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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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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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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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Gunple: Gunman’s Proof

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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ToeJam & Earl

Once upon a time two funky alien dudes came to Earth and gifted Genesis owners with a cool coop game unlike few on the market. That period in 1991-92 was when Sega really began to hit their stride with unique releases and ToeJam & Earl were a part of it. The recent kickstarter for the new ToeJam & Earl has made me nostalgic for the series and I’m glad to say that the original holds up relatively well although solo gamers may find it a bit trying to see it through to its conclusion.

Our funky fresh duo are cruising through the galaxy when Earl’s terrible piloting skills see them crash land on Earth. With a wrecked ship on their hands the pair have no choice but to brave the hostile Earthlings and environmental hazards to find the pieces of their ship to return home to Funkotron.

Though it doesn’t look it TJ & E has many elements in common with Diablo and Shiren the Wanderer. You can choose a fixed world with set item locations or randomly created levels for a different experience every time. Rather than weapons and armor presents form the lifeblood of the game. Presents come in all shapes and sizes and aren’t identified until used or you pay an NPC, much like Diablo. It’s no exaggeration to say that the sheer magnitude of items present is part of what makes the game so great. Some are just food but the really fun ones allow you to fly around the levels, leave decoys to fool enemies or even reveal pieces of the current map. There are just as many bad ones such as the randomizer which is self-explanatory or Totally Bogus, which actually kills you!

As a single player game ToeJam & Earl is fun but can grow old pretty quickly. Depending on your choice of a fixed world or randomly generated your experience will vary. With a fixed world the design is far tighter. The elevators, ship parts, and presents are more thoughtfully placed to eliminate some of the meandering that would normally take place. With randomly generated levels it’s all over the place which makes the slovenly pace of the game that much worse. Both characters bop along too slow for my liking and I guarantee you’ll use any movement related items as soon as possible just to get around faster. Sometimes you’ll have six floors that contain no parts forcing you to explore the map just to find the next exit; other times you’ll get lucky and get multiple parts in a row. I suppose that is part and parcel of such a feature but it works against the game somewhat.

It is fitting then that the game truly shines in multiplayer, so much so that I would say it was designed for it. Coop is done in a really cool way that I wish more titles copied: when both characters are together you share one screen but when separated it splits. With two-players you can both split up and cover more ground which alleviates the slow pace considerably. Granted you’re both still performing the same slow actions but when you have half as much ground to cover it does wonders for your enjoyment of the game. There’s a ton of incidental dialogue exclusive to coop as well as features such as sharing health and such. The game is so much better with a friend that I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise.

Despite the laid back atmosphere the game can be unfairly hard at times. Never mind the randomness of presents some of the enemies are particularly vicious and most encounters with them will result in death. Pray you don’t run into the bogeyman or honeybees on a straight path as they will aggressively pursue you for a long time. Presents and ranking help but not by much. There are no continues or passwords so the game has to be done in one sitting which can vary depending on a number of factors. It’s still disheartening to find eight ship parts only to step off an elevator surrounded by four enemies.

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Visually this is a bit average. The game is at its best when it is throwing a litany of absurd characters in your path such as the bogeyman, the mad dentist, and even little devils. I love that the designers basically said screw logic and threw in anything they thought was cool and funny regardless of whether it makes sense or not. But when left alone to explore each world it is hard not to notice how little variety there is in the tile sets they are composed of. Each successive floor is merely reshuffling assets and isn’t too creative about it.

The real star of the presentation is the soundtrack. The entire game has a hip hop vibe to it and the soundtrack expounds on that perfectly. Of course that should be expected as the two aliens are essentially rappers. Part hip hop crossed with funk the beats produced with the FM synth are fantastic, so much so that even the enemies seem to be grooving out to it. There’s even a jam out mode that lets you accompany each of the game’s songs with sound effects. They were definitely proud of the sound design in the game and they should be since it is so awesome.

Overall ToeJam & Earl has held up surprisingly well after all these decades. Many of its elements have become more commonplace over the years but the execution here is still good enough to make the game fun. The random level generator gives the game infinite replay value but this is still a title that I would only recommend if you plan to play with a friend.

7-out-of-10

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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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Star Tropics 2

Star Tropics was a solid game, one that was heavily inspired by Zelda and sort of scratched that itch for those seeking more adventure in that mold. While I enjoyed it I can’t say that I ever found myself hoping for a sequel. Aside from the shocking fact that Star Tropics actually received a sequel was its release; by 1994 the 16-bit war was about to enter its second phase and it isn’t a stretch to say that no one was paying attention to 8-bit releases anymore (unless you lived in Brazil). As one of a handful of NES games released that year Star Tropics 2 improves nearly every facet of the original and while it isn’t the most original or creative game ever made it is highly recommended if you enjoyed the series’ first outing.

Not much time has passed since Mike Jones rescued his uncle Dr. J and the Argonian refugees from the evil Zoda. When Mike helps his uncle solve a riddle that had stumped him for months he is unexpectedly thrown into the past, beginning a time hopping journey to ultimately find the Tetrads and make his way home.

The game’s plot is just as goofy as the first game and full of weird circumstances as well. In one of the game’s stranger sub quests you must retrieve a pizza delivery for Cleopatra, which is absurd not just because pizza shouldn’t even exist in that period but because it also takes days to deliver. The trip through time sees you rubbing elbows with many famous literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Merlin, and King Arthur. This is a game that revels in its absurdity with that charm being one of the reasons the game is so enjoyable.

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For the most part the game adheres to the same structure as the original. Rather than a series of different islands the game sees you visiting a different era in time each chapter. The change in aesthetic each chapter alleviates one of the biggest criticisms of the first game; the island theme grew old no matter how they tried to dress it up. As I mentioned previously the game makes the most of its premise by having you visit some historic figure and it can be pretty cool at times, such as solving a crime alongside Sherlock Holmes. The overall maps are smaller but the game is just as long as its predecessor and with its varied locales and brisk pace you’ll actually want to see it through to the end.

Aside from its theme the largest improvement comes from the controls. Like A Link to the Past Mike has full 8-way movement and it does wonders for dungeon exploration. With the rigid, grid based movement gone the game is a lot faster. Mike can also change direction in midair somewhat although it should be noted that the platforming segments are a lot trickier since your movements aren’t so measured. Some smaller gameplay improvements have also been added; your main weapon no longer degrades based on health and you can actually simply walk across the tiles on the floor instead of slowly jumping on each one. In the grand scheme these are minor but when taken as a whole it makes playing the game so much more fluid.

Where the game’s controls have been significantly improved the dungeons do feel like a step back. On average the dungeon’s are of medium size and for the most part follow a linear path. The puzzles have also been simplified although to be fair the first game leaned heavily on its tile based switches. Since you aren’t relegated to playing hopscotch to find tile based switches the clever disappearing blocks and other creative trickery are no longer present. More emphasis has been placed on clearing rooms of enemies rather than finding one off items for progress. While I can appreciate the game’s faster pace it also loses something in the process.

What hasn’t changed is the game’s difficulty. With a tighter focus on combat comes stronger enemies and as early as chapter four your life bar can be torn to shreds in seconds. It took longer to reach that point in Star Tropics and you would think having permanently stronger weapons would help but no dice. A few boss battles such as the undead miner are nearly hair pulling in their challenge and not in a good way. It’s certainly still manageable but the bump in difficulty might come as a shock to veterans of the series initial outing.

In a way it is amazing that such a meaty title was released in the last year of the system’s life as projects of this magnitude are usually bumped up to the successor platform. Star Tropics 2 is a worthy follow-up and a solid adventure game that has a lower profile than it deserves and is worth checking out.

7-out-of-10-1

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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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Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy

I’ve always been fascinated by the European gaming industry. Where the video game market crashed in the US in the early 80s in Europe gaming shifted to the various computer formats and the arcade. While the Commodore 64 might not hold much reverence among American gamers it along with the ZX Spectrum and Amiga were practically legendary over there. Where we worshipped Mario they prayed at the altar of….James Pond. I’m exaggerating there of course but it does highlight the difference in games that were popular between the two countries. The Dizzy series of games highlight this.

I won’t go so far as to say that the Dizzy series of games were Europe’s answer to Mario but it was definitely huge. The games have their own mythos and family of recurring characters and while most have been platformers its most famous installments have incorporated adventure game elements. The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy was ported to a variety of formats but it was the NES version that I spent the most time with. Although I spent many hours slowly making progress through the game even back then I was aware that the game had some serious problems, ones that ultimately doom its appeal.

The evil Zaks has returned to cause trouble for the Yolkfolk, casting a spell on nearly all of Yolktown’s inhabitants and kidnapping Dizzy’s girlfriend Daisy. It’s up to Dizzy to fix each Yolktown inhabitant’s maladies to ultimately reach Zak’s castle and save the girl.

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Dizzy’s happy go lucky disposition and expressiveness were pretty awesome for the time and imbued him with a sense of personality. The entire visual presentation is vibrant and cartoony and works perfectly well with the game’s tone. Throughout the game you will meet many people who all have some problem that needs solving such as creating a potion for Grandpa Dizzy’s sickness or waking up Dozy.

As an adventure game the entire world is more or less open for you to explore. The game gives no hint as to the ultimate goal of your quest which is disingenuous. Your only real objective is to collect the 100 Stars needed to enter Zak’s castle, the majority of which will require you to help each of the Yolkfolk in some capacity. There are plenty of items scattered around the world but Dizzy can only carry three at a time but can drop them when necessary. It’s a big world with many sub locations such as a pirate ship, a mine, a castle, and even an undersea environment with key items at every turn that will force you to drop something and remember its location for future use.

The three item limit is both the game’s greatest strength and weakness. Throughout the entire world are items needed for progression and your limited inventory will force you to prioritize. Gathering three components and combining them to solve a puzzle is incredibly rewarding and provides some impetus to soldier on. However that same inventory limit is also the source of much frustration. Key items needed in one corner of the world are usually located on the opposite end of the map, in areas that you’ll need further items to access. The fetch questing is pretty strong here and it’s entirely possible to drop a major item somewhere you can’t access again, forcing you to start over.

I’m not one to harp on a game’s challenge so long as it is fair but in this case Fantastic Dizzy is far too frustrating for the average person to deal with. Literally everything can kill you in seconds from the annoying spiders to the lowly ants that roam around. This is a pretty long game full of trial and error and the fact that you only have three lives plus whatever 1-ups you can scrounge to complete the game is absolutely bull shit. This is the type of game that needs battery back-up or passwords to chart progress. The fact that you can easily die (and will) on a whim after hours of progress and will have to do it all over again is just bad game design. This is a far cry from Treasure island Dizzy, where you only had one life and one hit meant instant death, that was just…….gah. The various minigames such as the mine cart ride or the swift river ride are long and full of obstacles that equal instant death. No one can complete these in one sitting without a map of some kind and chances are you probably won’t get to these parts of the game until later, meaning you can kiss all of your progress good bye. Honestly even as I played the game repeatedly back in the day this stuff annoyed me so playing it again dredges up all those bad memories.

As much as I laugh at the tin foil hat conspiracy theorists in this case I’ll join in with them, I get the sense that Codemasters purposefully designed the game this way to sell more Game Genies. That’s the only rationale I can come up with as to why so many blatantly stupid design decisions made it into the end product.

I really, really wanted to like the Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy but I just can’t recommend it to anyone save masochists. Adventure games weren’t too common for the NES but not so scarce that you should subject yourself to one as flawed as this.

6-out-of-10-1

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Ninja Gaiden (PC Engine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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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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Déjà vu

Of all the Macventure ports to the NES Déjà vu is my favorite. I love period piece movies and Déjà vu definitely follows in the same vein. While I like Shadowgate and the Uninvited the ambiguity regarding exactly when each game takes place as well as the world surrounding the events that transpire left me feeling a little empty. The relatively modern setting of Déjà gives it the sense that this could happen to you and makes it more relatable.

You awake in a decrepit bathroom with a splitting headache and no idea how you even got there. Even worse, a quick look in the mirror and you realize you have no idea who you are! The blood on your hand and the dead man in the adjacent office aren’t reassuring and now you are on a race against time to not only recover your lost memories but also stay one step ahead of the police in an evolving murder mystery that pins you as the prime suspect.

This is a much more mature plot than the entirety of the NES library which is surprising considering how aggressively Nintendo of America censored games back then. There are constant references to murder, with the plot covering gambling, extortion, and kidnapping. There are some inconsistencies in terms of censorship; if you examine your arm you’ll find needle marks yet all references to syringes have been removed. The death scenes have been toned down yet Uninvited makes this look tame in comparison.

While amnesia as a plot device has overstayed its welcome thanks in no part to Square Enix RPGs in the 80s it still felt relatively new. Set in the 1940s Déjà vu absolutely nails its setting through its UI and atmosphere. As a detective game the UI is presented as though it were pages in Ace Harding’s notebook. Even the descriptive text appears as though it is being written on a typewriter, a pretty nice touch. The game’s dialogue has an old time slant to it that is pretty endearing although humor is kept to a minimum.

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As a detective in a murder mystery you’ll spend more time looking for clues and items rather than solving complex puzzles. This is the game’s primary distinction from its two MacVenture cousins and one that actually makes the game more difficult and tedious. Because you’ll spend copious amounts of time combing every inch of each location and pouring over the various notes and such you find it brings out the worst aspect of console point and click games, the controls. Navigating with the D-pad is a poor substitute for a mouse and the slow cursor doesn’t do it any favors as you thumb through the many pages of your expanding inventory. It’s a problem that can’t be helped but luckily the story and the pacing make up for it.

Unlike Shadowgate and Uninvited the game doesn’t take place in a single location with further locales opening up as you discover their addresses. I do find it odd that supposedly the police are on the lookout for a man matching your description yet never actively harass you unless you blatantly commit a crime. Beyond the threat of spending life in jail the streets are dangerous with muggers and bums, and hookers with a grudge lying in wait. Currency plays a role since you have to pay the taxi driver a few coins for his trouble. The only way to earn more is to play the slot machine in the basement casino and while it’s possible to go completely broke there are a few fail safes to still help you get around, namely another taxi that offers free rides. It a convenient mechanism to avoid having to restart the game like many of the PC adventure games of the time.

There are plenty of ways to die, some pretty hilarious but it does get pretty frustrating just how many sudden deaths can occur at a moment’s notice. The end of the game in particular is pretty frustrating; you need to drop all of the incriminating evidence against you before heading to the police but the game never states where or what items. Despite the shift in focus from puzzle solving I found this to be far more difficult than the other two games mostly due to the constant back and forth between locations. It’s very easy to forget to check a draw or locker and miss out on a crucial clue needed to trigger the next event. Some of the clues in the game can be pretty obtuse but in all honesty that is par for the course within the genre.

Déjà vu is the best point and click game for the NES in my opinion, even better than Maniac Mansion. The story is tense and manages to overcome the cumbersome interface to hook you into following Ace Harding’s journey to its conclusion.

8-out-of-101

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Adventures of Lolo

These days developer Hal labs seems to release a new Kirby game every six months and while normally milking a series to that degree would be bad I am continually amazed at how unique nearly every entry in the series has been, with some like Kirby Canvas curse being truly innovative. However during the 8-bit era they were one of the most diverse developers around, seemingly able to handle nearly every genre possible. In 1989 they compiled a collection of some of the most creative puzzles from their PC series Eggerland for the NES created one of the most brilliant puzzle games the platform whatever see. Time is done little to diminish just how amazing this game is it still holds up today.

Adventures of Lolo revolves around a simple concept. Logo must collect all of the heart framers in each room to unlock the chest that will in turn opens next room. Is a lot easier said than done however as each room contains numerous obstacles that must be dealt with in order to be successful. It is in this aspect of the game truly excels as the puzzle design is truly excellent. There are 10 floors with five rooms each and the game has a perfect the learning curve. Reaching the top will require plenty of lateral thinking to solve even the simplest puzzle. It’s hard to believe but the advances of Lolo manages to introduce new mechanics enemies and even clip that makes even the late game fun. This is easily one of the best puzzle games for the NES and one that deserves a higher profile.

In terms of mechanics Lolo is a deceptively simple game. Although Kirby & Lolo both look pretty similar in terms of gameplay that couldn’t be further apart. Where Kirby can eat is eat his enemies and gain their abilities Lolo only has the ability to push blocks. Abilities and items open up when necessary, with the most frequent being a magic shot that will turn and reason enemies into eggs for brief period of time. Once this is done a second shot or move them the playing field for brief period of time but it is more prudent to use frozen enemies for a variety of purposes. Frozen enemies can be used to block projectiles, cross bodies of water or even blockade some of the more tricky that guys. If you’ve screwed up the game conveniently has a suicide button so you can start over; trust me you’ll be using it.

Standing in your way of the various denizens of the tower block your progress in any number of ways. The most common enemy by the snakes don’t actually do anything actually more help than a hindrance. Generally snakes can be ignored but usually they are the key to solving each individual puzzle. As an example reduces will freeze you once you move into their line the site however a snake in the turned toward egg and moved to block their line of sight. Skulls only activate once all the heart framers of been collected. Dragons are similar to Medusa’s but only activate when all the heart frames are collected as well. In this regard most of the puzzles boiled down to set up; positioning blocks or other enemies so that once that last heart framers is grabbed you have a clear path to the exit.

Not all enemies are passive. Leepers will follow Lolo around and fall asleep once they touch him. It sounds silly until he boxes you into a corner forcing you to commit suicide and restart but also has its benefits; he can be used to trap other enemies as well. Home of the armadillos the only enemy that will aggressively chase Lolo, becoming active as soon as you move. Rocky is not too common but will also follow you around and will speed up if you enter his line of sight.

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There are definitely some head scratching puzzles within the game and just when it seems nearly impossible you’ll stumble across the solution, usually so simple that you wonder why you didn’t see it before. It’s definitely addictive, to the point you’ll find yourself completing just one more puzzle because it was so engaging the last time. There’s nothing worse than setting up an elaborate series of blockades and grabbing the last heart framers only to realize that you screwed up right from the start. It sounds frustrating but these moments have just the right amount of “oh yeah” that you won’t even mind. The difficulty curve is perfectly balanced as the game introduces new mechanics such as one-way arrows hammers to destroy Iraq’s and ladders to bridge gaps at a decent clip. You’ll definitely stare at each puzzle for decent amount of time before even making your first move. There is a heavy trial and error element to the upper floors of the tower luckily there are passwords and unlimited continues making again accessible to everyone.

This style of puzzle solving has never been all that popular and so releases like The Adventures of Lolo are that much more special. This is not only one of the best puzzle games for the NES but one of the best puzzle games of all time. This series is practically screaming for an E–shop revival.

9-out-of-10

 

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Uninvited

Uninvited was the last of the three Macventure ports released on the NES but technically came first on the Macintosh. While it may seem odd that these games were brought over to the action heavy NES all three were a nice change of pace for those seeking something a little more cerebral. With redrawn graphics and an actual soundtrack Uninvited is a solid and entertaining title that is criminally overlooked.

The last thing you remember is a shadowy figure running out into the road before you swerved and crashed into a tree. There’s no telling how long you were unconscious but one thing is clear; your sister is missing. With the only clue being a nearby Haunted mansion you make your way from the wreckage to find your missing sibling.

Of Kemco’s three NES point and click adventures the Uninvited has the lowest profile due to its late release. By 1991 the Genesis gained steam and the SNES had launched, leaving many little grey boxes starving for content. Which is a shame as it is more accessible with its real world setting. Of course the game isn’t too modern as apparently magic still exists but your protagonist never comments or seems taken aback by any of the mystic shenanigans going on in this crazy house. Despite the seriousness of the proceedings there is a humorous tone to the game’s text that should seem out of place but is actually charming.

Uninvited uses the same interface as its two predecessors so you can jump right in. While controlling these games with a d-pad isn’t the most intuitive it is at least serviceable. While the house is set up similarly to the mansion in Shadowgate it isn’t as large; in fact this is a pretty short game overall. The mansion only has a little over a dozen rooms in addition to the greenhouse, laboratory, and chapel in the back. What this means is a lot of annoying backtracking which doesn’t serve to pad out the game as much as was obviously planned.

Part of the game’s brevity and quick pace come from the more logic based puzzles. Whether it’s a direct result of the game’s setting or the more frequent hints doesn’t matter as most will be able to deduce where and when to use specific items pretty quickly. Even for first timers you’ll end up blitzing through the game at a decent clip as there aren’t as many items to pick up or examine. There are a few areas that I can see stumping players for hours, namely the hedge maze but these are few in number.

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With less items and interaction with the environment comes less ways to die. Unless you’ve picked up the ruby there is no strict time limit like Shadowgate, and even then you can simply drop it. While the more relaxing nature this provides is welcome there are still plenty of ways to die, with the descriptive text doing a pretty good job of conveying how gruesomely you were killed. Nintendo’s censors have edited the text but they are still pretty detailed in their wording. While the death scenes aren’t graphic you do get a nice close-up of whatever horrible being is maiming your body. The most infamous being the Scarlett O’ Hara dressed ghoul (the game’s words description not mine) adorning the cover art, who rips you to shreds if you get too close. Others include being mangled to death by dogs, dissolved by ectoplasm and eaten by a giant spider.

There are two plot threads at play in Uninvited, the quest to find your sister and an apparent war between a long dead sorcerer and his ungrateful apprentice. While locating your sister is front and center at all times you’ll only find out about the wizard and his apprentice through diary entries and notes scattered about the house. Unless you go out of your way to read them you won’t stumble on to the cause of roaming undead in the house until the game’s final stages where it feels tacked on to make the game seem more epic.

Uninvited contains the same dreadful atmosphere as Shadowgate but it doesn’t reach the same level. The music is eerie but can be annoying at times but also doesn’t help give the same feeling of dread since you spend so much of the game alone in a nearly empty house. Since you don’t have to worry about dying every other screen you don’t have the same sense of fear.

While it isn’t as good as the game directly preceding it Uninvited is still pretty entertaining. With less frustrating puzzles to deal with it is also more accessible with players more likely to stick with it until the end.

7-out-of-10-1

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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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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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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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Shadowgate

I’ve always loved point and click adventure games, dating as far back as some random Apple II game I played in an elementary school computer lab I’ve long since forgotten.  Despite my fondness for the genre I missed out on its golden age due to a lack of a computer; back then they cost about $2-3000.  And you thought the Neo Geo was expensive.  I had to make due with console ports such as the later Rise of the Dragon for Sega CD, Maniac Mansion, and this classic, Shadowgate.  Kemco and their partners produced a trifecta of adventure game ports from the Macintosh that all turned out excellent with Shadowgate probably being my favorite.

As a lone unnamed warrior you are teleported to the Castle Shadowgate by the Wizard Lakmir and tasked with preventing the resurrection of the Behemoth, a titan of old.  As these things typically go you are the last in a line descended from kings so only you can fulfill this task but I say they could have at least given you a little assistance.

Deep, dark, foreboding and full of mystery Shadowgate is one of the darkest NES titles released in the US.  While Nintendo of America were at their most aggressive in terms of censorship during that era there are plenty of little details that managed to slip past the knife.  Most of it is detailed explanations of how you’ve just died a gruesome death and I imagine that because it’s usually only text it was okay but that doesn’t stop the imagination from running wild.

Usually console point and clicks are an exercise in frustration but they’ve done a good job here simplifying the menu commands somewhat to make things faster.  You can pick up and examine nearly everything in the environment and in short order will have a massive list of items with no idea what to use them on but that’s part of the fun of the game.  The castle itself isn’t very large however you’ll frequently revisit old rooms once you’ve acquired new items in order to delve deeper into its depths.

The puzzles in the game are intricately linked, requiring some obscure combination of items in order to unlock doors or fell the occasional enemy to move on.  Even the most obscure pattern in the background might be an important item or clue needed later in the game.  The amount of items in the game is deceptively large; truth be told you’ll probably only use about 40% of the junk you’ll pick up but you can never tell what will be vital.  Graphic adventures are known for being tough but Shadowgate is particularly obtuse to the point that it is maddening.  It wasn’t until years later that I finally completed the game and I seriously doubt anyone who wasn’t a teenager or adult back in the day was able to figure out the obscure hints given.

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Unlike most titles in this genre you can die and death visits frequently.  Make no mistake, Shadowgate is hard, with death lurking around every corner.  Many of these deaths are purely accidental and hilarious in retrospect but are so frequent that you’ll need to save in every room just in case.  Hell even standing still to think and ruminate on what this weird ass device you’re looking at actually does can be fatal; if your torch runs out Its an immediate game over.  Technically that means there is a time limit to complete the game but there are enough torches to steal that you would have to be really stupid to burn through all of them.  That being said Protip: steal every torch you see.

With all that in mind why would anyone stick around?   Because the game’s atmosphere is absolutely awesome.  The haunting soundtrack creates a pervasive feeling of dread that follows you around like a miasma from room to room.  When the music shifts, whether that be from impending danger or because your torch is about to fan out it’s actually scary.  The castle has many varied rooms despite its modest interior and while the puzzles will make you want to punch a wall in frustration there is a real sense of accomplishment once you’ve figured them out.

If you can accept that you’ll be using a lot of trial and error Shadowgate is an excellent port of a classic game that is still playable today.  It’s strange that the NES was host to quite a few adventure games that were all generally awesome and Shadowgate might be the best of the lot.

8-out-of-101

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Little Nemo the Dream Master

Little Nemo: the Dream Master was always a title that managed to escape my grasp growing up.  Whether it was the flea market, pawn shops, or even Blockbuster video it somehow managed to elude me for years.  After all that build up was it worth it?  Hell yes.  Little Nemo is Capcom at their peak during the 8-bit era and another feather in their cap when it came to treating a licensed property with respect.  While it isn’t as fondly remembered (if at all) as other gems like Bionic Commando and Mega Man the game more than deserves that same level of praise.

Little Nemo has been invited to the kingdom of Slumberland by its Princess to play and receives an endless bag of candy as a bribe.  Once there Nemo learns that King Morpheus has been kidnapped by the Prince of Nightmares, who wants to end all good dreams.  With sack in tow Nemo sets out to save the day!

This is as obscure a license as it gets.  Little Nemo is mostly based on the Japanese animated film Little Nemo in Slumberland which in turn was based on the comic strip of the same name from 1905.  I doubt most were aware of its origins and they missed a cool opportunity for cross promotion as the movie wouldn’t see a domestic release until after the game.  All of these factors contributed to the game’s low profile, which is sad; if the game were a little less difficult it would truly have been a classic.

As Nemo your only means of offense is the endless supply of candy given to him at the outset.  The candy itself is weak and will only stun enemies temporarily however you can keep them paralyzed indefinitely if need be by chucking more.  As you can imagine he’s a sitting duck but that’s where the animal helpers come in.  The final three levels in Nightmare Land finally allow you to use the Dream Rod and go on the offensive for a nice change of pace.

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Scattered throughout every dream are various animals who will allow you to ride on their back if you feed them candy.  Chances are if it doesn’t seem interested in attacking you it’ll help.  Throughout the game there are eight animals that help will you using their unique attributes.  The gorilla has the longest life bar and can climb walls.  The bee can fly short periods and attack with its stinger.  In a really creepy ass move the frog will let Nemo sit in his mouth as he swims faster and jumps higher than everyone else.  The list goes on with each partner playing some role throughout nearly every level

The object of each dream is to collect the requisite number of keys needed to open the door at the end in order to move on.  However doing so is easier said than done.  Each dream is relatively massive in scope with the keys possibly hidden everywhere.  Thorough exploration of pretty much every stage outside of the Toyhouse is needed if you want to move on.   The game does an excellent job of providing ample opportunity to use each animal’s powers and sometimes you’ll have to use them in concert for progression.

There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next despite the singular goal in each one.  The Mushroom forest and Flower garden are perfect introductions to the game’s mechanics however it veers off from there.  The Toyhouse is an auto-scrolling adventure with more keys than necessary.  Nemo’s house is largely non-linear and one of the most difficult due to how spacious it is; you’re going to have to search every square inch for the keys!  Conversely Cloud Ruins throws you a bone and places all the keys at the exit; all you have to do is survive until the end.  Nightmare world is exactly what the name implies with only the best gamer’s reaching the end.

I can appreciate excellent level design as much the next man however I do think Capcom were a bit too clever in this regard.  There are many keys that require a specific helper to reach which is nice but there are many instances where you’ll have to make a “blind leap” so to speak.  It isn’t always obvious if that seemingly bottomless pit will actually lead to an underground area or instant death yet this is the type of chance you’ll have to take frequently.  A good portion of the time you’ll discover where a given key is hidden purely out of desperation after combing every inch of the environment.  The fourth dream in particular places one of the last keys in an area you can only reach by swimming into the wall at a dead end.  Its design decisions like these that are truly frustrating.

Little Nemo is not a game for children despite the impression its cheery exterior might say otherwise.  Nemo himself is basically defenseless when he isn’t riding on some creature’s back and the moment’s where you have to ditch one for another are pretty tense.  Enemies respawn infinitely and any time you venture under the sea you can bet there are tadpoles that will relentlessly chase you at every turn.  Checkpoints are oddly paced so you can bet that you’ll end up replaying large segments of a given level once you die.  At least there are unlimited continues.

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Slumberland is one of the most imaginative worlds conceived on an NES cartridge and is rendered beautifully within the system’s confines.  Despite the limited color palette and overall darker tone the game still manages to be incredibly vibrant.  The sprites exhibit excellent animation with the overall art direction a refreshing change of pace.  If this game is built using the same tech as Capcom’s other titles (highly likely all things considered) it does a pretty good job hiding that fact.

Outside of the advanced difficulty Little Nemo is one of the best action adventure games for the NES which is lofty praise but well deserved.  The diverse array of levels and animal helpers help elevate it above most of its contemporaries, creating one of the best games you’ve never heard of.

9-out-of-10

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Werewolf – the Last Warrior

As a retro games site I spend a good portion of my time revisiting old games from my childhood and seeing how they’ve held up over time.  I can honestly say that when a game such as Contra or Secret of Mana is still just as awesome now as it was back then it’s a wonderful feeling.  And then there are the games that haven’t held up.  I remember Werewolf: the Last Warrior as a bad ass action game along the lines of Power Blade or Shatterhand but to tell you the truth I knew back then it had problems.  Maybe it was my Genesis envy at the fact I couldn’t play Altered Beast (which is hilarious in retrospect) but going back to it now has only made Werewolf’s flaws more evident.

I will give the game credit for not wasting time getting to the goods.  You start off in human form and immediately face off against a boss, an easy encounter that will acclimate you to your limited skillset.  Aside from a weak punch you also have a sonic scream that needs to be charged up first.  Once defeated you will change into Werewolf form and the true heart of the game begins.

Generally you move fast and can leap significantly higher than as a puny human.  As a werewolf your reach is extended thanks to your morphing hands which become long blades when attacking.  The blades are used for more than just bludgeoning as they can latch onto pipes, ropes, and other hanging fixtures to traverse terrain hand over hand and climb walls Ninja Gaiden style.  If in danger you can backflip almost endlessly which grants invulnerability when in motion.  For a last ditch effort you can charge up a suicidal bomb that also drains nearly half your life meter.

There aren’t many power-ups in the game but the few available are pretty crucial.  Hearts obviously restore health while bullets will allow you to let off a one-time projectile.  An hourglass will grant more time which is important since each level has a pretty strict time limit that never stops, even during boss fights.   Once you’ve collected five orbs you become a super werewolf who is faster, stronger, and can leap to heights that would make Low G Man jealous.

There’s a solid foundation for an excellent game here but in action the façade begins to crack and most of it stems from the game’s wonky collision detection.  One minute your attacks will land perfectly while other times you’ll watch as your bladed appendages pass through enemies or even the crates that contain items.  As difficult as the bosses are this added hassle only makes it worse.  You’ll also get sick of attaching to any minor surface and trying to climb it even if it’s only one box high.  There are many points in the game where it’s necessary to grab a pipe or ledge to cross a gap and initiating this move is sheer torture.  I’ve had to try close to ten times to grab a stupid rope meanwhile the clock is always ticking.

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It’s obvious the game was designed around the werewolf and the game goes well out of its way to force you back into human form.  There are an obscene number of blue wolf icons that will instantly devolve you lying in boxes, many in spots where you’ll have no choice but to pick it up to proceed.   To be fair usually the next enemy (if there are any in the area) will drop a red one so you can change back but it isn’t out of the ordinary to be screwed in that regard.  Normally I’d say you can simply avoid searching for items but you need to, because the enemies aren’t generous with hearts and the clock ticks really fast.  The wolf is the only one that can crawl through tight spaces or back flip through electrical traps so if you for some reason are human (whether it’s due to items or losing half your life bar) there’s no choice but to commit suicide.  And of course continues are limited although you can find more.

The levels throw everything but the kitchen sink in your path and take the worst excesses of Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden to the extreme.  There are literally times where every step will see some boulder or bomb, hell even a combination of the two will drop from the sky.  Whenever there’s a pit to cross you can rest assured something will jump out to knock you to your death but here they take it a step further and will have two enemies waiting.  Certain levels such as the Waterfall will have so many enemies that spawn endlessly that even trying to make a bee line to the exit doesn’t quite work.  Comparatively the bosses have patterns that are easy enough to identify although I will say if you become a human just die, it’s not worth trying to beat them at that point.

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Gameplay issues aside Werewolf does look pretty amazing by 8-bit standards.  Sprites are pretty large and well animated and the backgrounds, when there are any sport a high amount of detail.  The game’s comic book style bosses are the highlight although a few will remind you of enemies from other games.  The music is sadly an afterthought and not the game’s strong point.

How do you screw up a game about a werewolf with double bladed arms?  I don’t know but somehow the developers found a way.  Had the controls been tightened and the balance adjusted this would be a pretty solid title but as it is might be too frustrating for most to overlook its flaws.

6-out-of-101

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Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin

Years before Sonic the Hedgehog was a twinkle in Sega’s collective eye they had no mascot to market the Genesis with and no real notable franchises with name power like Nintendo to sell the system with.  And no, Alex Kidd does not count no matter how much you lied to yourself and believed his games were better than Super Mario Brothers.  Sega instead struck licensing deals with damn near anyone famous in pop culture.  Tommy Lasorda, Buster Douglas and Michael Jackson himself all lent their names to big Genesis titles for the time but it would be their Marvel deal that would prove the most interesting.  After his cameo appearance in Revenge of Shinobi it was only a matter of time before Spider-Man would star in his own title and it would prove to be one of the system’s brightest stars early on.

The Kingpin has planted a bomb somewhere in New York City with it set to explode in 24 hours.  In a genius move to deflect all attention away from himself he blames it on Spider-Man and the gullible citizens believe him.  To ensure Spider-Man doesn’t defuse the bomb the Kingpin has hired some of his greatest arch foes such Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, Sandman, Electro, Hobgoblin, and Venom to guard the keys needed to deactivate the bomb.

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The developers have done an excellent job of incorporating all aspects of Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s character in the game to create a non-typical adventure.  You can crawl along nearly every surface in the game, from walls to the backgrounds themselves, a feature that the game leans on pretty heavily.  They’ve done a pretty good job of replicating the, uh, spidery poses and such artists like Todd McFarlane made popular in the comics although thankfully they don’t go that far.  Spider Sense is sadly under-utilized here as it will only alert you t to the presence of a boss.

Webbing is your primary means of offense and travel.  Standard web bolts will ensnare bad guys after a few hits but can also do the same for machinery.  It costs little to nothing when you spam it which is good as you’ll want to avoid melee combat as much as possible.  At the cost of a chunk of web fluid you can create a shield that will absorb a few hits although I never found it all that useful in the long run.  The web swinging is the most satisfying of any Spider-Man title from that era as they’ve nailed the physics and momentum.  Most levels feature a few wide open areas to swing in and some such as Central Park can be crossed in the span of a few seconds, web fluid permitting.

Anyone who has picked up a comic will know that web fluid is a finite resource and it’s here where you’re photography skills come into play.  You can photograph pretty much anything in the game from the regular thugs to the more esoteric enemies to which the game will assign a dollar value.  The more unique the photo (such as the bosses* hint, hint*) the more money you’ll gain which is tallied up at the end of every level and used to buy more web fluid.  If you’ve filled the bar any excess dough will carry over.

The 24 hour clock serves as the timer for the overall adventure and is always ticking down.  The game is short enough that its overly generous, with the only real drains on time coming from continuing, which costs an hour and returning to Parker’s apartment to regain health which makes the clock speed up.  There is a pretty fucked up surprise at the end of the game that will cause the clock to enter the final countdown early if you try to enter the keys in the bomb in the wrong order, causing an automatic game over.

I wouldn’t say that the game is tough overall but it does have its moments.  It’s a bit stingy with health power-ups, my guess to force you to decide if going back home is worth it.  It’s entirely possible to reach some of the later levels with little to no web fluid if you’ve been wasteful with your supplies.  If you dawdle too long in one area chances are you’ll have to face Venom along with whatever boss lies in wait.  Speaking of bosses, the boss rush at the end is brutal since you’ll be facing two at a time.  And if you survive long enough to reach the final showdown with the Kingpin I’ll just say anyone who has faced the final boss of Revenge of Shinobi will experience déjà vu.

Those are only minor quibbles in the grand scheme however.  This is a solid action title that was one of the Genesis’s earliest hits before its explosion in popularity in 199-92 and is still one of the better Spider-Man games today.

7-out-of-10

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Eternal Darkness

Eternal Darkness was a long time in coming, having started life on the Nintendo 64 before moving to the GameCube sometime before its release.  As one of the N64’s last games it had a large amount of hype behind it; there were very few if any adventure games half as ambitious that were even attempted for the platform and as the previews mounted it became obvious it would be something special.  The decision to move it to the GameCube wasn’t a popular one at first but the subsequent upgrade in graphics and gameplay quieted the storm.  Unfortunately ED did not land with the impact it should have but it remains a quality adventure to this day with some unique gameplay points that have not been replicated since.

The plot of Eternal Darkness will eventually take players on a ride through numerous periods in history with over a dozen characters as players unravel the mystery of the three Elder Gods battling for supremacy with humanity caught in the middle.  The plot is centered on Alexandra Roivas, who has just inherited her grandfather’s mansion after he is brutally murdered.  With little help from the police Alexandra explores the mansion for clues to his death and instead discovers his research into the Tome of Eternal Darkness and takes up the fight in his stead.

The story covers one of the largest spans of time, dating as far back as 26 BC.  Although Alexandra is the central figure for the most part she merely serves as a bridge between the various characters you’ll play as.  From a Roman centurion to an Italian architect and even an archaeologist and firefighter in near modern times the well-crafted story manages to bring together all of these disparate character’s exploits together beautifully as each has a role to play in the game’s eventual outcome.  Although you’ll only spend a brief time with them you’ll become invested in their eventual fate; not every story has a happy ending but it all serves the greater good.

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13 characters with their own play mechanics could easily have been a large clusterfuck but they all have a solid base to start from.  The controls are solid, none of that tank style movement so prevalent in the genre.  All characters can target individual body parts of enemies which is an effective way to prevent damage.  This is one of the most crucial skills to master in the game and is mandatory for progress.  Taking off an enemy’s head will render them a non-threat since they’ll flail about helpless and might even attack their comrades.  Most of the basic fodder will be encountered in groups and this tactic will alleviate some of the stress.  Disarming larger enemies such as Horrors will make your life easier as they have a long reach.  Some have specific weak points that must be targeted and with one particular character’s ability to perform autopsies you can do so easily.  The targeting isn’t perfect unfortunately; as the targets move around it becomes harder to focus on the same point as it jumps around relative to their position which is realistic but is frustrating to deal with.

There’s a large assortment of weapons available, possibly one of the biggest collections assembled to that point.  All armaments are true to their respective era meaning you’ll wield numerous swords, blades, and guns and adapt to their individual quirks.  Maximillian’s flint lock pistol can only fire one shot before reloading which is a laborious process.  Ellia’s blowgun poisons enemies which forces you to dodge their advances while it takes effect.  The size of the weapons will also affect the player in numerous ways.  A smaller characters such as Anthony will move and swing slower while wielding a two hand sword for instance.  You’ll have to pay attention to the environment when in combat as walls can obstruct your swings.  There are occasional collision issues where attacks that clearly connected will not register and a bigger issue, they’ll fall to the ground and clip the background making it impossible to finish them off and restore sanity.

The magic system might seem complex at first but is simple in practice.  Spells are learned from scrolls and can be cast in a 3, 5, or 7 point array, increasing its power.  In addition each spell can be cast in one of three alignments, Red (Chatturga), Blue (Mantorok), or Green (Xel’lotath).  There’s a rock, paper, scissors style system in place as to which colors are weak or strong against the other, a fact you’ll have to take advantage at numerous points.  The spells run the gamut from enchanting items to self-defense and healing and most importantly once a spell is learned every following protagonist has access to it.  Magic is a bit game breaking as it refills over time, meaning there is no penalty for staying put and letting it recharge in order to refill health and sanity.

Perhaps Eternal Darkness’s most famous aspect is its sanity system.  As you encounter the various demonic denizens in each chapter your sanity will decrease when spotted.  The amount varies depending on the hero; someone like Pious Augustus who is a battle hardened veteran will lose very little as he is fearless.  Ellia and Paul Luther have very short sanity bars and will succumb to madness quicker.  By finishing off downed enemies you can restore sanity or use magic.  There are repercussions for letting it drop such as increased damage from enemies and health dropping.

Eventually despite your best efforts that meter will deplete and at that point you’ll start to lose your mind, literally.  There are somewhere around 50 effects, some so subtle you won’t notice it.  Sometimes blood will drip from the ceiling, others a bug will land on your screen (I guarantee you’ll think it’s real!).  The more unnerving are the chants or random door banging.  It gets more manic than that however; the most extreme effects will cause you to explode when casting spells or disregard all player control.  It’s all in fun as you’ll be taken back to the last room you’ve entered in the most extreme circumstances.  I’m purposely not going into detail as its better to experience them yourself.

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At its release Eternal Darkness was a pretty game but the years have only highlighted its flaws.  The character models still show their N64 roots at times with low poly counts and blurry textures.  The animation is excellent with all characters switching it up depending on the weapon equipped and level of health.  The frame rate never drops even in the most hectic situations with as many as 7 or eight zombies bum rushing you.  The indoor environments fare better with incredible lighting and shadow effects complementing the intricate architecture.  There’s some light bump mapping used to make the smaller background details pop, giving the game a stronger look than you would at first expect.  It’s apparent some levels had more work done to bring them up to par than others; whether that was a conscious decision or time constraint we’ll never know.

The sound design is all around excellent with a sweeping score that is both haunting and melodic.  The sound effects  such as banging doors, footsteps, and demons wailing will have you on edge at all times, especially once your sanity dips below the halfway mark.  The voice acting is especially strong overall with no weak performances to speak of.  There is some repetitive dialogue that is shared between protagonists; most notably the nervous chatter of insanity but it doesn’t mar the strong sound design at all.

Eternal Darkness will last somewhere around 20 hours for first time gamers and with its unique gameplay and excellent story is one of the best action/adventure games of that era that has held up to this day.  You can find copies of Eternal Darkness dirt cheap so there’s no reason not to experience one of the most unique gaming experiences to date.

8-out-of-101

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Snatcher

In Japan Visual Novels are the equivalent of our point and click adventure games, although they are released more frequently overseas than their US counterparts.  Focusing more on story than gathering items and solving puzzles visual novels are usually dense story wise and have branching paths such as Fate/Stay Night and Steins Gate.  As you can imagine the vast majority never make the trip overseas.  In 1994 Konami took a chance localizing one of Hideo Kojima’s finest productions and in the process created one of the best Sega CD games of all time.

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June 6, 1996.  A biological weapon under development in Russia named Lucifer Alpha is accidentally released, killing 80% of Europe/Asia’s population and in turn half the world.  A decade later Lucifer Alpha mutates and becomes harmless but still leaves Chernotown inhospitable.  50 years later and a new menace threatens the population: cyborgs.  Dubbed Snatchers due to their penchant for kidnapping members of society and taking their place no one knows their origin or what their ultimate goal is.  As Gillian Seed, the newest member of the J.U.N.K.E.R task force it is up to you to solve the mystery and recover your lost memories.

From a gameplay standpoint toss aside all preconceived notions.  This is not a Lucas Arts adventure game; as a visual novel the game is more focused on telling its story.  All actions are performed using simple menu based commands.  There are both benefits and frustrations present in this system.  One of the worst aspects of PC adventure games (and everyone will agree) are the repetitious pixel hunts you were forced to engage in to find items.  It was very easy to miss crucial story items in most games of this ilk, forcing you to back track or in some cases completely start from the beginning.  Here Metal Gear will generally clue you in as to what action you should take and won’t let you leave an area until you’ve thoroughly explored it.  As a result it’s impossible to ever get stuck.  The downside is the menus are often 5-6 levels deep and there are far too many points in the game where you are forced to engage in the same repetitive action until the next plot point is triggered.  Overall it’s only a minor complaint since it frees you to enjoy the game’s plot.

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What will immediately grab you with Snatcher is the world itself.  Heavily inspired by Blade Runner and the Terminator the cyberpunk atmosphere is tangible right from the start.  The city of Neo Kobe features a dazzling array of neon architecture and futuristic vehicles straight out of a science fiction novel.  Kojima has never been one to hide his Hollywood influences and they are immediately obvious. In this case however there are enough unique elements in Snatcher that make it it’s own beast.  There are also a ton of Easter eggs all over the place that are shot outs to other Konami series; the bar Outer Heaven is host to a masquerade night where its patrons cosplay as familiar Konami heroes.  Your navigator Metal Gear Mk II is a miniature version of his namesake which is extremely cool.

Since Snatcher isn’t focused on puzzles its plot takes center stage and luckily it’s a strong one.  There are plenty of unanswered questions right from the start with the mystery surrounding the Snatchers being the most compelling; why do they only appear at night time and in the winter?  Why do they hate dogs?  And why do they only snatch particular individuals?  Once you find the answers it elevates these blatant Terminator clones into more than just a loose movie homage.  The game does a very good job of providing answers to these questions and more at a reasonable clip, keeping you engaged in the plot at all times. The game’s conclusion is around an hour long and answers every lingering question you might have, dropping so many bombshells that it’s worth viewing more than once.  It’s a satisfying end to an extraordinary tale.

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This was a surprisingly adult game for its time, earning a mature rating which might have led to its low sales.  It’s a rating that’s well earned as the game pulls no punches; within the first ten minutes you’ll come across a decapitated body and must examine the remains.  There are a ton of instances of bloody violence and even some slight nudity.  The conversations respect the player’s intelligence and never devolve into the juvenile hijinks so prevalent in most games of the early 90s.

Not to say that it doesn’t have its funnier moments.  Gillian is a lecher even though he is technically still married (though separated) and many of the responses available will produce comedic results.  The interplay between Gillian and Metal Gear is at the heart of the story and their relationship grows naturally as the story progresses.  Metal Gear is initially hyper critical of Gillian’s lackadaisical lifestyle but comes to respect him as he spends time with the actual human being and not just the data he was programmed with.  Gillian’s playful attitude masks a man who is hurt by the separation from his wife and the distance their lack of memories has caused in their relationship.  The cast of characters in the game is kept pretty small with nearly all of the most important figures receiving some sort of growth.

Aiding in this growth is the excellent voice work.  There isn’t as much voiced dialogue as you would expect but Konami still did an ace job hiring professionals to bring the cast to life.  The best voice acting in the world would mean nothing if the actual text their reading is shit (Castlevania: Lords of Shadow I’m looking at you!) and once again the localization crew created one of the best scripts of that era, keeping the game’s mature edge.  The game’s oppressive atmosphere is also shepherded by its dark and foreboding soundtrack.  The music gives off a constant feeling of dread, as if a Snatcher could attack at any moment.  It’s a feeling that will bristle the back of your neck when it’s time to explore any abandoned environment.  If there is one weak element to the game it would be the first person shooter segments.  The occasional moment where you’ll have to manually eliminate a target is welcome but the forced waves of enemies are out of place in a game that revels in its atmosphere.  Luckily there are only 3 or 4 of them in total.

There’s no question that Snatcher is one of the all-around best Sega CD games ever.  Unfortunately it’ll cost an exorbitant amount to play it.  Snatcher was released on a large variety of platforms however this version is the only official English edition.  While I would never advise someone to pay hundreds of dollars for a game but if you do you’re are in for one hell of a ride.

9-out-of-10

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Kickle Cubicle

Growing up I had a middling appreciation for puzzle games.  There were few released for the NES and outside of Tetris I barely gave them a second glance.  But it was games like Adventures of Lolo that showed me the light (so to speak) and gave me a newfound admiration for a genre that is all about its gameplay.  Kickle Cubicle was a game I read about in Nintendo Power but could never find in stores.  It would be years before I’d finally track it down and thankfully time did little to diminish its brilliant gameplay.

Originally released in arcades by Irem it was nice to see them take a break from the serious shooting action of R-Type.  The evil Wizard King has taken over the Fantasy Kingdom, enslaving its people and stuffing them into dream bags.  Kickle is the sole denizen of Fantasy Kingdom unaffected and sets out to save the world with his freezing breath.

Kickle Cubicle is most often compared to Adventures of Lolo and the comparison is valid.  Both games are single screen puzzlers although KC is a bit different.  Kickle is armed with two abilities, his freezing breath which will turn enemies into blocks or stop them in their tracks briefly and the power to create ice blocks.  The majority of the time you’ll be freezing the blue Noggles and using them as an all-purpose tool to solve each level’s particular conundrum, whether it’s creating make shift bridges over water or filling in gaps between islands.  It’s a simple set of mechanics that is greatly expanded on through the game’s clever level design.

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The main objective of each level is to collect the three dream bags placed somewhere on the map; doing so will end the level and warp you to the next.  At 4 lands (Garden, Fruit, Cake and Toy) comprised of 17-20 levels the game ran the risk of becoming repetitive in short order but introduces new play mechanics at a steady clip.  The number of enemies has been reduced over the Japanese version, keeping the focus squarely set on figuring out just how you’ll manage to reach that one out of place bag before time runs out.  Having said that repetition does set in after extended play sessions which is an unavoidable fact.  If they would have added 2 or 3 more lands kept each at an even 10 levels it would have done wonders in terms of variety.  By the time you reach the end of a given world you’ll have tired of its theme and set pieces.

The puzzles seem to alternate between the simple and complex every few stages but as a whole I wouldn’t say it’s too challenging.  The first world keeps it simple with the only new element added being the water holes that can’t be filled or stepped over.  You can however kick blocks through them to create alternate pathways.  It’s at Fruit Land that it truly ramps up with springs, breakers, hammers and power rocks all requiring some form of manipulation to complete a given scene.  While I mentioned the game alternating from the easy to hard in truth there are few puzzles that will really have you scratching your head until the last 10 or so levels.  They usually require just enough critical thinking that when you do eventually stumble across a solution (and in most cases there’s more than one) you’ll wonder why It took so long.  For those truly looking for a challenge Special Land becomes available after completing the game, offering 30 more brain teasers for those that crave more.

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Gameplay wise Kickle Cubicle is solid but in terms of presentation it is lacking.  I realize that isn’t the game’s focus but at the very least if you’re going to call it toy or cake land shouldn’t there be some visual representation of that?  Instead every level is basically the same iced over landscape.  Only the bosses offer some form of visual variety.  The game doesn’t fare any better on the music front with the same track repeated for the length of the entire adventure.  God even Tetris managed three.

Kickle Cubicle is an underrated puzzle/adventure game on a console that that managed to cover all the bases.  It doesn’t reach the heights of the Lolo series but is unique enough to serve as a viable alternative for anyone who loves that style of gameplay.

7-out-of-10-1

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Goonies II

The Goonies was something of a cultural touchstone for many of us who are children of the 80s.  A group of teenagers on the adventure of a lifetime searching for a long lost buried treasure is something most kids dream of in one fashion or another.  Personally while I liked the movie I can’t say that I have any great fondness for it after all this time but back then?  When I found out there was a Goonies II video game I lost my shit.  While I found it strange there was a Goonies II without a Goonies I (it was only released in Japan, the US saw limited distribution through the PlayChoice 10 arcade units) it didn’t stop me from putting an insane amount of hours into the game despite its best attempts to deter me.

Ma Fratelli and her thugs have returned, kidnapping all of the Goonies except Mikey and a mermaid named Annie (what the f*ck?).  I sure as hell don’t remember any mermaids in the movie but whatever.  It’s up to Mikey to save his friends from certain doom in one of the most expansive games released at the time.

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Structurally this is similar to Metroid and Zelda II.  You are dropped into the world armed only with a yo-yo and no objective beyond what the instruction manual states.  The ultimate goal of the game is to save the 6 Goonies before you’ll be allowed to rescue Annie.  How you go about that process and the order you do so is largely in your hands.  The game doesn’t give many hints as to what you should be doing but magic locator devices will at least mark where the closest Goonie is stashed away.  If you’re lost at the very least they’ll guide you to the next objective.

Somehow the Fratelli’s have turned the once innocent caves under their house into a labyrinthine death trap full of molten lava, ice structures, and waterfalls.  Add in demons and other mystical creatures and it becomes apparent Konami have strayed far from the source material for gameplay reasons.

This was a fairly ambitious game for the time.  Outside of the various items you’ll collect the world map is divided into a front and back side.  They don’t line up perfectly when flipped so it’s pointless to try to use it as a guide.  The warp zones will teleport you to different areas as well; it’s better to identify each region by its graphic design.  There are minor RPG elements as you’ll collect keys to unlock safes, bombs that can reveal doors and your health will increase with every Goonie rescued.

The initial yo-yo will eventually give way to an inventory full of items.  A boomerang and slingshot will be your ranged weaponry while different bombs in limited supply can reveal hidden entrances.  There are different shoes that increase your speed and jumping distance but the majority of the items you’ll find offer passive effects, such as the helmet protecting you from falling objects or a bulletproof vest that cuts damage in half.  A secondary set of items can only be used in the “adventure” portion of the game and it’s here where the game stumbles.

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You’re going to be doing a lot of this.  It gets old really quick.

Throughout every area of the map there are numerous doors that lead to first person segments where you explore a set of room for items and most importantly Goonies.  Most of these areas are fairly small at only a few screens but they make up for it by being the most frustrating element of the game.  The most important items needed to progress in the game are hidden in these rooms but rarely in plain sight.  You’ll have to use every option in your small set of commands in each room to make sure you aren’t missing something.  That means punching all 4 walls plus the ceiling and floor, hitting them with the hammer or using the glasses to reveal invisible objects.  Every time.  There are very few dead end rooms that won’t at least yield some form of item, be it a extra keys or bomb boxes.  You’ll just have to pound every inch of the room to find them.

The random NPCs only espouse nonsensical dialogue, leaving you to your own devices.  There are a few hints provided in safes but there are less than ten of those in the game.  Some of the items are hidden a bit too cleverly.  To find the candle you must punch (!) an old woman five times.  One of the most important, the transceiver is found by punching one of the doors.  Who the hell would actually try that without prior knowledge?  If they removed this portion of the game or replaced it with something better executed it would have been fantastic.  As it is it reminds me of Dr. Chaos too much, a game I absolutely despise.

In spite of the game’s first person adventure mode I still like it, I just wouldn’t recommend tackling it without a guide.  This was released in 1987, a year after Zelda so some of its transgressions such as the lack of any immediate direction can still be forgiven.   The graphics don’t hold up but the soundtrack is still classic Konami all the way, with a surprisingly accurate rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Goonies theme taking the lead.  The Goonies II is in a middle ground between Zelda’s excellence and Dr. Chaos’ level of frustration.

7-out-of-10

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Luigi’s Mansion

It’s hard to believe that it took nearly 20 years for Luigi to finally get the starring role in his own game (I’m well aware Mario is Missing exists but if you consider that a game I have a copy of Captain Novolin to sell you).  For the entirety of his existence Luigi had been overshadowed by Mario but with Luigi’s Mansion Nintendo used the opportunity to define his character and show that he is a unique character in his own right.  While you would expect the game to be a platformer it is instead the Ghostbusters game we’d always dreamed of (to an extent).

The crazy plot sees Luigi winning a mansion in a contest.  Oddly enough he had never entered the contest in the first place so agrees to inspect the place with Mario.  Unfortunately Mario is kidnapped by ghosts before Luigi arrives, leaving the cowardly member of the duo to save his bro.  With the assistance of Professor E. Gadd and his Poltergust 3000 Luigi plans to save Mario and rid the haunted mansion of its ghostly inhabitants.

As an action adventure game Luigi’s Mansion is armed with a raft of play mechanics.  The primary pair are the Vacuum sucking Poltergust 3000 and the Flashlight.  Throughout the adventure there are tons of ghosts that first need to have light shed on them to expose their heart, leaving them vulnerable to the vacuum’s gust.  Once you’ve begun the process of trying to reel them in it becomes a frantic battle to trap the bastards as they fight tooth and nail to get away.  The entire process calls to mind the best episodes of Ghostbusters and it’s everything you can possibly imagine and more.

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More mechanics are introduced as the game progresses and the game does an excellent job easing you into their uses.  The Game boy Horror serves as a map and in game hint guide; should examining objects prove futile taking a picture will provide further clues. Later in the game the vacuum can gain elemental properties of fire, water, and ice, which increases the number of ways to capture ghosts.  The dual analog setup takes some getting used to but comes in handy when dealing with faster ghosts but for those who can’t wrap their heads around it isn’t mandatory.

Obviously the ghosts are aware of their weakness and so will hide in everyday appliances, forcing you to flush them out.  Each room of the mansion is dark until you’ve cleared the ghosts restoring light and protecting them from further manifestations (at least initially.)  The mansion is divided into 4 Areas and a basement, with access to each blocked off until you’ve met certain conditions.

While there are a ton of standard ghosts to learn the ropes on it’s the 21 Portrait Ghosts that truly bring out the game’s best elements.  These apparitions are more savvy than the typical fodder you deal with and require more meticulous methods to defeat.  It isn’t immediately obvious what needs to be done to get their attention, and their complete lack of interest in your presence certainly doesn’t help.  Snapping a picture with the Game boy Horror will give a slight hint at times but you’ll need to observe your surroundings to parse out their weakness.

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One of the first examples would be Lydia, the mother ghost.  While she is oblivious to your presence as she constantly combs her hair the more observant will notice that the window is open.  Pulling back the curtains will let in a draft that will interrupt her.  As she gets up to close them her heart is vulnerable.  There’s a nice ramp up in terms of steps necessary to bag each one.  Mr. Luggs (an optional ghost) is another example.  Normally invisible, lighting the candles at his dinner table makes him corporeal.  If you suck in his dinner completely as well as the servants that attempt to bring him a replacement he will become furious and attack.  Waiting it out will exhaust him and expose his heart.  There’s a high degree of creativity poured into each one of these signature encounters, sometimes more than 2 or 3 games combined.

This makes it all the more frustrating that there aren’t more of them!  In between these fresh battles the game becomes incredibly formulaic since each room can be boiled down to the same 3 or 4 steps.  Outside of the boss battles at the end of each area there’s very little challenge or sense of danger, meaning you’ll blow through the game pretty quickly.

That highlights Luigi’s Mansion’s biggest problem: its length.  Even a novice gamer should be able to complete the game in 5 hours or so, which is a decent length in most cases but not here. This is the type of game that has zero replay value; once you’ve captured all of the ghosts the mystery is gone on successive play through.  There are 50 optional boos you can go back and capture if you so choose but aside from the initial thrill of tracking them through previously cleared rooms isn’t as rewarding.  You are awarded a score based on the amount of cash you’ve acquired throughout the game which unlocks the hidden mansion, which is the same mansion with parameters changed, such as mirrored rooms, alternate locations, and faster antagonists, but once again, it’s still the same content you’ve already seen before.

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Before it blossomed into a full game Luigi’s Mansion was a tech demo used to demonstrate the GameCube’s advanced functions, a task that it does beautifully.  The lighting and shadowing effects in particular were beyond the vast majority of games to that point and are still impressive today.  Waving the flashlight around illuminates and casts shadows on nearly every surface in a realistic manner.  The cloth physics employed when using the vacuum are eerily realistic as well.

The character models exhibit a wide range of expressions, especially Luigi.  His fear is instantly palpable when a ghost sneaks up behind him and his nervousness is portrayed perfectly in his shaky knees and worrisome expression.  The ghosts themselves look almost as though they were plucked from a cartoon; this is expert art direction at its finest.

The sound design has its highs and lows.  The music is a bit Spartan, with very few tracks that tend to repeat frequently.  At the very least they are catchy.  It’s in the moments with no music that are fantastic.  Luigi is a coward so he’ll nervously whistle the game’s theme song to try to calm his nerves or hurriedly call for Mario when terrified.  the sound effects from the ghosts are pretty hilarious as well, lending to the game’s cartoon like atmosphere.

It might have been a bit unfair to look at Luigi’s Mansion as the GameCube equivalent of Super Mario 64 at release but in the end it manages to stand on its own two feet.  Had the game been longer it would truly have been excellent, but will have to settle as a solid foundation for its upcoming sequel.

7-out-of-10-1

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A Boy & his Blob

Truly unique ideas in the video game industry are few and far between so when a game comes along that is different it tends to stand out.  While the majority of these innovative games have the gameplay to back up their fresh concept some don’t always manage that feat; A Boy and his Blob happens to be one such case.

Designed by legendary creator David Crane you control the Boy as he attempts to help his companion Blobert save his home planet of Blobolonia.  More of an action puzzler than a platformer you must utilize the Blob’s numerous different forms to collect treasure needed to buy vitamins for the assault on Blobolonia.  While the gameplay is original the execution is lacking, turning what should have been an enjoyable experience into an exercise in frustration.

You are given free rein to tackle the depths of the city however you choose.  By feeding the Blob one of 15 flavored jelly beans he can assume a variety of forms to assist in navigating the caverns under the city.  From a ladder, trampoline, jack, to the more esoteric such as a bubble, blow torch or hummingbird each has a purpose with some seeing far more use than others as you tackle the challenges set forth.  There is often more than one solution to a problem, leaving you with plenty of room to experiment.  It’s extremely rewarding to stumble onto which jelly bean is needed for the problem at hand, like what to do about spider webs or how to avoid falling rocks.  Sometimes you’ll have to throw logic out the window but that basically sums up most videogames.  I mean come on it’s a videogame about a transforming blob who likes jellybeans.

While the freedom to do as you please is nice it also cripples the game in many ways.  Right from the start you aren’t given any direction as to what tasks need to be completed.  If it weren’t for the treasure count in the status bar you more than likely would never even know that’s what the main objective is.  Within the first few minutes I can guarantee you’ll wander around lost because there is nowhere to go.  While moments like these encourage you to experiment with the different jellybeans it’s very easy to kill yourself unintentionally.  The coconut can serve as an advanced scout but that only works if there is space to roll it.

The lack of any kind of direction doesn’t do the game any favors either.  I’ll use my own experience from playing the game back in the day as an example.  Eventually you’ll find all the treasure, but what then?  I assumed the game would end but nothing happened.  At some point I figured I would go back to the beginning but working your way back up is harder than going down.  Now I go to the store past the subway and I receive vitamins based on how much treasure I found but what next?  Sooner or later you’ll find the rocket bean and fly to Blobolonia.  You see where this is going?

Which also highlights another issue: this game is brutally hard.  You have 4 lives with no continues, passwords, or 1ups.  With how frequently death pays a visit it’s unfair.  The loose controls don’t help in this regard: the boy slip slides all over the place and lining up the blob is really frustrating, made even worse by how precise you need to be in most cases.  Because you have to blindly use the hole bean to drop down it isn’t fair that a good portion of the time you’ll have chosen a bad spot and fall to your death.  Even on Blobolonia there are many cases of instant death you possibly can’t avoid.  For such a short game they definitely went out of their way to make it as hard as possible but not in a good way.

Although I want to recommend A boy and his Blob because it’s so unique I can’t.  It’s far too frustrating in this day and age.  However I can recommend the Wii remake by Wayforward which features beautiful 2d graphics, a refined interface and is devoid of many of this game’s failings.

6-out-of-101

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