even in spite of this the game had a few other problems.

Sadler returns once again, this time fighting religious intolerance and hatred around the world.  A mysterious prophet warns Sadler of a curse that is sweeping Baghdad and soon the world and that he is the only one that can stop it.  His quest will ultimately cross paths with old allies and eventually the living embodiment of the world’s hate.

Honestly it’s a bit too preachy and heavy handed to work so it’s actually somewhat of a bonus that this sequel isn’t as story heavy as its predecessor.  It still doesn’t excuse the way your traveling companions from the first game have returned; they simply show up and aside from Rumi no explanation is given.  The lack of any real story based progression casts a poll on the rest of the game as you simply move on from one town to the next.  The world map has been removed and once you’ve moved on from an area there is no backtracking.  There’s no reason to talk to villagers either since you won’t be collecting items to help them solve their troubles.  It really comes across as though the game was made cheaply; there are very few cutscenes as well, one of the best attributes of the series.

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Gameplay wise Telenet has made your traveling companions more useful since you can now switch between all 4 (and eventually 5) characters at will.  They each come with their own stats in terms of jumping ability and power plus form of attack.  Rumi can jump the highest and attacks from long range but is weak.  Sadler is a jack of all trades but master of none.  Fakhyle has homing magic but is far from ideal when platforming.  Kindhy is physically the strongest but has the shortest range.

Now take all of that information and throw it away.  It’s pointless to use anyone but Sadler and eventually Lawrence.  The rest of the cast are either so weak they’ll die in one or two hits or have such short range that they will take hits in the exchange of blows.  As a result there’s no point wasting your hard earned gold upgrading their equipment.  It was a nice gesture to try and add some variety to the game but considering the already near impossible difficulty there’s no need to make it harder on yourself.

The difficulty is what completely ruins the game and it all stems from a mistake made on the part of Working Designs.  In an attempt to increase the difficulty over the easier Japanese version WD made one edit too many that increased the attack power of the enemies in the game exponentially.  You’ll see this first hand as soon as the first action stage when the scorpions kill you in one or two hits.  To stand even the slightest chance of survival you have to move forward in increments but even this isn’t enough; you have to be at the very edge of the screen for the game to scroll forward at which point whatever enemies lie in wait will smack right into you.

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You see this boss?  It took close to ten minutes of wailing on him before it went down.

The game maintains this same ridiculous tone for the length of the adventure and gets worse during boss battles.   Most bosses have a life bar the length of the entire meter and unless you’ve tried power leveling all of your attacks will inflict minimal damage.  But your options for doing so are limited as most enemies don’t respawn and you can’t revisit prior zones.  Do you fancy wailing on the same guy for 20 minutes, where each hit you take could possibly mean death and a repeat of the entire process all over again? I didn’t think so.  To see the ending you’ll more than likely use a cheat code for invincibility as it just gets worse over time.

It’s sad because the game shouldn’t have turned out this way.  While it isn’t stunning Wicked Phenomenon certainly has its moments.  The action stages usually feature a layer or two of parallax scrolling but as a whole it’s obvious the game was done on a budget.  The overworld towns all share the same generic layout, there are no cute anime style portraits, and only a few cutscenes.  What few exist feature more animation than before and are decently voice acted but I imagine due to the game’s shorter length there was no need to add more.

As much as I want to like the game I can’t recommend Exile: Wicked Phenomenon in good conscience.  There are plenty of games that are unfairly hard such as Battletoads but at least in those cases they can be overcome with perseverance.  You’ll have no such luck here, leaving only the most dedicated gamers willing to tackle this mountain.

6-out-of-101

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Side Arms

Being a Turbo Grafx-16 owner was a lonely existence, speaking from personal experience.  I knew only two people that actually owned one, meaning whenever I had finished the games I owned I was screwed, first because I was too young for a job and two because there wasn’t anyone to trade games with.  After completing Keith Courage for the umpteenth time I feared I would develop the courage to jam a spike in my brain before a loose $20 bill bought me Side Arms.

The Bozon Empire have decide to launch a full scale assault on the Earth, with the planet’s only defenders consisting of Lt. Henry and Sgt. Sanders, who don Mobile suits to defend the planet.  Ignore the terrible box art, someone in the marketing department decided to have a little fun with the game’s cover art as it comes from the same school of art that brought us the Mega Man box.

Originally released in the arcades in 1986 Side Arms bears a few similarities with Capcom’s other notable release Section Z.  Both games allow you to shoot left and right using the face buttons but where Section Z is more of a shooter/Metroid hybrid Side Arms is all shmup.  While it’s missing the two-player coop from the arcade there’s more than enough action involved to occupy 3 gamers.

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There are five primary weapons available in the game and as an added bonus this home port allows you to switch between them Gradius style but only while the game is paused.   The shotgun fans out in every direction while the three-way shot is more focused in one direction.  The optional bits will follow your ship and supplement your primary fire. There’s a laser that lets off a long blast that can easily decimate a boss’s life bar but you’ll have to survive long enough in between shots for effectiveness.  Each weapon can be upgraded up to 3 times and there are enough weapon pods in the early levels that you’ll have a fully maxed out set of armaments quickly.

There are a few additional weapons hidden pretty well throughout the levels that can tip the odds in your favor.  Speed ups are pretty much mandatory and some well-meaning designer added a speed down if you’re too stupid to know when enough is enough.  The most devastating is the α item that calls out another ship that will combine with your to create a mech that will fire in all eight directions in addition to whatever weapon you have equipped.   It also acts as a shield that willll protect you from one hit.  Something that powerful will always have a drawback and in this case the mech makes for a bigger target, with stray bullets even more dangerous than before.  If you find it hold on to it as long as possible since you’ll need every advantage you can get.

This is not an easy game.  At 9 nine levels long you only have two continues to save the Earth, a paltry number that at times seems insufficient.  Despite your seemingly overwhelmingly firepower it never seems to be enough.  The levels are designed in such a way that the terrain plays as much a factor in whether you’ll dodge those bullets or not.  Though primarily a horizontal shooter there are vertical elements in the game and enemies will approach from every angle.  There’s an R-Type like element in that there are times you’ll be so focused on avoiding a space worm that losing sight of your environment will lead to a cheap death.  Although you respawn in the same place you lose all weapons collected.  For a game this tough getting back up to speed is a tall order.

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The presentation in Side Arms is overall average.  Treasure the cityscape of the first level as its probably the only interesting background element you’ll see during the entire experience.  The “theme” of each level changes but you’ll be staring at a generic set of stars for the length of the game.  There are only 3 bosses with 2 of them recycled multiple times so you don’t even have that to look forward to.  It’s funny, I played through Side Arms on a black and white TV back in the day but looking back I really didn’t miss much.  The music is decent but nothing you’ll remember after turning it off.

Side Arms is a decent shooter but on a console inundated with excellent representations of the genre that doesn’t cut it.  Only true fans of the arcade game need apply.

6-out-of-10-1

 

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Lords of Thunder

This might be lofty praise but I stand by these words: Lords of Thunder is pound for pound the best shooter released for the Turbo Duo.  Those aren’t words I use lightly; next to the Genesis and Saturn NEC’s console played host to the greatest lineup of shooters you can imagine so for one to stand out it really needed to be special.  Lords of Thunder is all that and more, too bad not many have played it.

While Sega had Sonic and Nintendo had Mario NEC and Hudson were never able to create the rabid fan base around Bonk that would get people to fork over money to buy their system.  One of the few games that received a heavy marketing push was Lords of Thunder, the closest the Duo would ever get to a killer app.

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The sorcerer Zaggart and his six minions of Mistral have decided that they deserve to rule the world, carving out separate territories to reign over.  The God Knight Landis is summoned to put an end to their reign of terror and save the world.

Marketing for the Turbo-Grafx and by extension Turbo Duo was pretty much nonexistent during the 16-bit era.  Sega were going full tilt with the scream ads and the whole blast processing spiel while Nintendo would eventually adopt the Play it Loud campaign. Aside from Johnny Turbo it seemed NEC/Hudson/TTI were content to sit in a corner while the two titans battled it out.  With Lords of Thunder however they realized they had something special on their hands and mailed a VHS tape to thousands of gamers across the US (having youtube and the internet back then would have been a god send) in an effort to spread the word about this great game.  Cheesy production aside it was effective in making myself and many others I’m sure interested in this supposed killer app.

Touted as a sequel to Gate of Thunder in reality it is in name only.  Lords of Thunder differs in nearly every facet, from gameplay down to its setting.  Speaking of setting, thank god it isn’t another space shooter.  Outside of Phelios, Cotton and Elemental Master the pickings were slim if you wanted to be something other than a lone ship against an alien armada.  The fantasy setting is a welcome breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale genre but that isn’t the only facet in which Lords of Thunder differs from its contemporaries.

You are presented with a world map with six continents to choose and complete in whatever order you like with the seventh and final stage unlocked once they are finished.  Each land is aligned with a different element which also informs the majority of the enemies you’ll face as well.  Since you can complete them in any order there’s no real difficulty curve to speak of; you can simply come back with a fully powered up suit of armor if need be.

The Mega Man overtones don’t end with the level select, you also have a choice of 4 elemental armors at the beginning of each level.  Aside from their elemental properties their method of attack and rate of growth differ as well.  The Wind armor sends out piercing lightning bolts that spread in a wider arc at level 3.  The Earth armor fires individual bombs, first downward, then a second upward, and finally the area of effect is increased at its maximum.  The Water Armor is clearly the most powerful as its attack covers the widest area at level 1 then grows larger and fires backwards at level 3.

While you might guess that there’s some amount of depth when it comes to elemental strategy in a particular stage the reality is the opposite.  Aside from your attack power and range you aren’t granted any special damage.  It basically boils down to which armor you prefer although there are certainly points where a particular attack might be the best option.  While I like the Earth and Wind armor there forms of attack are too specific to be of broad use.  The Water armor is the overwhelming favorite when it comes down to it but if you like being a special snowflake be my guest.  Any power-ups you’ve built up for each armor carry over so you can save crystals for other assorted goodies in the between level shop.

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Unlike most shooters you have a generously lengthy life bar, a factor you’ll appreciate as the action is fast and relentless.  There is rarely a moment where there are less than 2-3 enemies on screen of something blowing up, much like Gate of Thunder.  However that game pales in comparison to just how crazy it gets.  Don’t let the life bar fool you; the penalty for taking hits is twofold.  Not only do you lose health but your current weapon power drops as well.  Item drops to build it back up come frequently so it isn’t completely hopeless but isn’t far-fetched to meet the end level bosses with minimal firepower.

Overall Lords of Thunder presents a moderate challenge.  On normal it all comes down to perseverance as there are very few difficulty spikes.  You can alleviate this somewhat by spending your hard earned crystals in the shop to max out your bombs and firepower.  Although you can buy the weapons it’s up to your skill to keep them.  The other two difficulty settings will provide the challenge you seek if need be and this is one of the few games where I’ve actually gone back done so.

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Graphically Lords of Thunder still holds up today.  There is a great deal of variety to the environments and no shortage of demonic and mechanical monstrosities thrown in your path.  I like the large enemy variety as well; each continent has its own unique set of baddies to destroy, making each feel distinct.  The bosses are the game’s true graphical highlight as they transform into massive demons who take up the majority of the screen.  The soundtrack as well is fantastic; the fantasy backdrop might seem like an odd match with the guitar heavy soundtrack but the tunes are composed so well that they add to the rabid pace of the game.

If you’re reading this review you’re either a fan of the genre or interested in what Lords of Thunder has to offer.  This is quite possibly the greatest shooter available for the console and one that has withstood the test of time admirably.

9-out-of-10

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Final Lap Twin

Have you ever played a Carpg?  I just made up that term but it adequately describes Final Lap Twin.  Long before Square Enix shit the bed with Racing Lagoon, a game we were mercifully spared, Namco graced the Turbo Grafx-16 with Final Lap Twin and its exclusive quest mode in a rare third party release for the system.  Originally an arcade game FLT was a solid game that became even better with this oddly well designed addition, making it a pretty hefty package overall.

The Grand Prix mode is a single or multiplayer rally in courses around the world.  The Twin in the game’s title refers to the split screen view; the game is always displayed this way showing either the second player or your computer rival.  You have a choice between 2 classes of cars: F3000 and F1 with 4 cars in each.  The only differences between the two are that they consist of 8 and 16 courses respectively.  The options in this mode are limited to manual and automatic transmission; keeping the focus squarely on your ability to handle the vehicle you’re given rather than your capacity to tweak a car.

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The tracks in GP mode are noticeably more advanced in their design and combined with the plethora of AI driven opponents make each race a more drawn out affair.  The computer can be surprisingly aggressive in pushing you off track and since you are awarded points based on position at the end of the race it doesn’t hurt to push back.

In most cases who will come in first or second place will be a battle between you and your rival, not because he’s that good but due to heavy rubber banding.  I’ve made my disdain for rubber band AI well known so I won’t go off on a tangent; I’ll just say that it’s at least tolerable here.  By the end of each GP mistakes become far more detrimental, forcing you to run perfect laps to hope to come in first.  Overall the GP mode is as solid as they come for the period.

It’s the game’s quest mode however that gained it some measure of popularity.  As a young boy the time has come set out on your racing journey and live up to your father’s lofty world championship reputation.  I don’t know who came up with the idea of a car RPG but it works very well and will occupy a good 6-7 hours of your time to complete.

The easiest way to boil down Quest mode would be a 1980s version of Pokemon.  Think of your starting car as Pikachu and everyone else in the world as rival Pokemon trainers.  The objective of the game is to build up your car enough to challenge each of the 6 champions (gym leaders) from each region to collect the secret parts necessary to put you on equal footing with the world champion and have a chance in hell of actually winning.

A lot of thought went into the individual parts of the game.  Backed by your overly generous dad (seriously this guy is daddy war bucks) you’ll spend all of your earnings tweaking the parameters of your car for better performance.  You can modify 5 aspects of your vehicle, the tires for grip, motor for speed, wings for more air off ramps, fuel for longer nitro, and lastly the body.  The body serves a different function here, allowing you to refuse challenges from “weaker” opponents and travel in peace.  Changing parts has a tangible and almost immediate impact on your car’s performance, one that you’ll have to keep in mind as you travel to the different regions of the world.

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Random “battles” are handled as short one lap races around varying tracks, always against a single opponent.  The early stages of the game keep the courses very simple in order to learn the layout, see the effects of any part upgrade, and learn the opponent’s driving style.  While it might seem like it would become tedious to compete in 30-45 second races every minute or so the fact that you actually have to drive keeps you engaged in every one.  You can never assume just because your car is relatively tricked out that you’ll always win; throwing off the balance between speed and grip (hint your grip should always be higher) will leave you slamming into billboards left and right.  That type of driving might not hurt you too bad in the generic common battles but won’t cut it in the championship races.

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I’m wondering why they call her Sloppy Sue.

There’s a steady progression in terms of the challenge proposed by each region’s cannon fodder.  In the early parts of the game you’re competing against guys with worse cars than yours.  The few who do outperform you usually screw up in some area, such as Uncle Dave and his shitty tires.  By the latter regions guys like Lucky Luke are just as well equipped as you and drive even better.  Granted the only penalty if you can call it that is that you get sent home but that isn’t a factor once you have the Warp Box.  The 6 world champions present a real test of skill since these races also have drone cars that get in the way.  You can somewhat cheese your way through each one by buying parts from the next town over but you’ll have to actually reach them first.

I honestly didn’t expect to like the Quest Mode as much as I did back in 1990.  This simple but well-designed addition to the game could easily have been half-assed in order to pad out the game’s length but its quality serves to make this an all-around solid product.

7-out-of-10-1

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Gate of Thunder

For the longest time it’s always been assumed that the video game market cannot support 3 platforms at the same time.  And for a large part of the industry’s history this has been true.  It wasn’t until the sixth generation that we saw the PS2, GameCube, and X-Box coexist for the most part.  Prior to this the Saturn was the third wheel that was shaken out, and even before that the Turbo Grafx-16 never found its audience in the US.  While it didn’t have the library with the breadth and depth of Sega and Nintendo there were many gems most gamers never experienced with Gate of Thunder counted in that number.

As the premier pack-in game for the Turbo Duo Gate of Thunder had to impress immediately and it does so in spectacular fashion.  The long animated intro has no text or voice acting but manages to convey the game’s plot pretty thoroughly through static images.  In truth outside of the rare cut scenes and soundtrack Gate of Thunder might have been possible without the CD add-on but here it is and better for it.

With the only launch/pack-in titles being repackaged Hu-Card games on the same disc Gate of Thunder stood out as a prime example of what was possible with this “new” console and is one of its best games.  That’s high praise considering the sheer number of shmups available for the system but is well earned through the game’s quality.

The arsenal of weapons is actually pretty small compared to most of its shooter contemporaries. You begin with the default laser but can also collect the wave beam and explosive shot.  Rather than sacrificing one for the other you can stockpile and switch between the three at any time.  Once a weapon is collected your ship is outfitted with two satellites that mirror your fire but can also conveniently be aimed backwards.  Missiles are also available but are more or less forgettable.

While they may seem typical each weapon has its own quirks and secondary uses.  Weapons can be leveled up three times at which point they become monstrous screen clearing death dealers.  The laser passes through enemies and walls while dealing damage, the wave beam is weaker but covers a wider spread (at full power nearly the entire screen!) and the explosive shot will track enemies and deal additional damage after blowing up.  It isn’t mandatory that you switch as the situation dictates but it’ll definitely go a long way toward keeping you alive.

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And that’s because Gate of Thunder is probably one of the most intense shooters you’ll ever play, which says a lot considering the genre.  This isn’t a bullet hell shmup although at times it comes close; most of the opposition are composed of heavily armed battleships and other metallic contraptions that litter the screen.  It’s impressive how much shit is thrown at you at once with nary a hint of slowdown.  As if the constant deluge of bullets and enemies isn’t enough there are also environmental hazards that come into play.  Spewing lava, falling rocks, and even 3d objects shifting in from the background, the designers at Red and Hudson Soft have certainly done their best to deter you from seeing the end of the game. In many ways Gate of Thunder is heavily influenced/by the Thunderforce series.

If there is any one “flaw” you can point to is that the game is short and about average in difficulty.  The learning curve is balanced near perfectly so that even a novice shmup player can jump in and make progress and the game never becomes so frustrating that it feels like its cheating.  With 7 continues and extra lives hidden throughout the levels the seven levels won’t last longer than an afternoon before you see the credits.  To me the game is so good that it’s replayable but I realize that isn’t the case with everyone.

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Graphically Gate of Thunder is solid.  The scrolling backgrounds are often 4-5 layers deep with various moving parts giving off the illusion of a world that’s alive.  The mechanical designs of the enemies are also well done but as a whole there are Hu-Card games that approach this level of detail.  Where the game truly shines is in the sound department.  The hard rock soundtrack is absolutely amazing and rich in its depth and variety.  The sound effects as well are hard hitting and full of bass; this is definitely one that benefits from a good sound setup.  It’s obvious that the majority of the CD’s potential toward the sound and the game benefits from it.

This is one of the strongest shooters in the TG-16 library and one that can be easily played today through the Wii’s virtual console or PSN.  Very few shooters stand the test of time as well as Gate of Thunder so there’s no reason not to go back and experience a piece of gaming history.

8-out-of-101

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Ninja Spirit

The NES had Ninja Gaiden, the Genesis had the Shinobi series, it’s only right that the Turbo-Grafx get in on that ninja action as well.  Ninjas were all the rage back in the day so why not spread the love?  Irem’s arcade game saw ports to many different formats but it’s the Turbo Grafx-16 version that deserves praise.  Not only is it an excellent conversion but one of the best action games for the platform.

There are many eerie similarities to Ninja Gaiden although both games were released in the same year.  Moonlight is a young ninja who witnessed the death of his father at the hands of a half man/half demon is on a mission of revenge. Rather than the modern day the game takes place in feudal Japan and is less concerned with acrobatic gameplay than pumping out an insane amount of enemies to destroy you.

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Over the course of the game’s seven levels you’ll wield 4 different weapons that are supplemented by a number of power-ups.  The default sword is functional and has good range and power.   The throwing stars not only have a wide spread but are insanely fast.  The exploding tags are slower but pack a punch and can also take out more than 1 enemy as it leaves a deadly cloud in its wake.  The sickle and chain trades power for the widest area of attack with its ability to be spun in a circle.  You begin the game with all 4 weapons and can switch at any time which is near mandatory at certain points.

Backing up the default weapons are a few power-ups dropped by enemies.  The ninja blade can be enhanced so that that it leaves a massive trail in its wake.  You can also create two clones of your body which function exactly as they do in Ninja Gaiden 2.  They mimic your actions and weapons, meaning you can literally cover the majority of the screen in a shower of shuriken if you so choose or  position them to do all of your work for you.  Lastly there is a rare screen clearing gem that will eliminate all enemies for a few seconds, handy if you’re having trouble progressing.

Ninja Spirit at its essence is Contra with a sword.  There is rarely a moment when there aren’t a few enemies aiming for your head and upwards of 4-6 seems to be the norm.  It can be overwhelming at times and will force you to learn which weapon is the best for any given situation.  Each new level introduces new enemies that are vulnerable to at least one weapon in your arsenal, it’s imperative to switch as they often require multiple hits before death.  While it’s tempting to pick a favorite and stick with it there are portions of the game that become all but impossible if you choose to be hard headed.

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The levels themselves aren’t very long but due to the constant barrage of attacks feel twice their length.  Moonlight has absurd leaping power but very few stages allow you to exploit this to avoid conflict.  In some ways this feels like a better executed Legend of Kage or Demon Sword with less vertical elevation.  The boss battles are suitably intense and show off the system’s prowess in their size and detail.

Depending on the mode Ninja Spirit is one of the hardest games you’ll ever play or a slightly tamed beast.  For the most part Ninja Spirit is a tough game even in spite of the near game breaking shadow clones.  There are so many enemies attacking at once that the game eventually reaches its breaking point and will slow down.  PC Engine mode allows you to sustain five hits before death although larger enemies can take you down in a single blow.  Arcade Mode is exactly that, with one hit death its rule.  At only 7 levels you’ll have the game licked in no time so if you really want a challenge Arcade Mode is the way to go.

While I like the game overall there is a slight lack of depth compared to its contemporaries.  Had the game been longer with slightly more intricate level design this would have been an absolute knock out.  As is it will have to settle for pretty good.

7-out-of-10-1

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R-Type

Although we were too young to know anything about technical details back in the 8-bit era it was obvious that the NES and Sega Master System were not up to the task of replicating the arcade games of the era perfectly.  Arcade perfect ports were the forbidden fruit of the day, always chased but never eaten.  Not until the 32-bit era could we truly say arcade perfection had been achieved but there were a few exceptions, and the Turbo Grafx-16 port of R-Type is one of them.

R-Type is one of the most influential shooters around, even more so than Gradius. The unique Force system has been copied by legions of copycats up to this very day, from Pulstar on the Neo Geo to indie shooters like Dove Z.  Even Konami recognized a good thing when they saw it and used a variation of the Force in their arcade shmup Xexex.

R-Type was ported to almost every console and PC format you can imagine with mixed results.  The Master system retained the spirit of the arcade game but lacked in the graphics department.  The various computer versions all made different sacrifices depending on the hardware with the Commodore 64 version ending up the worst.  The Turbo Grafx version is near identical to the arcade outside of minor loss of detail and slight color differences.  The original PC Engine release was split across two Hu-Cards for no discernible reason so for once the US got the better end of the deal.  Despite the years since its release R-Type is still an enjoyable but tough as nails shooter that holds up to this day.

There are very few actual weapons in R-Type.  Outside of the requisite missiles and bits (basically options) there are actually only 3 special weapons that all have their uses. The Blue rebound laser is thin but powerful and can bounce off walls.  The Red Counter Air Laser is a double wave beam that is extremely powerful and covers a wide area in front of the ship.  The yellow Counter Ground Laser travels along the top and bottom of nearly any surface in its attack.

The true star and what give R-Type its identity is the Force.  The Force unit is a living satellite that has a variety of functions.  Attaching it to the front of the ship will allow it to boost your attack power and absorb enemy bullets or damage whatever it comes in contact with.  Putting it in back will give you reverse fire.  The force can be sent out as a first line of defense and recalled at any time.  While its shots aren’t strong it does fire in 3 directions, making it invaluable depending on the situation.

Managing the use of the Force is crucial to learning the nuances of the game but survival as well.  It damages anything it touches and is invincible so in a pinch you can easily wipe out some of the stronger mechs that obstruct your path.  If you’re good enough you can even use it cheese your way through certain boss fights (hint, hint).   The special weapons are almost a side attraction compared to the versatility of the Force.

The level design is as fantastic as the game’s weapon system.  The game’s Giger inspired aliens that make up the Bydo Empire were unique for the time and the game spends equal amounts of time exploring organic and mechanical environments.  Stage 3’s fight against the massive battleship that is the entire level has now become legend but the following levels are able to match its intensity as well.  Although R-Type is a slower paced shooter it does an excellent job of becoming chaotic at a moment’s notice, able to make you forget your surroundings and collide with a wall and die.

As such R-Type is also known for its ball breaking difficulty.  There are usually only one checkpoint in each level and you’ll have to fight for every inch of progress to reach that point.  It usually isn’t the enemies that will kill you but the weird level design itself.  The ship of stage 3 for instance dips and branches out at different points and if you aren’t in the one safe spot will invariably die.  The weird bugs that leave behind trails of…I don’t know pellets can quickly make navigation difficult.  R-Type is a game of trial and error as the enemies will always spawn at the same time and location.  But just because you know where the attack will spawn doesn’t mean you can avoid it.

For its time this version of R-Type was one of the best arcade ports of all time.   Aside from the difference in resolution nearly every background detail has been recreated exactly.  This was an insanely pretty game in the arcade and being able to play a near identical version at home was a huge selling point.  There’s an insane amount of detail in the backgrounds and the bosses have had an equal amount of care lavished upon them.  Most importantly the creatures of the Bydo Empire were like nothing you’d seen before unless you were a hardcore sci-fi buff.

While it’s since been surpassed by ports on more advanced systems the TG-16 version of R-Type is still a technical curiosity.  Even on a console overloaded with shooters R-Type manages to stand out as one of the best ever released and an enjoyable game to this day. [nggallery id=243]

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Bonk 3: Bonk’s Big Adventure

It’s always sad to see a mascot fall from grace.  Like Hollywood movie stars the trip to the bottom is usually a painful process, with few bowing out of the spotlight gracefully.  While the Crash Bandicoot games never degenerated to the level of repetition of the later Mega Man games he never reached the height of popularity he had when Naughty Dog were behind the wheel.  Volumes of text can be written about Sega’s mishandling of Sonic post 16-bit era but there is one other mascot who disappeared without a trace; Bonk, who sadly went out on a low note with Bonk’s Big Adventure.

The evil King Drool has returned to terrorize Dinosaur Kingdom once again and the only one who can stop him is Bonk.  This time around he doesn’t have to go it alone as the game now sports multiplayer.  Let’s ignore the fact that the games have never shown any other cavemen aside from Bonk and just say he’s a clone shall we?

After the amazing Bonk’s Revenge Hudson Soft/Red had no need to reinvent the wheel in terms of the series gameplay.  The host of improvements that game brought made the games finally feel “whole”.  In spite of that the developers did very little to separate Bonk’s Big Adventure from its predecessor with its few gameplay additions not amounting to much.  Bonk 3 simply feels like a rehash on more than one level, leaving little reason to play it after the prior two games.

Your primary weapon is still your massive melon, able to smash bad guys and bricks alike.  All of the moves present in Bonk’s Revenge make a return, meaning you can wall jump and use your teeth to climb walls.  Those familiar with the series will be able to jump in immediately due to this.  I feel the controls are loose and not as tight as Bonk’s Revenge but that might be my imagination.

 

The big additions to the game are two candies that will turn Bonk giant size or shrunk down to the size of an ant.  As giant Bonk you occupy a large portion of the screen, making it easier to bash enemies and trivialize some of the platforming segments.  Little Bonk sees the most use as there are tons of small pathways only he can navigate.  Taking a hit or eating the opposite size candy will return you to your normal height when necessary.

The last major additions this time out is 2-player coop.  With two players butting heads the game definitely becomes a lot easier than it already is.  The coop element is handled surprisingly well.  If one Bonk is giant size the other can stand on his head for elevation and if both players are separated pressing select will bring them together with a slight penalty.

Unfortunately the game doesn’t make the most of its new mechanics.  There’s rarely any need to go giant size and usually it’s inconvenient as there are areas that he can’t pass through.  Little Bonk will net you tons of food and meat but it can be frustrating encountering areas where you need to be normal and can’t readily change back right away.  These flaws are highlighted in the game’s weak level design.  Bonk 3 isn’t just similar to Bonk’s Revenge it recycles entire levels and graphical elements wholesale.

While Bonk’s Revenge was a technical step forward for the series in 1991 Bonk 3 is a step back.  In an effort to create different environments than the generic Dinosaur theme there are a number of set pieces that seem out of place in the game.  The modern day cities shouldn’t look too out of place considering you explored a mechanical ship in the second game but it ruins the prehistoric illusion.  I will say that the bosses are the game’s one highlight and outdo the second game in every way.  But overall the game feels as though it were created on a budget, prompting recycling of as many assets as possible.

In the end though it isn’t enough. Although Super Bonk was released the following year it was just as bad and outside of an ill-advised PS2/GameCube 3d makeover the series has gone dark.  The Bonk series deserved to go out with a bang not this sad whimper.


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Dead Moon

You know even as a Turbo Grafx-16 owner back in the day I said enough is enough when it came to shooters.  The system was sorely lacking in variety in its library so every new shooter announcement that wasn’t on the level of Gate of Thunder was groan inducing.  As you can imagine with that many games in the genre many of them were strictly average, a description that fits Dead Moon perfectly.

Everything about Dead Moon has been done before, even down to its story.   A comet detected in the vicinity of Pluto enters our solar system and rather than missing Earth like it should have it instead seeks out and destroys the probes sent to observe its trajectory.  Once it crash lands on the moon it is discovered that the comet was host to aliens and a lone fighter is sent to destroy them.

Sound familiar?  The premise could have come from nearly any shmup and all of the game’s features share the same trait. Not every game needs to be original of course, but they can at least offer a level of polish that will make you forget its lack of originality.  Dead Moon suffers by being a strictly average shooter on a platform that is inundated with them, with some being some of the best representations of the genre.

The 4 weapons available might seem at home to veteran shmup fans.  The Red circular spread is identical to the ripple in Life Force.  The yellow spread gun is self-explanatory as well as the green wave beam and blue lasers.  One cool feature is weapon stacking; collecting more of the same weapon will increase its power exponentially.

For defense you can pick up homing missiles and 2 options that also stack.  More missiles are fired at once while the options will progress from static orbs at your side to providing a rotating shield.  It’s a well done power-up system that would have benefited more from original weapons rather than the standards that most shooters draw upon.

Although the fight starts on Earth it quickly shifts to the moon as the Dead Moon forces try to stop your advance.  I will say one thing about the game, it is pretty.  While the city streets of the first level are eerily reminiscent of Aero Blasters the varied backdrops of the moon are very well done.  Parallax scrolling was not all too common on the system but Dead Moon sometimes goes 3-4 layers deep, creating an excellent illusion of depth to the backgrounds.  It’s a strange thing to take notice of but many of the enemies and almost all of the bosses are dead creatures of some sort.  I guess it gets points for originality but its pretty fricking strange.

Although Dead Moon has good graphics you won’t have much time to stop and admire the sights due to its brevity.  At 6 levels that last all of 5 minutes or so even novice gamers will have no trouble seeing the end in one sitting.  This is also helped by the very generous way death is handled.  Any time you are hit your current weapon is downgraded.  It isn’t until it hits its basic form that you will die.  This can take as many as 5-6 hits, more than enough to cover sloppy mistakes.  With unlimited continues as well you’ll have this licked in under an hour.

So you have an average shooter that can be finished in 30 minutes or thereabouts by even the scrubbiest players.  Unless you live and breathe for shooters I see no reason anyone should bother tracking down Dead Moon.  There are far better games to play.

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Legend of Hero Tonma

Now that I look back on it the Turbo Grafx-16 has very few pure side scrolling platformers.  Oh it’s well documented just ridiculously over crowded the system is with shooters but for those that enjoy a good butt bouncing like Mario or Sonic there were few choices.  Irem’s Legend of Hero Tonma was an arcade port released in 1993 and even considering the slim pickings is merely adequate at best.

The story is brief and just enough to get the action rolling.  Tonma is the apprentice of Merlin and after completing his magic training is revealed to be a Prince.  Not just that, he is also destined to save a princess.  Not the princess, a princess.  Hey we’ve set out on numerous video game adventures with even flimsier premises so Tonma gets a pass.  As an arcade port Legend of Hero Tonma is a decent conversion however when judged on its own merits the game is strictly average.

You certainly won’t be unarmed on your quest.  As a magician Tonma has access to an ever increasingly powerful number of spells.  The standard fireball can be heavily upgraded, from the standard single shot to an arcing blast to a heat seeking burst of flame.  An even nicer property of the power-up system is that these upgrades are layered on top of each other.  When all else fails the typical butt bounce can come in handy.  Every level is littered with power-ups and you’ll need it since the game is not easy.

On the surface Tonma looks deceptively simple however that belies its true nature, that of an evil beast.  All of the more popular tricks designers used to nail gamers are fully represented here.  From tricky enemy placement to split second enemy fire, there’s no mistake that this was originally an arcade game.  Some of the vertical levels really ratchet up the intensity since you won’t see what’s above you until it’s too late.  If you die you are sent back to a mid level checkpoint so at least you have room to power-up somewhat to give it another go round.  The boss fights are not as hard as the levels themselves but they can overwhelm you at times with tricky enemy fire and sheer chaos.  There are unlimited continues but that is a small concession to the high volume of deaths you’ll experience on your way to the end.

At 7 levels there just isn’t enough meat on game’s bones to keep you interested for long.  While the game certainly does its damndest to deter you it’s only a matter time until you reach the end, a time that I estimate to be an hour or two at most.  There’s no compelling reason to go back for another round and with much better games in this genre you would have to be hard up for another platformer to even bother with Legend of Hero Tonma.

You would be better served with the Bonk series of games if you are in the market for a TG-16 side scroller.  While it isn’t bad there is nothing exceptional about the Legend of Hero Tonma either.  When the competition is so fierce average isn’t good enough.

5-out-of-101

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Air Zonk

On a console filled with more shooters than you can count you need some kind of “hook” to garner some attention.  That could be anything from insane graphics, unique level design, art direction, etc.  In the case of Air Zonk you need only gaze upon the title character and be intrigued.  It would have been easy for developers Red and Hudson to coast on the slight link to the Bonk series however they instead took the time to imbue the game with its own identity and in the process made one of the top ten best shmups for the console.

In the distant King Drool unleashes an army of robots to take over the world.  A cyborg named Zonk and his numerous companions are the only force that stands between Drool and world conquest.  This is clearly a spinoff of the Bonk series but the ties are tenuous at best.  Despite being a shooter Air Zonk establishes its own world and the character would go on to become extremely popular, replacing Bonk as the system mascot in the US for a time.

Take Bonk, give him pair of lightning bolt sunglasses and add a pinch of Astro Boy and a star is born.  Zonk is practically a living weapon, with an army of powerups at his disposal and the ability to generate some of his own.  Your boot jets can be used to fry any enemy stupid enough to fly in its wake.  By holding down Button I a screen clearing smart bomb is generated and oddly enough can be used an unlimited number of times.  I suppose the charge time is supposed to offset this but you can spam the shit out of it with some skill.

The power-up system is what really stands out.  There are well over a half dozen weapons, that range from homing missiles, playing cards, boomerangs, alligator teeth (don’t laugh, its strong as hell) and even one that shrinks you to midget size but allows four way fire.  The power-up capsules fly in pretty frequently so if you don’t like your current weapon a replacement isn’t too far away.  The levels are long enough that you can experiment with a multitude of weapons and you’ll want to as the weapons system is taken even further.

10 companion helpers are available, with the option to either choose one every level or let the computer select automatically.  The characters aren’t just faceless options like Gradius, they are strange as hell and possess unique powers.  I mean who thought up a cow shaped like a puffer fish?  Or the humanoid drill and a dump truck?  Although their designs will leave you scratching your head the added firepower they provide is welcome and once you collect a second giant smiley face the two merge into an invincible hybrid with massively increased power.  Each stage is long enough that you’ll have the opportunity to experience this at least once.  And it gives some incentive to replay the game just to see what other outlandish creation the other partners will create.

Although the game is short at only five levels Air Zonk is not a cake walk; at times things become chaotic and the partners aren’t invincible. Too many hits and they’ll leave your ass behind.  When the game heats up you’ll definitely miss having a buddy at your side.  While the levels aren’t necessarily split up into segments there are clear breaks when you fight a mini boss.   But in the end its an all too brief ride, which is a shame when the game is this good.

The change in setting has resulted in a much wider variety of set pieces than the staid prehistoric backdrops that permeated the prior Bonk games.  Artistically the game is over the top with an everything but the kitchen sink approach to enemy design.  The bosses are a mish mash of metal and animals and whatever else you can think of slapped together and it works flawlessly.  The levels range from baseball stadiums to oil rigs and deserted cities.  Even if these tropes have been used before you’ve never seen them like this.  And the soundtrack is equally fantastic.

The only thing that would have really driven Air Zonk into the stratosphere would be more levels.  But as it stands this is still one of the best shmups for the Turbo-Grafx 16.  Which is high praise considering just how many there are.

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Neutopia

I’ve seen my share of rip offs but this is in a special class of its own.  If you were a Turbo Grafx-16 owner RPGS were not all too common on the platform so any new release in that category was cause for celebration.  For the most part, at least.  There’s nothing wrong with aping a more popular game; hell some of the best games of all time have done that.   But at the least those games introduced their own unique spin on tried and true mechanics.  Neutopia basically says fuck that, and lifts all of Zelda’s mechanics wholesale.

The Demon Dirth invades the kingdom of Neutopia and not only kidnaps the Princess Aurora but the 8 medallions that maintained peace in the 4 lands of the world.  The warrior Jazeta is tasked with recovering the medallions from the 8 labyrinths they are hidden in and saving the Princess.  While it steals its identity from Zelda there are a few features unique to Neutopia that would not show up until later Zelda games.  However they do not make up for the game’s shortcomings and leave Neutopia as a hollow experience that is a shell of the game it mirrors.

Divided into 4 lands (land, sea, sky, and subterranean) each houses 2 dungeons as well as a wealth of other items.  While the overworld map of each land never approaches the size and scale of any of the Zelda games it’s still possible to get lost finding each objective.  Your compass will at the very least point you in the right direction but navigating there is up to you.  There is are an army of inhabitants in each world with items to sell or information so overall you aren’t left clueless at any given moment.

While the list of items you collect is very small and analogous to Zelda the one lone standout is the Fire Rod.  It increases in power up until the end of the game and its strength is determined by your health.  Low health produces a small globe that barely travels any distance.  With a longer life bar you can produce a trail of flame that will burn everything in its path.  Like the 2 candles it can also burn trees and rocks to reveal hidden passages.  If the rest of the game had shown the same level of inspiration than it wouldn’t be compared to Nintendo’s classic series as much.  But that isn’t the case.

From the moment you enter a dungeon this is Zelda with a new skin.  From bombing walls to collecting a key to unlock each dungeon’s boss no stone is left unturned.  Christ you even have to kill all enemies in a room or push blocks to open doors as well.  It goes even further than that; crystal balls will reveal the full map of each dungeon and each possesses at least one upgrade although they aren’t mandatory for completion.  A lot of the room layouts are an exact match as well; Jesus Christ they were shameless!  The mechanics are solid since they were working from a good base but the game is soulless as a result.

And that extends to the production values.  The 4 worlds are visually distinct at the very least but nothing to write home about.  The dungeons all share the same dreary look but are spruced up somewhat later on.  The music is a mixed bag with some standout tracks however the soundtrack is dull overall.  The biggest letdown though is the spotty collision detection.  Between your sword attacks and the Fire Rod your hits won’t connect like they should, leading to lots of unnecessary damage.  While it isn’t a difficult game the enemies do their fair share of damage compounded by this issue.

I sincerely doubt you’ll find a more blatant Zelda clone anywhere gameplay wise.  But at the very least it means the fundamental mechanics are sound.  I wouldn’t recommend Neutopia unless you are a true die hard action RPG fan as there are better alternatives such as Alundra.

6-out-of-101

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Valis III

And now we come to the penultimate chapter in the Valis saga (at least until Telenet fell on hard times and whored out Yuko in porn games.  True story).  The Valis series were sort of bastions of merging cinematics with side scrolling action and part 3 ups the ante in that regard.  Far better than the first game releases on the Genesis Valis 3 is a decent action game that misses an opportunity to do more with its character switching mechanic.

Glames, ruler of the Dark World has decided to let his demons loose on both the Dream World and Earth.  One lone warrior from the Dark World, Cham, travels to Earth to find the sword of Valis in order to beat Glames’ Leethus sword.  Valis warrior Yuko teams up with Cham and along the way picks up twin sister Valna for some triple team action.  Released for both the Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16 CD both versions are worth your time and feature many levels of sword swinging fun.

The game changer this time around is the ability to swap between Cham and Valna.  Both characters have their own weapons, be it Cham’s whip or Valna’s fireballs.  The range and power of these attacks are the deciding factor in who you’ll choose to tackle each individual segment.  Yuko remains relatively unchanged and is the most balanced of the 3 in power and range.  Cham’s whip travels the farthest while Valna packs a punch but needs to get in close.  There are only a few portions of the game that force you to use a specific character otherwise you can pick at your leisure.  Regardless of who you select you’re still in for a tough ride as the game is relentless.

The individual enemies themselves aren’t really much of an issue but the increased platforming focus will come as a shock.  The under used slide mechanic definitely gets a work out this time around.  The few seconds of air time you have when sliding is put to use in many of the stages, especially the ice caves.  It’s very unforgiving in this regard; one wrong maneuver can lead to death.  The bosses as well are basically “bullet sponges”, so to speak.  Those sons of bitches just refuse to die!  While items to replenish magic are in great supply life is not, necessitating caution.

While the basic action has been spiced up it is disappointing that more wasn’t done to distinguish each character.  Their attack ranges are only slightly different in the long run and the power behind them falls in the same range.  It would have been nice if for instance Cham took less damage or Valna’s spells were slower but packed more punch, just as an example.  As it stands its more cosmetic.  There’s nothing wrong with that but you kind of wonder why bother since they play nearly the same.

Genesis on the left, TG- CD on the right.

Sometimes I miss that era of CD gaming.  This shit was so mind blowing back in the early 90s.

Between the two games the Turbo CD version is superior.  Aside from the colors appearing more vibrant it has a few more levels but most importantly, fully voiced and animated cutscenes.  Well, as animated as they were back then.  While the voice acting is nothing to write home about the frequent cut scenes are a treat and do a good job of moving the plot forward.  The soundtrack as well benefits from CD audio.  Definitely go for this version of the game if you have the means to play it.

Renovation provided a steady stream of Genesis games and this is one of their best.  It doesn’t hold a candle to either console’s finest but is definitely worth a look once you’ve beaten those classics.

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Magical Chase

There are games that, due to their scarcity, become highly coveted by gamers and collectors. A variety of factors can lead to this such as the publisher going out of business, low retail shipments and such.  In the case of Magical Chase it was released at the very end of the Turbo Grafx-16’s life.  As such it commands exorbitantly high prices (in the hundreds of dollars!), and I’ll be honest, no game is worth that much.  But when judged separately from its rare status and on its own merits is it a good game?

For the longest time I wrongly assumed Magical Chase was part of the long running Cotton series due to the shared witch aesthetic.  Ripple is a student of magic who has unfortunately unleashed a horde of monster by opening the book Sleeping demons.  In an effort to save face and avoid punishment she sets off with her companions Topsy and Turvy to stop them all.  Cotton and Magical Chase are eerily similar however there are enough differences to avoid being labeled as a clone.  While it isn’t worth the massive stacks of cash it goes for Magical Chase is one of the most enjoyable shmups on the system due to its well balanced action.

Across 6 levels you control Ripple and her two assistants as they battle demons across highly colorful landscapes.  Each level has a specific theme such as forest or castle that will also inform the enemies you’ll face.  Your primary attack is accentuated by your two “options”.  By default they will fire in the direction you move but can be locked into position for defense or if a pesky enemy attacks from behind.  Defeated enemies drop colored gemstones that serve as the game’s currency.  Each level has a mid boss and final boss that are preceded by a shop where you will buy power-ups.

Magical Chase has a robust selection of weapons that expands all the way until the end of the game.  Each level usually has one or two new weapons that could possibly be useful for the dangers ahead however it’s not as if you are screwed if you have a favorite.  In addition, extra lives, health, and boosters for Topsy and Turvy are available.  You can keep a stock of 5 power-ups for later use.

I don’t know if it’s the presence of a life bar or that the shops appear at just the right moment but either way Magical Chase is a joy to play.  Adjusting to positioning your two options takes time but with practice you’ll become quite adept at using them to intercept bullets in a heartbeat.  Currency is in heavy supply so in most cases you can buy everything you want in the shops.  That’s not to say it’s easy though.  The game puts up a fair challenge and by the later levels will thoroughly kick your ass.   But never in such a way that its feels cheap.

The levels are paced in such a way that the shops appear exactly when needed with the exception of levels 3 and 6, which only have 1.  The boss patterns steadily become more complex the further you progress like it should in any good game.  When you die you generally know it’s your fault and what could have been done differently.

With 6 levels you’ll finish it in a few hours with some persistence but I can guarantee you’ll enjoy every moment of it.  It is a shame that such an enjoyable game is so hard to find at a decent price however if you do I urge you to go for it.

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Legendary Axe 2

Talk about going as far to the left as possible.  What the hell happened here?  Legendary Axe was one of the few bright spots in the Turbo Grafx-16’s early life so when a sequel was announced everyone paid attention.   However what we got was anything but a follow-up but instead a lame attempt to ride on the success of the first game.

Following the death of the King and Queen Prince Sirius and Prince Zach battle to see who will rule the kingdom.  After losing to the evil Zach Sirius is on a quest to reclaim the throne.  You know that completely defeats the purpose of battling in the first place if you aren’t even going to let him rule rightfully but whatever.  It’s not like he cheated or anything.  What a sore loser.  Having no connections to the first game Legendary Axe 2 is only slightly similar in gameplay and ultimately inferior in nearly every aspect.

Ditching the caveman setting the game now has a Conan inspired theme with near naked barbarians aplenty.  Rather than the static axe that is upgraded over time you now have 3 weapons: a sword which you begin with, a morning star which can hit 4 directions, and the axe which trades reach for power.   For the “oh shit” moments you are also equipped with smart bombs.  If this sounds familiar its because the gameplay is identical to Astyanax on NES, which is also from the same creator.  The major change comes from the removal of the charging system.  Although it added a tactical element to combat it also slowed down the action and was more of a nuisance; now however the action is much faster and far less aggravating.

In another respect the reduced emphasis on platforming leads to less frustration as well.  I can’t count the number of pits and oddly placed jumps that the first game demanded, all with annoyingly placed enemies ready to knock you to your death.  In its place is a more straightforward adventure devoid of any of the problems the first game had but that kind of highlights the problem.

Although Legendary Axe had its issues it at least had character and an identity of its own.  It could be frustrating as hell but at least with some patience it was nothing you couldn’t overcome.  I feel the designers went a bit too far to fix its flaws and we’re left with a generic action game instead.  The bland graphics and theme do nothing to get your blood pumping.  The game is overly dark and sparse.  The backgrounds are flat and lack detail compared to the first game; if you were shown screenshots of both side by side you’d never guess this came a year later.  The levels late in the game start to become really weird, such as the slime pit and the royal palace, which has robots and resembles a spaceship.   It’s as though they couldn’t make up their minds what they wanted the game to be.

If you ignore the comparisons to the first game Legendary Axe 2 is decent I guess but there are much better games on the NES, let alone the same console.   I honestly can’t recommend this to anyone regardless of its pedigree.

 

I suppose this was supposed to set up the third game in the series but that never happened.


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China Warrior

Ah deceptive advertising.  In the video game industry’s nascent youth advertisers knew the vast majority of the gaming populace was little kids.  Young impressionable kids open to the wonders of electronic entertainment.  If it was big and shiny chances are we would at least give it a spin.  Sega did this excellently during the 16-bit era with their bullshit “Blast Processing” marketing campaign.  Yeah, way to show off by comparing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 to Mario Kart.  But I digress.  One of the earliest examples of this I can remember were the commercials for China Warrior.

China Warrior was released in 1989.  Wang is on a mission to defeat the minions of the Dark Emperor and the man himself.  The marketing for the game compared China Warrior to fucking Kung Fu on NES, to make its point that the TG-16 was better than your old NES.  It certainly looked the part, but is China Warrior any good?

You fight on a fixed path that never stops unless you duck and defeat the many enemies that stand in your way.  In addition to the enemies varying obstacles such as rocks, tools, and even parts of the environment are flung in your path.  Due to the size of the sprites everything has a fixed height and path and figuring out how to successfully avoid or attack without getting hit is key.  There’s ebb and flow to the way the stages progress and it can feel very rewarding when you’ve learned the pattern for each level and can reach the boss unscathed.

But that also points to the game’s biggest flaw.  Because the structure is so rigid there is little to no room for deviation; you either play the game exactly the way the designers intended or die.  And it’s boring.  You only have a punch, kick, and jump kick to carry you through the whole game and it gets old fast.  The only real strategy comes from determining exactly what you need to do for each enemy.  The only challenge comes from the boss fights, and even those can be overcome by spamming the attack button.  I can see how they at least tried; nearly every one of the 12 levels introduces some new trap or obstacle but it isn’t enough.

That leaves the graphics to carry the game and they are not as impressive as NEC wanted us to believe.  Sure, the sprites are massive but they animate look wooden blocks and the backgrounds are a static mess.  This is definitely a case of style over substance.

I guess I can see why they compared China Warrior to Kung Fu; they kind of share the same structure and are just as simple.  They aired that commercial aggressively too but even I wasn’t fooled, and I probably still ate glue at the time.  This is not worth anyone’s time.


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Bloody Wolf

 

You know when I really think about it the Turbo Grafx-16 didn’t have a wide variety of side scrolling shooters.  Oh there were plenty of shmups, in fact far too damn many if you ask me, but not too many in the Contra mold.  Which is a shame, as the console’s library could have used the variety.  While Bloody Wolf isn’t enough to make gamers weaned on Contra jealous it is a decent run and gunner.

Bloody Wolf was originally released in the arcade by Data East in 1988 and ported in 1990.  As mercenaries Snake and Eagle you are tasked with rescuing the President and any soldiers reported M.I.A.  The home version is a slightly expanded version of the arcade game, with 1 more level and more dialogue that was unfortunately translated badly.

In many ways this is similar to Heavy Barrel or Mercs.  Though side-scrolling you have a wide playing field to maneuver in and you can jump as well.  There is some light platforming but nothing that will make you break your controller in frustration.  Unlike most shooters of the time you have a life bar that can be expanded and it will come in handy.  While Bloody Wolf isn’t the hardest game in the world there are times when things get hectic.  When 8-10 guys with flamethrowers or grenades blitz you you’ll be grateful for that extra health.  You aren’t sent in helpless however; there are a vast array of weapons and items to even the odds.

Most of the secondary weapons are found in crates when rescuing hostages.  One primary and secondary are your limit, and sometimes hard choices need to be made.  Some of the more destructive weapons are not without their drawbacks, such as the rocket launchers slow rate of fire.  In a nod to Metal Gear there are optional items you can find, such as fins to swim faster, keys to open locked crates, or infrared goggles.  None of these are mandatory of course but chances are you’ll find them in your travels and they’ll make life easier.  The only challenging moments in the game come from the boss fights, which will have you blowing through those unlimited continues in record time.  It’s very uneven, in that you’ll rarely find yourself in danger of death no matter how hard the game tries only to be greeted at death’s door frequently by the bosses.

The Turbo Grafx-16 version not only faithfully ports the game but is improved.   I found the graphics to be sharper and more detailed in places and the music tracks loop less often.  The level s have been expanded in size, with the addition of 1 that has you searching for 8 hidden hostages in non linear fashion.  There is more dialogue as well, and while it isn’t as bad as the arcade (you have to see it to believe it) is still engrishy in parts.

Perfectly adequate sums up Bloody Wolf.  There isn’t any one element that stands out and while they tried to make lengthen the experience it’s still very short.  The missing 2-player coop would have at least spiced up the action but sadly it wasn’t meant to be.  I would only consider this only if you’ve exhausted most of the superior action options available on the market.

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Blazing Lazers

 

It’s not easy being the fan of a dying console.  It usually goes one of two ways: you’re not aware how dire the prospects for your chosen console are so blindly hope things work out for the best.  Or you know just how fucked it is but still cling to a misguided belief that all it needs is one game to turn things around.  Usually people who fall into category number 2 are irrational fan boys, and we all love fan boys right (sarcasm)?  But sometimes that one game is so awesome you actually sympathize with the fan boy.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Blazing Lazers.

Blazing Lazers was released in 1989 for the Turbografx-16.  The galaxy is under attack from the Dark Squadron, with its only savior being the Gunhed Advanced Star Fighter.  The plot, such as it is, is based on the movie Gunhed, which did not see a US release.  Regardless, even in a sea of shooters Blazing Lazers stood out and to this day is one of the top games as well as shmups for the console.

Despite the overwhelming odds you aren’t going in unprepared.   There is a veritable sea of weapons at your disposal.  Your primary weapon can be powered up by gel capsules that drop like water.  Any of the 4 primary weapons (Bullets, Waves, Lasers, and Rings) can be further upgraded by collecting more of the same number, increasing the power to a ridiculous degree.  Optional powerups like shields, homing missiles can be selected for even more firepower.  You’re never locked into one weapon that you’ve upgraded; at any point you can switch and the power level will be the same.  If you’ve played any Compile shooter such as Zanac or the Guardian Legend then a lot of the tropes will feel familiar.

I’m not even gonna go into detail about that last screenshot.  Needless to say it’s a giant WTF moment.

All of this firepower is not wasted however.  Blazing Lazers puts up adequate resistance to meet your armaments.  At times it veers close to bullet hell levels of lunacy but never quite crosses that line into comical insanity.  The action is punctuated by moments of calm before the next storm of enemies arrives.  Any weapon in the hands of a capable player is capable of wreaking havoc but you can just easily change if you feel underpowered.  As hectic as things can get the game always remains fair; loose bullets will only downgrade your current weapon, which does suck, but power-ups are in such plentiful supply and fly by so frequently that you won’t be gimped for too long.  This also applies to the bosses; you can definitely tell a lot of these considerations were made by fans of the genre.

One of Blazing Lazers’ biggest claims to fame was the total absence of slowdown.  No matter how frenzied the action it never, ever slows down, a feat only arcade games had achieved.  If you were raised on a diet of NES shooters then this was practically a revelation.  Although this is primarily a space shooter you visit a variety of planets, from a desert planet to what looks like the inside of an alien body.  The soundtrack is solid with a wide range of memorable themes.

Even after all these years it still holds up.  Despite all of the shooters I’ve gone over I’ve never necessarily considered myself a diehard fan of the genre but Blazing Lazers might possibly be in my personal top ten.  Its accessibility is its greatest strength; non fans of the genre can jump in and have a blast and that goes a long way in my book.


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Keith Courage in the Alpha Zones

New console launches are always full of promise.  New technology!  New ideas!  We look to new hardware to see what years of new technology can do to wow us and give us that feeling of being a kid all over again.  Super Mario Brothers revolutionized the industry, Super Mario 64 did the same once again, Halo finally did first person shooters justice on console, etc.  But not all launch games are created equal.   For every Super Mario Brothers we end up with an Altered Beast or this turd: Keith Courage.

Keith Courage in Alpha Zones was the pack in game for the PC Engine and Turbo Grafx-16 for their respective regions.  The Japanese version is based on the anime series Mashin Eiyūden Wataru, however the anime was not released in the US so all references to it were stripped for the games American release.  Instead we get this gem of a story:  You are Keith Courage, a member of N.I.C.E (Nations of International Citizens for Earth) and your mission is to defeat B.A.D (Beastly Alien Dudes) and bring world peace.  Good god they didn’t even try.  Not that it would have made much of a difference; Keith Courage suffers from repetition and general mediocrity and would have needed much more than a compelling story to save it.

An action platformer, Keith Courage is divided into two parts, the Overworld and the Underworld.  On the Overworld you control Keith as he speaks to villagers and destroys minor enemies for money that can be spent to refill your life bar, buy bolt bombs, and a new sword, the latter two of which are used in the Underworld.  At the end of each Zone Keith dons the Nova Suit and descends to the Underworld.  Here the action ramps up with stronger enemies and more instant kill spikes, ending with a boss battle.  This could have made for a decent overall game but the bare minimum work was put into the game and as such it has issues.

The largest problem is the repetition.  Not so much the game structure, the whole game overall.  Every Zone, both overworld and underworld looks exactly the same with minor color palette changes.  The same criticism could be lobbied at some of the Mario games however those switch up the tile sets that make up the levels and no two levels look the same.  This extends to the lack of enemies as well, with at most maybe 10 overall in the entire game.  Be prepared to fight the same 3 enemies in every level.

The game is ridiculously easy, to the point where unless you fall in a pit of spikes you might never die.  You can take as many as 10 hits before losing a single heart with the exception being the bosses.  But even they pose little threat.  When we bought a Turbo Grafx in 1990 I finished the game in less than two hours.  Definitely not a good start for a new system.  The lack of challenge and repetition equals boredom very quickly.

It tries hard to be a classic but falls short.  They would have been better served packing in Bonk’s Adventure, now that is a retro game I can get behind!

Not every console can launch with a game on the level of Super Mario Brothers but you can do a lot better than this.  Keith Courage was not a good game then and it isn’t a good game now.  Packing the game in with the system was the best move they could make otherwise I have a hard time believing anyone would have bought this of their own volition.  Leave this one in the history books.

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Splatterhouse

In the 80s’s the Friday the 13th series of movies were all the rage.  For Christ sake, it starred a serial killer with a hockey mask, even if you were terrified you were at least interested in seeing what the movies were about.  While there was a Friday the 13th game for NES, the less said about that game the better (Acclaim strikes again!).  So in 1989 when an arcade game starring a masked vigilante highly reminiscent of Jason showed up everyone took notice.  That game was Splatterhouse.

Ah, the old days of videogame marketing.

Splatterhouse was released in arcades worldwide in 1989 with a variety of ports to follow in the coming years.  The most popular of those would be the Turbo Grafx-16 version released in 1990.  Rick and Jennifer are 2 college students who visit the mansion of Dr. West for some god forsaken reason.   With the nickname Splatterhouse common sense would tell you keep out.  After being attacked in the dark, Rick awakens to find Jennifer gone and the Terror Mask affixed to his face.  Deciding to use the power the mask has granted him Rick sets out to rescue Jennifer.

Splatterhouse is a beat ’em up as you control Rick through seven stages of the West Mansion.  The only moves in his arsenal are a punch, kick, jump kick, and a slightly difficult to perform slide kick.  Weapons are scattered around the landscape for your perusal, such as shotguns, cleavers, and 2x4s.  Sadly if you receive too many hits they disappear and you cannot carry them over to the next segment of any level.  There’s a decent selection of enemies to fight that will you keep you on your toes due to their attack patterns but for the most part you’ll breeze through the game.  And therein lays the problem.

The game is not very exciting for a number of reasons.  First is brevity.  Each stage lasts a few minutes at most, at only 7 levels long more than likely everyone will finish the game in about half an hour.  The small repertoire of moves means the game becomes repetitive very quickly, although I suppose the brevity of the game takes care of that.  The rush of donning a makeshift hockey mask and going on a rampage can only last so long; everything explodes in nice puddle of goo and gore but that isn’t enough to carry the game.  To be fair this is an arcade port so the game is only guilty of being faithful to the source material, but that doesn’t change the fact that the arcade game wasn’t that interesting to begin with.

TG-16 on the left, the Marty on the right.  You can see the stark differences very clearly.

There were 2 of ports of the game, the Turbo Grafx-16 & the FM Towns Marty.  I seriously doubt 90% of the English speaking world knows what the hell the FM Towns Marty is so briefly: the Marty was a technically 32-bit console released by Fujitsu in Japan and is essentially a PC in console form.  While not very popular it received many arcade perfect ports, which is also the case for Splatterhouse.  Unfortunately that doesn’t do the majority of us any good since we’ll likely never bother hunting down a Marty.

The Turbo version is very faithful to its arcade brethren but for its American release a number of really stupid cuts were made.  Many of the cut scenes were removed or simplified, a lot of the gore and violence is toned down, and most of the religious imagery has been changed or removed.  One change that does make sense is the mask: its red and more skull like, more than likely to keep Paramount off their ass due to similarities to Jason Voorhees.  Funny that.

Back in its day Splatterhouse caused something of a stir because of its subject matter and closeness to a certain movie franchise.  Sadly the game does not back up its premise with good gameplay.  This was notable for its gore and violence but that can be found in spades elsewhere in much better games.



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Aero Blasters

Nowadays we’re suffering through a glut of first person shooters.  I imagine fans of the genre are happier than a pig swimming in its own feces right about now.  In the 80s and 90s a different brand of shooter was all the rage: the shmup.  From the arcades to home consoles there were an army of these bastards, with the Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16 receiving the majority.  One such release was an arcade port of the Air Buster arcade game.

Aero Blasters was released for the Turbo Grafx-16 in 1990 and the following year for the Genesis as Air Buster.  The story is standard shooter tripe with you once again piloting a lone ship to stop an alien invasion, this time with optional 2 player coop.  Both versions of the game differ from the original arcade machine and to some extent are tailored to their individual hardware.  Regardless of which one you choose this is an excellent shooter that while not original does everything right for enjoyable experience.

Vast arrays of armaments are at your disposal to thwart the alien menace.  By charging the attack button you can release a smart bomb that will destroy weaker enemies and most importantly bullets.  Your standard shot can be upgraded a number of times by collecting P power-ups and will be your most effective weapon.  Unlike the majority of shmups on the market, power-ups are thrown at you with reckless abandon.  Unfortunately a good portion of them pale in comparison to the standard cannon once powered up and actually are hindrances more than often not.  The only ones worth bothering with are the homing missiles and striker options.  The challenge is tuned near perfectly with a nice ramp up the farther you progress.  By the 4th level you’ll have to contend with zero gravity along with an increase in the number of enemies and more complex boss patterns.

For its time this was a visually stunning game and the home conversions despite some changes follow suit.  The Turbo-Grafx edition is especially impressive considering the hardware’s lack of parallax scrolling; at times the backgrounds are 2-3 layers deep.  The cosmetic changes are less background detail and smaller enemy sprites.  This might sound blasphemous but for certain stages I prefer the look of the TG-16 game, especially the first stage with its visible horizon in the background and more detailed skyline.  The Genesis game sticks closer to the look of the arcade machine and largely succeeds at mimicking the look.  There is less detail overall but it’s about as well as you would expect.  Musically the Genesis game suffers from less punchy sound effects and a more muted score.  I loved the music in the Turbo Grafx game and was disappointed the Sega game did not receive the same treatment.  To see how each version stacks up against each other check here: http://www.pcengine.co.uk/HTML_Comps/Comp_AeroBlasters.htm (TG-16 ) & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynQQdJ0WxU4.

It’s hard to stand out on consoles swamped with shooters unless you do something radically different.  This does not fall into that category but that remains a fault (if you can even call it that) of its arcade brethren.  However it remains a fun game with good graphics, a nice soundtrack and a fair challenge.  Regardless of the version you pick you still find a few hours of enjoyment out of this title either way.

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Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

We all have them.  Objects of desire.   Those things that for whatever reason have reached such near mythical status in our minds that we feel we absolutely must have them.  In the gaming world these usually take the form of limited editions of games, imports, or unreleased games.  In this case, long time fans of the Castlevania series were left out in the cold when Rondo of Blood never left Japan.  It didn’t help that plenty of the magazines of the day bombarded us broke teenagers with many tantalizing screenshots.  Importing to sample the game’s greatness for years would run you in the hundreds of dollars leaving that out as an option.   With so few having played it its status as one of the best games in the series became legendary.  But does it live up to the hype?

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was released in 1993 for the PC Engine CD in Japan.  Considering the console’s less than stellar performance in the US it came as no surprise that it was not released for English speaking audiences.  Set during the tail end of the 18th century, you star as possibly the coolest Belmont in the franchise, Richter.  Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her younger sister Maria have been kidnapped by Dracula.  The chase is on as you work your way to Dracula’s castle to settle the score.

This is very much a perfect synthesis of past games in the series while also bringing in elements that would later be used in Symphony of the Night.  Like the original and Castlevania 3 you work your way through the 9 levels and defeat a boss to move on.  Your six sub-weapons are complimented by the item crash ability that would become a staple of the series.  You also possess the ability to back flip although I never really found a good use for it.  It looks cool though.  Sounds like a typical game in the series but that’s where the similarities end.

In a nod to Castlevania 3 there are 4 alternate stages, accessible by finding them during the levels.  In addition to these some levels possess alternate routes that lead to different boss encounters.  The time limit has been removed allowing you all the time in the world to explore the levels for secrets.  Aside from the alternate levels, you can rescue 4 maidens in addition to Annette and Maria.  These aren’t just fluff; finding them influences the ending and bosses you fight and as an added bonus Maria becomes playable once rescued.  Unlike Richter she does not crack a whip, instead attacking with doves and rather than the standard axe, holy water, boomerang, etc. sub-weapons summons animal familiars.  You wouldn’t think of it as she is only a 12 year old girl but using Maria is game breaking as her attacks are massively overpowered.  For those that want to play the game as straightforward as possible you can; anyone seeking added depth has a wealth of content to discover, blending the best elements of traditional Castlevania with some elements from Simon’s Quest.

Over the years much ado was made of the PC Engine/Turbo Grafx-16’s status as a16-bit powerhouse.  This game lays all those arguments to rest.  This is one of the most beautiful games of that era, with hardware defying art and sprite work on display.  No fancy special effects or special chips, just skilled 2d artists given a large canvas with which to ply their trade..  The Turbografx-16 was known for lacking the ability to do parallax scrolling in hardware but that weakness does not show with scrolling 4 or 5 layers deep at times.  A significant number of new enemies were created for this game with a  large volume of the enemies recycled for numerous later games, a testament to the game’s craftsmanship.

The CD soundtrack has an even mix of new tunes and remixes, all masterfully crafted.  This or Symphony of the Night, I can’t decide which has the better soundtrack.  While Dracula X does an admirable job mimicking this version’s music nothing can beat the original.  The CD sound does the game’s compositions justice and any fan of video game music in for a treat.

Luckily anyone who wants to partake in this game’s greatness is no longer forced to pay upwards of $1-200 dollars as it has been re-released on a variety of platforms and downloadable services.   The Wii virtual console version is only $10 and is the Japanese release, untranslated and untarnished.  A port was included as part of the PSP Dracula X Chronicles and as an added bonus translated into English along with a 2.5d remake that although decent does not touch its source material.  However that version has a few graphical issues that blemish the overall product.  Regardless of the version you play you are in for one of the greatest action games of all time.

10-out-of-10

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Bonk’s Revenge

After the success of Bonk’s Adventure a sequel was inevitable. That it turned out so well was no surprise as the first game, while rough around the edges, was still a fun game.  All they had to do was smooth out those flaws but instead they went above and beyond the call of duty.  The difference in quality is very much like going from Super Mario Brothers to Super Mario Brothers 3.  Bonk’s Revenge is the best game in the series and perfectly encapsulates what made him different from the likes of Mario, Sonic, and every other mascot roaming the land.

Bonk’s Revenge was released in 1991 for the Turbo Grafx-16.  King Drool III has kidnapped Princess Za and half of the fricking moon.  Of course rescuing both falls on the shoulders of cave boy Bonk.  You know it’s never quite clear what he’s seeking revenge for.  Is it because the Princess was taken again?  Does he really care about the moon that much?  Who knows?  Gameplay is exactly the same as the first game with a boat load of polish making the trip far more enjoyable the second time around.

All of your abilities from the first game remain intact.  Your large melon remains your primary form of offense.  The flying headbutt attack that was such an issue in the first game with its spotty hit detection is no longer an issue thankfully.  Spinning in the air while jumping doesn’t quite work the same as the original as you no longer move as fast and this leaves you a bit vulnerable.  The meat power-ups return with slight differences this time.  1 piece of meat will still allow you to freeze all enemies on screen by slamming the ground  A second piece will cause you to go nuclear and after a brief period of invincibility you will possess the power to breath fire for a bit.  The food used to replenish health is in greater supply thankfully as the game is much harder and longer.

The 3 difficulty settings correspond to how long the game is rather than the inherit challenge they suggest.  Practice lets you run around the first level, intermediate covers the first four stages with all 7 levels only available on expert.  The levels themselves have undergone a massive overhaul to avoid repetition.  Each level is broken up into multiple parts and as such will take you through a variety of locales.  There are very few straight left to right paths through a level as many will offer multiple routes to an exit.  Exploration is rewarded with many bonus stages that have different stipulations for their rewards.

Although you are given plenty of opportunities to earn extra lives you will burn through them if you don’t play carefully.  Enemies swarm in greater numbers and the level hazards come in all shapes and sizes.  The bosses require memorization of their patterns and have very particular hit boxes.  You can easily waste a few lives determining where they are vulnerable, a fact made more evident because of the loss of invincibility with your spin jump.

As good as the first game looked Bonk’s Revenge is even more striking.   The old adage of bigger, badder, better applies here.  The animations are funnier, the backgrounds more detailed, and the enemies bigger.  The bosses are especially a showcase for the progression the developers had made in the years since the first game.  A figure skating ballerina?  A cigar chomping wolf on a flying submarine?  The sense of anything goes carries over from the prequel and despite how ridiculous it might seem it never seems absurd.  I would even say the presentation benefits from the wackiness apparent throughout the game.  The soundtrack reaches the same heights and although some of the songs are recycled from the first game it doesn’t even matter since they fit so well.

You can tell the creators had fun throwing in everything but the kitchen sink and the fact that it all gels together so well is a compliment.   This is everything a sequel is supposed to be.  A long quest, a wealth of secrets, and a decent challenge will provide a few hours of entertainment.   You can’t really ask for anything more than that.

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Bonk’s Adventure

In the great pantheon of console mascots everyone remembers Mario, Sonic, and Crash Bandicoot.  Those are the most obvious, and the ones that achieved the most success out of the glut of platformers that bombarded the market.  But there’s one mascot that is never remembered and forced to sit in the back of the bus.  That would be Bonk, the mascot (somewhat) of the Turbo-Grafx 16.

Bonk’s Adventure was released in 1990, a year after the system had launched.  A bit odd considering he would more or less become the face of the platform in America.  I say somewhat mascot because the game was ported to numerous other consoles, but those ports came long after the original.  Like Mario before him Bonk is out to rescue a princess, this time from the evil King Drool.  Your enemies are anthropomorphic dinosaurs, and you know I never gave it much thought, but although you are a caveman you never encounter any others in the series.  But that’s just me thinking about this too much.

What sets Bonk apart?  Mario has his butt stomp, Sonic has his speed, Bonk has a big fucking head.  Harder than a brick you use it to skull bash any enemy in your way as well as select walls.  You can spin in the air to cross gaps or dive bomb enemies with your head for massive damage.  The wonky hit detection of that attack will piss you off however.  You need to be precise when using it but I think even the developers realized this.  Various fruits and foods populate the levels with most of them only netting you extra points, however some restore your health and are in abundant supply.

Power-ups are few but the ones available make you a walking death machine.  Meat comes in two flavors, large and small and will power you up in 2 stages.  Large meat puts you at maximum power and makes you invincible for a short period of time.  Small meat only does it slightly, giving you the power to freeze everything on screen for a few seconds with a head stomp.  These actually come in abundance, and generally you won’t traverse any one level too long before reaching another if it runs out.

I love the animations in this game.

The power of the TG-16 is put to use in much subtler ways than you would expect.  Although the game has an overall simple look its done on purpose.  The full range of the system’s color palette is on display here with each level exploding in color.  The enemies come in all shapes and sizes with some taking up nearly the whole screen.  The overall animation in the game is incredible, not just on the main character himself.  You’ll see a selection of hilarious hit animations when you attack and when you receive damage.  The bosses are the show stoppers and are where the game starts to deviate from its prehistoric theme.  One is a ninja and one is actually a tank with a dinosaur for a head.  It’s an interesting mish mash to say the least.

It doesn’t revolutionize the genre but what it did it did well.  For its time this stood out as a fine example of the platform genre.   It’s funny that this game predated even Sonic the Hedgehog yet never reached the heights of that franchise.   This was ported to a huge number of systems so pick your poison if you want to give it a try.

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Exile

Remember when old video game magazines would have numerous screenshots of cut scenes?  These were never labeled as such and often times would be mistaken for actual gameplay.  At least I did, but maybe I was just a dumb kid.  From the Y’s series to Cosmic Fantasy I would see these games and thought they were the most awesome creations known to man.   Of course the truth is a lot of them were terrible once I got to play them, but one game that bucked that trend would be Exile.

When I was 12 cut scenes like these were the coolest thing in the world.

Exile was released in the US by two publishers: Renovation handled the Genesis version while Working Designs had the TG-16 CD version covered.  The basic framework of the game is exactly the same for both however there are some stark differences of which I’ll cover later.  This is actually the second game in the series, as we never received the first due to the MSX and PC-88 computers never crossing the Pacific.  That would actually be a blessing as this installment is a complete 180 in terms of quality.

The Exile series is somewhat controversial for various reasons: the drug references, the religious overtones in the story and so on.  These seem quaint today but back then were a concern. Our hero Sadler is a Syrian assassin investigating rumors of strangers lurking near his hometown.  Panic is in the air as stories of Christian crusaders (renamed Klispin crusaders to avoid controversy) rampaging throughout the continent and conflict with them is inevitable.

What starts out as a simple fact finding mission turns into a worldwide quest to recover 3 artifacts needed to complete the Holimax (more or less the Holy Grail) and bring about world peace.  The game is rife with cameos from numerous historic figures, such as Pythagoras and Mani.  It was all of these elements combined that would cause such a stir, and both versions have been censored to a degree.

Gameplay is split into 2 parts.   You wander around towns and fields in an overhead perspective like many RPGs of the time.  Although you travel with 3 other companions for most of the game, they are useless, as Sadler is the only one playable.  They exist simply to espouse advice.  These segments lead to the action portions of the game where it becomes a side-scroller.  These portions of the game take place in maze like structures as you enter various doors that teleport you around the levels.  You can attack in front or below you and have access to 7 or 8 different spells but these are completely unnecessary as the game is quite easy.

This games lack of difficulty can largely be attributed to the numerous areas where enemies will spawn infinitely, allowing you to grind a few levels away by holding the attack button.  Even the bosses pose no real challenge if you are at the appropriate level or above.  The only challenge will come from surviving long enough to find your objectives as the layouts of each dungeon can be confusing.  Teleporters are a constant element and will necessitate the creation of maps to avoid wandering in circles for no good reason.  Once you’ve figured out the correct path you’ll realize how short most of the dungeons are.  It’s too bad the action segments weren’t longer as they are a brief but enjoyable relief from information gathering.

 

Jesus Christ it’s like they used Babelfish before it ever existed.  The last scene was cut from the Genesis version.

In terms of graphics both versions are near identical, with the TG-CD version having a slight edge in terms of color.  The cut scenes are also fully animated with voice acting in that version as well.  The soundtrack is excellent for both games, and once again the CD version wins, but that’s a no brainer.  The biggest difference comes from the translation.  The Genesis game is nigh unintelligible; Engrish doesn’t do it justice.  The degree of censorship is also distinct.  The CD game remains almost unscathed in terms of content; the only changes made were to drug names and religious references.  The Sega game fared worse; there’s an entire town missing, and the naked, drunken festival is covered up.  If you have a choice definitely go for the Turbo Grafx version.

While not ground breaking in any way this remains a fun game to plow through in a few hours.  It has a unique setting and story elements and as a whole is polished.

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Legendary Axe

Whenever a new system launches everyone looks for that one title.  The one that justifies whatever price you have to pay just to experience it.  In the past these would usually be packed in with the system, like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario Brothers.  For the Turbographx-16 that game was Legendary Axe.

Legendary Axe was available at the system’s launch in the US in August 1989.  You play as Gogan, a barbarian who has been away from your home village for an unspecified length of time.  The Cult of Jagu, who control your people have selected your childhood friend Flare as their annual sacrifice and that just won’t stand.  Armed with the Legendary Axe you set off to save her.  This all sounds a bit like I’m describing Golden Axe but the actual game itself is nothing like it.

Across 6 levels you battle all manner of monsters to reach cult leader Jagu before it’s too late.   If you’ve played Astyanax on the NES then this game is essentially the same in nearly all facets.  Both games were designed by the same man so it stands to reason he carried over the same game design principles.  You have a strength meter that builds up and determines the power behind your attacks.  Scattered around the world are idols that can be smashed for power-ups, one of which will extend the length of your strength bar.  The difference in power between a fully charged hit and even a half power is staggering to say the least.  Receiving any damage resets the meter, wasting your charge.

Determining when to build it up or just spam weaker shots is key.  Right up until the end of the game new enemies are introduced with their own attack patterns that must be learned and will force you to make snap decisions in terms of attacking.  Aside from increasing attack speed, health and extra lives the axe is your only weapon.   Learn to love it.

Graphically this was head and shoulders above anything on the NES.  The level of detail in the backgrounds and variety of colors was practically a revelation in those days.  A common theme in the advertisements for TG-16 games was the ridiculous sprite sizes the system was capable of.  With the exception of the final boss you don’t really see much of that here but the game makes up for it with the sheer amount of enemies it can throw on screen with no slowdown.  The soundtrack is equal to the graphics in its variety and matches the game’s them perfectly.  This game was a prime example of the TG-16’s technical muscle.

I mentioned Astyanax earlier for a number of reasons.  Beyond the basic game mechanics, this game also shares a lot of that game’s flaws.  There are far too many bottomless pits and small platforms to navigate, and just like Castlevania there are numerous enemies waiting to pop out right when you jump nearly every single time.  Getting hit knocks you back a little too far and will have you rage quitting In short order.

The difficulty isn’t too high for the most part until you reach the end of the game, where the challenge feels like it’s warped in from a different game.  The maze you have to navigate runs far too long with next to no hints that you are going the right way.  The sheer volume of enemies thrown at you reaches retarded levels and will make you tear your hair out.  The bosses as well also exhibit signs of this.  Cheap hits and ridiculous attack range mean you will defeat them with a sliver of life left, if at all.  You get three continues to beat the game and that’s it.

Even in spite of that this is still a phenomenal game for the system.  The issues I described can be overcome by moving at a slower pace rather than trying to run through the game like its Contra.  If not Bonk this should have been the pack in game for the TG-16 instead of the terrible Keith Courage.

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