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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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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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X-Kalibur 2097

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Lost Kingdoms

These days From Software are mostly known for the Dark Souls series of games as well as an endless parade of Armored Core sequels and expansions. However before they hit the mainstream they were a diverse developer and one of their most unique efforts was Lost Kingdoms, a game centered around card battling conveniently around the time Yugioh hit America. Games that feature card based battles have typically been the province of handheld platforms, especially on mobile phones. So in this regard Lost Kingdoms was able to stand out even more aside from being the only RPG for the system at the time. Though flawed in some respects it would pave the way for similar titles such as Baiten Kaitos and Culdcept.

As the GameCube’s first RPG it is easy to have flashbacks of other first generation RPGs that were absolute crap like Beyond the Beyond, Orphen, or Virtual Hydlide. It goes without saying that RPGs released early in nearly every console cycle are usually terrible as the desire to take advantage of new technology takes precedence over tight mechanics. Luckily Lost Kingdoms bucks that trend somewhat and while it isn’t an epic along the lines of Final Fantasy it is a solid game with an interesting hook that is still compelling even today, especially since it is shorter than average for the genre.

A mysterious substance known as the black fog has begun sweeping the world, consuming everything it touches be it people, castles or even entire towns. No one knows where it came from but when it invaded the land of Argwyll King Jade ventured out to discover the source only to never return. It is now up to his daughter Princess Katia to follow in his footsteps and continue his quest.

It’s a generic premise and unfortunately the story takes a back seat to collecting cards and only serves as window dressing to send you to the next area. The cast of characters can be counted on one hand and there is no character development to speak of. In fact there are no towns and only a few random NPCs to converse with. That leaves the gameplay to do the heavy lifting and at that it succeeds although I say that with a few caveats.

In the world of Lost Kingdoms cards are everything. Princess Katia does not equip weapons or armor or use items; in fact none of those exist in the game. Cards are your only means of offense and as you progress you’ll add more to your deck. In total there are about 100 cards to collect with demons of every elemental alignment filling the ranks. The cards have a variety of effects, with some summoning independent creatures that fight by your side until destroyed or appearing for a single attack. The cards used during battle gain experience that can be used to either make copies or evolve them into stronger creations; the Princess’s stats increase at set points in the game.

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It goes without saying that deck building is the most crucial element of the game. You can build a deck of thirty cards to bring into every dungeon and it is imperative to know the quirks of each individual card such as their attack, range, and alignment before tossing them in your hand. A random selection of four cards are selected from your hand with new ones shuffled in as they are spent. Having a balanced assortment is important due to a few factors: Katia cannot attack on her own so if you have used up all cards in your deck there is no choice but to return to the world map and start over again. Nearly every dungeon has a deck point where you can add cards to your active deck as well as fairies that can randomly refresh one card but it’s almost guaranteed that your first time in every dungeon you’ll need to start over. Regardless of the fact that all chests opened stay that way it sucks to have to replay the same dungeon twice no matter how much faster it is the second time around.

It also inhibits the game in other ways. Because your deck size is so limited the dungeons are incredibly short with only a few rudimentary puzzles to break the monotony. The encounter rate is actually managed fairly well however due to the random deck shuffling it is possible to blow through a number of cards in one battle. Trust me reaching a boss only to realize you have 3 cards left is not a good feeling. Despite these misgivings the game is actually incredibly short with most probably seeing the end credits after 8 hours. There is a multiplayer mode that is actually surprising fun but it still isn’t enough to make up for the lacking core game.

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Lost Kingdoms has a clean visual presentation and is darker in tone than most GameCube titles. Most of the design work clearly went into the creature models as the game’s artwork and monster design are generally excellent. However the models are blocky and the frame rate takes a massive hit when 4 enemies are on screen. The environments are drab unfortunately and uninteresting; you can only see the same graveyards, castles and dirt textures so many times before getting sick of it. There isn’t too much music in the game and it limps along in the background, leaving the sound effects to carry the load. More could have been done sonically.

There are aspects of Lost Kingdoms that I like but overall I found it only above average. Its features however would form a solid base for its much improved sequel.

6-out-of-10-1