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Growl

Don’t be fooled by the key art depicting the game’s protagonist as some sort of Indiana Jones inspired bad ass. You won’t be raiding tombs and seeking treasure but instead taking out poachers and freeing captured animals. Basically the human equivalent of Sonic the Hedgehog. Lest you get hippy notions of peace and happiness and frolicking with animals the game is actually pretty brutal and gory and takes a very, uh, “strange” turn towards the end that No One will see coming. Gameplay wise this is a classic beat em up in the Final Fight mold although not as nuanced as that game; think of it like Bayou Billy if it didn’t suck. Growl was not a standout game in the arcade but was well designed and fun while it lasted. Taito’s Genesis port tries to capture what made the game so good but comes out flawed in the process.

There are four characters all with varying stats but let’s be honest, they don’t matter. It all comes down whether you want the cool looking dude with the pink shirt and sunglasses or the very obvious Indy rip off. Gameplay is pretty simple as the game only makes use of a simple three button setup, punch, jump, and special attack. There are a variety of attacks you can perform however there is no set button combinations to pull them off which is pretty frustrating. That is also leads into one of the game’s biggest flaws.

The largest flaw with this version of Growl is the slowed attack speed. Normally in most brawlers once you start your attack combination enemies cannot counterattack. Here though there is a delay between punches which leaves an opening to get smacked in the face. This makes regular attacks useless. It almost seems as though the game were designed with this in mind as there are always weapons present, to the point where you will rarely ever be without one. This isn’t like traditional brawlers where they disappear if you drop them too much; so long as you pick them up within 7 or 8 seconds you can keep the same weapon indefinitely.   The whip in particular is almost game breaking as it hits enemies both in front and behind simultaneously.

This is a far cry from the typical game in the genre as it isn’t afraid to fill the screen with as many as 12 bad guys at once. Granted they’ll go down after a few hits but it isn’t a sight you see too often. There are plenty of weapons to bludgeon the bastards with and you’ll be surprised to see how gory it gets as rocket launchers and bombs blow them up into chunks. As cool as it is thought Growl also blows its load far too soon. By the end of the first level you will have seen nearly all of the enemies you will face throughout the length of the game which gets repetitive fast. The large numbers distract from this a bit but rarely does the game vary up the combinations they appear in. Some of the arcade’s better set pieces have also been cut from the game which cuts down on the variety as well.

Despite the numerous enemies that attack all at once you’ll be surprised to find how easy the game is overall. Your life bar is comprised of four bars but you can take a large amount of punishment before it ever dips. Life restoring food isn’t common but it almost seems unnecessary since you’ll have to actively go out of your way to die. Although you only get one life per credit it’s entirely possible most will complete the game with the default 3 but you can increase it to 7 in the options menu which is overkill. With that in mind you’ll blow through the game in about twenty minutes and never feel the need to ever play it again.

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For its Sega debut Growl’s graphics were completely redrawn and unfortunately it is ugly in comparison. The sprites are about half the size of the arcade and completely lacking in detail. The beautiful backdrops fared even worse. You’ll visit many of the same locations however they are barely recognizable to their arcade big brother. About the only real noteworthy feature I can mention is that this version manages to retain the same amount of enemies on screen with no slowdown but considering how many nondescript the sprites are it would be shameful if they couldn’t manage that much at least. The music is completely unmemorable and nearly all of the voice clips have been removed as well. Honestly I shouldn’t be so surprised that this port turned out so bad; it was early enough in the system’s life that developers were not aware how hard they could push the system but it is still disappointing in the end.

With its lacking gameplay, repetitive enemies, and lack of multiplayer (a staple of the genre) there is no reason to bother with Growl considering there are far better brawlers available for the system. It’s a damn shame this port turned out so bad as it could have added some needed variety to the genre. Oh well.

6-out-of-10-1

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DJ Boy

What the hell happened here? How could Kaneko mess up a simple port of DJ boy so badly? Let’s be clear, I’m not holding up DJ boy as some paragon of the genre. It was simply an enjoyable brawler with a unique aesthetic and well within the Genesis’ capabilities. This sad home port loses most of the arcade games charm and is simply a bad game.

Donald J. Boy is well known in the streets and when he hears about the Rollergames, a street fighting/racing competition he decides to sign up. However the Dark Knight gang say uh uh and kidnap DJ boy’s girlfriend Maria. It’s the typical save the princess shlock we are accustomed to and a far cry from the coin op.

That plot is wildly different from the arcade and if you can believe it only slightly less dumb. In it Michael Jackson and DJ Boy are break dancing to Beat It when a couple of Prince fans steal their boom box. Apparently they were angry that everyone thinks Thriller is better than Purple Rain and said enough is enough. The chase then ensues.

Alright I made some of that up but the difference in “plot” is only one of the changes made to the game. I call this a port in the loosest sense of the word. The Genesis version of DJ Boy is more inspired by its coin op big brother and that wouldn’t be a problem if the game were actually good. But between the terrible level design and flat gameplay I wonder why they bothered. This should have turned out so much better.

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Mechanically this is a pretty simple brawler. Your offense is limited to simple punches and kicks with a jump kick and really weird double punch making up your roster of moves. Punches are drastically inferior to kicks due to limited reach. If you build up some speed and kick few enemies will ever be able to counterattack. It’s simple but what makes this so interesting is that it all takes place on roller skates. Skating around and building up momentum could have been an interesting mechanic but the limited move set means you’ll simply button mash all day. It also doesn’t help that the hit detection is suspect, rearing its head most often during boss battles. Where the standard enemies are brain dead idiots the bosses require a bit more finesse. Like your typical beat em up they have a life bar that dwarfs yours and can kill you in a few hits. Each will require a specific form of attack to take down making these probably the only engaging parts of the game.

New to this version is the shop in between levels where you can spend the coins dropped by defeated enemies. The store offers a variety of power-ups to spend your coins but outside of replenishing health and buying an extra life they are mostly useless. Supposedly you can increase the power of your attacks but I did not notice a significant difference.   Increasing your skating speed sounds useful but lining up attacks is already unwieldy due to momentum and the viewpoint. The game would have been better off if these items dropped during the levels instead of wasting your time.

There have been some changes to the game, mostly to tone down some of its more offensive elements. The first boss, Big Mama, was an offensive black stereotype nanny who farted constantly for no reason. Here her skin color has been lightened and she throws pies instead. The fire breathing homeless man (!) who undressed to reveal his Chippendale body is now fully exposed from the start. Some of the more….outlandish enemies that resembled flamboyant Village People have also been removed. But the largest and unfortunate change comes in the level design. While thematically similar they differ drastically and not for the better in my opinion. Stage 2’s Subway featured a large variety of enemies to battle but here has been reduced to a high speed run through the underground with an ill-advised segment that limits your view to a spotlight. The construction site of stage 4 is similar with none of the cool background interaction. There are good ideas in here buried under bad execution unfortunately.

If for some god forsaken reason you actually want to see this to its conclusion you’ll have your work cut for you. In the beginning when your life bar is do short it is pretty rough. As you progress however it gradually expands so that you can survive longer. But getting to that point is a hassle. The game is stingy with the burgers that refill health and the kids that drop them are easily missed. Worse than that however is the fact that there are no continues and you only have one life. It’s beyond stupid and will make you question if they wanted anyone to even play the game.

If you are brave (or stupid) enough to persevere and finish the game you will be treated to an overly dramatic and badly translated ending that is the perfect conclusion to a terrible game. I liked DJ Boy in the arcade and to see the game butchered so badly is just sad. This is among the worst Sega Genesis games I’ve ever played.

4-out-of-101

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X-Men: Children of the Atom

As a lifelong comic book fan seeing my favorite characters take to the streets and engage in fisticuffs was a dream come true. And with Capcom doing the honors there was little to fear. X-Men: Children of the Atom was an awesome game when released in the arcade in 1994 and its home ports would have been welcome if they were a bit timelier. The Saturn version didn’t hit until close to 1997 and the pathetic PS One game wouldn’t see day light until 1998. In that time the genre had not only moved forward but the quality of arcade conversions did as well with many games going above and beyond to even improve on the original game. This home port is adequate but a bit bare bones and while still a good game also faced stiff competition.

X-Men: Children of the Atom in many ways can be viewed as the progenitor of the later versus games seeing as almost the entire game’s roster would later go on to co-star in such games as X-Men vs Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom. Christ even Omega Red, a character most have never heard of got a lot of mileage to say nothing of how broken Sentinel would later become. It offers many of the same features that gamers were familiar while at the same time introducing many elements that would be used throughout many of Capcom’s future games. Although the port was a bit old at the time of release it was still impressive. At least on the Saturn.

The roster does a good job of mixing fan favorite characters along with a few oddball choices. There would have been riots in the streets if Wolverine and Cyclops were not included and they are the go to choice for beginners. Cyclops is the game’s Ryu and surprisingly there is no Ken surrogate. Ice Man, Psylocke, Storm, and Colossus round out the good guys with a motley assortment of villains rounding it out. A Sentinel (a Mark V at that) is included and would go on to be drastically overpowered in later games. Spiral and Omega Red are odd choices but their move sets make for some interesting play styles. Silver Samurai is probably the oddest inclusion as he isn’t as popular as some of the villains they could have used like Apocalypse or Mr. Sinister. Magneto and Juggernaut are reserved as bosses and certainly live up to the title.

Veterans of most standard fighting games will be able to jump right in as this uses the familiar six button setup of 3 punches and 3 kicks. The standard Street Fighter style button combinations apply making this even more accessible. COTA brought a host of additions to the genre such as super jumps (which I’ve never been a fan of) and dash rolls. The move list for most of the characters is pretty small however the game makes up for it by allowing you to control the direction of many special attacks and a very free form combo system. Special moves can be chained together at the end of standard combos and throws for a few extra hits and it isn’t uncommon to see combo strings of 7-10 hits once you learn the system. The X-power gauge is essentially a super meter that can be used in two ways: one for an X-attack which only consumes a small chunk and second for a Hyper X-attack, a devastating move that consumes the whole bar and might as well be an automatic win button because it is so cheap.

The AI is aggressive even on the default setting but most won’t have trouble working their way through arcade mode. Extras are a bit light: the bosses are playable with a code as well as Akuma who surprisingly doesn’t look out of place. There are a variety of extra modes such as group battle and survival to extend the game’s life but compared to arcade conversions like Tekken 2 and Soul Blade this pales in comparison.

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At the time of its release COTA was simply incredible. The animation, even when compared to titles like Capcom’s own Darkstalkers was in another league and was joined by multi-storied backdrops that sometimes changed 3 or 4 times during a single match. The sprite work was really something else as both Juggernaut and Sentinel were larger than any other fighting game characters to date. Most of these sprites would be recycled well into the next millennium, for good and for worse. Cramming all of this splendor into the Saturn’s meager ram would have been impossible but the developers have done a good job of keeping it somewhat close. What is left is still a visual feast for the eyes that shows off the Saturn’s prowess with 2d.

The PlayStation version in comparison is a complete abomination. It didn’t take long for most of us to assume that most ports of 2d fighting games would suffer on the PlayStation but this version of the game is atrocious. There is significant loss of frames in animation, sometimes hovering close to 50%. Beyond just the beautiful artwork and backdrops Children of the Atom had astounding animation surpassing even later games from Capcom but you won’t find that here. And the load times are completely unacceptable. You can’t blame it on the platform either; Capcom did a fantastic job with the various versions of Street Fighter Alpha but developer Probe (the fine folks behind the Genesis ports of Mortal Kombat 1 & 2). This version of the game released four years after the arcade at which point I doubt anyone even cared anymore and this was the result. Sad.

Considering the original arcade release was in 1994 it’s amazing that the game was still impressive in 1996 when the Saturn port was released. Despite the various games in the “series” that introduced various gameplay elements Children of the Atom still has a unique feel of its own. That being said however I would say this falls lower on the totem of fighting games for the system no matter how well it turned out due to strong competition.

7-out-of-10

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Renny Blaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Great Battle Cyber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Dynamite Cop

It’s no exaggeration to say that by the end of the 16-bit era the beat em up genre was a bit long in the tooth. At least on console. Even with that in mind it was a bit sad to see the genre all but disappear during the 32-bit days outside of a few really bad games. The sad thing is there many great arcade titles that were really moving the genre forward that would never see a home release. Dynamite Cop like its predecessor Die Hard Arcade nails the gameplay end but completely fumbles when it comes to creating a fulfilling experience. The game is over far too quick for me to recommend it even though I like the game.

With no license attached the game’s story is now completely bug fucking nuts. Antagonist Wolf Hongo has returned along with his group of “modern day pirates” and have stolen a cruise ship along with the President’s daughter. Except somehow she manages to escape and hides in a pink suitcase right behind the bastard with no one the wiser. It is your job as a member of a three man team to infiltrate the ship and save her.

The same great “battle” system from the first game returns and has been expanded a bit. With three characters comes a little variety although the differences between the three aren’t as pronounced as you would expect. It reeks of a missed opportunity but it also means that everyone starts on equal footing. The list of moves per character is staggering for the genre and almost overwhelming. New to this game are P-power-ups that boost your strength at max level and the ability to attack in every direction which is the only item missing from the first game and. It makes combat much more fluid; I likened these games to Virtua Fighter in a side scrolling environment and the comparison is apt.

Unlike most brawlers you don’t have the freedom to move around freely through the levels so much as the game guides you along the way. These aren’t really levels but more small arenas where you can use most objects lying around and even the environment itself as a weapon. There are no shortage of weapons to use to the point where you might rarely have to rely on your fists. It gets downright silly at times: you can beat people to death using giant fish or even a toilet plunger! Wolf Hongo’s men are just as wacky. These are some of the strangest collection of “pirates” I’ve ever seen and look more like a gang of circus freaks rather than cutthroat murderers. There’s a great deal of variety among the henchmen as well and you’ll rarely fight the same thug twice. The game moves at a brisk pace as it takes you from one set piece to the next and unfortunately that helps to highlight the game’s major flaw, its length.

As much as I love the core gameplay it still cannot hide the fact that this is an arcade game at heart, meaning it is incredibly short. A single run through the game can be completed in as little as 15-20 minutes which even by genre standards is low. Choosing a different entry point into the ship leads to an alternate route through the initial stage but that simply means you are going through the same rooms overall in a slightly different order. With infinite continues anyone will can beat the game and there aren’t enough extras like Zombie Revenge to make up for it. Sega were usually pretty good about expanding their home ports so it is apparent that this was not a priority release.

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Dynamite Cop was originally created using the Model 2 arcade board which by 1999 had long been surpassed by more powerful arcade boards. As a result the game is ugly compared to other Dreamcast releases and would look more at home on the Saturn. Character models are blocky and but the animation is smooth and the few explosions look laughably bad. The game does move at a brisk 60fps but let’s be honest; considering everything else that is the least it could do. The ship’s layout and the accompanying island base are varied in their layout, you’ll just wish there were more to the game. The music is epic and stirring and wouldn’t seem out of place in a low budget film; if they had kept the Die Hard license it would have fit perfectly.

As much as I like the Dynamite Cop series they always seemed just short of greatness. Combining the extended move system with a much lengthier quest would create one of the better brawlers in the genre, which the later Spikeout embodied. This would make a worthwhile downloadable title but as a full price release in 1999 it was a hard sell.

6-out-of-10-1

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Sengoku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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The Adventures of Bayou Billy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-out-of-101

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Rollergames

For the longest time I ignored Rollergames. In my mind I associated it with that corny TV show from 1989 that my mom probably watched and assumed that the game would be more of the same tripe. Well to a certain extent it is. But! Leave it to Konami to take such a simple premise and make a pretty decent platformer out of it. Unlike the arcade game (which they also produced) that was true to the show Rollergames is a brawler/platformer but it doesn’t do either exceptionally well. The execution of its constituent parts is not good enough to make the game enjoyable over the long haul.

Rollergames is based on the TV show from 1989 which saw 6 teams of three competitors battle it out inside a figure 8 track. There was definitely some wrestling style face/heel action going on as the teams were split into the Western Alliance and the Eastern Empire with ongoing story lines played out over the season. That carries over to the game as the Eastern Empire (consisting of the Maniacs, Violators, and Bad Attitude, you know these are the bad guys) kidnap the Rollergames commissioner and for some god forsaken reason only the “good teams’ can save him. Not the cops, dudes on roller skates.

The three selectable teams have their differences but honestly they aren’t as pronounced during gameplay. With three teams you just know they’re going to hit all of the clichés. The T-Birds put you behind a big, slow, and powerful truck of a man, able to knock out most enemies with two combos. The Rockers don’t seem to occupy any one niche and is just…there. Hot Flash puts you in the skates of a leggy model who is equal parts fast and powerful and is my go to. Aside from their physical characteristics they each have a special move that is really hard to pull off consistently, to the point where I didn’t even bother. You aren’t locked in to any one choice as each level lets you switch it up, not that it was necessary.

Calling this a brawler is a bit disingenuous. The majority of enemies you’ll encounter, from the rollerblading Guile lookalikes to bats and hawks will go down in one hit. The end of each section will usually throw 5 or six bad guys in pairs that take a little more time to go down. These are usually followed up with a boss battle of some kind and are the only parts of the game where you’ll really notice the differences between characters.

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With less combat a large part of the focus is on platforming and that’s where the problems begin. Because you are gliding around on skates momentum plays a part in how far you move. The physics governing your speed and such are less than ideal however and with the viewpoint comes many frustrating deaths. Games like Konami’s own Ninja Turtles brawlers use the same viewpoint but wisely shy away from the type of precision platforming present here. In some ways it’s similar to Double Dragon with the added element of imprecise movement due to the skates on your feet. There’s some strong level design present that is vintage Konami but unfortunately you’ll have to deal with some jank to see it all.

It really shouldn’t come as any surprise then that Rollergames is incredibly difficult and not always for the right reasons. The game leans heavily on memorization like Battletoads and fortunately it isn’t as punishing as that title but it does come close. The forced scrolling levels are especially guilty of this as you’ll only have a second or two to either jump or move to the appropriate location or die. What should have been a welcome challenge of pace comes across as really cheap as a result.

Outside of that probably the main issue is the clock: because the clock ticks pretty fast it urges you to always stay on the move which unfortunately leads to many mistakes and cheap deaths. You can’t rush any of the platforming sections; at least not until you’ve learned the layouts which will take some time. The physics aren’t perfect and combined with the viewpoint and wonky momentum prepared to die a lot. These issues are pretty severe but not game breaking in my opinion. It’s just that these are the types of problems that really stick out when the rest of the game is so damn good.

Rollergames surprised me. I went into it not expecting much beyond a cheesy licensed cash-in and found a cool brawler instead. With just a few small tweaks this could have been really great instead of frustrating and I applaud Konami for trying something different but that still doesn’t mean it will be to everyone’s liking.

6-out-of-101

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Gaiapolis

As shallow as many of them were I do genuinely miss the beat em up genre. Games like Final Fight showed just how amazing the genre could be but unfortunately it was run into the ground during the 16-bit era by games that didn’t aspire to be more than simple clones. It sucked because the brawlers at the tail end of that era were actually evolving and really turning into something special thanks to more powerful hardware. Games like Alien vs. Predator, Armored Warriors, and Dungeons & Dragons (huh, all Capcom games) were amazing examples of where the genre was headed.

Gaiapolis was one of the last arcade titles that wasn’t a fighting or racing game I got to play before my local arcade closed. This was the type of game I hoped would receive a Saturn or PlayStation port but it was very clear where the industry was headed and 2d wasn’t part of it. However in China an unlicensed port was made for the Famicom. Obviously it isn’t anywhere near the quality of Konami’s coin op but is decent for what it is.

The prince of Avalon is still out for revenge against Zar Harc Empire for destroying his homeland and is joined by two companions. The characters have all been renamed with the Prince, Dragon, and Fairy now being named Ken, Lin, and Amy. I suppose it helps give them an identity rather than just a generic descriptor. For the most part the game follows the arcade game’s plot although the few cut scenes don’t exactly create a coherent narrative. Gaiapolis was story heavy for an arcade game so it is sad to see most of that lost in translation.

This is an interesting release to say the least. The vast majority of Sachen’s games are complete crap yet Gaiapolis seems to have been made with some care. It more or less follows the arcade game’s plot and surprisingly is completely in English. The levels aren’t the same but are at least thematically similar. While most of the same features are present there are still a few problems that really bring the game down. However all things considered this turned out far better than you would expect given the disparity in hardware.

The game is played from an overhead perspective rather than the typical side scrolling format of most brawlers. That isn’t the only difference however as there are some RPG elements. Experience points are gained from killing enemies or picking up items and while it adds a little depth the addition is superfluous. Enemies spawn in set locations and groups and you must kill them before moving on making everyone’s character growth the same. The differences between characters aren’t as pronounced here which makes your choice irrelevant.

By brawler standards this is a pretty simple game since your only means of offense is a simple three hit combo and an occasional magic spell. The bad hit detection and the viewpoint make attacking enemies more of a hassle than it should be as swings that are clearly connecting simply don’t register. This is especially bad during boss battles where despite their size it isn’t clear where to attack. It makes these already long battles even more frustrating. This was a decently long game in the arcade but this is thankfully shorter; I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate this if it had all 17 (!) of the arcade’s stages.

As frustrating as the game can be there really is no challenge due to the fact that you have 99 credits shared between two players. Even if one or both players is an incredible moron there is no possible way that you won’t finish the game with that much of a buffer. There are a large amount of cheap hits due to the perspective but the game throws life restoring food at you after every group of enemies. Leveling up also refills health and you’ll level up every few minutes. Whether this was done as an acknowledgement of the game’s problems we’ll never know but at least you’ll definitely see it through to its non-ending.

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The graphics are pretty damn good for an unlicensed game. While it doesn’t have the same stage layout as the arcade the level themes are the same. There is a decent variety in the settings with the backgrounds being pretty detailed. The sprites are very large, larger than in most NES games, especially the bosses which are screen filling behemoths. The animation isn’t the greatest and the developer’s technical ambition gets the best of them as there is some very bad sprite flickering and slowdown. Where the visuals excel the music does not however. The music is grating and honestly is so bad I muted the sound which is something I rarely do.

It’s sad that this is the only home port of a truly amazing game. If you were lucky enough to play Gaiapolis back in the day you are better off sticking with your memories as this version only captures a slice of the game’s majesty.   Honestly this review really isn’t about recommending the game or not since the chances of actually finding the cartridge are next to impossible and it isn’t worth it. This was simply a means of examining a curiosity in game history.

6-out-of-10-1

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Dahna: Megami Tanjō

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-101

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Melfand Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10

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Pirates of Dark Water (SNES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Undercover Cops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Battle Arena Toshinden: URA

Toshinden URA what? It sure as hell isn’t a good fighting game. The jokes can practically write themselves. Battle Arena Toshinden managed to fool thousands with its arcade quality graphics but it didn’t take long before everyone realized the gameplay was shallower than a kiddie pool. By the time Toshinden 2 came around better 3d fighters such as Tekken 2, Virtua Fighter 2, and Soul Edge had shown us just how great a polygonal fighting game could be. The only thing it had going for it was its incredible graphics to which it wasn’t anything special at that point. The Saturn edition was supposed to be a special version of the game tailored specifically to the system but somewhere along the way someone cheaped out and we wound up with one of the worst games in an already bad franchise.

While the URA in the title gives off the impression that this is a wholly original title the game is mostly based off of Toshinden 2 and in its own strange way is a direct sequel to Toshinden Remix for Saturn. This mostly equates to a slightly different roster of final bosses and a changed story however the gameplay additions of the 2nd installment have been brought over. Not that it makes much of a difference as there is no depth to the combat and everything simply doesn’t flow properly.

The principle cast of the original is joined by three newcomers. Ron Ron is a teenage police scientist (I don’t buy it in the slightest) who even back then was pandering to a specific audience. Her attacks are some of the most appallingly animated in the game and are easy to dodge making her useless. Ripper looks cool but suffers from a long buildup in his special attacks. Tracy plays identically as she did in part 2 and by default is one of the better characters in the game. Sadly Chaos did not make the cut. The end game bosses are unique to this version and while that should be cause for celebration they are weak. Replicant is a robotic version of Sho while Wolf has some of the coolest special attacks in the game but his movement takes some getting used to.

At least some effort was made to correct the flaws of the original as the game is somewhat competent. The gameplay additions from Toshinden 2 such as dash in moves, taunts, and an overdrive meter have been brought over. The 3d dodge no longer grants temporary invincibility so its use has to be more strategic. Most of the returning cast have been given one or two new special moves or had subtle changes to their existing repertoire. The more powerful attacks have a slight charge time adding an element of risk and reward in their use. You’ll also have to be wary of your proximity to the edges of the ring since some moves cover a wide distance. Unlike the first game it is possible to execute simple combos and two-in-ones although it never really feels satisfying and more like a happy accident than a work of skill. Unfortunately you’ll never need to even bother trying these advanced tactics as the AI is some of the dumbest I’ve ever encountered in a fighting game.

I had always been curious as to just how accurate the magazine claims were that they could beat the game using nothing but the same special move over and over. Sure enough mapping a given character’s projectile attack to your button of choice and spamming it will result in victory with little effort. At most you’ll have to take an occasional swipe if your opponent gets too close. I used this “strategy” with six characters and it never failed. The AI is so dumb I have seen it run out of the ring for no apparent reason numerous times. The only reason to run through the single player mode is to unlock all the characters for multiplayer and even then some are so completely unbalanced (Vermillion) that it simply isn’t fun. A fighting game that fails to be entertaining even in multiplayer is basically worthless.

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There were lofty promises made about the game’s graphics as it was supposedly going to use the same high resolution mode as Virtua Fighter 2 with full 3d backgrounds. The only thing high resolution here are the 2d backgrounds and the front end menus. The game is a far cry from 60 frames per second; it’s more like 30 with frequent drops and the game has some seriously choppy animation. Toshinden Remix proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Saturn hardware was weaker than the PlayStation with its reduced polygon counts and missing special effects. That drab look continues here as projectiles and special moves lack real time lighting and transparency and look incredibly ugly; most attacks devolve into an ugly mess of pixelated blobs..

The one area that this series has excelled in, character design and art can’t even be appreciated as the character select screen is ruined by hideous, low resolution pixelated renders that barely resemble each fighter. There’s a decent amount of FMV but even by Saturn standards it is insanely grainy and looks low quality; honestly they shouldn’t have even bothered. At the very least the character models are solid but that doesn’t make up for the rest of the lacking visual presentation.

This series has always had outstanding music and that track record continues here. Most of the music is borrowed from prior installments of the series but remixed to great effect. The only oddity is that the music restarts every round so at most you’ll only hear 15-20 seconds of each theme unless you pop the disc in a CD player.

There is nothing here worth exploring as there are far better fighting games on the Saturn. I wouldn’t even recommend this game to Toshinden fans if they even exist.

5-out-of-101

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Riot Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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the Peace Keepers

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Die Hard Arcade

The 32-bit generation saw a renaissance within many genres as they moved to 3d, most specifically sports, racing, and 3d platformers. But it also many take a step back or disappear altogether. The scrolling shoot em up all but disappeared from America and the other mainstay of the 16-bit days, the beat em up was left on a milk carton. There were a few attempts to bring the genre to 3d but eh, the less said about those the better. Sega however that it could be done with Die Hard Arcade and aside from its far too short length should have been the model other games followed.

There’s a funny bit of history behind this game’s creation. In Japan it is known as Dynamite Deka but has no association with the movie. However one look at the box art and the main characters and it is blatantly obvious where they drew “inspiration”. Even the game’s plot of a terrorist who has taken over a skyscraper is the same. Well here they are trying to steal the contents of a vault and have kidnapped the President’s daughter as backup but that’s neither here nor there. Rather than being sued Sega of America teamed up with Fox to make this an officially licensed game like it should have been.

In terms of feel this plays less like a traditional beat em up and more like a side scrolling Virtua Fighter. The character movement bears it out as well as the floaty jumps which are identical. Thank Christ there’s no block button. One aspect which shouldn’t have been brought over is movement; you can only face left or right and you don’t walk so much as hop in spurts. It’s silly and does cause a few issues since you can’t lock onto a target; full 3d movement would have been better served. Luckily you can work around it.

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The Virtua Fighter connection (albeit tangentially) does come with some sweet perks. The game has a robust fighting engine, something that most beat em ups can’t claim. There’s a pretty large arsenal of moves depending on the buttons pressed once an opponent is grabbed or in the middle of a combo. In addition to martial artistry there are a ton of breakable objects that can be used as weapons as well as a never-ending stream of bad guys with all sorts of weaponry. I dare say you will rarely find a moment where you aren’t armed or surrounded by armaments waiting to be picked up.

The game was also ahead of its time with the incorporation of quick time events. These brief cut scenes usually challenge you to duck or pull a quick punch to avoid getting hit. Unlike modern day QTEs the penalty for failing is very small; you’ll either end up in a brief encounter or take small damage. While QTEs are on my shit list at least here they take place in between rooms rather than breaking up the action.

Unfortunately it’s all over far too fast. The game certainly lives up to the arcade in its title as it is way too short. Each of the five levels will only last a scant 5 minutes at best, meaning most will finish the game in a half hour with little incentive to go back and replay the game. By default you have a single life and 3 credits which can be tough to manage, especially as some of the cheaper enemies can catch you in a loop and drain your life bar in seconds. However you can play the optional deep scan minigame to win as many credits as you need. No matter how well executed the gameplay it can’t make up for the game’s brevity.

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Surprisingly this is still one of the better looking Saturn titles. While it exhibits the low polygon look of most game from that era DHA also ran at a higher resolution than most of those same games, giving it a sharper look. Character animation is incredibly smooth and the game runs at a rock solid frame rate. Of course most bouts take place in smaller arenas so it isn’t too taxing but considering most of that eras games ran at abysmal frame rates its much appreciated. The Saturn version’s music is redbook audio so unfortunately it constantly stops and starts with each new scene, not that it was all that memorable.

If Sega had included exclusive levels or a few extra gameplay modes like the later Zombie Revenge I would have no problem recommending the game. But with so little content it’s not worth a purchase. At least the Saturn version. In 2006 Die Hard Arcade was ported to the PlayStation 2 as part of the Sega Ages line. This version is less a port and more of a complete overhaul with completely new graphics and most importantly extra modes and costumes to entice you to play the game multiple times. While it was never released here like all of the Sega Ages games it is completely in English anyway and definitely worthy of a purchase.

6-out-of-10-1

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Streets of Rage 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Altered Beast (NES)

What’s this?  A Sega game on the Famicom?  Much like Tengen’s arcade ports of a few Sega classics the same licensing situation was happening in Japan.  While it might sound like sacrilege that Sega would allow ports of their respected properties on the competition in the end they did benefit as they still got a cut of that lucrative Famicom money.  The quality of these games was all over the place and Altered Beast is no exception.  Altered Beast wasn’t a very good game outside of its transformation mechanic and graphics plus had serious flaws, flaws that are also replicated here and bring the game’s quality down despite efforts to broaden the experience.

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Despite the disparity in hardware the game does its best to mimic the look of the arcade game and considering the platform does a pretty decent job.  The backgrounds are the same minus the parallax scrolling (which actually wasn’t present in the arcade) and pretty detailed.  The sprites have taken the biggest hit as they are incredibly small and lacking detail.  The single greatest loss would be the sampled speech and sound effects.  The game’s music was more ambient so the sound effects had a greater impact; here they are ear grating and will make you want to reach for the mute button.

Considering Sega handled the Master System port themselves it’s a god damn shame that this Famicom rendition has turned out better.  In terms of overall look it’s no contest; the MS version is actually pretty well done.  But its frame rate is an absolute mess with tons of flickering sprites on the level of NES Super Dodgeball.  It is so jerky that the game is barely playable.  And to top it off it’s missing an entire level!  My initial experience with Altered Beast came from this version and I was unimpressed.  It wasn’t until the following year that I would see what the game was supposed to actually be.

The layout of each stage is still generally the same as well as the enemies.  You still wander through each stage as it loops until you’ve collected three transformation orbs and assume your beast form for that level.  The transformations are disappointing in this version due to the lesser sprites.  In every other version your dude noticeably bulked up with each successive orb but you’ll barely notice it here.  The impact of the full transformations doesn’t hit as hard since they’ve removed the cool full screen cinematic as you let your inner beast out.

It sucks as that was the sole redeeming mechanic of the game as the rest of the package was pretty lackluster.  The levels are incredibly short; once you’ve collected three orbs you are immediately taken to the boss battle with Neff in this version.  Aside from the brevity of its levels Altered Beast suffered from bad hit detection and pretty high level of challenge.  At the very least the game is easier since you aren’t swarmed with enemies at every turn but cheap hits still come regularly as it is hard to tell where to hit certain enemies.  Your reach is shorter in keeping with the reduced sprite size so you have to chance getting in close for kills.  The bosses are less aggressive in their attacks but in most cases you can barely tell if you are hitting them or not.

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The game is at least playable but not as fun as it could have been.  Which sucks because developer Asmik (there’s a publisher I haven’t thought of in years) did at least try to make this a more complete package.  In addition to the arcade’s five levels three more were added with completely new beast forms to assume.  These stages not only look fantastic but are spliced into the normal level rotation so that arcade aficionados have something new to look forward to at every turn.  The tiger, shark, and phoenix are actually pretty cool as are the bosses you’ll use their powers to face off against.   It makes me wonder if the game would have been better served as a completely original interpretation rather than being saddled with trying to replicate the arcade experience.

This is a hard one to score let alone recommend.  On the one hand it has many of the same problems that plagued the game in its original incarnation.  But the additional content does make this a well-rounded package.  I suppose it depends on your love for Altered Beast to decide if it’s worth tracking down.  I will say in the end in spite of its flaws I enjoyed the game.

6-out-of-101

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Target: Renegade

Every genre has to start somewhere and in many cases it is fun to examine those early titles and break them down, seeing which parts would set the standard for all future titles that would follow.  The side scrolling platformer began with Pitfall and Super Mario Bros., two superlative games that are still fun to this day.  And then there’s Renegade.  As a game it laid down the foundation for future brawlers but was not very good.  Its sequel Target: Renegade does little to fix its faults and is a flawed game overall.

The game’s plot involves a Mr. Big kidnapping your brother and your mission to rescue him.  I suppose that explains the game’s lack of two-player coop.  Ignore the blatant Joe Lewis rip-off martial artist on the cover; your dude isn’t anywhere as cool and is essentially the predecessor to Billy and Jimmy Lee.  Despite its status as a sequel to Technos Renegade this was not developed in Japan.  As part of Ocean’s license to port Renegade to various computer formats they were allowed to create a sequel which goes a long way toward explaining the game’s myriad issues.  Target Renegade ignores nearly all of the features that made Renegade (sort of) a classic and is a regression in every way.

The controls aren’t the most responsive or intuitive.  Both buttons control punches and kicks and to execute a jump kick you must press up and kick at the exact same time.  To pick up items you’ll have to constantly press down to squat but it is so erratic in most cases the item you were trying to grab will disappear.  Speaking of moves you are armed with a basic punch, kick, a cumbersome jump kick, and a leg sweep.  That’s all.  This is a regression from even Renegade which let you attack enemies from both the front and the back simultaneously and grab them to perform throws.  The game’s limited repertoire of moves gets old fast.

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The game’s design highlights the absolute worst aspects of its control scheme.  The opening moments of the game charge you with drop kicking bikers off their choppers, a laborious task that won’t end before you’ve been run down a few times.  Not a good way to start the game.  I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention these bikers all look exactly like Bret the Hitman Hart.  Your flurry of punches and kicks do little to faze the enemies and they’ll frequently counterattack in the middle of your barrage, an element that crops up in nearly all of Technos’ future brawlers.  There aren’t many weapons available but at the very least they don’t disappear when dropped after a few times.  You’ll have to pick them up first, a job that shouldn’t be the hassle that it is here because of the controls.

Because you’re fighting options are so limited the difficulty is extremely high.  Groups of enemies come in packs of three or four and if they surround you it’s pretty much over.  It’s a tactic they are very keen to use and so requires you to be quick (well as fast as the game will allow) on your feet.  You only have one life and a generous life bar with the only means to replenish it by collecting hearts dropped by enemies.  I’ll tell you right now the game isn’t generous with these and the amount restored is so little it’s a damn slap in the face.  You’ll only get one continue during the course of the game which isn’t enough.

If you somehow manage to reach the end level bosses prepare for pain.  Anyone familiar with beat em ups knows its standard operating procedure to have each level end with some mook literally two times your size and deals ridiculous amounts of damage.  Even going by that metric Target: Renegade takes it a step too far.  Every boss takes 1/3 of your life with each attack.  That’s insane!  If you survive the game doesn’t even have the courtesy to refill your life bar which is just plain stupid.  As if the odds weren’t stacked against you to begin with.

It’s best to simply pretend Target: Renegade does not exist.  You’ll find no redeeming qualities here but instead a game that ignores what made its predecessor a hit and is instead a lesser product in every way.

5-out-of-101

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Genocide 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Sonic Blast Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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The Ninja Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-out-of-101

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Phantom Fighter

Here’s a title that always eluded me somehow back in the day.  The only review I can ever recall reading for Phantom Fighter was in Nintendo Power and their small write-up made the game seem a lot more awesome than their score would indicate.  Phantom Fighter’s hot pink box art might make it seem like any one of the generic Kung Fu games plaguing the NES library such as Kung Fu Heroes and Master Chu and the Drunkard Hu.  However it’s an interesting little title with some unique gameplay ideas for the time.  Of course being unique will only get you so far and it is in the execution that Phantom Fighter stumbles a bit.

As Kenchi the wandering Phantom Fighter the task has fallen on your shoulders to travel China and rid its towns of Kyonshi, a Chinese hopping vampire.  Along with your faithful sidekick/servant the townspeople will provide items and encouragement in between crying for help.  Loosely based on the movie Mr. Vampire the game maintains some of the film’s comedic tone through the occasional comments from your assistant but is otherwise all business.

The primary goal of all eight towns is to collect the three sacred orbs needed to break the seal protecting the head Kyonshi of each area.  Each town has a number of buildings to visit and you can get a basic feel for what lies inside from your assistant.  Training halls will teach you new fighting moves and temples will replenish your health once you’ve cleared the enemies inside.  If Kyonshi lurk inside you can defeat them and receive ancient scrolls (currency) or helpful items for your quest.  If danger lies ahead it means an orb is inside.

Inevitably you are going to have to fight the Kyonshi and they come in many sizes, shapes, and colors.  Due to their rigor mortis all Kyonshi hop rather than walk and move slowly.  Don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security.  Depending on the type they can cover larger distances in a single bound; some even prefer to swipe at you with their claws.  There’s a decent amount of variety in the types of Kyonshi and learning their patterns of movement is important to survival, especially since the only way to recover health is in temples or picking up one of the orbs.

It’s also key to survival in the beginning of the game since you only have access to a basic punch and kick at the start.  You’ll have to tough it out for at least the first half hour and don’t be surprised if you see the continue screen a few times.  Despite their slow movement the vampires pack a punch and those early battles are bit drawn out due to your character’s lack of skill.  But once you have enough scrolls to buy some new moves the tide turns.

There’s a sizable list of moves waiting to be purchased and they’ll immediately make an impact in combat.  You can divide the skills into three categories, movement, punches, and kicks.  Each town has a limited set of skills to learn with the price increasing as you go along but luckily the number of scrolls gained keeps up.  Honestly if while it is nice to have the option to experiment a bit there are 3 or four skills that are overpowered and literally game breaking.  The side kick can be learned in the second town and not only inflicts massive damage but will usually knock the enemies down.  Once you can crouch and walk it’s easy to get behind the Kyonshi and score easy hits.  And as soon as you can the Mirage Thrust (punch while crouching) the game becomes significantly easier since you can duck and punch all but the shortest Kyonshi in their nonexistent nuts until the fight is over.

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Get used to the Kyonshi as they are the only you’ll face for the majority of the game.

That last bit highlights Phantom Fighter’s largest flaw; that it is repetitive.  That tactic would not be so effective if there were more enemy variety.  The only enemies you’ll face during the entire game are Kyonshi outside of two or three encounters with ghosts.  They tried to vary it up with the different colored vampires but it still doesn’t change the fact that they’re all dumb.  Once you crouch they are apparently too stupid to see you and will shuffle back and forth to find you.  If you’ve learned the three skills I’ve mentioned there’s no point killing random Kyonshi since you don’t need any other moves and the items aren’t all that helpful.  It also doesn’t help that later in the game you’ll have to face up to 4 or 5 Kyonshi in a row to earn your scrolls.  At that point you might as well simply visit the three houses that house each orb and complete each town in about 5 minutes and shorten the game.

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The gameplay has its problems but graphically Phantom Fighter is pretty impressive.  Wandering around town is nothing special but once you enter a locale the sprites are massive.  The animation is top notch and grows in scale as you learn new techniques although you will grow tired of seeing the same hopping animation for the Kyonshi quickly.  The backdrops are intricately detailed and there are a large number of them so the game never grows dull in that regard.

Though it has its flaws Phantom Fighter still has its heart in the right place.  With a  few minor tweaks it could have been something special but instead will have to settle for slightly above average.

6-out-of-101

 

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Legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5-out-of-101

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Two Crude Dudes

I think we can all agree that Bad Dudes was an average game overall.  Despite the game’s cheesy premise the game play was strictly average at best.  But we were able to overlook that for some gold old fashioned beat em up fun, at least for about 30 minutes.  Take away the cornball story and you’re left with Two Crude Dudes, a loose follow up that does little to bring the game play up to acceptable standards.

There are no ninjas kidnapping the President here. Taking a page out of Mad Max and Fist of the North Star nuclear weapons along with chemical warfare has ravaged the New York City, leaving it a home for mutants and the remnants of society.   An organization called Big Valley has plans to take over the city, leaving the President no choice but to rely on two crude mercenaries to clean up the mess.

As Crude Buster in the arcade the game never really took off like its predecessor.  As a home console port Two Crude Dudes is pretty comparable to the arcade machine but faced stiffer competition in the form of Streets of Rage.  While it had its frustrating moments the relative depth to its combat made Streets of Rage an enjoyable ride from start to end, not to mention the graphics and ridiculous soundtrack.  Two Crude Dudes has none of this, and is a shallow brawler that will leave you bored after the first few levels.

Two Crude Dudes commits the biggest sin of the brawler genre in that it has an extremely limited move set.  You’re armed with basic punches, kicks, a jump kick (if you can call it that) and can roll.  That jump kick is pretty lame in action as you’re overly beefy dude barely lifts off the ground.  Although restricted to a 2d plane you can still climb platforms and buildings provided you can tolerate the pathetic jump height.

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Perhaps the lone feature that stands out is the ability to pick up and throw nearly everything.  If you see it and it’s not bolted down chances are you can chuck it.  Sticks, boxes, poles, enemies, cars, even mobile transports are fair game.  Hell, if you’re playing coop you can throw each other!  It seems obvious that the designers realized this as the ground is littered with objects to bat around.  It takes a second to adjust to having a separate button for throwing but it comes in handy if you want to just kick the shit out of a punk without chucking your current item.

The game’s premise is silly and that is born out through the comic book style sound effects.  The protagonists as well don’t seem to take the situation seriously either, and will flex and wink at the drop of a dime.   But all the charm in the world can’t change the fact that the game is boring.  Most enemies are taken out with one or two hits and are so brain dead they’ll simple run straight into your fists.  The game is more than generous with continues and outside of the bosses there is no challenge to be found.

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Speaking of the bosses, in stark contrast to the generic mooks and mutants these bastards are a cantankerous bunch.  They have insane reach, especially the second and third boss.  One other facet I hate, after each hit they are temporarily invincible, either that or the collision detection sucks.  Regardless of the challenge posed I can guarantee that you’ll finish the game in an hour, no sweat.

I never thought highly of Bad Dudes and Two Crude Dudes does little to set it apart from that game quality wise.  There are better beat em ups on the Genesis to think about before bothering with this one.

6-out-of-10-1

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Mighty Final Fight

As much as gamers loved Final Fight in the arcade we all somehow knew it wasn’t possible to stuff into an NES cartridge.  I was far from being aware of any technical details but accepted it as fact.  Maybe it was seeing all of the compromises Konami made with the TMNT arcade game, despite it being an awesome game for its time.  While the game would see a number of ports of varying quality on the 16-bit consoles Capcom still found the time to surprise gamers still fond of their favorite 8-bit console with Mighty Final Fight.

The Mad Gear gang has attacked Metro City and kidnapped Mayor Haggar’s daughter Jessica, not for ransom but so she can marry their leader Belgar.  What?  Arranged marriages don’t fly in the US so Haggar along with Cody and Guy set out to rescue her.

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As you can imagine by its premise this is not an entirely serious retelling of the arcade game’s story (such as it is).  That fact is also reinforced by the game’s presentation.  The game is presented in the super deformed format popular in Japan.  It actually fits pretty well, preserving the spirit of Metro City while providing an experience more appropriate for the NES’s limitations.  It does resemble River City Ransom or any of American Technos’s other NES games.  Despite their cute makeover you’ll recognize many of the Mad Gear gang’s most infamous crooks such as Andore, Two P, and Poison, who has made survived the transition unscathed.  Aside from some unavoidable flicker the developers have done a commendable job with this release.

Aside from retaining much of the arcade game’s look it also plays similarly and in some respects even better.  All 3 characters are available (take that lame SNES version!) although this is strictly a solo affair.  Guy is still fast but weak, Haggar is a powerhouse, and Cody occupies the middle ground between the two.  All of the moves from the arcade have been retained although that isn’t saying much; Final Fight was definitely a product of its time and is relatively simple compared to the games in the genre that would follow it.

These differences only scratch the surface however as the game has an added experience meter and leveling.  Experience is gained by defeating enemies with the amount changing depending on how you finish off the enemies.  While it’s tempting to throw the bad guys into the sink hole at the beginning of stage 4 you’ll only gain 1 experience point for it.  Trading convenience over style definitely has its downsides.  With each increase in level your strength increases and level 4 each fighter gains one new move.  It should be noted that Haggar begins at level 3 versus level 1 for the other 2, reflecting their differences in power.

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Mighty Final Fight has a solid foundation but does come up short upon further scrutiny.  The game is incredibly short at just 5 levels; the arcade game had 6 but they were all fairly long, especially the Bay area.  The brevity goes hand in hand with the game’s lack of challenge.  More than likely you’ll finish the game without using any continues if you’re not sloppy.  The game is also repetitive.  The game only has half the cast of enemies and by the end of the second level you’ve seen all of them.  It gets tiring fighting the same 3-4 enemies every level.  It even gets to the point where you’ll face off against the same bosses more than once. While I like the experience system it feels undercooked.  You’ll notice the enemies going down slightly faster as you level but the reward doesn’t feel tangible enough.  The new attack at level 4 is cool but it would have varied the gameplay tremendously if you gained a new move every level NES Double Dragon style, further encouraging you to maximize leveling up.

In spite of its flaws Mighty Final Fight is a strong 8-bit conversion of one of the most popular arcade games of all time.  Although it could have been so much more the fact that Capcom were able to squeeze the game within the NES’s limitations is commendable in its own right.

7-out-of-10

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Final Fight CD

After the disappointment of Final Fight’s SNES release it seemed as though gamers would have to stick to pumping an arcade unit with quarters if they wanted an unfettered experience.  The SNES version was a highly anticipated release and even in spite of its flaws most of us were able to overlook it because the alternative was to spend your allowance in the arcade.   That persisted until Sega released one of the best home ports of the time for the Sega CD.

Mayor Mike Haggar has barely been in office and already has to deal with a catastrophe. The Mad Gear gang who has plagued Metro City wants to do as they please with no retaliation, an arrangement the previous mayor agreed to.  Haggar won’t budge however the Mad Gear have kidnapped his daughter Jessica as a bargaining chip.  Now along with her boyfriend Cody and his best friend Guy Haggar plans to rescue Jessica and clean up the streets.

Capcom failed with the first version released close to the SNES launch but had an opportunity to fix their mistakes with Final Fight Guy.  Instead they simply replaced Cody and only released the game as a Blockbuster exclusive.  This Sega produced edition was the best port available, restoring all of the missing content and offering a few exclusives of its own.

Right off the bat you can select any of the three protagonists and have the option of 2-player coop.  That right there is cause for celebration.  Honestly I can’t fathom how Capcom thought it was alright to release the game without a 2-player option; half the fun of the arcade game was tackling the mean streets of Metro City with a buddy.  Now that all 3 characters are available in one game gamers of all stripes could pick their preferred play style; the slow but powerful blows of Haggar, the fast but light attack of Guy, or the middle man Cody.

Final Fight set the mold by which nearly every beat em up that followed would be judged.  Having said that the game is a bit simpler than most gamers remember; after all it was released in 1989 originally.  The limited move sets of each character are just interesting enough to keep you entertained all the way through to the end of the game.  Keen eyed gamers will notice that both Cody and Guy’s attack speed has been reduced.   The near infinite stream of punches they could produce prevented an enemy from breaking your combo and was extremely effective.   This change breaks that but doesn’t ruin the game in the process thankfully.

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Gameplay wise everything is near identical the arcade.  Poison and Roxy have been restored although their daisy dukes have been changed to hot pants.  Most importantly the Industrial level cut from the SNES version has been restored.  This fiery factory will more than likely sap most of your lives as you fight thugs among the moving trails of fire, all in preparation for your battle with Rolento at the end.  A new time attack mode has been added which challenges you to defeat enemies within a strict time limit.  If you really love Final Fight that much I suppose it’s a worthwhile addition but aside from the new background art is only a distraction.  More content is always a plus in my book and the inclusion of this level does make the game feel like a more complete package.

Final Fight was hard even in the arcade and that carries over to the home ports.  The arcade machine was notoriously skimpy when it came to lives; you only had two per quarter.  This version at least allows you to tweak a few parameters such as starting lives and how frequently you’ll receive extra lives based on score.  Even with these options working in your favor chances are it will take a few hours to see the end.  There were numerous points in the game that were clearly designed to rob you of your hard earned quarters in the arcade such as the sudden battle against four (4!) Andores.  These have been toned down somewhat but points like these make the two continues disappear real fast.  The pacing toward the end of the game is frankly terrible; the bay area and uptown drag on far too long.  The limited battle system shows its weakness as you fight a seemingly endless parade of the same enemies for almost 15-20 minutes per level.  I suppose Sega should be commended for recreating the arcade experience but I’ll be damned if I didn’t wish they would have condensed it somewhat.

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In terms of recreating the arcade game’s graphics Sega has done an admirable job.  The sprites and backgrounds look true to their coin op counterparts.  The color palette is darker which is unavoidable considering the Genesis and by extension Sega CD’s limits.  One area that has seen an upgrade is the sound.  The arranged soundtrack is fantastic and as an added bonus the intro and ending are fully voiced.

Until the recent Final Fight Double Impact for XBLA and PSN and the X68000 version this was the best home port of Final Fight available.  With its added features it’s also one of the best Sega CD games around and still worth playing today.

8-out-of-101

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Fighting Force

Coming of the success of Tomb Raider Core Design and Eidos could do no wrong.  Flush with Lara Croft money they began an aggressive marketing campaign for nearly all of their games supposedly based on “character” when in reality it was mostly tits and ass.  Badly shaped polygonal asses at that that; look up any of the old Deathtrap Dungeon ads to fleece your eyes.  With 3-d platformers under their belt they turned their eyes toward the side scrolling brawler, a genre that had yet to make the leap to 3d.  While Core were given the benefit of the doubt the final product sadly did not live up to expectations.

Dr. Zeng has devised a new drug and unleashed it on the streets, creating scores of new addicts in his bid for world domination.  Among the victims left in the wake of his drug spree are the family and friends of 4 individuals, Hawk Manson, Ben Smasher, Alana McKendricks, and Mace Daniels.

Originally conceived as a Streets of Rage sequel that deal fell through but work continued regardless.  A lot of promises were made prior to Fighting Force’s release.  There were grand plans to make the game a free roaming brawler, allowing you to wander around at your leisure with a deep fighting system in tow.  Somewhere along the way the enormity of their vision came crashing down, leaving us with a stripped down, repetitive beat em up with few redeeming qualities.

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While all 4 characters have their differences in practice they are more or less the same.  All characters share the same basic move set and specialize in a particular area, such as jumping attacks or grappling but it’s largely irrelevant due to the control scheme.  While the PlayStation controller has multiple buttons Core decided to shove multiple functions into one button.  Backhand attacks and grappling both share the same button, resulting in many instances where you’ll attack the wrong guy rather than execute a body slam or pile driver as planned.  Movement is sluggish at best which affects the flow of combat since it never quite “feels” right.

The lack of a targeting option is also a concern; I honestly can’t see why it wasn’t added since you’ll almost always face 3-5 enemies at once.  Flailing around hoping that your attacks will at least hit someone in the near vicinity is incredibly stupid in a game focused so heavily on combat.  This was an issue with far too many games in that console generation but is especially egregious in the beat em up genre.  No matter how comfortable you become with the controls combat will never seem fluid.

All of those claims of a massive move set for each character were apparently abandoned as you are more or less armed with a basic series of kicks, punches, a jump kick, slide, and a few throws and that’s it.  Any gamer who has played Final Fight and its ilk know that these games live and die by their combat system and the repetition inherit in the genre.  Fighting Force does nothing to fix those problems and quickly becomes boring as a result.

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The brain dead enemy AI doesn’t either.  Most “levels” if you can call them that consist of smaller arenas that task you with defeating all of the enemies before being whisked away to the next one.  The repetitive enemies all share the same basic beat em up tactic of boxing you in and letting loose. Fighting 5 or 6 enemies at once loses its luster when 3 of them hang back and wait their turn.  The camera doesn’t do the combat any favors since you can’t rotate it as you like.  The forced angles make avoiding attacks when a car or pole block your view frustrating.  Even worse, enemies with guns will frequently attack off camera, never a good idea.

The one bright spot would be the level of interactivity.  Despite their small size the environments are highly interactive and destructible.  Most objects can be smashed and used as a weapon, such as guard rails or objects on the ground.  It’s satisfying to destroy an ATM or van and use the hood as a projectile.  At the very least while you are confined to small areas it’s incredibly satisfying to use the environment to your advantage.  It offers a glimpse of what the game could have been had they tempered their ambition enough to bring their original vision to life.

The N64 port came two years after the PlayStation version and is more or less the same in terms of content.  The slowdown that plagued the two-player coop is gone and the lighting has been improved but otherwise the look of the games are similar.  Most importantly the long load times are a thing of the past which at least makes things speedier, not that it makes the game any better.

The potential was there but Core Design didn’t follow through.  Fighting Force had everything going for it in terms of press attention but that might have doomed it in the end.  Under close scrutiny Fighting Force fails to live up to the hype.

6-out-of-101

 

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the Punisher (Genesis)

I remember the Punisher arcade game as a bad ass beat em up that fully captured the essence of the character’s brutal war on crime.  It was one of the few arcade games I actually managed to finish before the inevitable home port, a feat that sticks out in my mind considering most coin ops were designed to drain your quarters.  Yeah, I was that naïve dude that honestly thought I could finish the Turtles arcade game or Final Fight with 3 quarters.  The Punisher would eventually find its way home on the Genesis but somewhere along the way a lot was lost in translation, leaving only a competent version of a once great game.

The Punisher has declared all-out war on the Kingpin and plans to decimate his criminal organization bit by bit before taking the big man out.  Nick Fury tags along for some inexplicable reason for some two-player action.

Released in 1993 the Punisher has a lot in common with Capcom’s other beat em ups of the time, most notably Final Fight and Warriors of Fate.  Running on the same CPS1 hardware it had a vibrant look that popped off the screen as well as stunning animation.  The Genesis port loses far too much in the porting process and it almost feels like a completely different game.   There were other added elements that I imagine were to make up for it but instead ruin the game’s balance.  While it isn’t a bad game necessarily it does take a back seat to the beasts of the genre.

As either Frank Castle or Nick Fury you have a large range of moves at your disposal.  Aside from the standard arsenal of punches and kicks the true highlight of the battle system comes from the large number of grappling moves you can execute.  From body slams, gut punches, to throws it’s satisfying to move in close and perform a wrestling move on an unsuspecting thug.  Neither character can actually dash but instead will perform a short hop or roll to build momentum and increase the power of the next attack.  Occasionally a group of thugs will pull out some heat and it’s in these rare moments that you are allowed to do the same.  Since you have unlimited ammo go to town on their asses!

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While it does its best to bring the arcade experience home some cuts had to be made and they do affect the game’s quality.  Most of the breakable background objects have either been removed or are just parts of the scenery now.  These breakable objects were usually the primary source of weapons but now that has shifted to obtaining them from fallen opponents.  I do miss the comedic aspect of destroying the car the enemies arrived in and seeing the driver burned to death.  A few enemies have also been removed and this is the worst cut of all.  In an effort to make the game longer the game throws more waves of enemies at you consistently.  Unfortunately it means you’ll kill 7-10 palette swapped bad guys in a row which becomes tedious quickly.  If they bothered to put up any kind of resistance maybe it could get interesting but in most cases they sit and wait for their turn to get an ass whopping.

In a page ripped straight out of 1991 this version of the game features some censorship like the SNES port of Final Fight before it.   The female ninjas have less revealing outfits, some of the blood is gone, and references to smoking have been removed.  The first boss Scully was shot and killed following his interrogation but is now simply thrown off screen.  In the grand scheme these are mostly minor but they do stick out considering Sega had long since created their own ratings system and made it available to every one of their licensees.

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In addition to the censorship the graphics have undergone a serious downgrade.   The game is significantly darker with less detail overall.  The color scheme used to replace the missing colors is very gaudy, giving certain levels a different “feel”.  All sprites have undergone a noticeable size reduction; in the arcade the sprites were relatively huge.  Certain enemies were redesigned and are plain ugly; the second boss Guardroid stands out in particular.  While it’s to be expected due to the system’s limited color palette it really is no excuse considering the vivid graphics of the Sonic games and Capcom’s own Super Street Fighter 2 released in the same year.

As a whole this is still a more than competent beat em up; unfortunately it has to swim in waters occupied by a few sharks, namely the Streets of Rage series.  Capcom did a decent job of porting the game but I feel could have done better, especially considering the work done on Super Street Fighter 2.

6-out-of-10-1

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Final Fight 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7-out-of-10-1

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Kick Master

Now here’s another lost gem from an underrated publisher.  During the NES era when the likes of Capcom, Konami, and Acclaim (for all the wrong reasons) dominated the headlines Taito released a slew of solid action games over the years.  With the likes of Little Samson, Power Blade, and Cadash under their belt they should have been more popular.  But life isn’t fair and so it’s up to sites like mine to extoll the virtues of underappreciated games like Kick Master.

The sorceress Belzed has attacked the kingdom of Lowrel, killing off its citizens with her hordes of monsters.  With both the King and Queen murdered Princess Silphee is left to rule but is captured.  The only two soldiers left to saver her are the Knight Macren and his brother Thonolan but Macren is killed, leaving the rescue to his younger brother and his awesome “kicking” power.

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If you look at Thonolan as a monk then the story of an awesome martial arts warrior in a fantasy kingdom isn’t hokey.  Kick Master was created by KID, a developer who supplied the NES with many splendid action games such as both G.I. Joe games, Burai Fighter and Kick Master’s closest counterpart, Low G Man.  Actually the DNA of a lot of classic NES games is buried in here, from the Ghosts n Goblins style map to the fighting system of a Double Dragon or comparable beat em ups.  However all these constituent parts combine to create one spectacular whole.

The similarities between this and Low G Man can’t be understated; the two games are so similar in fact that I wouldn’t be surprised if they used the same engine.  They both use a similar art style, background tiles, and gameplay design in a few areas.  With a 1 year gap between releases Kick Master is the far superior title with deeper gameplay and better presentation on par with some of the consoles finest.  Despite a nice spread in Nintendo Power Kick Master flew under the radar.  I suppose the generic title didn’t help matters but regardless that should not deter anyone from sampling this excellent action experience.

Kick Master, although primarily an action game also has RPG elements.  Defeated enemies give experience used to level up.  With new levels maximum MP is increased and one or two new moves are learned.  Like Low G Man every enemy killed will drop (more like throw) 3 random items, from hearts to replenish life, potions for MP, or crystals for experience.  There’s also the occasional one that will actually hurt you, the bastards.

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Thonolan’s primary means of attack are his legs (duh).  Initially you have very few moves but as you level up the arsenal of kicking techniques expands significantly.  All told at max level you’ll have eleven techniques to use, all activated by different button combinations.  I’m actually surprised they were able to cram so many different attack combinations on the NES controller and outside one or two outliers they are all easy to use.

Magic spells are learned after every level and cover a number of tropes such as healing and different elementals. The more esoteric such as Twin power and the ??? spell will rarely find use but I’m sure some creative gamer will find a use for them.  Enemies drop potions frequently enough that don’t need to be conservative with magic use but in my opinion the spells aren’t powerful enough to really have an impact.

Being forced into close quarters combat will really give you an appreciation for the game’s variety in mechanics.  Nearly every enemy has individual attack patterns and you’ll need to use the appropriate kicks to walk away unscathed.  There are always at least one or more kicks that will work; finding it is part of the fun.

Beginning with the second level the difficulty curve leans a bit on the steep side.  Enemies begin to defend or curl up more often and take more hits to kill, forcing you to adapt.  There’s a heavy emphasis on action and less so platforming; since you need the resources they drop once defeated avoiding combat really isn’t an option.  There are frequent mini-bosses before the end level monsters and it tends to wear down your life bar pretty quick.  It’s pretty fucked up that they don’t even have the courtesy to refill your life bar between levels but what can you do?

For the most part the controls do a suitable job of giving you a reasonable amount of control over your attacks but could be tighter.  There are a few moves that are tricky to perform and never do feel as though you’ve unleashed them on purpose.  While you might balk at a tutorial in an NES game some of the moves are too important to skip and won’t be learned through trial and error.  The hit detection is also suspect at times which can be a problem in a melee focused game.  It never truly becomes a major issue but it is worth mentioning.

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Graphically Kick Master has its highs and lows.  Some environments, the first level in particular rival Castlevania III in terms of the level of detail poured into the backgrounds.  The fantasy aesthetic lends the game a unique look among other NES games despite the hokey story.  There’s a frightening amount of “texture” to the game that really stands out.  At the same time the color choices used at times are baffling, much like Low G Man.  The dark pinks and purples really don’t gel well and can look ugly at times.  However as a whole this is definitely a late generation title with parallax scrolling backgrounds 2 levels deep at times.  The boss battles are also a graphical highlight with some truly inspired encounters; how many other games give you the chance to kick a kraken in the face repeatedly?

While its always enjoyable to shed light on an under-appreciated gem it does hurt to see games of this quality not find an audience.  Kick Master resides in the company of NES greats like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden and should be played by any fan of old school action games.

8-out-of-101

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Gungrave

For many years the action genre suffered in the transition to 3d.  Whether it was an atrocious camera, terrible combat mechanics, or a simple lack of understanding as to how to move the buttery smooth gameplay of the best action games of the times into the third dimension, the PS One era was rough for fans of the genre.  While other genres such as platformers had games like Super Mario 64 that laid down a foundation for others to follow, most action games during that time were merely adequate.

All of that changed with Devil May Cry.  Finally we had a game that knew exactly how to push all the right buttons for fans of games such as Castlevania and Ghouls and Ghosts.  DMC still serves as the model for most modern action games to this day and it wouldn’t take long for others to follow, such as Sega’s Gungrave.

Released in the summer of 2002 Gungrave tells the tale of Beyond the Grave, an undead soldier on a mission of revenge.  Once known as Brandon Heat, Beyond the Grave was once part of the organized crime organization Millenion until he was betrayed and killed by his best friend Harry McDowell.  In the ensuing years Harry seized the reigns of Millenion and has overrun the world with his monstrous Deadmen and now Brandon has been revived to stop him.

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Gungrave is as simple as it gets.  Shoot everything that moves and move on.  There are no intricate puzzles to mull over, switches to throw, or even items to collect.  This is a game built all around its combat, which it does amazingly well.  Your primary weapons are the dual Cerberus pistols equipped with infinite ammo.  Since they auto target the nearest enemies you can go wild and expect to reasonably hit your targets.  As an added bonus repeated hits of the fire button will produce a stylish twirl that nails every enemy surrounding you.  For melee you can swing the massive coffin strapped to your back to knock back enemies that get too close and can perform various dives to avoid fire.

The game is built around the mechanic of never letting up on the fire button as it builds up beats on the combo meter with every object hit, be it enemies or parts of the environment.  The game provides a generous amount of crap to destroy at every opportunity, from relentless waves of enemies to tons of destructible objects, letting you build up combos in the hundreds so long as there is no break in the action.

Aside from looking good the beats racked up serve additional purposes.  As the combo meter increases you are granted extra demolition shots which can be used to clear the screen or refill health.  Initially you only have one type of shot but more are earned at the end of every level when your performance is tallied up.  There are a number of parameters that are taken into account when calculating your performance such as the time to complete the level, highest combo earned, overall damage taken and whether you’ve used a shot to refill your life.

That last point might seem unfair but in Gungrave’s favor there’s a reason.  Grave is armed with a regenerating shield like Halo, which means the shield must be depleted in order for you to actually take damage.  Functionally you might seem invincible but your life bar drops fast without the shield.  Waiting for the shield to regen carries its own penalties in that whatever combo you’ve accumulated will drop as well as increasing the time taken to complete the level.  In a minor way it forces you to approach each fire fight with a bit of caution to maximize your grade.

The difficulty curve is moderate throughout the game.  The first 3 missions are easy enough that you can recklessly dive into packs of enemies with very little chance of dieing and provide the perfect opportunity to learn the game’s mechanics.  Once you begin to fight the leaders of Millenion it jumps significantly.  The bosses in particular can one shot you but have recognizable patterns you can exploit.

In the end however Gungrave is a short game that can be completed in under two hours.  In combination with the game’s short length there are very few incentives to replay the game.  In spite of the game’s brevity however I found the game to be replayable just on the merits of combat mechanics.  Unlike similar games that become repetitive due to a limited repertoire of moves or enemies the way every encounter in Gungrave is staged leaves room for improvement like many a 16-bit classic.  And with you performance being graded you can see fruits of your efforts.

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The combination of Yasuhiro Nightow’s character designs and Kosuke Fujishima’s mechanical designs gives Gungrave a distinct look compared to nearly every other game on the market.  The cel shading enables to the art to transition to 3d flawlessly.  There’s an insane degree of destructibility to the environments and sometimes up to 10-20 enemies on screen at once.  Slowdown does rear its head during the most hectic moments, usually when a demolition shot is used but for the most part this is a smooth ride.  You can see where a few corners were cut to maintain performance as the game has a short draw distance and enemies are less detailed but its handled very well.

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The cut scenes use the same 3d assets but at a higher quality and look phenomenal.  Aside from looking cool as hell it’s a stylistic choice that remains consistent with the rest of the game’s look.  Though brief they do an excellent job of telling the back story between Beyond the Grave and Millenion and make me wish to see a game completely rendered in that style.

The only point of contention in the end is whether a short game is something you can handle.  At this point you can find Gungrave for $5-10 bucks and honestly it’s more than worth it at that price.  Outside of the game’s length Gungrave is one of the most solid action games in the PlayStation 2 library.

7-out-of-10-1

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Captain Commando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6-out-of-10-1

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Alien vs. Predator

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

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

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

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

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

The monotony extends to the rest of the game as well.  You’ll face the same 4 enemies in every level and their attack patterns never change.  Your attacks inflict paltry amounts of damage and every enemy has a longer life bar than yours.  Pounding away on the same squat alien 20 times every level gets tired quickly.  The bosses are much bigger aliens loosely based on the host that spawned them, such as a shark, gorilla, and bat.  But the elation at facing something, anything, different will fade as you realize these fights are going to last nearly 10 minutes.

I’ve been a bit harsh on the game but it’s warranted.  There is so much they could have included to liven up the gameplay if the developers had done even a little research.  How about the retractable wrist blades?  Even the box art displays them!  I wouldn’t have minded using a ceremonial dagger or laser net to help kill the repetitive enemies quicker.  It boggles my mind that the developers did so little to liven up the game.

This is a by the numbers brawler that has no redeeming qualities.  When NES games in the same genre offers more depth than a game years removed something is seriously wrong.  It’s a god damn shame that Capcom’s arcade Alien vs. Predator game was never ported to any console and instead we are left with this shambling mess.


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Final Fight 2

It’s an understatement to say that Capcom disappointed everyone with the SNES port of Final Fight.  The missing 2 player coop, levels, and character smacked of a rushed product.  And then they did it all over again with Final Fight Guy, which instead of adding him to the game removed Cody in his place.  The SNES version was a pretty big deal: Final Fight lit up arcades nationwide and the chance to play it without breaking the bank was a dream that they crushed.  So to make up for it we have Final Fight 2.

Final Fight 2 was released exclusively for the SNES in 1993.  Years have passed since the defeat of the Mad Gear gang but that doesn’t mean they are finished.  Under new leadership they have kidnapped Guy’s fiancée Rena and master Genryusai.  With both Cody and Guy gone new recruits Maki and Carlos pick up the slack.  With 3 characters and the missing coop restored it’s obvious Capcom set out to right the wrongs created with the first game but in doing so Final Fight 2, while enjoyable feels a bit like a retread.

Ditching the confines of Metro City the trio of characters set out on a transcontinental hunt for the Mad Gear boss, pounding faces around the world in the process.  Haggar is exactly the same, with his devastating array of wrestling moves.  Maki is a proper substitute for Guy, having trained under the same master.  Carlos is the most balanced of the 3, neither too fast nor too strong.  With new leadership comes new members and the Mad Gear gang are almost completely comprised of new enemies with their own attack patterns to learn.  But for those that grew attached to the original’s antagonists some familiar faces return, such as Rolento and the Andore family.

While it’s nice to have new characters to play around with the game could really have used some more depth to its combat.  The moveset is nearly identical to the original’s meaning you have a basic selection of punch, punch, kick combos, a few throws and a special attack and that’s it.  Spamming the same repetitive attacks gets old fast and in light of Sega’s Streets of Rage 2 and the brawlers flooding the arcade it sucked to see Final Fight, the pioneer of the genre fall behind.

The greatest strength of Final Fight 2 is that even thought it was made for the SNES it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the arcade.  The graphics maintain the same aesthetic as the original arcade game, with some of the largest sprites in a beat em up from that generation.  The trip around the world allows for more interesting scenery rather than the same old slums of Metro City.  Some of the new locales are very picturesque in their level of detail and if you keep an eye out you might spot some cameo appearances from other Capcom characters as well.  There’s little to no slowdown at all considering the amount of chaos on screen at times which is a far cry from early SNES efforts.  The music doesn’t rise to the same level as the graphics but isn’t offensive; that’s the best compliment I can give it.

Mechanically the game is sound and does a good job of replicating the arcade feel.  But therein lies the problem.  Final Fight 2 sticks so close to the tenets laid down by the first game that it doesn’t aspire to be anything greater.  In an era where games like Streets of Rage 2 raised the bar for the genre the limited selection of moves and repetitive enemies stick out like a sore thumb.  That isn’t to say the game is no good, far from it.  Final Fight practically pioneered the modern beat em up formula, and though its sequel sticks to the exact same principle that means it is still one of the better beat em ups on the console.

Go into it expecting more of the same action as Final Fight and you won’t be disappointed.  For those that had sampled more advanced games in the genre this is a mild disappointment but still worth playing for its solid action.

7-out-of-10

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Tournament Fighters (NES)

This was a bit of an odd duck.  I can see what Konami were going for and as a last hurrah for the NES it works.  But the NES simply lacks the horsepower necessary to do a fighting game justice, leaving this 8-bit version in a weird place.  It’s decent for what it is but anyone who was serious about fighting games had long since moved on to the more advanced platforms.  I was still stuck with an NES at the time and even I wanted nothing to do with this version of the game.  Remember the versus mode in games like Flying Warriors and Karate Champ?  That stuff soured me on 8-bit fighting games forever.

The Shredder is back in town so the Turtles decide to hold a contest to see who is worthy to face him in battle.  I just made it seem way more honorable than it really is.  Along for the ride are Casey Jones and Hothead, yet another Archie Comic’s creation.  They really liked dipping in that well it seems.  Konami made an admirable attempt at shoehorning typical fighting game conventions into an 8-bit box and they somewhat succeed.  However the various shortcuts necessary drag down the experience.

With a patry 7 characters the roster isn’t large so Konami wisely decided to only include the most popular choices.  Shredder, Casey Jones, and Hothead rub shoulders with the brothers and sort of function as boss characters since they are so damn overpowered.  Personally I would have included Splinter over Hothead but the bosses do bring some much needed variety.  You’ll appreciate their presence because the 4 Turtles are near identical.

Disappointingly all four Turtles are nearly the same leaving their signature weapons as their only distinguishing characteristic.  To have a large “volume” of moves in the game the 4 Turtles have identical move sets with only 1 unique to each of them.  Casey and Hothead do not suffer from this thankfully and are so bad ass that you’ll prefer them.  Blasphemy I know.  The button prompts are kept simple and are easy to pull off.  The fighting engine however is nonexistent; don’t bother trying to string together combos or any other advanced techniques.  This feels more like a beat em up and is heavy on the button mashing.  Like I said before, I’m amazed they were able to squeeze this much onto the humble confines of an NES cart.

And that also applies to the graphics.  With just 2 combatants on screen the fighters are larger than prior games and animate extremely well.  The special moves are about as flashy as possible on the NES all things considered.  The backgrounds also feature at least one layer of parallax scrolling as well which shows just how far Konami were able to push the NES.  However technical limitations do rear their ugly head whenever the more exotic special moves are performed in the form of flicker and slowdown.  As a whole though it is quite impressive.

When viewed through an 8-bit lens this is quite an achievement.  Unfortunately by the end of 1993 few still bothered with the NES, and with the likes of Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat and nearly every Neo Geo fighting game ported to the 16-bit platforms the writing was on the wall if you needed a fighting game fix.  This was a valiant effort but ultimately a waste of time.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Tournament Fighters (Genesis)

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting!  At least in the mid 90s they were.  From big publishers to small, everyone wanted a piece of the fighting game pie.  While some like SNK were able to make an entire cottage industry out of it (seriously, if you like fighting games the Neo Geo is an all you can eat buffet) most were simply ill equipped to make a decent stab at the genre.  In 1993 Konami chose to use their Ninja Turtles license to create 3 wildly different games for 3 platforms, which brings us to this Genesis version.  How does it fare?

Evil clones of the Ninja Turtles have kidnapped Splinter and taken him to Dimension X.  With no other choice the brothers set off in pursuit and bring April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Ray Fillet, and Sisyphus along as backup.  Based on the original Mirage comic book this version is darker in tone and as such truer to the franchise’s original incarnation.  While the attempt at differentiating this version is successful it fails in the most important aspect a fighting game needs: controls.  There’s a wealth of options to explore but if the game isn’t fun to play all of it is useless.

The 4 Turtles bring their signature weapons to the party and as expected utilize them in their special moves.  This ain’t your daddy’s April O’Neil however.  Able to kick butt with the best of them erase any thoughts of the useless damsel in distress from the cartoon.  Casey Jones…….I don’t need to say anything about.  It’s a dude with a hockey mask and sports equipment kicking ass, it speaks for itself.

You’re probably wondering who the hell are Ray Fillet and Sisyphus at this point.  In addition to the Mirage comic there was a second series published by Archie Comics, a series that first adapted the cartoon episodes but later created its own continuity.  More serious than the cartoon but not as adult as the Mirage series it introduced a large range of characters that were later added to the cartoon series and some of the games.  Regardless they do bring something different to the table although I’m sure most would have preferred some of the more popular characters instead like Bebop and Rocksteady.  8 characters is a small roster for a fighting game in 1993 but unfortunately the game has bigger problems than that.

Let’s start with the controls.  The six button controller had not seen release yet so gamers were stuck with the default 3 button pads.  3 buttons is adequate but not ideal for a fighting game however the 3rd button for whatever reason is used to taunt.  This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that stronger attacks are performed by awkwardly pressing forward and attack at the same time.  Further frustration comes from the imprecise button commands.  Special moves are performed with a variety of inputs, from Street Fighter style half circle motions to Mortal Kombat’s simplified Forward, Back, Forward and such which is fine but executing most moves is an exercise in frustration.  Forget about creating any kind of combo’s as well; nearly all hits result in a knockdown or grant a second of invulnerability.  It feels more like a beat em up than a fighting game engine.

It’s a damn shame that the moves are so imprecise because you’ll need every edge possible to beat the vicious computer AI.  Make a mistake and you’ll surely pay for it due to the overly high damage ratios.  And it doesn’t let up either.  I highly doubt anyone will have the patience to complete the single player mode because it’s so unbalanced.  For anyone who has played Eternal Champions, this is one the same level.  If the controls were adequate at least you’d stand a fighting chance but that just isn’t the case.  There’s a wealth of modes and options to explore but when the core of the game is so broken only the staunchest gamers will stick with it.

By staying closer to its comic book roots the Genesis version of Tournament Fighter is suitably dark and meshes with the console’s strengths pretty well.  Each planet of Dimension X is distinct, with exquisite background detail.  The animation is almost to the same level but there are some weird pauses in between frames.  While the soundtrack isn’t memorable the voices are clearer than normal for a Genesis game.

Too bad the fighting engine is broken because otherwise this version of Tournament Fighters has some of the best production values for a Genesis fighting game.  The SNES version is the way to go if you want to experience Turtle fighting action.

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Bad Dudes

It’s funny how our minds work.  Nostalgia can cloud our memories and we’ll remember something fondly when in actuality we never liked it to begin with.  In this particular instance I recall fond recollections of playing Bad Dudes in coop mode and loving every second of it.  The reality is anything but nice.

Bad Dudes was released for the NES in 1989.  A port of the arcade game Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja for the most part the NES version retains much of what made its forefather iconic, including the hilarious localization.  “The President has been kidnapped by Ninjas.  Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the President?”  Yes that is the extent of the plot.  This game bleeds the 80s, from the corny action movie plot to the presidential references.  Even the heroes catchphrase “I’m Bad!” is likely a reference to the Michael Jackson song of the same name.  The cheesiness is largely why the game is remembered but how does it hold up as a side scrolling beat em up?

As either Blade or Striker you’ll be fighting an endless assortment of ninjas on your way to save the president.  Seriously aside from dogs it’s all ninjas.  Like the Double Dragon games you have an assortment of moves such as punches, kicks, spin kicks, etc.  Unlike those games the moves are relatively easy to perform.  The most useful of these is the charge punch which blows through groups of enemies simultaneously and is quick enough to use in any situation.  The only weapons available are a sai or nunchakus, with health restoring cans of coca cola rare.  The fundamentals are there but the execution is shoddy.

Bad Dudes is riddled with issues.  The collision detection is off and trust me it’s incredibly frustrating to see your punches and kicks largely ignored.  This is a major issue as the enemies swarm you in groups of 2-4 at once.  The game is riddled with innumerable cheap hits that you cannot avoid.  In the arcade version most enemies died after one hit; here they can take multiple blows and more than likely will get a few cheap hits before you kill them or worse, leave you open for the multitudes of ninjas undoubtedly coming up behind you.  The bosses with 2 exceptions will drain your lives and to add insult, the game throws in a fucking boss rush before the last boss.

With limited continues and no extra lives unless you complete a level most will never see the end the legitimate way.  If you thought the Konami code was overkill with 30 lives you can cheat and get 63 lives with a simple code.  Yeah, you read that correctly.  I cheated to beat the game back in the late 80’s and if you want to see the end you’ll do the same.

W e all remember this game for its laughable 80s nostalgic touches.  Unfortunately it is not a good game.  At least the NES version, I never had the opportunity to sample the arcade game.  I wish I could say it lives up to the near meme status it has achieved but sadly it doesn’t. There are far better beat em ups out there, play those instead.

 

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Alien Storm

In the early years of the Genesis life Sega did not have it easy providing a steady stream of content.  Because of Nintendo’s strong arm tactics third party support was non-existent at first so in addition to their original home games Sega fell back on their arcade ports.  One such port was Alien Storm, which at first glance you would think is a run and gun like Contra but in actuality is a beat em up along the lines of Golden Axe.

Aliens have invaded Earth and the only thing that stands between them and world domination is the Alien Buster squad.  If you think about it, how can they be alien busters unless the planet is invaded on a regular basis?  Whatever.  In 1 or 2 player coop you take on the alien horde and save the planet.  Originally released in arcades in 1990 the Genesis version adds two more levels and another boss fight but in the end lives up to its arcade roots wholly, for better or worse.

At first glance things are deceptive.  All 3 characters are equipped with various weapons which would lead you to believe this is an action game along the lines of Contra.  However they are used for melee attacks, placing it in the same category as Streets of Rage or Golden Axe.  Each character has a variety of attacks using their unique weapons and are surprisingly nimble, able to dash, roll, and a combination of the two in a pinch which is uncharacteristic of the genre.  The only power-up in addition to extra health comes in the form of energy used to power your screen clearing special attack.  These are in somewhat of a steady supply so you can afford to use it often rather than being frugal.

Probably the greatest strength of Alien Strom would be its levels.  Each level takes you through a variety of gameplay set pieces, from the typical side scrolling to first person shooting sequences like Lethal Enforcers to run and gun sequences that finally allow you to use those guns to mow down enemies like you initially thought you would.  The shooting gallery areas allow you to go ape shit and destroy everything in the environment to find powerups and kill everything in sight.  Running and gunning down aliens is a blast as the pace is fast and is a brief but welcome change of pace.

Which points to the one big “flaw”; it’s short.  Sega tried to lengthen the game but with some (actually a lot) of perseverance you can finish the game in about 1 hour.  Most levels are only a few minutes in length even despite being broken down into multiple parts.  Since there are only 3 real boss battles they also tend to end abruptly.  The AI can be vicious, with massive amounts of enemies swarming you at once, which is probably why energy is so generous.  By the later stages you’ll probably spam your special attack repeatedly since the number of enemy waves becomes retarded.  I feel if they had worked on the two other parts of the game some more it would have become a stronger product as a whole, since one is too easy and the other is too hard.

It wasn’t anything special even during its initial release and it isn’t pretty but Alien Storm is still a good game that can be had dirt cheap so there isn’t really any reason to pass it up.

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Final Fight

It’s not a stretch to say that Final Fight did to the arcade beat em up what Street Fighter 2 did for fighting games.  It was electrifying.  There had been plenty of exemplary games prior to it but none that exhibited the level of production values and polish of Capcom’s classic.  So when it was announced for the SNES it was awaited with baited breath.  Unfortunately while it is a competent port for the most part there are glaring flaws that Capcom never fixed in its 2 releases of the game for the Super NES that bring the overall quality of the game down.

Former pro wrestler Mike Haggar is elected Mayor of Metro City (how the fuck does that happen).  It isn’t long after being sworn in that the Mad Gear gang, the dominant force in the city, kidnaps his daughter Jessica to keep him under their thumb.  With her boyfriend Cody and Guy along for the ride Haggar plans to stomp the Mad Gear out.  Originally released in 1989, the SNES port was a launch title for each region and would become infamous for its missing features and censoring.

As either Haggar and Cody or Haggar and Guy (more on that in a bit) you take to the streets and dismantle the Mad Gears, one bad guy at a time.  The journey to the Mad Gear’s base spans the entire city with 2 Bonus Rounds giving a brief respite from the action.  As has become standard for the genre, Haggar is the slow strong man, Guy the fast but weak ninja, and Cody the everyman, neither too fast nor strong.  There’s nothing revolutionary about the game play admittedly: you have a decent variety of moves and smash barrels and assorted objects to find extra health or weapons.  But it’s the execution that placed Final Fight above its contemporaries.

First the graphics.  Nothing else looked like Final Fight on release.  Featuring some of the largest sprites in a beat em up it looked phenomenal.   Although you are only visiting different parts of the city it does an exceptional job of conveying just how corrupted Metro City has become.  The cast of enemies as well have gone on to become iconic, with Poison, Sodom, Rolento, and Andore taking part in the later Street Fighter games.  And it’s well paced.  Despite the limited cast of enemies they are featured in such a way that nearly every level has 1 or 2 new ones to break the monotony.  And the bosses are some of the biggest ball busters in gaming history.

The SNES port to put it bluntly was butchered.  First of all there’s no multiplayer.  I’m not even a big multiplayer fan and I realize how retarded that is.  On top of that in the original release you only have a choice between Haggar and Cody.  This glaring oversight was somewhat fixed in Final Fight Guy; however Cody was removed in his place.  This made no sense; by the time they released FF Guy  Capcom had more than enough time to hear the fan outcry but still made a half assed rerelease.  The 4th level, the Industrial stage along with its boss Rolento was also cut.  These excisions could be explained by the game’s launch status but are still inexcusable.  A good portion of the game’s draw just isn’t there.

The changes don’t end there.  Due to Nintendo of America’s heavy handed policies all alcoholic references were removed, Poison and Roxy were replaced by generic thugs Billy and Sid, and any slight religious references were changed.  Bosses Sodom and Damned were renamed Katana and Thrasher and Christ, something as inoffensive as the bloke who cries “Oh my God!” after you smash his car were censored to “Oh my car!’

It’s a shame that so much was left out as otherwise the SNES version looks and plays the part.  But in this day and age where arcade perfect conversions are available along with other retro classics in cheap compilations there is no reason to revisit this travesty.

 

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Double Dragon 3 – the Rosetta Stone

This is truly, truly terrible.  Double Dragon 3 in all of its various incarnations is a bad game and somehow this Genesis port of the arcade game is the worst of all of them.  My mind is boggled at how any decent human being could release this in the state it’s in.  As much as I ragged on the NES game at least it was playable.  This POS is not.

Double Dragon 3 was released in the arcade in 1991 and ported to the Genesis in 1993.  Billy and Jimmy Lee are returning from training around the world when they meet a fortune teller who informs them that finding the 3 Rosetta stones will allow them to face a strong opponent.  The story is more or less the same as the NES game, if only the rest were the same but better.

Things are a bit different this time.  Almost all of the special moves introduced in Double Dragon 2 have been removed, leaving you with simple punches and kicks.  A few new ones replace the overpowered uppercut and flying knee, such as the running head butt and belly to back throw.  You start with 15 coins that have various uses.  As Billy or Jimmy you have one life.  You can use your coins to purchase new moves, extra health, and extra lives.  These extra lives take the form of different characters with their own move sets.  It isn’t advisable to spend all of your coins since they also function as continues.  The worldwide journey for the stones will take you to various locales with appropriate enemies to match.  You can’t say they didn’t’ try.

It all falls apart when it comes to combat.  The controls are unresponsive and executing special moves is random; you’ll never feel as though your actions are under your control.  But the main culprit is the hit detection.  Your hits have no real “impact” so to speak.  You’ll never be able to tell if you’re actually hitting an enemy or missing completely.  Even worse, no matter how fast (oh that’s rich) your flurry of punches or kicks you will always get hit.  Because of this every exchange will sap some health and that life bar drops fast.

In the arcade Double Dragon 3 was a notoriously greedy machine, forcing you to spend extra quarters for life and new moves.  The screwed up damage ratio was there to incentivize spending money and unfortunately it was kept for the home version.  Of course you’re not spending money but if you’ve bought this game you’ve already lost as it is.

Pathetic controls, bland level design and ugly graphics do not a good beat em up make.  It’s sad that every incarnation of Double Dragon 3 is not a good game.  Maybe the third installment is just cursed in general?  Who knows?  This home port would have been the perfect opportunity to fix the coin ops flaws but Acclaim (under their Flying Edge label) merely left it as is.  As a conversion its very good as a game its dreadful.


 

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Knights of the Round

Capcom has had a long history with side scrolling beat em ups.  Most credit them with popularizing the genre with Final Fight but they also released plenty of other games released around the same time, such as Magic Sword and King of Dragons.  Like the aforementioned games Knights of the Round attempted to add RPG mechanics to spice up the formula with some success.

Knights of the Round was released in arcades in 1991 and ported to SNES in 1994.  Arthur succeeds in pulling Excalibur from the stone and becomes King.  Merlin sends Arthur along with his companions Percival and Lancelot to defeat King Garibaldi and unite England.  KOTR has many of the same features as King of Dragons and also unfortunately shares some of its failings.  However the core action is executed more competently and thus is a superior product.

As any of the 3 characters you travel through 7 levels on your way to dethrone Garibaldi.  All 3 heroes represent the standard archetypes: Lancelot is fast but weak, Percival strong but slow, and Arthur is balanced.   The experience system allows you to level up, increasing strength and upgrading your armor at set intervals.  This is the sole defining feature of the game as the rest of the action is pretty straightforward.

And that’s what’s disappointing.  More could have and should have been done with it.  While it is cool to see your character’s armor increase as you go along, the effect is purely cosmetic.  The difference between each character isn’t so pronounced that you’ll notice it immediately.  Adding different stat upgrades endemic to each character would have gone a long way towards making each feel unique.  As it is you’ll spend the majority of the time using the same basic combo attack for the entire length of the game, only broken up by the occasional opportunity to fight on horseback.  Imagine if you gained new attacks with each level to go along with the armor upgrades.  This would have relieved the monotony of the staid battle system.

The levels aren’t overly long but at least they’re pretty.  The SNES color palette gets a full workout as it renders the verdant fields, castles, and medieval landscapes of the arcade game so well.  There is a decent selection of enemies to face and the bosses are giant lumbering monstrosities; you can definitely see Knights of the Round’s arcade heritage.  The music, while it isn’t spectacular, matches the action well, with the right amount of tension to drive home the urgency of the action.

It’s too bad the RPG mechanic wasn’t fully explored because the rest of the action is solid if a bit unspectacular.  As an arcade port it’s pretty faithful but as a home console game it doesn’t stand out on its own merits.  God I would have killed for home ports of the two Dungeons and Dragons arcade games in America (yes I know they came out on the Saturn but only in Japan).

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King of Dragons

 

I never saw King of Dragons in the arcade back in 1991 but I’m sure if I had I would have loved it.  When Capcom announced a home port in 1994 I looked forward to it for a number of reasons.  I like beat em ups and combining it with the fantasy genre seemed like a winning formula.  My excitement would turn to disappointment as the game ultimately doesn’t live up to its initial promise.

King of Dragons was ported to the SNES in 1994.  You are one of 5 heroes summoned to the land of Malus to defeat……a dragon, come on it’s in the frigging title.  Set in a fantasy kingdom the King of Dragons setting was not typical of the genre as well as its RPG elements.  I never really stopped to think about it but there are some serious similarities to Magic Sword, from its graphics to many of the enemies you’ll face.  However this is strictly a beat em up rather than an action game.  Sadly these don’t make up for the fact that the game is overall boring and doesn’t give any of its features enough room to be fully explored.

The 5 characters present represent a wide spectrum of D & D tropes with the same strengths and weaknesses to match.  They also fit neatly into established tropes such as the Elf and Wizard favoring ranged attacks, the dwarf functioning as a tank, and the knight and cleric being the most balanced.  There are further differences between characters; the elf has the highest speed and range but lacks defense. The Wizard has the lowest speed and defense but the best magic; by the end of the game he is the most powerful when leveled up.  The fighter is strong and gains hp faster but lacks magic and is the most balanced. etc.  The Cleric is the most interesting.  He is the strongest and has decent magic but is the slowest.  He also gains levels the fastest.  The Dwarf has the quickest melee attack and best defense but terrible magic skills.  The fighter, dwarf, and cleric can block attacks although the timing is hard to pull off which does make it less overpowered and leaves all characters on equal footing.  It all comes down to your preferred play style.

The RPG factor comes in the form of experience used to gain levels and boost your stats.  Weapons and armor can also be collected to further upgrade your character.  Although there are 16 levels they alternate, with some as short as 2 screens and longer traditional stages.  It certainly gets points for attempting to add depth to an otherwise stale genre but fails in its execution.

Combat is incredibly simple with next to no variety in your attacks.  The upgrade systems I imagine were supposed to make up for this but don’t due to how short the game is.  When I mentioned there are short levels I wasn’t joking.  Some only have as few as 6 or 7 enemies before fighting the boss.  Because of this you don’t have many options to level up as much as you’d like, and item upgrades are few and far between.  Even when you do level up the difference isn’t very tangible.  I suppose the brevity could be seen as a blessing but it’s sad that there isn’t enough time overall to make the most of the RPG factor.

Although the gameplay is a bit of a letdown the graphics are not.  King of Dragons wears its arcade heritage well with large impressive sprites and extremely colorful backgrounds.  Capcom’s artists do an excellent job of creating medieval backdrops that do not resemble any other fantasy game on the market.  The bosses especially are well designed and usually occupy large chunks of real estate, some are so huge only parts of their body are visible.  The only negative is that some of the most beautiful levels last a scant few minutes before its on to the next one.  They could have expanded the game for its home release at least.

This was released around the same time as Knights of the Round and that game actually shares many of the same elements but is executed better.  I question why Capcom would release a port of such an old game (relatively) and at the same time as a superior product in the same genre but either way there’s no reason to play this.  I suppose you could view it as a prototype for Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom but that doesn’t make it any better.

 

 

 

 

 

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Splatterhouse 3

Now this is more like it!  After the mediocrity of Splatterhouse 2 I don’t think anyone really expected much from part 3.  Kudos to Namco for going above and beyond to make it the definitive game in the series by largely starting over from scratch and abandoning most of the series’ tropes.

Splatterhouse 3 was released in 1994 for the Genesis.   Rick and Jennifer are now married and have a son named David.  Using his wealth Rick has also bought a mansion that the family now lives in but evil is not far behind.  Evil has invaded his home and Rick once again dons the Terror Mask to save his family.  While the Terror Mask is supplying you with the power necessary to fight the demons it does seem to have an agenda of its own this time…..  Throwing out most of the gameplay elements of the first two games Splatterhouse 3 introduces new elements to the series to create a better product overall.

The first thing you’ll notice is the removal of the strict side scrolling playing field.  Much like any other brawler you can move around for better positioning to attack enemies.  Your repertoire of moves has been expanded to include head butts, throws, roundhouse kicks and more, fixing the largest flaw of part 2.  Your life bar is just that: a real bar.  Come on, let’s be honest, the pathetic 4 hearts of previous games was bullshit.  The eldritch orbs that litter the environment fill your power meter and once activated transform you into a hulking He-Man, with new moves to slaughter enemies.  The strongest attack causes your flesh to explode in all directions; it’s pretty gruesome to see.  You’ll notice a timer has been added which leads to the game’s biggest innovation – the non linearity.

Although the game is broken down into 6 stages you have full freedom to choose your own path through each level.  After clearing each room you have a choice of which route to take and can check the map of each floor to plot your course.  Dead ends usually have power ups or weapons making it worth your while to at least try to explore.  The timer however will temper your curiosity.  Depending on the level if time runs out something bad will happen, making it crucial for you to be efficient in your progress.  There are 4 possible endings governed by your actions giving the game much replay value.

The graphics are phenomenal but that is one department the Splatterhouse series has never slacked.  Even so the level of detail is insane, with a new set of beasts to pummel and more varied environments to fight in.  Some of the levels take place outside the mansion giving you a reprieve from hallways and bedrooms.  The digitized photos used for the cut scenes are still impressive even today, too bad there aren’t more of them.

Any way you slice it this is far and away the best game in the series.  The new gameplay elements flesh out the series perfectly and fans of blood and gore will be happier than a cat in heat.  This could have served as the basis for further games but in the end it would be the last one (well up until last year but the less said about the new game the better.).  At least it went out on a high note.


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Rival Turf

 

Well what do we have here?  The Rival Turf trilogy of games overall were pretty decent.  While they didn’t reinvent the genre they still provided awesome beat em up action in the same vein as Final Fight or Streets of Rage.  The first in the series, however, is not a good game.   I mean Christ, look at that box art:

Are those really supposed to be the main characters?  They look nothing like them!  And unfortunately it’s all downhill from there.

Rival Turf was released by Jaleco in 1992.  A US localization of Rushing Beat, it is actually the first in a trilogy although all ties between the three games were removed in the trip overseas.  Jack Flak and Oozie Nelson (holy shit!) are officers of the police force tasked with cleaning up the streets of Los Angeles and then taking the fight to the gang’s base in South America.  While the premise isn’t original Rival Turf provides decent action but is let down by a host of problems that make the entire experience boring.

I really don’t want to know what’s going on in that third screenshot.

In 1 or 2 player coop you have your choice between the two officers.  Jack is fast and agile while Oozie is slow and powerful.  Extremely slow.  There is a decent selection of moves to pummel the opposition and strangely enough there are very few weapons throughout the entire game, so you’d better get used to those fists.  The sole original “feature” is the optional angry mode, which makes you temporarily invincible and able to deal massive damage when you take too much damage.  But that isn’t enough to overcome the biggest flaw: it’s boring.

To a degree repetition is inherit in most beat em ups but Rival Turf takes it to another level.  There are really only 6 or 7 unique enemies in the game and by the second level you’ve seen all of them.  What follows is a monotonous journey as you fight the same 3 principle enemies over and over and their tactics never change.  The game can be incredibly cheap at times, with enemy attacks taking far too much life and there are many instances where it is impossible to avoid taking hits.  Overall the challenge is inconsistent; the regular enemies are more of a threat than the bosses.  That inconsistency extends to the graphics.  The early stages in America are pretty well done, such as the Baseball stadium and the rooftop but once it switches to South America it becomes bland.  You would think the change in venue would afford the opportunity for exotic locales but nope, just standard run down villages and warehouses sadly.

This just isn’t worth it.  Final Fight 2 or 3 are much better, hell even the sequel, Brawl Brothers is a much better proposition.  I suppose you could find some fun in the game; I played through it on its release but I was twelve and you could have handed me almost anything and I would play it.  Derivative as hell and the game suffers for it ultimately.



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Battletoads in Battlemaniacs

If you look around the internet you’ll read various horror stories of Battletoads, the game that ruined childhoods across the globe.   With its technically proficient graphics and engaging gameplay it stood poised to be a phenomenon like the Ninja Turtles except for one fatal flaw: it was too fucking hard.  I can guarantee 90% of gamers never made it past the Turbo Tunnel, and that’s only the 3rd stage.  For its second go around Rare toned down the difficulty and level count, creating a still hard but doable game in the process.

Battletoads in Battlemaniacs was released by Tradewest in the summer of 1993.  The Toads are in Tibet visiting the Psicone Corporation, who are in the process of testing their new virtual reality system.  No sooner do they start when minions of the Dark Queen, in league with villain Silas Volkmire, steal Zitz and the Psicone CEO’s daughter.   Rash and Pimple follow through the virtual reality portal to rescue their friends.  A much more compact adventure awaits, and while Battlemaniacs can and will bust your balls it never reaches the heights of frustration of the original.

As either Rash or Pimple 6 levels of action await.  The choice is purely cosmetic, with the only difference being the look of their moves.  The trademark exaggerated effects are back and larger than life, with giant anvils, boots, and fists bashing the opposition.  That has always been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Battletoads games, seeing the ridiculous ways you can stomp enemies and Rare has made it visually pleasing to execute the attacks.   The other factor that works in the game’s favor is the variety.

With the exception of the 2 bonus levels no two stages are similar.  In fact the first level is the only pure side-scroller in the game.  The rest of the game is a roller coaster ride of play mechanics as you descend down the inside of a tree on hover pads, revisit the Turbo Tunnel, catch a ride on some snakes, avoid being sawed in half by a giant rat, and saving the best for last, race Scuzz to the bottom of the Dark Queen’s tower to avoid being blown up.  Some of these are remakes from the first game but they sure as hell didn’t look this good.  That is a bit disappointing but you’ll forget that as you work your way through the game.

While not as hard as the original Battlemaniacs will still kick your ass regularly.  For the most part the controls are tight but there are far too many instances of instant death, leaving most of the game down to trial and error.  That becomes repetitive and boring after awhile since the levels are long and continues are limited, meaning you’ll end up playing each stage way too many times.  It’s asking a lot for gamers to memorize these ridiculous maps:

Damn it Rare, we want to like these games but you make it so hard!


Rare did not slouch when it came to the production values of the series and Battletoads in Battlemaniacs is a powerhouse.  Huge sprites, outlandish effects, and a rocking soundtrack give the game an almost arcade “feel” to it.  The Toads and enemies exhibit a wide range of animations and its obvious the game doesn’t take itself too seriously.  This is definitely up there with the SNES’s finest in terms of visuals.

If only they could have spent less time on the visuals and more on the gameplay this could have been in the console’s top 20. All of the flaws make what would have been a nine out of ten more like an 8.  Don’t let that stop you however; if you can stomach some slight repetition than you’ll have the time of your life.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: the Manhattan Project

TMNT III will always have a special place in my heart.  You see, the February 1992 issue of Gamepro is the very first gaming magazine I ever bought and this game adorned the cover, starting my magazine collecting habit that persists to this day.  And the game itself?  A pretty well done exclusive that refines the gameplay and serves to provide another round of beat em up action for those that enjoyed the original arcade game and its home port.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: the Manhattan Project was released for the NES in early 1992.  All work and no play can make even a ninja turtle a dull boy so our heroes take a vacation to Florida.  But evil never sleeps and Shredder uses this exact time to turn Manhattan into a floating island, giving the Turtles incentive to journey back to New York and save the day.

As much as I like the game I do question why Konami decided to create one last NES adventure so close to the release of Turtles in Time for the SNES.  To a certain extent TMNT III was lost in the shuffle as the SNES stole the spotlight in 1992.  Even today when most look back on the entire series it tends to get glossed over in favor of the popular port of the arcade game.  Regardless of the circumstances of its creation the Manhattan Project manages to add some new moves to alleviate the repetition inherit in the genre.  While it isn’t ground breaking it is enjoyable and recommended for anyone who has lost a small fortune to any of its arcade parents.

Across 8 levels of 1-2 player coop action you battle the forces of the Foot Clan, now with new moves in your arsenal.  You can use your weapon to toss nearly any enemy for an instant kill, with their dead bodies damaging anyone in their path.  The tradeoff for this comes in the form of fewer points.  Prioritizing when to take down the Foot one by one to maximize points or to chuck them around to avoid being overrun is key to survival.

Each Turtle has an individual special move that uses life and is optimal in different situations and with this more effort was made to individualize each Turtle.  Leonardo is the most well rounded with decent range and speed.  In a prescient move Leonardo’s special attack is similar to his Endless Screw in the SNES Tournament Fighters.  Raphael has the fastest attack speed but shortest range making him the most difficult to use.  His power drill would also be reused in that game.  Michaelangelo is slightly better but has a worse special attack.  Donatello has the longest range but is the slowest.  His special attack is a rolling somersault that is devastating against bosses.  Whenever you die you can switch characters, a nice touch.  There was nothing particularly wrong with TMNT II but you have to admit it became repetitive after awhile; these additions help ease that pain.

To counter this the game is just as hard as its predecessor.  Limited continues and no passwords mean you’ll have to stay on your toes at all times.  The enemies waste no time flanking you and swarming in groups; I guarantee you’ll be using that special moves regardless of the consequences.  Pizza is few and far between which is where maximizing your score for extra lives becomes crucial.  The bosses are just as punishing, and although there patterns are easy to recognize it’s the execution that will kick your ass.

The graphics are a noticeable step above TMNT II the arcade game with far better animation and more detail in the backgrounds.  While those elements are better some of the levels do feel a bit too reminiscent of past games; the highway, sewers and Technodrome in particular do feel like rehashes despite completely new layouts.  The music is excellent with numerous toe tapping jams It was 1992; Konami had the NES performing like a trained monkey by this point.

It’s too bad this was released the same year as Turtles in Time; no matter how well the game turned out it was always going to be overshadowed.  For anyone that took the time and gave it a chance it was an excellent continuation of the arcade games and provided the same thrills.  It can be bought very cheaply so there is no reason not to give it a try.

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Double Dragon II – The Revenge

It was pretty common during the NES era for ports of arcade games to differ drastically from the source material due to the hardware’s constraints.  It wasn’t very often though that the home game was superior to the arcade but in the case of Double Dragon 2 it is very true.  In the arcade Double Dragon 2 was an all too brief affair.   For the home market it was expanded and given the length necessary to make experience whole.

Double Dragon was released in December 1989 in Japan with Acclaim releasing the US version the following month.  Following the same story as the arcade, Marion has been killed by the leader of the Shadow Warriors and brothers Billy & Jimmy Lee are on a mission of revenge.  The NES version actually has cut scenes that further the plot between levels and although brief are a welcome addition.  The 2 player coop missing from the first home port has been included this time, fixing one of Double Dragon’s biggest flaws.  That is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of enhancements over the arcade game.

Rather than the simple punch and kick buttons of the first game they are now directional which can be a bit confusing.  The arsenal of moves has been expanded considerably with all available from the start rather than the experience system the first game employed.  The only frustrating aspect of this would be the difficulty in pulling off the most devastating moves, such as the flying knee, uppercut, or hurricane kick but considering the damage they do its understandable.  What elevates this over the arcade would be the length: whereas the arcade game only had 4 stages, the home port has 9 altogether.

The stages are separated by difficulty, with all 9 only available on Supreme Master.  The levels shared with the arcade game are longer  and have new layouts.  The new stages take you on a roller coaster of set pieces, with some stages featuring environmental objects you can use to your advantage.  Mission 3 takes place on a helicopter, with the door opening every 20-30 seconds, giving you an opportunity to knock enemies out in one shot, including the boss.  Mission 4 is in an underwater base with a spiked ceiling that you can throw enemies into if you’re proficient at uppercutting.  You remain susceptible to all of these as well, making it equal parts risk and reward.

While most of the levels are excellent, some of the later stages highlight the game’s biggest weakness: the introduction of platforming.  Clearly this game wasn’t designed with it in mind and it shows.  The jumping controls are imprecise and the collision detection is spotty; sometimes you’ll clearly land on a platform but instead will fall through.  These sections are completely unfair and can drain all of your lives in a heartbeat.  It’s completely ridiculous that you can play the game perfectly then reach Mission 6 and all of that progress will mean nothing as you die repeatedly.  Oh yeah, the game’s biggest flaw: no continues, no passwords, no battery backup.  Unless you exploit the 2-player trick* you ain’t seeing the end of the game.  Which is a shame, as the ending is absolutely worth the struggle.

In some ways this is the love it or hate it game in the Double Dragon franchise.  The few problems the game has are pretty severe but I would argue the quality of the rest of the game makes up for it.  This is one of the best beat em ups on the NES, too bad it was followed up by Double Dragon 3.  Man fuck that game.

8-out-of-101

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Splatterhouse

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

Ah, the old days of videogame marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: the Arcade Game

 

 

After the crushing disappointment of the first Ninja Turtles game for NES Konami had to make it up to gamer’s big time.  What made it even worse: the first arcade game had been released around the same time, giving gamers the exact gameplay they were expecting.  So it makes sense that for the follow-up they would port said game and fulfills everyone’s wishes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: the Arcade Game was released in 1990 to the delight of gamers everywhere.  A beat em up like Final Fight and Double Dragon, the arcade game was everything we expected and then some, featuring a never ending supply of cameos from the cartoon, 4 player co-op and your choice of Turtle, each with subtle differences.  I can remember spending illegal amounts of money playing the game every week with friends and strangers alike as I was fully entrenched in Turtle mania.  The NES port, while not arcade perfect is well done and succeeded in washing away any lingering memories the first game had left.

You’ll fight an endless supply of Foot Soldiers and other nemeses from the Ninja Turtles fiction as you make your way through each of the levels as your favorite Turtle.  The arcade game was better able to depict the differences between each character, with Donatello slow but powerful with insane range, Leonardo perfectly in the middle, etc. The home port makes all of the characters virtually all the same with the only object of note being their bandana color and signature weapon.

Aside from the enemies the world is littered with objects you can use to your advantage, such as fire hydrants, street signs, traffic cones, etc.  Normally fighting the same enemies over and over would quickly become boring but there are enough varieties of Foot Soldier that you never feel like you are going through the motions, with each type forcing you to switch up your tactics.  The bosses are exactly what you would expect: powerful, cheap, and true to the cartoon.  In every way the game was a treat for the fans.

Some changes had to be made to fit the game into the limits of the NES.  The – player coop is missing, limiting you to 2 players.   That comes as a mild blessing all things considered, I would hate to see what the game would look like if they even tried.  The levels have undergone surgery, removing some elements and extending their length for a longer lasting experience.  Obviously the graphics and voices have not come over fully intact, but the game is still a very nice approximation of the arcade game.  Most importantly it is a drastic leap in quality over its predecessor.  I really miss the speech from the arcade game; even though it was a bit sparse it added to the overall atmosphere.

As compensation for these changes are 2 original levels created specifically for this port.  Both are excellent and match the quality of the rest of the game and in my opinion even exceed it as they were designed around the NES’ limitations with excellent graphics and unique challenges that would have fit in perfectly with the arcade game.  The arcade game was a bit challenging which comes as no surprise since it was designed to suck quarters.  The home port evens the odds by offering more lives when you start, limited continues, and extra lives for every 200 points scored.  While it is still taxing it remains manageable.

So in the end would I recommend it?  With some reservations, yes.  Back in the day when the thought of owning the arcade cabinet was ludicrous this home port was everything you could ask for.  With the advent of more powerful hardware now you can buy an arcade perfect port for numerous digital download services and cheaply too.  The only thing on offer here are the original stages and as good as they are they aren’t worth the price of admission.  That’s not to say it isn’t worth playing, just that if you really feel like experiencing the arcade game in all its glory the option is there.

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Streets of Rage 2

It isn’t very often that a sequel makes such a dramatic leap in quality over its predecessor.  Super Mario Brothers 3 stands as one of the greatest examples of such.  The original Streets of Rage was quite good for what it was: a first attempt at cloning a popular arcade game, in this case Final Fight.  Streets of Rage 2 not only matches Final Fight it exceeds it and stands as one of the shining examples of the genre.

Streets of Rage 2 was released in fall 1992.  After celebrating the one year anniversary of Mr. X’s defeat, Axel, Blaze, and Adam go their separate ways.  The following morning Axel is alerted by Adam’s younger brother Skate that he has been kidnapped, signaling the return of Mr. X.  Enlisting the aid of Skate and professional wrestler Max Thunder the four man crew is ready to kick some ass and take back the streets.  This is a dramatic leap over the first game; there isn’t a single element that has been given a new coat of paint.

The 4 characters are all rated in terms of power, technique, speed, jump and stamina and this time the differences are far more tangible.  Max is an absolute beast, draining enemy life bars in seconds while Skate is pathetically weak but makes up for it with speed and jumping ability.  This extends to the individual move sets of the characters as well.  Your repertoire of moves has been greatly expanded and this solves one of the biggest weaknesses of the genre.  In place of the police backup from the first game are 2 special moves unique to each character that will drain a little health.  Because everyone has a different move set it is definitely worth playing through the game again as the experience will be different.  It also helps that the game is fun as hell to boot.

The tempo of combat is really what sets Streets of Rage 2 a step above similar games.  All enemies have life bars now and are named.  It sounds like standard features for a game of this type but they also serve another purpose.  Each enemy has their own individual moves and behaviors that need to be taken into account.  When you see certain pairings you’ll know to prioritize the ones that need to be killed first.  You’ll sometimes find yourself surrounded by 4 to 5 enemies but it will never feel cheap as you have the skills and knowledge (hopefully) to assess the situation accordingly.  New enemies are introduced every level, keeping things fresh and giving you a new set of attack patterns to learn.  Even the bosses, a major point of contention in the original are all manageable and don’t rely on cheap tactics such as unfair amounts of damage or insane attack priority.  The journey feels like it was crafted piece by piece, with a careful eye towards avoiding unnecessary frustration.

The production values received the biggest overhaul.  All of the sprites have doubled in size and detail and the game doesn’t take place completely at night anymore.  You get a much wider color palette than the subdued blues and browns of the first game.  The variety in the levels is staggering: the third level alone starts out in a carnival, goes through an arcade, a ride on a pirate ship then ends in a fog filled cave, complete with mechanical demons to bash.  The soundtrack stands as one of the finest produced on the Genesis.  It’s heavy on the techno and dance but changes to be more melodic and somber when needed.

This is the best entry in the series and is the quintessential beat em up.  Even after almost 20 years the game is still fun to do a speed run through and without a doubt stands the test of time.  There is no higher recommendation than that.


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Streets of Rage

When Final Fight hit arcades it hit big.  The beat em up genre existed long before it but Final Fight dragged it kicking and screaming into the modern age.  Renegade may have started the genre and Double Dragon popularized it but Final Fight took the baton and ran with it.  Every publisher wanted a piece of that action and tried with varying degrees of success.  One of the biggest competitors came from Sega in the form of Streets of Rage.

Streets of Rage was released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis and follows the exploits of 3 ex-police officers: Adam, Axel, and Blaze.  A crime syndicate has begun taking over the city piece by piece starting with the government and spreading to the police force.  Its leader is shrouded in mystery making it that much harder to identify who is behind such an organized attack.  Disgusted with the lack of cooperation from their superiors our 3 heroes quit the force and take matters into their own hands.

Like all beat em ups you progress to the end of the stage fighting everything in your path from dominatrices, street punks, to even motorcycle gang members.  The first thing that stands out is your rather large arsenal of moves.  My first introduction to the game came from this ad in the magazines of the day:

It is something to be proud of: most games in this genre suffer from repetition as you repeat the same punch, punch, kick combo from stage 1 to the final boss.   As you can see that isn’t the case here.  You have your choice from any of the 3 characters with slight differences: Adam is slow but powerful, Axel is balanced but has the weakest jumping ability and Blaze is fast but weak.  These don’t really end up playing that big a factor as you progress through the 8 levels.  Temporary weapons can be found in crates and barrels or dropped from enemies.  When things get hectic you can call in assistance from a fellow officer who will set fire to everything on screen with a rocket launcher.  Somehow this doesn’t kill you too.  You only get 1 of these per life without finding a power-up and hilariously you can still call for help even on the elevator stage.  To break the repetition there are numerous environmental hazards such as bottomless pits or machinery that can be used to kill enemies quickly

Although it isn’t as detailed as Final Fight this was still a great looking game.  Something I didn’t pick up on in my initial run through the game: it takes place completely at night.  This works amazingly well in setting the mood if you think about it;  you sure as hell wouldn’t cause a ruckus like this during the daytime when your ex partners in arms would beat your ass too would you?  It also plays to the Genesis’s strengths, as the palette is intentionally limited.  The soundtrack to this day is still superb.  Yuzo Koshiro was reknowned for getting the most out of the Genesis sound chip and does not disappoint, with an eclectic range in the tracks.

What doesn’t hold up are some of the gameplay elements.  The lack of enemy variety is apparent after the first two levels as you’ll fight an endless parade of the same 2-3 enemies. This persists for a large portion of the game with new enemies being introduced slowly.  However in total there aren’t more any more then 7 or 8 of them with the exception of the bosses.  The bosses are some of the cheapest SOBs in the history of the genre, taking well over 60% of your life bar in 1-2 hits.  I guarantee you’ll be saving your special attack to spam on these bastards.  It’s a bit odd that with the exception of the bosses none of the enemies have lifebars or are even named.  Granted it doesn’t really matter in the long run, just strange.

It’s a decent length for a game of this type but time has not been kind to this game.  The far superior sequels make playing this game more of a curiosity than anything.  There is still fun to be had but if you must play one game in the series go for part 2.

7-out-of-10

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Batman Returns (Snes)

Love them or hate them, licensed videogames are a permanent part of the industry.  Anyone can see the attraction of a popular license: a built in fan base that will (hopefully) carry over to the videogame landscape and give its publisher massive amounts of money.  The majority of the time this never works as planned, but when it does (Enter the Matrix) that 1 game will finance a shitload of lesser games.  The Batman movies were huge in the early 90s so when Batman Returns opened to big numbers the rush was on to release games to capitalize on it.  No console was left untouched, with even the god damn Atari Lynx getting a game.

Batman Returns was part of the massive media blitz that accompanied the movie of the same name.  There were scores of games based on the movie for every console and handheld known to man by various publishers.  Konami made the majority of those and this SNES version turned out the best of all of them.  It follows the plot of the movie loosely in which millionaire Max Shreck teams up with the Penguin to have him replace the current mayor of Gotham City with a side of Catwoman thrown in.  You know thinking about that plot has made me realize just how dumb it is.  The SNES version is a beat ‘em up like Final Fight and Streets of Rage before it, and a damn fine one at that.

Some seriously brutal moves here.  Batman does not play around.

The game takes place across 7 levels ripped straight from the movie.  You control Batman as he pummels everything in his way to the end of each stage.  If you’ve played any game in the genre you know what to expect.  What sets Batman Returns apart is your rather large assortment of moves.  Most of them are brutal as hell and are uncharacteristic of the genre.  One hand slams, grabbing two mooks and smashing their heads together, it’s what you would expect of Batman.  My personal favorite is throwing them into the background scenery; such an awesome move that should have been added to these types of games long before this.  The ability to block also comes in handy, another one that has never made sense when it’s left out.  But those aren’t your only moves.

Aside from your fists you have batarangs to momentarily stun enemies, a grappling hook to traverse sparse terrain and screen clearing test tubes that are in limited supply.  The grappling hook is underused unfortunately but is still a welcome addition for its few uses.  The levels switch up the gameplay constantly.  Nearly every level has segments where your standard attack is replaced with unlimited batarangs, almost turning the game into a shooting gallery.  Whether it is a slow trek up the side of a building or riding escalators these parts were clearly designed to break up the monotony of the standard punch, punch, kick levels and are on the same level as the rest of the game.  The fifth stage is a ride down the highways of Gotham in the Batmobile and makes full use of mode 7 scaling to give a sense of 3d.

Everything is tightly balanced: you’ll never be overwhelmed by an unfairly high amount of enemies at once, none of the levels run too long, and the game will switch things up at the right moments.  The game does still adhere to some of the tropes of the brawler genre in that bosses still deal unfairly large amounts of health but extra lives are awarded at a decent clip and offset this.  By this point Konami had made numerous arcade games of this type and that heritage and experience carries over to this game.

The only negatives would be the lack of enemy variety and overly cheap bosses.  These are problems most games of this type face but it still sucks that nothing was done about this.  Though the game changes constantly you will get tired of facing the same fat and thin clowns.  But those points don’t bring down an otherwise excellent game.  It isn’t everyday that you can say a licensed product is good but Konami definitely did the license justice here.

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Buy Batman Returns