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Sunman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Robocco Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Mamono Hunter Yohko: Makai Kara no Tenkosei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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DinoCity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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The Adventures of Little Ralph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Rendering Ranger: R2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Renny Blaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Cabal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Dick Tracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Chiki Chiki Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Great Battle Cyber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Faussete Amour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Dashin Desperadoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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NARC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Rockman & Forte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Bimini Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Contra Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Metroid Prime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10-out-of-10

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The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Dragon’s Fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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the Little Mermaid

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Metal Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Die Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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The Adventures of Batman & Robin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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The Adventures of Bayou Billy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Super Turrican 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Granzort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Spartan X2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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McDonalds Treasure Land Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Makai Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Gungage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Duke Nukem 64

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Mission Impossible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Bio Senshi Dan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Super Bomberman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Cross Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Ardy Lightfoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dahna: Megami Tanjō

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Super Return of the Jedi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Doom Troopers: Mutant Chronicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Melfand Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Syd of Valis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Go Go Ackman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Mega Turrican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Mugen Senshi Valis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Cosmic Epsilon

It’s curious to look back on the NES library and see which genres were underrepresented. Despite Nintendo’s absolute dominance of that era not every genre was fully supported in the US with the rail shooter being a prime example. Outside of Tengen’s illegal port of After Burner and 3-D World Runner (if you can even call it a shooter) fans were left wanting. Cosmic Epsilon is clearly patterned after Space Harrier and at least compared to the Famicom port of that game is far better and probably the best rail shooter for the system, not that there was much competition.

Once scheduled for a worldwide release (it was even demoed at CES!) Cosmic Epsilon was cancelled for reasons unknown. This was an interesting title as it was one of the few that supported the Famicom 3d system, a large pair of Virtual Boy style glasses that made you look like a bigger dork than the clowns that bought the power glove. Wisely Nintendo never brought it out over here but the 3d mode is still there in the game much like 3-D World Runner.

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What immediately stands out about the game is its presentation. The viewpoint and use of scaling is identical to Space Harrier except here it is much smoother. The backgrounds of each alien world also do an excellent job of setting a mood even though they are static and the game becomes more impressive the further you progress. The scaling of the enemy sprites isn’t as well done but they aren’t distracting. Only Tetrastar (ironically from the same developer) and Square’s JJ produce a more convincing 3d effect which is high praise.

The selection of weapons is surprisingly kept light. Your lasers are simple but functional and can be charged to produce a much stronger single blast. You have a limited supply of homing missiles….that are useless. Seriously I can count on one hand with extra fingers the number of enemies I’ve successfully shot down with a missile. The missiles are a worthless inclusion made worse by the fact that aside from an invincibility power-up you get nothing else.

Fortunately the game itself is set up so that you don’t really need anything else. This is as basic a shooter as they come. Enemies come in preset waves and you must either dodge their fire or destroy them across eight stages of scrolling action. The game alternates between piloting your transformable mech in its humanoid form and jet form although the only difference between the two is being a smaller target.

At eight levels this is pretty long by shooter standards and not in a good way. Each stage drags on longer than it should and the extremely limited enemy variety and staggered waves stand out as a result. You’re fighting the same five or six enemies for the entire trip and their tactics never change. By the midpoint of each level you’ll simply want it to end. Boss battles are pretty frantic as they attack aggressively, forcing you to always stay on the move. These are the highlight of the game outside of its technical prowess and if the game were better paced you could actually look forward to these encounters rather than wanting to get it over with as soon as possible.

Much like Space Harrier and its ilk targeting enemies and dodging bullets is a bit of a problem due to the viewpoint. In this regard at least Cosmic Epsilon has the advantage when it comes to shooting down enemies. Since your fire comes from the two orbs that follow your movements and act as crosshairs lining up enemies between them will almost always guarantee a hit. Dodging bullets and other hazards on the other hand is more of a hassle as it can be very hard to discern whether they will fly over you or right in your face.

As such you can probably guess the game can be viciously hard, especially in the later stages. The enemies attack in waves from all directions and while they are staggered the game’s POV means any random bullet can take you out. The game also relies a bit too heavily on heat seeking bullets that are hard to dodge unless you are already in motion, especially during boss battles. I get that that’s the point but it feels really cheap. Luckily you respawn immediately so death isn’t as big a detriment as it could have been; if the game sent you back to a checkpoint it would be impossible. There’s a particularly nightmarish sequence of laser dodging before the final boss that will sap all of your extra lives.

The high difficulty isn’t a deal breaker however. As a rail shooter this might be the best for the system which isn’t saying much seeing as there are so few but take what you can get. There is a fan translation for the game but it is completely unnecessary as there is only a paragraph of dialogue at most. Though flawed this is a much better experience than the NES version of Space Harrier and worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Super Spy Hunter

Spy Hunter is remembered as an NES classic but if you go back and actually play it you’ll wonder why. The game is really simple, has no end, and is far more frustrating to play than it should be considering it doesn’t have the most complex mechanics. But it did have a really cool musical theme, for what it’s worth. Super Spy Hunter makes good on that game’s promise and is excellent. Somehow despite its predecessor’s popularity it has maintained a low profile but don’t let that deter you as this is another notch in Sunsoft’s belt.

What’s actually surprising about Super Spy Hunter is that it is actually a different game altogether. Originally released in Japan as Battle Formula Sunsoft’s American division rebranded the game and with good reason; it plays identically to Spy Hunter although that game was created by Midway. The game’s silly premise sets the game 500 years later in the year 2525. You wouldn’t know it course as the only thing that has changed are slightly fancier cars. An international crime syndicate known as “X” plans to launch an attack on the United Nations and it is up to you and your tricked out car to stop them. I swear this could be the plot of a Fast and Furious movie but that is actually a compliment as those movies fully embrace their stupidity and are awesome.

Spy Hunter was a fast paced game and the same applies here except now you given the necessary tools to keep up with the game’s pace. There are a decent variety of weapons available and thankfully rather than having to line up with a stupid truck you simply smash it to earn the highlighted weapon. There are shot upgrades, missiles, the popular oil slick but most importantly cannon control, which automatically targets enemies. It’s rough going initially since your life bar is small but it doesn’t take long to power-up at which point with some skill you can cruise through the levels.

The level design is excellent and incredibly varied. For the most part you control the game’s pace and can go as fast or slow as you wish. With no time limit to worry about the game provides plenty of reason to adjust speed when necessary and does a much better job of telegraphing incoming hazards. The road is no longer a straight path but curves and undulates. There is far more varied terrain as well; the game does not take place strictly on the highway as you’ll drive through quicksand, pilot a motorboat and even take to the skies in a helicopter. Some of these elements were present in the original but it was so badly designed most would be hard pressed to ever see them. This is a much tighter experience that really fulfills the promise its premise suggests.

My one gripe is that the levels run a bit too long and would have been better served broken up into two segments each. Any of the alternate vehicle segments could have stages by themselves rather than sandwiched in as a smaller part of a larger whole. The level breaks that could have created would have helped with the difficulty as the six levels here feel like an all or nothing proposition. The boss battles are really cool but are also as long as the stages themselves if you can believe it. Each goes through multiple phases that are difficult but feel rewarding once completed.

While the pace has been slowed down somewhat and you are empowered to deal with the numerous threats in your path the game is still brutally difficult. The slightest touch will inflict damage and starting out your life bar is woefully short. If you die you are brought back down to the standard life meter and depending on the checkpoint it might be near impossible to mount a comeback. This is particularly a problem during the long drawn out boss battles, to the point where you might as well start the level over. Power-up trucks appear regularly but it’s entirely possible to miss out on the item you need really easily, namely life.

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Like nearly every NES game they crafted Super Spy Hunter looks great. Although it doesn’t look like it this is a pretty technically advanced game with extensive use of raster effects seen mostly in 16-bit games. The road twists and turns realistically and there are even highway overpasses and bridges. It’s minor but adds to the game’s atmosphere and sense of speed. The screen can get pretty crowded at times with only a minor bit of slowdown. Flickering sprites are a bigger problem as the developers were a bit too ambitious for the hardware. The soundtrack is also great; that familiar Peter Gunn theme returns but is also joined by wide range of tunes that almost sound like they belong in a Konami game.

Though slightly flawed Super Spy Hunter is not only makes up for the lackluster original but is an excellent game in its own right. Brutally difficult but highly enjoyable the game is hard to find but so worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Rocketeer

I remember the insane marketing blitz surrounding the Rocketeer. From toys, fast food tie-ins, to commercials Disney went all out in a bid to convince you that this was the next big thing. I specifically remember the art deco movie poster and thinking this guy looked incredibly cool. Mind you I was 11 and didn’t know a thing about art deco but didn’t need to; that poster just grabbed you. In the end it was all for naught as the movie failed at the box office but we did get a few games out of it. This NES tie-in follows the film’s plot faithfully but aside from that there is little that helps the game stand out. It’s a decent game overall but is lost in the sea of platformers already available.

The film’s iconic rocket pack is present in the game but disappointingly it isn’t as crucial a game mechanic as you would expect. There are only a few sections where it is necessary for progress and they never progress beyond flying over a wall or hitting a boss’s weak point. In fact a good portion of the time you can’t use it as the game won’t provide any fuel! Technically you can use it to fly over a sizable chunk of the levels but the designers were aware of this and either sandwich you in tight areas or have flying enemies that are tough to kill and only appear when you fly too high.

Without flight you are left with a pretty generic platformer. You have a decent assortment of weapon that all use varying amounts of ammo. The game does a good job of providing ammo but it can run out fast so you’ll more than likely stick to the standard pistol or your fists. I wish I could say that there were interesting enemies to test them out on but in reality the game only has about 5 or 6 different enemies. Get used to killing the grey suited idiots that run straight for you and Mr. Tommygun a lot.

The game’s five chapters feel a lot like ten since they run so long. It could be the game’s slow pace but each individual chapter is broken up into multiple segments that each seem far too big for such little content. The level design is as straightforward as it gets. Despite having a rocket strapped to your back there is little reason to use it at all since “secrets” (if you can even call them that) are very few. Between the repetitive enemies and the bland scenery it makes trudging through the long stages a chore. It’s disappointing because you can see the shell of what could have been a great game but the stiff controls and dull levels ruin it.

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The drab set design is especially egregious for me as I love period piece movies and the game could have capitalized on that. The graphics have their moments but are ruined by the garish color scheme. The movie was a period piece and when the game is reenacting certain moments it is very stylized and looks unique. Anything outside of that is gaudy. The Rocketeer himself makes for such a cool visual that I’m baffled that the developers could not surround him with equally pleasing aesthetics.

There’s a pretty sharp spike in difficulty in the game’s final chapter that isn’t present in the rest of the game. Generally the game does a good job of providing ammo so you don’t have to rely on your fists but the forest level is just so badly designed overall that it’s better to fly through as much of it as possible rather than trying to slog it out slowly. There’s really bad enemy placement, a confusing layout and it drags on far too long with no checkpoints. I won’t say its Ninja Gaiden stage 6-2 levels of bad but it’s really close and will almost kill your motivation to finish the game.

The Rocketeer is one of Bandai’s better NES games but that isn’t saying much considering they released crap like Dragon Power, Gilligan’s Island, and Chubby Cherub. This is a decent platformer but there are far too many better alternatives to bother.

6-out-of-10-1

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the Firemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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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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Captain Silver

Captain Silver was released for the Sega Master System at a time where I wasn’t even aware Sega were still supporting the thing in the US. While a decent game it had its fair share of problems, many of them endemic to the arcade game it was based on. With just a few more tweaks it could have been great. In Japan a Famicom port of the game was also released and like its Master System cousin could have been a good game if the developers tweaked a few of its elements.

Of the many changes that occurred during the porting process the most disappointing is your standard attack. Jim no longer slashes his sword but sticks it out straight like a fork. It looks just as stupid as it sounds and makes dealing with many enemies frustrating. Oddly enough when you jump he’ll hold the sword at an angle which does help but is only a slight salve. While the direct means of attack is limited it is effective; once it hits you can hold the button to keep inflicting damage. This is extremely effective against bosses.

In this version of the game Jim is actually armed with a life bar as someone finally realized one hit deaths simply weren’t fair considering the way the game is designed. Although most enemies take a few hits to kill simply jamming your sword in them and waiting will freeze them in place and kill them. A bit unfair but take whatever advantages you can. The weapons you buy in the shops are overpowered and aren’t used up until you switch or die which means you can blitz through a level pretty easily.

That being said it doesn’t mean the game is completely easy. The clock counts down extremely fast, leaving you little time to dawdle. The game’s lousy hit detection means you are going to suffer from many cheap hits although I will say that extra health drops evenly. One curious bit about the hit detection that I noticed and can be equal parts helpful and frustrating deals with the bosses. Only certain parts of the bosses can actually damage you; if you crouch the massive peg legged pirate of stage two will walk right by you. It isn’t always clear however which is what makes it annoying. Towards the end of the game there is some forced platforming and like any game not focused around that it is pretty bad here. Prepare to lose a few lives to the swinging ropes.

The various incarnations of the game (the US and European Master System versions have different levels) take liberties with adapting the arcade game’s levels and the same applies here. All of the levels are present but a few have been expanded such as the caves beneath the pirate ship. Two more stages and a slew of exclusive bosses were added to make for a more well-rounded game but it doesn’t change the fact that were it not for its flaws you could finish the game in less than twenty minutes.

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Though nowhere near as detailed and colorful as its arcade and Sega counterpart the Famicom edition of Captain Silver still manages to impress in a few ways. The game is notably darker than the arcade game but it seems a good fit for the direction they’ve taken with its art. In some respects I’m glad they didn’t try to replicate the arcade game’s use of color; that thing was garish and looked like an old EGA PC game. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed and feature minor bits of animation here and there that make them pop.   Speaking of animation, oh man is it bad. The way Jim just sticks his sword out to attack instead of giving it a mighty swing is just sad. The large bosses look like something straight out of Castlevania but then they start to move and you notice they only have 3 frames of animation. Overall however I would say the presentation is one of the game’s few good points.

This should have been a great game but unfortunately there are far too many elements that drag it down. While I was able to overlook some of its flaws I doubt most will and I simply can’t recommend it. I really wanted to like Captain Silver but I think I’ll stick with the Sega version or Donkey Kong Country 2 for my pirate themed platforming fix.

6-out-of-10-1

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Risky Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Ushio to Tora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Dinosaurs for Hire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Batman – Revenge of the Joker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Cowboy Kid

Legend of the Mystical Ninja came out of left field during the SNES’s launch window and delighted anyone fortunate enough to have played it with its heavily Japanese flavor and unique gameplay. Unfortunately it didn’t sell well enough to warrant localization of any of its three sequels which will forever be a god damn shame. I had no idea it was simply the latest in a long running series that dated back to the arcades and Famicom, nor did I ever know that a similar game in the same vein did reach our shores. Cowboy Kid is Ganbare Goemon in a western setting and just as awesome.

As rookie Cowboy Sam (and his Indian sidekick Little Chief in coop) you are elected sheriff of the city and tasked with bringing six of the most wanted criminals in the land to justice. They’re a motley bunch that wouldn’t look out of place in Sunset Riders with such “creative” names as Slash Joe, Coyote Jim, and Wild Wolf Chief. All jokes aside they make for one entertaining ride full of personality that barely anyone has heard of due to its 1992 release.

Cowboy Kid uses the same line scrolling playing field as nearly every side scrolling brawler as you explore each town on the way to arresting whichever criminal is causing a ruckus. Each level is completely nonlinear and you are free to explore to your heart’s content within the 20 minute limit. The freedom to tackle the game in any order gives it a Mega Manish vibe although outside of collecting the pistol that’s as far as it goes.

There’s plenty to see and do with shops that sell a variety of items, people to speak to and a surplus of minigames to indulge in. The overall proceedings have a light RPG tone but you won’t be increasing any stats outside of your life bar. All of these activities revolve around money which can be earned through killing enemies, the innumerable chests lying around, and putting up cash to participate in the various minigames such as Black Jack, the shooting gallery and a version of the circus strongman test. The shops offer a rotating list of items such as various foods and sometimes quest specific items.

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All of this is fluff of course since you can just as easily skip it all and trigger the necessary story events to press on however you’ll miss out on the best the game has to offer. While most townsfolk only have silly things to say some will point you to helpful items that will save you some cash. The Wild West setting is fully realized through character dialogue and clothing and is a nice change of pace. The overall tone of the game is pretty comedic but never quite reaches the level of insanity of the series it mimics. It does have its moments though. You’ve got swordsmen, farmers, gunmen, even farm animals and ghosts wandering around as if there’s nothing wrong. If you’re too cheap to spring for a decent hotel room you can always opt to sleep in the horse stable!

Quite possibly the game’s only real flaw is its opening. In the beginning you are armed solely with a knife and while seeing a cowboy stabbing fools left and right is comical it isn’t very practical in use due to the game’s perspective. The game is fairly generous in terms of hit boxes, meaning you don’t have to line up perfectly with an enemy to hit them but the same applies to you. Depending on the levels you pick you’ll eventually obtain a long distance alternative but you have to find them first, meaning it is possible to miss out and end up stuck with the knife completely.

Inevitably the fun and games must come to an end and the race to apprehend each boss begins. For the most part these segments are regular side scrolling platforming with all that entails. I can safely say that no two stages are ever the same with the game doing its best to make each level unique. The chase for Coyote Jim is done on horseback in a top down sequence that feels reminiscent of Gun Smoke. There’s even a make shift mine cart sequence that is challenging but pretty fun. Where the general enemies are pushovers the bosses are actually significantly tougher and take an absurd amount of hits to go down. If the intention was to make these fights seem epic they overshot it with some dragging on for close to 10 minutes (Mad Brothers I’m looking at you).

In the end these are small complaints in an otherwise excellent package. Unfortunately Cowboy Kid is hard to find and goes for hundreds of dollars on the after-market. No game is worth that much in my book but should you find it at a decent price one of the most distinctive NES titles awaits.

8-out-of-101

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Shadow Blasters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Metal Slug

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Robocop 3

I have to give Ocean credit, they certainly tried with the Robocop license. Data East’s Nes game based on the first film was decent but flawed but Ocean’s first stab at this license was a complete disaster which is saying a lot considering how bad the movie is. Sadly Robocop 3 follows along the same lines despite trying to add some unique flavor to what is otherwise a traditional side scrolling action game. This is not worth the hefty investment.

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The most immediate change is visual; this third installment has gone back to the grittier look of the first game rather than the clown colored presentation of the dire second game. It doesn’t stray too far from it however as there are still very garish color choices throughout but that is owed more to the system’s limited color palette than anything. Murphy himself looks a bit chunky and cartoon like though I suppose that is keeping in line with the rest of the presentation. Unfortunately the music is terrible, full of the generic euro techno trash that Ocean tended to populate their games with.

Uneven presentation aside at the very least the mistakes made with the second game’s controls have been fixed. Robocop does not slide around like he’s on ice skates and that change makes the game infinitely more playable. He isn’t as spry in his steps since there is a sense of mass but it is manageable. The ability to aim diagonally is a blessing with regards to dealing with enemies although I find it suspect that you can’t shoot directly upward. Robocop is armed with a large variety of weapons, from spread shots to different varieties of missiles, all equipped with infinite ammo. You even get to don the film’s jet pack for no inexplicable reason in one level that is more frustrating than fun. You can’t say they didn’t at least try to include some of the film’s more iconic elements.

The game introduces what should have been an interesting mechanic that in some alternate universe would have given it “depth” but in practice is more frustrating than it should be. Robocop’s body parts have separate damage ratings that when depleted will cause that part to randomly malfunction. If your arms are damaged your weapons fire is erratic and sometimes won’t work at all. When your legs are damaged you won’t be able to jump temporarily; if you’re body suffers too much damage occasionally Robocop will be completely immobilized. What ruins it is the scarcity of repair items. At the end of each level you’ll have to use repair canisters to patch him up but at most you’ll have 3 or 4 which isn’t enough to completely fix one limb let alone his whole body.

Because of the screwed up repair system the game’s difficulty is all over the place. When all of Robocop’s parts are working correctly you can breeze through the game fairly quickly. Unfortunately that is a rare occurrence. Because repair items are so rare you’ll always have to deal with some part of his body being broken and the myriad frustrations that causes. At its slightest you will be unable to shoot; switching weapons will fix it. At its worst you will be completely immobilized and unable to jump which will basically forces you to die and continue. The only saving grace (if you can call it that) is the game’s brevity. With a sparse five levels the more determined can finish this in a little over an hour. But why would you?

Although the movie was a mess the sad thing is this game had the chance to be good! If they had ditched the stupid repair system the game would have at least been bearable. I’m not trying to paint the picture of an awesome Contra level run and gun action game hidden beneath busted mechanics but at least the few remaining fans of Robocop in 1992 could have had a decent game to make up for the movie’s shortcomings. Oh well.

Robocop 3 is slightly better than the terrible second game but still not worth tracking down. Because of its late release the game is sometimes pricey. Ocean never had a good reputation for quality when it came to their licensed titles and this certainly didn’t do them any favors. This belongs in the same pile as Akklaim’s X-Men and Sony’s Last Action Hero.

5-out-of-101

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Commando

Although it was sheer coincidence that both the movie and Capcom’s arcade game Commando were released in the same window in my mind I can’t separate the two. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a brutal bad ass in the movie (I can’t believe I was allowed to watch it when I was 6 or 7!) and in some ways Super Joe in Commando is the same. While I was a mild fan of Commando back in the day I could still tell that it lacked in substance and was only a very brief distraction in the end.

While it has nothing to do with the movie you could certainly view it as an adaptation. After being dropped off in the jungle your single is to slaughter any and every one in your path on the way to destroying the enemy stronghold. Oh yeah you might also rescue a hostage or two. As one of the earliest overhead shooters Commando’s influence can’t be denied and can be seen in games as early as Ikari Warriors and later games such as Ninja Combat and Shock Troopers.

Because it was such a simple game Commando was ported to just about every format imaginable, from the Atari 2600 to the various PCs in Europe. The NES game adds a few features that are superfluous but unfortunately makes the same mistake as Ikari Warriors by dragging out the experience in order to see the true ending. Trust me it isn’t worth it.

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It’s pretty impressive just how many sprites Capcom manages to fill the screen with no slowdown; as many as 8-13 gray and green soldiers will rush to assault you and the game action never misses a beat. Well rush probably isn’t the right word considering you are more likely to die from running into them than being shot. Once you move past them these lame duck soldiers can’t keep up and don’t even bother trying to shoot you in the back. Flicker will rear its head but that is usually only when motorcycles or trucks drive by.

In terms of weapons there aren’t any aside from your machine gun and limited supply of grenades. Luckily that’s more than enough to deal a swift death to any idiot dumb enough to cross your line of fire. Grenades can only be thrown forward but you can shoot in eight directions, although diagonal shots are tricky to line up. A few extra power-ups have been added although you’ll have to comb through the levels to find them. A bullet proof vest will allow you to survive an extra hit, an option for unlimited grenades, and glasses to find all of the hidden bunkers. The number of hidden areas was increased significantly for this release and make the grenades far more valuable than in the arcade release.

In the end all of the additional content does not change the fact that this is an arcade game, with levels that last about a minute or two before completion. With only four levels you’ll see all the game has to offer in ten minutes or so. In the arcade the popular Capcom tactic of making you play through the game twice to see the end was used but for the home release that was increased to four times with no discernible difference each time. It’s a far cry from what Micronics did with Ikari Warriors (adding three more excruciatingly long levels to the arcade’s one) but it makes little difference. Sure that still only amounts to less than an hour of work but as solid as the gameplay is it isn’t compelling enough to warrant doing so.

At the end of the day you can’t fault Commando for being what it is; a solid port of an arcade game. More advanced titles would soon follow such as Contra making the prospect of anyone wanting to revisit Commando slim, especially without two-player coop.

6-out-of-10-1

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Ninja Crusaders

Words can’t describe how much I loved Ninja Gaiden growing up. Until the Revenge of Shinobi it was the quintessential ninja game in my opinion and so any game that even remotely seemed similar had my attention. As much as I craved a sequel (which would eventually come and was awesome) there is something to be said about being careful what you wish for as Ninja Crusaders, despite its similarities can’t hope to match up to Tecmo’s classic. It isn’t fair to make unwarranted comparisons but in this case it can’t be helped. This is not just a low budget ninja game but a bad game overall.

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As much as I don’t want to make the comparison it can’t be helped: Ninja Crusaders looks and feels like a poor man’s Ninja Gaiden. Granted the NES was very limited in terms of sprite size and such but the similarities between both games’ protagonists can’t be denied. You aren’t fighting creatively designed ninjas this time however but aliens. Amorphous, ambiguous aliens whose designs make no sense though I suppose that is why they are alien. While they do look similar Ninja Crusaders does have a few features that distinguish it from the game that so clearly inspired it. For one a single hit means death, an aspect that is completely at odds with the way the game is designed but more on that later. There’s also two-player coop which goes some way toward making the later stages of the game bearable if you can make it that far.

Rather than a default sword + ninja magic the game has four weapons that you’ll pick up along the way. The four weapons available run the gamut of risk vs reward. The shuriken are your classic long distance weapon but are frustratingly weak. The Kusarigama has a nice balance between range and power. The spear is incredibly strong but has weak range and is essentially useless by the game’s midpoint. The sword would suffer a similar fate if not for the game’s other defining feature.

Depending on the weapon you can transform into a spirit animal and back again. Shuriken will transform you into a tiger with the highest leaping average and movement speed. The kusarigama changes you into a sea scorpion, which moves unbelievably slow on land but incredibly fast underwater, the spear becomes a bird that can fly indefinitely but cannot attack. Lastly the sword transforms you into an invincible dragon. The dragon is extremely overpowered, able to fly and kill even bosses in one hit. Of course finding a sword is extremely rare to balance this out and you lose it after one use. Sadly while the animal forms are cool they are underutilized; outside of the frequent trips underwater I’m sure most will even forget you can do it at all since it isn’t as integrated into the game as it should be.

Outside of the boss battles the game is fairly easy up until its final levels. Most enemies are spaced out pretty evenly throughout the levels and will rarely attack in groups of two or more. Despite the single hit deaths you’ll breeze through the levels and will have more trouble lining up jumps with the badly placed platforms than having to worry about some random alien.

It is in the game’s second half where it seems as though the designers had a spark of inspiration as the level design is noticeably better and the enemy placement becomes just as devious as Ninja Gaiden. Mind you that means its slightly above average but it will make you wish the entire production were this well thought out. Death comes pretty frequently at this point and the game leans heavily on your memorizing every enemy spawn point to survive as they are far too fast for you to react to. It feels incredibly cheap but luckily extra lives are easy to come by (just pick up the same weapon twice) and you have infinite continues which does alleviate the frustration somewhat.

Regardless of the weapon chosen the boss battles can be excruciatingly hard. It comes down to using the weak but long range Kusarigama which will drag the fight out or the stronger but close range tonfa, where every hit risks death. While I liked the challenge these mayors pose it is frustrating that their hit box isn’t always immediately obvious, especially the first boss. The final boss made me just as mad as the bastard at the end of Wrath of the Black Manta, another mediocre ninja game.

Take away Ninja Gaiden’s production values and nuanced gameplay and you are left with Ninja Crusaders, a game created in its image but lacking even a fraction of its charm. Those craving more action in the same style would be better served playing Vice: Project Doom, a similar title from the same publisher that is infinitely better than this.

6-out-of-10-1

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Rambo III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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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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G.I. Joe: the Atlantis Factor

1992 is the year I started to buy video game magazines consistently and with that my eyes were opened to a ton of new releases that I would never have heard about. GI Joe: the Atlantis Factor is a game that would have escaped my radar without seeing a review of it in Gamepro. As an NES game in 1992 it already had a low profile but its faults in comparison to the first game probably have something to do with that. In trying to create a deeper action game than the original the developers have only succeeded in ensuring most will be too frustrated to finish it. While still a solid game it is second best compared to the excellent original.

GI Joe: the Atlantis Factor follows a similar structure to Bionic Commando with its map full of branching paths and levels. I wonder if the game’s setup was already set in stone or suggested by Capcom when they decided to publish it. Anyway unlike that game you won’t have to worry about random attacks as you plan your path to Cobra Commander’s base. The map is divided into routes which lead to the lettered Areas with boss battles and a member of the Joe team in need of rescue.

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This is probably the biggest departure from the original. You begin the game with General Hawk and must assemble the team one by one. General Hawk is well rounded but it really sucks having to wait until you can play as your favorite character. Roadblock, Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes, Wet Suit, and Duke comprise the playable roster with Gung Ho providing ammo when called and Spirit resurrecting one character if they are killed in action. The order you obtain them is largely up to you and it is possible to beat the game without saving anyone although that would just be stupid.

More work was done to make each Joe distinct and they’ve succeeded somewhat while introducing some annoyances. Aside from their different stats (which the game doesn’t show this time) each has at least one special ability. Roadblock can crawl through tight spaces, Wet Suit can dive underwater, and Duke can fire in four directions. Both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow jump the highest and wield swords for longer range with their melee attacks. What’s cool is that you can select any three for a given level and switch between them at any time, which you’ll need to do to max out their weapons.

Once you’ve found the laser gun, rocket launcher, and wave gun they become available to everyone. However to increase their efficiency everyone has to level up their skills separately, including melee attacks. Skills can be increased four times and in a nice touch change in appearance at higher levels such as Duke’s machine gun becoming a five way shot when maxed out. For Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes their swords fire a small beam at level four which is powerful and conserves ammo. To balance this out they both have the lowest starting health at 3 and 2 (2!) hits respectively.

While this all sounds cool in theory in practice the constant switching for power-ups is tedious. Drops from enemies are unreliable and so you have to smash every container in hopes of finding something. Meanwhile the tight clock discourages exploration. In my opinion the character distinction was taken too far with the leveling system. You need to have a balanced party since I can guarantee you’ll die frequently during boss battles if you make it that far and winning with an underpowered Joe is simply not possible.

The first GI Joe game was difficult but the Atlantis Factor takes it to another level. Rations and ammo in general are in shorter supply, forcing you to rely on hand to hand combat far too much. Leveling up each individual character’s weapons grinds to a halt towards the end of the game as items become even scarcer. For Joe’s like Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow who need the health boosts to become worth using this is a problem since they’ll be useless for the majority of the time you have them. It sounds nitpicky but the constant need to switch characters in order to ensure they receive power-ups is annoying, especially when said items seem dead set on avoiding you.

Technically you can focus on one guy but that would be stupid and you’ll want to take advantage of everyone’s separate life bar to survive. Unfortunately ammo is shared and you’ll need to hoard it for the brutal boss battles since your fists are useless there. You are not punching these guys to death, trust me as it would not only take far too long even at max level but I guarantee you would die long before then.

These flaws aren’t game breaking but are frustrating enough that they drag the game down a bit. They stand out even more since the rest of the game is so accomplished. The level design is well thought out and the controls are excellent like its predecessor. However somewhere along the way the well intentioned changes to the party system make an already challenging game even worse. Only the truly skilled need apply.

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Developer KID were somewhat underrated among NES developers and yet their titles pushed the system the hardest. Kick Master is one of the finest action platformers to hit the console and Recca is quite possibly the most technically brilliant game ever conceived on that aging hardware. So it should come as no surprise that the Atlantis Factor looks great. The visual style is very similar to the first game except this time the backgrounds are more varied and many of the sprites are larger. Indeed, the bosses are twice your size and are accurate representations of their cartoon forms. Overall the game is definitely keeping company with other late era NES titles of the time.

As much as I like the Atlantis Factor I would still recommend the first game over it. Though hard it is still fair and less frustrating. Imagine a game that combined the best of both games, now that would truly have been something.

7-out-of-10

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Xardion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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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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Last Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Demon Sword

I was never a fan of the Legend of Kage, not in the arcade and especially not on the NES. The idea of running through the treetops and fighting ninjas and assassins like in the Kung Fu flicks I used to watch was enticing for all of five minutes before I grew bored of it. I could make the joke that in another five minutes I would have seen all the game had to offer but I’ll refrain. When I saw the initial advertisements for Demon Sword I didn’t realize it could pass for a sequel to LoK but I still played it anyway and was pleasantly surprised. Surface similarities aside Demon Sword won me over by having more content and better production values.

As long as the people can remember the Dark Fiend has ruled the land and its inhabitants. A lone warrior named Victar possesses the Demon Sword, a weapon powerful enough to slay the Dark Fiend however it was broken into 3 pieces long ago. Victar must reassemble the Demon Sword to rid the land of the demon once and for all.

Not since the days of the Atari 2600 and a semi-nude Fabio on the cover of Ironsword has a box art been so misleading. The buff warrior wielding a bad ass flaming sword? Yeah, no. The game takes place in feudal Japan and your samurai is wearing a kimono with a slit up the side. Deceptive marketing aside there’s no getting around it, Demon Sword is the Legend of Kage with far more depth and much better graphics. It also has some of the same flaws that are pretty annoying but all in all DS is a solid action game.

Your basic offense consists of shuriken that are weak but stun enemies and an incredibly short dagger. There are many power-ups, some temporary like the five-way stars and ninja doubles and others permanent, such as extensions to your life bar and more powerful stars. Throughout each level are optional doors opened with keys that have items or miniboss encounters. Since there is no time limit you can easily sit in one spot to farm items so long as you can stay alive. The Demon Sword in the title is your weapon and will grow in length every two levels to actually become worth a damn.

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Demon Sword contains the same high flying antics as Legend of Kage with spacious levels that unfortunately drag on too long. Because the background elements are recycled so heavily it is easy to feel as though you are running in circles with no other course but to keep going and hope to see some landmark that is different. It is also easy to leap into a bottomless pit or other stage hazard like spikes when using your leaping prowess.

The game is also a bit difficult as enemies spawn indefinitely, even when you are standing still. In the initial stages the dagger is your most powerful weapon but has terrible range. Until the midpoint of the game you are going to take far too many cheap shots from enemies until hopefully you’ve farmed some power-ups. Any of the boss battles feel like a nightmare since the throwing stars are so weak and your sword isn’t useful until near the end of the game. This is a game that requires some amount of patience to enjoy its good parts, something that I don’t think most will have. It’s a shame since the game is still fairly unique but at the same time even I struggled to stick with it.

What we received in the US is a drastically stripped down version of the game, forced to fit into a 2mb cartridge. Half of the game’s levels were cut as well as a number of the magic spells. These magic spells are pretty damn awesome; one creates a hurricane that sweeps away enemies while another transforms you into an invincible dragon. On the other hand Demon Sword is more balanced since you actually have a damn life bar. Much like Legend of Kage you die in one hit in Fudou Myououden and death comes pretty frequently. Although enemies require a few more hits to kill in Demon Sword you can also permanently increase your attack power. You can make a case that 6 more levels is a bit much especially as each tends to drag on far too long but it’s not as if you have to complete the game in one sitting and in that regard I give a slight nod to the Japanese game.

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Despite the similarities between the two games Demon Sword is a much more attracting package visually than Legend of Kage. Granted it came out years after that game but the leap in art design is pretty significant. The various forests, caves, and graveyards are incredibly detailed and fully realized and most of all give the game a sense of variety. Leaping from the treetops actually feels like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, except, you know, this game came first. Even the various optional and end level bosses are artfully designed. I will say that the protagonist’s choice of outfit is a bit suspect; a skirt with a slit up the side?

Demon Sword is a surprisingly solid game despite the significant cuts made to its content. Of course if you can play the Japanese original than go for it but you could do far worse than taking its US counterpart for a spin.

7-out-of-10

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Psycho Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Turrican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Mega Man X7

This review hurts to write. I love the Mega Man games through all of their various incarnations through the good times and the bad. The formula does become repetitive after a while but even in spite of that the games are still good at their core. Mega Man X6 was one of the series’ low points, a game that was not only a blatant cash grab but also suffered from a clear lack of play testing. And yet it was still fun in spite of its flaws. You can’t say the same here; Mega Man X7 is simply a bad game, one that suffers from both bad game design and technical flaws.

After fighting various wars Mega Man X has become tired of battle and retires from active duty. With the vacuum left by his absence a number of Maverick hunting groups have sprung up with Red Alert becoming the most famous. They are brutally efficient and it is this violence that forces Red Alert member Axl to defect. However their leader Red will not let Axl go and goes as far as declaring war on the Maverick Hunters to get him back.

I suppose it was inevitable that the series would go 3d but to a certain extent I wonder if it was necessary. The mix of 2d and full 3d gameplay is well intentioned but simply does not mesh well and causes innumerable problems when trying to enjoy the game. Had they simply used the “2.5” style of Klonoa Mega Man X7 would have turned out far better. The struggles Capcom faced in trying to adapt a 2d platformer to 3d are eerily similar to Konami’s with Castlevania 64. Both games suffer from an atrocious camera and while they have their moments I don’t think most are willing to overlook their glaring flaw to find them.

With X in retirement your protagonists are Axl and Zero at least until the game’s midpoint depending on your actions. You have the option to switch characters at any time during a level with each possessing their own separate life bar. Capcom have gone to great pains to make both characters feel distinct from one another to take advantage of the character swapping system. Zero can double jump but has lost his X-buster, relying solely on his sword. To make up for his lack of range his beam saber can deflect most projectiles. Unfortunately it isn’t enough to even the scales as Axl and X’s mega busters are far more useful.

Axl can hover in the air for a few seconds rather than double jump and while his gun cannot be charged it is equipped with rapid fire. Axl unique power is the copy shot. Defeating reploids with this weaker shot will drop a red core that will transform you into that enemy for a brief period with access to their powers. It’s a cool idea but in practice isn’t as useful as you would hope. The enemies you can copy have simplistic attacks that aren’t suitable for long term use. You’ll mainly copy enemies to walk on spikes or avoid other stage hazards such as fire to save captive reploids.

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Although the game was built in 3d it largely sticks to a 2d plane like the prior installments. It is in these moments that the game gives you a hint of the solid foundation the franchise was built as you execute pinpoint platforming, defeat enemies, and save fellow reploids in need of help. I won’t go so far as to say it compares to any of the previous games but it is at least fun. Occasionally the perspective will shift for a more scenic view which feels gratuitous more than practical but it isn’t obtrusive in any way.

It is when the game decides to flirt with full 3d that it completely shits the bed. The main culprit is the atrocious camera. You have marginal control over the camera to pan left and right but in tight corridors that isn’t an option, which unfortunately make up the majority of these portions. Objects that block your view are supposed to become transparent but do so irregularly. On top of that the controls don’t translate properly to 3d. Targeting is incredibly finicky just plain aggravating. There is some degree of auto aim but you have to be close for it to work. Switching targets and getting it so stick nearly caused me to slam my controller in rage. It’s unfortunate that these problems exist as certain levels would have been excellent with more polish such as jumping from ship to ship in Wind Crowrang’s stage.

As a result this is a far more challenging game than any other in the series. The constantly shifting camera leads to plenty of cheap hits and even worse angles where you can’t see the platform you need to jump on with no option to move it. There’s nothing worse than falling to your death because the camera decided to swing mid leap. The game is incredibly stingy with energy capsules to the point where the majority of your healing will come from saving your comrades.

The boss battles are the highlight the game but only if you can exploit their weakness. Otherwise be prepared for a near 10 minute slog as you whittle their long life bars down little by little. While some of these encounters are well designed there are others that rank among the worst boss battles I’ve ever experienced. The Flame Hyenard battle is one giant clusterfuck of mechanics that do not form a cohesive whole and is frustrating beyond measure. Whoever chose the overhead camera angle for the Ride Boarski battle needs to be shot. It’s making me angry that I have to mention some caveat when talking about the game’s good points as I really wanted to like the game but I just can’t.

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Visually X7 is inconsistent. The character models are cell shaded and do a good job of replicating the 2d artwork. However the backgrounds are not go for a realistic look that clashes with the cel shading. There are a significant number of cut scenes that are a mix of real-time and cell animation that do a good job of moving the story forward. But once again it is completely ruined by the absolutely terrible voice acting. The acting is poor and there are awkward pauses in every conversation, almost as if the audio was pieced together after the fact. Capcom has never been able to get this aspect of the series right and it is at its worst here.

Mega Man X7 is a game that had its heart in the right place but falls flat in its execution. There are far too many issues for me to recommend it to anyone, leaving it the sole chapter in an otherwise excellent series that needs to be skipped. What a shame.

4-out-of-101

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Silhouette Mirage

It was a sad day when Treasure’s Silhouette Mirage was passed over for US release. As the Saturn floundered in America at the very least Sega still provided a consistent calendar of releases to appease fans. Outside of one or two outliers all of some Treasure’s output came over but it just wasn’t meant to be. In the case of Silhouette Mirage was even worse; this is what the system was born to do yet it seemed destined to stay in Japan. Little did we know that this brilliant game would see international shores but not on its original platform. Enter Working Designs, who would publish the PlayStation port in 1999. While it has its flaws the brilliant gameplay still shines, leaving the game one of the system’s biggest undiscovered gems.

In the year 2000 a group of scientists create a computer called Edo which conducts experiments that eventually result in the population of the world obtaining one of two attributes, silhouette and mirage. Eventually war breaks out between the two factions with the world on the brink of chaos. Shyna Nera Shyna, the messenger of justice, awakens from hyper sleep in order to bring order to this chaos and repair the Edo system. Unfortunately the years have left her with memory loss and so she must find Edo with a little assistance from her helper Bug.

I still remember Gamefan’s October 1997 import coverage of the Saturn version of Silhouette Mirage. It was vintage Treasure, a genre breaking game that was completely unique from everything else in the category. The game certainly lived up to the hype and I anticipated its US release but the changes Working Designs instituted made the game far more frustrating rather than slightly more challenging as intended. Luckily it isn’t game breaking and the nuanced gameplay is still there to be enjoyed by all.

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The game works on the concept of duality. Shine is equipped with both select and mirage attributes with the direction she is facing determining which you use. Attacking enemies with that of the same attribute will still spirit power at her while at home; using the opposite damage them. Spirit determines the power of your attacks with your weapons getting weaker and spirit is drained. The same applies to enemies as well and it is an excellent tactic to completely drain and the spirit causing them to deal zero damage.

Like Gunstar Heroes Shyna is agile and comes equipped with a bunch of hand to hand techniques. Aside from a slide and dash Shyna can triple jump, not that precise platforming is a major focus of the game. There are a variety of melee moves  with the most prominent being a throw and the cash bash. Throwing enemies allows you to attack without switching polarities; you can manually switch polarity at any time but it is slow and unwieldy. Tossing an enemy behind you is far more effective. The cash bash allows you to shake down enemies for their money, including bosses. Money that you will need to buy better weapons and restore health.

There are a variety of secondary weapons that can be purchased at the numerous shops throughout each stage. The weapons, called parasites run the gamut from a boomerang powerful piercing laser, a home and shot and even a remote bomb. Each weapon increases in level on each stage of that increase comes an increase in becomes an increase in price as well, with Shyna only able to carry three. Parasites drain spirit at different increments and unfortunately in this regard working designs nearly broke the game.

As one of the many changes made to the game weapons drain spirit; in both the Saturn and Japanese PlayStation versions weapons had unlimited use. To be fair the weapons were drastically overpowered and made the game ridiculously easy. To make up for this so long as you attack with the same attribute you also drain spirit from enemies as well however most weapons use more than they drain, effectively making them useless in long spurts. The default weapon uses very little spirit and easily remains effective for the length of the game but it defeats the purpose of offering more powerful armaments if you can barely use them.

Another unpopular change that slows down the game considerably is the increased cost of everything in the shops. Unless you stop in cash bash nearly every single enemy you’ll barely have any money to afford even one weapon upgrade let alone refill your health. There are no health power ups and gain and unfortunately they don’t replenish your help after each stage either. Being forced to choose and a precious upgrade that you desperately need is dumb no matter how you slice it.

Yet in spite of these frustrations the game is still excellent. Up until the recent Outland there was nothing else like it. While the attribute system makes the game slower paced that was intentional; you have so many tools at your disposal that it gives you time to consider how you want to approach each encounter. The level design is similar to Alien Soldier in the sense that there are brief encounters with fodder enemies before the next boss encounter.

The boss encounters as in all Treasure games are the true star of the game. One of my personal favorites is samurai lizard Nardo. He appears to deliver punishment for causing a ruckus in the city at night but is so loud he wakes up the residents who throw various items at both of you, items that can (and probably will) take him out. Any encounter with your rival Zohar is memorable as he has the same dual powers as you and constantly switches up his attack pattern. The Attribute Gun is reminiscent of Seven Force in that it changes frequently and you have to pay attention and react accordingly. These are the most challenging parts of the game and force you to really utilize the game’s mechanics in ways you never thought possible to survive.

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Silhouette Mirage is one of the better looking 2d games for the PlayStation thanks to Treasure’s strong art direction and sprite work. The art in the game is superb and full of detail with vivid color and plenty of multi-jointed sprites as Treasure is wont to do. As good as the game looks it does come up short when compared to the Saturn original. There are entire background layers and objects missing from this release, leaving some levels feeling a bit empty. There are 2 exclusive bosses to make up for it but the lesser graphical polish can’t be denied.

The changes made are a love/hate affair (although with context I can sort of see why they were made) but in my opinion they don’t ruin this truly innovative game. Silhouette Mirage can be found dirt cheap and I’m sure those who try it will love it.

8-out-of-101

 

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Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Skeleton Krew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Amagon

We’ve all had our moments of desperation. As little kids most of us only received new games on birthdays, Christmas, or the odd random holiday. Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, in which case fuck you. I’m kidding. To fill in that dead time you either had to trade games with friends or rent them. But that will only get you so far.

Back in the day new game releases weren’t as frequent so eventually you’ll have either burned through your friend’s collections or exhausted all the good options at Blockbuster video. When you’re dying for some new entertainment eventually anything will do. Suddenly that dirty old copy of Master Chu and the Drunkard Hu starts looking good. I found myself in just such a predicament, except my poison was Amagon.

You are Amagon (what the hell kind of name is Amagon?), a marine who has crashed on a prehistoric island and need to get home. Unfortunately the rescue ship is on the other side of the island, meaning you’ll have to fight your way to a ticket home.

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Make no mistake, this game is bad. Whether it’s the terrible game balance or the just plain uninspired action there really is nothing of merit to this game. The only reason I even bothered to play it is sheer boredom. I needed a new game to play and my next door neighbor had it and the rest is history. Sometimes it really is better to just replay a classic like Ninja Gaiden or let the Grim Reaper kick your teeth in for the umpteenth time in Castlevania than waste a perfectly good afternoon with a turd.

As Amagon you’re only armed with a machine gun with limited ammo. For the most part enemies drop ammo frequently enough that you won’t have to worry about it too much early on but by the middle of the game that stops. There are very few actual power-ups; just extra points which are important, extra lives, ammo, and the all-important mega key.

The mega key allows you to change into Megagon provided you have enough points and the requisite power-up. Megagon is a beefed up version of Amagon, able to jump higher, hit harder, and with an actual life bar. The higher your score the more health Megagon will have. In addition he can sacrifice a little life to fire a wave attack that can destroy nearly anything in its path.

While the idea that better play will enable you to use your best power-up more frequently is good the game seems balanced around Megagon. The deeper you progress the more you’ll fight enemies that are basically bullet sponges, sometimes in pairs of two. It seems a bit unfair to have to waste a fourth of your bullets on two or three enemies if you aren’t Megagon but you are presented with these situations frequently. Sometimes it comes down to sheer luck whether a Mega key will drop meaning you might have to complete a good portion of a level before the option presents itself.

It’s a situation that sucks because this is not an easy game. Most of it comes from the bad game balance but the sloppy controls don’t help either. Both Amagon and Megagon have these weird leaping arcs that end in a dead drop. There are far too many cases where it feels as though you just made the edge of that platform even though you’ve inched as close to the edge as possible.

Running out of bullets does eventually become a concern and if that happens kill yourself; trying to pistol whip enemies without getting hit is an exercise in futility. This impacts the rest of the game since you need to rack up as high a score as possible to be effective as Megagon. It’s pretty stupid to find a Mega key at the beginning of a level since you’ll have maybe two hit points at best. You’ll end up saving it to close to the end, which defeats the purpose. Speaking of ends, the end level bosses are virtually impossible as Amagon, once again reinforcing the need for those damn keys.

As much as the tone of this review might indicate I had no intention of hating Amagon. But the lists of issues with the game stack up and make the whole experience crumble. This was not a good game then and it isn’t now.

5-out-of-101

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Super Turrican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Pocky & Rocky 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

 

 

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Power Blazer

A long time ago Japan would get the better versions of most games simply by virtue of the fact that the games originally came from there. Many things can and will change during localization however back in the 80s that undeniable fact was taken to the extreme. Sometimes a license has to be stripped (Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain became Shatterhand) or sometimes what are supposed to be innocent changes completely ruin a game, epitomized by the changes made to Mad City when it became the Adventures of Bayou Billy. Very rarely did the opposite ever apply.

But when it did boy was it sweet. Such was the case with Power Blazer. Power Blazer was a blatant Mega Man rip-off except instead of the Mega Buster you had a fairly useless boomerang. It’s kind of surprising just how bad the game is considering it came from Natsume, who were on fire with their NES action titles. Taito wisely salvaged the few good ideas the game had and drastically redesigned it when it was released as Power Blade over here. It is almost an entirely different game and is all the better for it. Power Blazer shows what a lack of polish and tuning at the end of development results in as the game is full of many smaller flaws that completely ruin the game altogether.

There’s really no getting around it; Power Blazer wants to be Mega Man so bad. Your hero resembles a squatter version of the Blue Bomber and even comes equipped with a similar helmet. There’s a stage select although the order you tackle the levels does not matter since you aren’t collecting new powers. Some of the enemies even look as though they were ripped straight from Capcom’s archives.

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The crucial difference comes in the manner of attack with a boomerang as the weapon of choice. The game uses a charging system like Astyanax where the power and range of your attack is determined by a meter. By default the range on your boomerang is incredibly short and it can’t pierce through enemies but there are power-ups to fix both of these flaws. Unlike Power Blade there is no time limit so you can farm items in one area until you are fully powered up but that is a laborious process as the game is stingy with items drops.

Similar games have used this exact system of charging attacks however they nailed the execution and it is here that Power Blazer fails. The enemies are simply too strong, requiring multiple full power hits to destroy. Since you are mostly fighting in cramped corridors they are often right in your face where you don’t have the luxury of waiting for the power meter to fill. Since the boomerang reflects off enemies after a single hit unless you’ve gained a specific item attacking from a distance isn’t as effective as it should be. This is an area Taito definitely improved on when they brought the game to the US as item drops are more frequent and you can throw multiple boomerangs at once and in multiple directions.

The controls aren’t as responsive as they need to be with the game ignoring your button inputs left. Simply jumping and grabbing a ladder should not be this frustrating. Collision detection is all over the place and the areas in which you need to jump on disappearing blocks (like a certain other game) are an exercise in frustration.   The platforming involves precise timing, to the point where you need to be at the very end of a ledge and about to fall off to make the jumps. These are the types of flaws that are ironed out by expert directors which this game clearly lacked.

All of the game’s flaws combined make the game unfairly difficult. The boomerang’s mechanics mean you’ll take many unavoidable cheap shots. I also found some of the enemy placement suspect. Energy tanks make this somewhat bearable but these are in short supply. Trying to farm items can often take close to 10 minutes before anything drops at which point I’m sure most will give up. Oddly enough if you can actually survive and reach the end level bosses they are a cakewalk. Their patterns are deductible in seconds and they never deviate. Plus there are passwords to record progress.

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Graphically Power Blazer is incredibly detailed and looks far better than many similar titles for the system. The game employs a cartoonier aesthetic than the more serious tone introduced in Power Blade as evidenced by the squat, goofy looking protagonist. There are an even mix of highly technological environments mixed with the organic that all wouldn’t look out of place in a Mega Man game. The MM connection doesn’t just stop there however as there are enemies that are near identical as well. This is just as blatant as Krion Conquest although that game at least had the witch theme going for it. About half of the stages here were heavily redesigned in Power Blade but the bosses are exactly the same. The game’s music is similarly fantastic which makes the gameplay flaws all the more tragic since the production values are so top notch.

Power Blazer could have and should have been a much better game than what was released. With a few minor tweaks it could have been something special as Power Blade has shown. It isn’t completely worthless but it is more of a chore to play than it should be.

5-out-of-101

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Vectorman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

 

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Almana no Kiseki

Anyone else remember looking at the bottom of your NES and wondering what that expansion port was for? I did and it wasn’t until years later that I would discover it was for the Famicom Disk System, which would never leave Japan. While that is unfortunate we did receive a sizable chunk of its more noteworthy games on cartridge such as Zelda 2, Metroid, and for some god forsaken reason Dr. Chaos. That being said there are still plenty of classics that were left behind and Almana no Kiseki is one of them. As the mutant lovechild of Bionic Commando and Indiana Jones few games of that era were anything like it and even today it still stands out.

The magical red jewel of Almana is stolen from a village by a thief, turning its inhabitants to stone. As the explorer Kaito it is up to you to recover the jewel and restore the village. Let’s get it out of the way right now, the entire premise is stolen wholesale from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Kaito even resembles Indy (or as much as he can on the NES) with his fedora and outfit. Even the numerous caves and mines you’ll explore wouldn’t look out of place in an Indy title.

But that is about the point where the similarities end. You start off with thirty throwing knives as your default weapon but will eventually pick up five more: spiked balls which can also break certain walls and floors, gems which damage everything on screen, bombs, bolas, and a pistol. While ammo is limited you can take advantage of the infinitely respawning enemies and lack of a timer to stock up.

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The game’s big hook comes from its grappling hook. The grappling hook can be used at any time and is tossed at a 45 degree angle. It’s important to master its use as the default jump is too gimpy to accomplish much of anything. Once it is in place you can climb on it or jump on and off, with the only limitation being only one hook can be active at a time. While comparisons to Bionic Commando can be made the mechanic actually comes from Konami’s Roc n Rope, a 1983 arcade game that predates Capcom’s classic.

The wide open levels encourage you to experiment with grappling all over the environment to find hidden items and such. For those that don’t want to stand next to a door and potentially waste ammo trying to get more there usually are weapons lying about as well as all important extensions to your life bar. While there is only one exit in every level you can usually create your own path to it with a little ingenuity. The game’s six levels cover the tropes associated with Indiana Jones and provide plenty of opportunities to relive the best moments of his films in a different form.

The grappling hook’s implementation isn’t perfect however. To latch onto the more distant platforms you’ll have to leap and toss it but the timing needed to pull this off is frustrating to deal with. The game heavily leans on this and doesn’t have a gradual curve to ease you into grappling around the levels. I also found the default jump to be so useless that it is better to use the hook than to try and actually jump on a platform. Because the levels are so large it is often difficult to know where to go, with seemingly impossible to reach ledges ending up being the path you must follow.

When combined with the grappling hook’s quirks the game is bit more difficult than most. Although there isn’t a clock you’ll want to spend as little time as possible in a given area as enemies will respawn infinitely. Aside from the dagger and pistol the other weapons are near useless; the bombs suffer from spotty collision detection and the bolas are thrown diagonally. It’s usually more advantageous to simply run from most enemies as supplies are limited and you can never be sure when you’ll get more. Boss battles are actually significantly easier, with the only real challenge coming from actually reaching them. Their patterns are simple to figure out and they don’t take too many hits to go down.

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Graphically the game is indicative of many other Konami releases from that period such as Rush n Attack and Jackal, both originally FDS releases too. The color palette is subdued and dark which is perfect since you’ll spend the majority of your time in caves, mines, and other dank passages. While the enemies are fairly generic the bosses and the backgrounds themselves are highly animated, if a bit repetitive. The soundtrack is excellent and uses the Disk System’s extra sound channels to give it a richer feel than a stock NES. My only gripe is that there are only a few songs which are recycled in later levels.

While the learning curve is a bit steep once you’ve gained a handle on the grappling hooks mechanics you’ll start to cruise through levels like a ninja. I would have preferred tighter level design to the open expanses presented but that comes down to personal preference. Almana no Kiseki would have fit right in with the rest of Konami’s US lineup and is a lost classic fans would do well to track down.

8-out-of-101

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Cocoron

Cocoron is the type of game that was desperately needed in the US. Platform games were a dime a dozen in the US by 1991 and many of the established series were starting to churn out formulaic sequels. Meanwhile awesome new titles such as Shatterhand and Vice: Project Doom were flying under the radar. Cocoron would have immediately distinguished itself due to its lack of the one defining trait of any platformer: a main character. Rather you get to create your own and the absence of a Mario is not missed as the game is still phenomenal regardless.

The Dream World has been taken over by a mysterious assailant and the Princess Rua has been kidnapped. Tapir, a wizard from the Dream World enlists the aid of the player to help save the kingdom. Since this is the world of dreams you can be anything you want and so the game gives you the tools to envision your own hero.

The decision to forego a readymade hero and leave it in the hands of the player is Cocoron’s biggest innovation, especially for the platformer genre. The create-a-player feature allows you to build your hero in three categories: head, body, and arms (weapons). Each has eight different parts for you to choose from enabling you to assemble a wide range of just plain strange creations. You can stick the head of a Gundam on winged dragon’s body and arm him with pencils just as an example. Or give an alien the body of a sail boat with umbrellas as weapons. The choices in each category aren’t purely cosmetic as they affect a few statistics such as starting attack power, jumping ability, and your life bar. What’s cool is that you can see how your creation will perform in a mini test environment and make changes before you begin. You aren’t tied to one creation either as you have the option to make another after each boss battle however previously chosen parts become unavailable except for weapons.

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What makes this feature work above all else is that no matter what weird creation you conjure up there is a base that will allow them to at the very least complete each level. How easy or hard that task becomes is entirely in your hands. While it is tempting to become attached to a particularly versatile hero there are later levels that are infinitely easier when you can say fly for a few seconds. My go to hero used a ninja head with a cyborg body and shuriken which produced a nimble badass with a lengthy life bar and high attack power. But even then I still found use for a slow moving tank with the longest life bar to who could deal with some of the tougher bosses as the shuriken are a bit limited.

The weapons are the most interesting. The eight weapons can be leveled up to five times and change considerably plus as a bonus any upgrades earned are permanent. Some I found too frustrating to use such as the crystals while others are only situationally useful. The umbrellas arcing attack is hard to time but there are one or two bosses that it makes trivial. The pencils seem like smaller and weaker throwing stars but at level three really shows its worth. The decision to allow you to still freely choose when building another character is smart as the weapons are too cool to be as restrictive as the rest of the body parts.

The world map might at first remind you of Mega Man however it works differently here. Each individual location is actually pretty short but that is because there is both an entrance and exit. Once you’ve beaten the boss at the end and choose another stage you must progress through a short exit level leading up to it. You are free to explore the map in any order and eventually will have to revisit certain areas to progress. It’s weird but extremely fluid; the exits are always tailored to your current destination with extra segments so that you aren’t necessarily treading the same ground. Despite the brevity of the stages this is not a short game. Once you’ve beaten all of the bosses there are still a few more linear stages to cap it off at the end. I would say the game is about the same length as the later Mega Man games so you get your money’s worth.

Overall the difficulty is about average. Even if you somehow manage to create a monstrosity seemingly unsuited to a given level it is still possible to manage. Although you start off weak the permanent weapon upgrades make the game exceedingly easy by the end. Every enemy drops eggs that when broken will produce life restoring hearts. You would have to really go out of your way to find a challenge in the game. Only during boss battles did I ever die and that was rare.

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Developer Takeru would later go on to create Little Samson, one of the absolute best looking titles to ever hit the system. You can see traces of that technical expertise here as Cocoron is ridiculously beautiful at times. Since the entire game takes place in a world of dreams you’ll visit a range of environments with no connection to one another. The random nature of the graphical design is both a strength and a weakness; the more realistic environments such as castle interiors, forests, and a star filled sky look fantastic. The more cutesy levels such as the milk sea and the final levels seem out of place in comparison. But what they all share is a fantastic attention to detail, one that is surprising at times. The bosses especially are up there with the system’s best in my opinion. The music sadly doesn’t rise to the same level and is a mixed bag with a few stand out tracks but is mostly forgettable.

Cocoron is one of the best platformers for the NES and has been fan translated although it requires no knowledge of Japanese to enjoy. There’s no reason for any fan of platforming games to miss out on one of the most unique entries in the genre even by today’s standards.

8-out-of-101

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Alien 3 (Nes)

Alien 3 was a movie with a troubled production history but that didn’t stop the onslaught of video game tie-ins. Nearly every major platform at the time would receive some version of the game, with some wildly different than others. Developed by Probe Software in conjunction with LJN (any NES fan’s worst nightmare) the NES version had the potential to be a solid adventure but due to a few crippling flaws the game is far too aggravating to warrant a purchase. By 1992 with software releases drying up and higher quality titles becoming the norm Alien 3 simply could not compete against the likes of Bucky O’ Hare and Kickmaster.

Alien 3 took place on a prison planet with no weapons and a single alien. The crew and prisoners of Fiorina 161 had to come up with creative ways to try to kill the alien in lieu of any weapons which made the film more tense. Admittedly that would not have worked within the meager confines of an eight bit game so the developers simply said fuck it and took extreme creative liberties with its premise. You play as Ripley who is fully armed with a full complement of weapons and must rescue a set number of prisoners from the many aliens prowling around on each stage and find the exit. The game’s lack of care when it comes to the film’s plot could be forgiven if it were actually good but between its controls and design issues there’s no way in hell I would recommend it to anyone.

Almost immediately there are problems. Alien 3 commits the first cardinal sin of NES software; the buttons are reversed. I will forever question why anyone in their right mind would come to the conclusion that letting B jump and A shoot make sense. Nearly every other NES game copied Super Mario Brothers control scheme and you know why? Because it’s perfect. Surprisingly I will say that it doesn’t have too great of an effect on the game as any platforming that is necessary is entirely separate from combat. It will take some getting used to but most can adapt.

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The game is broken up into four areas with two levels each followed by a guardian (boss) battle against a queen. Each level has a set number of prisoners that need to be rescued before the exit to the level is opened. The levels are absolutely huge, with less of a focus on combat and more on platforming and navigating around these massive mazes. Prisoners can be anywhere with the later stages of the game requiring you to loop around the entire map just to save one lone survivor. The biggest glaring flaw is the complete absence of a map; this isn’t a case where would have been a cool addition, it should have been provided. Seeing as you’ll need to replay each stage multiple times to memorize their layout to plan the best route possible it is absolutely a crime that this basic function is missing. The pathetic motion sensor is not a worthwhile substitute either since it barely works.

While there are weapons and ammo to pick up you really won’t need any of them. The few types of alien you’ll encounter seem less interested in your presence and simply move about their scripted areas and never actively seek you out. It completely takes the edge off of the scariest cinematic creatures of all time. Boss battles are similarly disappointing as the Queen has the most brain dead AI, simply pacing back and forth within the small arena these battle take place. Each conveniently has a safe zone where she can’t reach you, leaving you free to rain down bullets without fear of reprisal. Honestly it’s more advantageous to simply run past enemies and conserve ammo or take the hit to move on. Not just because it’s a waste but because you’ll need every second possible due to the clock.

Ah yes, the time limit. More so than any of its other flaws Alien 3 is completely ruined by the strict time limit. Simply put you aren’t given enough time to complete your objectives and find the exit. 4 minutes and 30 seconds is barely enough time to complete the first mission and it only gets worse from there. As early as level 2 the maps become gargantuan in size with frequent dead ends and tunnels that only serve to waste your time. Precious time that you don’t have. Of course you’ll have to draw your own maps or learn the location of the prisoners over time but the lack of any continues or passwords sure as hell doesn’t encourage that. You can set your maximum number of lives to nine in the options but that does little to alleviate the frustration of having to start from the beginning over and over.

This could have been an interesting title within the Alien universe but instead it is simply another bad LJN game to add to their list of failures. If you’re dead set on experiencing Alien 3 within through video games than go for the SNES game, it is fantastic. Avoid this at all costs.

5-out-of-101

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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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Super Metroid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10-out-of-10

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Streets of Rage 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Pirates of Dark Water (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Batman Returns (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Wai Wai World

I know I can’t be the only who has thought of how awesome it would be if Nintendo or Sega were to create a game starring all of their mascot characters.  Of course Smash Bros. came along and wasn’t what I was expecting but still turned out pretty damn awesome.  Late in the NES era Konami picked my brain and decided my idea of the ultimate platformer was too good to pass up and so created Wai Wai World.  All right that’s not true but Wai Wai World does exist.  Never released in the US the game was fan translated and despite its faults is still a pretty awesome crossover.

Dr. Cinnamon has tasked Konami Man with saving six captured heroes and restoring order to Konami World.  To aid him in this endeavor he has created Konami Lady to be his female counterpart.  The story isn’t going to win any awards but it does provide impetus for the adventure ahead.  This is simply an excuse to create one big fan service adventure and in that regard Wai Wai World succeeds.

The cast of characters is a rundown of many Konami favorites with a few unexpected surprises thrown in that will be unfamiliar to US gamers.  Konami Man made many infamous cameos throughout the 8-bit era however it is here where he is actually playable along with his cyborg counterpart Konami Lady.  Simon Belmont makes an appearance along with Goemon from Legend of the Mystical Ninja and Mikey from the Goonies.  King Kong may seem a dubious addition to the cast however Konami did put out a Famicom only game based on the failed sequel to King Kong so it counts.  The one the majority will have no awareness of is Fuma from Getsu Fuma Den, a Famicom only action adventure that is awesome.  They’ve even tossed in a Moai head with legs who only carries his weight with the rest of the heroes.

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Once you’ve rescued each hero you can switch between your assembled party members at any time like TMNT.  Everyone has their own life bar, weapons, and differences in terms of strength and reach making them optimal for certain situations.  Once you’ve gathered everyone it’s off to the final confrontation.  Though Wai Wai World is level based it has more in common with Metroid.  You are free to tackle the levels in any order and can leave when you feel like it.  Each world is massive in size and has optional sub weapons to collect that are sometimes mandatory to reaching the other heroes.  Don’t let the initial stage select fool you; this is one lengthy quest and with all the back tracking necessary to find items it will last close to 10 hours or more before you see the end.

Despite the ability to choose your own path through the game in reality you are only presented with the illusion of choice.  The game never outright states it but there is a set order to completing the levels by their design.  Konami Man/Girl are both limited in their abilities and so certain stages like the Pirate Ship are pretty much impossible to complete initially (the tentacle monsters on the platforms require ranged attacks).  Because you can’t rescue Mikey from said level you also can’t progress past the first segment of New York City.  Had both of the Konami pair been equipped with their guns from the start their versatility would allow them to overcome this.

One aspect that most will find hard to adjust to is the need to be at the outer edge of the screen to let the levels scroll.  Considering the high volume of enemies that come rocketing in off screen you won’t have much time to react and will suffer far too many cheap hits. The hit detection is also suspect with many of the enemies that require multiple hits before death completely ignoring your attacks.  To the game’s credit life restoring hearts drop frequently but this kind of bad balance seems a bit odd coming from Konami.

With these flaws in mind it isn’t a stretch to say that this might be one of Konami’s most difficult titles for the NES.  The price of death is pretty steep; if a character dies it costs one hundred bullets to revive them.  If everyone dies you’ll only have the Konami twins and half of your remaining bullets left to try and pick up the pieces.  At that point it is better to simply reenter your last password than try to grind out bullets to revive your party.  Each hero has a separate life bar like TMNT which you will definitely make extensive use of in order to survive.

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The presentation in Wai Wai World is simply stellar, drawing upon elements from each of the game’s characters while avoiding being a simple retread.  Despite being released in 1988 this could easily pass for a late generation title with its large sprites and highly detailed backgrounds.  The game’s premise allows it to cover a swath of video gaming classics while still feeling like a cohesive whole and all of the individual characters have been redrawn rather than lifted wholesale from their respective games.  It’s a fan service overload and I like it.

The music and sound effects follow along the same lines with each hero sporting their own theme music when selected.  It’s actually pretty cool and the tunes have been recreated perfectly if not taken directly from each title though it does suck that it resets when you switch.  The sound effects have been taken straight from Castlevania II and it is a bit weird to shoot enemies with Mikey’s slingshot or Goemon’s pipe and hear the sound of Simon whipping skeletons.

Regardless of its flaws Wai Wai World is still a solid title that is entertaining and will last quite a while before you see the end credits.  It isn’t the crossover we dreamed of but it doesn’t have to be to provide many hours of fun.

7-out-of-10-1

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Ikari III – the Rescue

I have a love hate relationship with the Ikari Warriors series; I liked them in the arcade to a degree but absolutely cannot stand them in their NES forms.  Both Ikari Warriors and Victory Road are two of the worst games in the system’s library and I’ve more than made my disdain for them public.  So it is reasonable to see how I could have had low expectations going into this third installment.  It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised.  Ikari III: the Rescue completely throws out nearly everything established in the first two games and is better for it.  There are still a few niggling issues of course but this is still a solid title in the end.

First on the agenda is bringing it back down to reality.  The game wisely ignores the fact that Vince and Paul took an intergalactic detour (seriously what the fuck was up with that?) and pits them against an organization named Crime Ghost.  These evildoers have kidnapped the President’s daughter, prompting the best soldiers in the world to be drafted to save her, namely you.

Rather than a scrolling shooter the action has switched to a beat ‘em up.  Things are kept simple as you can only punch, kick, and jump kick.  The kick in particular is a bit weird as it is a full roundhouse kick that I’m sure was designed to be able to take out a group of enemies in one go but that ain’t happening here.  The jump kick is trickier to land but can be abused as you are invincible while airborne.  Secondary weapons are scarce; there are occasional items in the environment you can pick up and throw and you can get a rare machine gun with limited ammo but the focus is squarely on fisticuffs.

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What the hell are they doing?

Considering you are up against an international crime organization who seem to employ nothing but soldiers in camo gear it’s really odd that no one seems to have a gun.  This has to be the poorest army I’ve ever seen in a videogame as they have apparently invested their money in kung fu lessons rather than weapons.  If there is one criticism I have of the game it’s the lack of varied enemies.  You are going to see the same generic green guys about 90% of the time which gets old fast.  To its credit it doles out new enemies in each level but you can probably count the entire rogues gallery on two hands.

The pacing in the game is really odd.  Most of the time you’ll be swarmed by groups of 3-6 soldiers who all go down in one hit or seem more interested in their own acrobatics than attacking you.  The collision detection is suspect with the roundhouse kick being the most glaring example.  When you’re surrounded and use you should clearly take out everyone within a 360 degree radius however it completely misses most of the time.  Punches that should clearly land have no effect and it is at its most infuriating dealing with the twin bosses in the third stage.  It’s apparent someone realized this as there are life restoring hearts every few feet.  It helps but if they realized their mistake maybe someone should have fixed it rather than offering a band aid fix.

The constant hearts don’t help avoid cheap deaths however.  The game has a bad habit of throwing in tougher enemies that require more hits among the fodder; these bad asses are indistinguishable from everyone else and chances are you are going to take a few punches as a result.  If you are hit with a projectile or any other thrown object it equals instant death.  As you can imagine these instances usually happen to come out of left field.  It certainly makes most boss battles more interesting that’s for sure.

Even in light of these issues however the game still isn’t overly difficult, mostly due to infinite continues.  As a bonus you begin exactly where you left off, meaning you can simply force your way eventually with some perseverance.  The NES port has an exclusive undersea level that is basically a shooter and a highly competent one at that.  Overall this isn’t the longest adventure at just six levels but it’s fun while it lasts.

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In the arcade Ikari III was pretty stunning with large sprites and plenty of background animation in its world.  The NES port obviously can’t match it but does a decent job replicating the look of the game.  It helps that SNK did the port themselves instead of hiring god damn Micronics so it at least runs at a double digit frame rate.  It has a similar look to Guerilla War except more vibrant and with more varied environments.  Next to the solid gameplay the graphics are probably the second area I’m the most surprised by.  Both of its prequels were flickering, slowdown filled messes that seemed as though they were programmed by a team with broken fingers.  It is a bit uneven however as the earlier stages are artistically sound before the game devolves into a series of warehouses and such that all look the same.

There you have it.  Ikari III is better than I could possibly have imagined which is a miracle all things considered.  It isn’t the first action game I would go for but at the end of the day it is a solid title with a few rough spots.

7-out-of-10-1

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Twinkle Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9-out-of-10

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Undeadline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of what makes the difficulty so extreme were the changes made from the MSX original.  In that game you had a lengthy life bar and could take many hits.  Here you can only sustain three hits which is woefully inadequate.  You could also hold three items at any given time which would have been a god send.  That game was much slower paced so I can see how the developers might have wanted to create some tension but I feel the